Resurrection of the Dust by John McKernan
Reviewed by Seth Jani
Reviewed by Seth Jani
John Mckernan’s Resurrection of the Dust is not, as the title may suggest, concerned with offering the age-old solace of immortality. Neither is it a book that much prescribes to the light-at-the-end-of-the- tunnel vision so strongly pronounced both by the trumpeters of our Christian Heritage (from which our cultural sense of resurrection stems) and by the pharmaceutical community’s manic obsession with warding off depression.
Rather it is book written from grieved depths, from nocturnal spaces, from a man’s valiant and darkly humorous confrontation with the existence of death; and not just the grand, universal abstraction of our inevitable mortality, but its flesh and blood manifestation in the human figure of the author’s own father.
More than anything it is a work concerned with creating space, small cracks in the materiality of the world, though which the voices of the dead may find expression.
McKernan’s “Resurrection” is not a naive vision of bodily redemption but of allowing the dust (all the grief, rage, sorrow, fragmented memories surrounding a person’s life) to speak.
The poet tells us how his father “always loved to the speak the word No” (Brain) and we feel throughout the book the power of this negation, the way the entire world is always teetering on the ultimate darkness of the unknown, how everything must slowly deconstruct. Viewed from this dark lens the center (a word so often acquainted with transcendence) of the earth becomes “smaller than a period/ smaller even than Mickey Rooney/ Smaller than the city of Troy” and we are left only with this desire to tear things apart, an addiction to revealing the nothingness beneath the world, the poet proclaims “I always wanted to take apart my father/ the way he would-when I had a fever- peel off my flannel shirt & jeans & underclothes & lay me down in that bed in the north room.” The north room; one thinks of the old Chinese poets who would travel north to the great snows to die, or the Norse gods sent off to the giant northern halls of Valhalla.
Even the way McKernan arranges his printed page speaks of this concentration upon the depths, upon the cracks, upon the deconstruction which paradoxically is also a way of opening and receiving.
There are little or no commas or periods in McKernans poems, rather there are openings between words, white spaces that swallow you whole. The poems will have nothing to do with little islands of consolation, and even their structures refuse grammar’s comfortable disruption of the page’s intrinsic emptiness.
Nor do the poems commit to the explorations of the timeless, that worthy but indifferent realm so often considered the territory of the arts. John McKernan’s poems are if anything time-haunted.
A theme adequately expressed by one of the great, reoccurring images in the poems, that of the sundial. A device on which one can actually witness the birth and death of each moment, time stretching forth and receding with all the bits and pieces of a life following suit “The color of old newspaper ads,” one’s “Vanished high school,” a skull’s “Fine white powder/ Color of smeared daylight.”
John McKernan’s Resurrection of the Dust is, for poetry, a hefty read at over 200 pages. And though, as with any collection, there are some weaker poems here and there, as a whole the work holds together exceedingly well both thematically and craft wise. It is well worth the investment and serves a great and noble task, that of warmly, poignantly, humorously introducing the reader to the harrowing character of death: his father’s death, his death, and ultimately our own.