Tag Archives: Richie McCaffery

“There will be killing: just done differently”

Mesopotamia, Damian Smyth, Templar Poetry 2014, £10.00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Mesoptamia_Damien_Smyth

The scale and historical sweep of this collection, from ancient history to the violence of the Troubles, reminded me most of Hamish Henderson’s WW2 sequence Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. The tone of Smyth’s poems too shares something of the coolness and rhetoric of Henderson’s elegies which melded a modern mechanised war with the death cults of ancient civilisations. Smyth seems to be doing something similar here, in ‘On the Inscriptions at Van’ where a mummy is shipped over to a museum in Ireland in the mid 1900’s:

For all her enchantments,
her name and her prayers
and disappointing tattoos
like some drowned sailor,

I might have seen her,
bony and wasted,
her womb and heart raided
in the Down infirmary.

Poetry such as this is not to be entered into lightly for entertainment’s sake alone, it often offers a didactic and, at its best, transformative experience. These poems surround the reader with the presence of the past and the immediacy of ancient and recent strife and the triumph of poetry in a war-zone which is so antipathetic to its creation in the first place. Now and again I heard echoes of Geoffrey Hill in these poems, often in taking a simple image and making it new by cloaking it in unusual diction: “an engine’s rough berceuse” in the poem ‘Obituary’, for instance.

Reading these poems, I have no doubts about the serious intentions of Smyth as an artist, but I kept feeling that some of his imagery was just a little bit too easy and kitchen-sink, such as “Downpatrick weather. Mist over the swamp / grey as widows’ washing strung on a hedge”. I can picture this image well, but I cannot believe in it. This is the same when the pained cries of a heifer with a broken back are compared to the noise of “dishevelled wind instruments” – a striking image, for sure, but not up the task in terms of intensity and like the image of the girl killed in a car-crash “found pressed to the windscreen like a starfish”. Other times Smyth often re-uses tropes such as the “asterisks” of spilled blood or comparing (as George Mackay Brown did) gravestones to boat sails. That said, these poems now and again scintillate with an unexpected image, as in the title poem where:

(…) For a moment along the River Quoile the beeches
are so big in autumn, so blown, they are like high-rise buildings
with all the lights on (…)

Mesopotamia is a richly layered and researched collection, it even contains a bibliography and list of further reading, which shows something of the edifying aspects of Smyth’s poetry. Scottish poet Alan Riach has recently argued that the arts “teach us how to live” and Smyth’s poems seem to offer case-studies on ways in which lives have been lived and wasted, hinting all the time at how they can be bettered. Hamish Henderson in his sequence spends a lot of time arguing that we put so much of “our human iron” into fighting and pursuing death and the subtext to Mesopotamia is the life and times of Orientalist Rev. Edward Hincks who spent much of his life trying to decipher the hieroglyphs of a culture that spent its time and energy on war and death. Smyth positions himself well to chronicle vanishing eras of social and national history, but his poetry refuses to offer any simple or glib answers on the nature of how we live, engage with other cultures and protect our notions of ‘home’:

It’s more a new exhaustion borne from peace
which must be endured; this trope; the pretence
that when violence subsides there is ease
and plenty, just reward for innocence.

(…)
There will be killing: just done differently
and more slowly and by a different name.

[‘Lapis Lazuli’]

Richie McCaffery
http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/cairn.html

“now I am becoming my own tree”

The Moon Before Morning, W. S. Merwin, Bloodaxe 2014, £12-00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

9 x 6in wraparound 128pp
I could waste a lot of words reiterating how important and distinguished an American poet Merwin is, but instead will let his reputation speak for itself. This latest collection, The Moon Before Morning, contains some of the most luminous poems I’ve read for a while, but I feel, at four sections, this collection is over-long. Sections II and III contain the kernel of the collection, with some of the most memorable poems lodged here. Section I concerns poems of gardens, looking out of windows, ‘fronds’ in nearly every poem – these mark time and its passing. These poems are acts of intense scrutiny of the outside world, but from the stance of an old man pottering around his garden. As good as these are, I’d say this section could have been weeded down to a few poems which mark the poet’s old age and his present position in the world. That said, ‘Footholds’ speaks most powerfully about the evanescence of human actions and activities in the landscape:

