Macgregor Card, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary

New York City-based poet and bibliographer Macgregor Card is taking readers along for a ride that isn’t always comforting, but neither is reality. In Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, which is the 2009 Fence Modern Poet Series winner, we might find ourselves careening between Card’s unusual humor, his penchant for flourishing outpours and confessions, and a heavy honesty reminiscent of trying to chat with a distant relative but not really reaching them despite wholehearted attempts—a kind of honesty not always accepted or even recognized. Filled with unpredictable line breaks, deliberately short and succinct,

A shaking hand
give me nothing
watch it burn
I feel more
than I am


Even spirits
have their
average signal
turned on you

one gets the feeling that Card is interested in reaching a conclusion but only so as to quickly reject it. Life is more attractive with options. This poetry appears eager to resign to the fact that neither the reader nor writer deserve an easy explanation for its antiheroic declarations (“There was a ship on fire last night / I am ashamed and a burden to my friends”). Duties of an English Foreign Secretary will be heard by someone somewhere, regardless of a now-distracted audience. Card’s words are polished, clean and remain tasteful in the mouth. There is no aftertaste. Satisfaction comes from reading Card’s catchy meditations and understanding the awkwardness and the ocean between communication and communion.

Thematically, these poems do not fixate long on one specific sentiment over another, but they do have a tendency to romanticize the past (“So full of longing, the day was mine”), escape the present (“I have work and I have memories, basically a ton”) and to not obsess over the future (“I have no plans / I have done nothing, been nothing, seen nothing”). Card appreciates nostalgic brooding, and he has created urgent worlds where we are able to share this mood—even if the feeling must be tweaked to suit an individual’s delicate needs.

Harboring a nineteenth-century sense of aesthetics, filled with askew, internal rhyme patterns and blatant repetition:

Christians have a right to shout
Christians have a right to shout
I believe without a doubt
I believe without a doubt

Card occasionally toys with the reader’s tolerance, maybe hoping that a dedicated one will find the time to slow down, breathe in and out, read words out loud and slowly to discover hidden jewels of word play. It is apparent that these poems are influenced by those who came before the poet, and it seems rightfully just that Card pays homage to figures such as Goethe, Brontë and Dobell even if he does so in dissimilar ways. Duties of an English Foreign Secretary is determined to intrigue; these poems meddle between innocent nursery rhyme and wry existential humanism. This poetry may find something, someone or some place that doesn’t want to be easily located. The beauty of Duties of an English Foreign Secretary is that there is a courteous space to stop, turn around and leave—to try another key or even another entrance. These words hope to be met and met again.To see the review in context, click here.

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