Alan Morrison on
Mica Press, 2022
Ill Nature is a beautifully produced slim collection of 55 short lyrical poems by veteran Liverpool-born poet John McKeown, a former Dublin-based newspaper-columnist and feature writer now teaching at the University of Life Sciences in Prague. His first full volume, Sea of Leaves (Waterloo, 2009), was a very fine debut, and it was followed by a further volume, Night Walk (Salmon Poetry, 2011). So, it would appear that this third volume is McKeown’s first in eleven years—though in the interim period he has had poems published in numerous prestigious poetry journals. poems whose lucidity, imageries and sharp phrasal sculpting remind me in some ways of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.
In the first poem, ‘Coming Down’, we get the striking image, ‘the knife-edge of the iced roof’, and the almost anti-Housman phrase ‘all the jaundiced fire of youth’. The Hardyesque ‘Night Wind’ is a wistful lament on time and mortality, ‘the hollow voices/ Of parental ghosts, buffeting the house’, while ‘the wind/ Is the noise of deeds’, and the eternal sleep we all must meet in the end ‘In beds of earth, in the shifting sky’. Mortality but also something possibly sempiternal pervades ‘Airbrushed’:
the lengthening light of the afternoon,
my own years lengthening;
stretches of shadow increasingly
uninterrupted by anything.
Similarly in ‘On the Road’, which is almost two haikus:
Walking round the Sun,
bathed in radiance,
the straight road turning.
Walking round the Sun,
the ageless sun, ageing.
walking into dust, borne up
in a blaze of bright magnificence.
‘Empty Vessels’ is three subtly half-rhyming tercets:
The slim wood-pigeon swooping back and forth
Above my head, building her nest
In the fresh leafed maple tree.
There are other nests along the street
Growing dim among the thickening leaves
Like hearts placed in fibrous chests.
Invisibly doing the real, silent work,
While people make their fraying ends meet,
Empty vessels blown beneath.
The sardonically titled ‘The Great British Sunday’ is a strange mixture of striking images—‘Cloud-strafed light’—unusual verbification—'perspectived’—and incongruously commonplace phrases—‘Beating about the bush’, ‘The wind gets up’. Here it is in full:
Cloud-strafed light, and wind
Beating about the bush;
a perspectived tangle of bare branches.
Cars of course, the minions
of a monotonous, parcelled-out fate,
the soundtrack of complacency.
The wind gets up, tries
to reach in to the strings of thought,
ﬁnds nothing more substantial than itself;
blows on, riﬂing things for miles.
I appreciate the middle anti-car micro-polemic—the ‘of course’ after ‘Cars’ is a wonderfully understated emphasis on their ubiquity. ‘Miser’ is an apt rhyme for our times:
Time, tight as a ﬁst,
not a cat
unfurled in the sun.
Languid days are done,
the nails bite.
Nine lives into less than one.
‘Beautiful Night’ has a wistful, wintry, slightly haunted quality to it—there’s a sense of absence:
A beautiful night outside
Unruﬄed trees silently shedding their leaves
A dying ﬁre facing inwards.
The dark sky raised clear
The air still, things distinct; the world collected
Its gaze elsewhere.
Lights are sharp in the chill
Clear cut windows have nothing to hide
There's a certain perspective
Though I'm not included in it.
But somewhere a pressure has eased
A space left vacant.
The phrase ‘A dying fire facing inwards’ hints at another meaning, as if, figuratively, the ‘fire’ could also be a mind. There are aspects that recall Harold Monro’s phantasmagorical Georgianism—what one might term phantasmageorgianism. My only quandary is with the absence of full stops or commas at the ends of some of the lines which makes it ambiguous—possibly deliberately so—as to whether the line breaks are meant to signal the close of the line or whether are meant as semi-enjambments.
‘Continental Drift’ is a lyric on mortality and the even more terrifying possibility of no posterity, of even memory dying:
The low clouds’ lugubrious drift:
Cold bellies chilling the spring
A damper on everything.
Plans, hopes, stretched out thin
Everything slowly disappearing.
These houses rubble, the city dust,
The very continent not even a memory.
The near-rhyme of ‘thin’ and ‘disappearing’ is a nice touch. In some ways this brings to mind an even shorter—surely one of the shortest at just ten syllables—lyrics by Alun Lewis:
All this aching
Go to making
In a similarly Lewisian mode, the dream-like ‘Commission’ rings despairingly and hauntingly:
Sculpt a keel
out of twilight deck
and rigging and sails
all of blueing cloud.
