Michael Mackmin: Twenty-Three Poems
Happenstance Press (2006) £3.00.
By Michael Murray
This is Michael Mackmin’s first extended venture into print for quite a number of years. Editing Rialto magazine, and, well, generally living, leaves little time for most things.
It is possible by now to speak of a Mackmin poem; a Mackmin poem is recognisable by its internal fidelity to lived experience, and externally by the soft spoken tone of voice.
The first poem in this pamphlet could just as easily be read as an image of the Mackmin voice writ large. It could also be taken as the embodiment of the gestalt of the whole pamphlet. Well, that’s what a first poem does, doesn’t it!
Tom Grix is Dead
Tom Grix is dead and his meadow sold, the man who
so soft spoken that the parish meeting strained to hear,
walked, as he said he realized, the whole village length
with a woman ghost.
If we connect this poem with the eleven stanza poem Salt then we have the dynamics of the pamphlet:
Everything, the large darkness of her eyes
the way she ties up her hair at the top of her head,
I was going to say reminds me of you, but no.
A Mackmin poem aims at being true to itself, its perceptions, whilst at the same time acknowledging that any truth is provisional: ‘But the memory being/etc, I could be lying.’ (The Importance of the Crumb Tray); ‘However firm it seems, the heart can falter and decline’ (Because of Fear); ‘All this can die? How can all this die?...All this can die.’ (Pastoral).
The language has a decorum of tone, range of subject, and expression; the deliberate deviations from this, as for instance in Salt, are to point up the hurt, the slip from grace of, and he particularly means to point this out, not the loved one, but what the circumstances force. This is because when one allows oneself and thereby others to be ‘free’, ‘a free spirit’ (ibid) the whole superstructure of relationships alters.
It must be admitted there is something a little Gravesian about these free spirits, something a little musey. (I have always found the Gravesian muses more reactive, vengeful even, than free).
To be fair Mackmin takes pains to wrest specifics from the muse images; “…the large darkness of the eyes’ etc (above). At one point the muse figure is likened to a Picasso companion: ‘She is like that painter’s wife/Jacqueline, the blue jeans, the cotton vest…’ (ibid). In the majority of cases it is the specific he is after, and recognises how the specific can suspend time: the her before the disruption, and not the her of it, or after: “The way you tied up your hair and a kiss loosed it/She is not you.’ Where the control of tenses perfectly balances the insights.
The surprised opening up of the heart to a man’s smile; the maturation in a man’s love for a man: ‘His smile my heart threw/open like a white door on a great darkness.’ (Night and Day). The decorum of honesty to oneself, to one’s responses: all these are acknowledged; for it is also possible to read this and Home (:’My sweet birdwatcher/his lips cold from rain’) as an attempt to empathise with that unknowable other of the poems (Mackin, amongst many descriptions, is also an avid birdwatcher as well as a gestalt therapist), that impossible thing: to see through another’s eyes, and heart. It used to be called ‘emotional intelligence’; well, it’s here in spadefuls.
Twenty-Three Poems is that truth written out. This is the tone, the range, along with that particular quietness of voice, that makes a Mackmin recognisable.