Alan Morrison on
New River Press, 2022
LONDON NATION is the final posthumous collection from Irish-born, London-based poet, psychogeographer, Blakean, anarchist, republican and poetry activist, Niall McDevitt, who passed away on 29 September 2022 at just 55 years of age following a long but very private battle with skin cancer. McDevitt lived long enough to hold this finely produced gold-framed hardback volume in his hands when it arrived fresh from the printers, on the day he passed away. This bespoke production, replete with front and back cover paintings by his partner Julie Goldsmith, is published by Fitzrovia’s avant-garde New River Press and serves as a fitting though far too premature valediction from one of our finest and most distinctive countercultural poets. (For a more personalised tribute to Niall please see my obituary on this site).
It is the fourth full volume of poetry by McDevitt, following on from the critically acclaimed b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013), and Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016), though he did also publish a pamphlet-length poem, Albion (No. 1 Free Poetry Series, Ragged Lion Press). Barely two months old at the time of my starting this review, London Nation was picked as a Book of the Year by the New Statesman and The Tablet, and deservedly so.
The book is divided into four sections: I LONDON NATION, 2 BABYLON, 3 PSYCHOHISTORY, 4 IN THE REALM OF THE ISMS, and an EPILOGUE. The structure and much of the poetic style and aesthetic is distinctly Blakean—McDevitt regarded Blake’s four-part Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-20) as the greatest poem in the English language, and it’s possible he used its structure as a template for London Nation.
The eponymous first part of the book is preceded with a quote by Thomas De Quincey (who is also the subject of the macabre portrait on the book’s cover). The opening poem, ‘Windows’ (which I previously published in The Brown Envelope Book, 2021), sprawls across the page in long eloquent Eliotic lines which pay testament by contrasts to the vast wealth divides of the early 21st century:
In Ulanbaatar, the poor live in ‘ger’ tents pitched
on suburban scrubland. the rich shop in the designer
in Madrid, the poor live with their parents, the rich
buy and sell empty properties
in London, the children of the crystal palace are homeless,
trapped in windows, partitioned by windows.
and the population
multiplies in windows
There’s an almost hymn-like quality. The perceived length of the lines, however, on closer inspection, as with much of this book, is in itself partly a matter of perception since the character spacing is quite marked, the words being stretched a little wider than is usual, giving the impression of lines longer than they actually are.
‘A Carnival Without Sound’ is a Rimbaudian take on London during the pandemic, a sequence of eight stanzas each closing on the refrain: ‘a carnival without music, a carnival without sound’. There is almost a complete absence of capital letters throughout the poem except for ‘Mecca’. It begins: ‘it is strange to see the young so afraid of death/ walking badly dressed in emptied-out streets’. This poem appears to be in a form of sprung rhythm (pioneered by Gerard Manley Hopkins) which is to say its rhythm imitates natural speech. The third verse has a faint Eliotian quality pace The Waste Land and its seasonal opening:
fear is in the equinoctial weather, the primal war
between winter and spring is in its endgame
so that March would have discombobulated anyway.
fear is even in the sun that registers win-win
by flaming through a status quo of negation
to glow so warmly and brilliantly and sanely
polishing the infrastructural surfaces we share.
the sun! it may be the last some of us ever feel.
So if ‘April is the cruellest month’ then March is the most ‘discombobulated’. These verses are highly assured, and almost leisurely in tone reflecting the national inertia of lockdown. In that purgatorial period, there was a “boon time’ for criminals’ who are ‘discernible/ — though everyone’s masked, gloved and hooded now — / by their Cain-like gait and cloven hoppings’ who ‘gob on the flagstones’. McDevitt asks whether this is ‘etiquette of the demimonde? territorial markings?/ they are staking a claim in the fresh dispensation’.
In the sixth verse McDevitt depicts pandemic-hit Albion in lockdown as ‘a land with no grail. Avalon’s/ stupefied queues forage for basic provisions’, where ‘only Tesco and the undertakers/ are trading. pasta, alcohol, soap and toilet rolls/ are the commonweal of the atomised-by-law’ and most people are ‘vacant, half-afloat on shuttered parades’. At this juncture one can only imagine how a sepulchral London must have haunted the poet acutely knowing at the time that he was battling terminal cancer—this knowledge makes the poetry all the more poignant. The poem becomes more exceptional as it progresses, it has an affecting momentum and is astonishingly evocative:
ambulances dance via christmas-cake mansions
and brutalist blocks of two-nations architecture
one house is entered, a ton of chattels piled up
on the grass outside, eerie eviction. another flat
sellotaped-off. a trio of hazmat safety suits
hovers about the foyer as noiseless as astronauts.
I excerpt the final verse 8 in full as I think it’s the most perfectly expressed and it brings the poem round full circle to its earlier seasonal meditation:
freezers ordered, freezers delivered, freezers stocked
in a political landscape like a pop-up morgue.
the older and wiser look down toward the ground
who knew death could come soon, but not this soon.
they too have shopping bags and thinned-out newspapers
standing under natural white blossom umbrella
grateful to insert a key into their own front doors.
they know the rhythms of spring better than anyone.
a carnival without music, a carnival without sound
The manner in which McDevitt juxtaposes aspects to the lasting—and scarring—social architecture of austerity (‘two-nations architecture’, ‘pop-up morgue’) against the new Covid reality in the capital is exceptional. That fourth line aches with added poignancy in the knowledge of its author’s impending premature death. After the poem proper there is an ‘emptiness coda’ with some random aphorismic lines:
traffic lights turn red but there is nothing to
the steel birds of Nostradamus are nowhere to be seen in a 1555 sky
from the I-SOL-ATION-SHIP
what capital is this?
latex hands swimming in the doorways
things empty out
office party balloons
skins and navels rationing the final oxygen
As snapshots of pandemic they are eerily effective. ‘De Quincey (1821)’ is one of McDevitt’s compact literary-historical poems which he always manages to make sound so contemporary and sempiternal—it’s this sense of the timelessness or ever-present-ness of history, that everything is happening simultaneously in the same spaces and nothing is ever actually past, present or future, but just perpetual, that McDevitt’s entire oeuvre excavates. This ever-present-ness—key of course to the poet’s legendary literary walks in London—is addressed in this poem’s opening:
O smoke-rings, the lunar eyes of De Quincey, an opium fog
on Oxford Street, English orphism, the half-world, the class
he has fallen into, the time-space. Via Trinobantium evolves
to Tyburn Road, thence to Oxford Street
it stops. it goes on forever. it goes on forever. it stops
It’s interesting that McDevitt opts for Trinobantium as the medieval name for London rather than Trinovantum which would have worked more alliteratively between ‘Via’ and ‘evolves’—the names roughly translated as ‘New Troy’ (this was prior to King Lud’s rebuilding of London and its morphing through consonantal shift: Luen’Deun-Lundinium-Londinium). It seems the spectral De Quincey is adrift on the empty pavements of pandemic London, but he ‘doesn’t follow Ann ‘de haut en bas’ but picks her white flower in shadeland
…together they crawl kerbs. he doesn’t save her. he cannot
ride with her from Oxford Street to Oxford College, ever. they walk
Tyburn Road. pedestrianism — once a crime — is in. Ann’s decaying, a
Drury Lane vestal…
This is the compassionate prostitute ‘Ann of Oxford Street’ (portrait by Julie Goldsmith on the back of this book) from De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). The poem becomes more figurative and image-based as it comes to its close:
…he cannot drag her up from that cough.
he’ll abandon her to the Beau-Nasties who rent her in Market Place
to write in smoke, to scry ruby mirrors, his handkerchief, her wraith.
he stops. he goes on forever.
One notes the appearance at the end of a sample of concrete or shape poetry, where the typographical arrangement on the page is meant to reinforce or even subordinate the verbal meanings of a poem, and the further into this book we get the more varieties of word-arrangements become apparent, randomly vari-indented lines of free verse. This is signalled in the following poem, ‘Cernunnos’, subtitled ‘from the Gundestrup Cauldon’—McDevitt chooses the archaic spelling for Cauldron: his poetry is often heavily inflected with etymological curiosities—Cernunnos, or Carnonos, was an antlered Gaelic god of animals and wild things (presumably related to the English Herne the Hunter) depicted on the aforementioned ancient carved silver cauldron which was dug up from a peat bog in Gundestrup, Jutland, Denmark in 1891—as well as Druidic associations, the cauldron has also served as a shamanic symbol, and McDevitt often described himself as an ‘urban shaman’ (his poem recitals to the accompaniment of his bodhrán could be quite incantatory). I excerpt the first two verses:
floats in shiva position
as irish as indian
is he smoking a hookah
or fixing a band
to the nozzle of his hoover?
he is friend
to the serpent
here looking like hughes
clean-shaven with thin lips
making a tiny O
hovers in relief on the cauldron
in a company
The poem becomes more opaque and cryptic, almost riddling, into the third verse:
is that some cat
or dog or boar
who turns away from the handsomeness
to a fairy darkness?
the background goat
McDevitt was in some senses an autodidact, an aspect I associate with strongly, he was an amateur scholar of all things literary, poetic and occultic, and he attitudinally tilted irreverently at establishments and institutions—this is hinted at in the fourth verse:
academics quiz the silver
an earthenware pot on his head? a rose-tree?
no, they are horns
tacked off the stag
the exact stag’s antlers
— antlered —
is more than man
but also isn’t he
the highclass highfashion deity
in tunic belt and torc
of his forest court
The anti-materialist poem ‘The Bourgeois’, subtitled ‘after Dostoevsky in London’, might have been composed by Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov—it begins with the aphorism ‘money matters are a/ baal’. I’ve often noted how McDevitt seemed drawn to b-words—‘baal’, ‘babel’, ‘Babylon’, ‘bourgeois’, and in this poem also “branson”, “bitcoin”, ‘Holbein’, ‘Burberry’. The poem contains some striking phrases—‘silk chicanery’, ‘heads centurion grey’. McDevitt takes aim at the ephemerality of capitalism in a wonderfully figurative polemic:
we will endow our scions
with what we have amassed — grey squirrels —
a fiscal nervous system
There’s a simmering subversiveness here—in the following verse there seems to be a subliminal referencing of the hyperbolic anti-capitalist slogan Eat the Rich:
looking out from portraits by Holbein
at the pret-a-manger crowds
with distaste as they inspect us
in this and other mirrors
(as if they’d like to eat us!)
