Sometimes in poetry, content and form can seem indistinguishable, the artist's passion the very shape of the craft that keeps it afloat; think of Whitman's lines, long and loose as his latter-day locks. But counterpoint is effective, too. In Liquid Like This, her second collection, Leslie Anne Mcilroy uses formal care to set off raw emotion, insurgent thoughts, a lubricated imagination full of jazz horns, yanked-up skirts, lipstick traces, let-down lovers, open wounds and cold beers.
Mcilroy has been on Pittsburgh's poetry scene for more than a decade. Fans of two other local poets with recent books, Jan Beatty and Nancy Krygowski, will resonate to Mcilroy's tough-but-sensitive evocations of sex and love, good times and struggle. At her most accessible, she even has a ready-made greatest hit in "In Her Mind, She's Already Quit," a waitressing lament that's a hard-nosed blues for dead-end jobbers everywhere: "It's not her heart that's broken, it's her back."
Mcilroy's own style asserts itself in her skillful use of sounds. In "Dismember," an unnerving poem about human body parts violently separated from their owners, early lines thump with uds and ams, while latter lines hiss with esses and prick us with ocks and its, as we suffer punches then incisions. Another example is the oceanic onomatopoeia of "Thirsty":
- I'm not thinking about erosion,
how the shore was once a mountain
of glass or how, without motivation,
the waves crash and slide against
the tide's shifting line, pulling a boy
and his lazy legs out to sea.
Rhythmically, too, Mcilroy -- who often performs her poetry woven with live music -- sings. In "Dancing with Billy Collins," each verse opens with waltzing rhythms, then resolves into a ticked-off monosyllabic plaint, adroitly sketching the narrator's unfulfillment. "Full Price," meanwhile, races with the urgency of a rock tune: "I don't stop ringing / till you let me in, though you know / I am brimming with disaster."
At times, Mcilroy is a little self-consciously lyrical: "Make it heat and heartbeat, naked and ache / Make it light and midnight," she writes in "Sexicon." In "Bringing You Home" (dedicated to her daughter), a rare use of rhyme deadens the rhythm into sing-song: "my belly a dorm, / housing light like a storm ..." Occasionally, there's a careless turn of phrase, like "shapeless lives formed like a meat / grinder churning out scraps." Once in a while, too, her versatility of tone seems a liability, if only because it makes a respectably plain-spoken narrative like "Liquor & Poker" feel 2-D nearby the equally funny, but much more fruitfully cryptic, "Magic," which observes, "everyone who's ever seen / a woman sliced in half knows / she always returns whole."
But usually, in these 53 poems, Mcilroy packs her carefully wrought lines with meaning and emotion. In "Drink" ("They thought of their bodies as rivers / and dredged the waters daily to find what / was left"), she is heart-flooringly passionate but without undue sentimentality. "On her fingertips, white ash / from her father's urn," she writes in "Lava Rock," and there's no quicker way to sketch that opening image in this painful poem about sexual abuse. And she dives to the bottom of a moment in "Cold Sore," in which a mere split lip conjures deep introspection.
"Gone Missing," too, wrenches:
- If you knew how I lessen myself
to give you what you want,
you would look at the moon,
shocked by the notion of a circle
so bright and deliberate
that it goes unnoticed
At her frequent best in Liquid Like This, Mcilroy offers sadness without regret, hope without nostalgia, witness without bitterness.