Where I dug the logs into the rise
to make the steps along the valley
I forget how many years ago
their wood has dissolved completely now
(…)
yet I set my feet down in the same
places I did when the steps were there
(…)
Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley this morning

In Section II Merwin moves into more biographical and narrative modes, often delving into his childhood. In ‘Green Fence’, there is a fence built by the speaker’s father to protect the young son from the imagined baleful influences of the outside world. This fence, however, does not preserve anything but instead segregates and alienates the boy from people outside it. In similar terrain as ‘Footholds’ ‘Cancellation’ shows how all of the buildings which helped educate or form the boy who became the man are now demolished and yet:

(…) I still know
the way to it
down the avenue and across
and I carry with me the stories
weightless as shadows
of its cold walls

In ‘Relics’ we discover that before the speaker even knew the word ‘obsolete’ he loved the neglected, the derelict and decrepit, the broken-down, the rusty, and the spectral places brought to life in the poems quoted above. The recurring idea of the interstitial, nether world is most wittily explored in ‘Neither Here nor There’. Here, and in ‘Convenience’ Merwin casts a critical and penetrating eye over America’s love of soulless commercial spaces. ‘Convenience’ verges on the preachy for its itemisations of all that has been lost to erect concrete temples to our ‘convenience’, but ‘Neither Here nor There’ seems to perfectly distil the ethos of the airport:

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there

(…)

you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air
(…)

Similarly in ‘The Latest Thing’ the songs of birds are forgotten in cities because the cities themselves are ‘made of absences’. In Section III we get a sense of a poet forming, of a boy growing up, tinged also with the closeness of poems which look back in retrospect on a life, such as ‘Wild Oats’ where the speaker is unrepentant:

I needed my mistakes
in their own order
to get me here

(…)

in my youth I believed in somewhere else
I put faith in travel
now I am becoming my own tree.

This sense of travelling far yet remaining rooted in place ties this section back to the first, and the final section explores most poignantly the prospect of getting older. Yet even here there is ample evidence to point towards a new lease of life, or another direction. In ‘Turning’ the speaker looks back on a life of rushing around, a hectic pace that did not allow him the chance to stop and touch others, and then:

this morning the Belgian shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time?

This does not sound like Les Murray’s ‘black dog’ of depression but a portent of taking control of one’s life through poetry. The four separate sections of this collection speak for different aspects and stages of Merwin’s life to create a sort of poetic bildungsroman, or to show the making of a poet, first in old age and then the journey to that age. Although I began this review by saying this collection could be shorter, the long and rich life it speaks for in such a singular way I can only admire.

Richie McCaffery
http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/cairn.html

“the ultimate blank space on which to project things…”

Little Blue Man, Clive Watkins (photographs by Susan de Sola), 2013
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

little blue man
Although it isn’t made clear in this long poem, interspersed with photographs of a small blue Thunderbirds figurine in various tableaux, the little blue man is probably Alan Tracy, judging by his bright, auric hair. Putting Alan Tracy in a series of often incongruous settings brings to my mind Pittenweem artist Reinhard Behren’s ‘Naboland’ project, where he sets a small, battered toy submarine into all of his paintings. This pamphlet carries as an epigraph the zeugma of George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” On the surface, it seems as if this poem will serve as a picaresque for Alan Tracy’s adventures in the world, following the traditional anthropomorphic pattern of toys in imaginative literature, but it quickly becomes apparent that Clive Watkins’s notion of play is quite different.

The little blue man remains very much an insentient plastic toy, but he is cast as a pawn or victim of the whims of the artist and then the poet looking at, and responding to, the artist’s photographs which are a stylised version of reality. He is the ultimate blank space on which to project things, ideas and emotions. The tone of the poem is grandiosely mock-heroic, like that of a bijou Odysseus, or Orpheus searching the underworld for some sort of meaning or purpose:

Dashing homunculus of blue and dauntless eye,
intrepid fingerling, dainty portable hero,
stiff little plastic Galahad great of heart,
steadfast pocket-deliverer, how did he fetch up here
translated into our world with its pitiless light,
the voluptuous gravity of its almost intangible dark?

