The Poems of Mary MacRae

I knew Mary MacRae as a member of a poetry workshop we both attended in north London. She came to writing poetry late and published just two collections – As Birds Do (2007) and (posthumously) Inside the Brightness of Red (2010) both from Second Light Publications. Her poem ‘Jury’ was short-listed for the Forward single poem prize and was re-published in the Forward anthology, Poems of the Decade (2011). That anthology is now set as an A Level text and it was through teaching from it recently that Mary’s work came back to mind.

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Mary died in 2009 at the age of 67. As a writer she was just beginning to hit her stride. Mimi Khalvati praises her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets” and judges Mary’s ten years of work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems. Khalvati goes on: “Because of the natural ease and grace of her diction, it would be easy to overlook Mary’s versatile formal skills, employed in sonnets, syllabics (à la Marianne Moore), numerous stanzaic forms, but nowhere evidenced more forcefully than in her ‘Glose’ poem, inspired by Marilyn Hacker’s examples, in which she pays homage to Alice Oswald, as in a previous glose to Mary Oliver – a trinity of wonderful lyric poets, in whose company Mary, modest but not lacking in ambition, shyly holds her own.”

In 2009/10 many friends and writers contributed pieces in memory of Mary to the magazine Brittle StarMost of this material can now be found here with prose contributions from Jacqueline Gabbitas, Myra Schneider, Lucy Hamilton and Dilys Wood. I wrote a poem at the time (remembering meetings of the poetry workshop in London) and I have more recently revised it more than a little. I’m posting it here alongside the review I wrote of Mary’s posthumous collection with the idea of making the review more easily available and perhaps encouraging others to seek out Mary’s published work.

 

Before the rain arrives

i.m. Mary MacRae

 

Perhaps five or six of us standing there

at the familiar purple door

those afternoons we lost beneath poetry’s

red weather our voices and lines

 

while the genuine thing built unremarked

beyond the window’s diamond panes

till it was time to depart

then our turning back in the familiar porch

 

our repeated goodbyes being called

our uncertain bunching

that coheres and delays until one of us

breaks loose and we are each free to disperse—

 

yet on that day there were raindrops

on the back of a hand on another’s cheek

and though we fiddled with car keys

we fidgeted in trainers and faded jeans

 

we were an ancient chorus for a moment

crying the single syllable

the drawn-out sound of r—a—i—n

because we were weary of weeks of drought

 

and now it came and we saw where it fell

the raindrops beginning

to shrill their high-pitched release

from interlaced shadows

 

from the skirts of clouds

and what none of us knew until we’d seen

one more year was that one of us there

despite our sharp eye for openings

 

and endings would have to face last things

like the white vanishing of panicked doves

into dark thunderheads—

on these more recent afternoons

 

just four or five of us here perhaps

in our minds her shrewd observations

her words urging us closer to listen

for the noise rain makes before the rain arrives

 

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Review:  Mary MacRae, Inside the Brightness of Red (Second Light Publications, 2010), 96pp, £8.95, ISBN 978-0-9546934-8-0

Mary MacRae’s 2007 debut collection was titled As Birds Do. It is true that birds feature variously in that and this, her sadly posthumous new collection, but if we are unaware of the earlier title’s provenance, we might anticipate no more than a delicate, poetic take on the natural world, the kind of thing that fills so many small magazines. But MacRae alludes to the moment in Macbeth, when Lady Macduff and her son contemplate death. The mother asks, “How will you live?” and the son, with a wisdom far beyond his years, replies, “As birds do Mother . . . . With what I get I mean”. MacRae’s poetry is full of such emotionally-charged, vital identifications with natural creatures and, more profoundly, with the sense that what can sustain us in life must be derived from everyday common objects.

