Michael Mackmin – from here to there
HappenStance, 32pp, £4.00, 2011, ISBN: 9781905939633
This is the third version of this review: maybe it’s the bad habit of the poetry world, but I’m just as much as the sucker as we all are for trying to reduce things to their single common principle t’s the same instinct, I think, as the poetic (modernist?) urge to simmer down a whole complex of ideas and thoughts into the single image which speaks for both halves of a metaphor, for all the various emotional reaction to the thing as well as the thing itself. So this is the third draft of this review because I keep finding what I take to be more fundamental explanations for the range of success and failure across Mackmin’s pamphlet. Ask me a week ago and I’d’ve told you that the poems in from there to here spend their time trying to overcome their propensity to interrupt themselves awkwardly in various ways, and that this gets in the way of our recognising the poems’ real strengths. Three or four days ago, I’d probably dismiss that week-old interpretation with a condescending smile, and deftly explain that it’s just the poems’ struggle with form which accounts for both the distracting interruptions and the real striking, valuable naturalism they sometimes present.
But that isn’t right; at least, it’s more properly a symptom of something else. The formal failures and successes of the poems arise out of the ability or inability of Mackmin to overcome some self-consciousness which dogs their fluency. At their best, the poems seem to get into their own stride, developing a real spontaneous momentum; the wonderful ‘The list’ – possibly the best poem here – works by beginning that list of the title:
The brushes (sable), the water colours,
the pastels, the blocks of paper,
the notebooks, the pencils, sharpened
and on, so that the delicious anticipation of these poised tools of creation open out into a listing of huger things –
The almond, the apricot, the black figs,the white
dust of the track, up the hill
the neighbour’s thirty-nine hives,
the bees, the loud
buzzard’s sunlit mew
and so on. What is brilliant, though, is the way – starting to evidence itself in this last quote – is the way that a skillfully controlled metre works with the cumulative effect of the endless listing to engineer a sense of gathering momentum, which begins, as the poem rolls onwards, to threaten to outpace the obsessive listing of what is and burgeon into what could be. Exactly as great poetry should, ‘The list’ trembles invitingly on the lip of what’s expressible. It closes in the only way it could: with a luminous image of potentiality: “the four men | in the summer bar, the cards in their hands.”
Even here, though, the lines are dogged with what appears to be a desire to seem knowing, an unnecessarily conscious commentary included in the poem, so we get “the poetry of faint (feint?) | lines”, the parenthesis bringing us clattering out of the poem’s world and into the world of Mackmin sitting at his writing desk. The same might be said of awkward line breaks like “the even, left | handed pencil sharpener”. Although in ‘The list’, such glitches and clumsily broken lines might be productively seen as hobbling the opening lines – withholding the flowing quality the poem needs to grow into rather than possess from the off – elsewhere they’re a definite curse. And a surprisingly frequent one, given Mackmin’s well-recognised sure editorial hand. The pamphlet’s got a good share of wonder and the wonderful, but a fair portion of it’s lost to issues such as these.
So, to return to my idea as to the basic laws of this pamphlet – as above – these stumbling-block line-breaks do come to appear as a symptom of a too-overt control, the hand of the poet making itself uncomfortably present. When lines break like this: “And you standing then, tall on | your long legs” or this: “saw the | crescent moon”, or this: “foretell… ignored | stuff” we find the natural phrasing of speech disrupted, so that our attention’s brought quite roughly to the breaks themselves, and thence to the words surrounding the breaks – on, your, the, stuff – and it doesn’t feel like a good use of disruption.
Because an awkward line-break can be a wonderful thing (I think of Gunn’s ‘Elegy’: “They keep leaving me / and they don’t / tell me they don’t warn me that this is / the last time I’ll be seeing them”. Not quite the same but so good) – but they aren’t being used here for any discernable effect (or rarely: ‘January 20th, 1986’ does good work with a ‘confused’ narrator stumbling out his mournful testimony). In general, they run together with other intrusions to mar parts of from there to here with a kind of authorial disengagement, emotionally, in favour of intellectual contrivance. So ‘This poem explains’ may be clever-clever, but we worry it’s covered its back too thoroughly with a shield of irony (“I write | as my tutors here advise” and “I hope | you like my poem. I hope you like my poem.”) to expose any real, unguarded feeling or sentiment. Even the structuring of the pamphlet – the first poem’s called ‘Here’ and the final ‘There’ – seems imposed-upon rather than organically-derived-from the collection.
And these things are a shame, because when the poems present as less consciously planned – appear less considered (scheming?) -they’re really really good. A subtlety of music (distant internal rhymes like “beyond” with “recommend” are a recurring pleasure) combined with a beguiling, apparent aimlessness, can bring us into the world of the poems extremely nicely. When the poems are allowed to wander away from any obvious conceit, Mackmin’s ear for music and delicate emotional touch come to the fore, and make for really affecting work. Several poems here – ‘A thread’, ‘The Aurelian’, ‘Some deaths’ – manage to seem (a real achievement) convincing as a portrait of a mind wandering in reaction to some emotional event, while retaining an allusive or symbolic structural cohesion. It’s this combination of careful craft with a lightness of touch (suggesting unconsciousness or unself-consciousness) that makes the poems valuable, but also why I’m not quoting – they need absolutely to read whole.
And which is also why, on balance, this is a pamphlet well worth tracking down: Mackmin, when he’s not second-guessing himself, can draw us from the reader’s there to the poets here to remarkable effect.
[as with all HappenStance pamphlets, the design
here is of extreme elegance, and the printing of the
highest quality. Good work]