Appointed Rounds : Essays (Mercer University Press, February 2018)
Reviewed by Maria Carlos
As with Michael McFee’s other works, which include another book of essays and numerous poetry collections, Appointed Rounds (Mercer University Press, 2018) mulls over the minutiae of our daily dues, the overlooked details and unsung mechanisms that define our perceptions of and movement through the world. Not to be confused with the overused adage, Stop and smell the roses, no—McFee’s allegiance to earthly detail requires attention beyond “Stop” and demands a more focused engagement with our surroundings: hands-and-knees leveling with those roses, a study of their thorns, cataloguing leaves, sifting through the petals like sheets of paper in a filing cabinet. These forty-nine essays (fifty, if one includes the preface), organized by theme into seven numbered sections, employ the same pithiness and precision one would expect after reading McFee’s poetry—they range from single sentences or paragraphs to more expansive, sweeping essays divided into brief segments—and reveal a rich and vast devotion to language, to teaching poetry, to his home in the mountains of North Carolina, and to every writer’s first love: the physical, three-dimensional body of a book.
The origin of Appointed Rounds’ title is nestled in its longest piece: “The Mail,” which reads like a series of odes to the United States Postal Service. Each section illuminates a different angle of McFee’s attitude toward the subject: appreciating the enduring anatomy of a public USPS mailbox’s “mass-produced barrel vault” and “truncated metal tunnel,” his daily pilgrimage down the lawn to retrieve his personal mail, a writer’s anticipation of the mail carrier’s return with various rejection letters and the occasional happy surprise, a childhood hobby of collecting stamps that evolved into a collection of postcards, and so much more. As his thoughtful meditations on mail unspool across thirty-one sections, varying in tone and focus, McFee anchors his readers with an underlying thread that ties it all together: a subtle elegiac tone for his father, a dedicated USPS employee for nearly thirty-five years, whose familial, metal address sign “crowns a bookcase” in McFee’s office—“It’s not exactly a grave marker, and yet it is.” Beyond romanticized nostalgia for handwritten letters, beyond recognizing the invisibility USPS workers so often endure, McFee’s essay echoes Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” in its quiet affection and plain-stated gratitude for the modesty and anonymity of his father’s work.
The book takes its title from the unofficial USPS motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” McFee draws a thoughtful parallel between his father’s work ethic and his own, the daily dedication it takes to be a writer, similarly unthwarted by the stormy elements that can too often steer one away from the page—rumbling clouds of self-doubt, laziness, numerous rejections from literary publications, etc. “Slow Down,” the first essay in the book’s final section, reminds poetry-lovers—perhaps, more broadly, anyone who loves writing, whatever the genre—of the primal, elementary and yet most enduring first lesson every writer learns: that we must slow down. McFee suggests that a poem to be written “needs to take its time, gather momentum and necessity, work its way toward words” and that a poem to be read requires “slow-motion reading, where you’re allowed to take your time and savor the text in depth, its sounds, its movement, its concentrated and implicit nature,” as if it were a delicious meal or good drink—something to be savored or sipped, slowly. It’s no surprise that McFee—with his prolific publishing successes and illustrious teaching career, a diligent writer from a working-class family—would (should) include shimmering gems of advice for other writers, both young and old, about the work that words demand within the lines of these essays. Without sounding moralizing or pedantic, he humbly reminds his audience, and especially the writers among them, the gift that books provide: time collapsing, stretching, and humming in the background of the deep revelations that words can bring.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of McFee’s adoration for literature and dedication to writing lies in the first section of essays, a thoughtful sequence in which he breaks down the components of a book and examines them with care, patience, precision, and affection. McFee begins with the book’s physical body, its cover, and then delves into the minute details: the significance of the word “by,” a “durable little preposition,” and the excitement and power of its function as “a hinge between title and author”; the table of contents in which the book’s offerings are “laid out for the reader like a feast”; the acknowledgments, where “the author must pause to say grace, to give thanks for what we’re about to enjoy”; and even the blank pages in the front and back matter of a book, reminding the reader “that any volume is as much white space as words, as much silence as sound, as much inarticulate and essential breath as actual utterance.”
This opening section—along with the rest of the book’s odd-numbered sections that continue his musings on inscriptions, blurbs, manuscript, and more—resists any overly-meta intellectualizing it might suggest; instead, through brevity, poignant anecdotes, and playful metaphors, McFee reveals himself to be, as he says, a biblioptimist. Through his unabashed love for books, he reminds his readers of their simplicity and goodness—titles and authors’ names printed along spines on a dusty shelf, the musty smell of old pages and the sighing sounds of their turning, a stranger’s marginalia.
Appointed Rounds leaves readers with a topic familiar to every budding writer: immortality, the wistful desire for a writer’s words to outlive him or her, to remain intact on acid-free paper and ever-relevant through the passage of time and shifting modish of literary trends. The last essay echoes the book’s first words, “A book has a body,” in acknowledging the way its body might decay, “the ink that fades, the paper that yellows or crumbles or burns.” McFee’s consciousness of his own mortality is directly related to the mortality of his words—“Though a writer doesn’t count on it and can’t predict it, such immortality would be a surprise and a delight, a heaven to strive for, even if it may not exist.” By the book’s end, readers are reminded of the strengths that have made McFee such an enduring presence in the canon of Appalachian poets, a necessary voice in the chorus of contemporary Southern writers: with a style employing muscular language, lean sentences and humble observations of earthly particulars, McFee shares his quotidian, essential rounds; and in doing so, he reveals larger archetypal patterns, broad and intricate designs which connect his audience, everyone, anyone, to each other by illuminating the day-to-day routines that we forget to cherish.
Maria Isabelle Carlos is a poet from Columbia MO. Her work has appeared in The Collagist, Salamander, and elsewhere. She received her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently a M.F.A. candidate at Vanderbilt University and assistant editor of poetry and nonfiction for the Nashville Review.