How to have a day by Megan McShea (Book Review)
Megan McShea’s How to have a day, a small book, a chapbook I suppose, from Ink Press, is lovingly handcrafted. It’s roughly 4 inches square, red, and the title is letterpressed on the cover in small type. The paper is a heavy French laid with flaps attaching it to the digitally printed pages inside, and everything is bound at the spine with a Japanese stitch.
At the back of the book, which came out in 2015, there’s a foldout that features two provocative color drawings by Jackie Milad. I note that the drawings—which are some eyeballs, a mouth, a nose, and then some abstract blobs/hatchings/designs—feature a couple metallic circles, which on my copy (#89 of 140), are cannily reproduced in one circle at the front. It’s a clever way to guide me into and through the book.
McShea leads with an epigraph from Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean novelist who died of AIDS at age 35, in 1987. The quote begins, “We spend our lives as life, itself, is coming into being … and yet each day we live as though we already are …”
Given that, how does one have a day?
The first iteration of that title piece is the first piece in the book, and it begins,
“There was a point, a brief spell, a polite poison, smoothed onto forearms. And there was a drum corps in the background. This was very, very lucky.”
This expansive sentence is very McShea-esque. It’s the sort of thing that you can unfold:
- A point, like a moment
- A brief spell, like a moment
- A polite poison, which is like a brief spell, i.e. a weapon
- oh, so, is a point not like a moment but like the tip of a dagger?
- Smoothed onto forearms? That I’ll just go along with. Why? Because it sounds cool.
- A drum corps in the background—a nice way to mark the moment, and it’s nice, too, isn’t it, how corps conjures corpse, cf. point, spell, poison
This is all very, very lucky indeed—but you don’t have to scrutinize the whole book like that to enjoy it. McShea, author of A Mountain Party of Toad Splendor (which I published with Publishing Genius), is also the editor of Ancient Party: Collaborations in Baltimore 2000-2010—the anthology of a writing group (which I was part of, too, too briefly) that was energetically focused on creative impulses and the farther reaches of imagination. So I often approach her writing the way I come to music. I think less about what what the words mean and more about how they sound.
Which is the title of the book’s second piece: “Mind sounds on waking”:
Now in light, greets feet, heads soft with their lights, their blue-green shadows. Alert, private, bombed. An etching made of mist was rising back of the house, and for those frozen minutes cordoned off an itch in the vaulted lower sky.
Sounds like music to me.
Did you ever know anyone who wonders if something is poetry or, like, prose poetry or, like, microfiction? And then someone else goes, “Oh, I never care about that, I just come to the writing on its own terms without having to define it”? And you wonder how that second person got so cool? You’re thinking, do they wear cool pants because they’re cool or, are they cool because they wear cool pants?
When I read Megan’s writing, I feel like I am the one with cool pants. And by that I mean I don’t care about what these things are. I just let them speak to me on their own terms.
Check out some more titles:
- A bit swollen in the pretend-area
- We are having the most lasting effects on our own shoes
- Trying to be informative
- Actuality prayer
- Sacre vache!
“Sacre vache!” begins, “After a slow night slinking down stairways in shadows, inside, a holy can springs.”
It’s worth considering that those might not be titles, but headings. The text is laid out (by Ink Press cofounder Tracy Dimond) in one continuous piece, as opposed to beginning everything on its own page. That creates the effect that this isn’t a collection of poetry; it’s one piece on a theme, broken up by subheadings. It does read that way.
In “Distance function,” the book ends,
Then there’s a real broken off, a solid shatter. Give it. A real live hunger runs unimpeded along its edges, its fast raster spinning, choking, drawing you off. Then you are but a foggy holograph boasting infinite gravity. You are the only one who knows how this life opens, however vexing, with each day. Every night I say tonight I will pull you off the shelf. And I will say, hold this.
It’s a lovely benediction, somewhat hopeful after the vexing day.
If there’s a theme within these awakenings, it’s that the day can be overwhelming, that the “hour becomes like a joint, bends the day around you in an attempt to hoist your life.” And there is a theme, and it is that, and that’s how Megan McShea writes, and probably why, thank god. This book is worth poring over for its ecstatic language. It’s like a museum where each phrase is an artifact that you’re supposed to pick up and turn and examine closely—or just dash through it and enjoy a metaphor like a kaleidoscope.
How to Have a Day by Megan McShea
Summary Megan McShea's 2015 chapbook, How to have a day, is worth poring over for its ecstatic language. It's like a museum where each phrase is an artifact that you're supposed to pick up and turn and examine closely—or just dash through and enjoy it like a kaleidoscope.