Mysteries in a World That Thinks There Are None by Gary McDowell

Mysteries in a World that Thinks There Are None
Gary McDowell
April 2016
Portland, OR
Burnside Review Press
104 pages
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The first thing I did after reading Mysteries in a World That Thinks There are None was look up works by Eric Fischl. I had not been acquainted with his work before and McDowell refers to him regularly in his poems. After an Internet gallery stroll, I felt like I’d been touring a family photo album, yet embedded in its snapshots were overlays of the human unconscious brought to light, filling it sometimes with violence and sexual innuendo that the eyes don’t often see in pictures reminiscent of a vacation slide show.

I felt a connection between Fischl’s work and McDowell’s. McDowell’s poems also depict the poignantly normal things of many middle-class American householdsmarriage, kids, pets, vacationsbut as I read closer I experienced the overlay, similar to Fischl’s paintings. They tell also of the subconscious drives and actions of day-to-day life, which are sometimes a ubiquitous mystery, sometimes full of the kind of ache and discomfort a person wants to look away from, and sometimes full of so much pain and loss.  

When I read McDowell’s work, I experienced feelings in me that had nowhere else to go so they settled on the poems. The poems both stirred and mediated my uncertainty. Do I relate with his experience? Do I agree? Or is it not up to me at all? Are these words just so raw that I don’t get to pick my truth apart from anyone else’s even if I want to?


“I must repent for this summer I’ve spent beyond creatures,

for the mysteries I’ve seen in a world


that thinks there are none, a world where we’ve named things

garage, fence, robin, poem  so that we can feel


something when we destroy them.” (73)


I was drawn in continually by McDowell’s use of language and story.  My favorite poem, if I could pick one, was "Simple Objects," which illustrates the daily practice of folding origami and includes a confession of not knowing how to fold a paper airplane.


“My palms trained to ghost what they held,

my knuckles trained to resist showing strain,

to forgive what pushed against them,

and still I couldn’t crease paper into unnatural shapes,

Into folded flying machines.

It wasn’t about strength, but misdirection,

which takes a lifetime to master.” (82)


Some early poems in this book ask questions: “What do animals call themselves amongst themselves? What do they call us?”;  “What makes soap lather? What makes us fall out of love? With ourselves. With each other.” (p15) They speak more of youth and wonder and heartache, reverie and philosophy.  

Then the energy of his expression seems to speed up and deepen at once in Chapter 3 with titles spawning from the preceding poems: "The Summer with Fischl" speaks of repenting, "Repent" speaks of obsession, and "Dear Obsessions" tells us “obsession begins and ends with questions” (79).  And on the final page I am left with my own questions: How do beauty and suffering exist so closely, without warfare between them? How and why do we survive this paradox? A mystery, I suppose, in a world that thinks there are none.

Cori Coccia
Nomadic Press
Coccia is an educator, kite-flier, beachcomber, belly laughter, adventurer, and lucid dreamer. Sometimes she writes it down. Her vocational endeavors can be found here: