Cover image for Hazmat : poems
Hazmat : poems
McClatchy, J. D., 1945-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, [2002]

Physical Description:
83 pages ; 23 cm
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PS3563.A26123 H39 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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HAZMAT, meaning "hazardous material," is an abbreviation familiar from signs at the entrances to long dark tunnels or on the sides of suspicious containers. Here, in a series of stunning poems, J. D. McClatchy examines the first hazmat we all encounter: our own bodies. The virtuosic "Tattoos" meditates on why we decorate the body's surface, while other poems plunge daringly inward, capturing the way in which everything that makes us human--desire and decay, need and curiosity, the jarring sense of loss and mortality--hovers in the flesh. In the midst of it all is the heart, its treacheries, its gnawing grievances, its boundless capacities. With their stark titles ("Cancer," "Feces," "Jihad"), McClatchy's poems work dazzling variations on this book's theme: how we live with the fact that we will die. Crowned by the twenty-part sequence "Motets," which deals out an exquisite hand of emotional crises, this collection brings us a sumptuous weave of impassioned thought and clear-sighted feeling. Holding up a powerful poetic mirror, McClatchy shows us our very selves in a chilling series of images: the melodrama of the body being played out, as it must be, in the theater of the spirit.

Author Notes

J. D. McClatchy was born Joseph Donald McClatchy Jr. in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania on August 12, 1945. He received a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University. He taught at Yale University and Princeton University. He was the editor of The Yale Review from 1991 until his retirement in 2017.

He was a poet, editor, anthologist, translator, and critic. He wrote eight volumes of poetry including Scenes from Another Life, Stars Principal, Kilim, Ten Commandments, The Rest of the Way, Mercury Dressing, Hazmat, and Plundered Hearts. He edited the Library of America's 2007 volume Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. His volumes of criticism included White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry and Twenty Questions. His anthologies included Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems. His poems and essays appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Paris Review. He received two Lambda Literary Awards and Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize. He was also the author of opera librettos. He died from cancer on April 10, 2018 at the age of 72.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hazmat could be an ancient oasis along the Silk Road, or a form of song like the fado, but instead it's shorthand for "hazardous materials" and, therefore, calls forth images not of sanctuary, life, and art, but of poison, chaos, and death. In his riveting fifth collection, McClatchy, a poet who combines formal restraint with daring candor, improvises on the shaded meanings of this unhappy coinage in lambent yet haunting poems that, like searchlights, sweep the whole of human history, millennia of fear and worship, love and resignation. McClatchy imagines the life of a long abandoned Roman town, envisions tankas both holy and depraved, and seeks insight into the jihad. But his most potent poems are those that pay tribute to the body, its endless needs and vulnerabilities, an often unsettling inquiry that climaxes in "Tattoo," a tour de force in which McClatchy contemplates the myriad ways we human beings have used skin as the blank page on which to declare our identity, on which we encourage life to leave its indelible marks, counting the days until death wipes the slate clean. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

