Lachlan Mackinnon, Doves (Faber, £14.99).
Doves is Mackinnon’s fifth collection of poetry. Following on from his last collection Small Hours, shortlisted in 2010 for the Forward Prize for Poetry, his new work marks a departure from a previously more delicate style.
Doves is more forthright. In its style it is concerned most noticeably with form and lyricism, where rhyme and sound pattern often supersede attention to the word in each line – an effect that hinders some of the poems development of their material. Ironically, an overarching attention to sound impedes the expectation that the lyric style sets up, in that the short snappy sentence constructions can seem blunt and mechanical.
In ‘Carol’, comprised of seven rhyming-couplet quatrains, the aabb form is fervently adhered to, yet the end-rhymes themselves feel sonically contrived: ‘annihilate’/ ‘fate’, ‘manger’/ ‘stranger’, ‘wakes’/ ‘makes’, ‘days’/ ‘raise’, ‘dead’ / ‘unfed’, ‘soul’! / ‘dole’ / ‘things’, ‘sings’, and so on. It is hard to justify the use of words like ‘dead’ and ‘soul’ in any contemporary poem, except in the circumstance of some excellent recalibration of the word and all its weighted heritage. Mackinnon is not so interested in such modulations of received wisdom.
These are poems in which we meet old favourites: ‘love’, ‘death’, ‘exile’, ‘decades’, ‘desire’, ‘moon’, ‘hopes’, ‘broke the spirit’, ‘forgotten your grave’, ‘in the last hours’, ‘dying flower’, ‘dreams’, ‘wisdom’, ‘the songs of birds’, ‘immorality’, ‘refugees’, ‘corpse’, ‘birdsong’, ‘Doves…I thought about love’, ‘leaves of autumn’, ‘ghosts’, ‘memories, but of something/ unstained and pure’…
This raises a further point of contention, namely, which is that the tendency to fall back on cliché often occurs at crucial turns in the poems. In ‘Nocturne’:
and I recall our walk through fields one dawn
when the first bird chirped from the trees around,
then all, to ring us with ecstatic sound.
The second line in this excerpt can almost be pre-empted at the point of ‘dawn’, but instead fills in the image too predictably.
If poetry is to do something new, then with all the best intention and generosity in reading, it’s impossible not to ask how a poem set in Paris talks so candidly about ‘love’ and ‘death’:
Jardin du Luxembourg
A young man not unlike myself at this age,
a touch less inhibited,
arm around his girl: ‘We know what the point
of love is but death, no,
nobody knows’, and the coloured sails
of little boats one way then another.
There is small recovery at the end, in the move towards a more vividly generous landscape for the piece, but is it enough to balance the opening scenario’s obviousness?
These observations are difficult to highlight in a review, because there is a hope that all work in poetry would be read generously despite individual taste with an appreciation for the craft at hand. And there are instances of technical diligence when it comes to sound patterns, particularly in the less overt instances of rhyme and rhythm:
like a wobble-board, woop
through the milkbottle clank
of the chassis
Another fine moment, and something that the collection requires more of in aid of balancing some of the weighted language expended throughout, is in the sequential piece ‘II Richard (1574 – 1613)’ from ‘Will’s Brothers’:
It was as though he’d taken
our childhood with him in a little box
and brought it back with all its colours sharpened.
This is gorgeous. And whilst there appears to be a philosophical thread throughout the work for the rejection or renewal of the symbol (‘but listen to his language/ for the slightest sign’ and ‘They [Two collared doves] weren’t symbolic’), and by his preference for sonic and formal patterning, the collection suffers for that and its lack of more instances of such imagery and complex sonic richness. That visual anchorage and metaphor is essential, but is fleeting in Doves.
The title poem ‘Doves’ begins well in this respect, utilising more visual fastenings (‘She/ had a damaged feather and a more trusting nature’) and language in a less ordinary way than many of the other poems: ‘like raw newly-weds’, but does slip into less inventive phrasing after the first stanza.
This is a difficult collection, in that it broaches a wide range of themes and topics, which cannot be accounted for here. Mackinnon risks engaging with the most well-worn aspects of the poetic tradition, and the poems do not always survive that engagement on their own terms.