Skip to main content

Guest Review: Butt On McLoughlin

Maggie Butt reviews
by Nigel McLoughlin

It’s possible that Nigel McLoughlin may have the most extensive vocabulary of any man in Britain, and what a gift that is for a poet.  His contents page says: “the following abbreviations are used in footnotes to the poems: (Ir) Irish language, (Hib) Hiberno-English dialect, (collq) colloquialism or slang;” but he doesn’t list (Ac) academic or (Mu) the music of words or (He) the language of the heart – all of which he speaks like a native.  Even the title, Chora, is a word redolent with meanings which are different within the realms of ancient Greek, ancient philosophy and modern philosophy.  I expect he also knows it is a genus of nolid moths.

I first encountered McLoughlin’s work with the 2007 collection Dissonances (again a word with a range of meanings) so it was fascinating for me to see the genesis and development of poems published between 2001 and 2010. Some ‘New and Selected’s have poems in reverse order like a CV, but these are chronological, and enable us to walk with the poet through the growing sophistication of  his craft, through places and characters he encounters and leaves behind, through his themes of family and history as he strides out to ‘hobnail my way through all / the ploughed lands of language.” McLoughlin ‘’unroll(s)/ words like a carpet” and increasingly layers meaning, themes and rhythms from the clear simplicity of the earlier collections to the polish and craft I had already admired in Dissonances.

The extracts from his first collection, At the Water’s Clearing, are full of Irish music. From the plaintive mountain-and-bog setting of ‘Some Go Dancing’, through the rosaries and Ave’s, to the gritty urban landscapes of ‘Foreland Heights in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, this has to be Ireland.  From his first collection he introduces closely observed, un-named characters: his grandfather (?) who died in the first world war, a grandmother (?) who wove tales and divined futures , “and told me she saw faces in the flame”, the latchico (undesirable) and the Green Man with their magical powers, the ‘Poitin (potcheen) Maker’, who “avoids conversation like excise”, the navvy armies tunnelling through mountains, the fishermen at the lough, “here is a bond of blood / that pulls me to it – several ancestors/ dead by drowning.” 

With the 2004 collection Song for No Voices, the mix of musicality, intense emotion and tactile engagement with the world which characterises much of the later work, is emerging strongly.

From Blood there are familial blood-tie poems, “what it is to curl/all our hopes up in a ball/ and make a fist of them” , there are translations like ‘The Song of Amergin’ (who says the author is dead?), but most of all there is a pervasive sense of history, of the past living with the present, of a heritage and culture which is not just owned but breathed: “Forward and back, / forward and back, / all our histories go.”  This is “a land full of blood” where he manages, “to dance on bog, to heel/ and toe the line between / the mountain and the sky”  in a land of “whiskey/ coloured waters,” and stunted “pig-iron” trees where “even the grass is vaguely ferrous.”  These poems are deeply concerned with the history of Northern  Ireland, movingly, gut-wrenchingly full of the waste of it, “bloody as all our hands.”

After the tumult and terror of the Blood poems, the polish and experiment and – sometimes - joy of the poems from Dissonances where “everything burns, everything rings including me. / The great bell of the world vibrates and I am drunk / with winter sunshine” throws both into sharp relief.

And finally, in the new poems, McLoughlin circles again, around his themes of  Irish countryside and history, of families and of words, from the humanity of close observation of ‘Incendiary’ and ‘Synaesthesia’, to the chilling accuracy of ‘Exodus’ and ‘Market’, and the final poet’s-poem of ‘Chora’:

“The air greens into mistletoe. Something
moves in my head. I open the poem and enter it.
It shapes itself and imprints its flux like the arc
of a spark fading through.  The weight of a rhythm
cuts itself out of the place where forms form themselves.”

Dr. Butt is a British poet.

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…


Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…


The Oscars - Academy Awards officially - were once huge cultural events - in 1975, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaineandBob Hope co-hosted, for example - and Best Picture noms included The Conversation and Chinatown. Godfather Part 2 won. Last two years, movies titled Birdman and Spotlight won, and the hosts and those films are retrospectively minor, trifling. This year, some important, resonant films are up for consideration - including Hidden Figures and Moonlight, two favourites of this blog. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington will hopefully win for their sterling performances in Fences. However, La La Land - the most superficial and empty Best Picture contender since Gigi in 1959 (which beat Vertigo) - could smite all comers, and render this year's awards historically trivial, even idiotic.

The Oscars often opt for safe, optimistic films, or safe, pessimistic films, that are usually about white men (less often, white women) finding their path to doing the right thin…