The Albion Beatnik bookshop on Walton Street has become one of the most prolific live poetry venues in Oxford, with owner Dennis Harrison serving up so many high-quality poetry evenings that it’s getting easier to count the good poets who haven’t yet read there. Without exception I’ve enjoyed every Albion Beatnik event I’ve been to and am looking forward to a lot more in the future.
On Friday a group of us went to hear Andrew McNeillie and Peter McDonald in a well-matched double-act. McNeillie was up first with a generous selection from his new collection Winter Moorings. I’d heard some of these before at the book’s launch in Blackwell’s a couple of months ago and have been coming back to them regularly since posting a close reading of one of the poems in March. The poems have grown with each re-reading, and on second hearing I was even more impressed by their depth and resonance.
Readers of McNeillie’s previous collections will have expected the sea to feature prominently, and if anything these poems engage with that most universal of symbols even more intimately than their predecessors. Here is the sea as otherness and yearning and loss – Homer’s πόντος ἀτρύγετος, the unharvestable sea – but also as a presence so unfathomable that the poems wisely avoid trying to subordinate it to any single meaning.
This time round I caught more of the poems’ ache, but McNeillie reads with humour as well as poignancy, not straining for effect but not understating things either. His throwaways are never just thrown away, even the wonderfully dry aside of a poem like “Quay”:
There’s many a thing more lasting than a person
I hear it say
At no great length
Winter Moorings is a wonderful book – arguably McNeillie’s best since Nevermore – and I’ll be taking every opportunity to hear these haunting, brilliant, humane poems again in future.
Guitarist Sam Reilly played two beautiful pieces in the interval, then Peter McDonald read a combination of published and new poems. I’ve been revisiting McDonald’s Collected Poems recently: as a lapsed classicist who’s saturated in Yeats and MacNeice and borderline-obsessive about poetic form I’m predisposed to love this book, but I’d defy anyone not to be won over by it. McDonald’s craft is deft, precise and dazzling; his poems are wonderfully literate but crackle with a raw energy just below the surface. At their best they can leave you unnerved for weeks afterwards, delivering something genuinely unsettling with a simplicity that is also not afraid to be deeply difficult.
Take the closing stanza of “The Blood-Bruise”, a poem McDonald read superbly on Friday:
What I saw then, when I saw you suddenly,
knocked me off-kilter, like a freak shot
or a punch from nowhere, making light of me:
it wasn’t even your face at first, and not
your blue-green eyes as they took in my alarm,
but the blood-bruise on your arm
where the skin was softest; where, as I looked,
I almost tracked the course a vein might run
minutely under my fingers; where they unhooked
and undid you, when all of their work was done.
There’s a real shudder here – in part from the pitch-perfect ambiguities, but also from the clash between the poem’s unsettling subject matter and the elegance of its delivery (not just the polished stanza but the syntax, its structural “What… when… where… as… where… as… where… when” riffing the kind of subordination we’d otherwise expect in classical Latin).
McDonald also read a handful of unpublished poems, of which two in particular stood out: an inverted Shakespearean sonnet and a haunting villanelle, both of which I’d be keen to meet again.
It was a great way to spend a Friday evening, and all for the princely sum of £2 per head.