Smith/Doorstop, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Robin Vaughan-Williams, Trevor McCandless and Andrew Sclater
Most of the poems in this collection revolve around memory, rooted in everyday experience, to explore themes of family and place. At several points the ghosts of people past appear overlaid with the living in what might be called double-exposure poetry. In one poem (‘Walk from Many Points of View’), in which McMillan encounters his former self, it seems as if the ghost is his present self, which rather suggests that recollection and nostalgia, perhaps through their selectivity, can intensify experience in relation to the present. Or this could also be about the sense of abstraction the observer-poet may feel.
This is the first in a sequence of eight poems called ‘Walk’, all based around memories of Snape Hill in the village of Darfield, South Yorkshire. As with much of the collection, these are mostly anecdotal: how an older boy convinced him the pit tower in the valley was Blackpool Tower, or the time he broke a leg kicking a brick in the snow.
I liked the way this sequence ends with ‘As an Old Man Ian Remembers His Walks’, which remembers the poems that have gone before it, as if we’re going to need a recap because they’re already fading from memory. It begins: “I remember remembering, and the remembering, remember/ was what got me thinking about the walks.”
There’s a fair bit of inventiveness with form and language scattered through the pamphlet. I say ‘inventiveness’, because the term ‘experimentation’ would belie its lightness and accessibility. That doesn’t necessarily mean obvious, though. In ‘Sleeper’, a Woody Allen film is interrupted by a bomb scare. When they return to the cinema, the poet starts “Motorrrrrrbiking my rrrrrrrs!”:
We rrrran forrrrr the last bus.
My bearrrrrrrd continued to
He remains similarly afflicted for the rest of the poem, and it’s got something to do with his beard. I found this curiously amusing, but wasn’t sure there was much more to it.
Elsewhere the inventiveness seems more grounded. In ‘It’s the 4 th of July!’ McMillan has found an effective way of conveying the effect of two people talking to you at once in the back of a taxi:
BUT I’VE HEARDJustone nightTHEY’RE GOING TO COMBINE ALL THE PROGRAMMESwe got the midges, one walkWELL NEARLY ALL AND JUSTcovered, our faces coveredJUST KEEP BREAKFAST AND TEATIME
“And that’s hard to represent, poetry lovers”, he announces. So it’s all getting a bit reflexive here, what with “the struggle/ Between populism and/ Linguistically interesting work”.
Overall I felt this pamphlet was a mixed bag, with some poems that really pulled it off; others that didn’t convince me. But a populist-experimentalist compromise it is not.
There were things I liked in this collection. In ‘Yorkshire Pudding Rules’ there is a list of ingredients that prove impossible to mention without infusing them with a life’s very particular experience. Or in ‘Old Age’ a simply observed fact of growing old is simply stated—no mucking about, no jokey elbows to the ribs—just as is. Or in the fourth part of ‘Drift’, where the miners are bent over at their work, the lines are constricted and bent over too:
In the half-dark
In the half-bent
Light, the back
Of the dull pain
Of repetition, history.
But for every poem like these there are five like ‘Sleeper’, a surrealist proof that I am one of the people in the cinema who won’t get all of the jokes. In part (and if we must quote Woody Allen, then I’m guilty with an excuse) this is because McMillan is very much of his time and place—and my living in a different time and half a world away means I don’t have the entry fee required.
But this isn’t just the Australian not getting the jokes. Much of this was either too surreal or too much like old-men’s humour for my tastes. The closer I get to being an old man the more I fear, given all proof at my disposal, what this will inevitably mean for my sense of humour. Hope I die before I grow slapstick. In the same poem—but next part—of ‘Drift’ there’s an extended prose introduction about how he has transcribed the words of the songs he has heard (using a piece of coal, obviously, they are mining songs, after all) that you too could hear, “if you go to the mine late at night with recording equipment”.
If that made you smile, rather than cringe, I suspect you will find lots to smile about in this collection. But then, I did need to look up who Martha Longhurst was and still have no idea what “back from the snug with wings” could possibly mean. So, I’m really not the intended reader for this collection.
We have had more wordage from Ian McMillan than that foolish introvert-of-a-nineteenth-century-poet-in-a-garret ever had hot dinners. Which brings me to my favourite piece in this 21-poem book: ‘Yorkshire Pudding Rules.’ It’s all about tradition, family, love and impossibility. In McMillan’s kitchen, even pudding becomes transcendent:
The oven door must open and you must shout
JESUS CHRIST as the heat smacks you in the chops.
Follow these rules
And the puddings will rise to heaven
And far beyond.
Though John Murray and Carcanet are included among McMillan’s publishers since 1980, this book is published by Smith/Doorstop, whose Ann and Peter Sansom once backed a little known McMillan in 1986 by listing Tall In The Saddle.
Some may think this collection rather light, slightly crazy even. But I thoroughly recommend it, because it challenges the over-serious. And I’d rather read a subject under-seriously than over-seriously. After all, over-serious work can all too easily obscure (viz. obfuscate) its subject.
In McMillan’s hands, the subject itself is even capable of taking over the poem (and any serious thought that generates it) entirely, as in ‘It’s the 4 th of July’:
Always, for me, the struggle
Between populism and
Linguistically interesting work
But, in the taxi, Roy
Is talking about Radio Sheffield
And our John is talking about . . .
I value McMillan precisely because, for him, nothing much is ‘off limits’. In this book, we have the crucifixion of a Coronation Street souvenir alarm clock, a man wearing a pinny, the School of Mud, the Academy of Chips and Red sauce, Emma Peel’s leather trousers, the Little Chef, Uttoxeter, and (at the end) the poet and his wife decorating their parents’ graves with flowers, bought for £2 a bunch from Morrisons:
You snip, you arrange
And a blackbird makes a sudden lunge
To the ground near the accident victim.
I bag the scissors, the cloth. We go home.
.....[‘Unrealsimus/Realismus. 2. Visiting the Cemetery Last Saturday*
.....(*depending when you read this, of course.)’]
I admire McMillan for being so unfailingly exuberant about poetry! When I heard him launching this little book at Ilkley, he told us its title was a joke, something to sound like a proper, deep poetry book. So, there is no poem about a lake that was once frozen, nor about associated lamps. But actually, I absorbed the energy and warmth of this book like glowing antifreeze.
Mr McMillan, you are perhaps more profound than you think. Congratulations! Good extrovert stuff. Just the right dose of irreverence.