Not the First Thing I've Missed

ARC POETRY, November 11, 2014

Not the First Thing I’ve Missed, Saskatoon poet Fionncara MacEoin’s debut collection, anthologizes the break and swell of the everyday. The book indexes shortcomings, poverty, addiction, the transience of home, and the promising breadth of nature. Despite the book’s title, it is hard to imagine, with her spare, merciless, fearless verse, that MacEoin misses much of anything at all.

The collection is gathered in three titled sections, each emitting its own distinct hiss. “all the babies in the world” is a contusion of childhood, of memory, of sleep paralysis and bicycles and the elderly and hopscotch. The poems have skinned knees, bruised fists. MacEoin places universal discomfort even at our beginnings, noting “how life tends to grab you / round the ankles, trip you up.”

In “the next room over,” MacEoin sketches out the sufferers. The poems stagger into “the dark cellar” of mental illness, the telling of stories “that nobody wants to hear,” the overlap of impoverishment and violence and piles of dirty laundry. The mid-section explores institutions and the slow melt of depression, MacEoin’s speaker at one point concluding “you can’t write about despair / when no one wants to hear / what the rain sounds like.”

The book finds its rest in “ten other places,” an uneasy pause amongst elk and tomato plants, thin days in Edmonton, kitchens full of smoke. The closing poems are “waiting for something,” offering “a bit of air / to air yourself out.” There is the pull of nature here, rivers and mountains the salve for when “thoughts get longer / and life / takes a while to get used to.”

While Not the First Thing I’ve Missed is loosely narrative, it is MacEoin’s sparse, conversational language that strings the work along. Her clipped lines echo, ruminating on “moments that mean nothing / but are something.” Her imagery is layered — the koi in a Chinese restaurant reflect the dancers at a strip club next door, waiting and baited, while frozen seaweed sways like a woman’s “long green hair under glass.” MacEoin piles like upon like, the couplings holding the work together with a tensile strength. The collection tends its wounds with “clean, clean words” and, every once in a while, offers up a perfect capsule:

there are birds eating gravel
and digesting the view
barbed wire, the barren field
flooded out road, the end
of some era

As can happen with the cataloguing of moments, MacEoin’s work verges on miscellany. Her story is only sketched — the poems hint at worlds that beg for exploration, conjure characters that are more shade than flesh. And yet the collection as a whole succeeds on the strength of its parts, the “coloured scraps / of flotsam and jetsam.” Not The First Thing I’ve Missed is immediate and raw, one of “a lot of things / that won’t go down / without catching.” — Emily Davidson

Emily Davidson is a writer based in Vancouver, BC. Her poetry has appeared in magazines across the country. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, May 17, 2014

Saskatoon poet Fionncara MacEoin's first collection, Not the First Thing I've Missed, employs a combination of two poetic forms, one of which we don't see all that often. The familiar is poems that are short - even minimalist - enigmatic observations of the world, both exterior and interior. What's less familiar and very welcome is that these short bursts of poem make up three long poems that comprise the collection.

All three long poems have a brooding quality to them, an intensity of observation that comes from a large well of melancholy (a word MacEoin uses) full of missed opportunities, failed ventures, loss of love, and a vast, yet biting, knowledge of the precariousness of mental health.

In "the next room over" she writes, "I suppose it goes with the territory/walking on some sort of thin ice/but not that thin." In the preceding poem she writes, "everybody sees the tragic anorexics/successful manics, the beautiful people/personality disordered charismatic psychopaths/it's the depressives and schizos/no one wants." So there it is: Walking on ice thin enough to be overly watchful, always worried, but not so thin you fall right in and need rescuing, you live with a constant state of anxious vigilance.

So "life tends to grab you/round the ankles, trip you up," and "there's no heart of the matter/only edges closing in," just "the dull down the dark cellar boring loneliness/almost stupor of drugs and sad stories," but, "all those damn metabolisms/what are you going to do?/you get through it." Yes, you get through it, and part of what propels you is memory, and the other is a warm idea of what could come.

She mixes intensely sensory and happy memories of supper with her grandma with a fantasy of her, a friend, and "all the unloved babies/in the world" living in a "giant house/together by the sea." Everyone gets all the watermelon they want, everyone gets tucked in, and "every room will have a night light." Just the sort of thing to keep the darkness away. Another way to hold off the darkness is with lines like these: "you can't write about despair/when no one wants to hear/what the rain sounds like," or "the river keeps its peace/floating away." This brave collection sounds like the rain and the river and all the sadness that they can wash away.

— Bill Robertson