Review of Michael Mackmin, Twenty-Three Poems (HappenStance), Emma Lew, Anything the Landlord Touches (Shearsman), Claire Crowther, Stretch of Closures (Shearsman)
What does Michael Mackmin do, when he isn’t editing The Rialto? Well, on his own admission, he doesn’t spend all his time writing: ‘When I’m not working I’m editing the Rialto and when I’m not doing that I’m walking about bird watching and looking for God, so my poems have to squeeze themselves in when they can.’ Twenty-Three Poems is Michael Mackmin’s first pamphlet since Connemara Shore published in 1978. That’s less than a poem a year. They were worth the wait. Twenty-Three Poems sounds like a ‘can’t be bothered to think of a title’ kind of title, but in fact it’s exactly right because it gives equal weight to the poems, and each poem feels substantial, larger than life; it’s the kind of book that demands to be read slowly. ‘The Composer’ has the line ‘Without a fierce joy we lack any / raison d’être’ and ‘fierce joy’ is characteristic of the poems. This is from ‘Family Life’: ‘In the beginning time, when the father / came home from work drunk and full of blood, / the mother hid the babies. / Me she hid in a carcase. I was sewn / into a dead horse at the back of the house – / which is why, now, I gag opening the cat food tins.’ The poems don’t flinch. It’s difficult to quote from them because the effect is cumulative, but this is the last section of ‘Salt’:
‘So earnest, so sincere in their adultery,
keen to explain, be sure I understood,
consulting the Ching, the Tarot,
such nice people, such sophists.
The splinter festers, boils up in pus.
I want to be free, I am on my knees,
Lord, banging the pin back in my heart.
After the years of therapy
I still rage on
Best friend stole my woman is
a good old Country song.’
There is a sense of living on the edge; characters have the stature and weight that they have in ballads or folk tales (or old country songs). ‘A Lean Year’ describes a baby being rescued from a shipwreck:
‘No jubilation. Another mouth to feed
and this is a lean year.
But the boy now, his face turned windward,
begins suddenly, prompted by what strange
thought he never, years after, ever makes out,
begins to sing. Women step to hush him but
the one carrying the lantern says, ‘No, let him sing
let his song go up for all of us, let him sing.’
This pamphlet is only three quid. Unbelievable. What are you waiting for.
A number of Emma Lew’s poems are assembled, decontexutalised, allowing meanings to seep through the space between the lines. Even the more narrative poems can give a sense of being put together line by line, due to the lack of enjambment: ‘So, on the heels of the army, our troupe moved. / I gave birth in the street and night nailed the great city to the earth. / I saw the plague stalking like a stranger whose language I could not understand’ (‘Snow and Gold’). There is also the impression that language can barely express what the poem is trying to say: ‘I don’t know the language of this country. It begins in mists’(‘Marshes’); ‘as if to craft the twilight into some tangible form’ (‘Particulars’); ‘I can’t help thinking / through the medium of other people’s / words’ (Beloved Jug of Cream). The poems also give the impression that something momentous has just happened or is about to happen. Suddenly, in a poem, there will be a line or two that suddenly give the whole a new focus, or a new direction, even if that direction is hard to pin down: ‘and earth groans under its weight of mice’ (‘Sinking Song’); ‘What if they had come / and started rifling through our things, / and found silhouettes?’ (‘The Stopping Place’); ‘I had no idea the dead were so heavy’ (‘The True Dark Town’)’. There are also poems with a more earthy sense of menace, as in ‘Prey’, where apparently ordinary lines carry unexpected weight in the midst of chilling confession: ‘[I] killed a young bride, inconclusively / It’s sad, but I don’t live there any more’. These poems are not straightforward; they vary in intensity, and they make demands on the reader. They are poems to spend time with: intriguing, evocative, occasionally thrilling.
Claire Crowther uses an epigraph from George Oppen for her poem ‘Shine’: ‘…all in our apartments, / The world untended to, unwatched.’ Reading this collection is like coming out into sunlight after spending too long indoors; the poems have the capacity to astonish. ‘Foreigners and Lecce’, for example, ends: ‘An outburst / of autumn birds, like rust // or falling oranges / in a courtyard. Now / something asleep in us / is blown like glass’. The poems draw you in: ‘Once I had a motorway of hair’ (‘Moods’); ‘In the home of the naked, glass is queen’ (‘Nudists’); ‘His balls hang over the scarred enamel / of the claw foot tub’ (‘Firework’). The language is peculiarly alive; the poems are set very much in this world, and they celebrate it: ‘Now our shine / like lesser stars has darkened, we can identify / lesser things that shine, vitreous, resinous, splendent, / anything adamantine – cars like water droplets / splashed on the hot bypass, boats like tiny stones skimming / the marina, spots of tarmac lustre’ (‘Shine’). ‘Forthcoming Titles’, the final poem in the collection, has the panache of Paul Violi: ‘untitled / words selected randomly each day from an original brief to create / a wallhung definition of death / Titled: Definition of Death /…/ untitled / constant-play video recording of the artist in conversation, / constructed wholly of phrases used by dying celebrities, with an / unnamed friend / Titled: / I Shall Make an Attempt to Fill the Void’. This is an ambitious and excellent first collection. It sold out after the launch, apparently, and had to be reprinted. I’m not surprised.
Published in The North 40, 2007