Reading: Lines on my face by J.D. McClatchy

J.D. McClatchy (1945 – 2018) was a prolific poet, editor, critic and librettist from Pennsylvania. He was praised for his polished and erudite verse.

Lines on my face
Decades now of looking back at it—
in some old satellite’s rearview mirror, say—
has something to show beyond the folds and feeders,
the volumes of magma risen into native rock
or the buried flow of old fires cooling
in ocean beds. The damage has been memorized.
Tool marks left by loose doubts dragged
across a certainty. Tongues of river
sediment slumped but still flickering
in the eye. And how pale the surfaces are!

From miles above what even to others is familiar,
the erosion—tears that freeze and crack
the heart, small habits a wind blasts
against whatever’s exposed—seems apparent:
all’s worn down, weathered, notched, seeping,
yet eerily polished, as if at last defined.
Your map of me? Let your pencil trace
the old quarries and splintered outcrops,
let it analyze the faults, describe their throes,
let it reveal how the light is laid over them all.

This is what poetry can do: Take a simple idea and exhibit it in very precise steps. The idea of the lines on one’s face as ‘your map of me’ is brilliant and English language poetry readers will think of Auden’s face.

In the beginning of the poem the face is shaped by violent natural events like magma rising into native rock and old fires cooling in ocean beds. Erosion and gentler forces like wind blasts give it the final appearance: The author’s face is ‘at last defined’. An artist is drawing the face, tracing it with a pencil. What does he see? The faults and the throes of his life, but ‘the light is laid over them all’. How are we to understand that? Every aspect of his face, and the story of hardships (faults, throes) that lead to it, has its justification.

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