The florid tone, although meant to be ironic and funny, can sometimes drag and reads a little prosaically, it is only when combined with the photos that the wittiness becomes apparent. We are shown a picture of the little blue man bending over, looking at two severed limbs from a ‘Buzz Light-Year’ toy. The poet offers a non-diegetic voice to what we must already be thinking:

For surely he is in Hell? Look how he views
the wretched fate of his compeer,
stout paladin, voyager to Infinity and Beyond,
whom a malign power (herself?) has torn
limb from limb and scattered on the cold asphalt

It would be unfair to say this pamphlet is the product purely of play, of poet and photographer having a bit of fun and encouraging the reader to join in. It seems to be doing something more complex and nuanced than this. The ‘quest’ the poet speaks about in the closing lines suggests that the whole project has been an enquiry into creativity and artistic collaboration and how poetry, notoriously thought of as being concerned with itself and its own abstractions, is coming out of itself to comment on the process of the photographer and how they stage their scenes, and so the pamphlet unfolds on multiple levels of like-minded creative processes.

Richie McCaffery
http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/cairn.html

“playfulness and love of lexical esoterica”

Gathering Evidence, Caoilinn Hughes, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Gathering-Evidence
While reading Gathering Evidence I was reminded of something once said about modernism, that one of its aesthetic goals was to ‘delay the process of comprehension’ in a given poem. It may have been Bakhtin who said this, but don’t hold me to it if I’m wrong. These are not lyrical poems that offer up their meanings easily, but questing thought-processes that work on the interstice between perhaps an older bardic form of poetry and scientific advancement and discovery.

Poets since Wordsworth at least have been doing this, but Hughes’ work reminded me most of Veronica Forrest Thomson for its playfulness and love of lexical esoterica and Hugh MacDiarmid, particularly in his long poem In Memoriam James Joyce where we have to read through passages of flatness or scientific dryness to make the moments of insight or poetic observation all the more worth savouring. For instance in ‘Looting Roses’ an old woman’s face is ‘like a library shelf / (all dormant romance and discoloration)’. Also in ‘The Moon Should Be Turned’ Hughes describes cancerous cells in a political light and this reminds me closely of MacDiarmid’s ‘Ex-Parte Statement on the Topic of Cancer’.

While I’m trying to compare Hughes’ work to others, this is difficult in itself, because I get the impression she is wryly dissatisfied with the ways in which people respond to the modern world and try to live in it. In ‘Snake Creeps Through the Grass’ the speaker listens to a tramp in the park complain about kids who stole his hat, while nearby people do Tai Chi, and there is a great sense of inadequacy in ‘new age’ ways of dealing with things:

I don’t point out that the Tai Chis did nothing to intervene;
that their ‘cloud hands’ seemed to wave the thief off lovingly.

Also, in ‘This Is What Makes It Go Bang’, a poem which reads like a set of instructions for making bullets and then extends the analogy to poems, we seem to be in war-time conditions, but this is only tacitly suggested:

Insert the decapping rod,
then tap the top to rid spent primer.
You will need a soft-faced mallet,
if you can acquire one.

I feel that Hughes’ poems do read in a highly topical light for their passionate engagement with the past and I admire how they mix heritage, history and the present so winningly and wittily at times:

I imagine the counties to be like dusty library copies of Beowulf;
spines cracked to smithereens with no one to commiserate
since all the kids who have to read Seamus Heaney translations
on their Kindles, which are not as good for making fires as they sound.

Being a sufferer myself, one of the poems which struck me most here was ‘Cynophobia’ and this poem, like others in the collection, hints at a much darker, more direful end of human experience. The evidence Hughes seems to be gathering is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, the foxing and markers of experience, but these are all Hughes’ own:

It started when my mother dropped me off at driveway’s end in a rush.
Birthday candles blinked from a distant window: someone else’s wish took                                                                                                        flight.
It started then, between a black Labrador, and a locked door: the                                                                                    extinguished lights.

Bill Manhire describes Hughes as an ‘alchemist’, yet I am always suspicious of these terms that seek to mysticise the job of the poet. By ‘alchemist’ I take to mean she can transfer the base-metal of some rather heavy or clunky lines (such as in ‘Pacific Rim’) into moments of real transformative power, and the collection does this, not always (for instance the villanelle ‘We Are Experiencing Delay’ seems contrived), but enough to convince the reader with the rich and varied evidence in front of them.

