Mariscat Press 2010   £5.00Sphinx seven striper


Reviewed by Richard Kemp, Stephen Payne and George Simmers.


Richard Kemp:

These poems are written by somebody who knows how to write. They employ many ‘drawing-in’ words. From ‘Boxing Day’:

mmm A redbreast from the hedge looked on
mmmwith his twig coloured eyes, his tomato soup stain

There’s depth to these texts: they hold up to scrutiny and re-reading. For me, what makes them stand out is the way James McGonigal has thought through his descriptions and described his world, as in the example above, in an original way. It’s one thing to be purely descriptive, as in good prose, and many poets will stray from the essence of an object for ‘poetic’ effect. Really good poetry occurs—for me—when, amongst other things, the poet gets the accuracy of the object and the colour and interest in description. This is from ‘First Light’:

mmmWe were half awake and dumbstruck
mmmhow it knew the names of colours,
mmmarticulating every thorn upon the bough

The only thing I could think would improve this collection was if the poems appeared one to a single page, as opposed to (as here, often) two. This work warrants it.

Stephen Payne:
Cloud Pibroch was a PBS choice and also won the Michael Marks prize earlier this year, so several well-qualified judges rate it as outstanding.

One thing that's striking about the slender publication is how many poems it contains, and how consistent these seem in terms of register and technique (and length). There are 45 poems, about twice as many as most pamphlets, and they range in length from 6 to 13 lines. My response to the individual poems is remarkably invariant, and for this reason, I feel my response to the collection as a whole might best be explained by quoting one of the shorter ones in full, and discussing it.  This also seems a fair way of advertising the pamphlet—I'm confident that a reader who enjoys ‘Release of Prisoners’ will enjoy the entire collection.

mmmRelease of Prisoners

mmmHow could we have held clouds in both hands
mmmand wrung them out like dishcloths? Our children
mmmwoke with snowflakes on their brows.

mmmCan I return to the main point of this illness,
mmmthe immediate wound, after some attempts
mmmto stop its tongue of blood?

mmmStarlight must have blessed the skin
mmmand broken it—or voices just outside the tent
mmmhave sung us wide awake.

When I read this, two aspects simultaneously engage me. The first is the way each of the sentences, in isolation, is rather beautifully written. Each describes an inventive and compelling image, and the syntax and diction seem somehow authoritative, interestingly varied. I’m convinced this is careful writing by a talented writer.

The second part of my reaction is: What on earth does it mean? I'm well aware that some readers might enjoy the mystery, and that my failure (either to understand, or to enjoy not understanding) may indicate my own weakness as a reader. Of course, it’s thought-provoking and challenging, so perhaps the trick is simply to stop seeking any unified meaning.

On the other hand, this doesn't read like highly experimental poetry, in that it seems to make sense; nor does it mess with any syntactic rules or appear to be primarily sound-driven (although “woke with snowflakes on their brows” is rather pleasing in that respect). I don't read it as questioning or reworking the relation between language/thought and reality. The images have a consistent tone and hint at a coherent metaphor, allowing me to glimpse some unifying interpretation.

But in fact I just can't pull the meanings together, except in a vague abstract way, into a hazy image of some kind of camp, an army camp, perhaps, because of the wound, and the title (but then why the children?) And I'm afraid I must admit to finding that frustrating—although, of course hardly a unique experience for a reader of contemporary poetry.

Perhaps I shouldn't be isolating one poem from the sequence, but I haven't yet found that the sequence helps me understand the individual poems, although it does of course work to shift my expectations.

I’ll finish by quoting Alan Bennett, writing about W.H. Auden (and expressing a view of Auden identical with my view of McGonigal), if only to re-emphasise that my difficulties with James McGonigal's work should not be taken as dismissive of his talent (and indeed, having googled McGonigal as background to this review, may I say how glad I was to find ‘The Camphill Wren’, a wonderful poem).

"Much of Auden, even most of Auden . . . I do not understand. Now, I could say the same about Ezra Pound or Eliot's ‘The Waste Land’, but there the difficulty is plain: you know you don't understand Pound or T.S. Eliot right from the start. Auden is different. It seems easy. The landscape is familiar. . . ."

George Simmers:
There are a lot of poems crammed into the thirty-two crowded pages of this pamphlet, and a far greater number of arresting images. James McGonigal has a highly visual imagination; he describes the experience of fever as ‛a Mondrian sort of blue’ and later in the same poem tells us ‛sweat’s coat/ was buttoned at my throat.’ His characteristic technique is a mild surrealism that often  makes this reader at least say; ‛Yes, I recognise that experience, but I’ve never seen it put into words that way.’

I particularly liked:

mmmSnoring provided simultaneous translation
mmmof dream-talk into Sanskrit,
mmmor the rumble of applause for his own epic deeds.

James McGonigal describes reading ‛The History of Waves—a book/with oilskin covers of cobalt and jasper/ whose every turning page sent spray/ flying in the reader’s eye.’  Those lines rather describe the experience of reading this pamphlet, too. The mind’s eye is constantly assaulted and astonished with images and ideas. You’ll get an idea of the pamphlet’s richness when I tell you that all the lines I’ve quoted so far are from a single two-page spread. Open the pamphlet anywhere else and you’ll find similar treasures and pleasures.

If I’ve a small criticism, it’s about the presentation. Crowding two poems onto every page means that individual poems don’t always have the space to stand by themselves. But why complain about too generous a cornucopia of poetic imagination? This pamphlet is a joy.