In reality, of course, and not entirely figuratively, it is the rich who effectively eat the rest of us. This is where McDevitt really comes into his own: a polemical thrust communicated through an armature of seemingly semi-detached allusion and irony—an anarchic takedown of anarcho-capitalism:
moneyed, thankfully, never enough
for our bursaries of water light heat
gentrifying, as we lap, wild troughs
ogling with the eyes of forty thieves
There’s a wonderful cadence and lyrical confidence to these verses:
domiciled, not slunk to foxholes,
but fodder for the perceptive
virtuous manners vicious maths
cocooned in Burberry, bone-dry
raw material for novelists (how dull)
who infiltrate as provocateurs
suffocating us with elephant ears
as we drool on them from sleeping mouths
The anarchic, punkish quality to McDevitt’s varied Muse comes to the fore in the mordantly satirical ‘Sinkland’, a collection of fragmented monostiches (one line poems) separated by asterisks—they are like avant-garde graffiti scrawls on the paper walls of the pages, random aphorismic statements that visually echo ee cummings, always thought-provoking: ‘gris/ empty as the channels/ manufactory/ pulped by quants * the poesy is monostich/ written blocks * / newspaper ceiling/ London commas)/ the four humours/ oh grey state// * bourgeois trolley-cameras roll/ through the sold-off henges/ hoping to capture/ (hopelessness) * inspissation walls/ dirt/ thickens the spaffing * gris corpses gris suits/ line the advantageous balcons * I was cleansed too/ by the rock salts’. With use of the term ‘cleansed’ and, in an earlier poem, ‘gentrifying’, McDevitt intimates apposite juxtapositions with the social cleansing and gentrification of the early austerity years (2010-16) and the later literal cleansing of hands, faces, spaces, surfaces during the Covid pandemic—it’s almost as if Fate is always waiting in the wings to follow up the human-generated figurative with a literal equivalent, and poets like McDevitt there to spot the pattern and make the poetic link.
Almost all these symbolist monostiches seem loaded with meanings: ‘fighting for oysters/ by industrial islands/ the fish-lipped/ politicians * // crown/ (a sainsbury bag landscape)/ orange tory * // false voices/ once omnilocated/ are ‘shut the/ fuck up/ no one does them anymore’. Note the neologism ‘omnilocated’—portmanteaus and puns are common features of McDevitt’s poetry, as are archaic terms or a conscious choice of foreign phrasing or spelling, such as ‘balcon’, Spanish for balcony. Sometimes obscure or esoteric diction and etymological curiosities crop up, what collectively might be called McDevittisms. There’s a sense of punning in the line ‘the sink states/ watery/ as annals of tears’.
There’s also an occultic and pagan seam—presumably converging in the shamanic—to much of McDevitt’s poetry, symbolisms and thought, and this surfaces and resurfaces throughout ‘Sinkland’: ‘by rivers of missing names/ the/ blue/ druids/ officiate *// SELL THE HENGES’. Death inevitably stalks these pandemic poems—again, we have a subtle polemical pun: ‘the bags we were clad in’—presumably referring to both body bags but also the cladding which combusted to cause the horrific Grenfell fire. There’s the haunting image: ‘shadows in the window/ windows in the shadow’. What one senses is the bitingly satirical—though I’m not completely certain in what sense: ‘kingship divvied/ among a thousand rich-listers’. The anarcho-punctuation of ee cummings comes into play: ‘the realisation( // we are not good enough for rooms/ asset/ holes’. Then there’s the superlatively assonantal: ‘mandarins/ pander/ sharpening/ elbows’. ‘Sinkland’ closes on some apocalyptic images: ‘lemmings from the crownland jump */ mobility scooters queue for the sea * / dover graffiti [ write your own monostich here ]’. So, graffiti is finally mentioned, partly vindicating my initial impression of the poem.
It’s unclear where ‘Mother and Son (masked)’ is set: it could be in pandemic London, or it could be Iraq or Israel, both places McDevitt visited in his latter years on poetic pilgrimages—there’s mention of ‘passing a bakery’s scent of cardamom’—perhaps it doesn’t really matter where it is since in McDevitt’s realm all spaces and places are simultaneous just as all times are. Wherever it is, it’s in midsummer. The poem closes with the wistful lyric: ‘the airless air/ fills with Arabic/ spoken by men/ born long ago’.
‘Brain fog’ is a striking lyric the title of which of course references one of the lingering symptoms of ‘Long Covid’—I excerpt it in full:
the sun drums. this is no empty synasthesia.
the sun drums as the ill fill questionnaires.
I eavesdrop on the lit percussion
profound as a gong’s.
this is my ore. this is what I have mined
oh you conspiracists of the plague.
stop calling at my door with red leaflets.
stop telling me I don’t look dead.
It seems as if McDevitt might have had to cope with a dose of Covid while also battling his cancer. ‘Imperial Nostalgias’ comprises four fourteen-line poems (some of which appear to be in a form of sprung rhythm) divided up into two quatrains and two tercets stanzas—this would seem an intimation of the Petrarchan sonnet form but of course without the end-rhymes, so a kind of nonrhyming sonnet. In the first poem McDevitt addresses his psychical displacement in London as an historically attuned Irish (lapsed) Catholic who feels as if under atmospheric Protestant surveillance:
by the Irish Passport Office in Cromwell Road
a flood of A4 motorway fumes
drugs the pedestrian with imperial nostalgias.
I feel my race in petrol-sniffing muscles
in the Anglican sanctum it is a redress
to kneel by the luxury of a vase of lilies
exchanging street perfume for this incense,
indoors with its underfloor heating
I don’t eat the eucharist here or anywhere
and soon lift my kneecaps from the cushions
transferring weight to ass and pew
but feel a final epiphany in the south transept
with its icon of Eliot candle-hovering
as if to lean over and ask what I’m doing
Having said these are nonrhyming poems there are some semi-rhyming or at least assonantally chiming line-ends: ‘redress/incense/transept’ and ‘hovering/doing’, the latter almost working as a final couplet. The second poem is another religiously themed vignette:
my mother silhouetted in Marylebone sun
worried, half-weeping at the bronze of Holmes
‘I assumed he’d be on Baker Street!’
my belated shadow falls like Moriarty
years earlier in her car — a Ford or Fiat —
foundered in the vicinity of Golders Green.
Orthodox Jews strolled on their Shabbat
home to family feasts, she got out, sighing.
The son then relays how his mother lifted the bonnet and cooled down the overheating engine with water—the poem closes:
the holy people walked to the end of the dusk.
we were back at the beginning, then elsewhere,
shipwrecked in Jerusalem with no sea to bob in
The third verse returns to the poet’s meditation on being an Irishman adrift in London—the English capital which he seems to still feel somehow eludes or excludes him and yet he has in many senses poetically colonised it not least with his literary walks and their posthumous legacy.
Irish males in the English capital
saunter on Georgian avenues, kings in exile.
though they feel like blue-skinned barbarians
they move big-eyed and slow as market oxen
when they’ve had enough of royal facades
the brehon law of alcohol summons them
to a mock-Tudor inn for more than small beer.
soon they’re wading in Falstaffian barrels
apes of John Tenniel in a numerical realm
that never has nor will deign to notice them:
the City bulls, the Pythagorean moneymen
In terms of the prosody here, the ends of the lines are mostly near-rhymes—‘capital/ exile’, ‘barbarians/ oxen’, ‘facades/barrels’
—most noticeably in the final verse—'realm/them/moneymen’. The fourth and final lyric in this assured sequence concerns the poet’s sister:
my sister of the French name is almost French
among the plane trees of Holland Park Avenue.
flaneuse, she turns it to Paris boulevard
with the ire and trance of a protest poet
it was on this grid she saw ‘the male eclipse’
through the looking-glass of a French café,
a man like a hooded falcon, immersed
in a chimera even more violent than hers
then the masculine pilgrimage took sail —
a riffraff transported to Australia, sparing
only this martyr with hanged man nimbus
I twirl my pen camera, spying on her
spying on him, father of raindrop children.
I paint the portrait he could have done, in fog
This enigmatic and highly figurative poem makes for a fine and ambiguous close. The French noun ‘flaneuse’ is the female equivalent of ‘flaneur’, meaning a street-sauntering observer of society, a term which McDevitt often applied to himself. McDevitt has a fondness for French diction—it is after all arguably the most poetic language—as is also apparent in the title and first verse of the following poem, ‘Fils Roi’:
the tower towers blue
could sway in winds of poetry if it wanted
but instead detournes the surround
I lounge at the base marvelling
at the small things poets do — the low numbers they use
compared to the huge things engineers do
hauteur of their calculus
There’s much of French poetics in the shape and tone of this aphorismic lyrical sequence—shades of Rimbaud in particular—the following verse is honeycombed with o-assonance:
a charged space without a charge
reality is a dodo here (o metareality)
the colportage so stoking
so drugged with something
And the parentheses recall ee cummings:
adjacent is a door number 42
a family of magi lives there
(it’s rumoured) I saw them as I lay chewing on a yellow
called London rocket’ … a cabal of 3 or 4.
The poetic landscaping of this poem grows more metaphysical:
the front window looks onto ‘location 23’
the back window
looks onto eden rewilded
outlaster of apocalyptic clashes
Not to say, opaquely allusive:
calligraphy geometry is all theirs
who live next door
to a ghost neighbour in a disappeared street
Arthur’s Bosom, they say
The last verse closes on a bacchic note: ‘from fils roi to the human hills/ ithyphallus enough, a people carrier’.
The next two pieces are set out as prose poems or poetic prose, and they certainly have their poetic moments. In ‘To the Statue of Lord Cromwell’ McDevitt candidly expresses the understandable ancestral Irish Catholic resentment felt viscerally towards the historical memory of Oliver Cromwell who was—so history tells us—merciless in his campaigns against the Catholics in Ireland. The poet here feels frustrated by the fact that the statue of the Lord Protector outside Parliament is protected by a ‘blue’ ‘New Model Army’ of ‘silver-nippled custodians’ (referring to the ‘rose top’ of police helmets: a raised metal rose)—presumably this is during a Black Lives Matters protest or petition for Cromwell’s statue to be removed, since other Cromwell statues elsewhere in England had been vandalised during that statue-toppling summer of 2020. This is an unusually vituperative piece of work by McDevitt:
… Lord Cromwell keeps a lion! such a pet can’t be easy to feed when all you have is a sword and Bible unless you recite from Numbers while tossing it Roundhead foreskins and ignoring its roar of rebuke in Gaelic: MALLACHT CHROMAIL ORT!
