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Falling Body
February 2009

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March 2015

The MiddleMan

David Cavanagh

ISBN: 1 903392 31 4

Page Count: 64

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Click to play audio David Cavanagh reads "For Agnes Mary" from The Mid... play
Click to play audio David Cavanagh reads "It's So Much Like Missiles" ... play

About this Book

The poems in The Middleman refuse to take sides, or rather, they insist on taking all sides. Writing from the United States with a Canadian background and Irish ancestry, Cavanagh straddles a number of borders. With deft language and a compassionate voice, his poems explore complex territories of love, family, work, and nationality through the lens of personal history. They seek lost connections from a Montreal childhood, a funeral procession in Cork, or a walk with a lover among wildflowers in Vermont. Always there is yearning for meaning. And usually it's the subtle, middle ground between extremes that seems most fertile.

These poems suggest that in the search for sensuous understanding lies a saving beauty and vitality. Baffled by contradictions, the middleman of the title poem finds himself ...

...right where I have to be...high
on my own thin wire, gamely stringing myself

along, half wanting to look down, half blinded
by midday glare, stretching for who knows where.

Author Biography

Born and raised in Montreal, David Cavanagh has also lived in Ontario and now in Vermont, where he works as an associate dean at Johnson State College. His poems have appeared in journals, chapbooks, and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, and Ireland. The Middleman is his first full-length collection.  His second collection, Falling Body, was published by Salmon in 2009.

Read a sample from this book

Montreal Blues

I come from disappointed people.
Mowers of late autumn lawns,

pushed-mowed and cross-cut into squares,
the cut grass caught in a canvas hook-on

emptied over and over into battered trash cans.
I come from ironers of underwear,

a people who stretched wool socks by the dozen
on wooden frames hung from basement pipes,

a father who spent forty-two years
hating a job to feed us, which he did;

his first job tearing used carbons all night
1934 long to reinsert into blank order pads

for use by busy sellers all the bright next day;
his last job filling blank order pads 1976

with thousand-dollar sales and taking crap
because he couldn't learn French in a city

full of chic he could no longer understand,
though he was proud of this Montroyal,

showed visitors its sights and history
like a parent holding out photos of a child

who somehow has outgrown and now ignores him.


Seven Days, November 05-12 2003. Review by Margot Harrison.

On the cover of Burlington resident David Cavanagh's first collection of poems is an image of Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the famous circus family, who once said, "Life happens on the wire. Everything else is just waiting." Walking the tightrope far above a gaping crowd, Wallenda gives a second, more provocative meaning to the work's title. Is the "middleman" a dull non-entity through whom life's transactions pass: a middling man? Or is he a man who, by walking the wire between extremes, ends up right in the center of the action?

In the talk-radio culture of polarized opinions, the "middle way" often gets a bad rap. What is moderation, some might ask, if not a cop-out, an abnegation of the quest for moral clarity? But the speaker of Cavanagh's poems hasn't abnegated anything; he's still struggling with difficult truths.

The speaker in the title poem "hover[s] between comfort and terror," high on his imaginary wire. What inspires this vertigo? The poem evokes a culture of repellent extremes: "pumped-up media sex,/ the smother love of stuff... or else the cold bare/ locker of denial."

But these aren't the only abysses Cavanagh's poems navigate. There are the borders within and between nations -- Cavanagh was raised in Montreal. There are the gaps that open between lovers. And, on a more elemental level, there is the wire we must all try to walk as gracefully as we can between youth and old age, the prime of life and its slow decline.

Cavanagh's meditations on death lead him toward larger and more affirmative statements, both political and personal. In "It's So Much Like Missiles," written at the height of the 1980s "evil empire" rhetoric, the two merge. The missiles are a "message" from one nation to another that wipes out the possibility of future communication, much as a careless silence between friends or family members is bound to lapse, sooner or later, into the unbreakable silence of death.

Cavanagh never stops reminding us that dying is part and parcel of living, a part that becomes distressingly evident as we age. "[Y]ou are 28 and suddenly/ your life has bounds..." he writes in "And." Many of these poems could be accurately characterized as "midlife crisis" literature. It's a genre prone to navel gazing, but Cavanagh manages to keep his introspections out of the morass of self-absorption, leavening them with bold imagery, colloquial language and stinging humour.

The poet is at his best when he uses an ironic, ornery voice to express the dilemmas of the "middleman." "Call It," the wonderful first poem that opens the collection, runs through a catalogue of fashionable designations for "the midlife thing", each more darkly satirical than the last, before becoming deadly serious. "Or if you can get past the LLBeanness of it all, the Oprah and Regis of it,/ if you can get past the self-help book/ (I'm a Shithead, You're a Shithead),/ call it not wanting ever to die."

The poem is a dark night of the soul, mordant and nihilistic as Philip Larkin's "Aubade," yet its flood of language and its quick-witted cultural references are strangely invigorating.

The same is true of "Mr. Anderson Is Alive and Must Get Used to It," a series of fractured sonnets that seems to stage the age-old dialogue between the Poet and the People -- or perhaps between the poet and himself. Like many poets, Mr. Anderson craves solitude to muse on evanescent beauties and the passage of time. But the larger work demands positive action, as a disruptive voice, identified only as a "working stiff," reminds him: "It's a duck-out, Mr. A., this settling, this crawl." Mr. A., resolutely cynical when he isn't lost in dreams, is having none of it: "Find meaning in each day?/ Your problem, buster, not mine."

In these and other poems, Cavanagh never forgets that the poet/middleman also walks a wire between the world of poets past and present and that of "working stiffs" who may not expect a poet to speak to their concerns. There's no preaching about the oppressed or the silenced here, but there are quiet tributes to those whose labour has done little to enrich their lives -- summed up in the caustically funny allegory "The Drone." And there's one spooky poem in which a recalcitrant student addresses an English teacher: "the truth is/ i don't wanna talk/ like you/ .../ my language/ only is this tearing stretch of my/ events against the telling."

These poems suggest that the student's sense of a "tearing stretch" between opposing forces is also the poet's experience -- the line that all "middlemen" walk between silence and ambient cultural noise, trying in their own faltering ways to express the truth. It's a high-wire act at which Cavanagh succeeds.

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