Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death by Sandy McIntosh
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, NY, 2007)
“Show me things I’ve never seen,” Sandy McIntosh’s persona asks of his dream in “How the Work Gets Done,” one of the poems in Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death. Reality, like the “embroidered nature” the McIntosh figure hopes for in his dream, is hauntingly like the imaginary worlds McIntosh concocts. Yet what is really weird is these worlds are seemingly real, and so the reader is disconnected from any root or anchor in the safe but rather unsatisfyingly reliable everyday. Reading McIntosh, the everyday becomes a grand albeit demented adventure.
Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death continues in a mode of thought and writing McIntosh has established in previous books of poetry to painfully funny and disturbing effect. When I read his poems I feel I am dancing with characters in a wild abandon I would otherwise not permit myself, who have emerged out of my own psychic depths, who dance with me in an enclosed room of distorting mirrors. McIntosh’s work is extraordinarily inventive and unique (though reading it I am reminded of writing by Borges and alternatively Auster, to a lesser extent Billy Collins—no one else, however, has so amusingly plumbed our unconscious and the melding of dream and reality). McIntosh’s forays into his life—our lives—are hilariously bizarre, poignant and provocative, and unique in their formal qualities. His is a Möbius strip world in which we become aware of our primal fears and wishes through the oddnesses of an everyday consciousness tinged with ironic goofiness. Consider Number Four in “The Catalogue of Prohibited Musical Instruments”; the poem, titled “The Musical Scaffold,” begins thusly:
the electric chair
a moral cautionary
for mass executions:
would be hanged
braided of metal
instead of hemp.
Each would be tuned
to a different
a solemn musical
Even the darkest of human impulses can be contemplated as the sources of inventiveness that delights. Here, indeed, is McIntosh’s darkly tinged vision, and we are made to pause and wonder about, and fear, ourselves. His lists and catalogues in this book are revealed to be ways people devise to live with the tragedies of our collective past as well as with the fear of some future catastrophe. We might ultimately realize that there was a lost chapter of Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, which Sandy McIntosh has unearthed.
Burt Kimmelman has published five collections of poetry -- Musaics (1992), First Life (2000), The Pond at Cape May Point (2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, Somehow (2005), and There Are Words (2007). For over a decade, he was Senior Editor of Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters (1998); and, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (1996, paperback 1999). He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (2005).