Acumen Occasional Pamphlets 9, 2007 - £3.50 www.acumen-poetry.co.uk
Turning Away is clearly a Renaissance Man’s pamphlet. Its thirty-two pages embrace at least six paintings, four great works of literature, quantum physics, theology, any of several species of eucalyptus and a network of Australian caves. I took curious pleasure in the meticulous references, which are not even daunted by poetry in mid-flow. (‘A Woman in Bed’, for example, begins: “Her world1 is lace, woven from the darkness”. The superscript reference to endnote should surely append the title, rather than appear after the second word of the poem, though?) But although the ambition and diversity are perhaps too wide-ranging for a pamphlet-sized publication, the poems themselves are not too scholarly to be easily understood.
They can be divided into two rough categories. In the first, McFarlane describes and appreciates beauty, human and natural, with a high diction and inversion of phrase unrepentantly evocative of the nineteenth century. In ‘Antipodes’, for example, the octave of the sonnet runs:
Still sings the harp in caverns of my mind:
a voice without words, it rises and falls;
each breath is silence plucked from sound,
water dissolving stone; sea memories
that in the vaulted darkness well
from sadness sprung to brim of eye,
salt-crusted dust where ocean swell
once argent broke on burning sands.
The poet clearly has an ear for a resounding phrase and can move within the “caverns” of his mind to painful self-analysis:
Within my thoughts, within my brain
With every darkness: thoughts that maim;
so grows a forest cruelly round
that guards the garden of my mind.
For me, the greatest strength of the poems was their directness and honesty, and I liked the way they were tied together by a web of personal dedications—Naomi, Artémis, Rosemary Mann, the author’s grandmother, and Garry and Lou Duncan. One felt these were poems that mattered very much to their author, and in turn to the dedicatees.
Some of the versification, though, was troubling. The poet is clearly strongly influenced by traditional forms (the collection is prefaced by a quotation from Paradise Lost). Consistent with this, he embraces a metrical flourish and strong alliteration. When it works, this can still be powerful. But it risks bathos where the control is uncertain. In ‘The Thicket’, a partially successful metaphysical study of “the garden of my mind”, the form established in the opening verse paragraph is half-rhyming tetrameter couplets (see quotation above) but then the rhyme pattern breaks up uncertainly, before returning from time to time unpredictably. At one point, sound and rhythm transform anguish about self-imposed barriers of the mind into something closer to a couplet of gleeful Roald Dahl, followed by an uneasily unrhymed three lines, and then another couplet:
Give me an axe, that I might hew
the black and heart wood through and through,
and cut a path right back again
to garden bowers where angels
might to me impute some virtue.
The wall that grew around His land
is His protection from the damned…
This is certainly heart-felt, enmeshed and different—but it is not quite working in terms of form and expression—not for this reader, anyway.
Idea for idea, McFarlane grapples with much potent material, even if his expression would benefit from less excess and more plain speech. But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, as Browning has it, and this stanza from ‘From the Window’ (set in Singelgracht, Amsterdam) reaches for the stars:
The moon came up, drew back the pall
and clothed the trees, each twig and branch,
with silver stitched on velvet sky:
the beauty of the living root, why
even in the city’s neon heart
a moment can become eternal.