HappenStance Press, 2005 - £3.00
In The Clown of Natural Sorrow Rob Mackenzie plays freely with traditional poetic form, creating structures capable of holding his booming contemporary and often dramatic voice. He seems most comfortable with the driving rhythms of syllabic verse, well-suited for his poem ‘Dated’, a bold exposé of cheaply copped feels at a low-life late-night bar. And he obviously enjoys the easy pace of blank verse, as in “Taxi,” a narrative poem set in Italy that serves as an indictment of overt and complicit racism within contemporary society.
The collection also contains several terza rima pieces, neatly pinned with slant rhyme and open assonance, and a successful Petrarchan sonnet—‘Girl Playing Sudoku on the 7:15’— which skilfully allows poetic form to mimic the containment of a rail-bound, closed-space train. At the same time, the sonnet enlists the aid of closely-rhymed words containing common street sounds—‘oy’ and ‘ink’—to unfold a stuttered tale of frustrated (yet still hopeful) love that finally shushes down as “the train heaves on.”
Mackenzie’s experiments with form are admirable and sometimes masterful, but some poems feel uncomfortably like exercises—capable, but so concerned with artistry and revealing the seamy surfaces of the mundane, that deeper and more delicate rhythms of the heart are buried, or even lost. Many poems choose to remain firmly focused on details of ordinary life, such as the mystery of assembling IKEA bookshelves, a Harry Potter book launch, or a babysitter swathed in Laura Ashley print, and these poems, like those of 19th century Chartist poet Thomas Cooper, may remain affixed to times described. Others search too hungrily for ‘poetic’ language and end struggling uncomfortably with personification or ‘necessary’ insight, settling for triumph rather than vision. In this, the poet loses some of the quieter pleasure that spills from his more quixotic engagements with form. Mackenzie is a public poet, who desires to be private but never quiet, and his voice, always humane and always earnest, deserves to be heard.