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Read backwards, AND is DNA and the ‘Poems 1970 – 2017’ are encoded with Mackmin’s life – its loves and losses, which are explored with frank honesty. Mackmin is at the helm of the excellent poetry magazine, The Rialto, which he founded in 1984, so he has long experience of the poetry world, and this collection with its black tombstone-like cover feels like a summing up. Mortality and the death of love – or at least the insubstantiality of love – inform these intimate poems.
Many occupy the wee hours, when, “They say of the light at this hour/it is failing” (‘January’), and difficult truths emerge. Poems have a chiaroscuro palette and the adjective ‘pale’ becomes a linking trope to describe the moon and the love object, with its suggestion of pallor as seductive and otherworldly.
Pale but not the moon, not that
white firework glitter and spark
in a blue night: pale like her breast
(‘A First Meeting’)
Is her face pale, or pale because she has
some skill in pallor? Some ungent, some
In ‘Tom Grix Is Dead’, the protagonist walks with a mysterious woman who disappears, and we learn, “It was a woman ghost he saw.”
Woman is muse, mistress, wife and ultimately unreliable. We are in The White Goddess territory. If the subject matter is age-old, Mackmin is a self-consciously aware poet. From ‘Salt’:
After the years of therapy
I still rage on.
Best friend stole my woman is
a good old Country song.
Mackmin’s attempt to recreate the lived experience with qualifying, self-corrective diction is an honest lie. These are poems that have been worked on and crafted, so you will either be seduced by the parentheses and restatements for their thought-in-process effect or find it intrusive.
“In the middle of the night – well, 3 am – and dark.” (‘Kindness Encounters An Absence of Kindness’) is just one example.
Time is measured by hair length rather than clocks. “Time is all at once. I am still being born/
still dying, still seeing her untie her yellow hair” (‘Salt’) “She teaches him, brings out/his eye for colour and line, is/growing back her hair after/the affair.” (‘January’)
Like ‘pale’, ‘hair’ is a connecting trope; and sometimes the two commune to underscore how love ensnares time. In ‘Coltishall River’, the poet drives past his ex in a boat, rendering the fleeting glimpse eternal in the poem. “she is smiling, she is talking to someone, her hair/ (fair, golden, same pale colour) is/ beginning to push loose from the pins.”
Mackmin doesn’t try to disguise warts, even if it leads to ugly expression: “Distress sweats on her nose” (‘A Legend’) and is prepared to risk writing a deliberately bad poem to exemplify how a poem can fail (‘This Poem Explains’). Risk-taking and range are a testament to Mackmin’s experience and confidence. He could have filled AND with nature poems because he is adept at memorable images conveying the natural world (the poems in ‘From: A Diary’ are such exquisite observations) but he refuses to be shackled by his forte.
I had already read Sasha Dugdale’s Joy before being asked to review, and it was with pleasure that I re-engaged with a critical rather than a reader’s eye. A mental stocktake of what resonated revealed the risk that the opening dramatic poem, ‘Joy’ takes centre stage, but like codas, the poems that follow, play upon and round out themes of absence, identity and war in ‘Joy’.
‘Joy’ is an exceptional poem which won the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Blurring the distinction between drama and poetry, it explores Catherine Blake’s mental state as a recent widow of poet and painter William, who “made my terrible widowing his life’s business.” It begins with the stage direction, ‘A dark stage’ reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s preoccupation with lighting in his plays; ‘All That Fall’ with its description as, “a text written to come out of the dark”; and Krapp’s Last Tape, where Krapp works under “a strong white light” but the rest of the stage is in darkness. Dugdale’s extensive use of pauses provokes Pinteresque comparisons, and knowing how Beckett influenced Harold Pinter, there is an undoubted sense of theatrical lineage in this poem, as well as Blakean imagery to create a profound psychological exploration of absence and identity.
The main action has taken place offstage before ‘Joy’ begins: the death of the famous partner whose demise destroys the trifold identity of helper/muse/lover. The aftermath is the territory of psycho-drama.
