Jamie McKendrick’s enthralling new pamphlet merges visual art and language in an osmosis that allows interference but, at the same time, keeps the two elements at ‘an unsocial distance’, as the author claims in the foreword. His hope ‘is that image and poem can speak to each other without losing their autonomy’. The two media of communication are in conversation with each other, alluding to different perspectives and multiple interpretations. This gives space to multi-layered meanings and to a sense of ambiguity which seems embedded in the human condition.
McKendrick has published seven poetry collections and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 1997 for Marble Fly and the Hawthorne Prize in 2012 for Out There. He is also an editor, reviewer and translator. He has translated Il romanzo di Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani and Valerio Magrelli’s poems (The Embrace, Faber and Faber, 2009), the latter translation winning the Oxford-Weidenfeld and the John Florio prizes, and Antonella Anedda’s poems (Archipelago, Bloodaxe, 2014). His essays on poetry, art and translations are collected in The Foreign Connection (Legenda, 2020).
His thoughts and strategies for translation reflect in part his poetical practice. It alternates between free and loose interpretation which expresses ‘a feeling’ of the original text and a discipline that is connected to the literary tradition but reshapes or challenges it in a personal yet universal way. His translations take liberties and make deviations without betraying the core of the text. Therefore, adherence to the original does not exclude invention in a mobility that grants the possibility of further explorations in a different context.
In the poems of The Years there is a sense of decay that alternates with an unquenched yearning for hope in a possible future renewal or reconstruction that nevertheless struggles to surface:
I know the feeling. I feel the knowledge
of that heron. The world is a con.
My quiff quivers. My shoulders hunch. My beak
is sharp as a tack, as a hatchet’s edge
but nothing swims or glints or gazes back
beneath the surface of the pond I scan. (‘Nothing Doing’)
It is a stagnant world that has no answers to the poet’s existential questioning. This quotidian situation is symbolised in the River Mersey, which flows through Liverpool, his birth town, in its ‘immemorial miseries’ and ‘shadow layered on shadow’. In this bleak vision some structures are miraculously intact: a viaduct in the bombed city, an inscription on a tombstone ‘obscured//by bramble and weeds’. The overgrown vegetation metaphorically takes advantage of the neglect and abandonment that is particularly present during the pandemic. Language, poetic language that is connected with the literary tradition, and the inscriptions pencilled in the last picture, ‘L’amore che move il sole e l’altre stelle’ (the last line of Dante’s Paradiso, the last Cantica of the Divine Comedy), seem to be the barriers that humanity erects against failure and destruction. It is a complex construction that in Dante’s work is eventually resolved in God’s dazzling and embracing light that smooths all contradictions in a flooding love. In McKendrick’s poem, Dante’s words cannot be read on the headstone, which is significantly obscured by ‘an ugly shrub’.
The frequent literary references throughout the poems not only allude to Dante’s work but also to that of Elizabeth Bishop, Pliny the Elder, Ibn Zamrak, and André Kartész’s photography as well as to Petrarch and Thomas Hardy in the epigraph. Thomas Hardy is also a point of reference in the dialogue between images and words that McKendrick found in Hardy’s Wessex Poems. McKendrick’s pictures are in ink and watercolour on paper with the occasional use of crayon and collage. They were created before or after each poem featured in the pamphlet and, as the author claims, the two media should ideally be ‘indistinguishable’ or ‘as though [the pictures] were made by an entirely different person’. The pictures are crowded with images at times and rather unsettling; at other times they are well defined, especially the ones featuring well-proportioned buildings, but most of them are blurred in a graffiato technique of sorts. The marks are layered one on top of the other as if the artist is trying to make sense of the human condition through memories of past years but above all through a relentless observation and recording of the present that is mapped in pictures and words. Our world looks like a labyrinth where ‘obstacles proliferate’.
Nevertheless, hope emerges from the futility of the contingent in the dialogue with a possible other person, a reader or another artist. In this conversation, McKendrick remarks ‘that only you/could understand the images’ which allow ‘the scattered city rising from its ruins’ (‘Viaduct’, Homage to André Kartész). There is a requirement, therefore, for a possible renewal and consequent recovery; it is a desire to gain understanding through keen observation and exploration that nevertheless cannot avoid pitfalls. Thus, despair and espoir mix in a ‘cheerful, desperate vista’ of two peaks the poet cannot distinguish. This reveals again the open and multi-layered vision delineated in McKendrick’s thought-provoking lines.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 11th May 2021