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As a title, Inside the Brightness of Red, also flirts a little with poetic affectation, but once inside the book’s covers, it is MacRae’s precise, even astringent, penetration that is so impressive. She reads the world around her and finds spiritual meanings. It is no surprise that R.S. Thomas supplies the epigraph to this new collection: “It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels / me to address it without hope / of a reply”. So a poem called ‘Yellow Marsh Iris’ promises to be a naturalist’s observation then startlingly wrong-foots the reader with its opening line (“It’s how I imagine prayer must be”) and proceeds to its seamless business of combining accuracy of observation with an emotional and intellectual narrative. She studies the flower stems crammed into a glass vase:

 

their stiff stems magnified

by water, criss-crossing

white, pale green, green

in a shadowy coolness

 

We are reminded that there is a kind of intensity of observation that succeeds in prising open our relationship with the outer world in such a way that while encountering the Other, we more clearly glimpse ourselves. MacRae concludes her process of “looking and looking” at the flowers that has given rise to the sense that “they seem to hold / all words, all meaning, / and what I’m reading / is a selving, a creation.”

MacRae’s visions are almost always peripheral, fleeting, askance. The unfolding of daffodils – which, in a quite different age, Wordsworth could contemplate steadily and then stow away for future use – here can never be more than something

 

waiting for us somewhere in the wings

like angels,

 

your darting after-image

between the pear-tree

and the brick wall.

(‘Daffodils’)

 

In the same vein, MacRae has Bonnard, paint his mistress, Marthe de Meligny, and declare that his sensibility is triggered by “looking askew”. The visionary moment occurs only when “Glimpsed through the half-open door / or the crack of the hinge-gap” (‘Bonnard to Marthe’) and this collection’s editors (Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood) have drawn it to a close with yet another such moment: “Turning back to look through an open door” the narrator sees an ordinary room “utterly transformed, / drained dry and clear, unweighted” (‘Un-Named’).

book 2It may be that this ability to be sustained by scraps and glimpses, the sense that the self is most fully resolved in a lack of egotism, in its encounter with ordinary things, can diminish some of the sting of mortality. In a poem like ‘White’, MacRae manages to celebrate again the ordinariness of familiar things while at the same time sustaining a contentedness (or at least an absence of fear) at the prospect of the self’s vanishing: “You can disappear in a house where / you feel at home; the rooms are spaces / for day-dreams, maps of an interior / turned inside out”. Rather than Macbeth, it is Hamlet’s resolve to “let be” that comes to mind as this calm, accessible, colourful and wonderfully dignified poem concludes:

 

Let

it all go; soon the door of your room

 

will be locked, leaving only a slight

hint of you still, a ghostly perfume

lingering in the threadbare curtains and sheets.

 

But MacRae’s contemplation of her own death, most likely, was no such safely distanced envisaging. Dying at 67 years old, she’d had only 10 years of writing poetry, but it had evidently become a vessel into which she could pour her experience without ever abandoning herself to artistic ill-discipline. ‘Prayer’ is almost too painful to read. The narrator is emerging from the “thick dark silt” of anaesthetic to hear someone sobbing and a second voice trying to offer comfort. As her befuddled perceptions clear and the poem’s tight triplet form unfolds, the second voice is understood to be saying “’Don’t cry, Mary, / there’s no need to cry’”. The collection’s title poem can bluntly report that “the cancer’s come back” yet artfully balances such devastating news with the landscape of Oare Marsh in Kent where colours “are so spacious, / and have such depth they’re like lighted rooms // we could go into” (‘Inside the Brightness of Red’).

untitledFor MacRae’s interest in and skill with poetic form, we need look no further than the extraordinary glose on a quatrain from Alice Oswald (the earlier collection contained another on lines from Mary Oliver). For most poets, this form is little more than an exhibitionist high-wire act, but MacRae’s poems are moving and complete. Her use of poetic form here, particularly in some of these last poems, reminds me of Tony Harrison’s conviction that its containment “is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side” (Tony Harrison: Critical Anthology, ed. Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, p.43). Appropriately, in ‘Jar’, she contemplates with admiration an object that has “gone through fire, / risen from ashes and bone-shards / to float, nameless, into our air”. Here, the narrator movingly lays aside the wary scepticism of the Thomas epigraph and rests her cheek on the jar’s warmth to “feel its gravity-pull / as if it proved the afterlife of things”.

