Skip to main content

Guest Review: Monios on McVety

Jason Monios reviews
Miming Happiness
by Allison McVety

Allison McVety’s second collection arrives with a certain level of expectation due to the success of its Forward-nominated predecessor, The Night Trotsky Came to Stay (2007), and the new book returns us to some familiar subjects. There are poems on childhood, working class life in post-war northern England, old houses, damaged relationships and partial lives. All are depicted without sentimentality or mawkishness but with cold appraisal and dignified precision. A wealth of detail imbues her vignettes, in poems such as “On the East Lancs Road”:

                                    . . . There, on the East Lancs,
men listened to twin cylinders: the rapid-fire
rattle of pistons banging down the exhaust.

But they are more than simply descriptive snapshots. Phrases such as “the scars/ ran the length of their lives” (“What the Women Say”), or “to hear/ the slap of our own names in the foot’s/ repeat” (“Typewriter”) demonstrate her ability to use rhythm to shade meaning, as do the following lines from “In the Weeks after Rationing”:

Mirrors watched the women, time hung
heavy at their wrists. Boredom stuffed
pockets like worn down stones.

or these, from “Making a Show”:

Gauze over new-born breasts, a membrane
of cotton that covered the render, that covered
the clench of ribs that covered my heart.

The collection is divided into three sections (unnecessarily, I thought), and while the overall tone is perhaps a little lighter than her first book, McVety still has much to say about the development of society through the post-war years up to the present, producing poised, clear-eyed portraits of the constrictions of family, relationships and society and in particular the limitations on the lives of women.

Readers of the first volume will be familiar with the author’s observational skills, and in Miming Happiness she continues her elevation of the quotidian to the evocative, from ration books and typewriters to buttons and school exercise books. Her imagination also creates interesting thought experiments, as in “Offspring”: “all the children I didn’t think to bear/ will come to find me . . . Hundreds of them, each a calendar-cross/  apart.” Elsewhere, she muses on night shift workers living a parallel life to the rest of the world:

elliptic constellations in revolving skies,
the earthly pull of best-befores and sell-bys.
(“Night Shifts”)

The use of such imaginative devices is a hallmark of her style, and in my favourite poems (“Whit Walks”, “Pathology”, “Offspring”, “Night Shifts”, “Irwell” and “After Darwin”) the tight form and precise metaphors unite an image and an idea through her imaginative construct.

McVety writes in a contemporary style, conversational and concise. Yet her accessible free verse is arranged in a loosely formal manner, frequently employing regular stanzas that keep the material neat and balance the often intensely emotional core. Her particular strength is her ability to fuse observation with imagination, to merge the specific with the abstract. However her finely-phrased observations are not forced to bear the weight of reflections on broader issues; rather the images have been carefully selected such that the poem’s meaning emanates naturally from the material.

McVety also reveals a fine eye for the urban environment, animating structures with her descriptions. Buildings “wear their reds and yellows as a woman wears/ lipstick to bring in the milk.” (“In a Northern Town”) A train driver “gets the backsides of houses/ flashed at him like drawerless drunken women” (“The Train Driver’s View”), while “the underbellies of bridges/ are upturned hulls pocketed with breath” (“Irwell”). She compares human relationships to coastal erosion (“Like Coastal Houses”) and an autopsy to a house inspection (“Pathology”).

Many poems begin with a few interesting observations, develop into a wider reflection upon a subject or its potential meaning, then conclude with an arresting image or a deftly woven connection to a larger significance. For example, the ending of “Ordnances”, a poem about excavating battle sites in Ypres:

. . . We’re six feet down,
shovelling war; blisters, moans about conditions
are not aired here among yet more boots,
adding to the growing piles of lefts and rights,
leather compacted, rotten with years, unknowable.
And some of them still occupied, like shells.

With writing of this quality, I would like to see the author move beyond these two or three stanza poems to the occasional longer piece of say two to three pages. I have no doubt that she could push her emotional queries into longer work, but this is a minor quibble that should not detract from the praise for a judicious poet who knows how much to cut from early drafts and when to decide that a poem is finished. McVety has shown in her two volumes to date that she is just such a writer.

Jason Monios left his native Australia in 2001 after completing a PhD on the structural concept of the vortex in the poetry of Ezra Pound. He then travelled and worked throughout the UK, settling in Edinburgh in 2004. His poetry has appeared in Acumen, nthposition, Poetry Scotland, New Writing Scotland, Umbrella and The Guardian.
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…