In "Breakdown" the narrator watches the bikers ahead of him glide effortlessly up the long hill. Halfway up, he downshifts, cranks hard, and eventually--stops. "Then dismount / and walk. At the crest / the road stretches flat, narrows out of sight. No bikes, no cars, no sound." (p. 18) This lonely moment embodies two aspects of Ted McMahon's poetry.

First, he acknowledges his (our) limited ability to live up to expectation, achieve the sought-after goal, or understand what is really happening in life. As in "Amniocentesis" (p. 15), we may convince ourselves that we are "prepared to embrace a life of sacrifice," but when finally confronted with the reality (e.g. a Down's syndrome baby), we lose our bearings and grow silent. What seems a sure ticket to happiness--for example, the "snug white Levis" woman who shares her heart with you at a "Writers' Conference" (p. 33)--turns out to be a false alarm: "I stood alone, / controlled, on twilight grass, observed / a fly, quivering in a web."

However, McMahon touches these moments of imperfection, not with explanations or suggestions for improvement, but with profound compassion. In "Satchitananda" (p. 49) he discovers the attributes of the Hindu God (being, awareness, and bliss) residing in the most ordinary daily activities. He stops his truck on a windy plain and reflects: "I'll settle to have sparked / a single flash of joy, to have erased / a single line of sorrow." (p. 48)


Ted McMahon is a pediatrician in Seattle. In this first collection, only a few poems deal explicitly with medical topics, but McMahon's work brims with a healing sensibility. In the title poem, Auguste Rodin, who has "had it up to here with nymphs" and "mind-numbing symmetries," fashions a bust of Bibi, his ugly janitor; therefore, transforming his shambling, broken-nosed face into a thing of beauty. The front cover photograph of this bust ("The Man with the Broken Nose") reveals that its beauty arises from the empathy it evokes in the observer--you can CONNECT with this suffering man--rather than from superficial attributes like facial smoothness and symmetry. Similarly, McMahon's poems heal disparate and desperate moments with compassion, rather than plastic surgery.


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