So I can board it now
as it turns, darkening
into night and never
suﬀer day again.
‘Monomania’ borders on the sublime in its description of a beating heart:
The heart beats, beats,
Like something incredible,
A feat that can’t be done
But is, repeatedly.
Hearing it is seeing the whole
Of Atlas, one compact
Tautened mass, in throbbing support
Of nothing but himself.
I’m sure many of us have often meditated on the rather frightening fact that our lives and consciousness are completely dependent on the continued pumping of a muscle in our chest—a cardio-anxiety. ‘Near the Sea’ meditates on a shoreline horizon:
Certain silver clouds
strung in distant tumultuous titanic lustre
along the landward horizon.
A limitless backbone washed up
on invisible tides of sky.
Backbone of what immaterial leviathan
denizen of what immaterial sea?
(I wonder whether a question mark should have come after ‘leviathan’ and ‘denizen’ thus be capitalised). The beguiling short lyric ‘Moonflower’ describes a ‘celestial flower’ ‘blooming … radiantly’. The five-line ‘Buttercups’ uses a rhyme to lend itself cadence:
Weighed down, I pass and repass;
while the buttercups, strewn across
the railed-oﬀ lawn, ﬂoat
on stems so ﬁne they're invisible
against the green of the grass.
In ‘‘Fine bird song...'’ we get some striking tropes: ‘The pale green ﬁr an explosion of thrusting stillness’—and the following visionary lines:
The bird’s voice now like a worm.
A note slithering fragile, querulous,
through the wreckage of a collapsed world.
Pure little remnant, precursor, survivor.
Bright nail waiting for the right wood.
There’s elements of Imagism in McKeown’s poetry, that last trope reminds me of William Carlos Williams. There are also elements of Symbolism, and García Lorca comes to mind. Indeed, in ‘Grim’, one wonders if the colours are meant symbolically:
While the birds are out of hand,
Singing like there’s no tomorrow
In the greening thinning wood.
And now a blackbird, visible, close
Through the screen of bare branches.
His breast plump, beak a yellow crocus.
Certainly the colours stand out in this poem: ‘green’, ‘black’, ‘yellow’. As a side note, another commonplace phrase, ‘like there’s no tomorrow’, detracts slightly from the concentrated imageries of the other lines—but at this point I begin to wonder if this use of everyday turns of phrase is in some sense intentional. Colour again comes to the fore with ‘Yellow Snow’ (a lovely title):
Yellow snow where a dog has pissed
Around a human footprint.
A day of frozen, dirty snow, everything foregrounded,
In nauseous detail.
After briefly touching on the aching mundanity of driving, working and shopping, McKeown defiantly turns back to nature, which constantly fascinates him and draws his longings towards it like a vortex:
Me, I want to break out,
With the bare, black twisted branches thrown
up against the window,
Go wherever the sky has gone.
The length of that penultimate line works especially well in evoking the urge to break through the glass of human entombment. ‘Enough’ is another striking miniature:
of the stars’
I look down
at the moths
around the streetlamp,
busily unthreading the web
of every question.
‘Twilight’ is another haunting meditation, Monroesque:
Where the streets end, the sun
wrestled down in a darkening
blue confusion of cloud,
people - automata - unnoticing.
Here and there, on houses’ upper reaches
the faintest touches of gold
ghostly as breath on a mirror
in an empty room.
‘Me & My Younger Self’ finds the poet haunted by his younger self and the poem is a kind of reflective relay race of time’s different selves:
I climb the stairs wearily
he climbs within, wearily.
I slump in a chair,
he slumps too.
I wish I could smoke,
he lights his tenth cigarette.
I weigh out a drink,
he ﬁlls up the glass.
I sit and stare at the window,
he puts on Ravel.
I wonder what life is,
he’s racked with sobs
by the music.
What is life but emotion
I formulate the lesson,
he has no need to learn it.
(In his photo on the back of the book McKeown has an unlit cigarette in his mouth—just when I wondered if there were any poet smokers left other than myself). ‘Naivety’ is a little blaze of witty self-examination which recalls Roman aphorisms of the likes of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius:
I never thought I’d live forever,
but I did think time would be
commodious enough for my dilatoriness.
How naive I was. It’s my dilatoriness
which is endlessly commodious;
as if I were designed, not for time, but eternity.
