HappenStance Press, 2006 - £3
There’s a surefire test I use when reviewing for Sphinx. If I sit in front of my screen thinking “how on earth do I get all this into 300 words?” it’s a good book. Sometimes very good. If I think the same, with the addition of “but I’m going to enjoy reading it over and over until I work out how”, it’s something really special.
Here’s a case in point. It’s Michael Mackmin’s first collection since 1978, and ought to serve as a reminder to us all that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And slowly. In the best possible way, Mackmin seems to have made use of his long-time role as editor of The Rialto to absorb the best of what’s going on around him, before spinning it into webs of his own intricate design. The poems are beautiful, complex, seemingly fragile at times, but tougher than you imagine, with a strength that depends on the unity of the collection.
Not that he ever falls into obvious echoing of other poets. Maybe ‘The Bug That Causes Madness’ reminded me of Martin Stannard, and perhaps ‘Lammas’ recalled Muldoon, but what comes through is a strong, distinctive voice. The latter poem highlights Mackmin’s concern with the stories suggested by words (rather than those explicitly told), with the possibilities offered by sound and association, and he’s not afraid to play around with structure and syntax to explore these. He might even be said to be offering his own definition of poetry in the closing lines of ‘Dolmen’:
What was it then?
A shelter for the dead for when—
as it may—the sky’s skull cracks and falls?
Or one of many things made to catch earth’s
breath, and change the shape of sound?
But there’s so much more—a half-glimpsed narrative ghosting behind the poems; birds (I’m a sucker for them); a recurring, enigmatic image of a blue rope…
I’m running out of words. Buy it, and do it justice yourself.