Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly – review

Anomaly by Jamie McKendrick. £14.99 (hardback). Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571349210

Most lovers of poetry on the page will enjoy Jamie McKendrick’s sharp eye, irreverent intelligence and linguistic flair, but the urbane, sophisticated poems of Anomaly will have a more particular appeal for those who enjoy a play of thought too mobile and finely poised to lock itself down into conclusions. In this way Anomaly marks a change from McKendrick’s previous collections. None of the new poems have the emotional intensity of some of his earlier ones but this is not through loss of poetic power. In many of those earlier poems we saw the romantic, emotionally out-going side of his temperament straining against the sceptical, ironic side, sometimes achieving an explosive release, as it does in the stunning last line of “Obit.”, from Crocodiles and Obelisks, or soaring free of doubt more quietly, as in poems like “The Carved Buddha” or “The Meeting House” in Out There. Anomaly is suffused by a cooler, more playfully detached, Marvellian kind of irony in which different ways of looking at the same subject coexist in a calm suspension rather than fighting against each other.

I’ll try to put flesh on these generalities by looking at “Earscape”:

 

Milton lost his sight in libertyes defence
and I my hearing in oyles pursuit employed
by factors who failed to plug our ears with down
I was the fuse-and-dynamite boy who blew
up bits of Derbyshire with blasts that lunged
through the earths crust barrelling out below
to stun the blind mole in its burrow and
bend the funicles of beetles antennae
so now alone or in a crowd I hear
the tinny thrum of protest from the earth
a stridulating bug-eyed orchestra
in the cellar of the battered dandelion
and out in the air beyond our telescopes
the admonition of a blackened star

 

The speaker seems to be someone who worked with dynamite in the oil wells of Derbyshire in his youth, presumably during the First World War, when drilling was undertaken there under the Defence of the Realm act. Now he suffers from tinnitus. The poem’s sheer linguistic energy sparks lively responses that branch off in different directions, so that it seems to hold a remarkable amount within itself, jumping between the mid seventeenth century, the early twentieth and our own time, taking in different kinds of war and changing industrial relations, human and beetle perspectives, and moving through very different linguistic registers.

I’ll come to contents and perspectives in a moment. First I want to say what holds the poem together, making different lines of thought dance round and through each other without either spinning apart or settling into a static conclusion.

One thing is shapeliness of form. “Earscape” is a sonnet not merely in being fourteen lines long but more crucially in following the fundamental distinguishing feature of the classic Italian sonnet, its division into eight lines and six, with a turn of thought between them. Eight lines describe the violent impact of the speaker’s work on Derbyshire and its smaller creatures, then six describe the long-term impact on him, or, to put it slightly differently, eight describe his action, six his punishment. His thought unfolds in logical stages that clearly fit and emphasise the contours of the verse, its phases being clearly signalled at the beginning of lines one, two, four and nine by the phrases “Milton”, “and I”, “I was” and finally “so now”.

The speaker’s line of thought is clear and single but those suggested to the reader are multiple and open-ended. Sharp changes of register bring complementary forces into play, giving impact, suppleness of tone and imaginative range. Allusions to earlier literature open wide imaginative vistas. Recognising these allusions isn’t vital but they do enhance the poem’s impact and meaning so I’ll look at a few.

Line 1 quotes Milton’s “Sonnet xxii: To Cyriack Skinner” in which Milton consoles himself for his blindness as the price of his pamphleteering battles “in libertyes defence”. There are elements both of cheeky humour and pathos in juxtaposing the Great Man’s consciousness of having sacrificed to a noble cause and the harm casually imposed on a dynamiting nobody by his bosses. There’s an element of social criticism that ties in with Tony Harrison’s work, particularly the Meredithian sonnets of Continuous. Spelling “oil” as “oyle” humorously mimics Miltonic English and the syntactical structure of line 2 pastiches Miltonic poetic inversion. This both strengthens the sense of travelling a distance in time and smoothes the transition between seventeenth century and modern spelling. However, particularly in the absence of punctuation, it also calls to mind Harrison’s “On Not Being Milton”, making the speaker seem like Tibb the Cato Street conspirator when he says, as quoted in that poem, “Sir I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”.  We catch a distant detonation from the battlefields of the class war but where Harrison passionately drives a single message home in his poem, McKendrick skimmingly touches this idea as one among many.

Line 7 seems to remember Shakespeare’s Pericles, when Pericles cries “The blind mole casts / Copped hills towards heaven to tell the earth is thronged / By man’s oppression”. Whether that be a conscious allusion or not, the poem powerfully evokes man’s violation of nature and suggests nature’s punitive reaction. We touch on contemporary concerns with ecological damage. Again, the tone is complex, blending the vivid drama of “stun the blind mole in its burrow” with something almost cartoon-like in “bend the funicles of beetles antennae. We seem to relive the excitement the lad felt as he did his dynamiting. But line 9, describing the consequences, has a gravity perhaps enhanced by a faint echo of the last stanza of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.

