Monday, 5 August 2013

Review: Chris McCully's Selected Poems (Carcanet 2011)

  The second-hand bookseller from whom I purchased my copy of Chris McCully’s Selected Poems had affixed a sticker to the cover saying it had been discounted to £1 because it was ‘curvy’. As well as for its slightly warped appearance, ‘curvy’ might stand as an appropriate adjective for the book’s contents too, in so far as the poems deviate in interesting ways from the flat and predictable surfaces of much current verse, in particular offering a more varied and rounded sense of formal accomplishment than usually encountered.  If his deliberate, carefully-honed style seems – in a positive way - ‘out of key with its time’, this is because McCully benches his work in an intimate and complex engagement with the whole tradition of English poetry, rather than drawing only upon other contemporaries or near-contemporaries.

   Trained in linguistics and more latterly an academic specialising in prosody and Old English, McCully often resembles Modernist luminaries like Pound and Bunting in forging innovative permutations out of older materials, adopting a ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’ approach to remould universal themes and tropes: mutability, seasonal change, love turned bitter, separation, all met with a wry Horatian stoicism. (Knowing that McCully has published a memoir about his struggle with alcoholism – Goodbye Mr Wonderful (2004) - makes it all the more admirable that he never lapses into confessional self-disclosure.)

     McCully’s astute ear, however, is attracted more to metre and rhyme than to freer forms, and everywhere throughout the selection the major forebears cited in his Preface – Hardy, Yeats, Graves and Auden- are apparent (one might perhaps add another masterful verse-technician, Louis MacNiece).  In fact the influence of the early, ‘English Auden’ is perhaps the dominant one on McCully’s first volume Time Signatures (1993) -  the adapting of Anglo-Saxon models to create dense phonetic textures and a sense of haunting estrangement can be heard in the Audenesque  ‘Towards the unknown region’:

            ‘Wry light on slate,
              leaving the darkening trees...
              It is the stranger wanting peace
              at the watershed knows peace recedes
              beyond each stride’

 Where McCully also follows Auden is in returning lyric to its original source in song-based forms such as the ballad and villanelle, with frequent use of refrains, syntactical repetition and other acoustic devices that appeal to what Eliot called the “auditory imagination” as much as to the intellect. Again, McCully’s insistence on the poem as highly-crafted verbal artefact sets him apart from less scrupulous contemporaries: short pieces such as ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Demeter’ have all the plaintive grace and fluency of Elizabethan lyrics.

   As with Auden, however, one wonders if McCully’s impressive technical facility has occasionally lead him in the direction of the merely facile: by the time we reach ‘Mass’ from The Country of Perhaps(2002), the too-obviously Auden-borrowed rhyme-scheme coupled with a reaching towards faith quite as unconvincing as the older poet’s provokes bathos rather than uplift:

              Throw away the calendar,
                The critical key.
                Cancel the cleverness
               That calls you free...

                Look back at history
                As it pours into space
                And into the mirror
                Of your disgrace.

   Some of the most successful pieces in the book, on the other hand, are the translations from Old English texts (2008), where McCully’s handling of the rugged, two-ply alliterative line seems to capture the strident thud and anfractuous intensity of the original poems with unfaltering tact. To compare McCully’s version of ‘The Seafarer’ with Pound’s is instructive: despite the many virtues of Pound’s famous (or infamous) adaptation, it seems rather overdone and in fact romanticised when compared with McCully’s starker, more pared-down and therefore more tangibly human Seafarer-voice. It also highlights how much editing Pound did both of the poem’s original length – not that McCully’s rendering ever seems overlong – and also of the strong Christian elements within the poem, such as the invocation and ‘Amen’ at the end: surely, without these, the whole moral context for the Seafarer’s laments on worldliness is lost.

     McCully’s structuring of this Selected Poems is intriguing. At the forefront of the book he places a five-page prose-poem called ‘Dust’, which is actually from the last volume represented, Polder (2009): its darkly spiralling cadences, somewhere between the King James Bible and a Beckett monologue, are bleaker than anything that comes after. This seems to be thematically intentional, whereby (as McCully writes in his Preface) “the poems which succeed the piece may be read as fragments of consolation, of partial vision, of a tempered, amended voice.” Certainly the trajectory of the book plots a development from more troubled, rueful, at times satirical work through to the calmer, more consoling voice of Polder, written after the poet’s relocation to the Netherlands. Two groups of poems in this volume count as among the most achieved and effective in the book: a cycle of ekphrastic studies based on paintings in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and another of well-measured imitations of Horatian odes addressed to McCully’s own Torquatus-figure. They form a fitting culmination to this excellent, far-reaching selection.
                                                                  (First published in The BowWowShop 2012)

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