Book Review

Quincy Gray McMichael on
poetry by Kelly McQuain
Texas Review Press, 2023


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.

The only poem missing the thoughtful, considered language that makes this collection shine is “Brave,” which leverages a punchy but culturally unfortunate metaphor. Yes, many white children “played Indian,” and the word “brave,” which is where the last line lands, would be a clever way to echo fear and courage—if so many of the poem’s images were not ripped from Indigenous life. Maybe McQuain didn’t consider the impact of coopting language and tradition, or perhaps the metaphor felt too delicious to resist. Still, McQuain could have challenged himself to avoid sullying an otherwise vivid and intimate childhood portrait by discarding this darling and finding a fresh device through which to reveal his lifelong struggle with identity. 

But the bulk of 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. Neither does McQuain dodge formal structure; rather, the evocative and rollicking villanelle “Vampirella” appears near the beginning of the book, and he later offers “a remix of Shakespeare’s sonnet 69” entitled “Although Their Eyes Were Kind.” Best, the reader leaves this collection sure of McQuain’s love of sonorous language; lines like: “these days are a back-aching abacus of safety” and “Soon the cool woods / and waiting water. The lost impossible / daughter” clatter pleasantly on the tongue—another favorite image of this poet.

Rhyme, too, stakes a place in Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers—McQuain makes music on the page. And he displays a particular penchant for ending a non-rhyming poem with the satisfying plunk of an echoing pair, as in “Glass Frog,” where he writes: “a ghost-skinned, / almond-sized frog on a leaf—bejeweled by her / organs pulsing beneath.” Or, in the personal-yet-universal “Mercy:"  

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.

Clearly, McQuain’s musicality and wordcraft do not come at the expense of substance; rather, he positions his poems to articulate the essential, sterling humanity that is sometimes obscured by blatant injustice. As a gay man, he rightly centers violence done to the LGBTQ+ community—as in “Mercy,” which honors Matthew Sheppard, or in “Ruby on Fire,” which closes with: “When I ran into Ruby last, she had changed / her pronouns from she/her to they/them to make clear that if anyone / came at her again she’d be an army of more than just one”). But McQuain also makes his true heart visible in poems like “Southern Heat”—which enshrines how he squirmed at his step-grandfather’s racism, feeling responsible (“I was the one who’d made him say / the Word when I pointed out the window / to ask Who’re they?”)—and “Although Their Eyes Were Kind,” in which gun violence and terror ricochet.

While reasonable fear and the threat of danger float on the surface of these poems, the underlayment of Christian theology lurks just below. McQuain’s verse does not make the damning connection between traditional Appalachian religion and cultural expectation explicit, but the way he wrestles with his gay identity underlines the correlation. The way the first two pieces in the collection (“Camping as Boys in the Cow Field” and—particularly—the titular poem) converse with the closing piece (“Torn”) indicate that internalized questions of sin and hope thread throughout. Near the end of the book, “How an Owl Spins Its Head Without Tearing Apart” is a return to the stirring imagery of the natural world—a poetic echo of the collection’s powerful opening: 

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.

Here, McQuain returns to animal-allegory, to intimate wildness, as this collection, like Paul Simon once said, “com[es] down on the side of hope.” 

Or, to use McQuain’s own words: “In the mirror, half a devil / and I wonder whether hope might spring / from my other side. First sign: a feather.” Little wonder that Texas Review Press selected Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers for the Southern Poetry Breakthrough Prize: West Virginia, keep an eye on this poet—McQuain has plenty more to say, and an innate fluency with language and line that enhance themes of humanity and self-becoming. 

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.

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