I fullly intended to review this collection alongside Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box. After all, they were published on the same day in March, and both poets came to notice the same way, with fine chapbooks from HappenStance in 2005.
Both are Edinburgh-based, too, and they’ve read and worked through their collections together, but that’s not to say that the results are notable for their similarities. Instead, one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading them one after the other was seeing how they’d arrived at very different takes on some of the same subjects. So, to do them both justice, I thought I'd post them in fairly rapid succession - expect to see a review of Philip's book later in the week.
I’ve read and enjoyed Mackenzie's pamphlet, The Clown Of Natural Sorrow, several times, read with him, and stayed in fairly close touch, and yet this book managed to surprise me again and again.
Not that there’s anything flashy, any “look at me” posturing, about the way he springs those surprises. Early in the book, the wonderfully atmospheric The Listeners starts with:
The thrill of the fair is not in the glamorous machinery
and its spin, or in the clamour of infants longing
to be heard, but in the hour when music stops
and lights blink out, when a man threads a dark path
among greyer darknesses of once-bright carousels,
and becomes, with them, a bearer of absence,
night’s counterpart, impossible to bring to focus.
It could almost be a manifesto. Mackenzie handles the “glamorous machinery” of poetry very well, in a number of technically deft pieces, and many of these pieces are highly musical, but he’s never in thrall to formal constraints. And, while he generally maintains a quietly ironic distance, observing modern life with wit and intelligence, he doesn’t bury feeling too deep. Ashbery is an acknowledged influence here, but you’d struggle to level the same accusation – of being all about surface glitter – at Mackenzie as sometimes gets aimed at the great New York poet.
In a poem such as the excellent Glory Box, he juxtapositions the intensely personal with the clutter, confusion and absurdity of the everyday, undercutting any danger of sentimentality while, paradoxically, heightening the emotion conveyed. There’s a back story here, and a definite trajectory for the collection as a whole, but he hits a good balance between poems that thrive in each other’s company and a rattling good read that can be dipped into just about anywhere.
Subject-wise, he’s generally interested in threading that dark path mentioned earlier, in being a “bearer of absence”, in suggesting (but never making explicit) what lies just out of reach of the light. And, as the final phrase of the stanza above suggests, his surprises usually work by subtly disorientating the reader.
Scotland, not surprisingly, figures as a subject on a number of occasions, and perhaps because the poet has spent long periods abroad (in Italy and South Korea), his view of his own country is a complex, multi-faceted one. In Scotlands, he talks about:
…each fibre waiting for
the sudden drop, for a patch of earth in which to root itself.
That suggests the position he arrives at elsewhere, that the changing face of the UK following devolution offers opportunities to create all manner of new communities, owing nothing to flag-waving or nationalism.
But that word “community” is probably a key one, because Mackenzie, a church minister, never loses sight of the threads that connect us, even when, as suggested earlier, they lie somewhere in the shadows.
Which is where we came in, really, because what is poetry about if not making connections, preferably surprising ones?