Things I Was Told Not to Think About by Mary McCarthy

Artwork by poet Mary McCarthy

We are pleased to present Things I Was Told Not to Think About, a chapbook by Mary McCarthy.

Foreword by Romeo Oriogun

My first encounter with Mary McCarthy’s poetry was on the internet, that big place that has become a country without an anthem or border. Her poems held me spellbound by their simplicity and beauty and how words in their barest form can hold our emotions, our hope, our dreams, our memories, and even what lies in our silence.

Now that I’ve read Things I Was Told Not to Think About, I can say that Mary is a seeker, she searches for what makes us human, what makes us broken, what heals us, for roads that shape the future of our thoughts, and for a way back into the beginning, back to where it all started; at the center of her poetry is a city of tears and pain wrapped in a beautiful wall of hope. It is her brilliant poem “Considering Repairs” that shows us the way into that city. It begins with these lines:

I run my hands over
the fabric of our days
examining the pattern
the small knots and errors
in the weave
the missing stitches
the places where a bright
color, a familiar shape,
has faded
leaving a blank space
white as grief.

For most of us the way forward is often hidden in memories and Mary’s poetry searches that space for hope only to find grief, but there’s also a desire not to live in sadness and it is contained in the concluding lines of the same poem:

Maybe not a good fit
for most-
too rough and shabby
and irregular
but it suits me well
and all my study
could not find one thread
to pull and make it all
come smooth.
It is what we made
with what we had
And it seems best
to leave us here
imperfect but content
with our usual devices
and not much regret.

It is this tone that sets the pace for this chapbook, it is this hunger for joy, peace, and empathy that fills Mary with so much love that from her poetry we can find out what it means to survive.

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In today’s world where people prefer to let sadness lie in dark places, it is refreshing to see a poet going against the tide. Perhaps her gift to us is one that unravels us into beings that feel and look at others through their eyes, not all of us come from abused homes or have experienced the loss of siblings but with Mary’s poetry we are showed how it feels to be abused, the poet does not hold back, no room is too sacred not to be talked about.

In poems like “At Home,” “Bad,” and “Pre-Schooling” Mary introduces us to what it feels like to grow up with a violent father:

At Home

There were always some things
we could depend on
the rages exploding
like gas well fires
splitting the quiet sky-
knowing they would come
but never when
no warning
no time to prepare
always caught by surprise
until we trusted nothing
to be what it seemed

She writes about fear with a beautiful cadence. Most poets falter when it comes to writing poems about fear but Mary knows how to give a poem life and set it free, she knows where to let it run wild and when to trim her words until they become like salt left after boiling sea water, more potent and piercing. We meet her at her best in “Bad” – I spent a day going over these lines:

We curled up like dying
flowers beneath those blows
hoping for escape
knowing no one would stop
you and you could not
stop yourself.

She also talks about loss, about memories and the things we wish we could have done, and how we respond to life when we are left with regrets:

…then I set her up,
a perfect lady,
in her own spot
where I could see her
and admire her
new condition
every day.

Mama would have liked that.
And I wonder why
I let her wait so long.

Mary’s poems are like wars going on in the body, there’s no hiding place, to read her is to witness bullets hitting you from within, her words do not pity the reader. She wants us to live inside her poems, she snares us with beautiful words and leaves us wondering how to survive, she lets us know that this is reality for quite a number of people. Her poems teach us the meaning of empathy: she allows us to follow the character in her poems, she allows us into her most vulnerable state, where silence often follows each turn of her poem, leaving us walking behind in a shaken state as she takes us into a topic forbidden in most spaces. She takes us into the streets of depression and here again Mary does what she knows best, she lets us in, there’s no obligation to love or pity the character, she allows her words to lead us wherever we want to go and often we do not get to our destination, we break down and stare at her words. In “After the last apocalypse” she tells us:

I shine
my pulse erratic
as the light of some
unregulated star
beating out its own
disordered time
at the furthest edge
of the universe.
Outlawed, expelled,
left alone
where no gentle angels come
to guard my sleep

Ultimately Mary’s poetry leads us into becoming seekers, she gives us the lamp and allows us go on our journey. In “My Sisters” she says I have never found a woman/ without one/of these stories/ so all-alike/ so full of fathers/ and uncles and husbands/ and strangers. We are left alone to ponder why women are made into sad stories, we are left alone to look at our hands and try to find the answers within ourselves.

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Mary is a gift to us, a gift we need especially in these times where it is easy to forget what makes us human. I hope this chapbook does for you what it has and is still doing for me. In the title poem “Things I Was Told Not To Think About ” Mary bares her open heart, she shows us how love can link hands across oceans and blossom, how my fear and loss is also yours; hear her:

and I know only one way
to avoid defeat
not by evasion or denial
but in acknowledgment

these losses are my loss
these words my words
to forever witness and refuse
lies and injustice
anywhere they rise

It is words like these that remind us of where we are coming from, of the need to unite and leave the world a better place. It is poems like “Invitation” that leaves me with hope in our shared humanity, it is in lines like these: When you speak words of fire/ That burn your tongue/ And turn to ashes on the air/ Come to me/ When you wear death’s kiss/ Like a badge on your body/ And hear his voice inside you/ Intimate and/ constant/ As your own heart beat/ Come to me/ When nothing’s left/ To look at all familiar/ And I will meet you there, that reminds us of the gift of love.

Mary has shown us that although there’s sadness and pain in the world, only in love can we find joy. She has opened a world to us, invited us in, and left us to run wild. This is a chapbook that will haunt you for a very long time.

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Romeo Oriogun is the author of Burnt Men, a digital chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online. His poems have appeared at Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, Expound, and elsewhere. He lives and writes in Nigeria.

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