Meeting Buddha in Dumbarton is an enchanting new work from writer and artist Nikki Magennis. At once deeply personal and thematically universal, its lovely (author-designed) cover encases a varied collection of poems which deal with some grand concepts while still managing to remain grounded and sharply focused on people.
Feminism and history are core topics, with “Land Girls and The Grandmothers” (“with eyes that wept like soft boiled eggs”) both paying homage to the great strength and resilience of Magennis’s foremothers. “The Whore’s Bath In Art” is an intelligent piece with a clever perspective on the old masters’ pursuit of beauty. At its end, the artists’ muse is coyly affiliated with the commonplace concerns of our contemporary culture:
Languidly, they tilt their heads as they wash,
rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, wondering where on earth
all this dirt came from.
Themes of class are addressed in “Monochromatic”, as Magennis recounts a drunken evening which led her to consider the plight of her ancestors, “Far from the West End’s sugarlump terraces”. “Meeting Buddha In Dumbarton” – appropriately the collection’s eponymous poem – deals with a variety of ideas as it sees “the luminous one” visiting Asda:
His eyes reflect
TV screens, icecream, carving knives…
I feel lightness, having spent everything.
“At Polmont Prison” draws parallels between the present-day residents of the Young Offenders’ Institute and the miners who died trapped underneath the building in the Redding Pit Disaster of 1932. Respect for nature is also a prevailing theme: the presence of “self sown grass” is explicitly observed in “Wild Cherry”, while “Demeter’s Terms” contrasts views of unspoilt landscapes with
a chain of tail lights
that sway over the leggy road-
– trail of glowing red seeds
left by distracted mothers.
But there is also great tenderness to be found among these big ideas. “To The Ghost of Sylvia Plath” is the voice of maternal concern, while “Housekeeping” sees Magennis abandon her “sluttish unravelling” house to nestle with her son, creating a scene that is both loving and sensuous:
I breathe in and remember the warm bath
of your skin.
And it is the sensual quality of Magennis’s work that makes this small chapbook so remarkable. She has a keen eye for visual representation, as might be expected from an artist, but her talent for the lyrical allows the pictures she paints to become sumptuous. “Living in the Lion’s Belly” is perhaps the most personal poem in the collection, and its imagery serves as a prime example of this cross-disciplinary magic:
I stroke his syrupy heart, hold still, and sing
lullabies. From here, I only catch glimpses
of the world, framed by sword-shaped teeth.
Meeting Buddha in Dumbarton numbers only around 25 pages and yet the poems within are wonderfully varied, taking on enormous ideas while still managing to retain a certain intimacy. Magennis’s artist’s eye is present in the formation of her luscious, lyrical visual imagery; but this is a poet who also has plenty to say and is passionate in the saying of it. Tackling such a diverse range of major issues from a sensitive, human perspective makes this a fascinating work of surprising substance, and one which outgrows its slight size considerably.