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Alan Morrison on

John McKeown

Ill Nature

Mica Press, 2022



Yellow Snow

Mckeown cover.jpg
Mckeown cover.jpg
Mckeown cover.jpg

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

Contingent, ridiculous.


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:



The loftiness

of the stars’

intimate silence

is enough.


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

intensely lived?

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,

knock-kneed, pregnant;

its waters breaking in the snow.


‘Self-Sacrifice’ is an imagistic meditation on the consolations of drinking:


Drinking, I escape

the pressure of reality,

but remain

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

rounded impenetrability,

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

more beautiful

than the blue dome

beneath which

we breed our horror?


Who could come up

with such

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,

Blonde-hair, sun-lit

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:

shiveringly delicate

tenaciously fragile.


But I’d have no green-fingered priest

called in to conduct

some botanical exorcism. No, I’d keep you

under observation,


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.


Nothing matters

for everything

is the blue silk

or the gold silk

or the watered silk

of Heaven.


‘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:


Only movement

makes things bearable,

hell in a handcart

but the wheels are turning.


Only movement;

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

Restless outside,


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

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