Divinity in Dirt: Joshua McKinney’s Small Sillion

by Matthew Williams

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In his fourth full-length collection, Small Sillion (Parlor Press, 2018), Joshua McKinney’s brushstroke is meticulous. It must be, for what he searches for is fragile—“something / sacred” hidden in the “wholly / mundane” soil of human experience. Each poem, thus, is both excavation and meditation, as memories, anachronisms, myths, and absences arise as artifacts outlining human limitation for experiencing the divine in a secularized society.

At times, McKinney laments these limits with an iridescent mix of ecopoetic lyric and narrative. In the book’s opening poem, “Hum,” an everyday garden becomes Edenic with the arrival of a hummingbird. But the hummingbird, angelic, is unknowable through the human act of speech and becomes an emblem of alienation:

I called to you, aloud, and the words I spoke
were rote, broken, each one an arbitrary token
of the tiny bird that came to kiss the flowers.

It was then I knew my exile’s full extent.

Frustration at this percolates into a kind of self-admonishment in the poem “In Paradise,” manifesting as a disdainful, older-brotherly, and Thoreau-like voice that scoffs, “good god man.” At others, McKinney is more forgiving, placing his “faith in the failure of memory” and even rejoicing in the “limit of language.” McKinney has good reason for his faith because, where language fails him, he often finds a permeable veil through which a bit of the divine can leak.

Memory and language both fail the speaker in “The river was”:

green except
where it was silver I drove
above it wondering

how could I have forgotten
its name passing
so often that way

With the name of the river absent from his mind, the speaker can only see its color. And through that color a subtext builds, alluding to the effects that the “many years” he’s been passing over this river have had on his body, as he becomes forgetful and the river goes “silver everywhere.” Thus, the speaker and the river—the human and the natural divine—collapse into one, once the arbitrary name of the river is removed from the speaker’s mind. Yet, this contact between the human and the divine is rarely reassuring and often serves to underscore the speaker’s mortality as part of the universe’s constant flux. In “A Morphology” this mortality and flux are deftly enacted in the poem’s syntax:

The wind taught me that I am not a hawk
the oak that I am not a squirrel scurries
circles up a tree

The syntactic units of the last two lines melt into each other. The latter re-contextualizes the former, creating a meaning that is in perpetual flux, as each time one reads the line one must contend with the change. Moreover, the speaker is only rendered through negation—“I am not”— a kind of death on the page.

In this, the act of overcoming one’s human limitations to experience divinity through the natural world becomes not only a question of capacity, but, as Thoreau reminds us, “a moral test.” Will we sacrifice the perception of divinity for the comfort of distraction from death? Or, will we put our hands into soil and dig up divinity, though it must acknowledge the earthworms? McKinney’s choice is clear. In “Perishing Ode,” he writes, “I consider you, Death, / and how I took you for a foe / before my breath was deep.” He will excavate, meditate, “plough a small sillion / free / & freely perceived.”

Washington Square