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.