It concludes more subtly though the historical-satirical taste is as yet unsatiated: ‘your ghost hates stone, exhumed, cut-up and scattered/ at Tyburn, the real you is barebones through and through’. The term ‘barebones’ is a reference to the Barebone’s Parliament of 4 July 1653 which was Parliament’s last attempt by the Commonwealth authorities to cement a permanent form of government before Cromwell was instated as Lord Protector—the name ‘Barebone’s’ came from the City of London’s representative in the Nominated Assembly, Fifth Monarchist preacher, Praise-God Barebone. In a similar vein is ‘On the Statue of Baroness Thatcher’ which starts alliteratively: ‘what’s a statue of Thatcher made to incarnate but stasis?’ The ‘irony lady, upgraded to bronze’ is a political anti-icon who
stands for closure: closed shops, closed pits, closed minds with a d, closed books, closed doors for the grocery world where she came from; only trapdoors flew open. her grey aureole brainwashed voters to reject the red, setting them to play on boards of snakes and ladders, ascending one or two rungs then slithering into a fiscal abysm, exchanging mass-Marxist struggle for a mass-Murdochian cop-out. Rupert shares her pedestal (whose rhino hide would snap any chisel). when there are so few carved, curved forms of historic females it seems a shame that from her stone paps the only milk on offer is militancy and mediocrity…
As with the previous poem, after an asterisk comes a more figurative coda: ‘a decade in Pluto is more than ten years/ where her shade thunders, cool as ice ages’.
‘A Quartet for Lysaght’, a ‘hommage á Shane MacGowan’, ‘Lysaght’ being one of MacGowan’s middle names, from one London-bound Irishman to another, comprises four short randomly indented lyrics. The first invokes Irish folklore with the terms ‘imbas’ (from imbas forosnai—gift of clairvoyance or visionary ability practised by poets of ancient Ireland—Wikipedia) and ‘Dagda’ (chief of the Tuatha dé Danann, foremost of the Irish ancestral gods—Wikipedia): ‘we had met gods/ in detritus/ of London/ we had met you, tall// paddling buttermilk manna/ from an/ imbas oven// raw Dagda/ bequiffed// in ether/ but available’. The second lyric continues the figurative, almost Symbolist tone, slightly opaque; McDevitt makes effective use of assonance giving the lines a real cadence: ‘the polis groaning again/ sounding itself// the pained birds/ Baudelairean or Eliotian// urbs underbelly/ chiming you// circles of hell/ reserved for living// cloth doused in/ petrol’. McDevitt continues the invocations of ancestral Irish deities into the third lyric: ‘Lugh pushing// the wheelchair of Cuchulainn/ up/ a never-ending London hill/ to clatter down again’ (an Irish Sisyphus?)—Lugh was a warrior-god and also associated with craft and the arts while Cúchulainn was his son who was—intriguingly—'often depicted with the shadow of his doom looming over his shoulder’ (Wikipedia). The fourth and final lyric has an ominousness: ‘through gelignited holes in your mouth/ spat/ distilled air’s/ isms and versicles/ glenside and rose moon/ poetry excarcerated/ drudgery annulled// the city droning/ to a metronome/ of ticking clocks/ and judges’ gavels.
The wonderfully titled ‘Mauve Baudelaire’ comprises 23 nonrhyming quatrains, and is in memory of the late actor, comedian, writer, director and experimental theatre pioneer, Ken Campbell, with whom McDevitt collaborated as part of his street theatre troupe in his earlier London years. McDevitt frequently uses French terms in his poetry which emphasizes his poetic links to the French symbolists—Rimbaud, Verlaine et al—via Surrealist poet David Gascoyne and his Parisian years:
nothing was normal this autumn matin.
the weather was shrouding wondrous squadrons.
in the impregnated streets
below the high mansard roof
which one poet had already dubbed ‘The Ship of Horus’
and a rival poet the 'arc-en-ciel'
no traffic was abrading the human ear or nose.
how could this be?
There’s an element of surrealism, or phantasmagoria, in the ensuing verses:
the Sunday silence was a sage-brush
of noisomeness to purify the space.
below the red-herring garret, below the blue-wine brig
which had once bled tiger stripes
the house we were safeguarding
but if you looked close-up
paint flakes were peeling
like decadent feathers
off moulting albatrosses.
below the meccan door with its goddess number 8
was a cast-iron Georgian-era boot-scraper
which — obviously — our poets in question
had luxuriated in never using
but this 'decroittoir' was a talismanic aid
as we time-travelled from 2007 to 1873
where thankfully too, no steampunk traffic
— not a chariot, not an omnibus, not a penny-farthing —
was interfering with or molesting us.
perhaps Metatron or Astarte or Ogmios had arranged it?
perhaps Thespis himself? …
For the uninitiated, Metatron was the name Enoch was given after his transformation into an angel, Astarte was the Greek version of Ashtart who was a female Canaanite fertility goddess, Ogmios was the Celtic deity of eloquence, and Thespis was an Ancient Greek poet, playwright and actor whose name, of course, birthed the alternative term for actor, Thespian. McDevitt’s poetry often contains much esoteric and occult referencing—in the case of this poem, we have references to Hyle (an Aristotlean term for ‘matter’) and ‘Fludd’, Robert Fludd, also known as Robertus de Fluctibus, a 17th century physician who had occult interests. The notorious Alistair Crowley is referenced by surname further on, though McDevitt has a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone when he refers to ‘occult chic’. There’s almost a suggestion of conjuring up some sort of demonic force at one point—' footfall — which too often passes by —
was coming our way and stopping
(or hoof-fall to judge by the positively goatish
Pans and Baphomets hopping to the zone.)
Then there’s mention of a Crowley Theatre: a ‘cast were flaneuring to and fro
sanely disguised as insanely French poets
or the people they'd made suffer
scripts in hands (like real poets)
sticky moustaches nestled on limp upper lips
conferring on such pronunciations
as Club des Hashischins etc.
and with the gamut of 'Allo 'Allo! accents
transmogrifying London into Leun'deun
This is all, presumably, purely symbolic—some sort of occult-tinged street theatre:
it seemed the elemental, the ether and the empyrean
had deployed their full vanguards
when — just as the show was due
for a final drumming and trumpeting
the man who was the very embodiment
of the concept 'one-off'
materialised as suddenly as
a genie from a silver spout
with a presence both English and exotic
goblinesque and Gurdjieffian
commanding the currency of eyes
to flow in his direction
magician-like he pulled
a couple of items from his zebra wheelie-bag:
two of what must have been 1001
comic mask tokens therein
'is mauve okay for Baudelaire?" he inquired
before donning a starlet's mauve wig
and a gold robe shimmering to the floor
where we stood attendant
McDevitt often wrote poems in support of individuals ‘made examples of’ in a very public way by established powers for perceived breaches of ‘national security’ or ‘the peace’ but more often than not semi-confected charges driven by covert motives. ‘Assange (2020)’ is an impassioned plea for the release of Australian editor and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and although it is a polemical poem, McDevitt manages to keep the focus as much on image and language in order to reinforce and elevate the message:
let Assange walk in the sun
let Assange inhale air
you put the pharaoh into a tomb alive.
black scarabs walk over his face alive.
law dies. the kingdom dies. the will of
the authors imposes itself with smirks.
truth's a dog must to Belmarsh. Lady
Brach stinks of MSM. the hero is deformed
and dehumanised, made to look mad.
his health is crushed in a dark-age cell
like Boethius, like Gramsci…
Boethius was a Roman senator who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting his execution for ‘treason’—when one considers the deeply worrying implications if Assange is eventually extradited to the US, this historical comparison isn’t necessarily as hyperbolic as it might at first seem. Perhaps the comparison with Gramsci is more apt: the Italian Communist intellectual and philosopher who was imprisoned under Mussolini’s Fascist regime in 1926 eventually died from the ravages of physical neglect in 1937 while still in prison—but it must be hoped Assange will escape a similar fate. McDevitt puts his poetic scalpel to the injustices of ‘justice’:
…the will of
the authors smiles a sociopathic smile.
the judge deems him a narcissistic type,
clearly not a team player (like the judge).
what is this land? a shadowland without
substance. let ingrates cut Australis
from this 'Little Ease', this sepulchre,
for his pale and dusted visage lives on
to shame false witness with holy aura
let Assange walk in the sun
let Assange inhale air
The refrain which bookends the poem gives a prayer-like quality to it. McDevitt was never short of wit in his poetry, in ‘The Propagandist’ I find the line ‘Richard III — that well known virtue/signaller’ utterly hilarious given that king’s historical notoriety, but of course according to Ricardians (and I can imagine McDevitt regarding himself as one) the Richard ‘Crookback’ of popular legend was a product of Tudor-Shakespearean propaganda. There’s some effective use of alliteration in the following lines: ‘time for the druids/ to actually earn some of their public money/ instead of cavilling about criminal entrails’. McDevitt produces a distinctly Larkinian aphorism: ‘(the millions of disappointments we eventually die of)’—perhaps this quality in itself warrants the parentheses. This is a finely figurative poem with a focus on images and colours to convey its symbolisms:
ramhorns butt ramhorns some more anyway
in the dead sea scrolls of outer space.
I close eyes in afternoons to dream of a green finer than
but ah the great smear is over
the primer the undercoat the second coat
we have daubed toilet walls in double entendres
we have flown by bluebottle our tour of duty
‘Twenty-Seventeen’ comprises four sections—the first, ‘albion (cont.)’, finds McDevitt in polemical mode addressing—or dressing—Irish scars from history:
a thousand years English rapine of Ireland
counts for nothing in intellectual circles today
"ah but you are white...
the English rapine of Celtic neighbours
needs excuses to continue, the strangest
being that one word
After bringing in the parallel of Catalans seeking independence from Spain, the poem closes on what seems to be a Brexiteer commenting: ‘the apron's imperium sinks or swims/ as a fruit-voice on Radio 4 insists/ "Europe doesn't understand Anglo-Saxons"’. The second section, ‘conservatism (contd.)’, returns to familiar polemical stomping ground for the author of the ‘anti-Tory’ collection Porterloo (2012)—here McDevitt plays on the inherent contradictions of attitude under English anarcho-capitalism:
the news the numbers
voxes of the quantifying debate
are plummified and correctly measured – by rulers
but when blackout lifts and vox populi is mic'd
the cry of the pauperised is really too much to bear
then you feel in your hand the diamanté heart
of Tory England, cut and pristine, proffering zero,
but neurotic, so neurotic, prisms of rainbow guilt
filtering into the public tones and vocabulary
“we have sold our humanity but are yet human beings.
help us! we have everything and/ or nothing.
