Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts.
After a surreal prose prologue citing Twin Peaks, mynah birds and black box recorders, Speculatrix launches with a 25-page sequence of unrhymed, irregular ‘sonnets’. Fragmented, unpunctuated sentences offer a torrent of motifs – skulls, the plague, London, fire, violence, money, the body, detritus, destruction. Presented as monologues by characters from English Renaissance drama, they rest uneasily between eras, sporting anachronisms with pride. Each begins with a short, lucid prose summary of a narrative from, say, The Revenger’s Tragedy, or The Duchess of Malfi. These introductions then contrast with the scattergun voices that follow – characters from the plays transported into modern London, with its hedge-funders, business lunches and mobile phones.
A central concern of these ‘sonnets’ is mortality and decay: “This question that grínds the/ mind’s pumice : why has time this death lease?” (‘The Duchess of Malfi’). But the poems deny the reader clear narrative threads or symbolic patterns; the reading experience becomes a search for arresting phrases: “we come up for air in The Great Serotonin Comedown/ of 1622…” (‘The Changeling’); “…this city can lick figs I’ll gum its silks/ with cláy stuck full of black & melancholic worms” (‘The Alchemist’). An impression forms at times that the voices are teasing us by “speaking in tongues & tonguing in languages/ known only to us…” (‘Women Beware Women’).
McCabe loves lurking in the recesses of the city, where his visceral conviction fits his subject. He explores language as much as he offers political or emotional statement. A poem about 2011’s London riots is a verbal flight of fancy:
no bricks, no riots but acts, acts
of nights, skies made gold, flecked with bricks,
four acts, each act of words, electrics dead,
out, out – no dream is here, no dream is there.
Sez who? These are all my skies, we’ll make
red dreams and recognise it with my words,
train our dreams in latticed fields, catch the skies…
[‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’]
McCabe disturbingly combines the morbid and the vital:
mouths frost trenchfoot dentured in nettles, mouths
white slugs mangled by salt, mouths wombed navels in bombed-
out structures, mouths marbled fat minced new by silence,
mouths black cavities on SE1 railings, mouths boiled ox-tail served
with black larvae, mouths freaked organs lactating the crucifix
His fascination with the human body emphasises our groteseque humanity: “the lungs, crystal kebabs, atom clouds, little Hiroshimas,/ mortsafed with fabrics against the bodysnatch of the last collapsed/ breath.” (‘Lungs’). Sometimes his language arguably strains a little too hard into melodrama or jarring metaphor; but McCabe is deliberately testing the limits of his lines and the poems are never less than memorable and dramatic. Overall, these are complex, strange, boisterous and unsettling poems that refuse to allow the reader to relax.
Andre Bagoo’s second collection Burn challenges the reader in different ways. Its language is accessible, its sentences fluent; yet context is often obscured, narrative again evasive. With patience one approaches meanings, but perhaps not completely. The opening poem, ‘Burn’, is a case in point:
Time takes so long. I wait here, in a box that
closed itself, for your eyes to open. They are
come to rifle me, all two hundred and eighty-six
of them, brown as guinea owls. They mull me,
leave me bullet holes on smoke-white wall, spiral
sieve of my mind. I smell a pyre. I have been
on you all these dessicated centuries. Some
days I wake and cry with joy – the thought
of having no thought of you. Jet-lagged, I sleep
at wrong hours, wake in dark, out of sorts.
Like the fruit which, by burning, is now solid
forever, my walking thoughts, upturned
left as grave heads, left as seed.
An intriguing voice speaks – perhaps human, yet it has existed for “dessicated centuries”. The setting is playfully enigmatic: is that box literal, or figurative? The attentive relationship with the “you” figure (“I wait… for your eyes to open”) remains ambiguous – the speaker admits: “I wake and cry with joy – the thought / of having no thought of you.” Who are the “They” of which there are two hundred and eighty-six? Fearful of threat, even destruction (“They are/ come to rifle me”, “leave me bullet holes on a smoke-white wall”, “I smell a pyre”), the speaker is unsettled: “Jet-lagged, I sleep / at wrong hours, wake in dark, out of sorts.” The final image is paradoxical – the speaker is like a fruit that is “solid/ forever” despite burning, and representing two opposites – death (“grave heads”) and life (“seed”). The music and imagery here is striking, seductive. Individual lines conjure specific emotions; yet as a whole the poem tantalises cryptically.