This inspiring collection contains a short Afterword by Mimi Khalvati who MacRae frequently praised as a critical figure in her work’s development. Khalvati lauds her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets”. She judges MacRae’s ten years work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems, suggesting that, among the likes of Oswald and Oliver, MacRae’s work is “modest but not lacking in ambition”. For me, her two collections certainly exhibit a modesty before the world of nature that is really a genuine humility, allowing both the physical and spiritual worlds to flower in her work. This was her true ambition, pursued in full self-awareness and one that, before her sad leaving, she had triumphantly fulfilled.

 

 

Review of ‘The Pity’ – Part 2: new war poems commissioned by the Poetry Society

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) performed new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology. Given free to Society members (in the last couple of weeks it has come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review), it is also available to purchase online.

In my previous blog, I discussed the contributions of Steve Ely and John Glenday (click here to read this). Here I complete the collection with comments on the work of Denise Riley, Zaffar Kunial and Warsan Shire. Overall, I think The Pity is remarkable – a gathering of voices, each wrestling with a nigh impossible commission. The four “sustained” responses to the topic (John Glenday’s was a separate, shorter brief) all splintered into fragments under the pressure of it. Ely and Shire are the boldest in widening the orbit of the commission and interestingly are also (for me) the most successful, largely by co-opting the resultant technical schisms into what they wanted to say, both of them drawing on more contemporary material, closer to their own concerns and backgrounds.

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Denise Riley’s ‘A gramophone on the subject’ recalls Sassoon’s balancing act of anger and compassion. The two elements are held in tension partly because of Riley’s contrasting dual focus: the bodies of the dead and the possible consolations of spiritualism. More firmly focused on the 1914-18 conflict than the other sequences in The Pity and written in what Riley calls “a kind of ‘music-hall’ jingle or doggerel”, sections like ‘The postwar exhumation squad’s verse’ have a Brechtian feel. The soldiers detailed to pursue this ghastly task (often long after fighting was over) unearth bodies, “bits that [get] dropped in cloth bags”. Even the grisly bits are so devastated and decomposed as to be “almost unknowable”. The voice is one of the squad (or a compilation of their voices) and compassion is evoked through a father who pursues them, convinced that “a charred scrap of shirt” is his son’s body, only to be told (hear the stabbing effect of the harsh rhyme) “the thing was just dirt”.

Riley’s notes are as long as the poem sequence and it is the loss of the bodies – disfigurement past recognition or simply untraceably taken to pieces – that pre-occupies her. There is a sardonic, black humour in the verses. Dog-tags feature several times as (being made of “vulcanized fibre”) they are often the only remaining evidence of a life; a name without a body. The more precise the chosen voice in each of Riley’s 9 sections, the more successful the poem.

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One records the voice of an ironic “heavenly choir” of the dead, bitterly objecting to Edwin Lutyens’ observation that the dead in their mass cemeteries had been ‘Tucked in where they fell’. Anger is conveyed (in what is really a found poem) by adopting the voice of a Vogue fashion correspondent in 1916: “To find a dinner gown which will be becoming, correct, and yet not depressing to its beholders is always a problem for the woman in mourning”. The lack of understanding of what the men on the Front were enduring is one of the commonest elements of literature in the period.

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Later, Riley drops the jaunty, sardonic versifying to record (again from contemporary sources) the common resort to spiritualism in the spirit voice of a Private Dowding: “enrolled among those who are attempting to pierce the curtain that separates your world from where we live”. More touching is the spirit’s reported loneliness which is echoed in the best poem, the last, which takes on the voice of a bereaved wife. Here the satirical form is also dropped as she speaks in unrhymed, hesitant couplets, switching from first to second person in the concluding lines as she resolves to carry on, her final monosyllables eloquently conveying both the difficulty and her determination:

I look doggedly after a missing figure.

What to do now is clear and wordless.

You will bear what can not be born.

‘The Shape Remembrance Takes’, Zaffar Kunial’s 5 poem contribution to The Pity, is the least coherent. Judith Palmer’s introduction to the book quotes Kunial on what must be a common problem with such commissions: months of scribbling gave rise to “lots of ideas but no poems”. Something of this is reflected in the liturgical refrain of ‘Poppy’ which frustratedly cries repeatedly, “No, this is not enough”. The ostensible point is the difficulty of finding what Seamus Heaney calls “images and symbols adequate to” the horrors of the situation. Kunial’s voice here is deliberately prose-y, across several lines, each a longish breath-ful, spinning different ways to allude to the familiar image of the poppy:

Remember? Who’s there in the first script, on a Mesopotamian

tablet: Hul and Gil – ‘joy flower’ – a cuneiform

cocktail, our earliest remedy . . .

