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Out There by Jamie McKendrick - review


Paul Batchelor on a collection that ranges from frontiers in space to terrestrial boundaries

"Where there's a will, there's a wall." So says one of Jamie McKendrick's "Stricken Proverbs". Out There is much concerned with walls, limits and boundaries of all kinds, and, somewhat unfashionably, McKendrick usually comes down in favour of respecting them.

The title poem, which opens the book, describes the mind-bending experience of space travel, and the "nostalgia for the Earth" that can overwhelm astronauts: "One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit / and asked where he was going. For a walk. // He had to sleep between him and the airlock." The following poem, "On Nothing", elaborates on the nightmarish prospect of outer space being not a final frontier, but no frontier at all: "the present buckles into nowlessness // that lasts for never as a dark star draws / downward threads of light ..." A few pages later, "A Safe Distance" notes our good luck that the moon is no closer than it is, for aesthetic reasons as much as anything else – we would soon tire of "that chiaroscuro, / the light-splashed pores and shadowy pits ..."

From outer space, we zoom in on terrestrial boundaries with two poems that describe life in the immediate aftermath of a flood. (As McKendrick lives in Oxford, he may be writing from experience.) "From the Flood Plains" voices defiance: "No flood as parched as this – a mere foot / or two of gilded bilge – will turf us out ..." On the following page, "Après" catalogues the destruction left behind ("the pine boards cupped; the plaster blistered / with salts; the cheap chipboard / bursting out of its laminate jacket ...") but ends on a positive note: the garden looks "greener / for an alien crop of hogweed higher / than us, hardy, sturdy, hirsute, armed / with a poison sap against expulsion". Giant hogweed is a particularly unpleasant invasive species, but – living as he does on a flood plain – McKendrick cannot criticise its disregard for boundaries.

While it ranges over a variety of subject matter, Out There is an attractively coherent collection. One reason for this is that nearly every poem is twinned with the one on the facing page, so we don't feel we've entirely finished reading a poem until we've read its partner. Such porous borders between McKendrick's own poems find an echo in his susceptibility to the voices of other poets. This has proved an invaluable asset in his translations (represented here by fine renderings of Baudelaire, Borges, Cattafi and Sinisgalli), but occasionally leaves him vulnerable in his own work. "The Deadhouse" was commissioned to celebrate the spooky performance space in the basement of Somerset House in London, and it resounds with the voices of dead poets such as Blake and Eliot ("Mind-forged, unreal city"). A more troubling presence, because less controlled, is Seamus Heaney. The poem's verbless opening lines are uncannily reminiscent of Seeing Things: "Ooliths in a Jurassic bath of micrite: / the palatial, weathered white of Portland stone".

Elsewhere, McKendrick is too willing to mind his limits, and a little more recklessness would have been welcome. His previous book, Crocodiles and Obelisks, was more formally adventurous, and seemed to offer exciting possibilities for his future development. Despite its title, Out There signals a retreat to the known: the first half of the book consists of sonnets or near-sonnets, and the form can feel like a default setting. For example, "The Perils" is a meditation on the myriad dangers of everyday existence, but it feels constrained by the sonnet form, and the subject cries out for a more capacious treatment.

Metaphysical boundaries are considered in one of the book's most striking poems. "The Literalist" begins by asking "When told they'd be made into fishers of men / did it not occur to a single one / that he'd be best off staying a fisher of fish ..." According to the speaker, the disciples should have remained ordinary men, and surely one of them must have known that deep down "he wanted fish to be fish, and not multiplied / ad infinitum by unearthliness; / wanted loaves to be loaves ..." The poem can be read as a wish for a language that denotes but does not connote, one that would give us an impossibly pure and direct kind of poetry, denuded of association. Of course, finding such symbolic resonance in the poem confounds the very literalism for which it argues. The speaker's reductive vision is paradoxically suggestive, and the poem seems at once to invite and to deny metaphorical readings.

With "The Literalist", McKendrick has written his anti-poem: it moves nimbly from the promise of transcendence to something grounded in the everyday, whereas his poems are usually to be found heading in the other direction, discovering unexpected meanings in everyday encounters. If the reader of contemporary poetry feels over-familiar with this strategy, it must be admitted that few poets can execute it with McKendrick's subtlety and skill.

"The Carved Buddha" praises a miniature gold leaf Buddha sculpted inside a sandalwood lotus bud: "Its beauty blazed // but quietly, a tiny inexhaustible thing." This could be an emblem of the qualities McKendrick is after – a sudden apprehension, a delicate splendour – and which he captures in the best of the poems here.

• Paul Batchelor's The Sinking Road is published by Bloodaxe.

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