From the outset, Chris McCabe makes it clear that In the Catacombs is not merely a research project but the fruits of a personal challenge; at its most basic, his quest is to explore the posthumous appraisal of any poet is in relation to his or her innate talent and/or popularity enjoyed while alive.
Early in the book, he identifies twelve poets who are buried at West Norwood, one of London’s seven most famous cemeteries. McCabe provides a short but satisfactory introduction to each of his subjects, comparing their work to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, who were also not widely read before their respective deaths.
McCabe is also driven by the idea of acknowledging the poets’ contribution to their craft by giving something back to them. In other hands, this might manifest as a mawkish pastiche or tribute but McCabe opts instead for the more restrained project of engraving two of the poet’s own words onto individual stones left as close to the appropriate graveside as possible. This strategy however gives rise to another major bugbear: seeing the damage caused to some of the graves by general neglect and local government decisions over the years.
Yet while the research is thorough and full of intriguing information, it is soon apparent McCabe is asking too much from these now silent masters. The only common factor uniting these poets is their burial ground. The phrase, “… not the poet I’m looking for,” therefore becomes a constant source of irritation, as though he is trying to find the perfect poet who might represent all twelve of them. It might, however, have been wise to assess each on their individual merits.
The jacket describes the book as “… written in a hybrid form, part literary criticism, part Gothic fiction.” McCabe’s own elegant turn of phrase is woven seamlessly into the main narrative, such as when he encapsulates Dickinson’s brevity as, “… cups containing oceans.”
The decision to include fragments of original fiction at the opening of each chapter is a bizarre one, particularly as they break the flow of the narrative. McCabe fails to explain their purpose or in what context they should be read, but they appear to be descriptions of the dreams he has had about the poets. Thus, their removal would have little adverse effect.
In the final third of the book, McCabe meanders a little, introducing or investigating other poets and literary figures who attract his attention. Sometimes these are given as much, if not more, space than those he allegedly intends to investigate. His examination of the twelve poets is eventually abandoned with no closing remarks or conclusions.
McCabe instead allows his these tangential explorations to take centre stage, rounding off such excursions with a considerably self-indulgent final chapter that takes him to his father’s grave in Liverpool, making barely any reference to the original premise.
The overall text reads like a notebook of ongoing information-gathering rather than the completed project. If there were a narrower focus and a tighter structure, this book might well be transformed into a compelling read for anyone fascinated by the analysis of poetry. In its present form, however, it is little more than an eclectic reference volume, albeit one which contains excellent original research.
McCabe promises six further books centred upon other cemeteries around the UK, so perhaps it is premature to judge his wider project by In the Catacombs alone. Considered in isolation, however, it is a clumsy start.