15 December, 2007Issue 7.1LiteraturePoetry

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Snappers and Sarcophagi

James Womack

Jamie McKendrick
Crocodiles & Obelisks
Faber and Faber, 2007
64 pages

ISBN 978-0571238231


This book invites us, implicitly, to consider a number of topics, from the role of politics in poetry to the significance of translation. It is Jamie McKendrick’s fifth individual collection, and at times his most effective.

Previously, McKendrick has, as a poet, been concerned above all with description. It is a commonplace of literary criticism—something to say about poems when you have nothing to say about poems—but Archibald MacLeish’s ars poetica, the idea that ‘a poem should not mean, but be’ has been a useful way into reading McKendrick’s earlier work, in which the actual content proves much less important than the way in which it is handled. McKendrick’s poetry has been at times deliberately oblique, anecdotal, interested much more in the task of perception than the significance of what is being perceived. In Crocodiles and Obelisks, he undertakes a deliberate reworking of his poetic method, and goes very deliberately in search of significant subject matter.

What this subject matter might be is indicated by the book’s title, and explained bluntly on the book’s fly-leaf: ‘Crocodiles and obelisks’, we are told, ‘are ancient symbols of empire’; they are ‘also terms used, in Italy and Russia respectively, for newspaper obituaries—the one shedding false tears, the other monumentalising the dead.’ The main concerns of the book are the relationships between power and memory, and the ways in which the act of memorialising an object or a person inevitably involves distorting him or it. Given these preoccupations, it is perhaps inevitable—memory is an inherently mediated, ideological quantity—that Crocodiles & Obelisks insistently brings up questions of ideology and politics.

Sometimes these questions are raised directly. Here is a short poem, ‘Black Gold’:

Here are the Carthaginian figs—Ciano
grinned as he handed Mussolini
some specimen chunk of shiny

copper ore from the Lezhë mine
in conquered Albania.

And here are the figs of Mesopotamia—
Vice President Cheney
traces on the map the red-marked pipeline

from the fields of Rumaila and Kirkuk
to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

The problem here is that it is extremely difficult for a poem like this to do anything more complicated than convey a simple political message. Verbally, the poem is too slack to set up an interesting sound-pattern in the reader’s mind; the most it does is create an intellectual tension as the reader tries to work out how the images in the two stanzas interact. And this intellectual tension is one which is quickly resolved: Mussolini’s son-in-law and the US Vice President are conflated. Ciano and Cheney even sound similar. But the simple juxtaposition of these two time periods (three, if you include Ciano’s reference in the ‘Carthaginian figs’ to Cato the Elder) does not give the poem any lasting complexity: almost inevitably, overt political comparisons of this type end up either embodying the hysterical ‘truisms’ of contemporary anti-war groups—‘the war’s all about oil!’; ‘Dick Cheney’s a Fascist!’—or else falling apart if examined too closely—Ciano ended up shot for treason against Mussolini; Cheney has, especially with his 28-gauge in his hands, tended to be the guy pulling the trigger.

It is difficult to work out the purpose of a poem such as ‘Black Gold’. It is a poem which wants the reader to come to a particular conclusion—that the present US government is as bad as Fascist Italy—but once that conclusion is reached, there is no space for further reaction beyond the Pythonesque (‘Yes it is!’ ‘No it isn’t!’). Poetry’s effectiveness as a medium for political statement, let alone political action, has always been limited. Poems and poets have been co-opted by political movements but any direct political point is prosaic. Poetry deals in wider arguments, or at least in the possibility of such arguments—a working definition of a poem is ‘a piece of text with many meanings’. Bare statement of what is rotten with the world—and it may well be difficult to get rottener than Dick Cheney—is a difficult mode for poetry to function within. It tends to be more effective for poets to approach political situations, including the current snafu in the Middle East, obliquely—direct statements such as ‘Black Gold’ are clumsy, and McKendrick is not a clumsy poet.

That sounds a bit like insisting that Brutus is an honourable man, but it is meant sincerely. ‘Black Gold’ is not the only simplistic political poem in Crocodiles & Obelisks—see also ‘Algebra’, in which ‘we speak of Guant√°namo and Abu Ghraib, / the ghastly opposites of algebra’. However, the political impulse in the book tends to be constrained and filtered through McKendrick’s mastery of understatement and self-deprecating humour. A poem like ‘The Resort’ is a good example of this: it is set in the decadent days of the Roman Empire, somewhere far from Rome, and its narrative does not get in the way of its subtle political argument. The relation of the past to the present is not made explicit, but is allowed to develop naturally: ‘Brats of empire / —they’d think the world revolved around them / if they thought the world revolved / which of course it doesn’t. It stays put / or gets worse like this heat’; ‘But waiting for the war all narrative / has forsaken us.’ The poem carefully evokes sultry periods of expectation, waiting for the barbarians, points at which all action is put on hold as the inevitable apocalypse approaches. Any comparison with the world in 2007 is for the reader to make, and therefore all the more effective—a reader gets more out of a poem if he has to work at it instead of being given all the information straight up.

