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Steve Spence

"Mirrorball" by John Muckle, pub. Shearsman. 96pp. £9.95

The title poem, although placed at the end of the book, is the central piece in this intriguing collection, at least in terms of its length. There are twenty eight stanzas of fourteen lines, hinting at the sonnet, and using the title as a way of suggesting fracture, displacement, noise and a sort of gaudy glamour. The protagonist/author is caught up in the whirl yet continues to speak through the din: ‘I can hardly remember myself being thrown / By laser lights at the wall of a dance hall / So that I split into infinitesimal particles / Accurate representations of my best self / ….  .’  We have a soliloquy which takes in all and everything, a reflecting voice which shifts from ponderings on religion – ‘As he greets Roman soldiers in Gethsemane / Was it his birth unleashed nightmares?’ to questions about the nature of poetic practice – ‘Ashbery, did I think by copying sublime / Style I would become you? …’  There’s a concern with the self which never slips over into morbid ego-fascination and a plethora of imagery which includes a hazy, dreamlike backdrop – ‘Beautiful swirls of green and black and white’ where autobiographical snippets (I presume) are subsumed in a lush fusion of 1960’s culture wrapped up in an almost nostalgic reminiscence which still includes the critical faculty. Here are the last eight lines from the ultimate stanza which give a flavour of the whole:

          The rays of the messiah we marketed
          To turn our hands in on the beaten dancefloor
          Preferred the riderless horses I witnessed
          Galloping along fiercely between
          Dark railings of headlight mansions
          Going somewhere, going nowhere perhaps
          Fuming and foaming, blindly galloping
          My helpers! Shake out your glorious manes!

While there is clearly an ‘English sensibility’ here the rhythms and easy formal qualities of the writing have an American feel which makes for a very pleasurable read. I’m thinking a little of Martin Stannard and rather more of John James by way of comparison.

These are poems collected between 2004-2018 and include a fairly diverse mix of form, subject and mood. In ‘An Estuary’ we have eleven three-line stanzas, mixing psychogeography with an understated lyricism which while slightly nostalgic are also looking towards the future in a manner
which feels beautifully optimistic without in any way being ‘rose-tinted’: ‘I like that part of the country, the way mist rises / off salt-marshes, a flat, humpy landscape of pylons / appearing to go on forever, circles back on itself / as if it were visible to the naked eye, / ‘. The way in which the stanzas run over facilitates an ongoing easiness of tone which also belies the skilful construction of the poem:

          exclaiming at a chain of starfish, a ribbon of kelp:
          found jewellery requiring no skill, no patience
          just a glow of happiness holding you for a moment

          left behind with this year’s other discoveries
          maybe to push up out of the mud of memory sometime
          soon, I hope, in the golden days of the future

          of tributaries I got lost in, ………

I’m certainly thinking of Lee Harwood when I read these lines.

In ‘Nothing Wrong’ we have aspects of autobiography perhaps but it’s a generalised reflection too, speaking for and to a wider experience which is what makes the poem so compelling despite its near-oblique suggestions. The images may be vivid but the experiences, while not uncommon, also have a kind of nebulous, personalised feel which only give so much away. There’s a lot going on in these four five-line stanzas, reflections, projections, and hints of narrative which once again have an overall optimistic sense – you feel good when reading them and on reflecting on what they might be ‘about’ – even where there is clearly also pain and suffering within the memories. Here is the final stanza:

          Nothing gone wrong, it was meant to be this way,
          her payment in kind is for the right-wrong reason
          and your heart is broken for a mess of pottage.
          Babies crying for their fathers; in the evening
          Brilliant new stars will be coming out for them.

There are darker poems here too, including ‘Sonnet for Anne’ which appears to be about a murder trial, I imagined actual at first, but given the manner in which the events are narrated suggests an imaginative aspect which may completely refute the opening stanza. The mix of ‘fact and fiction’ here, while having a playful aspect, is also quite disturbing:  ‘And us with our phoned-in excuses, insignificant others / Who permitted this terrible happening to happen.’

 ‘Dubious Parameters’ is a poem ‘about’ coming at things tangentially and is filled with interesting snippets and information. The ‘crab metaphor’ is expanded throughout to emphasise such an approach (sideways movement) and I particularly liked the line ‘Neither hermetic nor a hermit crab’ which apart from the alliterative wordplay gives you something to think about in relation to the overall piece. Many of Muckle’s poems have a feeling of coming at things ‘sideways’ in fact as you’re often unsure of where you are but can get to enjoy the feeling of being pitched in the deep end, floundering and then coming to terms with the situation, estranged but not in an entirely uncomfortable manner. I like inhabiting these poems for sure and it’s the uncertainty of ‘what’s going on’ that makes the experience so pleasurable. If you try and nail them down they’ll fly away or scuttle sideways in brisk fashion.

‘Chew Tar’ is a short two stanza job (six lines each) which halfway ‘makes sense’ when you pick up the phonetic in its title but then uses the literal meaning of the phrase to veer the poem off into more surreal mode. Here is the second stanza in full:

          I can’t chat with you right now
          My chew tar’s here; settling on the bed
          She knows the difference between mice and men
          Prised up a lump of the hot bubbly stuff
          Fresh from the pavement, chewed it all day.
          Now she wants me to chew it for her.

I’m reminded slightly of the strangely off-kilter poetry of Martin Duxbury-Hibbert when reading John Muckle’s work which also has a slightly visceral quality, allied to a liking for interesting digression or diversions which nevertheless circle around a central ‘theme’ or object. ‘To A Squirrel’, for example appears to be a poem where the title suggests a meander around ‘the natural world’, held in check by the four-line stanzas which are strictly adhered-to rhyming couplets: ‘She learnt this job, beside her mother’s apron / while stirring up the soup of her creation / The spider is calm, always she is calm / she curls herself to sleep upon your palm’. ‘For Tom and Val’ is by way of a memoriam to Tom Raworth, a beautifully put-together poem which for those of us who ever met Raworth, will conjure similar thoughts and images: ‘A neat man / almost dapper / Attired from the early seventies / Glowing yellow timberlands / A shirt of immaculate buttons / Are you Tom Raworth? Yes, that’s me / ….’

This is an unusual poetry collection to be sure, full of unexpected twists and turns, variations in form and a plethora of interesting information, observation and insight. It’s often cerebral but feels relaxed and sure of itself, often oblique yet filled with wit and odd ‘b road’ diversions. I’m very glad to have made its acquaintance.

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019