Broad vistas are opened by allusions but the play of light down them is particularly achieved by shimmerings of tone and changes of register, as when archaic English is followed by the graphic modern colloquialism of lines 4 – 7, especially the vigorous American “barrelling”. This in turn modulates through the learned vocabulary of “funicles” and “stridulating” to the linguistically heightened poeticism of “the admonition of a blackened star”. Such mixing of registers keeps us off balance and imaginatively alert. So does the way formal satisfaction is complemented by formal surprise. For example, the sparsity of obvious rhyming heightens the impact of the powerful slant rhyme sequence, “blew”, “below” and “burrow”. Artistic boldness gives the poem imaginative freedom and suggestive range. At the same time, clarity of overall form, logical development of argument and subtlety of modulation hold its diverse impulses and suggestions together in a seamless flow, like a well-conceived mobile sculpture.

The way this poem invokes other works of literature is like the way many other poems in the volume more explicitly allude to or draw on films, painting or other people’s writing. All minds are consciously and unconsciously shaped by the works of other people’s hands and brains. What’s unusual about McKendrick is how deliberately, explicitly and continually he engages with the fact in his own writing. In “Arboreal” he borrows Machado’s celebration of a poetry of echoes and allusions, saying

 

     a tree full of birds was your emblem
of the poet – home for wandering voices

 

He tells us that Machado valued Virgil above all for being

 

                                    host and haven to
a ghost-guesthood, a close-packed company

of singers, without botching or mangling their notes

 

and he asks us to

 

     think of the bird whose head is full of tree,
who sits on the bare branch, guardian of green
hearing the dim hum of buds in the xylem,
wind rattling her cage of wet, black boughs.

 

Tradition and the Individual Talent indeed. The punning allusion to Hopkins’ “Margaret” – “what heart heard of, ghost guessed” – warns us not to be po-faced about this, but what an enchanting emblem that one of a tree full of birds is, and how cleverly McKendrick develops and exemplifies it by incorporating Ezra Pound’s famous image of faces in the underground as “petals on a wet black bough” into his conclusion.

Film and music are sources of inspiration too. “Back to Black” is titled after an album by Amy Whitehouse. The outstanding “La colonna sonora”, meditating on the Italian phrase for “soundtrack”, takes us to the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone. Humorously reflecting on how “colonna sonora” has a better ring than “sound track”, McKendrick produces a series of vivid images that seem to me both admiring and tinged with humour at the expense of Italians’ concern with dignity, grace, making a good impression, all the aspirations summed up in the phrase “bella figura”, and the gimcrack ways in which it’s sometimes achieved.

 

like a pillar of water sustaining a cloud,
a fluted column on a celluloid plinth
that turns our voices into architecture

 

What’s really devastating, though, is the turn in line eight that gives us the sestet’s evocation of the harshness of the Sardinian shepherd boy’s life in Padre Padrone:

 

When I think of these sonorous columns
the one that wakes in my ear is the wind loud
in the holm oak at the edge of his world
the peasant boy hears in Padre Padrone,
the belling sheep, the cantu a tenòre,
all the drone and clamour of creation
crushing each creature with the force of nature.

 

Cantu a tenòre is a form of Sardinian folk singing in a group of four, one voice apparently traditionally imitating the wind, another a sheep bleating, another a cow lowing. After the playfulness with which the octave evokes the dignity, luxury and frivolity of civilisation enriched by art, the almost Hardyan vision of ruthless nature falls as a crushing shock.

It’s only quite briefly that McKendrick allows his tone to harden as much that but I think that when he does we see more fully why some of his poems are translations and why so many of his best original pieces are responses to art: however ironically he may interrogate his responses to it, I get the impression that art and the creativity it embodies are close to the centre of what seems to him to civilise and give value to life. But lest this seem too solemn or unequivocal, I should say that one of the poems that gave me most pleasure in the book was “Very Fine Fake”, which describes how his father bought two fake ancient coins in Athens. After his father’s death, it seems, he tried to sell them. After their exposure and return by the auction house, McKendrick says

 

                        I’m glad they’re back and that
the stater fooled one sharp-eyed, in-house expert.
On the Paul Menard principle
they’re finer than originals could be
– how much more art and subtle plotting it cost
to forge them more than two millennia later
than just hammer out run-of-the-mill
coinage for mere commodities,
for goats and cabbages and olive oil.
Up in my loft, walled in with worthless paper,
I shall turn them in the light,
with their two blinking owls,
and savour the wisdom of the counterfeit.

 

Serious? Tongue in cheek? Not one or the other but both, spinning between the two. It’s as impossible to settle for one or the other as it is in Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress”. Who could deny that it took more art and subtle plotting to make these fakes than to hammer out the originals? But “On the Paul Menard principle” prepares us to see the idea as paradoxical before it’s presented[1]. The picture given by the last four lines is enchanting but the blinking owls tinge it with absurdity. At the same time, uselessness or gratuitousness is one of art’s most blessed qualities.

Many pleasures come together in these poems – urbanity, wit, sharp intelligence, formal inventiveness, linguistic flair and a constant, impish sense of fun animating serious reflection. It’s a book I’d highly recommend, though it may disappoint those who look above all for unequivocal positions and intense emotion in their poetry.

 

 

[1] The reference is to Jorge Luis Borges’ brilliant short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. “Paul” must be a misprint or slip of the memory.

 

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to repost this review, which has just appeared in The High Window. You can see it and excellent reviews by  other reviewers by clicking here.

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