michael mackmin, from there to here, 32pp, £4
HappenStance, 21 Hatton Green, Glenrothes, Fife KY7 4SD

I only discovered HappenStance a few months ago, although the press has been producing quality pamphlets and the occasional full collection since 2005. Michael Mackmin is well known as editor of The Rialto. This is his second pamphlet with HappenStance.

There’s a certain breathlessness about most of these poems, giving them a conversational, sometimes almost colloquial rhythm. Stylistically he achieves this through many devices: frequent use of direct speech, quotation or dialogue (or what the poet presents as such), interjections, perhaps as qualifications on a thought begun, perhaps as asides; a scatter of punctuation to work against the rhythm of the lines (Mackmin is fond of the bracketed comment); a vocabulary often informal, contracted; and a love, perhaps actually a passion for or even an obsession with, unexpected line breaks. Here’s an example:

A troubled
lake, much rain, a river brimming
foretell (backtell) ignored
stuff. Recognise, ‘they’ say, what’s
left out (of your life) oh, get
in touch. It’s that ah so sad
you don’t know you’re born therapy

The consequence is poetry that races, full of liveliness and a stream of voices, the poet as medium for a cocktail party of overheard voices.

The downsides of all this can be a too-frenetic moment, or sometimes concision which momentarily puzzles (though usually clarifies on re-reading). Some lines seem broken for effect, rhythm without particular purpose. Sometimes the poet presents a wry, intrusive self-consciousness:

His heart hiccupped in his chest
like the lump of a pulse in a lizard’s
neck. What of it? You about to write
a dead, a dying father poem?

Perhaps we can read this as postmodern – the poet reminding us of his presence and the artifice he’s engaged in, though that simply pushes interpretation back a stage – why raise awareness of the already pretty obvious? Or we can be a little sardonic ourselves, and see it merely as the poet having fun with us? Or, maybe the poet is aiming for a complex viewpoint, making the reader at one and the same time engage with the poem and step back from it?

Whatever tricks he’s playing, Mackmin loves energy. The excitement in many of the poems is infectious, their personal voices entirely convincing. Which makes the more poignant pieces seem more striking in contrast. I think the poet is fighting against sentiment some of the time, which perhaps is one reason for the occasional distancing device,  and also why animating dramatis personae works well for him: inhabiting others’ complexities, he can avoid the straight lyricism he’s drawn to but seems not quite to want. “December, for Lucy” is a good example. It opens:

Watching where a robin stood
and dipped to pick at little
bits of food

This would be entirely sentimental without the line break at “little”, so we get both the feeling and its undercutting. Similarly:

the goldfinch
that I took and cut
to see the heart, awed
how large it was in such a small –

Again we have a bird, we see its heart, but in a brutal way that belies the suggestion of tenderness even as it also reinforces it. And we have a thought deliberately incomplete (no noun is supplied to attach to “small”) so the reader fills the gap. The poem ends with questions:

singing is it? Is it singing
makes the heart get strong?

No answer is given. Most poets would shy from the unanswered ending. The result is a poem that, being “for Lucy” opens up sentimental possibilities, critiques or ducks or complicates them through its devices, and thereby both gives us the sentiment and queries it, as in the final question. The dilemma of the poem is experienced by the reader: should we trust the way we feel, or is it mere biology? Is it poetry that strengthens the heart, or is that merely a lie told by poets, to themselves and those they’re fooled to believe they might love?

In fact, many of these apparently quite simple poems contain subtleties to push, test or intrigue the reader. “Interlude”, for example, begins:

We walked along a sunken lane, not
much travelled, grass in the centre

Such allusion is almost cheeky. Or the poem which opens “This poem explains the meaning of life” is almost metaphysical, but intended merely as irony, for the poem itself is in the voice of a hopeful, but naive poet submitting (perhaps to The Rialto), her poem intense and deep, but delivered through cliché. And, of course, Mackmin has to present that poem within his, so we get another distancing, ironic and allusive construct.  In itself this is amusing, reminiscent of Billy Collins’ self-referential “Workshop” in the way it both makes fun of and embraces the novitiate poet. But also in this poem, Mackmin has buried an anti-war poem, so effectively that no-one could accuse him of doing so. “I explain the pity and the terror” is the naive statement of the young poet, but as clear a statement from our poet, too.

We might dismiss much of this volume as wry meta-poetry and perhaps the cleverness, artifice and allusion will act as a barrier for some readers. Mackmin will write “Notes towards a September sonnet”, but not the sonnet itself. His “Things Fall Apart” is a filmic post-disaster world focused on Walthamstow:  the mundanity of apocalypse. However, the straightforwardness and the sophistication enable each other in these poems. We can admire the way the poems are framed as much as the feelings they disguise. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s the cleverness we’re applauding, but just as often it’s the revival of real feeling that his devices offer a different slant upon.