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Review of Jilted City - Tom Walker, Poetry Matters, 2010
Patrick McGuinness’s fine debut collection, The Canals of Mars (2004), was just that: a collection. Its poems explored his complex background and shifting allegiances – McGuinness was born in Tunisia to a Belgian and Newcastle Irish family, and now lives in Wales – with alienation and familial tenderness carefully poised. They also exploited a lightly worn, distinctly francophile, erudition. For McGuinness, a Professor of French at Oxford, is a man of many parts: the author of a study on Maeterlinck, a translator of Huysmans and Mallarmé, and an editor of T. E. Hulme and Lynette Roberts. But the collection – and this was very much an aspect of its success – never quite added up to more than the sum of its parts. In the words of ‘Belgitude’, one of its more programmatic performances, ‘its unmistakeable confusion about what it was/ was what made it what it was’.Previous review of 'Jilted City'... To the 'Jilted City' page...
Jilted City, McGuinness’s second collection, carries forward many of the same themes and qualities. The poet’s ‘belgitude’ is again to the fore, most prominently in the excellent sequence ‘Blue Guide’, which takes in past train journeys on ‘La Ligne 162’ that runs from Brussels to Luxembourg. A pair of fleeting, delicate, elegies to his mother rest alongside verses after Baudelaire (‘Spleen’ transposed to matchday Cardiff), Rilke and the Belgian surrealist Charles Dotremont. But the book marks a significant advance on its predecessor in coming together more as a complete volume. Its poems subtly inform one another, yet somehow without descending into the too-easy comfort of offering straightforward analogies and identifications. It is also intricately structured, with two groups of lyrics either side of ‘Blue Guide’, followed by the closing sequence ‘City of Lost Walks’. This purports to be extracts translated from the work of the Romanian poet Liviu Campanu, who is in fact McGuinness’s own creation – rather in the manner of Geoffrey Hill’s fictitious Spanish poet Sebastian Arrurruz, author of the closing poems in King Log (1968). At first glance, this all seems fairly disparate. But words and ideas start to carry across from one poem and one section to another.
‘Blue’ in the opening section, as its epigraph signals, feeds off Mallarmé’s ‘L’Azur’ to draw a contrast between the clear sky of the past and the polluted sky of the present:
Azure! Azure! Azure! Azure! … all that was before:
before we rode it in planes and used it to park satellites
or as ethereal landfill for our emissions.
The earthbound diction, in a kind of (satisfyingly clunky) Martian School meets Gaia manoeuvre, works to belie the sky’s promissory emptiness. Pollution’s effects are not to be wished away in a dream of blue beginnings. But this sky and the terms of its figuration return in altered form in the later ‘Nineteenth-Century Blues’. Musing on Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, the poem’s speaker suddenly observes:
The men are rudderless, bobbing like those balloons
That overflew the siege of Paris:
They roll on frictionless, leaving holes in the air.
The awkwardness of the figurative language here – the nautical shifting to the air-borne – and in ‘Blue’ draws the poems into ironic dialogue. Our inability to perceive our present is aligned with these characters’ inability to impress themselves on their epoch (and by extension Flaubert’s attempt to depict a generation); the grounded sky has somehow become these floating men.
Such failures of perception, language and history refract off one another. The presence of various legacies – of family, class and, particularly, the nineteenth-century – is repeatedly registered yet never fully captured. What is grasped is merely the shape of the past (one of the collection’s poems is titled ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’). In ‘The Age of the Empty Chair’, a response to Monet’s The Beach at Trouville, painted as McGuinness reminds us during ‘week one of the Franco-Prussian war’ with the very ‘sand in the paint’, an empty chair ‘suggests all that can be suggested about change but it remains/ apart from it’.
This sense of connections felt yet not straightforwardly made and of existing in a state of perpetual aftermath is made explicit in the slow-motion lines of ‘Blue Guide’, as it creeps and creaks down through Wallonia. In Belgium the nineteenth century is ‘still shaking/ on the rails, the twentieth a late train’. Brussels’ Quartier-Léopold station, only the façade of which now remains, is envisaged as a disturbing colonial relic, ‘a heart of darkness where the train stops’. Yet its recent replacement, Bruxelles-Luxembourg, offers a no-less disturbing vision of a post-national future ‘taking shape’. Resting below the huge new European parliament building, ‘a Leviathan fattened on damp/ and disregard’, the station is filled with a deathly kind of euro-signage:
A new language which has no name
spreads along the billboards and the shopsigns – Euro Dago,
Le Y€S Bar, Het Leader Bowling – beside which the sign marked
Liquidation totale seems full of Old Testament promise.
The poems in the first three sections of the volume, cast in a similar mode to McGuinness’s earlier work, lay the ground for his highly successful new departure, the donning of the mask of Campanu in ‘City of Lost Walks’. Alienation is reshaped as actual exile: the Romanian poet writes having been banished to Constanţa (paralleling Ovid) by the Ceaeseşcu regime. But far from being a worthy reimagining of life under a totalitarian dictator, the persona seems to allow McGuinness to find a decidedly chattier, more hectoring, jokey and romantic voice. Yet it is shadowed by the troubling irony that this recovered testimony, this fragmentary monument to good humour and the tender passing moment, has not actually been found at all:
I’m not adapting. But what’s worse
is that I’m getting used to it: I’m a bad version
from the classics. Ovid in translationese,
jazzed up with radio and TV
(albeit black and white and with just one channel),
unable to hit the right note without feeling
I’m borrowing from someone else’s story.
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