K.i.m.. B.r.i.d.g.f.o.r.d

Mae West Meets Richard Wilbur: Susan McLean's The Best Disguise

The Best Disguise
Susan McLean
80 pages | University of Evansville Press 2009 | $15.00

usan McLean has a gift for performance. Anyone who has attended one of her readings knows this. Her readings, delivered from memory, are half incantation, half bravado. The 2009 winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, The Best Disguise (University of Evansville Press) is also such a performance.

     Readers know McLean's work from magazines such as The Lyric and The Formalist, as well as her chapbook collection Holding Patterns (Finishing Line, 2006). The shift from Holding Patterns to The Best Disguise is to an entirely formal collection. McLean's heightened rhetorical style and memorable voice, better suited for metrical forms, recall Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, A. E. Stallings, and, as McLean herself points out in "Vamping," Mae West.

     "Deep Cover" is an apt opening poem for the first, mostly personal, section and is a section title as well; it sets forth McLean's feminist perspective and highlights the overall tone of the volume.

McLean, like Shakespeare in his sonnets, lavishes her attention on the imperfect.
A villanelle, "Deep Cover" has as its refrain lines "Nakedness is the best disguise" (1) and "it always takes them by surprise" (3): the paradox of being both powerful and weak at the same time. Men do not understand this, McLean argues, "Because men think that compromise / is weak--that if you yield, you fail" (3-4). Yet the opposite is true, McLean proclaims, inviting women to "Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael" (17). The offhand, and yet commanding, tone of "Go ask" (17) illustrates the speaker's familiarity with such an enterprise. There is much to learn from these pious female warriors.

     McLean is drawn to extremes, and "Figs" is about the excess of physical appetite. The poem is built on the rhetorical framework of "because," with each phrase beginning with that word: "Because they don't grow this far north; because / when I'm in Italy or France, it's June / or earlier" (1-3). Usually McLean employs formal rather than rhetorical repetition--the villanelle is one of her signature forms--but such a strategy suits her here. The poem is about how quickly figs rot, so one must seize them--and the day. Interestingly, this poem is a sonnet, and the end rhymes of the poem "soften" in the way that figs do. Instead, the "because" strategy creates the supporting branches of the tree, upon which the fruit must hang. The poem ends with both formal and physical satisfaction:

                because, once ripe, they split apart
and rot or wasps destroy their fragile treasure;
because I know I'll never get enough,
I always eat them with a groan of pleasure. (11-14)

The click of the unexpected feminine rhyme "treasure" (12) and "pleasure" (14) is effective, as the unstressed syllable exudes a sigh at the end of each line. Add that to the onomatopoetic long "o" of groan (14), and the reader feels the sensual--almost visceral--delight of eating figs.

     Also a poem of extremes, "Reasons" is about the excess of love. Although the poem begins with an epigraph from Pascal--"The heart has its reasons that reason cannot fathom"--to my mind the poem's predecessor is "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways." Yet, while Barrett Browning emphasizes the more glorious positives in her poem, McLean goes for the unexpected. McLean, like Shakespeare in his sonnets, lavishes her attention on the imperfect and, as a result, finds that paradoxical love more perfect.

     It is difficult to imagine Woody Allen and Bill Clinton ending up in a poem together, and yet here they are. That fact alone makes the poem memorable:

                              It isn't just
because you made me laugh. If that were all,
I should love Woody Allen just as much.
I'm dazzled by your power to enthrall,
but Clinton too possessed the common touch. (5-9)

The irony is that these unexpected comparisons to Allen and to Clinton are only drawn to be dismissed. The speaker is looking for an even more compelling reason than these two iconic figures can claim.

     Yet the end of the poem takes a poignant turn: "It's not just that you overlook my flaws / or that, for my career, you live alone / for nine months out of twelve" (10-13). The clincher of the poem is "because--against all reason--you love me" (14), the greatest reason of them all.

     Being loved is important, whether by a loved one or a group, and yet both can come at a great price. "Feral," shows that there is something excessive--fierce and animalistic--about group dynamics:

She'd left her heart open, just one small door,
enough to let a shivering pet get warm
on icy nights. But in dashed a fanged horror
and crouched in a corner, hissing. (1-4)

When the protagonist goes against her own morals and steals in order to impress her friends, she loses something pure about herself: "A post of trust she lost at the school store. / The teacher who wouldn't look her in the eye / or fondly call her pet names anymore" (11-13).

Given McLean's other gifts, it's easy to forget how expertly she uses imagery of the senses.
The hole this betrayal leaves inside the protagonist is permanent and cold. Given McLean's other gifts as a poet, it can sometimes be easy to forget how expertly she uses imagery of the senses and how supple such devices as alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia are in her hands. For example, the "s" sounds in the four lines above quietly build to the horror of the "fanged. . . hissing." (3/4) They blow through the rest of the poem and "blast" (14) out at the end through "A heart with a hinged hole" (14).

     The second section, "Farming the Netherlands," has a less distinctive shape than the first, but its wit shows the extent of McLean's range. As a result, "Doors" as an opener is something of an odd move, since the poem is about Sylvia Plath's death. Perhaps McLean is playing with Plath's own macabre humor, as Plath called the grim manic performance of her famous poem "Daddy" "light verse."

