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Review of The Canals of Mars
Anne Berkeley, Oxford Poetry, Issue XII, Spring 2006:Previous review of 'The Canals of Mars'... Next review of 'The Canals of Mars'... To the 'The Canals of Mars' page...
Patrick McGuiness is a poet of inhabited space: the suburbs, outer space, the human body, even 'The White Place' of near death experience. And temporal space - 'A History of Doing Nothing' is wittily expounded. He examines the intervals between notes, "the gaps that separate events / the hungerless white dreams between awakenings." Boundaries are tested; absence is as forceful as presence. Hefted sheep know "the field without a fence beyond which nothing feels the same // so a word might cross the unfenced border of its meaning // her name for instance."
Words flow into each other. "[C]oal... eddied into coral as / the Mersey flowed into the Meuse"; the Welsh word 'Cwlwm' (knot) has by the end of the poem unravelled into 'column'. "The Meuse flows through / as many names as it has valleys to run dry in". (Belgium has rarely seemed so fascinating.)
The taste for paradox and aphorism runs through the book like a genetic marker. Definition is elusive, forever shifting in mirrors, likenesses, shadows, movement, illusion. The language echoes the slipperiness,in rhyme and word-play, as he takes pains to pin things down. The perspective of a realist painting is not to be trusted:
the canvas contemplates itself
the world is naked as a cracked code
the street is billed and boarded, brand names
trademarking the air. Underfoot, the polished
cobbles show the scene in convex, their rough squares
making a mosiac of the picture they are part of.
('A Realist Painting')
Relentlessly enquiring, scientifically informed, he delights in neglected material. He has a Pullmanesque regard for dust: "form and form-giver, light and light-bearer". It's one of his recurring motifs (like light, air, shadows and reflections); it is what the non-existent Martians in the title poem become. The Victorian astronomer who mapped the 'canals' can imagine their suffering, / but cannot imagine them... They have no features yet to fit their pain / into." Yet in their "ripped space-moccasins" they carry the weight of dispossessed Native Americans fleeing before invaders. "It could be us, but not yet..." in the face of oncoming drought, "their country / diminishing so fast beneath their feet / it is like snow thawing on the prairie."
The hellish thirstiness, and remoteness, of Mars is prefigured in 'A View of Pasadena fom the Road' and echoed in later poems. The reciprocal canal in Bruges hints at lost Atlantis. The book is rich in interconnections.
He unfolds the possibilities of complexity, 'Time's pleats', the DNA motif in a fugue, or the way a though itself might take root and open up:
it sends out branches, swallows the air,
converts the space around into versions
of itself; moves in analogy, correspondence,
devours its like, devours likeness,
creates nothingness in its image; is for a time
the very force that made it;
('Short Life of a Thought')
...and he keeps it up for thirty lines, a compelling rush of imagery in the way a drowning man might see his life flash before him.
Some poems are less original. Hard on the heels of 'Borders' comes a political divide. The Northern Irish 'dystopia' in 'No' is blighted by visual cliché - abandoned prams and tricolour kerbstones, sealed police stations 'foreign as spacecraft'. Yet the final couplet lifts the benighted loyalists in their 'hives of negativity' onto another, geological, level of defiance:
facing time head-on
as walls face winds, cliffs face off the seas,
and lose so slowly it feels like winning.
It's written with the benefit of a very long persppective - as one might view Martians, perhaps.
He deploys rhyme and form with skill, and it's good also to see some sparer, less joined-up writing. A drystone wall is 'stone lodged on stone noun on noun' using the poem's white spaces for the air between, ending with a solid block to
bind what harms them into
sustaining patterns of
It's a visual demonstration of his fascination with 'the space that [lies] between', with boundaries, the relationship of positive to negative.
Harking back to the first poem, which imagines his late father and unborn son as actors on the point of meeting as one exits and one enters, the last poem sets an empty stage where 'everything is possible, has stopped, / is finished and about to happen.' This is a cool and intelligent debut.
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