Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
When a collection opens with a section called ex nihilo (out of nothing), the reader knows to prepare for a journey. Out of nothing to…what? is the immediate question. In McQuain’s collection Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers, the reader takes a journey from a childhood filled with nature, wounds, and difference to a speaker who has not only come out, but also broadened his world and his heart to love, desire, and forgiveness.
McQuain writes the natural world with a tenderness and exactness of diction that shows the significance of the West Virginia landscape in the speaker’s life. In the titular poem, the reader is enveloped in the day’s hot ricochet of blue bottle flies/and bees gone crazy in their looping, and also cued into the speaker’s connection to this world: You are Joe-Pye and yarrow root,/resolute with purpose, pinioned for sky. McQuain is a musical writer, employing internal rhyme and rhythmic syntax to punctuate lush descriptions of the environment that carry the reader through each poem. But McQuain’s expertise takes these dream-like images of the natural world and juxtaposes them with the harsh realities of a difficult life, one where identity and family are points of anxiety and conflict instead of comfort. In “Walking in Spring,” the the “days leave like pages// moss scented,
mushrooming/fiddlehead ferns uncurling/in the gloaming//every sapling knowing/time is only loaning you this world…”
No matter how carefully the speaker notices and chronicles the landscape, he cannot find a model anywhere for who he is, who he longs to be. Again, the titular poem holds a key thread to this search—But where to learn/of this authentic self?/Not on this hill, not in that house./Something calls you somewhere else. —and it is the futility of this search that leads the speaker to doubt: Who fiddled with you—rewired deference/ into difference? What if you never met/the person you are meant to be? That person is one the speaker does not see models for in his world, though he knows who he is. In “Brave,” the speaker recalls making “Indian” loincloths and other items for Scouts with other boys, boys whose hands I sometimes long to hold, hard like a toy tomahawk. The ending of this poem also hints at a difficult relationship with the father, which carries into other poems as well.
The speaker’s father never settled on one livelihood, moving the family from promise to promise, creating a complicated relationship where the speaker sees what he has inherited from this upbringing in “The Architect”: My father, the architect, drew impossible blueprints/this shit-for-brains somehow finds a way to follow:/All the things I want to finish but don’t,/they keep me up these late-night hours./I’m still clearing brush out of my head up that hollow. As the parents age, poems about this change are balanced with other examples of things we cannot hold onto. In “No Trespassing,” the speaker is concerned about a mother living alone and isolated, the falls and accidents she has while alone, yet understands her love for her life: The world goes on around her, in the dark,/behind the greens of pine and maple,/when the gift she wants is true silence in her/holler, the wind the only voice whispering/to make her look, her sharp eyes spotting/four-leaf clovers when she lets her dog out to pee. The speaker still feels a connection to this place, but knows he no longer belongs there. In “Jam,” this is beautifully rendered—I visit Mom’s house more rarely now that Dad is gone./It feels bruised—an apple fallen and spoiled/beneath the tread of whitetail hooves. Tonight I prod hillside./I stay a little longer. I let the ache of wanting awaken hunger. This hunger doesn’t go away, even after the speaker has built a new life full of love and belonging elsewhere. In “Sea Glass,” the speaker recognizes the way grief is never done with us but something that shapes you, grinds you down to nothing useful.
The book also uses a broad variety of subjects and forms to discuss love, redemption, and, as stated in “Ritual,” the ways we rescue ourselves. Whether it’s through encounters with strangers, through travel, through simple pleasures like water ice and limoncello, or through the new language we learn when we love another person, McQuain’s speaker reveals a world full of loss but also full of possibility. In bars and diners, in stations and schools, with shimmer and slither, travel and travail, he knows that each time a cell divides is a new chance for the world to go wrong. (“Alien Boy”). But not always wrong. In “Constellation,” the joy of desire serves as a counterpoint—You were different languages, newly minted,/men flawed and freckled—awash with lines/there would never be enough maps to chart.
And, in the end, it is love—of self, of partner, of others—that conquers. In “Tongue,” the speaker wants his lover to Teach me what lies beneath meaning,/Tell me in your body’s heat, its blood//its breath, its need—rising now/like a shiver, a stutter, an unuttered word//buried beneath this kiss: first taste/of the tongue I master. It is this language, one of love and desire and belonging, that McQuain speaks so well throughout the collection, a language that I will return to read again and again.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She also curates and hosts A Hundred Pitchers of Honey, a Zoom-based reading series. Click here to visit Donna online.