Review – Jamie McKendrick, Selected Poems

Jamie McKendrick, Selected Poems, 160pp, £ 12.99, Faber and Faber.

In some ways I wished these poems could have been given in reverse chronological order. Starting with “Out There”, “The Carved Buddha”, “The Meeting House” or “The Literalist”, a new reader would have begun with a poet at the height of his powers. These are four poems you can reread endlessly for the beauty of their writing and the constantly changing shimmer of suggestion within and between them. Their relaxed style draws its strength from finely honed prosodic skill. Each has an imaginative spaciousness that belies its brevity, moving effortlessly between the mundane and the sublime, between the homeliness of colloquial cliché, familiar routines and commonsense perceptions on the one hand and the barrenness of space or the transcendental intimations of religion on the other. The smooth power of these changes of gear reflects the patience and flare with which McKendrick has explored the possibilities of different short verse forms, particularly the sonnet. Take this quotation describing a tiny Buddha carved within a sandalwood lotus bud that needs to be pried open by a fingernail:

It belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen:
when she opened the perfect fit of the upper lid
I knew that nothing made by the hand of man
could hold a candle to it. Its beauty blazed

but quietly, a tiny inexhaustible thing.

Here, the tone hovers between humorous scepticism and the rapt reverence suggested by the intensity with which the poem brings to life this paradox of a quiet blaze, this tiny inexhaustibility. Because the tone is so elusively both reverential and sceptical,  the poem itself blazes quietly and inexhaustibly within the mind, not rejecting the mundane in favour of the ethereal but discovering the ethereal within the mundane, or bathing the mundane in an ethereal glow.

Though their tone is harsher and their transitions more angular and abrupt, there are poems from Ink Stone and Crocodiles and Obelisks that are quite as good as the ones from Out There that I’ve mentioned above – “Chrome Yellow”, say, invoking the sunflowers and crows and madness of Van Gogh as it meditates on beauty and mortality, on artistic passion and the self-destroying pursuit of vision, or “Obit.” with its piercingly beautiful and desolate final line.

It’s not a few isolated peaks that make a Selected Poems worth reading, however; it’s the pleasure and enlightenment to be found page after page, and the accumulating sense of a poet’s development.  On this level too, this is a richly rewarding volume. From the start, McKendrick appears as a clever, erudite writer who seizes your attention by the oddity of the angles from and at which he presents experience. In weaker poems scattered through the first half of the book, peculiarity can seem like an end in itself, leaving you disappointed by the lack of imaginative residue after reading, as if you’d discovered nothing much under the waterline of an iceberg. Most even of these weaker poems are enjoyable, though, and more profound effects make themselves felt from early on. “Margin” and Nostalgia”, the third and fourth poems in the book, may not have the fine-tuning of others I’ve referred to, their imaginative spaciousness or depth of resonance, but they’re memorable in their own right. Both use foreign settings and cryptic, fragmented narratives to create scenarios with the cloudy suggestiveness of dreams. Both are made haunting by their tantalising incompleteness. In them we see one of the most powerful and attractive features of McKendrick’s writing, his gift for making us feel we’re walking as strangers through the world, seeing it vividly but with incomplete understanding. What makes the later poems so endlessly rereadable is that although the play of thought within them is so subtly developed, they also preserve that essential sense of mystery and incompletion.

 

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 57

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