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In this way we visit natural history, China, Persephone, Lethe, Coleridge, Shakespeare and (most effectively for me) more personal associations with morphine being administered “through my mother’s veins, while she could still hear me”. But it’s hard to lose the sense of the miscellaneous/googly quality of some of these verses, reflected in the shifting (I’d say, uncertain) tone: “The deaths we live with. Enough said. Remember? / This is you. Wake up. You’re summoned. // No, this is not enough.

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Lists can be the resort of the uninspired (readers of poetry will work pretty hard to do the linking for themselves) and, despite the epigraph of Archimedes’ declaration about moving the world, the historically various battles listed in ‘The Night of the World Cup Final in ‘14’ failed to achieve much leverage for this reader. A walk around Grasmere (where Kunial has been Writer in Residence) is vivid and pleasant enough; the shapes of the fells, puddles, a wishing well all suggests “it’s all about holding, around here”. But the bar room vagueness of what follows (“So here’s to those souls / who went the other way” – what? Unheld? Dropped? Dropped?) also fails to be enough.

There is some interesting (and from what I know of his work, more characteristic) play in ‘Just the Ticket’ with ideas of home, identity and language but it was apparently standing before the cenotaph in Whitehall that sparked Kunial’s sequence off and this is reflected fairly literally in ‘Letter for the Unknown Soldiers’. The blockish 50-line single stanza, perhaps an emblem of the Cenotaph itself, takes a rather slow and discursive line (“I see . . . So here I am . . . I’d guess . . .). Perhaps this is a reflection of remembrance parades, here composed of the multitudinous dead, stretching from Durham to London, “from Lahore to Delhi”. Eventually, the stone memorial comes to be seen as an “I” or a “1”, linked with the “two quick minutes” of the 11/11 day of remembrance. While this is promising (and again draws vigour from Kunial’s concerns with identity) it’s a bit inappropriately fanciful as it stands and, in various ways, it seems right the sequence ends with the narrator stranded by passing cars on a traffic island in Whitehall:

I want to cross [. . .]

[. . . ] but I’m stuck at the minute,

stranded beside this thing that stands for you –

this I – that I’ve been stood here speaking to.

Warsan Shire’s baldly titled ‘War Poem’ appears in 17 parts and has almost no direct link to the First World War. For Shire ‘war’ is less a historically delineated event, more a state of mind, more still, a condition of certain societies (including our own). Parts 1 and 9 express this through borrowing a technique from the American poet A. Van Jordan. In his book M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (Norton, 2004) he explores individual words, including prepositions, to develop his account of the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition in 1936. (See him read about the word ‘from’: here). Shire defines the preposition ‘in’ in two ways: war is something in which we live, being “enclosed or surrounded” by it and that it is also a span of time in which events occur. The former, less conventional interpretation is the root from which her poems in The Pity proliferate. Though born in the UK, her parents are from Somalia, so for them war is an on-going state, the hope of its cessation a reason to keep “a suitcase packed just in case”. But a sense of being exiled from our own ‘country’ is a common feeling in the continuing ‘war against terror’ so that “one war [gives] birth to another . . . a snake swallowing its own head”. Rather than the explicit warfare of trenches and barbed wire, this kind of war “sleeps between me and my partner in bed”, it haunts, it stinks, its “under my nails”. Horrific headlines wake us at night, the lover’s body offering some hope of “another version of the world”. Shockingly, ten year old sisters know this sort of war.

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Some of the 17 segments of the poem lack development perhaps, but parts 7 and 8 are stunning. The first of these records a Quinceanara (a fifteenth birthday celebration), initially in what seems realistic detail as “prepubescent girls” gather in “princess dresses”, a TV babbling in the corner. But through cinematic style jump cuts in the narrative, violence surreally invades the party, “men with gas masks / walk in”, leaving the surviving teenage girls “to pick up their teeth from the sticky dance floor”. Section 8, is a more comic variation on the theme with a girl singer, an “immigrant girl Icarus”, stunning the UK with her performance on The X-Factor, though even the glitz and glamour (even Simon Cowell) cannot disguise the “faint smoke of war” billowing about the girl’s watching family.

