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Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

Happenstance by Duncan MacKay (Muscaliet Press)

In writing about Eleanor Perry’s ‘Pataquerical Imagination’ in issue 70 of Tears in the Fence last autumn Duncan MacKay suggested that close reading and close listening ‘function in tandem’ and that they are indeed the ‘two complementary poles of our experiential poetic whole’. That wholeness of response rings out of the pages of Muscaliet Press’s new selection of MacKay’s poems, Happenstance, and as we read the poem ‘HER WORDS HIS’ we recognise a quality of poetic response to ‘displacements of faulty memory’ where ‘in transposition we refigure the word’. In terms of that refiguring it is interesting to note how MacKay’s interest in the poetics of J.H. Prynne had led him to quote from an interview given in 2011 in which the Cambridge poet spoke of the difficulties of translating his own work at the time of the publication of a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his selected poems. MacKay’s quotation comes from his article on Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats which appeared in Tears 65. Prynne had suggested that for the English Poetry Studies Institute in Guangzhou there might be some focus upon how to translate the words of the poems, ‘their activity of language, rather than to resolve what might seem to be the question of meaning and then to render the meaning of the resulting interpretation’. MacKay’s interest in Prynne’s poetry might also be detected in his own earlier collection of poems, Briefly Speaking (Blurb, March 2015) where in ‘A Poetry of Logical Ideas’

‘All now seemed
possible, making
connections, rather than
a stop
& start, but by
putting a twist
in &
letting go.’

In Happenstance there is a careful precision of language and it comes as no surprise that one poem should bear an epigraph from Leo Tolstoy: ‘It’s in the linkages’. ‘HER WORDS HIS’ is the poem preceding this reference and the echoes and melodies in it are worth pausing for:

‘Few we are & fall from each other’

The hint of loss in that word ‘fall’ is partly to do with the source of the phrase in Thomas Nashe’s ‘Litany in Time of Plague’ where ‘Brightness falls from the air’ but is also heard in the shift of vowels from ‘few’ to ‘fall’: a sound which precedes a hint of the loss of social being with the inclusion of the last three words. That opening line is followed by an indented phrase the appearance of which on the page defines its own visible presence:

‘dust on the shelf as dust’

Dust is not only a word associated with the permanence of loss as in a funeral service but remains as a reminder of what is produced in stillness and this quiet emphasis is taken up in the third line

‘among the self-effacing typed scraps photos black & white’

And this world of visual re-creation, like tears shed by Leontes at a tomb’s side, echoes again that late play by Shakespeare in which ‘who that was lost is now found’. MacKay’s interest in A Winter’s Tale is here an echo of the poem of that title which appeared towards the close of the earlier volume of poems where

‘As time drew on as I do
of each the light of stars
as rain of snow, those moments
just but always turning as of words’ [.]

Happenstance is a beautifully produced volume which I urge readers to buy and it is worth bearing in mind the words used by Robert Hampson on the inside cover:

‘A sustained exploration of writing as an enactment of cognition; perception through the materiality of language.’

The phrase used here anticipates MacKay’s forthcoming book on George Oppen’s poetry which will appear from Liverpool University Press. Oppen like Prynne is a figure in the shadowed background of Happenstance and ‘George & Mary answered for one another’ finishing sentences ‘the other had begun’ before occasionally speaking ‘the same words in unison’.

Ian Brinton 15th July 2020

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