Kevin McFadden
(University of Georgia Press)
Every other week or so, right below the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle, they would carry something called "Puns and Anagrams." I could never get a single one of them. Although I was an accomplished (and bothersome) punster as a youth, I later viewed it as a bit puerile, so, during college, I changed from puns (and anagrams) to cynicism.

Kevin McFadden is a master of word games, and sometimes he is cynical and puerile, too. The University of Georgia has subtitled Hardscrabble as "Poems," but a fair part of it doesn't look like poetry to me, one stretch being a monologue of a car trip from Virginia to Ohio. Another poetic span is called "Time" --- twenty poems that some might see as prose.

This confusion of forms is not to condemn them. The line between prose and poetry is a flighty one. McFadden has such a lively curiosity, such an ability to overturn our mindset, that we could label him "philosopher" or "philologist" or even "sophist" ... as well as "poet." The whole of his word game is an intellectual trove, biographical entr'acts, extended puns, plays on etymology, strange facts dug up in strange places, out of ancient books and obscure historical documents.

He is on the road, and instead of a Kerouac zone-trip his eyes are on the macadam, namely John Loudon McAdam, who "invented the modern road-building process." McFadden studies McAdam, specifically his Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads.

"I would pull it out once in a while to see what his words might mean to me, or just to listen to him whine about the shabbiness of road conditions" in 19th Century England.

"The best roads," McAdam concludes, "were made of broken stone that could be compacted into place, larger stones laying a foundation for smaller. Highest point in the middle for drainage."

    As a carriage wheel passed over one end of a large stone, it kicked the other end up, making trouble for both road and carriage. McAdam ... insisted that stones be small enough to fit in a workman's mouth.

"It was once reported that he visited a site to inspect the work of one of his tangs, and found a stretch with stones too large for his specifications. When the workman was admonished, he grinned and revealed his toothless smile.

Thus we find a history of road and roadmaking in the middle of a book entitled "Poems." More than that, it is a manual of facts --- random, interesting, filled with amusing bits:

  • Three-way intersections represented ill-fate and witchcraft. Oedipus killed his father in a three-way." (McFadden fails to point out that it was the first recorded case of "road rage.")
  • "The first 'keep right law' was applied to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, after the American visits of La Fayette."
  • "'Going to' is an odd future form. 'Going to stay' is paradoxical."
  • "How names stick ... how names tick. Etymology and pun have been called twins, though only one is deemed legitimate. Etymology gets grins, the pun groans ... They do what Newton said couldn't be done: two bodies, same space, same time."
  • "Ox, house, camel --- oldest ABC's --- read like any manger scene along the highway."
  • "Horseplay behooves me."
  • "There aren't really spaces between words, not in the air anyway, not when it's up and running. Who can tell "Jesus wept" from "Jesus swept?"
And detail. In "Time," just in time, we find that the poet once worked for the University in Charlottesville, working on the papers of George Washington, with "the elegant cursives of / a hundred dead, decorous hands." He reports that Washington's strokes were "gracious," a small w "passed for an n." ("My Fellon Citizens.")

McFadden, obviously educated by the good fathers, is everything the world "Jesuitical" implies. He and the brothers love illusion, history, words, definition, paradox, fact, paradoxical fact, even revolting ones: Why are "rats chosen for clinical experiments? Because they don't vomit."

--- Bruce Cleveland
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