Richie McCaffery
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery

“as if life were a table laid”

Like the Living End, Peter Robinson, Worple Press, £7.00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Like_the_Living_End
The title poem and centre-piece of Robinson’s pamphlet is the long meditative poem ‘Like the Living End’ occasioned by the death of an old school friend, with whom Robinson shared an early interest in Bob Dylan and his lyrics. This poem, like others in the pamphlet, seems to draw on a conflict between Arcadian imagery and post-industrial decay. For instance in ‘Rubbish Theory’ we have echoes of Shakespeare colliding with an entropic view of society:

The streets are paved with takeaway
wrappers, strewn sheets, cans
and posters for elections…

In fact, the gravitas, settings and metrical meticulousness of Robinson’s poetry reminds the reader at times of Tony Harrison, but Robinson’s tone is more singly elegiac as compared with Harrison’s satirical and polemic bite. Robinson’s urge to unite the secular, contemporary world with that of the past, of the Ancients, often yields striking poems – such as a latter-day Orpheus stuck in the London underground or a middle-aged couple in their bathroom, ashamed of their bodies, cast as Adam and Eve. However, the focal point of the collection is grief, and how poets are to deal with the loss of friends and the guilty urge to make sense of this in poetry:

(forgive me, forgive me I’m co-opting you now).

But what else can I do with our dead ones
as we become people from history too?
Glad to be of use, you’re helpful still,
don’t want to cause her pain,
are practising duets with me
like this one in a minor key
with black notes to be borne in mind?
Let’s try it one more time again.

While this poem conveys real pathos, the reader is occasionally struck by the hermetic nature of the experiences/ reminiscences the poem discusses, as it is effectively a conversation with a dead friend. There are a number of poems in the pamphlet which give the impression that they are just filling space, providing a vehicle for this long poem. These poems are ‘Next to Nothing’, ‘All Change’ and ‘Between Parentheses’. All three discuss the fleetingness of life convincingly but seem to be geared up to a serio-comic and glib ‘punch-line’. The ‘I’m next to nothing now’ which closes ‘Next to Nothing’ is a homonym playing with the clichéd use of the phrase and the fact that the bed is missing a lover. ‘All Change’ is about literal and ontological distances travelled on trains and ends with the interjection of a tannoy announcement ‘All change, please, all change’. Finally ‘Between Parentheses’ is a poem of liminality where the speaker is ‘a multi-storey car park / where we can’t find the car’. Yet this poem seems to limp somewhat to its ending where the speaker is projected out of himself – ‘it’s as if I could see me now’.

However, I’d argue that the main poem of this pamphlet is ‘On the Esplanade’ and the few poems which mourn the death of the poet’s father. These surpass anything else in the pamphlet for their lyricism, insight and emotional heft. In this poem, the father (a retired rector) is nearing the end of his life when his son urges him to remember all of the people he has served:

…into a general amnesia go
all the babies he baptised,
the thousands married, churched and buried,
who prided himself on his good funerals…
‘Remember them, dad?’
                                    ‘Do I have to?’ he said,
those words come murmuring back to me
now low tide laps at mud and rocks
and I’m alone along the last
stretches of Grassendale Esplanade,
stopped by the wartime pillbox
still guarding an entrance to Garston Docks.
Then, look, two black birds, male and mate,
come pecking at somebody’s dusk patio
as if life were a table laid.

In keeping with some of Robinson’s poems about urban decay, it is worth noting that he comes closest to visionary poetic statements when he acts like an auspex, reading into the behaviour of birds the wider patterns of mankind.

Richie McCaffery
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery

“black truths by heart across our thresholds”

To the War Poets, John Greening, Carcanet, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

GreeningToWarPoetsCVR
In a documentary on Belgium’s quirks and mores, the TV presenter Jonathan Meades considered the enduring draw of Europe’s killing fields as a phenomenon he termed ‘death tourism’. If the urge to visit such fields is death tourism, is the urge to bring to life dead war poets through the imagination and epistolary verses between dead and living poets a form of ‘death poetry’? It seems that John Greening’s timely and substantial collection, To the War Poets, is doing much more than offering the reader a cheap and thanatic thrill of re-living death and bloodshed in the trenches and exclaiming the horror. In poems such as ‘To Edmund Blunden’ the speaker considers the horror the legacy of the war has become as a money-spinning tourist attraction:

A far cry from the throng back in the Flanders Fields Museum.
The tin helmet over the litter bin swings in the breeze
beside my metal bench. There are cyclists. And a lady’s
terrier snaps and growls at someone’s knapsack. It is all
unimaginable…
… I cough and cough. But not because there’s gas.