Shire’s sequence widens its focus after a reprise of the prepositional definitions. War now (“What is the name of this war?”) is manifest in police brutality in the USA, in returning universal “ghosts / of the / dead boys” who have been killed. She even manages to write of the beheading of James Foley in August 2014 in a rightly plain account of the video released by ISIS, but strips it of any media glibness, any risk of YouTube numbness, by the decision to repeat and accumulate lines agonizingly (a far more effective use of repetition than Alice Oswald’s in Memorial (Faber, 2011)). It’s Lucille Clifton’s work that Shire uses to model her conclusion, asking you/us to join her in celebration of “a kind of life”. As non-white women, both writers have been compelled to “make it up right / here in this immigration line”. This is a Pyrrhic victory perhaps, but no less one for all that, since “every day someone or something has tried to kill me and has failed”.

Re-packaging ‘percussive’ Ted Hughes

Anthologies are the reluctant poetry readers’ hedging bet. There’s a good chance that something good will turn up and prove a winner. They sell well – they are the infrequent poetry buyer’s punt for a gift that will please at least in parts. So Alice Oswald’s compilation of Ted Hughes’ animal poems into a Bestiary will certainly put more cash into the Faber vault. But few complaints – anything to get more people reading any poetry cannot be bad.

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Oswald discusses her approach to the selection in The Guardian: 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/29/ted-hughes-alice-oswald-animal-poetry-bestiary

She picks up Hughes’ own early image of his poems as creatures with a “vivid life” of their own. He condemns poems which fail to possess this coherent vitality as likely to walk with a pronounced limp – a wonderful way, I’ve found, of imaging that elusive ‘rightness’ of a poem for students and workshoppers. Interestingly though, there is a shimmering, vacillatory quality to others things Oswald writes and this comes directly from Hughes himself. His animals are very much themselves yet they are expressive of human qualities too. Oswald quotes from Moortown Diary; Hughes on the poet “getting close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye”. Held in tension with this are other Hughes’ statements such as this, in a letter, warning of the dangers of mere observation: “When a man becomes a mirror, he just ceases to be interesting to men.”

Oswald goes on to suggest that it is the “percussion” of Hughes’ language that instills such vivid life into his poems, quoting from ‘Skylarks’:

The lark begins to go up
Like a warning
As if the globe were uneasy –

Barrel-chested for heights,
Like an Indian of the high Andes,

A whippet head, barbed like

a hunting arrow,

But leaden
With muscle
For the struggle
Against
Earth’s centre.

And leaden
For ballast
In the rocketing storms of the breath.

Leaden
Like a bullet
To supplant
Life from its centre.

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If it is a percussive effect that is critical here it is more Mozart than Stomp. Oswald has precious little space to develop her argument, but what I find in such a passage is Hughes’ distinctive manipulation of scale and perspective, not unrelated to his paradoxical comments above. Microcosm and macrocosm are continually leant against each other here, or – it being a more metamorphic, high-pressured process – they are spun about each other till it’s hard to pick one from the other. The tiny body of the lark is a warning to the globe; its braced, needle-thin ribs conjure images of Andean mountains; its crested, whippet head seems to speed lethally through remote forests. The three stanzas focusing on the “leaden” nature of the bird – less weight it seems to me, more loaded with quiddity, self-ness – provoke the reader to focus closely on its body, only again for our attention to be spun outwards to “Earth’s centre . . . rocketing storms”, vulnerable life beating at its “centre”.

In part, what Hughes achieves is a sense of interconnectedness – which he would have intended in both spiritual and environmental terms. What the reader experiences is a sudden inflation or deflation of scale and perspective, a magical effect, an effect created through language, an effect achieved so skillfully and instantaneously that one might well have some sense of a percussive, explosive or implosive quality. I don’t hear or feel a noise as such – my sense of the world pulses, is stretched or compressed in the most exciting fashion. An effect with a moral dimension to it as well – a serious, ludic experience, in which we see and re-see our own place in the world.