Saturday, June 20, 2009

Moved by Cabbage

The Opposite of Cabbage
Rob Mackenzie
Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2009

The biggest enemy of the poet is patience: having the patience to sit tight and wait for your voice to develop, wait for your style and craft to be fully absorbed inside you. Having the patience to send your work out into the world and wait for acceptance or, more usually rejection. Having the patience (and the wit) to know when your first collection is ready to go out there, having been polished to within an inch of its life, to face the slings and arrows of your poetry peers.

There are no such quibbles against The Opposite of Cabbage, by Rob Mackenzie. This collection is as finely kneaded as a well-risen loaf. The poems in it lean nicely against each other, setting a steady andante through the collection with the occasional two-step, just to keep us extra-vigilant. Reading it closely, as I have done over the last few days, with a pencil, reveals just how well the poems stack up.

Mackenzie does urban modernity in all its guises: not as the flâneur, the well-heeled insouciant gad-about town, but as a deeply concerned citizen from and of the world. Popular culture is absorbed and synthesised fully, coming out of the end of his pen in unexpected ways, such as in ‘Benediction.’ This poem conflates the old and the new by taking the age old procession of the Madonna and smothering it with our materialistic obsessions: the 'Gucci bikini, geologic surgery, and bottle-blonde wig'. The result is a heady mix, but not without its own comment on subjectivity: ‘Her eyelids shut, / open, and lava-hot tears steam towards the crowd.’ This is what happens when mass culture meets moving statues.

My favourite moments in The Opposite of Cabbage occur when Mackenzie manages to climb right inside what I can only think of as Cubism in poetry. This is when you get the impression that the moment you are reading - in the poem - is actually two or three viewpoints concurrently captured. ‘In the Last Few Seconds,’ Mackenzie’s commended poem from the National Poetry Competition 2005, is one example of this metaphysical imagining of gathered moments. There is the ‘smudge of tail-lights’, and the ‘spin round corners’, as a soul seems to let go and become apart from the wreckage scene that is about to unfold. The reality of a crash isn’t a ‘flashback, a potted bio’, as we’ve been led to believe. Instead it’s when ‘stars blister across the sunroof. / Cracks appear.’ Fractured reality reveals much more to us, especially when under the compression of form.

Another of these strange meldings of moments happens in ‘Shopping List’. Ostensibly a list of things to buy, it becomes a close-woven flit between these material objects and a fantasy world, as well as the real world. We are forced to decipher the signs as we read and work out the true position of the poem’s subject. And that is never fully revealed either. In scalpelling as close as Mackenzie does with language, we are left to make our own minds up, rather than corralled into the value judgments of the poet.

But to analyse this collection that closely is to deny the humour that glitters darkly just below the slick of this collection, binding it together. In poems such as ‘Scottish Sonnet Ending in American,’ Mackenzie amply demonstrates that you can be ‘one foot short of a rhythmic swing,’ and still kick a bit of life into one of the oldest forms, whilst cocking a slight snook at the establishment.

And there is the not-too-small matter of deeply felt compassion, especially in a poem like ‘White Noise,’ that navigates a taut thread between the materialistic outside world of the ‘FTSE trampolining the pound’ and the individual tragedy of ‘Frank’s baby’s breath […]/ like the cherry blossom […] raised briefly with every // loitering hope and passing bus.’ The lynch pin of this poem comes towards the end, in the line, ‘disappointment // and music are made possible only by love' - a line that I have to say breaks my heart. It does it in a sort of Tom Waits/Frank's Wild Years way, and that's probably as close as I dare go with analogies for now.

It’s because each of us cares about things such as these individual disasters, ultimately, that poets can make art such as there is in this collection. Patience allows poets like Mackenzie that full realisation on the page in texture of sound and language that in turn, can evoke the truth of compassion in all of us. For the full experience, I can only suggest that you try out Rob Mackenzie's debut collection, The Opposite of Cabbage, for yourself.


Liz said...

Enjoyed the review, Barbara, you are good at this... : )

Dick said...

This review does exactly what a good review should: it provides a crystal-clear account of perceived intention and achievement and has one heading for Amazon.

If ever I climb into print, Barbara, I shall gamble a copy your way!

Colin Will said...

An excellent review Barbara. I wish all reviewers were as careful and thoughtful as you are.

Sheila said...

Thanks for the review. I looked up Mr. Mackenzie's work after I read it. White Noise was especially impressive - the way the music provides a counterpoint to Frank's consciousness and the struggles of the child - the trumpet croaking flat minims as Frank says he tried everything. I also particularly liked "Happiness" - that feeling you had before the kettle boiled - The first half captures so perfectly the way a certain satisfaction with life catches you at odd moments, triggered by the unlikliest things.