help us! we’re cocooned in bourgeois materialism
following the neoliberal way, not the way of Christendom
as once we sought…
The third section, ‘israel (contd.)’, is drawn from first hand witness, McDevitt having visited Israel in 2014 during which he researched and composed his third poetry collection, Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). This poem is a series of socio-cultural-architectural observations, each capitalised as if imitating commands, statements, or street signs, separated by double slashes as if to visually evoke barriers or bollards, and right-justified:
THE WALL // THE FENCE // THE BARRIER // THE WALL // THE FENCE //
THE BARRIER // THE VOLTAGE // THE RADARS // THE IMAGING // THE
THE OPS // THE TRANSFERS // THE WRIT // THE BULLDOZERS // THE
THE TANKS /THE UZIS // THE UAVS // THE QUADS // THE SKUNK-
A CLOVER MAP //OF CENTRES // OF BASES // OF PRISONS //
THE OUTPOSTS // THE CROSSINGS // THE ROADBLOCKS //
THE GRIDS // THE AIRSPACE
McDevitt’s chosen presentation on the page has a visual bluntness and brutalist quality which effectively communicates much from an outsider’s witness to a contemporarily militarised Jerusalem with all its tortuous religious and historical resonances and associations. The fourth and final part is titled ‘fascism (contd.)’ and contains some resonant and painful lines: ‘they walk with torches in xtian hands/ calling from human tonsils/ rawly/ continents are under spells’. There’s a curious echo of the title in ‘fashions’, which appears further into the poem. It closes with figurative ambiguities:
the shamans of bodhranbodhranland
news is white
‘In the Shade of the Brutal’, dedicated to his partner Julie, is a Rimbaudian meditation on metropolitan architecture—McDevitt is enjoying language here with painterly splashes:
may syrup. light is honeyed. reality has sweeteners.
on a wooden platform
I stand in the shade of the Trellick Tower from 1972
and at the side of the Grand Union Canal from 1802.
algae in a pool have a trompe-oeil trellick superimposed
on their green film.
the building, the canal, the platform, the pool, the 1972,
the 1802, are artifice.
tiny wisps of foliage are shimmying in wind. people wade
in the liquor of spring. blue nettings and scaffolds shroud
the tower to about halfway-up. the Grade II classic is
having a clean.
soon its tyrannosaurus teeth will smile for kilometres
of London to behold. a druid of the sensory, I bask in this
The p- and l-words seem to carry these verses: 'syrup', 'light', 'reality, 'platform', 'Trellick', 'pool' and the euphonic 'trompe-oeil trellick superimposed'. McDevitt’s sense of the timeless is signposted in his remark on different dates being ‘artifice’—all is sempiternal. A ‘druid of the sensory’ is a fine and fitting self-epithet for this occultic, Celtic poet. The poem closes on an almost Buddhistic lyrical coda which borders the sublime:
I do not live here
but in the shade of the brutal.
such things are made.
I am being unmade.
‘The Empress State Building’, subtitled ‘At the foot of the baldochino – Rimbaud’ is an enigmatic poem which could be about Margaret Thatcher, or the Queen:
…oh yes she's a tripartite giantess. one angle is called F,
one angle I, and one angle L
indeed she houses the mystical peelers
inside the belly of her chrome robot leviathan are
the agents of order who’d stop us fifing, libating,
tupping etc. the way we like to mimic our gods
the Empress is puritan. she — one of the twenty
tallest — looks into our televised living-rooms,
unamused as Victoria…
…solid as Empire on its coping-stone.
high the masons have carved and raised her. oh Empress,
your men in aprons... (whatever turns her on).
imagine the purpose — the strategics, logistics,
dynamics — in the blue shadows she breeds
but let her be, for in the storm she sees off dragons
and her turnings are equinoctial
This is where hermeneutics can become counterproductive since the verbal/aural effect of a poem is debatably as important as an understanding of its meaning or message, and at times such as this I hanker after Keats’s Negative Capability. ‘Red Bonnet’ has colouristic, Symbolist echoes, and is steeped in eschatological allusions:
this is the head of imbas, this is the crown of fire
it wears in eternity. the analogy of the sun is no more,
the black and alchemical suns are out. the problem
for classical and christian cultures is that the dead
in fact, they are free from interference…
The word ‘imbas’ is Old Irish for inspiration and derives from ‘Imbas forosnai’, which refers to the visionary/clairvoyant powers of the gifted poets of Ireland—according to McDevitt’s note at the back of the book, this Old Irish phrase roughly translates as ‘fire in the head’ (similar to the Welsh ‘awen’), which immediately reminds me of the opening lines of W.B. Yeats’ mesmeric ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’: ‘I went out to the hazel wood,/ Because a fire was in my head’ (I'd always thought Yeats meant a mental struggle by 'fire ... in my head', but perhaps he actually meant a form of inspiration as in 'awen' of which, as an Irishman steeped in folklore, he'd have well known). ‘Hades-Tartarus-Gehenna-Dis’ are all cultural variants of Hell or somewhere similarly infernal from the Greek, Hebrew and Roman respectively. I assume the title of this poem refers to the Bonnet Rouge worn by the sans-culotte of the French Revolution—but the altercation depicted in the final stanza could well be during a modern day protest in Tory England and the cranial injury seemingly inflicted on a protestor, which immediately recalled, for me, the case of Alfie Meadows during the student riots of November-December 2010 (McDevitt paid impassioned homage to the student riots in his 2012 volume Porterloo):
the red-hot band about his forehead is slipped off.
the police truncheon brandished at the cup of bone
cradling his consciousness, by way of warning, is gone.
no ruling-class shades take a census. the dead
are decentralised. one by one they shake off limbs
of finance, of law, of nationhood, of war.
here was Orc branded POET, a red bonnet hemmed
within. he snapped off chains from maps of England
to firewalk on hot coals of poesy, spitting portals
‘Shopping Bag’ is an ecological polemic on the plastic type of the title—it opens with an Irish Republican’s wry juxtaposing of Orangemen: ‘the loyalists exit with orange trophies in hand’. The poem grows more ghoulish:
…even the gravitating sun looks like an orange
shopping-bag, ballooning onto black warehouses. feudal capitalism,
I have no choice but to go in and let his lordship chew on my debit card.
though Her Majesty doesn't use them, the Queen’s Speech broke the
news that bags would cost 5p from October. I imagine her pulling a
Sains**** bag over her head, tying the loops tightly, yanking to knot
and how the blue of her face would look behind the orange veneer
(and how a thousand-year-old bag would spiral to disintegration...)
The soulless cash machine, ubiquitous ATM, features in the previous and following poem, ‘Arbiter’, subtitled ‘After Petronius’—this is a discursive poem in eight vari-indented verses, and while the style is fairly sparse, the substance is anything but, it is weighty and philosophical:
from polytheism to monotheism to atheism
a bad trip
Greek hire flying over the ramparts
tomorrow we're minus one god
The next verse is a strikingly candid meditation of a childless man:
not to be with a woman to clone myself
and/or the woman
not to breed is an achievement
(without a medallion)
the unborn in my balls are uncomplaining
I suspect I’m not the only Roman Catholic who can’t help seeing some sort of Satanic travesty of the Eucharist when queuing up to take cash out of an ATM, almost a secular materialist Communion to Mammon—McDevitt’s perspective is similarly metaphysical:
the cash-machine helps but is hardly a god
advised to be suspicious of fellow humans
they suspicious of me
the CCTV helps but is not a god either
the CCTV cannot disarm assailants
the fruits of enlightenment are helpful
but not enlightened per se the numbers
the notes do not affirm a just order
there's no communication no community
McDevitt is incredulous to the uncaring godlessness of capitalist society:
a homeless man
— lying in rain — tries to break the silence
the queue answers with body language
admonishing him with arses, Aquascutum-clad
Again, one admires the commanding alliteration, assonance and sibilance. McDevitt gives a devastating verdict on the culpa felix of capitalism:
the fruits of Eden
a nappyclad Eros
flies paper planes
embossed with faces
of plutocratic queens
The final two sections are meditations on mortality and carry both Eliotian and Rimbaudian qualities:
a fashionable theme
when it seems far-off
the fashionable wear black
when not at funerals
human heads as oysters
we cannot see the air or analyse it
air is life
but air pollution monitors tell us
air is also death
now a report on Grenfell says
we inhale ashes, named and unnamed
the fire dead
swim in blood
‘Bull’s Pizzle’ is as robust a satirical poem as you’ll find anywhere, with all the caricaturish grotesquery of a political cartoon by Steve Bell or Martin Rowson—it’s target is the proverbial tabloid-reading, pro-Brexit, white British xenophobe, here characterised as John Bull, though curiously no use of the contemporary meme ‘Gammon’ (maybe McDevitt felt this had too many other problematic connotations, which it arguably does). It begins, no holds barred: ‘Bull withdraws./ his little English pizzle is as a fools/ tickling-stick to Europa's wine seas, olive shores’. Briefly, it touches on the tragedy of drowning refugees: ‘a thousand boats pregnant with human cargoes cross/ the unpoliced channels to be aborted’. But its visceral satire doesn’t let up: ‘Bull wonders who or WTF he'll beef-bayonet next?/ Hibernia and Alba are playing hard to get’.
‘Financiers’ is an acute critique rich with cutting c-alliterations—I excerpt it in full:
they move in formations within City of London's
dragon bounds, young financiers printing shadows
of a modern Brutus onto the Roman walls
as fruit-machine minds fix on abstracts: flat yield.
aquascutum coats add to the Roman theme, a 'cena'
of posh cheddar and turmeric latte in St. Olave's.
their bubble of protection glows like a skull,
detecting dissent. a police horse-box parks close by.
in the city within the city they have special status.
they are humans lost in bullrings and bearpits.
we suspect we shall never know them, walled-off.
they have capital adventures, ethereum wallets,
entering marble pages of Shakespeare's Folio
through the eye of the Threadneedle to exeunt.
‘A Mother’ is an enigmatic lyric which opens and closes on images of smoke:
…that I can sit with coffee
in the smokes of the streetcars
in the smokes of Greek cigarettes
not my own
and see a mother
as if through crystal
completely made of whiteness
completely made of light
shining from glass tables
as if closer than the sun…
where is this? Africa
in an egg-yolk heat?
the sophia is flowering
even as she smokes
‘Cabals’ is a series of eight gnomic lyrics that continue in a Rimbaudian vein with a distinctly occult or shamanic flavour—the subtitle is ‘The poet, a magician with insecurity – René Char’. The lines seem disconnected somehow, as if representing fragmented thoughts, a stream-of-consciousness:
…names grow. the light flowing in my limbs
thins like the moon
the royal camp and republican camps parley in each field
I was taught to walk in this polis by closing my eyes and
as incense, taught to vote holding my nose
There’s a palpable sense of metropolitan ephemerality and yet also of the sempiternal aspects of the human psyche amidst it:
more and more it seems money is the coping-stone, an
abstract. but can
a number hold up a tower?
it would be better if gold were the foundation and the
tower made of gold.
