Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

HappenStance, 2011    £4.00sphinx eight striper

 

Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Sue Butler and Niall Campbell

 

Hilary Menos:
Founding editor of The Rialto in 1984, Michael Mackmin has been in this game a long time. So I expected a lot from his second pamphlet. Mostly, it delivers.

The pamphlet is book-ended with two of the best—'Here' and 'There'—which serve to introduce a theme—something about journeys, a looking back, assessing a life lived—and hold the collection together, like wall ties. 'There' combines a light tone with serious intent beautifully.

.......From here to there is far—
.......a trouble, a journey not lightly taken,
.......things beings as they are, the price
.......of wheat, the bigger field to plough.

'Here' locates the poet in an “older landscape”, a backwoods farm, and refers to a Roman hero.

.......It was some such muck-and-wood-smoke-
.......scented farm Cincinnatus (remember him?)

.......quit, came back to, when he'd set
.......all straight, done his noble ancient Roman bit.

Between these two, the pamphlet traces a journey in which Mackmin addresses the small, the local, the personal—chopping wood, planting wallflowers, watching robins and nightingales—and in his hands the small things take on greater resonance. But these aren't just nature poems, they’re filled with people too. They refer to a family history, one assumes Mackmin's own. Many of these poems are intimate, revealing; some seem to come out of his experience as a gestalt therapist. It can be hard to comment on poetry so obviously born out of strong personal feeling and which often carry more meaning for the writer than the reader, for example, 'The Trap':

.......The heart trap
.......boxes me:  I clump & thump
.......I cry my yes,
.......my anger bruised on walls.

Is this poetry as catharsis? My reaction is to grimace inside and tactfully move on. But these moments are rare. Mostly the poems are considered, assured, generous; Mackmin knows what he is doing, and I feel safe in his hands. And there are many moments of wry humour, some  bittersweet as in 'Those poems to', (“I have eaten your words, my bowels/ do as you tell me to”), or straight up, as in 'Her father':

...............................[ . . . ] Facilis
.......descensus Averno, he'd say,
.......coming down the wide stairs
.......to breakfast with the family.

Along the way Mackmin makes an occasional foray into more surreal territory with, for example, 'Things fall apart', an apocalyptic mix of local familiar and filmic horror, where Gary waits with his JCB idling by an open trench as smoke rises over Walsham. “About time too, says Gary'”. I like this very much—there's not a word out of place, and so much drawn with so little (apparent) effort.

.......[. . . ] The road
.......ruts bounce and arms and legs begin,
.......end, embrace.

The publication of from there to here coincides with Mackmin’s birthday. Happy Birthday Michael, and three cheers for this pamphlet!


Sue Butler:

RS Thomas says:


.......Syntax is words’ way
.......of shackling the spirit.
.......Poetry is what reaches the intellect
.......by way of the heart.

Throughout this pamphlet, Michael Mackmin refuses to let syntax shackle his spirit. And many of his apparently simple lines sprinted past my conscious brain and quickly started gnawing on something inside me.  For example, the line in ‘Sentences’ “The leaf, wet on earth, forms slowly into soil”. Re-reading I found instead of typing soil I’d typed soul. This is very telling, because on days when I have no idea who I am, I only have to smell rain on soil to know I’m a gardener. When I feel bad about my performance as an employee, daughter or friend, gardening calms and heals.

In this same poem are the lines:

.......The voice, cluttered with certainty,
.......bites: I have the teeth marks inside. 

Reading in the crowded work canteen, I found myself looking round for someone to share this with. I have those teeth marks too.

While each poem seems to have all the time and space it needs, this pamphlet is crowded with people. There’s the poet’s wife (or partner), his daughters, his mother, and mothers in general, as in ‘When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear’:

.......Oh we are all fed down tubes
.......by our mothers and when cut
.......away left with a knot in the
.......belly—just to remind us, just
.......to remind her, forget-me-not

There’s also Alison, “in that seaside train/ Hythe to Dymchurch, 1950s” and the pale Susannah, whom (although the poet’s eyes are “not as keen as once they were”) he celebrates “her round pale face,/ her thin wrists stuck out of a dark jacket”. In a white pick-up truck on the Cromer road

...................................the driver
.......leans a long arm out to tip ash off
.......a cigarette, not indicate, but still
.......they go right at Alby Cross

downhill to where Gary waits, the engine of his JCB idling. And for anyone who reads ‘Cincinnatus (remember him?)’ and can’t, let me remind you that Cincinnatus (519 BC – 438 BC) worked on his farm, until he served Rome as dictator, an office he resigned after defeating the invading tribes of the Aequians, Sabines and Volscians.

And talking of physical work, in ‘December for Lucy’, the poet is taking a break from “lumping/ up and down, breaking wood,” when he thinks about the goldfinch

.......that I took and cut
.......to see the heart, awed
.......how large it was in such a small—

.......yet capable for years, the flight,
.......the song, the yellowest of wings.

At the end he asks, “Is it singing/ makes the heart grow strong?” If it is, these poems prove Mackmin will have no trouble splitting logs for many years to come.

 


Niall Campbell:
Michael Mackmin’s pamphlet from there to here understands itself very well. The lower-case of its title is in direct harmony with the understated tunefulness and poignancy that defines the whole. This, after all, is a pamphlet that recognises that while life may be a journey, a collection on this theme can only deliver it as a journey looked back on. Therefore, the ‘there to here’ of the title is inverted in the ordering of the poems—beginning, ‘here’ and finishing, ‘there’ (another lovely touch is that this route takes us via the eighth poem, ‘Then’). I’m pleased to say I found this care and subtlety of purpose evident in many of these poems of reflection:

.......I thought about the goldfinch
.......that I took and cut
.......to see the heart, awed
.......how large it was in such a small—

.......yet capable for years, the flight,
.......the song, the yellowest of wings.
..............(‘December for Lucy’)

Here, Mackmin describes the scene with just a hint of violence, enough to note, but not detract from the general tone of appreciation and wonder of beauty, the “awed” of the third line, lingering and, this time, poised as perfectly as a diver on a high-board.

The stories in this collection are rich and varied. And those worried that Mr Mackmin, having reached a significant birthday, might want to take the reader aside and share ‘some of things that I know’ can rest easy; this collection, on the whole, displays a generous spirit of contentment:

.......Then the voice of the farmer in the
.......field above saying, Good day, asking
.......were we taking fruit?
.......Us, innocent
.......blatant, our
.......hands behind our backs
.......full of soft figs, answering, Yes.
.......Take more, he says, take more, eat.
..............(‘Interlude’)

While ‘Interlude’ demonstrates the previous qualities of music and poise, it also displays a slight issue that crops up now and again. The first line of this quote (the fifth in the poem) enjambs in rather an ungainly way, neither the upper line benefiting by ending on a ‘the’, nor the lower line by the inclusion of ‘field’. Elsewhere, the poem ‘Then’ opens with the lines:

.......Can be just a breath of air, warm, an
.......exact echo, turning a corner of a stone
.......path: the dark horizons
..............[‘Then’]

A more definite, self-contained lineation would have been preferable to the sometimes unnecessary awkward enjambment of ending on words like ‘an’ or dividing “stone” from “stone path” (I understand the sentiment of the winding path but surely mimicking this in the lineation is needless since the sentiment of the piece speaks of this loud enough). But then we all can pick holes in a silk dress.

Overall, from there to here is a collection of beautiful moments, often sad and mournful, related with skill and warmth.