This fifth collection's title mostly refers to the body itself as hazardous material; the book includes poems about tattoos, the ever-hazardous penis ("Men are known to appreciate/ What it stands for"), and death by cancer and AIDS-related illnesses. For New Yorkers like McClatchy (Ten Commandments; Twenty Questions), "hazmat" will immediately recall September 11; a three-sonnet set called "Jihad" reacts not so much to one terrorist incident but to the Middle East troubles generally, and to the word "jihad," thereby adding language to the list of what may be toxic: "The holy war/ Is waged against the self at first, to raze/ The ziggurat of sin we climb upon/ To view ourselves, and next against that glaze/ The enemies of faith will use to disguise/ Their words. Only then, and at the caliph's nod,/ Are believers called to drown in blood the people/ Of an earlier book. There is no god but God." A series of 20 short poems ("Motets") brings McClatchy's classicism into a more compressed, more narrative mode, taking up bodies, illness or sex: "shapes on the sheet,/ yours doubled over, mine clenched and released." The longest and last poem, "Ouija," is McClatchy's elegy for James Merrill, using the sance form central to Merrill's own epic to memorialize Merrill's project, to consider the mystery of his oeuvre and to "imagine a wave goodbye." If the book's varying materials aren't quite volatile enough to merit the title, they are still very affecting. (Oct.) Forecast: McClatchy, who is Merrill's literary executor, is the longtime editor of the Yale Review, and a prolific anthologist (a book of translations of Horace's Odes by 35 contemporary poets is due from Princeton in October), but he has not overpublished his verse. Fans will buy the book sight unseen, others will hear about it via reviews taking the Merrill angle. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his fifth book of poetry (after The Ten Commandments), McClatchy continues to explore the connection between the spiritual and the corporeal, seeking "a desire as yet half-satisfied." Though he reveres the past and pays tribute to his mentor, James Merrill, the largesse of these poems is the command over craft and language. McClatchy realizes that form and content do matter; what is being said is inherent in how it is being said. For example, in the poem "Glanum," which employs the couplet, the tempo increases with the use of enjambments as if the reader were racing through the ruins. Throughout, McClatchy demonstrates a fine linguistic control. The restricted use of end-stopped lines subdues the tendency of the rhymes to call attention to the pattern, and the slant rhymes (scribes/ pride; legion/become) prevent the poem from becoming monotonous and predictable. Thematically, Hazmat possesses a sense of grief, which "sinks its sorrow deep within and through its own life." In the end, these poems come to represent our own lives, our own longings, our own "flag of surrender" to the spiritual. A brilliant testament to McClatchy's place among American poets; highly recommended.-Tim Gavin, Episcopal Acad., Merion, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Pibroch But now that I am used to pain, Its knuckles in my mouth the same Today as yesterday, the cause As clear-obscure as who's to blame, A fascination with the flaws Sets in-the plundered heart, the pause Between those earnest, oversold Liberties that took like laws. What should have been I never told, Afraid of outbursts you'd withhold. Why are desires something to share? I'm shivering, though it isn't cold. Beneath your window, I stand and stare. The planets turn. The trees are bare. I'll toss a pebble at the pane, But softly, knowing you are not there. Glanum at the ruins of a provincial Roman town So this is the city of love. I lean on a rail above Its ruined streets and square Still wondering how to care For a studiously unbuilt site Now walled and roofed with light. A glider's wing overhead Eclipses the Nike treads On a path once freshly swept Where trader and merchant kept A guarded company. As far as the eye can see The pampered gods had blessed The temples, the gates, the harvest, The baths and sacred spring, Sistrum, beacon, bowstring. Each man remembered his visit To the capital's exquisite Libraries or whores. The women gossiped more About the one-legged crow Found in a portico Of the forum, an omen That sluggish priests again Insisted required prayer. A son's corpse elsewhere Was wrapped in a linen shroud. A distant thundercloud Mimicked a slumping pine That tendrils of grape entwined. Someone kicked a dog. The orator's catalogue Prompted worried nods Over issues soon forgot. A cock turned on a spit. A slave felt homesick. The underclass of scribes Was saved from envy by pride. The always invisible legion Fought what it would become. . . . We call it ordinary Life--banal, wary, Able to withdraw From chaos or the law, Intent on the body's tides And the mysteries disguised At the bedside or the hearth, Where all things come apart. There must have been a point-- While stone to stone was joined, All expectation and sweat, The cautious haste of the outset-- When the city being built, In its chalky thrust and tilt, Resembled just for a day What's now a labeled display, These relics of the past, A history recast As remarkable rubble, Broken column, muddled Inscription back when Only half up, half done. Now only the ruins are left, A wall some bricks suggest, A doorway into nothing, Last year's scaffolding. By design the eye is drawn To something undergone. A single carving remains The plunder never claimed, And no memories of guilt Can wear upon or thrill This scarred relief of a man And woman whom love will strand, Their faces worn away, Their heartache underplayed, Just turning as if to find Something to put behind Them, an emptiness Of uncarved rock, an excess Of sharp corrosive doubt. . . . Now everything's left out To rain and wind and star, Nature's repertoire Of indifference or gloom. This French blue afternoon, For instance, how easily The light falls on debris, How calmly the valley awaits Whatever tonight frustrates, How quickly the small creatures Scurry from the sunlight's slur, How closely it all comes to seem Like details on the table between Us at dinner yesterday, Our slab of sandstone laid With emblems for a meal. Knife and fork. A deal. Thistle-prick. Hollow bone. The olive's flesh and stone. Excerpted from Hazmat by J. D. McClatchy All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.