reviewed on November 30, 2023
McLarney's fourth collection, Colorfast is not, at the present moment, the kind of book to find its way onto end-of-year long-lists or into the echo chamber of social media virality.
I would love, however, to be proven wrong in this assumption.
The book is a marvel—McLarney’s best, I think, and one of the finest, most mature, carefully constructed, and thoughtful collections I have encountered in some time.
Troping the fading of color as elegiac for a vanishing cultural and familial past, Colorfast is part Albersian color study, part inventory of and lament for rural Appalachia, part examination of the inherited gender politics of the region, and part self-reflexive meditation on language and aesthetic making more generally. Across the collection, these ideas precisely inter-articulate and complicate one another, as McLarney’s thinking evolves in finely tinted color-like gradations, with poems on the tending of plants, for instance, preparing for subsequent poems on the raising of children and the commodification of flowers in perfumes.
A similar continuous complication of thought, as one might think of it, characterizes the collection’s treatment of Appalachian food traditions; whereas a great deal of contemporary poetry invokes specific foods as one-dimensional totems of a lost heritage, or as a way of preserving that heritage, Colorfast reads food not only as an historical inheritance but—in rather explicit ways—as an expression of restrictively gendered labor, as aesthetic form-giving, and as a model of anticipatory or future-oriented female agency. McLarney’s de-lamination of culinary practice shows up most vitally in the two brilliant long-poems in Colorfast. In “Receipts,” the 17th-century manuscripts of Mary Maddison serve simultaneously as spaces for self-expression and as the restriction of such expression, as McLarney explains that Mary practiced writing her name in “the margins / of a cookbook—the paper available to her.” “Strawberries, raspberries,” McLarney continues, “[t]his is the writing of a beginner. / To continue, she had to believe in a goodness / that hadn’t happened yet.” In “Cakewalk,” likewise, McLarney links the elementary-school carnival game to its precursor in the antebellum South, those “performances slaves were forced / to put on” for their masters, at the same time re-examining her encounters with rural poverty across her childhood. “Crystal’s mother […] decorated cakes at the grocery store,” McLarney writes. “Sometimes, Crystal would bring cake for lunch. // A decadent diet, I thought, / believing, then, in choice.”
Understated in its social critique—and more forceful, more far-reaching in its audience, because of such understatement—Colorfast slips at isolated moments into tendentiousness, as McLarney reasserts a point she has already made in more nuanced ways. Of Mary Maddison, for instance, McLarney points out that the phrase “[o]f historical significance” is “not said of any girl’s efforts until / long after she is gone, of course,” that latter phrase suggesting the gratuity of such an aside. That the opposition to didacticism—along with New Critical values such as imagism, irony, and ambiguity—has enforced a depoliticized aestheticism has become a shibboleth among contemporary poets; one regrets in Colorfast, though, not that its rare pointed statement makes it overly political, but that it makes less effectively so.
Colorfast is more sophisticated in its thinking—“mature,” “careful,” “nuanced,” is the language to which I keep returning—than such isolated moments suggest.
Indeed, its most captivating intellectual through-line tracks the procedures of language itself, their capacity, as in “Receipts,” simultaneously to expand and delimit one’s horizon. For McLarney, writing in the mode of the künstlerroman, the young rural writer’s entrance into language not only charges the world with mystery and romance—that is, with poetry—but also restricts her access to a cultural and familial past. In “Though Not Yet Forty, I Wrote,” McLarney pursues this idea with mythic force, reflecting in third-person on “a girl [speaking] her first sentence: It was fox.”
From the start, choosing past tense. Even in her first home,
circled by her mother’s gardens and fields, and those held in
a ring of forest’s greater green. Before she ever left and saw
places lowly as this late fox’s den, or familiar ground asphalt-
interred, she was conjugating toward a point beyond earth.
Already speaking of remembrance, beginning the one thing I,
with my volumes of sad words that save nothing, can stay—
which is true to who I have always been.
A profoundly postlapsarian lament, the ending of the poem models both the intellectual keenness and the emotional force of McLarney’s work. Colorfast, as its title suggests, is a holding-fast streaked through with loss, a leave-taking that is always a return. It is the first collection I have read from 2024, and it may very well prove the best.