Out There is the sixth collection from poet and translator Jamie McKendrick. It opens with an epigraph sourced from Dante’s Paradiso: “This little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce.” That juxtaposition of earth and fierce humanity resonates thematically throughout McKendrick’s poems, which articulate the tension between natural and human spaces, between cultures, and between spiritual and temporal realities.
The first half of the collection features poems which are relatively short. In some poems, brevity showcases McKendrick’s fine eye for detail, such as in “The Carved Buddha”, which exhibits the finesse of a miniature painting. In other poems, the form seems to joust with the theme at hand. For example, “The Perils”, with its epigraph from St. Augustine’s The City of God, left this reader with a sense of anti-climax. The idea that we are not safe anywhere may be an existential condition, but which the poem, in spite of its rich allusive framework, fails to endow with a renewed sense of either human urgency or divine epiphany:
We may be wise enough to shun the waves
but only folly would suppose
the land is safe. . .
The promise of such references is not fulfilled and therefore, for me, the poem fails to assume a definite shape.
When we gravitate towards the collection’s thematic core, in poems such as “The Owls”, we are offered a rather surprising declaration,
Let the wise learn from them
there’s nothing so wasteful as human turmoil,
as changing places, changing skies – for all
you’ll reap as your reward is
to find yourself forever climbing
the stairway to nowhere of a treadmill.
What this means in poetic terms is most clearly set out in the anti-poem of the selection, “The Literalist”, where we find the poet wondering why it did not occur to any one of the apostles that he would “be best off staying a fisher of fish”.
In a continuation of this Biblical theme, “Apres” describes the aftermath of a flood, one with which Oxford resident McKendrick is deeply familiar. The excellence of this poem is in its mastery of sound:
the plaster blistered
with salts; the cheap chipboard
bursting out of its laminate jacket
in all the kitchen units; the electrics wrecked
with the wires firing in their sockets. . .
The penultimate poem of the collection, “Outcast”, explains the rejection of poetry as a possible medium for vatic pronouncements. Perhaps its time has passed; now we can only stand outside the concert hall where the Muses are playing and wonder:
the way and ugly troll gawps at Aphrodite,
as at an order beyond all comprehension. . .
The “hallowed height” of the ancients, the grace of Apollo, “god of the hollow lute and the flute”, is no longer attainable for us as we are “ chockful of splintery dissonance”. This poem retrospectively places the entire collection “outside the concert” and argues that the grand harmonies are lost in the present discord of our several existences.
In this light, McKendrick’s artistic choices make sense as even this sense of discord is subsumed in the idea of Concordia discors in the final poem:
I shall pick up and play the violin. . .
though with a wolf note in the upper reaches.
Wolf note to which I’m perfectly attuned.
A wolf note is a tone true to the natural frequency of the body of a musical instrument, a sympathetic overtone that amplifies the original note. And therefore, even in our present and possibly paltry condition, we are tunes of a universal fugue.
McKendrick has confessed that, for him, as for any true poet, the idea of poetry is wedded to sound. Out There is a commendable illustration of this theory. In terms of sound, the poems command the reader’s attention, almost physically. Whether or not each poem offers equal reward for such attention is a question left for each reader to answer.