Book Review                     

The Next Best Thing by Linda Back McKay. Nodin Press, 2011. $16.00

Reviewed by Lou Roach

Linda Back McKay invites her readers to share her experienced view of what being fully alive means in her book The Next Best Thing.  Her poems focus on major and minor aspects of living,  examining events, pleasures, pain and lessons learned in a very individualistic manner, yet addressing the universality of human vulnerability.

Each section of McKay’s work is introduced with quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke, Bob Dylan and Lyle Lovett.  The choices of those three creative men must have made the poet smile, as they did this reader. Each of the selected phrases speaks to facets of personal growth and the seriousness of life decisions in man’s search for maturity, especially Rilke’s  “The future enters into us, in order to transform us, long before it happens.”

With “On The Meaning Of,” McKay reminds us our lives are constructed from what we carry within ourselves and how we are often unaware of that until we comprehend how we make life happen:

     . . .
     Life is shape, sight, sound, bone.
     It whispers and sings and holds
     you and you almost never feel it.
     You push your way from phase to phase.
     You are a horse with blinders.
     You think you are pulling, but you
     are being driven.

The words of “Family Room” underscore the fact that each of us is the sum of our ancestors, that our characteristics and personalities are melded with traits from those who have lived before us, as well as from birth parents and our own personal qualities.  McKay points out:
     . . . 
     You can’t choose your hand, nor your fate
     any more than you can choose your family.
     They stand forever in your closet,
     stacked like cordwood, one generation
     behind the next generation. The door
     remains closed and the door isn’t a metaphor
     for anything.  It is just a door, heavy
     as history, with slightly squeaky hinges.
     Behind the door, or in front of it, depending
     on your point of view, are your forbears. . .

The writer’s sly sense of humor grins its way through several poems, including “Among The Things She Does Not Deserve,”  an alphabetical list of unwanted items: “Deep despair any time especially now. . .Jam-it-down-your-throaters, no thanks really . . . Lies from left or right, lies and more lies. . .Nothing except when nothing is every- thing. . .Senseless recidivism, as if you haven’t learned anything by now//Tongues wagging that would be of better use licking envelopes. . .Xi from a formidable lexicological opponent//You for the love of roses and all the best things// Zeros on her scorecard.”

As McKay tells readers “There Is No Such Thing As Free Time,” she mixes a number of cliched sayings into a clever commentary:

     Everything has its cost, even if that cost
     is only time, which may not be worth
     much to some people but if you think
     about it, time is the only way to organize
     things. . .
     never enough of it, even when there is
     too much of it on your hands, time
     is on your side and away like a lover
     waiting for the heart to grow fonder
     standing still for no one while healing
     all wounds . . .

One of the most poignant narratives in Part I is titled “For Three of These:”

     . . .you sang
     your almost song
     and tried to grow,

     you have a name,
     a Joseph, Donald,
     Edward, Robert
     kind of name, the time
     you never had to learn
     our names, how you
     would never master
     the knack of breathing
     or know sweet or
     the exact color
     of your mother’s
     dark eyes.
     . . . you took what you
     could until you
     were taken.

     In your space, now,
     with the other curled
     caterpillars, weave
     your dream cocoons.
     Build on your what ifs
     as we battle our if onlys.

McKay speaks honestly in “Blame,” as she describes one of the most unexpected situations in the parenting process—when a mother feels she cannot meet the immediate needs of a child:

     The daughter with water
     trapped in her ear
     says I’m not helping.
     . . .
     She denies she’s complaining
     . . .
     I cannot blame the water
     . . .
     Nor can I blame her.
     . . .
    The daughter, water trapped,
    says I should blow smoke in her ear,
    take her to the hospital,
    be more than I possibly can.

Some of the poet’s most thought-provoking poems appear in the book’s final section. Her “Ode To Ambiguity” brings another smile for the reader:

     The neither nor, the either or,
     the faded shades of gray.
     Such joy not to know for sure.
     Such blithe obfuscation.
     . . . it just depends. O, ambiguity,
     patron saint of the agnostic,
     give us your blinders,
     your supreme doubt, your rabbit
     in a hat trick.  Show us how it is done,
     this turning of sins and cheeks,
     this walking both sides of the road,
     . . .

A prose poem, “The Art of Grieving,” is a specific example of the depth of the writer’s compassion.  Linda Back McKay truly comprehends the insidious persistence of grief:

     . . .When presented with the chance to                                                        
     choose nothing else, drop to your knees and lower yourself
     to the floor.  Prostrate, let the tongues of anger and cooling
     sorrow wash over you in morning sunlight.  After you are
     tired of being on the floor, pick yourself up again . . .
     . . .                                                     Above all do not think
     about grieving or it will take hold of your thought and                                                     
     squeeze harder than you can bear . . .
     . . .                                      Take yourself on a little journey                                                
     to someplace small because big is impossible right now. Save
     big for when you are stronger.

I found myself wondering about the inclusion of some prose poems that seemed to clash with the general tone of the other work.  These were verses about a poodle’s view of the world, a pigeon’s fate, a chicken’s identity issues and a typing horse.  Clever, yes.  Extraneous for me.

That said, I think McKay has much more to say to her readers. Her words are very often wise and memorable.  I hope to see more of them.    

Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. Rag, Free Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do freelance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.