Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

"What long miles" by Kona MacPhee (Bloodaxe, 2013)

According to the back cover, the poems are "driven by a poetic sensibility both captivated by nuance and ever in search of essence". It's tempting to take the short first poem as a credo. In "Pheasant, Waverley Station" a dead bird's eyes look in 2 directions - one up to the sky, one down to the track. The bird was allegedly brought to the station in the train's wheel assembly - "flesh and mechanism reaffirmed/ the compacts of their loveless marriage". So is this the fate of poetry/mankind in the face of technique/technology? Fortunately, there was a poet on the scene to act as witness, looking up as well as down; endowing death with value.

I wrote of her earlier Perfect Blue that "I think her sonnet-length, formalist-influenced pieces are fine examples of fused form and content, of content elegantly supported by sound. The more she strays from such pieces, the less sure I become". I suspect she's moved on and I haven't. There are rather fewer received forms here than in her previous books, and less end-rhyme. "Meat"'s first stanza is "xxxaa", the syllable count "68767". Subsequent verses keep the rhyme sequence but vary the syllable pattern. Then "The Wheelman" is "aba cbc". There aren't many other poems that use regular meter/rhyme forms. Instead, there's more verbification than before, and at times more verbosity. I wonder whether in earlier days she would have begun a poem with "the way a purloined curio of pain/ will fascinate, or how a scandal ratchets", or write about ants taking flight like this - "Whatever callous fraction will today achieve/ fulfilment of that ache to seed the yet-to-be/ of one more summer's spawning colony, the end/ is uniform: abandonment, each driven flicker spent" ("Antday"). The language sounds pumped-up with sound FX - the "the way a purloined ..." phrase is iambic pentameter dense with phonic repetition, impressively pleasing on the ear, but at a cost.

At times the imagery seems too dutiful or mechanical.

  • Once I'd read the notes to see what "George Pirie's hands" is about, the 1st stanza became just another x-ray/ultrasound-scan piece with "dense flesh transformed to unobscuring cloud,/ a wisp-shroud to the clean lines of the bones;/ explicit fractures conjured from enigmatic pains". The 2nd stanza's more interesting though - phantom sensations in amputated hands.
  • "Inland" is a description (in the form of a list) of a flooded town - "gulls shark/ and bicker round the carion of lunch/ while lorries moor at High Street shops/ and crewmen ferry wares ... At nightfall, every full-moon streetlight/ dons its yellow glare; there are no tides". It's too literal for me.
  • Similarly straightforward imagery is in "USA" - "our borrowed gods/ were Mercury, Apollo".
  • "Office Suite" has 3 parts. Again, borrowed imagery piles in. The 6-line "The labour" section has a logjam of allusions to Hercules - "The inbox is Augean and will not be cleared ... a golden apple stolen from the desk drawer", etc.
  • "Soldier and piano" is about a soldier in rubble, like we've seen in films. Here's the final stanza (the final image intentionally contrived?) -
    From the doorway his soldier comrades call,
    but he's beyond them, casting up this music
    like a shell-pocked wall: forgetting the blank staves
    of the future; forgetting, at his back,
    the crooked double bar-line of his gun.

And when the imagery tries to become dense, it sometimes concertinas damagingly. Here's stanza II of "Tense" (I guess this part is about the future tense)- "Tomorrow's a lush economy/ where any gutter yields the stars - / bright scoundrels donning glitter/ to scintillate their pitches". "lush" also meaning "drunk"? It alludes to "we all walk in the gutter but some look to the stars", but why? And why "any"? In every gutter there'll be stars? And why claim that this will happen. Why not now? What will change? What kind of stars will don glitter to sell their ideas? Singers? But they're not "bright", and hopeful film directors wouldn't glam up. What sort of pitches are they then? Football pitches?

I'm still not convinced by the longer, o'erleaping poems. In "Singularity", a black hole absorbs (not for the first time) the memories of a senile man. "Rentboy" doesn't work for me. "Eightfold Garden Path" has more good moments, but I didn't get what the first part, "Right view", was about - "The mower hurls aside/ a lawn-strayed flake of gravel,/ nicking a further scab of bark/ from the graft-scarred foot/ of the dogged apple".

I think there's too much fashionable slant, too little telling truth. This may sometimes be caused by avoidance of the personal rather than a drift towards obscurity. To finish, here's the start of "encompass me, wild world", which pulls out the typographic stops -

make of the girdling scene
a glassless oriel

make of the root-wired earth
a wide and restless floor

(proffer the branches' clutch
on careless rooks' cupped sticks

the bracken's tendrilled fractal
clenched in a fiddlehead)

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (The Observer) (Her scattered reach and lack of self-centredness are unusual and attractive ... "The Wheelman" is an especially impressive poem ... There are moments when one wishes poets would stoop to satisfy the reader's curiosity. ... Endurance is a dominant theme ... Inevitably, with such variety, there is unevenness in quality)
  • David Green (There is a recurrent theme of encounters with nothingness ... one feels that Kona Macphee is one of the least formulaic poets one is likely to find. ... It's a highly likeable book and a pleasure to read)

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