What Must Happen
What Must Happen is not as positive as it sounds: things and people go nowhere or break up or become nothing. The appearance of the negative on seemingly every page of Jeffrey Wainwright’s fifth collection is, as the title poem says, designed to examine ‘What must happen’ in relation to ‘what need not’. The final stanza of the final poem sums it up with a poet’s note to self:
In fact, dream not, wish not, obviously
believe not. Abandon even the promenade.
As the sea turns itself, strive to imagine
nothing that would stir or stand.
The chorus of nots, nos and nothings echoes through grammatical constructions that turn positives to negatives and vice versa, as in “What is there to an empty street / that you will not let it go?” (‘An Empty Street’, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2014). The reader, like the narrating voice, is borne through the book on a cortege of gaps:
I’m feeling carried along –
will nothing pause?
Can nothing arrest itself?
Can no one see this passing?
Such rhetorical negatives perforate the short elegiac lyrics and turn the many long historical sequences to lace:
What is there to an empty street?
But I am drawn to it,
indeed I fall upon it,
it saves me
from looking elsewhere,
saves me from knowledge.
(‘An Empty Street’)
Call this the usual poeticizing of long-gone history or be as stoical as the book title or accept that Jeffrey Wainwright is an older poet and expected to deal with age etc. Meanwhile you are ever so gently holed up in a murky neverland. That’s a brave position for a contemporary poetry book to take. It risks dreariness and is only saved here by the cutwork delicacy of the lines. ‘Sunday Afternoon’, a love poem, shows an already struggling Chapel goer stripped down to the self-abnegation of homelessness, from the first line “Will Heath, never good on his feet” to the final despairing challenge of Will’s lover:
And then I would ask that you take me and show me
the dwelling of such selflessness and unassuming,
and this Lord that you have made.
The next-to-last poem, a sequence ironically titled ‘The Immortals’, reveals the facts: you’re going nowhere. The future itself is up for consideration. Jupiter is an old man in a pub: “You’re the sky no longer and cannot show us round. / Just don’t do that little dance, Dad.” Do it, Dad, I’m urging hopelessly. What Must Happen, a title without a question mark, is a suite of dirges for the dead.
You can read more reviews by Claire Crowther – of Melissa Lee-Houghton’s ‘Sunshine’ and MacGillivray’s ‘The Nine of Diamonds’ – in Magma 67. Copies can be purchased here: https://magmapoetry.com/buy-magma/