A Balancing Act

A Balancing Act

By Katherine Hoerth

 

Can poetry matter? It’s a question that critics have grappled with for centuries, but perhaps more poignantly since the early 1990’s when Dana Gioia, in his now infamous essay in The Atlantic, wrote that America has effectively declared poetry dead. It was becoming too far removed from everyday life and everyday people. Jim McGarrah’s recent collection of poetry, A Balancing Act, challenges this notion and responds with a resounding, thundering yes. Poetry not only matters, the book argues, but it’s essential, vital, and can save our lives. 

A Balancing Act takes us through the cultural backroads of America and explores how our culture has (and hasn’t) changed during his lifetime.  Readers are ushered through a post-World War II childhood, the speaker’s Beat-influenced rebellious teenage years, into the jungles and the battlefields of Vietnam during the 1960’s, and finally, back home to a changing America. During this fast-paced journey through time, McGarrah, a poet, professor, and Vietnam veteran, examines both his past and our nation’s, striking a difficult balance between patriotism and skepticism, nostalgia and realism, hope and despair. Poetry serves as a means of reflection, a tool for looking back at both the beauty and the tragic moments that make up our lives, so we can come to terms with, understand, and learn from them to grow, both collectively as a nation and individually as human beings. I admire his vision, his stark honesty, and the intangible power of his words. 

Many poems in the collection explore the speaker’s childhood and his parents. Growing up in Postwar America, which was a time of prosperity and optimism, McGarrah examines these memories with a sharp eye. In “My Childhood is Dear—Long Live My Childhood” a movie house becomes a symbol of the speaker’s past, the days when “Old Ike” promised a sort of suburbia utopia of “a picket fence, low mortgage rates, / processed foods, dial phones, and prosperous peace.” And while this all sounds wonderful, the speaker is quick to remind his readers of the truth: “We ignored the cruel whiteness of his pledge / because we were white.” Then, he goes on to describe the movie house, a place of adolescent joy, wonder, and discovery, a “shelter of fantasy” where... 

 

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