Politics is clearly a topic McKendrick has deliberately decided to deal with in this book: it is the surface or subtext of a large proportion of the poems here. But this is not a single-mindedly political collection: the turn to politics is something new in McKendrick’s work, and there are many poems in this collection which hark back to his earlier, more ironic style, telling stories in which the narrator describes himself pushed to the side of his own life—McKendrick is extremely good at indicating how easily identities can be lost or adopted, and also at building a poem on the slightest of foundations. The last poem in the book, ‘The Book of Names’, starts by announcing that ‘some fetid little cutpurse’ has slit the narrator’s bag and stolen his address book, presumably mistaking it for a wallet. McKendrick builds on this situation, imagining the thief

Arrang[ing] to meet

at the caffè under the Rotonda

where soon enough my presence won’t be missed

and he’ll win his way into their tenderest
considerations with his gambler’s charm, easily

overstepping the mark I’d always failed to […]

The progression of the story is assured, as is the poem’s humour, and it works just hard enough to justify the final line’s swing into epiphany: the narrator says he needs to find a needle and thread ‘to cover up the shame, the sudden lightness.’ Such narrative poems, in which an individual moves confusedly through a situation he does not quite understand, are among the strongest elements in a strong book.

Insofar as there is one, the major problem with Crocodiles & Obelisks is its relationship to the idea of individuality, or at least McKendrick’s apparent shame at acknowledging the things which he, as a poet, does well. Too many of the poems in this book seem to exist only because McKendrick is deliberately stretching himself, and moving his poetry into areas it has not yet investigated. The problem with such undiscovered environments, however, is that they tend to have been colonised already by other poets, or else turn out not to have been worth the colonisation in the first instance. A poem such as ‘www.prisontours.com’, for example, is an experiment, a poem in the form of a website (complete with non-functioning hyperlinks and pictures that won’t load), but there is no obvious reason—aside from the tiresome post-modern desire to bash form and function into each other—why this poem should be in that form.

Also, there are several poems—for instance ‘The Canary Principle’, ‘The Key’, ‘√às el senyor Gaudí!’, ‘The Conquest of Albania’—where McKendrick seems to want to write a sort of free-form, note-taking verse. Here he is probably under the influence of the Irish poet Tom Paulin (co-dedicatee of Crocodiles & Obelisks), whose advocacy of the importance of ‘writing to the moment’ has led him to develop an aesthetic approach of constant self-questioning, displayed in poems—such as those in the recent The Road to Inver (2004)—in which the authorial voice is always doubling back on itself, making statements which are immediately qualified or contradicted. The problem is that Paulin has such a strong voice, and his method is so distinctive, that McKendrick’s own poems in the same style tend to sound rather like Paulin himself. Ce Ceertainly, the start of ‘The Canary Principle’, with its slang and deliberate mispunctuation, is an almost uncanny ventriloquising of Paulin’s recent poetry:

Port-end of Las Ramblas
where a cack-streaked Columbus
perched on his column
looks back to the New World,
the stacked birdcages house

canaries budgies parakeets macaws
while somehow got free
—word is their owners couldn’t stand
such constant ugly noise—
the lime-green quaker parrots
make marrow-curdling crowlike caws

and short-stop flights from frond to frond.

The headlong stream-of consciousness is effective here, and we should appreciate the poem for that reason, but it sounds too much like someone else.

There is of course no space to develop an extensive argument here about poetic originality—it is merely the case that McKendrick, by writing outside of the boundaries within which he has normally functioned, occasionally loses the impetus to discuss these new topics on his own terms. Crocodiles & Obelisks is an excellent example of a transitional book, in which a writer moves on from his previous themes and concerns in a deliberate attempt to stretch himself. However, what this desire for change indicates in McKendrick’s case is the extent to which his style has been until now intrinsically connected to his subject-matter. Poems which deal with (what are for McKendrick) new topics do not seem to come at them from any clear angle, or even to know how to talk about them—witness the failures of nerve and register noted above in ‘Black Gold’ and ‘Algebra’.

McKendrick’s desire to move into new poetical environments is most happily met in his translations. There are a number of versions in this book, most notably ‘H2O’, a translation of Rilke’s invocation to a fountain—‘O Brunnen-Mund, du gebender, du Mund’, the fifteenth sonnet from the second part of Die Sonette an Orpheus. McKendrick’s version adopts Rilke’s poem, altering it subtly into English but keeping Rilke’s delicate tone of semi-mystical collapse. Equally, ‘The Napkin Lifter’ is an excellent translation of Catullus XII. McKendrick has always been a keen translator, as demonstrated by his work on editing and translating for The Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems (2004), and the translations in this book are in many ways its strongest suit. McKendrick seems to enjoy translation for its transformation of already-existing structures into English: he can abandon the hunt for subject matter and ways of approaching it and concentrate on transmitting a linguistic surface. Whatever one’s other reservations, after reading Crocodiles & Obelisks, it is possible to look forward with unmixed expectation to McKendrick’s forthcoming book of translations from the Italian poet Valerio Magrelli.

James Womack has recently completed a doctorate in English at Wadham College, Oxford.