Jamie McKendrick, Out There, 64 pp, £9.99 paperback, Faber and Faber Ltd

McKendrick’s poetry is brilliant at making you feel the prosaic physical substance of things. It’s learned, crammed with fascinating snippets of information. The tone tends to be dry, sceptical, downbeat. He’s a wit whose mind keeps leaping off in unexpected directions. All these qualities gave me great pleasure in themselves. More, they act as foil to and somehow a validation of brief bursts of soaring or piercing lyricism.

Here’s the title poem:

If space begins at an indefinite zone
where the chance of two gas molecules colliding
is rarer than a green dog or a blue moon
then that’s as near as we can get to nothing.

Nostalgia for the earth and its atmosphere
weakens the flesh and bones of cosmonauts.
One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit
and asked where he was going. For a walk.

He had to sleep between him and the air-lock.
Another heard a dog bark and a child cry
halfway to the moon. What once had been

where heaven was, is barren beyond imagining,
and never so keenly as from out there can
the lost feel earth’s the only paradise.

This gets its vast imaginative reach from literary allusion as well as the sheer idea of space. Line 14 echoes Wallace Stevens (“shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?”) and links to the volume’s epigraph: “Questo aiuolo che ci fa tanto feroci (This little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce) Dante, Paradiso”.  In such a context, “the lost” poignantly compares cosmonauts to the “perduta gente” of the inscription over the gates of hell in the Inferno. For most of the poem, though, McKendrick’s manner is deceptively light, tinged with humour and irony. It invites reading between the lines. Pauses give breathing-space for implications to sink in and reactions to form – reactions to the looming horror behind the simple words of stanzas two and three, for example, or the way the banal phrasing of line 8 makes us almost feel the difference between the homeliness of earth and the vacancy of space. This makes the first three stanzas seem devastatingly understated and underwrites the powerful climax.

A skilful mixing of registers is one of the pleasures of McKendrick’s work. In Out There the syntax is often of a kind we’d associate with formal discursive writing. This goes with the use of much learned and even abstruse vocabulary, but it’s counterpointed by colloquialism and slang. This vivifies arcane information, brings things home imaginatively and keeps our responses alertly unsettled. The only poems that really disappointed me were two about people. “Last Visit” and “Mademoiselle Garde” are full of beautifully written passages that become intensely poignant when you break them up into separate phrases and sentences but as whole poems they’re curiously flat, flowing so seamlessly that they give no space for your own reactions to come through.

I’d like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this piece, which appeared in The North 51.

 

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