Catherine grapples in the dark to discover a new self, struggling free of passive identities in a painful re-birth. (“How I ache” is a repeated refrain.) Metaphor breaks open meaning, and we find further theatrical echoes: Chekhov’s The Seagull where Nina (an actress playing an actress) famously uses metaphor to try to reconnect with her artistic essence: “I am a sea-gull – no – no, this is not what I meant to say.”
Similarly, Catherine’s repeated question, “Who am I? Who am I?” finds a response in metaphor.
A nothing left in darkness yet I am an identity.
But no one metaphor will suffice, and each reveals another facet of her struggle towards self-realisation: “I am suddenness./ I am the noise of cutting cloth so the remnant falls into a shivering heap./ I am colour in reverse and poetry backwards.”
At the conclusion, Catherine and the reader can ‘see’ – a vision of Catherine’s true worth as an artist whose work and life were indivisible from William’s is established.
There was a song and he sung it but I sung it better.
War is the wings of ‘Joy’ (“Yet all about us/war drifted from year to year like the seeds of weeds in autumn”) and it worms its way through several poems. In ‘The Ballad of Mabel’, her abusive brother “says he saw the Crimea”; and there is the threat of “sudden wars” in ‘Valentine’s’ a beautifully rhymed sonnet made more poignant for its disturbing content. Flanders Fields are evoked in ‘Tonight I thought of you…’ with images of “a buzzard’s wing”; “The poppies and the briar rose” and “The bodies lying there are beyond strange/ Like angels glaring through one peacock eye.”
Domestic poems are also alive with death: ‘Cutting Apples’ is a fine meditation on absence; and ‘Ironing the Spider’ – recalls a small act of inadvertent violence which leads to thoughts of railway victims “maimed by trains.” Other poems examine the disorientation at being deserted, whether through quest (‘The Canoe’) or war and death (‘Days’; ‘The Daughter of a Widow’). Dugdale’s skill at form is directed at containing the uncontainable – death and absence – which allows us to handle them, like examining insects trapped in amber.
Let me start by saying I enjoyed Jenna Clake’s Fortune Cookie for its faultless execution. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had not been so faultlessly executed. Clake has a fine sense of the absurd and her debut collection won The Melita Hume Prize 2016 for its originality, humour and poignancy. My concern is the apparent pressure at the moment on young poets, and perhaps all poets, to ‘become known for one thing’ – whether that is an aspect of their identity or a style. Whereas Mackmin and Dugdale are free to write collections that veer, explore, and possibly risk disrupting the reader’s expectations, Clake’s collection relentlessly mines a vein of gold: absurdism. It is interesting to speculate on what direction she will choose to take for her second collection, because she is a talented poet, but there is no hint of where she may go next.
Clake’s poems have an obsessive quality, which heightens the absurdism. ‘CBSO’, which reads like a bad case of poetic OCD, lists 37 variations of the initialism for City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by simply, yet radically changing what the ‘C’ stands for to create a pile-up of surreal images. “Cabbage Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where attendees are/forced to eat their greens” etc. Individually they are funny, but by the 37th: “Cushion Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where you are invited to fall asleep”, the cumulative effect is to render the reader anxious. Many of the poems have this effect, often through rebuffing white space, and space to give relief from the build. ‘Mandy and Me’, which opens the collection, takes each of its 22 lines to the edge of the right margin. The powerful build is used to heighten tension or directed for masterful comic effect as in ‘Pink Grapefruit’ where the end line gives the relief of laughter. It would be pointless to reveal the pay-off in this review, because taken on their own the end lines are not humorous – they rely on Clake’s expert technique of build and relief.
Often the poems’ visual effect is to demand a wide-eyed stare to take in blocks of text, which can feel exhausting, although it works particularly well in ‘The Workshop’, which explores insomnia in a hallucinatory world populated by Sleepers, Dreamers and Nightmares.
Dystopias, dysfunctional relationships and the difficulty of day-to-day living are given an ingeniously fresh perspective. You won’t be lulled, but you will laugh.
Lisa Kelly is the Chair of Magma. A selection of her poems appear in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII.
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