‘The perfection of a word
Is all we achieve in time’ ( Kevin McGrath)
Review of Windward by Kevin McGrath ( Published by Saint Julian Press October 2015)
I doubt there could be anything more presumptuous than venturing a review on a work so all embracing and self-reflecting as Windward. So I won’t; instead I offer merely a personal response, and even that with trepidation and aware of its shortcomings. It is hard to imagine embarking on this personal ‘laying bare’ journey with intent rather than in reflection, but if it was the latter how might one explain the vivid ‘first light’ recollection? When he offers the pulse of his temperament, and the sharp crack of his eye to follow the solar chariot scattering leaves and coaxing out crocus and then to hitch with it the seasons of human loving, one must travel into a new unknown and find the wholly familiar. McGrath manages to arrest the rotating wheel at each spoke of stillness, the journey, though moving, is fundamentally still: At each point.
He himself says that ‘In true poetry there is…only the sound of a particular vision’ and so it is with opinion: It is valid for today only, at the cross-currents of first thoughts. I claim the same. On a first rapid reading what pulled were the reins of paradox stretching always in two directions ( and straining like a couple of Clydesdales even-handedly); the personal and universal, the discrete yet extended, the longing even when fulfilled, the seasonal year turning and immobile.
I then read more slowly and felt that I was in a gallery of rooms assigned to aspects of the poet, the portraiture, the landscape, the acute botanist, the fatigued philosopher, the existential and despairing lover surprised by the joyful shaft of sudden sun. The rooms were all open to one another, and no single one gave too long to linger, without some bright plumage, falling light, obsidian, cadmium, indigo or steely river, pecking attention, and in the background a dulcet music, or in ‘a soft undertone of ocean’ the muffled drum. I seek music in words and the marriages of sound as in its ‘cooling, chilling time’.
In selecting what I have, I shall be unapologetic because no other reader would make the same selection; nothing is meant to indicate a general validity, or be representative. I am instinctively anthropomorphic and increasingly see the natural world as imbued with human sensibility so ‘Strong oaks of chrome and umber/ Discard their weary armour’ leaps up, or rather un-shields the fatigue of summer (and age) most naturally. ‘The archery of rain/ Ferocious and discerning’ finds me ready to undress, a willing Sebastian.
McGrath paints with the discerning palette of the impressionists; ‘When the trees began to jaundice’ holds the disease of the inner and outer knuckle of the joint. The threshold between the inner responses to the seasons of inexorable change is in equipoise, and ripples go wider in their evocations of the deeply known and deeply buried. ‘So winter casts its old nets/ Lets loose the hunting dogs’ calls up Breughel and Shakespeare somehow in tandem, and ‘I reared a falcon’ brings in the sweep of The Wind-hover, as ‘black ships’ nod to Homer. ‘A Lioness in moonlight/Uncoils her shining tension’ heralds in both Yeats and Blake. These are the worn coins, sufficient to be touched in, and good for a pint in any poet’s corner, anywhere. Old friends.
The soul’s longing becomes keener within its frames of spasmodic celebration, the resonant truths especially lucid when offered wide and deep vistas. ‘ –ocean/Never grievous, never poor/ Lapidary in its strength’ and ‘For far inside the blood goes/This slow tide of living’. Despite that incipient sense of inevitable loss, or because of it, the jewels of detail, the ‘sloops, ketches; quick gulls and terns in white script…goslings, coots, teal; lilac and wisteria days’ pass across the eyes as though already blurred, so exact, so immediate, they leave such loss in their wake!
Perhaps because longing was so keenly felt, I flinched (a little) at philosophy, however roundly sanded. ‘For the suffering we pretend/Does not exist on earth’ and ‘What we love masters us/ And our mastery endures’ and ‘Dejection is a knowledge’ seemed implicit ere they were tucked up and named. Whereas the insouciance of things haphazardly allowed, ‘Diamond air, grey swells, brown pebbles/ Yellow wintry detritus blowing’ heaves in backwards before reflection is tempted to seat it. Far off and later ‘A nude body dried by sunlight/Swims the polished sea’ (and at any moment, sun notwithstanding, might return for a towel).
The most acute after-taste of this book is the unerring authority of the natural world celebrated not only for its over-arching seasons, but its squalls and surprises. Amidst the cornucopia of summer plenty ‘Hot nights, saffron evenings/Quartz sun, venous sky/ Afternoons of flags and bells/ Pigeons, sparrows, peacocks’….then ‘A voice calls to a child’ and it is an Italy of sun-baked streets and a sonorous campanile before ‘Rain sweeps through Paradise.’
The ephemeral time caged, perfect and soon to be lost, and when lost never quite certain of return. So it is a life, celebrated for what it gave, gives, and might elsewhere.