it would be better if the whole city was made of diamond
it feels solid. we walk on roubles
Money is indeed ‘an abstract’, nothing more than a tangible symbol of transaction. As well as the occultic, there is also McDevitt’s psychogeographic psyche coming to the fore:
there is a real hill of dreams but its very splendour is up for
signs go up in cover of darkness. they want it to become a
mall of dreams (we
much prefer the hill)
their magic is stronger than ours, but the hill of dreams will
live on when we
are inside it, under it
History, ancestry, dynasty—factors of which McDevitt is always acutely aware:
again and again in eternity we see the triumphalism-
before-defeat of those
who should win, the triumphalism-after-victory of those
who should lose
the cabals are mysterious. one oddity is that we often find
against the great-great-great-great-grandsons and great-
great-great-great-grand-daughters of the royal bastards of
they omnilocate, bastardy thrones
The latter lines no doubt allusions to two recent prime ministers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, descendants of illegitimate offspring of William IV and George II respectively. We get a McDevittism with ‘omnilocate’. The following verse is particularly lyrical, and gnomic, Rimbaudian again:
white roses grow by the waterhouse gates. there are free
roses — free beauty —
for anyone passing
jasmine salves, white-flowered, purple-budded
theatres are theatres-within-theatres (poems-within-
I particularly admire the Shelleyan sixth section:
we see images of lions on the sides of disciplinary
buildings. they do not need
guard dogs. the lion is sufficient to ward us off. night is
in the great city we are thrown to lions daily
The eighth verse is brief and tongue-in-cheek, reminding us that wit is something ever-present in McDevitt’s verse: ‘but sadness is understanding./ it is not getting a joke:/ people who live in orangeries shouldn't throw stones’. The ninth verse hints at McDevitt’s long-time disdain for the poetry establishments:
wisdom? the dust that falls on us used to be Catholic but
now is orange. we walk in orange fallout
I saw a poetry competition on the theme of Yeats and magic
but it was 'the magic of everyday life' the organisers meant,
not the magic of the cabals (poetry too has cabals)
the city dragons roar into iphones
The tenth and final verse of ‘Cabals’ is a sardonic anti-salutation to monarchy, superficiality and materialism:
the dragoness has her crown, embossed on a helicopter
in a public park, former friends walk by silver trunks to
collect branchlets for wands to use against one another
Ipsissimus — we made you so — assist us in the radical
humility of our quest
Ipsissimus translates from the Latin as something like ‘His most Selfness’ and was apparently an ultimate spiritual goal of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The second section of the book is titled with the biblically and historically resonant name oft-used by McDevitt, ‘BABYLON’—it includes a quote from surrealist poet and favourite of McDevitt’s, David Gascoyne: ‘London Bridge is falling down. Rome’s burnt and Babylon the Great is now but dust’. The opening poem is titled ‘Pazuzu’, the name of a Mesopotamian-Babylonian winged demon and personification of the wind who was destructive but also protective against other demons, what is termed ‘apotropaic’ (those who have seen The Exorcist will be familiar with this particular demon). McDevitt’s poem is a kind of prayer to the demon asking for protection from the nefarious ‘animal spirits’ of the City finance sector:
protect us. Pazuzu — glaring in your wall of wings —
from number-demons who squat occluded in the air
and light about us, lunging like barracudas while we bath
or hunting in darkness as sour fingers feel for a switch.
Given McDevitt’s occult convictions it is unlikely this piece is intended merely ironically.
‘Babylon (a neoliberal theodicy)’ is a discursive sequence of aphorismic lyrics which in semi-calligrammatic form on the page are visually reminiscent of the work of one of McDevitt’s poet-mentors, the late Michael Horovitz. This is a typically McDevittian deconstruction of capitalism in its linguistic focus and incantatory tone—it is also a little abstruse and esoteric in that each section begins with a phrase in Sumerian, the agglutinative language of ancient Mesopotamia.
The first section starts with ‘erset la tari’ which apparently translates as ‘land of no return’: ‘the orphans of neoliberalism: :/ children who cannot understand/ what mathematics/ mathematicians/ do to them/ cry/ privatisedly// from the Switzerland-of-no-return/ sequestered// in Babylon’. One notes another McDevittian neologism with the adverb ‘privatisedly’—a tantalising though deeply dystopian manifestation of the increasing commodification of lingua franca. Verse 2 begins with the Sumerian phrase ‘hu-bur’ which probably means ‘netherworld’—it gifts us the striking phrases ‘clay proletariat’ and ‘clay precariat’, McDevitt always having his finger on the pulse of contemporary linguistic mutations. Babylonian gods ‘Randa’ and ‘Hayeku’ are invoked.
By Verse 3 it seems clear these are essentially incantations—this one beginning with ‘gi-pis-tam-tim’ (Sumerian again?): ‘a human ruin/ in human ruins// emaciation// eats/// you live below the landmass of failure’. The m-alliteration almost evokes a Buddhist mantra a la ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. There’s a sense sometimes in McDevitt’s poetry of words being chosen as much for their sounds as their meanings—this is, I think, a semi-conscious propensity, something perhaps associated with a poet’s euphonic focus on language, and one which I often find in my own poetry. Another interesting visual or calligrammatic feature
in this poem is some words and lines with strikethroughs—this rather quirky form of visual self-editing or self-censoring is something I’ve come across in the recent work of other poets and is a technique I’ve also started to occasionally use myself [NOTE: it is not possible to reproduce strikethrough text on this website so I've instead used underlines to indicate where the strikethroughs occur in McDevitt's text].
Significantly there is a gap in this work as the next section is numbered 7, so it seems as if McDevitt decided to remove sections 4,5 and 6. Verse 7 continues the fragmented effects and McDevitt produces many portmanteaus: ‘[fraud mice… // unsupplicant to goddess Randa// the canaldiggers/ the dykebuilders/ callcentre workers/ checkout workers// the pauperised// of Babylon’.
In Verse 8 McDevitt continues to experiment with visual form and assumes mock-Shakespearean idiom:
their numbers run rings
(odds of a crash)
disregard the divine crunchings if thou wilt
the sound rules
of thy goddess
The poem then jumps to Verse 13—9, 10, 11 and 12 having been omitted. This a vituperative verse impeaching the gratuitously propertied: ‘homes shit/ us/ out// property/ flushes/ us/ out// estate/ more ideal than real// homes dwell// in emptiness// felons/ scale gated properties/ cross thresholds/ from emptiness to emptiness// no one is domiciled/ in Babylon’. Verse 14 deals with official correspondence, bills, DWP brown envelopes et al—three open square brackets appear randomly on the page without closures: ‘everything takes// its toll [//the window envelopes/ the small print/ computer-generated threats// and blackmail [// you are sunk// in sunk cost [// things have slowed down// (to 1929)’. Use of repetition gives Verse 15 an almost hypnotic quality:
‘Babylon’ was probably composed by McDevitt during the early austerity years since much of its themes, memes and polemical targets seem to be circa 2008-13, as in Verse 16 which takes aim at the austerity tsars of the Troika:
to Le Pen--------------------
clay temps yellow temps
humble the heads
Verse 17 seems to take aim at the monarchy: ‘the crown prince is/ clothed in/ televisions// is/ clothed in/ newspapers// he waves to thousands/ who'll never/ know him// a whitegloved/ claw’. Verse 19 repeats the phrase ‘structural adjustment’ several times down the centre of the page as a kind of refrain but also forming a kind of concrete scaffolding. Verse 20 starts with typical McDevittian satirical wordplay: ‘you have no property/ [no property rights/ you despise the proper/ [proprietors propriety’. Further in, McDevitt mocks two iconic names of neoliberal thought simply by paragogic excrescence of the names with the letter ‘u’: ‘Greenspanu is not your/ savant/ Keith Josephu is not your/ saint’. Verse 22 berates the asset strippers of capitalism: ‘the fall of plutocrats/ racing to/ the bottom/ they fall/ chased by death-dealers/ to eat the dark’. Verse 23 continues with the demonic imagery: ‘progress/ clawed back/ by Pazuzu’—and there is some wonderfully alliterative wordplay: ‘upperclass underclass/ spit/ into spit-hoods// their solidarnoscs’. The polemic sharpens up for Verse 24 as McDevitt takes aim at those among the educated classes who are complicit in neoliberal theodicy:
"I'm a professional Marxist!
it's more than my job's worth
the intelligentsias sell out
sell intelligence for six figure sums
the commentariat fix rates per word
at the centre of the cosmos
or on the peak
of Mont Pelerin
they sit like pats
in the morphic field
Verse 26 finds McDevitt focusing on economists and thinkers who influenced neoliberal laissez faire capitalism of the mid to late 20th century—once again he mockingly applies paragogic excrescences to names (Ayn?) Rand (author of the dystopic pro-capitalist tome Atlas Shrugged, 1957), and classical liberal-cum-conservative economists (Friedrich) Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) and (Milton) Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962):
made by the gods
who invented the concept 'humanity’
who supplied the clay
who fused clay and concept
madeth us to lie
made us to falsify
PHDs to say why
social cleansing is a good idea
‘Babylon’ concludes with its 27th verse, an Eliotic coda with a hypnotic if despairing prayerlike quality:
oh sands of this place
we who walk the Processional Way
[from lion to lion
the more we protest
[the more we lose
we have blockaded
[the extreme centre
we have placarded
[the Square Mile
from auroch to auroch
from dragon to dragon
heads low voices low
the solar the temple of Murdoch
Despairing it might seem on first appearances, but this is also an imperishable prophecy of capitalism’s inescapable decline and future disintegration—and what more brilliant term for the brutalism of the contemporary neoliberal political mainstream than ‘the extreme centre’.
‘Marduk (neo-liberal sonnet)’ would appear to be a damning critique of Rupert Murdoch, his surname coinciding with that of the Sumerian patron god of Babylon (who was, however, regraded as benevolent and compassionate, so the comparison stops there):
…the moneycomb in
flares in your favour, barbed with policy, in the sub-edited days
you issue. your pornography and puns are crude and black as oil
but the massed ranks in your scriptorium work energetically
as wasps producing it, anxious to please their solar monarch.
alas, you're too busy inspecting sewage of the sky's imperium
and dipping cuneiform discs into lion droppings
— for pungency — to care about the hacksawing minions
who hoist your red letterhead onto a dawn of optic nerves.
McDevitt has encrypted his polemic but not too obscurely: ‘solar monarch’ and ‘red letterhead’ seem to clearly point to tabloid newspaper The Sun. The punning portmanteau 'moneycomb' is brilliant and typically McDevittian.
‘Poem of the Right-Wing Sufferer (Tablet II)’ is a surreal satirical monologue:
midnight, the sun is ink-blotted.
this social death, how to survive?
ill-luck happened, just not cricket. I fell from my privileged class
into a place of no landing-pads,
of black-and-white brutalism, a people with no implants, nonstop
drumming, poems to gods unheard of, some with female names.
It contains some memorable puns and wordplays: ‘I was a protestant in the realm of the incenses’, ‘I thought I was left-libertarian but — scratched —/ found out in the polling booth I was a right-wing twunt’. The poem has many lurid flourishes: ‘the privileged classes now seemed like holograms from my 23rd/ floor,/ self-aggrandised soldier ants, shouldering artisan breadcrumbs/ all the hours their God sends’—and:
…the vision was of a world upside-down : :
the populace walked on circus mirrors, like tightrope-walkers,
trying to ignore the reflections of distressing crimes high above.
children rioted for the sake of it, hating anyone over 10
and hunting in the streets, little Ashurbanipals chasing cats.
