In the first pages of Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers, poet Kelly McQuain invites us to step outside (“feel the vibration of the cows and how even now / the dew still collects, and the insects and crickets blur to song”) as a way of welcoming his reader into the speaker’s interior: “and you are devil’s paintbrush, / a blister of orange-red and velvet need.” The natural world thrives throughout this debut collection, serving as both metaphor and foil for the searching desire of a boy—then man—who senses who he is yet must wade through the detritus of family, cultural expectation, and his own yearning to arrive at wholeness.
In “ex nihilo,” the strikingly vivid first section, McQuain grounds his reader in the landscape of his West Virginia childhood outdoors: “the day’s hot ricochet of blue bottle flies,” and indoors: “my father’s endless accumulating / junk: rusty toy trucks, heavy oak furniture / faded Playboys from the early 1960s.” Next, the powerful circular storytelling of “Architect” and the allegory-rich “What I Learned Building a House with My Father” detail the daily complexities between a father mired in the remains of lost dreams and a son who already knows “something calls [him] somewhere else.”
McQuain curates sense-of-life for his reader in the way some writers build sense-of-place. He allows his own identity to emerge through the hurtful words others use for him (“At seven, I already knew ‘faggot’”) and his own particularities (“I could never tell / a soul that I wanted what every straight fellow shouldn’t: / to be a hot vampire chick and super-strong”). Even before he reveals, in “Ritual”: “My bag’s already packed / and in the car,” the reader anticipates the turn, senses the young speaker is ready to go.
McQuain details his life’s shifting landscape through the portraits he offers in poems like “Lent,” “Ruby on Fire,” “Waitress: Tennessee Diner, 1974,” and “The Absinthe Drinker” (“stupid kid, I think . . . / So I listen to my younger version blame all his folly / on the green fairy’s hallucinogenic effects”). Each of these poems offer scenes that, whether McQuain implicitly situates himself in the vignettes or not, depict his changing circumstances and sensibilities for the reader. In “tin hearts,” the collection’s fourth and final section, he signals a steady maturity tinged with happiness in “Memory Is a Taste That Lingers on the Tongue,” which begins: “On St. John, the high island winds / unwound us after a day of too much sun—” and ends: “Later we cooked those fish / in our windy house as the sun went down . . .”
This example offers both sense-of-life and sense-of-place, as does the rickety landscape of McQuain’s childhood, and the glimpse at early adulthood offered in “Nobody’s Savior”: “our first shared Easter . . . / the two of us pedaling across the South Street Bridge / to West Philly.” The end of the collection shows a tender home with room for icy strawberry dessert and sexual spontaneity—“it’s too good, so sugary, so cold, while the day’s been / so hot we ate dinner without shirts . . . A drip hits my chest and you tongue it away”—not a surprise for a manuscript that embodies longing, one in which thirst rises to the fore.
. . . McQuain’s poems are thoughtful, tight—cleanly wrought and
crafted with the conscious brilliance poets covet. He leans into
couplets, makes considered use of blank space, and elevates
the columnar form with careful enjambment.
Forgiveness is a virtue, yes
—but it’s a shiv that comes in slant.
Reverend Phelps, as he dies, had better pray
Hell’s Angels show him grace. I can’t.
as skittish as field mice, as [the owl] spins his neck:arteries widening into reservoirs, not narrowing,the further blood travels from his quick-beating heart.I wish that I were made such a way: unafraid,unmasked. Able to drink you in without splitting apart.
When not at her writing desk, Quincy Gray McMichael stewards her farm, Vernal Vibe Rise, on Moneton ancestral land. Her writing, both creative nonfiction and poetry, has appeared in Salon, Assay, Appalachian Review, Yes! Magazine, Burningword, The Dewdrop, and Chautauqua, among others. Quincy holds an MFA from the Naslund-Mann School of Writing. She is a 2022 Pushcart Prize nominee, serves as Contributing Editor at Good River Review, and is completing a hybrid memoir that explores obsession and overwork through a blend of poetry and prose. She’s on Twitter and Instagram.