Kona Macphee’s What Long Miles forms a genuinely intriguing collection. Her approach to poetry is most accurately described as experimental. Macphee fluctuates between strict poetic forms and free verse, and aptly too, for her poems’ themes also range widely. This diversity initially appears to demonstrate her skilful shaping of individual poems to the detriment of the creation of a coherent whole. Yet, it soon becomes apparent that in its versatility, this collection essentially becomes an embodiment of life itself. As the poem “My life as a B Movie” reveals, the collection showcases the gritty reality of life that “the camera never sees”.
At first glance, What Long Miles does not appear to be the most accessible of poetry collections. However, this in no way diminishes its worth. On the contrary – the seemingly intimidating appearance of Macphee’s poetry may be the collection’s greatest strength; her unflinching use of bold diction is succinct yet sophisticated. It is also revelatory of the poet’s motivation, for, in her own words, “I write because I love words – playing with them, building complex interconnected structures out of them”.
Partly as a result of this, Macphee seldom forms a direct emotional connection with her reader and her presence is generally distant and impersonal. This is strange, given that she herself holds that “writing is about communication”. However, this is not to say that she does not interact with her readers. Though Macphee distances herself, she nonetheless manages to create a certain intimacy. In many cases, she achieves this by recreating the experience or stimulus which caused her to feel certain emotions in the first place. The reader does not directly empathise with the poet; rather, s/he is forced to live a particular moment first experienced by the poet. In this way, the emotional state of the poet is, in effect, transferred to the reader. The unsettling imagery of the opening poem, “Pheasant, Waverley Station”, is particularly evocative:
In diesel-stour so thick I’m loath
to bare my packaged sandwiches, he lies:
one red-ringed eye is signalling the sky,
the other pegs a sleeper.
Moved to feel disgust, the reader is forced to associate that feeling with the image of the natural and the industrial world in conflict, thus recalling the original experience and emotional response of the poet.
What Long Miles is innately conscious of, and subsequently critical of, the world in which we live. Macphee’s poetry condemns the modern world’s blind allegiance to technology, humanity’s irresponsible use of industry and the lack of respect for our natural environment. She is critical of humanity’s materialistic desires, critical of the pressure society applies to the individual to conform. Fittingly, the most persistent theme of the collection is that of the loneliness and isolation of the human, “encompass me, wild world – ” , goes as far as to describe the human existence as the isolation of the soul:
astray in a human life
and far from any home
However flawed and difficult our long miles of life may be, What Long Miles revels in the joy of truly living life. ‘Minifesto’ divulges Macphee’s self-awareness of her own process of poetic creation and the power of writing as a means of release. The poem depicts the embodiment of self-conscious writing and portrays the eruption of feelings and emotions harboured within:
the wrath untold
the pen as sword
Macphee’s writing is precise, deliberate, her syntax compacted. Beyond clarity, this precision offers a carefully crafted lyricism. Her poetry yields a musicality which not only reads beautifully but also, on another level, celebrates life, in all its imperfections.