(Ashurbanpial was a Babylonian king). The final poem in this section of the book ‘Tower of Babylon’ is, in stark contrast to McDevitt’s usually completely lower case poems, written entirely in block capitals—this is a powerful threnody to Grenfell, utterly distinctive in McDevitt’s inimitable voice:
THE TOWER OF BABYLON IS A BLACK WICKER BASKET
SMOKING INTO THE AZURE OF PAST-PRESENT-FUTURE
WHERE THE UNACCOUNTABLE DEAD NO LONGER SPEAK
A THOUSAND LANGUAGES IN A THOUSAND WINDOWS.
THE CONFUSION WAS ONLY EVER BETWEEN TWO LANGUAGES:
THE LANGUAGE OF THE RICH / THE LANGUAGE OF THE POOR.
RICH MOUTHS, POOR EARS, THEY'RE LIKE CHALK AND CHEESE
POOR MOUTHS, RICH EARS, THEY'RE LIKE CHALK AND CHEESE
'WE WILL CLAD YOUR TOWER IN SUCH A DRESS OF BEAUTY
IT WILL STAND ON THE HORIZON LIKE A CATWALK MODEL
AND LO! THE UGLY ZIGGURAT THEY BRANDED AN EYESORE
WAS NO LONGER ANATHEMA TO THE HIGH ONES OF BABYLON
'THANK YOU FOR PRETTIFYING OUR OUT-OF- DATE ZIGGURAT
BUT NOW WE DON'T FEEL 100% SAFE IN OUR OWN HOMES'
AND LO! THE RICH EARS ONLY LISTENED TO RICH MOUTHS
WHILE THE POOR MOUTHS CONTINUED WITH THEIR BABBLE
THE FLAMES OF THE GODS BURNT OFF THE DESIGNER GOWN
AND SPOKE A LANGUAGE NO ONE THERE HAD EVER HEARD
OF HELLS ON EARTH (OF HELLS ON EARTH) NAKED
AND WALLS OF FUME (AND WALLS OF FUME) BARE-FORKED
THE HIGH ONES OF BABYLON RESPOND IN RICH LANGUAGE
BUT NOTHING BUT NOTHING BUT NOTHING IS DONE
POOR MOUTHS WILL TELL THE STOREYS FOREVER
BUT RICH EARS HAVE ALREADY SWITCHED OFF / MOVED ON
THE TOWER OF BABYLON IS A BLACK WICKER BASKET
THE TOWER OF BABYLON IS A BLACK WICKER BASKET
THE TOWER OF BABYLON IS A BLACK WICKER BASKET
THE TOWER OF BABYLON IS A BLACK WICKER BASKET
The image of the scorched tower as a ‘black wicker basket’ is strikingly evocative.
The third book is titled ‘Psychohistory’ and is preceded with an excerpt from the play The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe. The first poem is simply entitled ‘John Dee’ and is a homage to the eponymous occultist. This is a delightful, picturesque poem showing that McDevitt’s command of language had a sure delicacy of touch when the moment or subject required it:
John Dee your name is talismanic
to your occluded house for consultation
on the shores of Mortlake
Unobtrusive alliterations trickle through the lines:
not progressing on a steed or a barque today
but by red bus
stopping off at St Mary's to divine your bones
feet shuffling from chancel
to a Christian plaque
remembering you as cleric
— oh man named after the holy delta —
as stained glass honeycombs
There’s again the symbolic, colouristic Rimbaudian-Eliotian aspects:
in the green-brown Thames
there are red shrouds
a dust of ochre
Echoes of the esoteric and occultic convey obscurities but these are not ecliptic:
soon the bench he picnicked on is swallowed
then the tow-path
as the river climbs to its apex
at four o'clock
in Beltane sun
hexing like a Chinese dragon
then magically, impossibly,
stopping and about-turning
to flow east again
Lundrumguffa, called, isn't there
-oh man named after the holy delta -
but only an atmosphere
a tree-trunk touching my forehead
whispering of seed-sown grounds
a library of ciphers
The wonderfully evocative name ‘Lundrumguffa’ was that of an evil entity which apparently haunted Dee’s house.
Next is a sequence entitled ‘Psychohistorical Sonnets’—each titled after a Plantagenet king, speaker of the fourteen-lined monologue. In our Tudor-saturated times it is perversely refreshing to read poems about the frequently fascinating and underrepresented Plantagenet line (though curiously McDevitt omits the first four of the Plantagenets—Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III).
‘Edward I’ tackles Edward ‘Longshanks’ (so-called due to his contemporaneously unusual height, thought to be around 6 ft 1), a ruthless expander of the kingdom, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, among other brutal epithets, with evocative figurative language:
I have thrown a blood shadow on your island
to encrust on the map like black puddings
a thousand scabs
congealing wax enseaming chronicles
I cut native clay into chunks of victual
a hot, wet, bloody geography
the stone keeps
and arrowslits of my legacy defend
England nods as my Frankish engines
creak through night's gore to expulsions
parcels wrapped in law
from ploughed south to harrowed north
the shade of my shanks is a tree of death
to meet giantkillers
with royal ordnance
The archaic-sounding term ‘enseaming’ apparently meant covering something in grease. The diction here is very tangible and gustatory : ‘blood shadow’, ‘encrust’, ‘black puddings’, ‘scabs’, congealing’ and ‘enseaming’. The phrase ‘parcels wrapped in law’ is also striking. We might call this, then, the first example of a McDevittian sonnet whose chief characteristics are: irregular free verse with no end-rhymes and a split second line in the final couplet. The doomed ‘Edward II’ was usurped and dethroned, and then, so legend has it, murdered by having a red-hot poker inserted into his rectum (it is thought as a symbolic punishment for his alleged homosexuality)—which is figuratively alluded to by McDevitt:
crownless, the foliage on my chin's
a heraldry fending off no barons
the fop of yore
ill-equipped, Franglais unheeded by all
son of the hammer lain on Scots' anvil
l am Europe's fool in the sports news
as Londoners bawl for the princeling.
unpurpled, no wardrobes of regalia
unseated by what I most fear - a female -
the worm of manhood
eats its corpse exhales its last
crusader I chase the glow of irons
welding inside me
this satanic spine
The struck-through word ‘cruiser’ might refer to Edward’s reputation for laziness. ‘Edward III’ is a beautifully descriptive poem:
we now contend with God's darkness
this thunder of murrain
I close my eyes I espy the Black Sea
a dust falling off the skulls of magnates
black bulbs illume the paling forms
as the eyes of the commonality
close like candles
and black ears block Latin prayers.
we elite, we gartered are no Arthurians
hating the icon of bondage's skeleton
chivalry clouded in miasma
I am half dead my subjects half dead
they fund me not I them
The unobtrusive b-alliterations are brilliantly judged: ‘Black Sea’, ‘black bulbs’, ‘black ears’, ‘bondage’s’. ‘Black’ has many symbolic meanings in the context of Edward III’s fifty year reign: it alludes to both the Black Death whose pestilence decimated the European population during his reign, and Edward the ‘Black Prince’, eldest son of Edward III, who died before succeeding him, the throne instead, and fatefully, inherited by his ten year old son Richard, speaker of the following poem, ‘Richard II’:
view from my casque the faces of simples
my head on a silver halfpenny
levying scutage for music
he half-groat's silver platter
my fleur-de-lys crown my effeminate locks
a loosening link in heredity's chain.
the pauperised the meek
are not encased in God's aura (like me)
but my writs falter
I cannot gild their living conditions
I've hung villeins on municipal gibbets
who'd crave of me
This is another exquisitely written poem which makes use of some evocative period terms such as ‘casque’ (something resembling a helmet) and ‘scutage’ (a kind of vassal-tax)—the c-alliterations and sibilance work effectively throughout. Like his great-grandfather Edward II, Richard II would also be usurped and murdered (or at least, left to waste away in a dungeon)—to be a ‘II’ seemed distinctly unlucky in Plantagenet times. Richard’s usurper was his cousin Henry Bollingbroke who speaks the ensuing monologue, ‘Henry IV’:
alas! the body of monarchy holds
as the body of the monarch implodes
usurper with muscle
so begins my anointment by pustules
this England is a scriptural desert
into which I walk forty days too long
not of Jerusalem but stiff-necked London.
the anglophone of the coronation
loses lips, nose loses its bridges
a prolapsed rectum
turns my throne inside-out spits innards
the holy oil in the eagle casket
perfumes the merde
my swimming bones
This is another evocative piece tangible with sense-impression and sumptuous diction of period-apposite, alliterative words: ‘muscle’, ‘pustules’, ‘scriptural’, ‘leper king’, ‘prolapsed rectum’, ‘spits’. ‘Henry VI’ conveys the creeping psychosis of the scholar-king whose reign was unwittingly flung into the dynastic catastrophe of the Wars of the Roses—McDevitt has clearly done his research here, mentioning ‘Charles the Mad’ which refers to Charles VI of France, a relation of Henry VI, whom some time earlier also suffered from psychosis (the horrendous delusion that his body was made of glass and could shatter at any moment)—so it is supposed Henry inherited these traits from his French relation:
a child in the room fathoms adults
heir to the brainpan of Charles the Mad
a great slump
begins in the core of my egghead
the royal ear stinks of influencers
as English ponds of carp excreta
I agree with all-comers
to be true king in something.
a great slump a bullion famine
hums in the stomachs of roses
manna falls upward out of reach
at 50, blessing the medieval city
a foetus with ax
Next up is Henry VI’s usurper and defeater of the House of Lancaster, ‘Edward IV’ of the House of York, by contrast, a physically and mentally fit and robust figure:
a Longshanks, I’m long as lances
vaults of rib rugged as castles
a domineer of eyes
to console for the misshape Henry.
Ego and maw ballooning
the table eclipses the war field
I vomit for Rome
ejaculate for royal frogspawn
slashing and slashing, a deathsman non- entity
filling the vacuum
with penile will
And finally, the much-maligned Richard ‘Crookback’ , last of the York and Plantagenet lines, routed and slain only two years into his reign at Bosworth by the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII—‘Richard III’ continues the high calibre of the previous sonnets:
the coverture over this insane imp
is blown off. The groundlings know
my manners are null
grains of sugar iced with gall
the ungulate humps on my back
brim over with pus and jaundice
mothering the spheres liming the orbits
an impure calculus guides me home
less addition than subtraction
I’ll cancel you
dining on swan crane heron and pigeons
the state fetishises
my cacodemon DNA
on live television
oddly, Protestants pray
Once again there’s some sumptuous use of period diction and alliteration: ‘coverture’, ‘imp’, ‘sugar iced’, ‘ungulate’, ‘pus and jaundice’, ‘ill milks’, ‘spheres’, ‘impure calculus’, ‘cancel’, ‘crane’, ‘cacodemon’. The phrase ‘I’ll cancel you’ gives a contemporary polemical edge to the topic of the poem, since this is effectively what later Tudor and Shakespearean propaganda achieved through historical records and even subtly altered portraits of Richard. So concludes a wonderful cycle of beautifully crafted sonnets.
