Mariscat Press, 2004 £5.00
One of the abiding mysteries of poetry is why so many poets fail to see or else to value the true nature of their gift. One could make a case for Blake’s prophetic books or MacDiarmid’s interminable prosy tirades, but who really prefers these to the short lyrics of genius collected in the two poets’ earlier volumes? Likewise, I wonder who could prefer the first lengthy parts of James McGonigal’s Passage / An Pasaíste to the few concise, occasionally sparkling lyrics at the book’s end? Possibly the judges of the Deric Bolton Long Poem Award who, in 2003, doffed their caps to McGonigal’s ambition.
The acknowledgements page sums up neatly this book’s themes: “Irish-Scots immigration, radical politics, coal mining and iron smelting in the 19th and early 20th centuries”. But, more subjectively, the book’s real theme is identity. So it is in the work of many poets, but McGonigal’s almost genealogical approach feels oddly old-fashioned, almost Victorian. The style is more contemporary. Despite the Scottish socialist feel of it all, the technique owes much to the open-ended fragmentary poetry of the fascist poet Ezra Pound. Or, at least, the justification for this style of poetry as poetry flows from Pound. Perfectly respectable in literary terms, therefore, but—to my mind—not the language of revelation: a kind of protracted conscious delirium as opposed to the brief unconscious dream.
But dream he does, as in the twenty-five-line final lyric ‘Regarding Water’, eighteen lines of which end with the word ‘water’; and in ‘Half Asleep in Antrim’, with its rare flash of humour at the start
Dream of holding hands with women in an April bed—
but in the morning check both arms for fractures
and its engaging spontaneity at the end:
Look, all too soon the window-glass of sunset.
Let’s drive on up and see who snores there now.
My own favourite is the poem in honour of Kirkpatrick Dobie, a plain-speaking Scottish poet who gained some recognition very late in life. As often happens in elegies for fellow poets, the dead man’s own style seems to invade the mind of the living poet. It is admirably plain and vivid writing:
Stormont was Kirkpatrick Dobie’s house,
the oldest poet that I ever knew.
He was buried with an ancient Remington
balanced on his chest.
Its solid frame and rimmed metallic keys
are keeping the poet’s heart compressed.
In another decent poem, ‘Eclipse’, McGonigal writes: ‘you spoke such poetry in prose’. A reader more sympathetic to the style of this long poem might well say the same.
Common Reader says of Passage/ AN PASAÍSTE : Having come from a small mining community in Dumfriesshire I found this compelling reading. Both my grandfathers were miners. The almost impossible working conditions under ground and the extreme poverty the families lived in above ground are probably forgotten now. McGonigal reminds us:
This was the bath at which he knelt again
to wash the grime before his back was torn
by a longwall cutter flying off its chain.
I felt that Passage was written not to be enjoyed but to inform and claim some kind of appreciation of how hard it was for the Scots and Irish to earn a living.
When I finished reading it I felt humbled.
Young Reader Susanna Stark says: It looks pretty dull and uninspiring but I liked the smooth cardboard texture: it made me feel clever for some reason. I didn't expect the subject matter to interest me but strangely the book is more interesting than the cover implies:
Angels of the height fall backwards treading air
with wrists still intricately fluent in the language
The images really jump out at you. I like this. Sometimes pretty and sometimes startling.