If one believes in the soul then they will sense that we might well be built for eternity—poets, at the very least. ‘Real Life’ brings a whole new perspective to the Gravesian White Goddess Muse of the male poet:
I almost pity it;
naked, radical, a bag of bones,
its waters breaking in the snow.
‘Self-Sacrifice’ is an imagistic meditation on the consolations of drinking:
Drinking, I escape
the pressure of reality,
rooted to the spot.
The spot a cafe table
where red wine stands;
a rootless plant
I drain myself to replenish.
‘Relic’ is a musing on time and contains some startling imagery:
My new wrist watch has no tick,
and no numbers, only slivers.
All very apt, as we neither hear
or see time pass. It’s just ﬁngers,
attenuated as the silvered fragments
of the bones of a saint
under a smooth perfection of glass.
Which can neither rub my life
back into shape, or erase
one tiny period of all the waste
I unfalteringly accumulate.
There’s a Roman Catholic aura to this poem, and in some associated sense the use of Latinate words such as ‘attenuated’, ‘fragments’ and ‘accumulate’ seem linguistically fitting. ‘Tête-à-Tête’ is a curiosity but again has a Roman aphorismic quality to it:
I remember the octopus
in the undersized glass case
in the aquarium in Madrid,
so close to the sea.
The octopus: a roving animal
full of curiosity,
with a large brain.
Apparent to me, at least,
as I stood, close to the glass, transﬁxed,
in a more diﬀuse predicament.
The Roman Catholic aspect detected a little earlier comes to the fore in ‘Past’:
Every moment past
free from this exists
detached in bliss.
In pain I caress each
like a rosary, disordered
broken on the thread of time.
In ‘At the Hairdresser’ McKeown cannot help but still see the macabre, this time, in his own awkward reflection while sat in the chair with the ‘black sheet’ up to his neck, he thinks he resembles a ‘penumbral peacock,/ reduced to a life-size puppet/ stuck in a chair, its strings cut’. ‘Guillotine’ is a faintly disturbing five-lined oddity:
The star’s glide across the window
Cuts my throat where I sit.
It moves quick; it takes years;
Egged on by the surrounding stars,
And a little of everything that exists.
In ‘Proof’ the poet expresses a sense of apostasy sparked as it is for so many by a perceived divine indifference to suffering:
What could be
than the blue dome
we breed our horror?
Who could come up
a perfect antithesis
to what we are
than a God
sick to perfection?
‘Order’ is a peculiar poem which appears to be about a pickpocketing tramp:
The tramp hitches his pants
Where the diners dine,
Patting fat wallets at the tables
Under the night-bearing trees.
‘Pravda’ is an interesting poem which compares bricks under stucco with bones beneath the skin—there’s something of Keith Douglas in this nine-lined verse:
Brick, beneath all these ornate facades,
Brick piled on brick,
As bone’s wed to bone beneath the skin.
You notice it here and there,
But one patch of exposure’s enough
To see it everywhere.
Worn brick under crumbling stucco
As the putti ﬂounce, the cornucopiae spill
The injunction not to be fooled.
‘Among the Gods’ is in three parts and is the longest poem in the book to this point. Part I of the poem dialogic and discusses whether barbarians permanently sully the temples they enter—but the ‘gods’ are not ‘so easily overrun’. Part II has the speaker-poet reasons:
And I don’t know
which gods to thank,
so I thank them all, on my knees,
clutching tight my wine-cup.
Part III enigmatically addresses an ex-lover:
You smashed me in the face,
but it's you I place, broken,
among my memorials of goddesses.
Where I can play my ﬁngers
over your jagged edges,
ﬁlling in all the missing parts.
Broken myself, of course, but
by erecting you thus, I make myself
a kind of thwarted god.
The tone and leitmotivs remind me of Dysart’s monologues in Peter Schaffer’s Equus (1973):
“Look, life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods... spirits of certain trees, of certain curves of brick walls, of certain fish and chip shops if you like. And slate roofs, and frowns in people, and slouches... I'd say to them, "Worship all you can see, and more will appear...”
‘Palladia’ is an imagistic ten-line ode to the women of Prague:
All pale skin, pale,
As she strides,
Matching the pale green
Of the building.
‘Bibliophile’ is back to the use of symbolic colours in a touching poem about the poet finding a small photo of a past lover or ex-partner inside one of his books:
Against the red background
Of the passport photo
The black blazon of your hair.
And within it, the spots
Of your blue eyes, in your white skin,
Like the wings of a butterﬂy,
Bore into me.
