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.