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Guest Review: Phillips on McDevitt

Tom Phillips reviews
by Niall McDevitt


A book constructed from heterogeneous surfaces, Niall McDevitt’s b/w initially seems fascinating, bewildering, intoxicating and slightly rebarbative. From one page to another, it veers from haiku-esque observations to elaborate parable to pub anecdote to thumping rant. On the one hand, there’s the formality of the by-the-book sestina ‘Wittgenstein in Ireland’ and the subtle, shifting, half-rhyming triplets of ‘The Icon’; on the other, there are prose-y ‘routines’ like ‘Ode to the Dole’ (which comes complete with William S Burroughs-echoing references to Hassan-i-Sabbah, hashish and assassins), the breath-stretching long lines of ‘Babel’ or the lurid imagery of ‘The Drum’. Somewhere between are poems which encounter the natural world through Hughes-like metaphors (most notably ‘The Nettles’, their ‘faces like scabbards/to lunge and to slit’), a jazz-rhythmed, tenuously rhyming sonnet (‘Parolles’), excursions into New York School-style ‘field’ poetry and, for good measure, several pieces in Pidgin English.

Openness and opacity sit cheek by jowl, with language dancing across the registers from fuck-you street demotic to pastiche Shakespearean and a dense web of allusions enmeshing everything from Elizabethan poor laws and heraldry to Weatherspoons and Morrissey via Rimbaud, the Apocrypha, Ancient Egypt and George Orwell. Opening the collection at random or, as McDevitt himself has it in a footnote, ‘bibliomantically’, a typical pair of pages yields up the psychedelia-tinged poetics of ‘Hyacinths’ with its ‘pink light of the pink lanterns/pink dreamachines of winter’ facing – and facing up to – the argumentative neo-Marxist discourse of ‘The Proletarianization of the Bourgeoisie’ in which ‘Regularly, in the newspeak of the class-ridden state,/we’re informed of an all-encompassing sociological theory’.

On the face of it, there’s a temptation to take such diversity as evidence that McDevitt has yet to ‘find his voice’ (whatever that means, precisely) or that he is some kind of literary flâneur, strolling through poetry’s imaginary Ikea warehouse, idly plucking flat-pack forms and styles from the shelf.

This, though, would be to approach b/w on the wrong terms. While the back-cover blurb does the book few favours by describing it, rather portentously, as ‘a 100 page temple’ and by claiming that ‘the poems are always about more than they are about’ (a quality of any half-decent poem, I’d have thought), it does at least point towards the kind of currently unfashionable tradition in which McDevitt is writing in which imagination assumes a neo-religious quality and whose lineage threads back from Ginsberg to Whitman, Baudelaire and Blake. Hogarth could provide another, less expected triangulation point (substitute the drug of choice in McDevitt’s ‘Two Poems’ and the crack-whores therein could well find their equivalents amongst the denizens of Gin Lane), as would Brueghel, Hieronymus Bosch and, from more recent times, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits and the early films of Jim Jarmusch. The opening of the well-turned and nightmarish ‘The Netherworld Hotel’, in fact, seems to channel the atmosphere of Jarmusch’s ‘Mystery Train’ (the hallucinatory monologues of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in particular) and Waits’s motel nighthawks in its depiction of addled, transient London life:

Kamil, the vampiric night-porter, is connecting the switchboard calls.
Is it merely the night work which makes him so pale?
Many have speculated on his vices and failed to pinpoint them.

In ‘Horseshoes’, meanwhile, image piles up on image of unstoppably fungoid urban vibrancy, where, with a carrion fecundity:

 Margravine Gardens
is red in sun. The dead’s dusk
 is sweet as living’s.

Above all, perhaps, this is poetry as a form of theatre: emotion projected through scenes and situations whose verisimilitude – though well-documented through bricks serving as ashtrays and traffic jams at Hammersmith road junctions – is continually shading into an otherworldly ‘psychosphere’ haunted by the spirits of Shakespeare, Dickens and, in particular, Blake. Unsurprisingly, McDevitt is also an actor and, even more significantly, a one-time collaborator with the late Ken Campbell (the similarly fecund, improvisatory – and Pidgin-fancying – performer, raconteur and professional Londoner to whom this book is dedicated), and there’s something of Campbell’s sprawling, all-embracing, democratic spirit about the best of the poems here: unapologetically, they portray a smutted, smoky city populated by piratical ghosts, a metropolitan capital of esoteric riches where the fifteenth century obtrudes into ‘a technocratic city-state’ and sketched-in forgotten characters shadow bar-room penumbras, like extras in Derek Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’.

At times, the avant garde tropes can seem a little indulgent or overly self-conscious, as if McDevitt is cramming in as many references and sounding as many echoes as possible. Poems like ‘Of Christ and Sophia (their emanations)’ and ‘The Drum’, for example, try a little too hard to spark a frisson of ‘shock’ by yoking together religion and sex, Satan and dildos, in a sort of pseudo-mystic vision much like similar scenes from ‘Naked Lunch’, yet without achieving the exuberant absurdity of Burroughs:

Christ awakens, pale member in hand, pisses an epiphany
flushes the banes

Christ limns his films, his pearls of come
to be this font

Some of McDevitt’s more openly engaged, outspoken poems too – ‘Babel’, ‘To the Intellectual Proprietors’ – can suffer from a verbosity which blurs rather than sharpens their message, and a heavy-handedness which blunts their satirical humour. (One can only hope, for instance, that the pedantic footnote to ‘…Proprietors’ about ‘glandes’ being the plural of ‘glans’ is supposed to be a self-reflexive joke – but that’s not entirely clear in a poem otherwise expressing a spluttering rage at the ‘culture industry’.)

These provisos aside, however, this frequently surprising collection shows the Irish-born writer and, indeed, psychogeographer to have both an unusually ambitious reach of imagination and a fine linguistic wit which, when it doesn’t spiral out of control, can produce nicely underplayed lines like ‘on Ascension Day things really began to take off’ as a counterbalance to some of his more cumbersome jokes about Orwell's Tory anarchist moustache or whatever. At some point along the production line, a bit of editorial grit might have helped, but when McDevitt’s energy, intelligence and verbal dexterity coalesce, the results can be exhilarating. In the tightly written, Yeats- and Plato-referencing ‘The One Rule is never to Fall in Love’, he’s at his best:

In the circus of deception the audience faces the tent
applauding the shadows of the acts within the ring
where the lion-tamer is – in fact – a taxidermist
who’ll never admit that the lions he tames are stuffed.
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