Full Title: “In These New Essays, John McPhee Finds Poetry in the Material at Hand (via New York Times)”
Here is the seventh collection of essays by John McPhee, his 33rd book and perhaps his eleventy-billionth word of published prose. This far into a prolific career, it may be a good time to finally unmask the 87-year-old as a one-trick pony. In “The Patch,” he again shamelessly employs his go-to strategy: crafting sentences so energetic and structurally sound that he can introduce apparently unappealing subjects, even ones that look to be encased in a cruddy veneer of boringness, and persuade us to care about them. He’s been working this angle since the 1950s; it’s a good thing we’re finally onto him now.
Reading McPhee’s back catalog prompts uncomfortable questions, like “Why am I suddenly compelled to know more about plate tectonics or the engine rooms of the merchant marine?” In “The Patch,” it’s “Why am I suddenly invested in McPhee’s quest to pluck golf balls from local rivers using a telescoping rod called an Orange Trapper?”
At this stage in life, McPhee is no longer writing stories that take him hiking with blistered feet through the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and when he canoes, he paddles through “The Patch” of the title essay aware of his so far “uneroded” balance. He mentions cycling, but his exercise still seems to derive from sentence construction, prying out lazy words, rummaging through dictionaries and wringing suspense from unlikely moments, as when he extends his Orange Trapper. It “quivers, wandlike.” He reaches and reaches and finally snatches up a golf ball before fleeing the approaching greenskeeper “at a speed so blazing that I probably could not duplicate it if I were to try now, but that was years ago, when I was 80.”
McPhee finds surprising poetry in the material at hand, as in his list of found golf balls emblazoned with the names of mutual funds; the shanked Titleists of the 1 percent sink into his beloved Merrimack, Delaware and Connecticut Rivers. The Northeast has changed and is always changing, from the rivers to the pine forests to the earth’s crust below. Nature, in McPhee’s journalism, can only be preserved until it’s threatened again.