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Your list has always been interesting, idiosyncratic, imaginative and your translations [...] have been a source of pleasure to me.
Al Alvarez

Review of Torchlight, Fran Brearton, The Guardian, 2nd April 2011

Torchlight is Peter McDonald's fifth collection, and his restrained, technically accomplished style is now something of a hallmark; so too is the way he intimates more complex depths beneath that carefully crafted surface. ‘Reversing Around a Corner’, with its cross-rhymes, its single sentence sustained across 28 lines and its sense of free play within formal control, exemplifies his superb technique: ‘Plato could have handled it: the turns / half-turns and quarter-turns, the speed / and timing . . . intelligence / working with gentleness or force’. It transforms its seemingly mundane subject – a driving test manoeuvre – into a mini-parable of life: the choices made or not made, the workings of intelligence and instinct (head and heart), restraint versus freedom. Its closing lines quietly resist rhetorical flourish, self-dramatisation or unearned transcendence, but their very simplicity is both memorable and telling: ‘rules, and what the rules allow, / don't figure, now there are times when / nothing is beautiful, or true, / with no great difference between / what I can do and I can't do’. If there is ‘enough play / in the wheel to give the look of ease’, the poem makes its own formal manoeuvres look easy too, which they are not.

McDonald is one of the best poetry critics currently writing, whose wit, ire and irony can work to devastating effect. He has written eloquently on the cult of ‘personality’ in contemporary poetry (‘words, not 'personality', are what survive or perish’), and his own poetic style is a measure of experience and a test of sincerity: ‘I confess’, he writes in ‘Green Tea’, ‘how I lust after / fluency, and how I distrust it’. In the last poem in the book, ‘Cheetah’, he is the cautious parent who warns the child with the ‘Cat-shaped’ helium balloon ‘not to let go, not to let go’; but learns that ‘that's the whole idea’ – to let ‘the string rise and unravel through / my fingers’; to ‘give up everything’; to imagine ‘the cold, far end / of the harm we do, the hurt we give’; to be ‘a lost shape in some open place / high up’. If this is a memorandum to posterity, it's one that trusts the shape of words to have an afterlife of their own.

There is ‘enough play’ in the writing to be playful, too. ‘Singles’ details his early love affair with popular music, with singles ‘ferried . . . across our quiet sitting-room / to the Dansette with its open lid . . . ready to play them all / to destruction’. He's talking about the small vinyl variety tragically ousted by CDs and downloads, but there's a subtext, too, about another kind: the singles are ‘Unprotected . . . with all of their nicks and scratches . . . pressed up together in the plastic-swelling dark’, spilling out ‘like so many side-plates’ (or spare parts). A nostalgia for his early days helping out with the magazine Oxford Poetry also takes him beneath a surface of affectionate reminiscence into a moving tribute to the late Mick Imlah, and into a critique of ‘that Oxford . . . where power hatches and speaks to itself’. Imlah's Scottishness, and his own Irishness, make them ‘at home in feeling far from home’ with each other.

In the book's opening poem, ‘Neighbours’, a visiting poet to Belfast in the early 1960s is due to deliver, after ‘a breakfast of whiskey’, a ‘talk, unscripted / on 'Childhood Memories'‘. This recalls a more innocent age. But towards the close of the volume, McDonald's own ‘Childhood Memories’ – a sequence of 12 sonnets – bear witness to a less than lyrical childhood context. The poems occasionally show a debt to Louis MacNeice (whose Collected Poems McDonald edited), but McDonald, born in 1962, captures a child's-eye view of one of Northern Ireland's darkest periods. The memories, of East Belfast suburbia in the early 1970s, are often stark – the petrol bomb through the letterbox; playing with ‘plastic soldiers and tanks’ in the ‘torchlight’ of the power cuts; his father's return home ‘shaking’ after witnessing four bombers ‘scattered in lumps, being scraped up from the pavement’. (There's an appalling twist to the book's music motif here, too, as ‘A little crowd . . . chanted at the ambulances and fire engines / over and over the chorus from Bits and Pieces’.)

McDonald has an insider's take on some of the turns, half-turns and reversals of the Northern Irish situation, one which could explain his preference for restraint over excess, holding back the temptation to ‘scream aloud’. Torchlight begins and ends with explorations of the poet's own past and present; but its second section, comprising powerful Homeric and Sapphic translations, privileges female experience, and the story of Demeter and Persephone, of the grieving mother and the lost child, is literally at the centre of the book. With so much hyper-masculine Northern Irish Protestantism lurking in his background, one understands why. One of the sonnets in ‘Childhood Memories’, ‘Blue Skies’, remembers a hot summer and ‘crowds in a field . . . listening to an amplified roar / that is Paisley's, unmistakeably . . . although his words are lost / in their own noise, and only the outrage and the scorn / come through intact’. Some personalities will have their day, of course, in politics and in poetry; but if we listen as attentively as these poems ask us to, McDonald's words should outlast any amplified roars.
Next review of 'Torchlight'... To the Peter McDonald page... To the 'Torchlight' page...
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