Kyle McCord’s Sympathy from the Devil crosses a myriad of celestial and earthly terrains. In this collection, readers encounter God, Gabriel, and, of course, the Devil; they also ride trains named for endangered birds, get tossed off a rusty mechanical bull, all while colliding with pop culture references such as the TV show Lost, werewolves, and Batman. While weaving through themes of love, spirituality, and philosophical meanderings, these poems take the reader to surprising places and topics: necromancy, rude birds, the ship of fools, astronomy, the zodiac and even law school. Each page is a treasure trove, a roller coaster ride of dips and spins- the reader never knows what to expect, but each turn is both terror and thrill.
Poems about God are a long standing subject matter for poets to interrogate, and some even say that poetry itself is a form of prayer. In the essay “Facing Altars: Poetry as Prayer,” poet and memoirist Mary Karr writes: “People usually (always?) come to church as they do to prayer and poetry- through suffering and terror. Need and fear. In some Edenic past, our ancestors began to evolve hard-wiring that actually requires us (so I believe) to make a noise beautiful enough to lay on the altar of the Creator/Rain God/Fertility Queen. With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble. We suffer with prayer and poetry alike. Boy, do we suffer.” McCord’s collection reminds me of Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome, both in its use of God and its unabashed employment of humor and the bizarre to broach the Holy Ghost. In my favorite poem of the collection, “Sympathy from the Devil,”McCord writes:
“When you laugh at Satan, the Lord laughs also. But Satan does not laugh
when you laugh at your own apish posture in the mirror. He has an antelope
look in his eyes.”
Later in the poem, he writes:
“…When you deny
Satan, it’s not like confetti falls or heralding trumpets sound. You go on
relishing your Cobb salad on the promenade.”
McCord”s God poems are thoughtfully sardonic, but the ache for the imagined solace of a spirit world to temper the dark haunting in the underworld of the psyche is clear. Exaltation is found in these poems; it’s not through faithful reverence, but through pilfering the mundane with a sharp edged wit for protection.
In fact, McCord’s wit brings much pleasure in reading his poems. However, his poems never settle for being simply amusing: he has that rare talent, reminiscent of poets like Tony Hoagland, of being able to be both playfully humorous and painstakingly serious in a single poem. Take, for instance, “Some Admonitions to the Architect of Lust”:
“If you are asked to choose guns or knives, choose guns and knives.
The townsfolk have it in for you. The militant Arabs also.
The animals who mate for life dream of your blood and Batman.
He puts up his batsignal out of boredom and hopes a hot meal awaits him.
I’m guessing you’re the kind of girl who bicycles all over town.
I feed stray animals with love alone, which constitutes animal cruelty.
By day I am an efficient pound owner, but by night my spirit slinks
across the floor. I lay my head on the counter, and Satan appears
in the foyer. He follows my eyes, offers me meaningless trinkets.
He is bored as Batman. We both are. We agree we want the world
to cave in around us if only to feel something certain inside.
To look inward and see something steeled and shattered
and admit: you already half-way wanted it.”
Once a bored Batman enters a poem, it’s a poetic game changer: we’re ready to laugh, ready to reminisce on our silly childhood superhero follies. But there’s no laughter by the end of this poem- once the poem starts to discuss the longing for destruction just to remove a sense of numbness, it’s clear that McCord is tackling much bigger game than Batman. These poems take the most unexpected turns, and you never know if what’s around the bend is going to be tickling you or breaking your heart.
Most the time these poems are doing both. In a lecture I attended once by Robert Hass, he said that all good poems must face their other: meaning a sentimental poem needs to also face its dark side, a melodramatic poem needs to temper itself with its lightness. McCord is a master of balancing this paradox; every poem not only faces, but interrogates its other half. It’s in his poems regarding love that he often does this best, such as “Faithful Poem to the Unfaithful Stars”:
“After you’d cheated on me, then with me on the guy after me, then
with some other guy altogether,
but before the sparrow puffed up and then seemed
to famish into origami and it was October 20th. After bed bugs
ate our neighbors and haunted all our shopping excursions, a dawn
of rumpled t-shirts split the blinds, after Why didn’t you tell me?
and I’m sorry.”
It’s clear that this poem is ruminating over a painful betrayal, but the speaker yanks himself back and forth between absurd occurrences around him juxtaposed with a very raw heartache. These in between images of bed bugs, pills, cannibals, and the zodiac complicate the narrative of betrayal in interesting and revealing ways.
Opening Sympathy from the Devil is akin to entering a haunted house: you want to feel the risk, you want to feel spirit and terror and adrenaline and laughter. McCord’s poetic risks will take you to all those places along with places you never imagined you’d go.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in PANK, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere.Â She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA. She also serves as a poetry reader for Ploughshares. Find her online at http://anne-champion.com