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Review of 'The Canals of Mars'
Lyndon Davies, Poetry Wales Volume 41 no. 4 Spring 2006Previous review of 'The Canals of Mars'... To the 'The Canals of Mars' page...
In one of the poems of this book, 'Host Organisms', the poet refers to the way of looking at things, exemplified by the practitioners of nineteenth century medicine, which utilises the 'technology of the objective'. I think that's a good phrase and one that offers us a useful handle on the art of Patrick McGuinness himself, for this is a poet who is fascinated by emotional and morally neutral states of being. From Belgium to Mars, from Naples to Porthcawl, McGuinness homes in on the otiose and the abstract, cataloguing the phenomena which define their geography, sometimes discovering in them pointers towards the possibility of a fuller human engagement, or clues disclosing an affective subtext.
There is a very cool brain at work in these poems, at times a degree too chilly for me. That subtext, the hypothesizing engagement, rarely shake the orderly surface of the language. The verse flirts with an almost Empsonian formality, which can, now and then, sound academic; for instance, too many poems end with the resounding ergo of a rhyme or half-rhyme. This surprises me in a poet of such wit and insight, and yet you could argue that there is a congruence in this foregrounding of the basic 'technology' of verse, with the objectifying project of the book as a whole. Occasionally I felt that I was dealing with a kind of butterfly hunter, a collector of interesting perspectives on the world, pinned out in display cases whose function was not so much to show off the specimens to their best advantage as to advertise the unbridgeable distance between the viewer and the viewed.
The poet seems almost to be thinking around this effect in a poem called 'The Fugue', ostensibly a kind of meditation on that form of musical composition, but obviously and quite anxiously about more than that. Here, the regularity of the pulse of pentameters and trimeters, the capitalisation of line beginnings, could be seen as mimicking the orderly procession (at a structural level) of a fugue, which a poet, estranged from his subject by a language and a consciousness which is inevitably foreign to it, cannot inhabit, but can only attempt to explicate:
Microscopic: a maze of cells around
A spreading core of sound,
Lost in a gallery of its reflections;
Loosening as it holds, one small motif
For DNA, maps itself, as a leaf
Maps out the tree it is and grows upon.
This is no musicalogical disquisition. Although the poem presents its ideas with a sort of donnish rigor, what is actually being enacted is the endless, unstoppable splintering and coalescing of meaning in a much wider existential context.
Never the many binding into one:
The flax unwinds, the braiding comes undone,
From cell to lonely cell the atoms spin.
What we are witnessing here is the anatomising of a very basic human anxiety, one which goes to the root of the creative impulse, the anxiety attendant on the failure of any act, in this case at once a speech act and a musical utterance, reinforced by rules and ethics and traditions, to stay where we put it, to mean what we want it to mean:
Drained of their reflections, and the patterns
Of your voice escaping you;
Explaining what, they ask, consoling who?
Of course, at the same time, in some definite but indefinable way, 'the centre holds': life, speech and action are still possible. At least, thinking about them is still possible.
McGuiness sometimes produces work that has an air of the set piece about it, the big creative writing exercise on a theme, although these are rarely of less superior quality. But the poems I liked most in this book were usually the more relaxed, less monolithic ones such as poems about Belgium and border towns and borders in general. In these the theme of reality as a state of in-betweenness is perfectly married to the simplicity of the verse forms and the wittiness of the images. He likes places where nothing much happens, where
events have come to hide away, to break,
like light, into those particles of dust that spin
and settle back in layers on what they lit.
'A Border Town'
And even when something is happening, something which may potentially be of catastrophic import, what grips him is the way the event is bounded and invaded by everything that is not that event. Something happening is mainly nothing going on, history itself is mainly nothing going on, mainly 'hungerless white dreams between awakenings' ('A History of Doing Nothing'). Hence the delight in borders, in places which are not quite places in themselves (or exist as a kind of negative equivalent), transitional spaces, walls, streets, towns, people, whose nature is characterised by a sense that the big event has already passed through or to one side, or is going on in some other spot altogether. This is very much McGuinness territory and in the best poems, precise descriptive evocations merge seamlessly with an implied or explicit symbolic discourse.
Occasionally, I think he gets it wrong, as, for instance in 'No' where the vivid picture of a devastated urban landscape runs aground on the poet's redundant commentary:
The slow quotidian burrs in these hives
Sometimes he wants to explain too much, insist too much upon the greater significance of what, at other times might have interested him and us more because of its significantly charged suspensions of significance.
But, then again, McGuinness is a poet who likes to think, to think around and about things discursively, rather than to present them solely in some occultly imagistic fashion, and this is quite a risky thing to do: there is always a danger that you are going to close down too many of the poems options. Personally, though, I rarely felt that this poet's thought-processes were anything less than subtle and intriguing, or didn't lead out beyond themselves in varied and interesting directions. I liked this book and there are certainly a number of poems I will want to return to.
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