‘Capacity’ by James McMichael

  • PUBLISHED BY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006
  • REVIEW BY: John Deming


“How Much a Potato Holds, How Much It Can Do”

mcmichael cover

The Irish potato famine is something all but ignored in modern verse. In his sixth book, Capacity, James McMichael uses the poem “The Begotten” to remind us of its ugliness:

The hardier were entwined for

weeks sometimes

in the limbs of their expired kin.

“The Begotten” is one of seven long poems comprising McMichael’s new volume, and its vision of death on an island that can no longer provide for its population serves as an example of the book’s central metaphor—surprise, surprise—capacity.

In “Above the Red Deep-Water Clays,” McMichael defines capacity as both how “much a thing holds and how/much it can do.”  McMichael’s best work in this book forces the reader to look at the human race in this capacity. Born with what we’d like to imagine is limitless promise, we’re each really born within the confines of society, of social status, of anything we’ve the individual capacity to do or to hold:

Impertinent, the thorough

talking-to that one’s conditions gave one

right from the start.

The book’s biggest question, of course, becomes free will: does it exist inside an individual’s capacity, or are we merely playing out, step by step, the only things we’re capable of? Mankind’s will to endure despite its capacious limits becomes enough. And even if we’re given a talking-to by our conditions right from the start, it might also be important to acknowledge that, if we’re constantly pushing forward, there is no such thing as origin at all “until given out later as what has been/risen from.”

McMichael traditionally works in book-length poems, and this collection is essentially that; its seven poems are alike in form and content, and the voice itself is stable and strong, while not particularly surprising. His often formulaic language recalls Ammons, though his deductions seldom thunder like Ammons’s do. He presents a complex problem in this book, and he responds to the problem with verve; toward the end, though, he mentions a room or a “nothing-there” that becomes so stretched it is “his to break through.” Whether or not McMichael would claim he’s actually striving to break through his timeless predicament, between the lines, there’s the irresistible impulse to do so; naturally no one, including McMichael, has the capacity to “break through.” It might be more satisfying if there were a nod that the question itself is impossible for us; nevertheless, his will is admirable.