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  • Hazmat
  • Written by J.D. McClatchy
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375709913
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poetry (10)
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HAZMAT, meaning “hazardous material,” is an abbreviation familiar from signs at the entrances to long dark tunnels or on the sides of suspicious containers. Here, in a series of stunning poems, J. D. McClatchy examines the first hazmat we all encounter: our own bodies. The virtuosic “Tattoos” meditates on why we decorate the body’s surface, while other poems plunge daringly inward, capturing the way in which everything that makes us human–desire and decay, need and curiosity, the jarring sense of loss and mortality–hovers in the flesh. In the midst of it all is the heart, its treacheries, its gnawing grievances, its boundless capacities.

With their stark titles (“Cancer,” “Feces,” “Jihad”), McClatchy’s poems work dazzling variations on this book’s theme: how we live with the fact that we will die. Crowned by the twenty-part sequence “Motets,” which deals out an exquisite hand of emotional crises, this collection brings us a sumptuous weave of impassioned thought and clear-sighted feeling. Holding up a powerful poetic mirror, McClatchy shows us our very selves in a chilling series of images: the melodrama of the body being played out, as it must be, in the theater of the spirit.

From the Hardcover edition.



But now that I am used to pain,
Its knuckles in my mouth the same
Today as yesterday, the cause
As clear-obscure as who’s to blame,

A fascination with the flaws
Sets in-the plundered heart, the pause
Between those earnest, oversold
Liberties that took like laws.

What should have been I never told,
Afraid of outbursts you’d withhold.
Why are desires something to share?
I’m shivering, though it isn’t cold.

Beneath your window, I stand and stare.
The planets turn. The trees are bare.
I’ll toss a pebble at the pane,
But softly, knowing you are not there.


at the ruins of a provincial Roman town

So this is the city of love.
I lean on a rail above
Its ruined streets and square
Still wondering how to care
For a studiously unbuilt site
Now walled and roofed with light.
A glider's wing overhead
Eclipses the Nike treads
On a path once freshly swept
Where trader and merchant kept
A guarded company.
As far as the eye can see
The pampered gods had blessed
The temples, the gates, the harvest,
The baths and sacred spring,
Sistrum, beacon, bowstring.
Each man remembered his visit
To the capital's exquisite
Libraries or whores.
The women gossiped more
About the one-legged crow
Found in a portico
Of the forum, an omen
That sluggish priests again
Insisted required prayer.
A son's corpse elsewhere
Was wrapped in a linen shroud.
A distant thundercloud
Mimicked a slumping pine
That tendrils of grape entwined.
Someone kicked a dog.
The orator's catalogue
Prompted worried nods
Over issues soon forgot.
A cock turned on a spit.
A slave felt homesick.
The underclass of scribes
Was saved from envy by pride.
The always invisible legion
Fought what it would become.

. . .

We call it ordinary
Life—banal, wary,
Able to withdraw
From chaos or the law,
Intent on the body's tides
And the mysteries disguised
At the bedside or the hearth,
Where all things come apart.
There must have been a point--
While stone to stone was joined,
All expectation and sweat,
The cautious haste of the outset--
When the city being built,
In its chalky thrust and tilt,
Resembled just for a day
What's now a labeled display,
These relics of the past,
A history recast
As remarkable rubble,
Broken column, muddled
Inscription back when
Only half up, half done.
Now only the ruins are left,
A wall some bricks suggest,
A doorway into nothing,
Last year's scaffolding.
By design the eye is drawn
To something undergone.
A single carving remains
The plunder never claimed,
And no memories of guilt
Can wear upon or thrill
This scarred relief of a man
And woman whom love will strand,
Their faces worn away,
Their heartache underplayed,
Just turning as if to find
Something to put behind
Them, an emptiness
Of uncarved rock, an excess
Of sharp corrosive doubt.

. . .

Now everything's left out
To rain and wind and star,
Nature's repertoire
Of indifference or gloom.
This French blue afternoon,
For instance, how easily
The light falls on debris,
How calmly the valley awaits
Whatever tonight frustrates,
How quickly the small creatures
Scurry from the sunlight's slur,
How closely it all comes to seem
Like details on the table between
Us at dinner yesterday,
Our slab of sandstone laid
With emblems for a meal.
Knife and fork. A deal.
Thistle-prick. Hollow bone.
The olive's flesh and stone.

From the Hardcover edition.
J.D. McClatchy

About J.D. McClatchy

J.D. McClatchy - Hazmat

Photo © Stone Roberts

J. D. McClatchy is the author of seven previous collections of poetry and of three collections of prose. He has edited numerous other books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, and has written a number of opera libretti that have been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and elsewhere. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where he served as president from 2009 to 2012. McClatchy teaches at Yale University and is editor of The Yale Review.



WINNER 2002 Lambda Literary Award

  • Hazmat by J. D. McClatchy
  • April 06, 2004
  • Poetry
  • Knopf
  • $15.00
  • 9780375709913

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