ON FOOT, IN FLAMES
Robert McDowell
University of Pittsburgh Press.
$12.95, 96 pages

Narrative poetry in Western Culture begins with Homer, an enigmatic, quasi-historical bard, a singer, who may have been born on the Aegean island of Chios sometime during the 9th Century BC.; or he may have trekked to Greece from a birthplace in Asia Minor. We do know that written versions of the two masterpieces attributed to him, "The Iliad," and "The Odyssey," appeared around the 6th Century AD. In subsequent centuries, powerful narratives, such as Dante’s "The Divine Comedy," Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales," and Milton’s "Paradise Lost," were cast directly on to paper. In our own time, although most literary storytelling has been subsumed by novels, narrative poetry continues to thrive. One of its most avid practitioners is Robert McDowell.

McDowell was born in California in 1953. He attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, then earned an M.F.A. at Columbia University in New York City. Returning west, the young poet spent a year in the desert working out his approach to writing, followed by six years of teaching at Indiana State University at Evansville. During the mid-1980s, McDowell moved to a small farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he and his wife founded Story Line Press.

"On Foot, In Flames," his third book poems, is a collection of short narratives filled out with a few sizeable ones, the most notable of which is "The Pact." The story of a farmer cuckolded by his wife, "The Pact" begins at a point just before John-Allen must decide whether to send his wife away—she’s already packed--, or try to continue their life together.
Next we briefly meet the young man with whom Sarah had an affair. Paranoid, "wired on truck stop coffee," he drives to the farm., where he "knelt by the tractor, picking apart an owl pellet. A starling’s indigestible beak and bones / Repulsed and fascinated him." McDowell wishes the boy had made "the difficult connection" that "all stains are beautiful, sure signs / That life has happened," instead of hanging himself.

Found by the farmer and his wife, they don’t report the death, but bury the body, claiming the boy was so unimportant to his mother and the community that he wouldn’t be missed! (McDowell glosses over this, as he does the wife’s explanation for the affair: "I felt—I don’t mean to sting you / By saying this—as if I were on vacation, / As if we were taking a break from all this…life / We’ve put together.")

In the end, which is also the beginning, husband and wife hold on to each other, conspirators now, while

                                       Outside the sky was calm above the farm,
                                       Though to the north the rain had turned to hail.

Although McDowell has a talent for creating moods that unerringly project the landscape, his technique of sketching characters and incidences often precludes the depth they deserve. One can say that this book is an epic of moments. But there are pleasures; there are accomplishments.

The Oregonian 2002