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Niall McDevitt

London Nation

New River Press, 2022

(Hardback) 143pp



London Nation_edited.jpg
London Nation.jpg
London Nation_edited.jpg

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.

windows multiply

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




cruisers disembark

in clingfilm



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

                                  are gods


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


                        faber menagerie


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

stood angel-white

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

any green

but ah the great smear is over

the primer the undercoat the second coat

the gloss.

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:













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



to 2017’s

twitted ideologies


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

seem governed


(in Hades-Tartarus-Gehenna-Dis)



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

I queue

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


darkness swallows

human heads as oysters

darkness swallows

the shells





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

imagining fumes

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

grabs. cardboard

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

ourselves warring

against the great-great-great-great-grandsons and great-

great-great-great-grand-daughters of the royal bastards of

William IV

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.

protect us.


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:




at neoliberals





at neoliberals





at neoliberals





at neoliberals



          at plutonomy




in runners

run at


run on

the banks


of Babylon


‘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:


clay employees

                                                of gods



the heads

                                on walls

bow low


                          to DSK

to Lagarde




the heads


in windows

bow low

                     to Hollande




the heads

on screens

bow low

to Le Pen--------------------
to Elysée



clay temps           yellow temps

humble the heads

     on scaffolds

     in baskets

bow low

     to lions

     of Babylon


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:


intellectual capital

flow liberalization


Prof Jobsworth:

"I'm a professional Marxist!

it's more than my job's worth

to revolt!"


the intelligentsias sell out


sell intelligence for six figure sums


the commentariat fix rates per word




their intellects

don't sit

at the centre of the cosmos

(like Reaganitu


or on the peak

of Mont Pelerin

(like Thatcherita


they sit like pats

in the morphic field


counting clicks


in Babylon


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









to raise

                                            rich towers


to lower

                                poor doors


to expel

         clay figurines


         from Babylon


‘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


unreal estate



the solar                               the temple of Murdoch


is fallen


into sands


of Babylon


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 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

magic-mirroring friends

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

empty pews


There’s again the symbolic, colouristic Rimbaudian-Eliotian aspects:


in the green-brown Thames

there are red shrouds

a dust of ochre

Elizabethan wigs


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

of DDD

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

aide-de-camp quartered

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

no ring-givers

chivalry clouded in miasma


I am half dead my subjects half dead

and remember:

   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

milking fists

levying scutage for music


he half-groat's silver platter

my fleur-de-lys crown my effeminate locks

illegal tender

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

one word

one touch


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

leper king

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

contention's edict

manna falls upward out of reach


at 50, blessing the medieval city

a foetus with ax

    I'm unbearable


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

ill milks

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?

What for?

The national self-interest?

The holocaust of the poor?


it was for Christ, well

the schism of England

my entrails

eviscerated like a fish

in front of thousands

my privy

parts enflamed




WILIAM BLAKE: Bacon supposes that the Dragon Beast

& Harlot are worthy of a Place in the New Jerusalem

Excellent Traveller Go on & be damnd




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!




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:


…bloody prop

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

or forgiveness

of sin

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',

in Psalms

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

     of Protestantism

you'd rather be at the


your 'works'


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

his chain's

the chain of Dispater

his city

stands portcullis to my art




your Lordship's as much a player

on the stage of London as I




                                                this metaphor of yours

‘the stage’

you think London you think England

a polygon

an inn

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

such levels

of vituperation

I am not used to

who more usually must fend off

the over-enamoured.

my wings fall by my side.

I am



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

a gallows

hangs on my skyline

and the foul calls are for

my legs to be paddling

the air


my mayoralty!

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:




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,


isms never

stop working


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

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