McDevitt had a background in acting in street theatre for the likes of Ken Campbell, and this thespian aspect comes to the fore in a series of miniature dramas or micro-plays beginning with the grisly ‘The Heads on Poles (a masque)’. This short ‘masque’ has six characters: four anonymous of the title, Francis Bacon (presumably the Elizabethan, not the late 20th century bohemian painter?), and William Blake. Whilst I’m unable to decipher precisely the point being made by this piece I can at least suppose it has some contemporary bearing, and admire the period-handiwork:
why hanging? Why drawing? Why quartering?
The national self-interest?
The holocaust of the poor?
it was for Christ, well
the schism of England
eviscerated like a fish
in front of thousands
WILIAM BLAKE: Bacon supposes that the Dragon Beast
& Harlot are worthy of a Place in the New Jerusalem
Excellent Traveller Go on & be damnd
CHORUS OF HEADS
black sheep warped in our natures
imagining we could outmanoeuvre
the black shepherds yonder without the pen
witness the petrification in iced eyes
as dragged and swung as pressed and cleaved
ghosts were deciphered from our bones
rocks smashed backs
ropes singed necks
blades cut bladders
maw and colon
(it was much better
than it is on television)
our message is
‘To the Spymaster General’ is an acrostic to the titular figure, Sir Francis Walsingham: the first letter of each line spells out vertically the name ‘Sir F Walsingham’—McDevitt leaves out his full name opting for the initial; it’s significant that here, in order to highlight the encoded name, McDevitt uses capital letters in bold to start each line. This is a deft period-piece, meticulously phrased:
Saviour, it's encrypted in your face, the gematria
Invisible — in which you cocooned her body,
Ruffs veiling virgin neck from the wrong espials.
Friendless as the dot in the centre of a circle...
Warped by what you saw in Paris — Latin knives —
And petrified to engagement, you turn archangel
Loving and hating the charge of God's annals
Sifting in your wings. a black skullcap catches
Ideas flying out of your mind like ireful wasps.
No man knows you, but that leather o-thing — your purse —
Goads many to serenade, and your spideress ears
Have heard men's mouths disgorge the babble of ages
As gold sequels clink in time. the 'V' of hair
Marks you luciferic, Moor, a cipher for Vauxhall
According to Wikipedia ‘gematria’ is ‘the practice of assigning a numerical value to a name, word or phrase according to an alphanumerical cipher’. McDevitt immerses his diction in the period with words such as ‘Ruffs’, ‘espials’, ‘skullcap’, ‘ireful’, ‘disgorge’, ‘luciferic’. There are some striking images here, some wonderful assonance and sibilance as in the fourth line, and alliterations—‘Warped’, ‘Paris’, ‘petrified’ etc. The line ‘disgorge the babble of ages’ is tangibly alliterative and assonantal. I wish McDevitt had composed more such acrostics as he demonstrates a true talent for the form.
‘The Body of the Queen (a masque)’ is a depiction of the ‘Coroner's inquest into the death of Xtofer Marlowe, Mrs Bull's house, Deptford Strand, June 1, 1593’. The dramatis personae of this miniature encounter comprise ‘Verge’, manifestation of the ‘Saturn-ring/ about the body of the queen/ moving as she moves’, a kind of protective aura or bubble around Elizabeth I, her sphere of influence, a ‘Coroner’, ‘Body’, Marlowe’s speaking corpse, and ‘Poley’, ‘Skeres’ and ‘Frizer’ who were spies/government informers/“professional deceivers” hired to murder Marlowe.
we English agents
must not presume to
must not presume to
our work is CLASSIFIED
we are deeply schadenfreuded
by loss of our brave colleague
missing his flamboyance
and taffety attires
in our secret world
he was the worst-kept secret
biting the hand that fed him
like a Montaigne cannibal
(They point at the wound in his forehead)
this hole in the universe
this window into the soul
we invite you the jurors
to look into
and look through
(THE BODY on the table shifts position and begins to speak)
I worked hard for that extra eye. I out-stared the age.
his mouth is unstopped!
BODY (looking at POLEY/SKERES/FRIZER):
ah Lucifer! ah Mephistopheles! ah Beelzebub!
I thank you as emissaries from the realm below
for your moving speeches and loving mementos.
as surely as I'm lying here, you are lying there!
but you are handsome devils, as all devils are
for we pass through fire, air, water, earth to be
what we are, elemental, inspired, daemonic,
dancing on the mountain-tops, clacking goat-hooves.
I had no choice, stabbed by the devil's syllogism
at school, studying divinity to find out I'm reprobate.
heaven went the way of the Spanish Armada. I sank
with it. Faustian, I had supernatural helpmeets.
I became a woman, then a harlot, then a mother
who was born to die in childbed, a child of state.
McDevitt is again inventive with his language, ‘schadenfreuded’ is a curio of Germanic verbification; ‘taffety attires’, as well being brilliantly alliterative, has a double reference to taffeta, the thin silk fabric used for making clothing, and taffety, an old world for a thin crisp pastry filled with apple; and ‘helpmeet’ is an archaic term for a ‘helpful companion or partner’.
This brings us to perhaps one of McDevitt’s most accomplished poems, ‘A ‘Hymn’ To Marlowe’, which first appeared in The London Magazine (a Marlowe-themed issue which included Julie Goldsmith’s phantasmagorical portrait of Marlowe on its cover):
Marlowe empurpled, the state and stations of death
archive his cloven mind as it conjugates
the Latin of reality into past/present only.
the future is the faces of the triumvirate
an English agent is not an English patient
crossing blood-brain-barrier into night's syllogism
in time for Faustian bells to relay
news to the newscasters of the hourly schism
the living stand smaller than the supine cadaver
(they who never brandish truth as a scourge)
Baconians to a man, quantifying the blade's value.
the river is the helm of Her Majesty's verge
navigating its blue are about the Isle of Dogs.
Marlowe embalmed in the place of the skulls
is consumed by the earth of the holy boneyard.
o chalice misused, misunderstood by God's gulls
It’s also notable here that McDevitt uses a rhyme scheme for the second and fourth lines of each stanza to good effect.
‘Masque of the Heads’ is a sequence of grisly (internal) monologues from three heads on spikes, two on London Bridge and one at the Tower of London. Once again the language is evocative and period-charged—the 1st Head describes itself with ‘eyes and lips stock-still as a Billingsgate fish’ whose ‘phantom limbs ‘below my locked jaw dance pavans and voltas/ as entertainingly as the Earl of Leicester./ it is raining applause’. A deft use of internal rhyme. 2nd Head depicts itself in sumptuous period-idiom with much attention to alliterative effect and sense impression, particularly gustatory:
but throng to espy the ghostly chrism
in my par-boiled and tarred aura, ogling
as I deliquesce in Elizabethan weather,
a dinner-host to sycophants, the murders
of crows, though saving a just desserts smile…
Chrism is a consecrated oil used in Latin masses. The alliteration, assonance and sibilance here are highly effective: ‘ghostly chrism’, ‘par-boiled and tarred aura’, ‘deliquesce’, ‘just desserts’. 3rd Head self-describes in similarly tangible, gory fashion:
posture clenched, philosophy Baconian,
my idea of eternity portcullised.
exalted above the mortal? or toffee-apple?
England drags itself on Thames's hurdle
by the irritable bowels! lord chancellor,
your law screws my head onto a stick, because
it does not think as I do, in numbers or rhymes.
The toffee apple image is particularly disturbing, and again continues the gustatory imagery. The 4th Head brings these gruesome monologues to a triumphant close—the language heightens still more for maximum effect:
fourfold man, cut to the chine, quarters touring
suburbia, coming to a gibbet near you.
here at Traitor's Gate my head feels no burden
but a tickle at the bottom of the throat.
pendant eyes fix not on William the Bastard vistas
but on the indelible image of the last thing seen:
the afforcing blade's triangle of silver,
vatic, pointing out everything I've done wrong.
caesarean death, now I understand power
as I understand the inner life of a hog
hung for the blood to slow and stop. nothing
pleasures me on the rod. unconsciousness
at the climax of the ceremony — pain's apex —
[William the Bastard refers to William the Conqueror, illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy]. I love McDevitt’s use of archaic diction throughout: ‘gibbet’, ‘afforcing’, ‘vatic’. The assonances are particularly striking: ‘Bastard vistas’, ‘afforcing blade’s triangle’, ‘pain’s apex’, ‘blood’, ‘slow’, ‘stop’, ‘nothing’, ‘rod’.
Last of the miniature dramas in this third section of the book is ‘The Masque of Puritans’ set in 1595, St Helens Church Bishopsgate—a dialogue between Shakespeare and Lord Mayor John Spencer. It depicts Shakespeare as a recusant, a secret Roman Catholic (during a period of persecution), as some historians suspect he was:
it is the law
that I kneel here
I do not ask for this salvation
anymore than of fever
inner ears, remembrancers of Latin,
enshrine English now
the Bishops Bible
blows like keys
in Genesis, I hear 'The Lord' and 'God',
The Tetragrammaton and 'Elohim'
(who's who? Parker? Grindal?)
it is the law
I pray at Helen's
but this English is sweet as sherris
to one who swims in sound
The marvellous term Tetragrammaton is the vowelless Hebrew theonym YHWH which represents Yahweh (and is not meant to be uttered), while Elohim is another Hebrew name for God. Grindal alludes to Edmund Grindal bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury. The term ‘sherris’ is an archaic spelling of sherry. Spencer is incredulous as to Shakespeare’s recusancy:
I spy your pretence
you'd rather be at the
emptier of the Christ
than a doxy's will
you'd rather be in woman's garb than man's
curved like Eve
mouth red with serenading
you rue your duty to attend God's house
when in fact
you should be debarred
McDevitt demonstrably had a true talent for period turn of phrase—the assonance really carries those lines. The odd word ‘doxy’ is an archaic term for a mistress or prostitute (I’d initially mistaken it for an abbreviation of doxology). Shakespeare, too, is incredulous as to Spencer’s hypocrisy:
a Midas atop his gold middens
for the square-pegs
the chain of Dispater
stands portcullis to my art
your Lordship's as much a player
on the stage of London as I
this metaphor of yours
you think London you think England
this is your idiocy!
a loon's ball!
the unseriousness of it
debasing lawyers law itself
to rooting hogs
like some Comus
as you are low
I lower myself
to pluck the weed of your ‘humanism’
and call for the final suppressing
The word ‘middens’ meant dung heaps; Comus was Greek god of festivity, son and cup-bearer of Dionysus.