I was initially worried that Greening would act in this collection as a necromancer ventriloquist of various famous War poets. The first few poems seem to do this, to mimic the style of poets such as Rosenburg, Stramm and Trakl. Trakl is particularly well captured:

The winter storm’s mad organ playing
is like the Volk’s dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
defoliated stars.

[‘On the Eastern Front’]

After these initial scene and tone setting poems, the collection deepens into the larger theme of lessons not learned and the looming presence of conflict in society up to the present day. With such grave life and death subject matter it is not surprising that Greening’s tone occasionally slips into didacticism, for instance in ‘Reading John Clare on New Year’s Eve’ the speaker muses upon what will last a cruel and fleeting culture of celebrities:

When we had heard that distant New Year bell,
we would be carrying his black truths by heart
across our thresholds, not thumbing a remote.

Perhaps an intentional intertextual effect of the collection, I felt a number of times I had been in the same place before. In the poem ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’ we see how the television is an electronic juxtaposition of scenes of war which can be instantly changed to brain anaesthetising frivolities like dancing girls and music halls. It is the image of the TV in the corner of the hotel room which reminded me strongly of Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’ where the “Vietnam war drags on/ in one corner of our living room” and where smoke only comes from cigarette puffing heads.

Greening is to be praised for remembering that the poetry of World War One in the English language should not be considered in a purely Anglo-centric light, so it is good to see a poem for Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although this poem reminds the reader of the conflicted Scottishness of the poet, it also celebrates the uniqueness of his contribution to the canon of War poetry:

…on that autumn
night in Loos

when you found a spook
song – Süsser Friede – bursting
from your vanished mouth.

[‘To Charles Sorley’]

Certainly, this is a collection haunted by echoes and revenants, even Robert Graves who is only too painfully aware that according to military papers, he was officially dead in action. Greening is to be praised for marshalling together out of the vortex such a range of voices to come up with a collection that muses on what has changed, if anything, in the centenary century. What is striking about this collection is the sheer vitality and multiplicity of voice – how words and poetry can endure – in the midst of mass graves and war torn lands:

or beneath the hundred thousand crosses
left by men who could never spell
themselves, imagine it grinning from their skulls

or groaning in the pelvic bones of women
who bore it, a surge from this serpent bend
of the river into every green corner.

[‘Awre’]

Richie McCaffery

http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery

“tools of the dead in the hands of the living”

Air Histories, Christopher Meredith, Seren, 2013, £8.99
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

air_histories2
Firstly, I need to declare my lack of Welsh to deal with certain poems in Air Histories. However, I find it particularly clever of Meredith to have a poem dealing with translation – ‘Y grib / Ridge’ – which states in English translated from Welsh:

In English it’s the dragon’s back, a name
for those who like their monsters
safely mythic, tame.

Here, the poet seems to be playing with us – taking language/ translation to high and, dare I say, ‘meta’ levels. Air is clearly a strong theme of the collection, with Daedalus soaring in his paramotor, but many of these poems are also grounded and earthed in the elements, as can be seen in ‘Earth Air’:

This piece of earth’s a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in –
[…]
One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
                                                        and she’ll fly.

One of the main achievements of these poems is to create a sense of aerial over-view – of vision that sees the connectedness of many things: the dead to the living, the inventions and tools of the dead in the hands of the living, the dead and the living in the landscape:

If woman’s blood can sing to moon,
when wind’s breath kills the rain on mountain
grass may walk again through stone and earth.

Meredith’s gaze, like the red kites in a number of his poems, does not dwell in one place too long and this gives rise to a collection of great variety and texture. With this, however, comes the occasional feeling of a lack in focus and a surface fleetingness. Some poems here struggle to achieve the air-borne quality of others, such as concrete experiments in ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘At Colonus’ which comes across at times as contrived – ‘Arrowhead’ seems to break and manipulate the words to fit its shape. That said, I sensed in these poems the same seriousness and playfulness as in Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry of the 1960s. But even Morgan, with his ‘Little Blue Blue’, was not immune to accusations of clever-cleverness which I find particularly knowingly applied here in poems like ‘An outline description of Nihilia’:

The colours of the national flag are black
and black.
The citizens are mute.
The population of Nihilia is zero.
The country’s chief product is nothing.

