Songs for a River, McGahan’s third book, combines eloquent descriptions of nature, vivid artistic philosophies, and serene paintings of grazing buffalo in mountainous landscapes with a complicated romance that spans almost the entire novel. There is a Zen-like quality that carries over from page to page, inviting the reader to see art, nature, and relationships as more than just ordinary aspects of one’s life. But between the lovely portraits of wild North-West America, McGahan addresses the similarities between art, humanity, and the spirit of nature; although our pride as humans is to live and govern above the rest of the animal kingdom through reason and emotions, at our base nature we rely on the same instinctual tendencies as our hoofed and feathery counterparts. And even though we might consider ourselves beings of intellectual and artistic ability, it is difficult to push aside the lingering traces of animal ancestry along with the need to break free from societal restraints.
War of the Foxes (2015) is the long awaited follow-up to Richard Siken’s Crush (2005), published ten years ago, which won the Yale Younger Poet’s prize. It is a brilliant work full of questions and unearthing, looking both inward and around, projecting his battles through art, poetry, and the characters within them.
Most of Siken’s poems seem to be self-reflecting, riddled with abstractions and rhetorical questions. He yearns to untie “the knot of the self,” as quoted from his poem, “Glue,” looking at his own writing, his own art, his own life and mentality. It is soul searching in its finest display of craft. Profound attempts to answer profound questions. Siken could be questioning his own existence and his own method of life. “Why live a life? Well, why are you asking?” The very process of writing seems to be the answer to his questions.
A heavily populated Saturday afternoon echoes a literal mutter throughout the Mütter Museum, the living mingling amongst the dead, their voices hushing as a wall of skulls greets them beyond the foyer’s marble stairs. Even those who have been here before (including myself) cannot help but ponder the mummified past, the wax figures of the disfigured, and the alternately gleaming and rusting obstetrical tools which look more suitable beside a Torquemada or Mengele than in jolly old Franklin’s adopted hometown.
Above, the special exhibits room looks almost sterile, newer than its surroundings, reminiscent of Museum of Modern Art austerity, white walls and carefully spaced pieces, granting viewers a hint of intimacy. Below, thin and creaking wooden steps lead to crowded collections in jars; the sample and trifles and oddities of humanity which repel and draw the curious and strong of stomach. The reverse chronology of architectural and exhibition styles suit the venerable institution, a bequest of the University of Pennsylvania College of Physicians, and set in motion a walk backward through time into the American medical establishment.