The first collection, her first, by Amber McMillan, We Can’t Ever Do This Again, is “about stuff” as in love, domesticity, softer Solie-esque travelogues and especially, the final sequence on her grandfather who fled Nazi occupation, while the second book I’m considering, too, has its even more consistent subject matter: Jeanette Lynes’, Bedlam Cowslip, is fully about the 19th century rural poet, John Clare. But like all strong, memorable books of poems, both of these resonate more sound, diction and form-wise, than on the basis of “what’s in them” alone.
“Peace”, which opens McMillan’s book, is a potent, pull-you-in melange of referentiality and emotion, surging around the ineffability of progress. From this entree, the dwindlingly-numbered sonnets that appear throughout the collection feel like solid anchors in both the tone and mood of the text and many of the most powerful pieces sing with stinging irony such as “There are sparrows at your window,” “No one is Looking” (“we’ll stay instead/for a round of gamy indiscretion,/which is not the same as love”) and “It was Nice to see you again.” McMillan can move masterfully between Larkin-y lines like: “I know now how to bear your beauty too;/bitterly and unfreely, but I do” and joyfully tragic linguistic lollopings, as in this stanza from one of the two fiercest pieces for her grandfather (the other being the longer “Bread at Augustfehn”): “The hullabaloo and foofaraw of the hoi polloi/still comes as a clean light,/however shop-soiled,/is as beautifully pointless as a merciless mercy kill -/here mercy means to weigh in from the outside,/bathos being the full range of the opposite” (Jubilee). Supremely smart but not without feeling. Although the “voice” can feel too distant and hazily sketched out at times, lacking a conclusive nuggety zing, McMillan is definitely a presence to welcome in the poetry realm.
Jeanette Lynes has proven herself a research-obsessed poet in several books from her Dusty Springfield poems, to her superb Archives of the Undressed and now, in her most pow-bam book, John Clare. Whether you know bits about this wandering versifier, with his penchant for wildflowers and his irk against Byron, doesn’t matter too much as Lynes draws Clare’s world sharply through visual detail but especially diction. I adore being introduced to new/old vocabulary and this book is rife with the richness of 19th century lexicons: sluther, flaze, swees, proggle, swoof, hurkling, crimpled, elting. O yes, bring it on! It’s a real rapacious romp through the fields of blooms and language. The reader instantly draws closer to Clare and his era through Lynes’ wicked ability to empathize with the thoughts, motions, aches and losses of this singular poet. The playfulness of the sounds, witness: “The charlock charred. Chaffinch marred./The pismire, booking it on its singed, tiny legs./It begins with vast nooks of mourning/every last edding, bawk, lost green margin” (The Origins of Loss) certainly doesn’t detract from the yearning threads that trickle through, rendered overt in such moving lines as: “how unafraid to cry over a ruined nest” or “how in love with frequencies beyond me.” While there are weaker pieces in this book-long sequence, they are ballasted by the blowsy and beautifully-bullish blasts of poems surrounding them. A vertiginous whirl of fiendish wordings that brings a past poet to life again in the deepest kind of honouring. O and the covers of these two texts (stark, collaged) are brilliant. Kudos to Paul Vermeersch for this refreshing poetic imprint.