Although there are two “Suites”, of five and eight sections respectively, and a page-length prose poem (“West-Coast Colloquy”), the keynote of this volume is minimalism: short free-verse lyrics, many with short lines. It’s a common form in post-1960s poetry; one which hopes to imbue language with intensity through terseness, and invite us to focus on the poem as placed aesthetic object. Such poems are generally easy to read (though not to write): many can be read with some degree of understanding within a minute or less. The crucial question is whether we are drawn to return to them, and how much reveals itself if we do. The aspiration of the short free-verse lyric is a numinousness of suggestion, a gradual disclosure of richness of meaning and association. The principal risks are those of preciosity and triviality.
McGrath avoids the former almost entirely, by means of a delicacy of tone, a skill with metaphor, and touches of humour. He also avoids triviality, by and large, though there is the odd “so what?” moment in this volume, as in the 15-word poem “La Stanza Rossa”, which reads in its entirety “Red is the room / brown the chair / blue the vase / green the tree // that burns”. The poetry of the object has been a recurrent strain since the 60s, and has roots in the poetics of Pound and Williams. There is a fine line between aestheticization and fetishization of the object (another poem, “Spheres”, admits that: “You sigh because / you share that compassion / for all objects”). In “La Stanza Rossa” we have objects and colours, but not much more, apart from the rather familiar image of the burning tree. The form of the poem, apart from using line breaks to punctuate a list, serves only to make a break between the literal tree and its symbolic burning: we are invited to focus on the isolated line “that burns”. This could be biblical (the burning bush) or modernist (the moment of intense perception, as in Woolf or Mansfield), but in neither case does McGrath’s poem do quite enough to either earn or transform the associations it calls up.
The strengths of the collection include its range and variety of subject and tone. There are fragments of lives, such as the homely and wryly humorous “The Telling” or the enigmatic fragment “St Petersburg”. There are short anecdotal allegories, such as “Born”, which (ironically) imagines “the announcement / of the death of irony” or “Two Words”, in which the figure of death appears in the semblance of a father. There are moments of sensuousness and desire, such as “Intimate Expanses” and “White Sail”. In particular, there are representations of the natural world, which often combine the evocation of perception with a metaphoric suggestion of some (usually elusive or mysterious) aspect of human experience. A good example would be “Two Rivers” (from “Suite No. 1”) which tries to convey the perceptual qualities of a rural scene, through strategies of metaphoric defamiliarization (“The weft and wap / of a burn’s animal spine, stones as metric eggs, / the punctilious grass”), while expanding the river and its water into a wider metaphor for human experience: “Water is transformational ….We drink from two rivers. You wait / but you also forget waiting”.
The second poem of this “Suite”, entitled “Elephant Hide”, has elements of a manifesto for the post-Romantic free-verse lyric of perception. It celebrates precision (“Now those colours are precise”), clarity of perception (“It is a kind of triumph / to see things as they are”) and the element of the mysterious, unknowable or inexpressible, which gives the exercise its poetic allure (“And all the while / an echo of uncertainty keeps us ill at ease, / magnifies, approaches.”). The ideas and techniques here are quite familiar, but McGrath handles them with confidence, subtlety and skill. Certainly a poet worth watching (and reading).
Andrew Michael Roberts