Thursday, 10 June 2010

Still This Need, by Michael McKimm

Heaventree, 2009

I've been trying to write about this book for a good few months now. It's a measure of its quality that it has taken me so long, because every time I think I've got it pinned down, I find something else to intrigue and delight me.

On the face of it, Eric Gregory Award winner McKimm is a lyric poet with a finely-honed gift for observation, especially of landscapes and nature, and a surefooted grasp of rhythms that renders his work gloriously musical. That's quite enough to be going on with, you might think, and he'd certainly be a noteworthy talent on the strength of that alone, but he also springs all sorts of little surprises that help set him apart from a number of other promising young poets.

For starters, he frequently dodges the default persona of many a male poet under the age of 45 - streetwise, occasionally cynical, always ironic - and instead adopts something altogether more vulnerable, more emotionally direct. In the first poem, Fledglings, the poet and a lover are "two timid fledglings in the sky", and later on, in At Last, the poet finds himself surprised by the effects, both directly sensory and emotional, that four daffodils have on him and his home:

Then put them in a jam-jar. Now you've made
an ornament, a pet, a fire, a home,

now an installation, a mausoleum.
I never thought I'd love such sentiment,
and did not think I'd dare to talk of pain.
I didn't want to take the easy slant

on things. Did not intend. But here we are,
a room, one window, four yellow flowers.

Elsewhere, McKimm rarely takes the easy slant on things, even though his poetry might often appear deceptively straightforward. In his landscape pieces, for example, the influence of Iain Sinclair and Roy Fisher ghosts through the background of what, on the face of it, might appear observational poems of the type that can be found in most mainstream magazines.

McKimm might accurately be termed an eco-poet, because pieces such as The Lammas Lands don't make the mistake of taking any one part of the natural world in isolation. City bleeds into country and vice versa, and McKimm seems equally at home in either.

His Northern Irish background flavours many of the pieces here strongly, too. Dialect words and phrases crop up at regular intervals, but they're expertly woven into his supple rhythms, so there's a never a sense that they're being used in some flashy, look-at-me way. And family is a central concern, with the passing of myths, stories and knowledge down the generations accorded much respect, albeit in a thoroughly level-headed fashion.

The History Lesson was a favourite here (McKimm characteristically tucks his own story half-hidden among several others), but it's a recurring theme throughout. When the final poem, Reprieve, ends on the line "We alter daily, and find our histories malleable", the poet is summing up a collection that repeatedly takes the current moment as the only certainty, and writes and rewrites past and future around it. If that gives him huge scope to expand on this superb beginning, that's something to be grateful for.


Caroline Gill said...

Evidently a poet to watch...

Matt Merritt said...

Very much so - it's a really lovely book.