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July 25, 2010
Waiting is nearly always a better form of writing than rushing. Lachlan Mackinnon is a genuine poet who takes time to get it right. Small Hours is his fourth collection and a distinguished piece of work. Opening with mostly occasional poems including a fine-hewn homage to Edward Thomas and a poem in memory of Mick Imlah, the book moves into a long poem ‘The Book of Emma’ that unfolds over fifty-four sections cast mostly in prose. It explores a repressed relationship between the speaker and ‘Emma’, a young woman of considerable distinction; it discloses few real secrets, even the particulars of Emma’s untimely death (‘You fell off Lundy’); and yet releases a powerful current of conscience, honesty and loss:
You are an open wound in me…People who come across members of your family hear of you and are curious to know more though a generation has passed and you left so little trace in the world. So small a footprint yet the shovelling jealous sea has not erased it…
Of course in making this thing about you or around you I am talking about my youth and homesick for it. But that is not the point. The point is that at one time in one place I met someone who became to me a living conscience.
‘The Book of Emma, XLVIII’
Ezra Pound’s belief that poetry must be as well written as prose is an appealing principle to apply to ‘The Book of Emma’, which is neither prose poetry nor poetic prose but a vivid series of elliptical, connected flash-backs that have the quality of flash fiction – except we are clearly hearing a poem. There is a little or no tranquillity to these recollections: the speaker seems scalded by his skill at holding and harnessing memory, by the doubleness of his insight. This is a poem in which an alternative universe is being uncovered, and a parallel life is slowly drawn from the darkness. Mackinnon (right) seems to be talking to a ghost, but that ghost is as much a ghost of himself. ‘The Book of Emma’ makes for brave writing and complex feeling; it is a highly successful experiment in form.
Sinéad Morrissey’s previous collections showed us that the pleasures we take in poetry owe less to what is said and what that means, and more to how well something is made, measured and heard. Through the Square Window is a book of many achieved pleasures: serious, speculative and authentic. This is a book of immense variety and intense, formal panache. The opening poem takes the subject of a storm but makes so much more than a drumming description; it summons a sense just this side of Gothic, and is wonderfully heard:
…Evening and the white forked
parting of the sky fell
directly overhead, casements
rattled on hinges and Thunder
may as well have summoned
the raggle-taggle denizens
of his vociferous world:
the ghouls, the gashed, the dead
so bored by now of being
dead they flock to gawk—
sanctuary was still sanctuary
except more so, with the inside
holding flickeringly, and the
outside clamouring in.
Morrissey’s conjures her poems confidently. The reader trusts, and is held. There are poems here of marvellous adventure that are as good as any being written in English. ‘Matter’, a long poem as strange and as familiar as its subject – childbirth - has an extraordinary edginess and grace. These are the final lines:
Stay the wind on a river eight weeks after equinox—
witness blue-green mayflies lift off
like a shaken blanket; add algae
and alchemical stones to the lake floor
in the strengthening teeth of winter, what swans.
Morrissey’s authenticity feels like the authenticity of folklore, except that it is of our human world, written slant. Her exuberance lies in her ability to let language sling itself through its registers without losing the rule of sense and sound. I wish I could fitly express the artistic attainment reached by the music, poise and life of her language. To realise a book so completely requires a writer to go far out of themselves. It is a measure of our respect to acknowledge their safe return by reading them. Through the Square Window is an authentic, exuberant, fully realised book of poems by a poet of true powers and gift.
It’s a positive sign that Sam Willetts waited and worked on his poems before releasing them at the relatively late age of forty-seven. New Light for the Old Dark is a powerful introduction. He writes observantly, vividly, if inwardly. He desires to represent a state in which, to paraphrase Barry Lopez, he has absorbed that very darkness – in this case, heroin addiction - which before was the perpetual sign of defeat. When he unleashes his experience into metaphysical language he takes us with him, as in the fine poem about the death of his father:
His new state exposes the stark child of him,
and un-sons me. No answers now to a son’s
questions, about this, about the sense,
for all his slightness, of a long life’s mass
coming to rest, a settling that churns up
grief in a rounding cloud. Dad
dead; end of the opaque trick
that turns our gold to lead.
There are similarly terrific poems throughout this book. At other times the poet’s sense of self-defeat defeats itself, forgivably, and leaves some poems not quite surviving (‘A Moral Defeat’, ‘Coup de Foudre’). This makes for a mixed reading, a frustration of achievement and potential. The book feels as if it were edited by several minds. What we have is a bright and at times brittle first collection, tethered by the occasional loss of nerve and almost continuously allusive (Michael Hofmann might have written half this book which is great unless you’re not Michael Hofmann).
Sam Willetts is without doubt a good poet in the making and there is a grave truth in him. He is magnificent when he is plainest (‘August 9th’, ‘On the Smolensk Road’, ‘June 3rd’) and maladroit at his showiest (‘Rubberneckers’, ‘Home’, ‘Green Thought’). In some ways New Light for the Old Dark is oversold when it would have been better undersold: the writer of the blurb, who may have had a hand in creating the book, makes solemn claims for significance. This collection will receive attention mainly for the right reasons, but also falsely because the poems and the poet are partly sold on an experiential premise that has little to do with authenticity. Yet I predict great things for Sam Willetts not least because he is a better literary artist than he, perhaps, believes. Try him.
Small Hours, Lachlan Mackinnon, Faber and Faber, pb., 90 pp., £9.99, ISBN 978-0-571-253-500
Through the Square Window, Sinéad Morrissey, Carcanet Press, pb., 60 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-847-770-578
New Light for the Old Dark, Sam Willetts, Cape Poetry, pb., 60 pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-0-224-08918-0
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this essay first appeared.