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Review of The Canals of Mars
David Kennedy, Planet magazine, issue 170, Spring 2005Previous review of 'The Canals of Mars'... Next review of 'The Canals of Mars'... To the 'The Canals of Mars' page...
Solid Castles in the Air
In his thoughtful and wide-ranging study of loss and commemoration in contemporary writing, In Mourning, William Watkin observes that all elegies "have a lot to teach us about the non-representability of absence and the permanent trace of all this in all forms of representation." Watkin's remark goes right to the heart of Patrick McGuinness's collection which begins with 'Father and Son', a poem "in memory of my father, and in welcome to my son.":
In the wings there is one who waits to go on,
and another, his scene run, who waits to go.
I would like to think they met; if not here,
then like crossed letters touching in the dark;
the blank page and the turned page,
the first and the last, shadows folding
over and across me, in whom they're bound.
This brief nod towards elegy sets the tone for the rest of the book. The conscious and cultivated cast of the couplets reminscent of seventeenth-century poetry may be found again in "moving, they dissected movement" ('Wasps') and "half bodies now, half forms of thought" ('Surfers in a Wing Mirror').
With only the opening poem to hand, we might deduce that McGuinness is fascinated by "between states", by the way that, as here, a moment of disappearance can also be a moment of emergence. Several poems in the first third of The Canals of Mars do indeed deal with borders. The word gives the second poem of the book its title and 'Vague Terrain' deals with the "nether-country" and "border / land" where rubbish gets dumped. However, if we read 'Father and Son' with the attention that it demands then it is clear that what fascinates McGuinness is the way that moments of disappearance, of apparent nothingness, can be as important and as full of meaning as more tangible life events and the material world and its obstinate presences. The book is dominated by words like aftermath, afterglow, afterlives, shadow and shades. What the poems reveal is therefore often paradoxical. For the lovers in 'An Ending', "our not moving is what dizzies, not our speed"; and in the sequence 'Solid Castles in the Air (Erick Satie on his Times)' "a void takes place beneath a scaffolding of tune."
McGuinness has published notable translations of Huysman's Against Nature and Mallarme's For Anatole's Tomb. As this underlines, The Canals of Mars is partly concerned to update Symbolism for the twenty-first century and McGuinness is clearly in sympathy with the assertion which marked Mallarme's discovery of his mature style: "Peindre, non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit" (To paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces). Two of the poems here deal with dust: "those particles...that spin / and settle back in layers on what they lit" and is both "form and form-giver...lighter than disappearance." This means that many of McGuinness's poems, like many of Mallarme's, register movements towards or away from different realities and explore the beginning of a poem - or, more specifically, the beginning of an impulse towards the writing of a poem - as one of those moments. At the beginning of 'Surfers in a Wing Mirror' the "half boy, half board, sea centaurs" catch the attention but it is only when "driving past we watch them disappear, / distorted in the wing mirror's / mannered vision of themselves" that they begin to reveal exactly what it is about them that nags the eye. There is perhaps something Mallarmean in the idea that only a mannered vision can access such moments.
McGuinness's fascination with the mannered vision in the wing mirror is paralleled by poems about the perceptions of and responses to structures: Percival Lowells' observations of drying canals in the book's title poem, fairground machines in 'Coney Beach', "The Hanging Nest" in 'Wasps', and Bach in 'The Fugue'. This poem starts with an epigraph from Adorno's 'Bach Defended Against His Devotees' arguing that music is concerned with "dissolving Being". The poem ends:
In minute revolutions it maintains,
First, how the centre strains
But holds, as a drop of water fattens
On an edge of light; or else it mirrors
Release, disintegration, the mirrors
Drained of their reflections, and the patterns
Of your voice escaping you;
Explaining what, they ask, consoling who?
In the immediate context of the poem, the questions seem to warn against trying to ascribe a purpose to Bach's music. In the wider context of The Canals of Mars they might be read as artfully disingenuous. They suggest that if absence is at the heart of representation then poetry is inevitably a work of consolation. Read back into the rest of the collection and McGuinness's rigorous soundings of absence the implication is that this does not mean that poems should have purposes or offer explanations before they have poetry.
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