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Book Review: The Middleman by David Cavanagh


Published November 5, 2003 at 8:27 p.m.

On the cover of Burlington resident David Cavanagh's first collection of poems is an image of Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the famous circus family, who once said, "Life happens on the wire. Everything else is just waiting." Walking the tightrope far above a gaping crowd, Wallenda gives a second, more provocative meaning to the work's title. Is the "middleman" a dull non-entity through whom life's transactions pass: a middling man? Or is he a man who, by walking the wire between extremes, ends up right in the center of the action?

In a talk-radio culture of polarized opinions, the "middle way" often gets a bad rap. What is moderation, some might ask, if not a cop-out, an abnegation of the quest for moral clarity? But the speaker of Cavanagh's poems hasn't abnegated anything; he's still struggling with difficult truths.

The speaker in the title poem "hover[s] between comfort and terror," high on his imaginary wire. What inspires this vertigo? The poem evokes a culture of repellent extremes: "pumped-up media sex,/the smother love of stuff… or else the cold bare/locker of denial."

But these aren't the only abysses Cavanagh's poems navigate. There are the borders within and between nations -- Cavanagh was raised in Montreal. There are the gaps that open between lovers. And, on a more elemental level, there is the wire we must all try to walk as gracefully as we can between youth and old age, the prime of life and its slow decline.

Cavanagh's meditations on death lead him toward larger and more affirmative statements, both political and personal. In "It's So Much Like Missiles," written at the height of 1980s "evil empire" rhetoric, the two merge. The missiles are a "message" from one nation to another that wipes out the possibility of future communication, much as a careless silence between friends or family members is bound to lapse, sooner or later, into the unbreakable silence of death.

Cavanagh never stops reminding us that dying is part and parcel of living, a part that becomes distressingly evident as we age. "[Y]ou are 28 and suddenly/your life has bounds…" he writes in "And." Many of these poems could be accurately characterized as "midlife crisis" literature. It's a genre prone to navel gazing, but Cavanagh manages to keep his introspections out of the morass of self-absorption, leavening them with bold imagery, colloquial language and stinging humor.

The poet is at his best when he uses an ironic, ornery voice to express the dilemmas of the "middleman." "Call It," the wonderful first poem that opens the collection, runs through a catalogue of fashionable designations for "the midlife thing," each more darkly satirical than the last, before becoming deadly serious. "Or if you can get past the LLBeannessof it all, the Oprah and Regis of it,/if you can get past the self-help book/(I'm a Shithead, You're a Shithead),/call it not wanting ever to die."

The poem is a dark night of the soul, mordant and nihilistic as Philip Larkin's "Aubade," yet its flood of language and its quick-witted cultural references are strangely invigorating.

The same is true of "Mr. Anderson Is Alive and Must Get Used to It," a series of fractured sonnets that seems to stage the age-old dialogue between the Poet and the People -- or perhaps between the poet and himself. Like many poets, Mr. Anderson craves solitude to muse on evanescent beauties and the passage of time. But the larger world demands positive action, as a disruptive voice, identified only as a "working stiff," reminds him: "It's a duck-out, Mr. A., this settling, this crawl." Mr. A., resolutely cynical when he isn't lost in dreams, is having none of it: "Find meaning in each day?/Your problem, buster, not mine."

In these and other poems, Cavanagh never forgets that the poet/middleman also walks a wire between the world of poets past and present and that of "working stiffs" who may not expect a poet to speak to their concerns. There's no preaching about the oppressed or the silenced here, but there are quiet tributes to those whose labor has done little to enrich their lives -- summed up in the caustically funny allegory "The Drone." And there's one spooky poem in which a recalcitrant student addresses an English teacher: "the truth is/i don't wanna talk/like you/…/my language/only is this tearing stretch of my/events against the telling."

These poems suggest that the student's sense of a "tearing stretch" between opposing forces is also the poet's experience -- the line that all "middlemen" walk between silence and ambient cultural noise, trying in their own faltering ways to express the truth. It's a high-wire act at which Cavanagh succeeds.


The Stroke that Changed the World

Begin with Monica, not innocent, but on her knees God

love her, little sense of what it meant beyond the heady

ambition of it all, labially impressing the presidential member.

Then the media, lip-licking gleeful on the hunt, houses of Congress

outragedandharrumphed. (Outbreak of nervous tics, stiff necks

from twisting back over shoulders, into closets, leaning on delete.)

Then Mr. VP, off the Mayflower by way of Tennessee, buttoning

down everything against the big blow -- and everything already

buttoned down. Pilgrim Proper scrubbed for Sunday showing.

Middle America on its knees, double-barreled prayer - give

us this day Mr. Clean, yes, but not the guy with no juice

left, and not anyone friend of President Smutty Pants.

Guidance, Lord, guidance, then the answer -- pilgrim, sure,

not Mr. Mayflower, the other one, the well-oiled, scripted

dude, talks in mcnuggets, clear that wilderness, savage, claim

it, yes, City of God, but make it oversized, like Texas, ignorance

and meanness in the mix, oh Monica, down on our knees is right.

Then an invasion of hanging chads -- weapon of mass induction --

a vicious slide at home plate, an ugly late call by the 9 umps

supreme ("Safe!" "Yer out!" -- one for Tex, one for Pilgrim Proper).

Bushwhacked ever since. The national wagon madly chased and

flipped -- Kyoto-Afghanistan-Iraq-jobs-schools-rights gunned down--

tombstone air over everything, all gone hugely, Shakespeareously

wrong. Centuries to come already writ large and bad, the children's

future cracked and leeched, squandered toxic, and most everyone

cool as a 'burb about it, gone ga-ga, like little kids who've nibbled

peeling paint too long, tiny neuron bombs, lethal, silent, gradual bombs

gone off in us, little poofs of comfort, somnambulists 'r us; smoking

oil well for horizon, cauldron of world hate, seethe, send more blackhawk

choppers, blood blooms, how do you say environmental meltdown, thugs

in white houses, plunder as policy, collective anesthesia, reality TV

gone real, gone fear factor, no millionaire left behind, down on our knees,

it gushes, it's a gusher, the whole world down on shattered knees, oh Monica

David Cavanagh