If You Can Tell is composed of eight long poems in which McMichael takes up what it might mean that the Word was in the beginning, before which there may not have been "empty / space, / even, / nor the thought of it." A baby is conceived after a verbal exchange between his parents. He's born and learns to talk. Told that the grandfather he cherishes has died, he unknowingly silences any memory of the man. To his Sunday school class a few years later, he tells the lie that he himself was born in China. The boy grows up into a vexing faith. Though he expects his own death will be final, God is no less God to him in the life he's been given and must in time give back.
James McMichael is Professor Emeritus of English at University of California, Irvine. He is the author of several poetry collections, including Four Good Things (1980), The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (1996), and Capacity (2006), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His prose includes The Style of the Short Poem (1967) and a volume on James Joyce, Ulysses, and Justice (1991). McMichael’s honors include fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as a Whiting Foundation Writer’s Award, the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, the Academy of Arts and Letters Arthur O. Rense Prize, and the Poetry Society of America Shelley Memorial Prize.