-Reviewed by Richard Watt–
Swarming by Edward Mackay is in esteemed company. His 19 poems sit in the Salt Modern Voices series, from which several pamphlets have been my favourite poetry releases of the last couple of years. Several pages in it’s obvious Mackay’s a romantic, and very well read even for a modern poet, but the extent of his references and influences do not impede the reader. Often his poetry reads like a personal pilgrimage through the margins of revolutionary textbooks and mythos round-ups. These jostle boisterously against the more corporeal concerns of the body and desire.
So we have, then, the discomforting, iconoclastic stomp comprising ‘Of or Pertaining to a Raven’, which restlessly tosses its bestiary of Gnostic entities across the Risk board:
I’m God Mahakala and long before he rode on fire and sky
I fed Elijah meat and bread. I’m trickster and creator god of Haida.
Mackay introduces here something of a West-East travelogue, on which he could have gone – should Poe have denied the ticket from the weary traveller Hart Crane in his central work The Tunnel.
‘Stone House Asylum, 1932’ methodically weaves a familiar tale of male bonding during the First World War with Helen Thomas’ care for her husband Edward, a poet killed in action in 1915. Looking at her wartime memorabilia, ‘She spreads their youth upon the bed/as if, beneath the ordnance of loss, all three can walk together’. There is a feeling of verdancy in the story-telling which sets the poem apart from the grey, trench-sodden tropes the reader will expect.
A map-poem such as ‘The Size of Wales’ could certainly be described as visually pleasing but it’s also oddly tactile. Reading its several dozen scale analogies, it gave me a great and sudden feeling that I could reach in with my hand and pull out a fragment. As a journalist I laughed at comparisons to ‘166 million Olympic swimming pools’ and ‘39 million fewer rugby pitches’, and as a Scot I sympathised with ‘a great lake of language, each spoken word that’s lost the ears that understand it.’
Musical influences are neatly folioed in tribute to Bob Dylan and Jesus and Mary Chain, in ‘If You See Her’ and ‘Love Song to Feedback’. I got the feeling of the Mary Chain very well – whirling and giddy, disconnected. These poems work well as a pair, a kind of explanatory or biographical lemma for Mackay.
No small amount of pith inhabits the cursive script of wedding-invite-reply RSVP, where Mackay invokes the awkwardness of Church Going, then hurtles it into someone else’s Larkin:
I’ll even think of other things
(between the hymned injunctions that you don’t believe)
To put aside the memory of your fresh grown curves
‘Against Gratitude’ mixes in a frequent capacity for the taste of biological process or (sometimes and) desire.
Cuts, wheezes and fevers re-frame a romantic tryst as hospital diorama – ‘Resentment curdles, call it gratitude:/that marbled belly fat on coercion’s underside’ examines a previous relationship with the disinterested eye of a butcher or grocer inspecting their wares.
‘These Gathering Days’ conjure the spectre of Czeslaw Milosz with solemn, curatorial perspective, and the tidy ‘Pinhole Camera’ introduced me to the photograph of Michael Chrisman (for which I’m indebted).
My favourites here are ‘Midden Burial’ from ‘Postcards from Doggerland’, which hops along with a vague urgency that put me in mind of GM Hopkins, and The Abbat, the high diction of which recalls the stately splendour of modern fiction classic Canticle For Liebowitz. A torch and dictionary are occasionally needed to see into Swarming’s corners because the references are often so outward-looking, but Mackay’s direction and wording always signpost his intention.
To qualify that comment: Mackay’s writing hovers somewhere between the academic and the dystopian revolutionary, and is appropriately dispassionate and sanguine by turns. I believe his writing to be informed by classic British fiction, world mythos and a fascination with ancient cultures. For all that, a traditional (call it classic) streak runs through Swarming.