Bagoo harnesses motifs of European culture – poems about Christian imagery, classical music (Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert), paintings (Caravaggio, Sir Charles Bell), and literature (a surreal sequence about Auden). Other poems are inspired by locations in Trinidad and Tobago, though physical setting is not always their priority – for example ‘Lady Young Road’, quoted in full:
Undo what has been done
And do what must be done
Around the corners bend
Let leaf mend a lost plane
A fascinating sequence (‘Christina Gardens I, II, III’) describes a neighbour – “Ms Ramsay… the dark lady” – who is the object of fascination (“Daddy woke us and told us, watch”) and sexual awakening:
I grabbed the hair of the dark lady who looked up
in August, from the rich sea-weed floor
and said, foaming, she was coming to kiss me.
[‘Christina Gardens II’]
Increasingly unsettled in mood (“He woke us and told us, watch./ For she was to eat his heart.”), the poem ends with desire for (self-)destruction: “For we would wake with yearning./ For days blasted by ruin.”
Bagoo’s understated music combines with striking imagery; subtle and various, he explores attachments, delusions, obsessions, hauntings, rituals, griefs and dreams.
Dorothy Lehane’s book Ephemeris fuses elements of physics, astronomy and personal relationships for an interesting chemical reaction. With verve and exuberance the poems leap register from line to line, revelling in their jolting effect; yet a playfulness surfaces, keeping the reader on the writer’s side. A supernova is a “worrying little striptease” (‘Supernova’), the phenomenon of a wormhole is a “mucky intestine trellis […] bankrupt umbilicus […] weeeeeeeee what a pivot” (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). A poem about Black Holes concludes “I am thinking of rhubarb –/ how rhubarb will destroy everything.” (‘Black Hole’)
One can enjoy parsing the apparent desultory randomness, searching for patterns. Take the prose poem ‘Vintage’, where a portrait of old age emerges:
White dwarfs encumbered by aged bodies. Here and now. Appellation Contrôlée; Reblochon, Pinot Noir, Yellowism. Core collapsing, barbituates in pillboxes; everything learnt into a compressed philosophy, blue menopause, diamond judgement, no one likes a jaunty soundtrack. Crystallised rue, dementia is luminous: look away if you want retinal survival, go cubic lattice, yes.
However in some poems the reader is faced with apparent linguistic mutiny; unifying themes do not always emerge.
The collection is dominated by poems taking stars, planets and moons as their ostensible subject – ‘Supernova’, ‘Keyhole (NGC1999)’, ‘Phobos’, ‘Crab Nebula’, ‘Coma Cluster’, ‘Moon’ etc. But Lehane isn’t interested in documenting the universe in a predictable way. In ‘NGC 7317 (Stephan’s Quintet)’, the named galaxy is a stepping off point for an improvisation on sibling rivalry and violence:
Limb by limb, legless, kiss me combatant, are we brothers or are we bastards, bystanding is a sin for the fey. Sneaky loggerheads, bitter-Sodom-whacked-out-Gomorrah, at each juncture criminal, how they audio prowl under your skin, hot-headed, surviving. Move out siblings, bystanders are the ones to watch; slitting throats as you sleep…
Lehane isn’t exactly capturing the beauty of the cosmos; but she is documenting its variousness, its disorder, and the variousness too of language and its problems:
Mimicry of the vastness,
think chime and parallel,
unstable universe, dyslexic cadence.
We are nothing if not fluxed…
One effect of her fragmentary technique is that personal narratives (griefs, disappointments, the struggle to connect) aren’t allowed to settle. Lehane is interested in the questions raised by her aesthetic. In two poems (‘Pulsar’ and ‘Reader’) there are deliberate notes of self-doubt –
maybe you’d prefer post mortems…
not this clarion stunt dr. persona,
who will validate by science
this pointless manifest…
there is no room
left for me
left for My witness to all this
My pulse is dulled
my pulse is in the margins
carried or thrown
from person to person and this person-act
Sometimes it feels like the poems’ chemical reactions are still in process and the results haven’t always had time to crystallise distinctly. But Lehane’s language is frequently startling, and the impact of these poems is in their remarkable style.
Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix is published by Penned in the Margins, 2014, £9.99
Andre Bagoo’s Burn is published by Shearsman Books, 2015, £8.95
Dorothy Lehane’s Ephemeris is published by Nine Arches Press, 2015, £8.99
Michael Loveday’s debut pamphlet of poems, He Said / She Said, is published by HappenStance Press (2011). He also writes short stories and flash fiction. He lives in Hertfordshire and teaches in adult education.