SHAKESPEARE (mumbles then aside):
I am dumbfounded by this doleap here
I am not used to
who more usually must fend off
my wings fall by my side.
I am not sure what ‘doleap’ means. There then follows some exposition:
(1595. One of the demonstrations by City apprentices and others involved taking down the public pillories, a symbol of municipal justice… and setting up a gallows outside the Lord Mayor SPENCER'S house. Thousands waited. He did not appear.)
SPENCER (hiding in Crosby Hall):
what black art's this?
doorstepped by Shakespeare's mob
hangs on my skyline
and the foul calls are for
my legs to be paddling
their laughter is like death.
oh lord send fleas from furs
high fevers deleriums
a white sheet to enwrap them
a toxin ringing out for life
and a voice crying Tue! Tue!
There’s truly something of mediumship at work here in the verisimilitude of McDevitt’s uncanny period ventriloquism. The chamber piece closes with the return of the Plague to London in 1603:
CHORUS OF PURITANS:
this silence of yours is purple, is godly,
the hush that has fallen on playhouses
as the people fall in the streets, scythed
we saw them in your audiences, the poor,
the hungry, the homeless and mad, flashing
like the fetches of the about to be dead
they would have stolen our life from us,
our god, but their hands were thin as sticks
and slowed by cold, Abraham men at loose
congregating at the interludes, looking for
and finding something like wit's manna
falling from the proscenium onto, into them
we refused the sound. the masterless swam
in it and drowned. our sound runs dry again
[Abraham-men were beggars in Tudor and Stewart times who allegedly pretended to be escaped lunatics to curry sympathy]. This is a ringing lyrical close to a beautifully composed sequence.
The fourth and final book of London Nation is ‘In the Realm of the Isms’—this section is more in the polemical seam of McDevitt’s Porterloo (2013). McDevitt often described himself as an anarchist, he was certainly to the left, an ‘anti-Tory’, , but belonged to no political party as far as I was aware—it seemed increasingly clear to me following his poetics through the years that he was essentially an immaterialist, that he came to believe that human salvation would most likely come through spiritual rather than material revolution. With ‘isms I’ he sets out his stall strikingly:
the isms stored in their vials like biological weapons
await release, above metropolises, below masts, to fly
from gut to gut. they have colour codes and symbols.
nihilism white, socialism red, zionism blue, anarchism
black etc. each chasing its own philosopher's stone.
the isms are fountains jetting from the lips of public
intellectuals, sullied springs, mixed with human spit
and bile, envenoming the very foodbanks for thought
they draw on. isms awake masses to gold-plated dawns
of their choice, isms with flags, isms with slogans
globalism displaces and replaces as if by algorithm.
conservatism culls foxes, mithraism culls bulls,
In ‘isms 2’ McDevitt dismantles the materialistic, spiritual philistinism of Thatcherism—but this polemic is wrapped in beautifully figurative language and images:
isms are as orbs. the grey moon in the ether
is like an Englishwoman, glass-visible, moving the grey seas
with a magnet will: thatcherism seeking her guerdon ever
while blairism, blue-suited and male, orbits in her wake.
children at amusement arcades, they play the coin-pushers
monetarism, militarism. Newton-defying, the sterling
is stacked, teetering over the abyss, image of trickledown,
but the bonanza never falls from machine to human hands.
thatcherism: a grey ghoul, sometimes manifesting
in forms of statues, much-unloved, vandal-prone, fenced-off.
whenever she waxes the mare returns, glowing sinister.
the grey seas charge again and the people go under…
[‘Geurdon’ is an archaic word meaning a reward or recompense]. We again have symbolic colours: Thatcher associated with grey and Blair with blue. The brilliantly imaginative trope ‘like an Englishwoman, glass-visible, moving the grey seas/ with a magnet will’ is indicative of the ever more Rimbaudian trajectory of McDevitt’s Muse. ‘ism 3’ is, again, figurative and brilliantly descriptive:
in marxism, the victorian economy strips, empress
without clothing, gargantuan hausfrau, wart-arsed,
a millennium of boors squatting under her hunkers
consuming pints of hobgoblin, pouches of old holborn.
its three-volume bible is more guidebook to etiquette
than revolution, all-alienating, the toad-in-the-holeariat
croaking of things to come, male vocal sacs ballooning
to outdo the other in imitation of their Meister.
reservoirs of ire replenish the fire-buckets-and-axes
they parade with daily, curmudgeonly homocides
in progress, plotting how to divvy the queenly assets
then spilling from wasps' nests into jam jar palaces
drilled to gouge,
coup and recoup
There’s some wonderful assonances throughout: ‘victorian economy’, ‘gargantuan hausfrau’, ‘hobgoblin, pouches of old holborn’, ‘toad-in-the-holeariat’, ‘cargo cults covets’, ‘curmudgeonly homocides’, ‘jam jar palaces’, ‘gouge, coup and recoup’. Last but not least is ‘ism 4’ and its target, ‘orangeism’, presumably Protestantism:
orangeism: an 'ism' imperilled as some fauna
though from its cloth a people is unhusked.
history's filleted, then boned for what remains
to go into tins. orange dawns spiral westward
freemasons and housewives shake off soiled aprons
as red hands turn pages of trusted MSM organs
to find headlines, stats, verdicts not going their way
even through shaded lens, propaganda's cyclops.
the rock of monarchism and roll of republicanism
play out their discords, drum a cubist 'one nation'.
palaces transition to co-ops. … … staycationers outstay welcomes
as the partitioned sea
closes in on Egyptians
‘A Tale of Two Johnsons (ism 5)’ implausibly dovetails Boris Johnson with the lesser known Lionel Pigot Johnson, London decadent poet of Irish descent who, so legend has it, died after falling from a barstool at The Green Dragon on Fleet Street:
as I studied the blond hollowman a kia. Boris Johnson
in hopes of finding a poster boy for latter-day nihilism
I chanced upon quatrains by a dead different Johnson:
poet Lionel Pigot and his fin de siecle lyric, ‘Nihilism’
equating Nietzsche's blond beast with the incumbent of 10
and witnessing, as we did, his exercise of will to power
while the UK played Leda to a plump, plum-voiced swan;
it seemed we'd found a modern man who believes in nada.
but comparing the speeches of this PM to the cadences
of the poet, I think again. that rasp! that raspberry-blowing,
world-beating guff is not the tone of one who eyes the void
but the cant of an archbishop trading God for position,
the mind of Lionel touched heavens even as his body fell
backwards from a barstool at the vanished Green Dragon,
head hitting Fleet Street
(aura shattering to ash)
Lionel Johnson was a member of the Rhymers’ Club, a group of poets also including John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, Francis Thompson, Selwyn Image, Arthur Symons, W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde, among others, who met regularly in the ‘Domino Room’ of Café Royale and, more famously, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Fittingly, the launch of London Nation was held at the latter still-existent tavern.
Finally, we come to the ‘Epilogue’, a single poem presented with double-spaced lines, which has to be one of the most open-hearted and moving expressions of an Irishman’s self-deprecating sense of identity in contemporary literary London. It is simply titled ‘English’, and is preceded with a short quote by Blake, ‘English, the rough basement’:
English is an apparatus
attached to the mouth and skull
my diction is bubbles
no one on land can decode
I cannot use very well,
murmuring and mispronouncing
root units of sound
from Latin, German, French
like a noveau amphibian
in an oral marsh
the clamp of my jaw
somehow doesn't champ or chew
the syllables with enough bite.
behold my skull in the Thames
trying not to sink
as the tide gulps its sockets.
my diction is bubbles
no one land can decode
I use this apparatus,
its foreign face
not unlike a masquerade,
failing to convince or pronounce
with the force of — say — a judge.
spitting puns, gibbering quips:
it's like I'm disabled
or my language amputated
my poems are English subtitles
But McDevitt’s poems are far from simply subtitles—they are writ large and lastingly. I hope he felt in his final days that he had, in spite of his doubts and circuitous path, established himself and his significant poetic legacy in the vast and daunting old imperial capital which so fascinated him. For swiftly following the shock announcement of his passing, tributes and obituaries poured out from metropolitan literary and journalistic quarters—The London Magazine, The Times, and a commemorative event at the British Library—such are the tributes bestowed on poets of reputation. If McDevitt felt his ‘language amputated’ then posterity will show that such insecurities were as phantom limbs. The timelessness of McDevitt’s oeuvre, too, its contradictory qualities, its uncanny patina of historied zeitgeist, guarantees posterity.
McDevitt knew, as the most astute and intuitive poets know, that time is essentially a human invention, that all times, and places, happen simultaneously, and that the same happens in language at its most acute: a medium where the old and new, the past, the present, and anticipations of the future, coalesce into the poetic. This was not only a Blakean notion, it was also an Eliotian and Joycean one: what else were those two clothbound colossi of 1922, The Waste Land and Ulysses, but poetic archaeologies grown from the aggregate loam of human knowledge, from the classics, from religious texts, steeped in etymological and linguistic curiosities—and yet, at the same time, avant-garde productions of high modernism. Eliot’s poetry sought to make something new out of the old, and largely succeeded. Blake’s work, steeped in biblical imageries and pagan mythologies, was simultaneously anciently wise and chiliastic and yet, in its progressive visionary gusto, prophetic and future-seeing.
McDevitt’s oeuvre has sought to mine similar seams of ancient, historical, classical, religious, esoteric and occult wisdoms in its attempts to grapple with the contradictions of the contemporary anarcho-capitalist society in which its author found himself misplaced, as are most poets (because poetry has no purchase in capitalism), and for some periods, unemployed (even though, of course, poetry is an occupation, if impecunious, a symbolic occupation then—capitalism only stamps something as an occupation if it pays, but money is, ironically, little more than a symbol itself). McDevitt, ingeniously, forged his own form of self-employment through his psychogeographical (or poetograhical) Literary Walks and tours throughout London. In a figurative sense, his works are their own literary walks on the page through all times and all places happening all at once.
London Nation is a fittingly multifarious and idiomatic valediction of an oeuvre which is a living thing in its own right, even if its author’s life has been cut unexpectedly short at its prime and, many feel, when McDevitt was on the cusp of greater recognition. It’s a strange but fairly typical paradox that that greater recognition has arguably already arrived, prompted and accelerated by his shock passing. McDevitt’s spirit will live on in his exceptional poetry, and his memory remain undimmed in the minds of the many, many, people his poetic presence and passion inspired. He leaves behind him a whole community of poets, writers, musicians and artists who will ensure his legacy is secured for posterity.
Alan Morrison © 2023