Guest of Time: A Memoir in Poems by Greg McBride. Pond Road Press. 2023.
The arc of Guest of Time is a chronology of poet Greg McBride’s life. Just take a look at the Table of Contents, and you will know that this remarkable book of poems contains a rich and full American lifetime. Titles such as “Double Digit Birthday,” “Blind Date,” “Huey Chopper,” “Marriage 70s Style,” “Pram,” and “Diminished” take us—in moving and compelling poetry—into McBride’s understanding of his personal past and present. At times McBride offers to his reader familiar experiences, feelings, observations, and at other times unfamiliar but still powerful narratives. He reveals his life in free verse and a few prose poems that all sing with internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and syllabic attention. These poems move with fluidity and grace to their satisfying, sometimes surprising, ends.
Following the coming-of-age poems, “Hunted” begins a section about McBride’s military service. He was a U.S. Army photographer in the late ’60s during the war in Vietnam, a war known to most of us only through newspapers and TV. Yet here it is in gripping poetry. A trigger is squeezed (“one quick twitch”) just like the trigger he pulled as a child on his Uncle Glyn’s .22 or the one on his childhood BB gun. And of course, there’s the trigger of an Army-issue M-16 in Vietnam. Likewise, there’s the shutter release of a camera that shoots photographs. The camera plays an important role in this section. It afforded the photographer safety, as he took photos of medics at work. Here, in the poem “The Operating Room,” he describes a scene:
. . . Blood spatters
the lens, gushes over gloved hands
incising, sawing, full-stroked through
fresh-grown limbs, the labored heaving
laid raw beneath what’s left
of pink skin, a one-limb body
without privates or a face.
Safe behind my camera,
I murmur at the crimson
saturation, the perfection
of the angle.
Similarly, in “Army Photographer, Research Dermatologist,” we see his interaction with a doctor:
. . . Doc turned to the sole
and heel and toes of a kaleidoscopic foot,
its welter of colors. Wow! Get a close shot
of this. Eye rapt in my viewfinder,
I marveled at fungal shadows,
scattered islands across the arch, the ankle,
under nails, the foot bloated, blue currents
coursing beneath yellow-purple knolls.
Wow, I thought, Wow! then snapped.
Helicopters fly numerous times in and out of McBride’s poetry, bringing the sounds, sights, and tragedies of war into vivid view. In “Urgencies” he writes, “I choppered in and out / among the grunts, the coarsened kids / slouched in grease and M-16s . . .” And these behemoths took him into the worst of it, as he shows in “Medevac Chopper”: “[we] reach into the cargo bay and find the war / delivered again to our hands, soldiers / on stretchers arrayed like logs. . . .”
After the Vietnam section, McBride leads us into the rest of his life. PTSD is real. Nightmares are real. And yet nothing stops this man from succeeding in adulthood with all its vicissitudes, its delights and sorrows. Writing poetry, McBride obviously never lost the photographer’s eye for detail and the beauty of the commonplace. His powers of observation are consummate.
We learn about his becoming a husband, a father, a neighbor, a friend. We learn about his beloved mother, who died tragically at 49; and about his father, an Army officer (“a well-ribboned life”), a large man with large expectations for this son, who was of slight frame. In the poem “The Visit,” in which McBride describes going to see his father, he writes, “At 35, still and forever / the boy, my head landed // on his massive shoulder.” Size is of significance in several of these father poems, implying that he felt he could not fit in his father’s shoes, and when he tried on his father’s ring, “It hung, slack, wanting more.”
We are the beneficiaries of the “more” Greg McBride has given throughout his life. It is all here in Guest of Time, in which the poet has relied on memories good, bad, and terrifying, giving life to these grave and powerful poems. We should all read Guest of Time to appreciate the life and talent of this fine American poet.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently, Gender: Two Novellas in Verse (Atmosphere Press), and four chapbooks. An excerpt from her chapbook, The Last Gun, won the 2016 COG Poetry Award, judged by A. Van Jordan, and was subsequently animated (www.cogzine.com/watch). Anne is a member of the Poetry Board of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Board of Governors of the Emily Dickinson Museum.
on Greg McBride