We’ve all heard of brain food, and the debut book of poems from Kevin McFadden, associate program director of the Virginia Festival of the Book, is a full-course meal for the gray matter. One of a handful of books in the new Virginia Quarterly Review Poetry Series, Hardscrabble offers pun after home-cooked pun, and the result is a satisfying saturation.

Informally divided into three courses by a 28-page riff of a prose poem, Hardscrabble wrings us through a whiplash-quick examination of language in all its elements—sound, structure and sense—and leaves us full and reeling. And, like many a delicious home-cooked meal, the main course is so rich in texture we can almost forgive the way it makes our middles sag.

The brief opening poem, “Is”—“…written this way / to almost resemble // us: / half- straight, / half-sinuous”—demonstrates that in language, as in most things, form follows function. McFadden’s theme needs some re-imagining—language as a sort of meter stick for America’s progress—so he cooks up new forms, building many of his poems anagrammatically, a feat in and of itself, off of single lines grafted from the likes of Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg, and out of a specific American poetic tradition.

Unlike many contemporary poets, it is through McFadden’s work and wit, rather than a spirit of personal revelation, that we are able to savor these poems. Each pun, each word-transforming triumph, is another bead of sweat on the poet’s brow; his delivery is self-conscious, and many of the poems end with the Emeril-like “Bam!” of a well-delivered punch line.

Still, Hardscrabble isn’t nearly all cooking chemistry and chaos. The delightful gem in McFadden’s cheeky prowess is his connoisseur’s commitment to meaning. He writes, “Between here and there is a t. It astounds no one—nearly. It might astound me.” Hardscrabble’s gift, its real richness, is not its wordplay but its continued wonderment at the complexity and evolution of the English language and of the country that shapes it, the country it continues to shape.

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