     In fact, one of my favorites in this section is "Light Verse, "which is framed by an epigraph from Chaucer, taken from "The Knight's Tale": "The smylere with the knyf under the cloke." This "smyler" ends up being light verse, illustrating the serious aspect that both Plath and others find in the genre. Both Poetry and Light Verse are portrayed as female figures in the poem, and the poem is about which of the two is preferable. While Poetry is portrayed as spending her life focused on loss, Light Verse laughs and "hones her blade" (7). One is between a rock and a hard place when choosing (or should one say "sharp place"?):

Which companion would you choose
to share your bed, to be your wife?
The diva of the daily blues?
The smiler with the hidden knife? (13-16)

Neither is an obvious choice, but Light Verse has a more violent, and more serious, streak than many would have once given her credit for, giving her enterprise more weight.

     In this section, poems like "A Little Horaceplay" (although its title is compelling) and "Asceticism" can become too colloquial. For example, lines such as "seize the doughnut--and the day" (5) ("A Little Horaceplay") and "grab the boy and chug the beer" (15) ("A Little Horaceplay") as well as "while others gobble chips or chugalug / their beer" (4-5) ("Asceticism") fall flat for me. McLean is at her best with a heightened rhetoric.

     Such an approach comes in "Vanity," which uses a sardonic tone with a poetic twist. After a long description of Vanity (of which this is only a part),

Vanity is such a silly vice.
She drapes herself in velvet and brocade.
Her long blonde hair and rope of pearls cascade
below her waist. She doesn't ask the price
of cutwork oversleeves adorned with braid
or diamonds glinting on her hands and brow, (1-6)

McLean comes in with the rhetorical knife, and the joke is on the speaker: "The man I live with thinks she looks like me" (14).

     In the third section, called "Like the Boys," McLean helps us to see the importance of a feminist agenda, however unexpected the context or persona. For example, Medea, after listing matter-of-factly the grisly nature of her murders, delivers a startling punchline: "Some women do what you'd expect. Some don't" ("Medea," 18). The poem "Jane Austen," while less dramatic, indicates that a circumscribed life has its own realizations:

A truth that few would readily acknowledge
is that to know the bleakest facts of life
one needn't go to war, or sea, or college,
or have a baby, or be someone's wife. (1-4)

One of my favorite poems in this section is "Bright Girl," which illustrates the difficult life of an intelligent woman. Most women, at one point or another, have acknowledged the situation outlined in the poem: "fizzling at adolescence as you're bent / into a shape that won't throw shade on him" (3-4). However, the speaker of the poem reassesses the situation: "why should you cave in to condescension?" (9) This all-too-familiar story gives us pause. In the collection as a whole, the solution to such situations can be sarcasm, irony, and bravado.

     Ultimately, a McLean signature poem is one like "Delilah," which asks about the valiant Samson, "What did he think [would be the result]?" (1) She then goes on to explain that men and women have their own distinctive powers, and it is up to each to exploit them. Delilah explains, with false modesty and a sardonic tone, "Besides, I merely cut his hair" (12). Just as the speaker of "Deep Cover" encourages women to "Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael," here Delilah says, "I have my loyalties, as he has his. / Go ask your Judith what the difference is" (13-14). Women are the source of emotional truth in her poems, and other women look to them as a tradition and a resource. This is a powerful message, and McLean delivers it well. She is, both as a performer and a talent, a poet to watch.

Works Cited

McLean, Susan. The Best Disguise. Evansville: University of Evansville Press, 2009.

---. Holding Patterns. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2006.


Kim Bridgford is a professor of English at Fairfield University, the editor of Dogwood and Mezzo Cammin, and a resident faculty member of Fairfield's new M.F.A. program on Enders Island, off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, she is the author of three collections of poetry: Undone, Instead of Maps, and In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records. She is currently working on a three-book poetry and photography project with visual artist Jo Yarrington, focusing on journey and sacred space in Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan. She was the 2007 Connecticut Touring Poet. Other earlier work in Mezzo Cammin: 2009.1, 2008.1.


Kim Bridgford

Mezzo Cammin is proud to announce that The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which will eventually be the largest database of women poets in the world, was launched on Saturday, March 27, 2010, at 6:00 PM at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Tom Field)
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Jo Yarrington: I've always been interested in liminal places, areas of the mind or reality that blur definition, that exist somewhere in between. When first reading Swann's Way, I instantly identified with Proust's ruminations on the space between sleeping and waking. Suspended in that glide from consciousness to unconsciousness, he seemed to find a threshold to unfettered freedom and clarity. In Brontë's Villette, when faced with the harsh realities and social restrictions of Victorian England, Lucy Snow could slip into her shadowland, an interior place of refuge and boundless possibilities. And, in Atonement, McEwan spoke to the fertile pause between stillness and motion when he wrote "the mystery was in the instant before it moved, the dividing moment between moving and nonmoving, when her intention took effect." It is these elusive, shifting planes, these fluctuations in our psychic core and physical being, these changeable and charged arenas that I explore in my visual art.
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