In his new collection, Odd Evening, Eric McHenry invites readers to “[c]ome take a spacewalk through / the orbit of [his] stuffy head.” In these poems, scenes unfold with clear images, delivered in metered phrases and easy rhyme. Spoken in a voice both wry and poignant, they reveal the world in an uncanny light, as if seen through “sun-puzzled glass.”
Imagine summer cicadas as “new neighbors whose lives are porn, / drone metal and unlicensed flying,” an existence completely understandable for those who are “born /seventeen and dying.” Consider the baseball as “the only egg / horses and men would ever put together,” flying through the air towards the bat, as it “longs to shatter.” Stand with an unresponsive first responder at the scene of an accident. Experience fall leaves through color-blind eyes. Tour a historical neighborhood, once lovely, noting the details of decline.
Odd Evening includes brave, honest poems that turn a critical eye inward on good intentions and white privilege. “Transaction,” “The Pass-Through,” and “Randy Used the Word” are spoken by a narrator who presses his “freckled nose” against the “frosted glass” between himself and people of color, a white man who yearns to go beyond transaction to brotherhood, though he does not always know how. He means to be the sort of man who, after hearing “the word” dropped casually during a haircut, “will walk/out of some barbershops with his hair half-cut” in protest. He falls short at times, and calls himself on it, reminding us all (‘America, and I’m about to talk / directly to the Eric in you’) to reflect on who we mean to be, so that we can rise up when called on.
McHenry’s poems, in their beauty and humor, “retrieve a pang / so imprecise it’s briefly everything.” For a time you’ll see from the poet’s keen, wit-slanted point of view—and it might change the way that you see the world, for good.
Eric McHenry currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Kansas. He’s a native of Topeka and a fifth generation graduate of Topeka High School. On his connection with Topeka, he says, “I am of Topeka, and I have a hard time talking about what that means, for the same reason that a bird has a hard time describing the sky.”