However, any criticisms of such poems must be put aside when considering other poems in this collection as good as ‘The ones with the white hats’ which is a poem set in a dystopian future and ‘Daniel’s Piano’ – a poem in a similar vein, set in a future brutal regime where violence is disguised under a layer of polite chatter:

Daniel’s house stands
on a village they emptied.

Nobody talks of the village’s going.
Its old name is silenced.

Simon is a good man. His manner gentle.
The guests discuss poetry. Nobody plays.

Set alongside these more menacing poems are a series of poems about guitars and song and the attempts of the poet, craftsman and musician to get their song out there and heard in the midst of such struggle. It is these poems which make the collection one to keep returning to in works of music and witness, such as ‘The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martinez Sirvent’:

A pinch of air
was all he had.

That was fifty years ago and now
his work is his witness.
If witness was my work
perhaps I had come to terms with mysteries
or perhaps I failed.

Richie McCaffery
http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery

“best displayed through a gauze of cloth”

Frieze, John Whale, Carcanet Press, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

frieze john whale

What this frieze’s sculptors learned
was how the body’s flowing life
is best displayed through a gauze of cloth

[‘Frieze’]

John Whale’s Frieze deals with a whole range of historical tableaux, friezes, vignettes and frescos and here in the title poem, we see marble taking on the effect of a death-shroud. However, Frieze is perhaps a misleading title, as it suggests things that are static, set in stone and petrified and yet, in Whale’s hands, the past becomes a fluid and moving entity. We are not only shown a host of memorable figures from the past such as Salvador Dali and Cortez, but also characters from the speaker’s youth such as the gun-slinging kid from down the road and a school boy who eats privet leaves and licks cinders, pencil-lead and matches:

                                           (…) ran his tongue
along the standing row of crimson match-heads,
their chalky lipstick bleeding on his teeth,
their little flames lit deep inside him

[‘Privet’]

The structure of the book is worth noting in this light. It begins by imagining vast battles of the past, from ancient Romans to a tank in World War Two rumbling over the Tiber “into Rome,/ revving over the ancient stones/ and nothing at all behind it” (‘Trooper’). Then the collection moves into the territory of public knowledge and we encounter well-known historical figures. However it is the final third of the book where the historical sweep of the collection is cast in a more Lukacsian light – that while history is being made and recorded in grand friezes, there is a more intimate, personal and domestic history taking place that casts ordinary people in times of great upheaval and change. This can be seen in the poem ‘One o’clock’, about the gun at Waterloo Dock:

the phantom ball travels
through our smallest bones
with a cast-iron approximation
of the purity of the stars.
On the memory of my anvil,
hammer and stirrup,
I find myself chained to the past.

[‘One o’clock’]

One of the more successful poems from this final segment of the book is an elegy for the poet’s father, ‘Legerdemain’, where the poet’s imagination acts as necromancer conjuring up images of his dead father’s hands. It is only in the final stanza that we discover the real meaning of the ‘frieze’:

These are my father’s hands
conjuring themselves from the past
by way of trick and treat,
capable now of any legerdemain
save that of touching me.

[‘Legerdemain’]

Other poems of note show Whale has an eye for oddities and curiosa. In ‘Bird, Bird’ we see the prey of an owl, a swallow, nesting in the dead and dried body of an owl hanging in a barn. In ‘Bird Book’ we see how a poem can be raised above ordinary observation with only one phrase or sentence: “my favourite birdsong/ heard only in books”. Certain poems convince the reader less and seem to try too hard, such as ‘Tattoo’ where the ashes of the dead are tattooed into the arms of the living and the poem ends on the half-jokey, half-creepy lines from The Carpenter’s “Just like me/ They long to be / Close to you”. In a poem such as this, I felt Whale was straying too far from one of the “to-dos” on ‘The Great Artist’s To-Do List’ – “get the exact measurement of the dead”.

Richie McCaffery

http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/richie-mccaffery