I cracked the old paperback,
And there you were, your youth,
Your beauty, your personality,
A pressed ﬂower, ﬂushed with colour,
Retaining its life on an uncut stem.
The poem closes on the rueful lines:
Now, there’s just you, pert, erect,
Unfazed, undimmed, unanswerable;
Vivid, vital against the browned spine
Of a book I treasured more than you.
‘Bookcases’ reflects on a relationship breakup or marital breakdown, presumably related to the subject of the previous poem: the bookcases have been taken by her, while the books have remained with him. ‘Peekaboo’ relates a passing flirtation:
She looks into my eyes
as we pass, unsmilingly.
She looks into me
as if my skull were glass
my writhing thoughts plainly visible.
Motionless, opaque, inscrutable,
she passes, her eyes, hazel, mild,
clear as untroubled, standing water.
The poems in this part of the volume are achingly honest accounts of the frustrated desires of less assertive males, or rather, the burden of the male libido in more sensitive men—‘Old Get’ ends with: ‘Each fresh beauty cuts me to the bone;/ Gutting me of acceptance of being alone’. ‘Haunted Orchid (for Lina)’ is a more spectral take:
If an orchid were haunted
it would be like you:
But I’d have no green-fingered priest
called in to conduct
some botanical exorcism. No, I’d keep you
under glass, the sweep of glass
sealed around me.
‘After Reading Cavafy’ continues in similar mood, the poet imagining the shadow of an ex-lover taking on physical form for one last caress:
While the mock candle
made to flicker like flame
glows deep autumn yellow,
and the blinds are strips
of shadow waiting to be parted
unsupported on the wall,
come to me, shade of you,
slip into my bed, slip
your lovely sliver of flesh.
In ‘Forgotten’ the poet recalls being jilted by an ex-lover, and closes on an androgynous image: ‘while I sit/ on the bare bank,/ fragmented as Ophelia’. In ‘Wishbone’ McKeown uses the titular image for a passing encounter of mutual attraction:
As I pass her it's her breastbone I note
moving softly beneath the pale skin.
There's a snap as of a wishbone,
a fusion, a recognition;
as our bodies pull quickly apart.
‘To a Hedge-Witch’ is another sensual meditation on the opposite sex, and has something of Roman love poetry in its shape and cadences:
And as I sit, pink blossoms thick
Bid for tender of my fingertips.
To touch the softness of your lips
The glistening root your body is.
The second and last short verse of ‘The Gold Standard’ produces a nice image at its close:
Locked in a vault
whose combination I've lost,
lie, numbered, the still moist
petals of your smile.
‘Branded’ picks up on the painful intensity of attraction:
You can’t know
the peck of your kiss
is a branding iron.
Or that for all
my sour talk
I’m just a calf who needs
the sweet milk
of his own small horizon.
You can’t know
But how that ignorance
At this point I’m reminded again of the lyricism of Alun Lewis, as in his ‘Raiders’ Dawn’:
Blue necklace left
On a charred chair
Tells that Beauty
Was startled there.
Sure enough, the next poem, ‘The Chinese Lady Serves the Wine’, continues in this Lewisian medium:
like a spilling bolt of silk
and thought embroidery
the mind may or may not stitch.
is the blue silk
or the gold silk
or the watered silk
‘Moving On’ is an aphorismic meditation on the loss of love—again, there appear two commonplace phrases in the third and fourth lines and it’s up to the reader’s own judgment as to whether this is to some conscious purpose on the poet’s part by way of, say, providing prosaic grounding to better emphasise the heightened language elsewhere in the poem:
makes things bearable,
hell in a handcart
but the wheels are turning.
that's why I check the sky
as you maunder on,
speech a bubble of death
at your lips;
but that low star
is in a different place.
‘Pianissimo (for Nell)’ is an exquisite lyric—again, there is an emphasis on imagery and colours, as well as on aural sense-impression, and wonderful euphonous assonances:
She appears, conjured
By the soft piano notes
The silk lament of horn
Afloat out of the café.
She sits down there
Pale hair, pale skin, distinct
Against the black leatherette
The white brick wall.
All the pain, trouble, torment
A gentle magic in her eyes
At rest in me
With morning coffee
Under the maple trees.
The poem’s emphasis on romance and music reminds me in some ways of Caparison poet Christopher Moncrieff. ‘Pianissimo’ is an inspired choice for final poem of this book since to my mind it’s one of the very finest of Ill Nature—another beautifully crafted and affecting lyrical collection from McKeown.
Alan Morrison © 2022