John MacKenna writes prolifically, and to acclaim, across the full spectrum – playwriting, novels, short stories, biography, documentary, radio and poetry. He approaches all of these different forms from the tri-fold backdrop of writing, producing and acting. All of this lays the foundation for his third poetry collection, Where Sadness Begins.
Collected in four parts, these poems vary in form and subject matter from the imagined lives of characters inhabiting a very particular landscape, to the confessional, to haiku, and they conclude with a series of poetic reflections on life and love. Leaving the first, and best section, until last, Part Two of the collection deals with the untimely death of a brother, and with familial relationships which span parents, siblings and children. “Brother” (also in four sections) explores the illness of Jarlath MacKenna, memories of his life and the aftermath of his death. Its four parts work beautifully as self-contained pieces; the reader is taken to that reflective place where the clock ticks and particles of dust slow in a shaft of sunlight. However, these four parts lose this intensity when read as one poem. To some extent, this may be due to the tensile strength of the image in part i:
We are both silent now
but for the drive and draw of air into your wounded lungs
and the soft movement of my pen
across the pages of what’s left of our lives together.
Part Three of the collection is a series of haiku, a peacock’s tail of cleverness. Haiku again finds its way into Part Four. In “Sometimes”, MacKenna gets beneath the surface of that showiness to excavate a deeply moving and thought provoking poem. Returning to love and grief in his penultimate and final poems, MacKenna reminds us gently that humanity is somehow bound together in loss and the continuance of life. Reminiscent of “the same small star” in R S Thomas’s ‘Affinity’, this theme is demonstrated in the litanic ‘After My Brother Died…’. Here, MacKenna communicates stoicism mixed with humour – “I lost my mind but the loss was not so great” – which encourages the reader to respond to the universal nature of this experience.
Frustratingly, these three parts of the collection swing from poems in which the reader can lose themselves to poems which feel as if they have been penned by a different author. As indeed they may have been; the tension in MacKenna’s writing perhaps being that wearing all of his many and accomplished hats at one time may result in the lot giving way to gravity now and again.
Part One, however, bears no such burdens – fifteen poems, presented as gently as lyrical short stories, expertly crafted and woven together to bring the dead above ground. Death becomes MacKenna, and at his finest he creates an interaction with the benign ghosts of the past who peacefully present the bones of the back story. It is left to the reader to flesh that story out, using their own supposition. This approach is illustrated to fine effect in “Midlands”:
he was all smiles to everyone…
But I couldn’t live downstairs,
not all the time.
Where Sadness Begins embraces death, love and memory, and the concluding poem, from which the collection takes its title, is a melodic finale by an accomplished poet who has deconstructed, and reconstructed, a life after death.