A Review of “Round Trip” by Kevin McLellan

Spencer Dew

The strangest thing about this limited-edition chapbook is the name on the cover, singular, Kevin McLellan. Never mind that the cover design is such that “and…” is wedged between his two names, what’s missing is any other name, like, for instance, the names of any of the fifteen women with whom he collaborated in the writing of these poems. Round Trip—its title tickling epistolary associations—is a collection of co-written pieces, presumably sent back and forth, two poets’ efforts polished, ultimately, into one poem. At the end of the text, McLellan says, in a note,

What I find most exciting about the art of collaboration is the heightened level of individual and shared accountability (while creating the collaboration and afterward) for a creation born out of more than one imagination, and that this knowledge of accountability, a memory, exists somewhere in the mind when one also creates alone.

It’s a strange note, in lieu of any explanation of process, but we must assume it holds some importance for the writer whose name is on the cover. The other poets are identified in connection with the poems they co-wrote in the table of contents, and there are biographical notes for each, but the poems themselves are present, in the text, with only their own titles, the organizing principle here being that all of these are equal parts of a single, unified whole, and that what unites them is the process and one party to said process, Mr. McLellan.

The first poems each feature a “you” and an “I,” male and female notions—the recruit whose beard gets shaved the “”jam-/maker he-wife,”  but soon these conceits fall away and, moreover, the poems exhibit a wide stylistic and tonal range. What, precisely, holds them together, as a unit, a collection? Only the collaboration, and that with a motley crew of poets, who, judging solely from the work on these pages, have their own distinct voices and strengths, somehow aped or harnessed by McLellan, who must be a chameleon to collaborate at this pace.

The Jessica Bozek co-written “[for a postmaster],” for instance, with its “erase of curlicues/ & girdles. this bit-o-honey,/ this battered syringe” contrasts with the pulsing narrative weave of Sue Nacey’s co-written title poem. There are poems rooted in place—from the shore of “After Phosphorescence” to the back yards of “Nocturne,” and poems rooted in personality and personal narrative, like “From an Adirondack Chair” with its chronicle of “This mid-July dusk, our anniversary,” which ‘thickens with mosquitoes” as the “sun tea with floating mold/ mimics scum/ on the lake.” Connie Donivan co-wrote that one, and the intimacy and force of the phrases insist that it matters.

What’s happening here is not appropriation or cut-up (though there is some of that, from one of Eisenhower’s papers, in one piece), but collaboration, two skilled poets combining to create each piece, here assembled under one, main, over-arching, male name. So the reader is left with an uneasy feeling. There’s something fishy here, in this arrangement, the male poet coupling with and claiming the offspring of this clutch of other writers. Maybe McLellan would argue that such collaborative process calls into existence a new identity, but, if so, this new, communal authorial presence deserves its own name—signifier of group effort as well as guarantor of anonymity. McLellan, for whatever reason, insists on hanging his own name over this assortment of collaborative work. If nothing else Round Trip should lead any reader to thoughts on the nature of collaboration, possession, relation and ownership—an always useful journey.

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