Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Turning Over in a Strange Bed, James McGonigalThe cover seems to be white or a very pale grey. The only image is the publisher's logo of a cat, which is tiny and bottom left. The title is in fairly large green caps split over two lines in the top quarter of the jacket. The second line is indented slightly from the first: TURNING OVER / IN A STRANGE BED. Below this in black, and very small lower case italics are the words Poems / Translations. The author's name appears in lower case but considerably bigger, left justified in a fairly bold black just above half way down the cover.

Mariscat Press, 2017    £6.00

Colours of saying

In McGonigal’s poems the past had brighter colours, glimpsed now only in dreams or as part of the contrast with another country. In ‘Making Light of It’, his daughter’s excited phone call as she watches a solar eclipse in Spain, five minutes ahead of its Scottish sighting, is set against his own familiarity with northern greyness. While she is entranced by ‘the black mouth of the moon / swallowing the sun’s gold egg / with pitiless lipsmacking gusto’, he records his different response:

And partly that here in the north we are used to
living benighted, abandoned by sunbeams,
myopic, occluded, the auburn of youth
turning grey as your noon sky in Fuente today.

That’s a more exaggerated version of the gentler greyness found in other poems, with their tonal range of half-dark and mist, peat smoke, rain and snow, poems in which  the true colour of the past has faded, accessed via memory and its potential for being unreliable. The ‘auburn of youth’ is like ‘this abandoned language’ in ‘The Avoidance of Relationships’.

Words can be elusive, slipping out of reach even in daily speech and even more so if your childhood began in another tongue. What McGonigal has called ‘the glittering / giftwrap of another language’ (in ‘Praise’) shifts to define a more disconsolate state of being

[ … ] on a desolate shoreline
having lost all of the words but one
for the smell of the waves on my jacket

Poetry is one way to hold on to language and its colour, to keep them and their associations alive in the present.

In the final poem, ‘The Lost Glen’, in the grey of early morning, the poet wakes from a dream: ‘She came back to me last night / in the deep blue dress with her hair adrift’ and that holds a reality, even while ‘Outside / burn waters tsked and bustled / sweeping word after word away.’

I like encountering the curious word ‘tsked’: it’s how water has always sounded, and it holds the colour of that sound.

D A Prince