Allison McVety’s latest collection requires – but also rewards – the reader’s careful attention.

 

 lighthouseswhite house

Lighthouses
Allison McVety
smith|doorstop
ISBN 978-1-906613-89-1
pp 72  £9.95

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Allison McVety’s new collection Lighthouses gets off to a splendid start. In the opening poem ‘White House’, based on a painting by Alfred Wallis, the words tumble and swirl like seagulls – seagulls the colour of loss  and their shrieks // are the colour of loss.  Even the static objects in the painting are characterised in a similar insistent obsessive fashion:

              Chimneys are the colour
of sea or the colour of sand.  Their grates unlit

their stacks mute. They don’t shriek of anything.
If they shrieked they’d shriek a tissue of loss.

All this seething energy is moderated in the second poem: a neat link in the final line of ‘White House’ introduces ‘To the Lighthouse’, McVety’s 2011 National Poetry Competition winner.  Here the tone becomes personal and mildly confessional.  This is a poem about (self-) discovery.  It begins with a student who has failed to study her Virginia Woolf examination text and only later remedies the omission.

The year I gave the book another go
[the year my mother died] I learned
everything big happens in parenthesis

Those parentheses re-appear, powerfully and unexpectedly, in the poem’s final couplet and also figure in a later poem ‘Drowning’.  Indeed there is much in these first two poems that informs the rest of the book.  Not only does McVety explore more Virginia Woolf connections and revisit lighthouses; she is also concerned with ordinary houses (particularly, I think, their roofs) and what goes on inside (or beneath) them.   Love has the ability to lift / bricks and mortar she observes in ‘Light House’.  But disappointment, on the other hand, involves

… the house setting its full weight
back on our shoulders …
with a sullen rain anchoring the roof.

In ‘Semi-detached’ we are invited to commiserate with those who live alone in a con-joined house and are forced to overhear through a dermis of breeze block all that goes on next door – the thick pulse of arguments / the guffaw beyond a punch line.

And there is also that word ‘loss’ which echoes through ‘White House’.  This poem hints at, but does not explain, a rift between Alfred Wallis and his brother; and many other poems in this collection touch on private misfortune that is only revealed obliquely.  Often this obliqueness enables us to appreciate a familiar grief all the more keenly for coming at it from an unusual direction – for instance when we understand that the hi-fi playing Sibelius so high it distorts the angles of the day is a grieving widower’s way of drowning out his sorrow.  Indeed the music could even be his attempt to awaken the dead.  McVety is prepared to enter such realms of fantasy, and in ‘The Light Fantastic’ she seems to collude with a fiction that a dead spouse has in fact “merely” run off with someone else, the bereaved partner preferring her alive again, / tripping the light fantastic in the Tower Ballroom.  In a lighter-hearted fantasy, ’Levenshulme Semi’, McVety describes how

Last night my ghost walked in, done up
to the nines and hungry, could scoff a horse
between two bread vans

This little conceit seems to have no back-story.  But elsewhere the reader gets a sense of both being told and not yet not quite told the extent or nature of a buried sorrow.  In ‘Eighteenth’ I did not easily get the link between men with cars: Vivas, Cortinas, Jags and the hints the poet’s father’s war service learning at eighteen what a man can do // close quarter, with hands, wire, blade.    I also felt I was missing a hidden centre in the poem ‘My Mother as the Lovell Telescope’ even as I relished its haunting final line listen to the pain of everything speaking at once.

The poems in Lighthouses are presented ‘straight through’ rather than being divided into sub-titled sections.  Nevertheless there are some fairly self-contained sequences.  One of these is a group of nine sonnets sketching scenes from a marriage and another consists of ten poems, each one based on a historical event in each year of the decade 1910-1919.

The mysterious and complex marriage sequence manages to be revelatory, questioning and coded all at once.  Its narrative arc runs from ‘Honeymoons’, set in Dubai where Zebra can’t thrive / in this unfettered sun.  Can we?  passes through  hints of loss – as when without our knowing it, / another child slips port , sets course away from us – and speaks of a puzzling time spent in the slack space of files where you’ve found women: in the buffers and stacks / the numbers don’t add up.  And then, in ‘Tightropes’

We go up the full fifteen years to the roof
      of our marriage, step out, cross the shaft of air.
              Our feet trust the slack, familiar as the lies we’ve told.

Hints of risk and precariousness persist in the rest of the sequence; and, in the end, the question in the last line of ‘Tightrope’ still seems to remain open: Are we ending or beginning?  who cares?  who knows?

Poems in the 1910-1919 sequence are wonderfully varied and vivid, taking their inspiration from such unrelated events as a girl falling from a rooftop trying to spot Halley’s Comet in 1910 through a Morganatic royal marriage in 1913 to a Cornish mining accident in 1919.  A fine poem about the painter L.S. Lowry recaptures something of the staccato urgency of the opening poem about that other primitive artist Alfred Wallis.

McVety’s trick of being simultaneously public and private about the personal lives of her characters means that some of the poems feel quite dense and demand careful re-reading.  Such re-reading is not burdensome however because the poems contain many instantly accessible and enjoyable observations.  Quite often these capture the taken-for-granted technological trappings of everyday life: As the train leaves, the LED wipes out its past/ adjusts the future.  More mechanical gadgets occur too: mid cut, your rotor mower / takes 40-winks …/ next to your enamel mug; and elsewhere the earth sobs at the passing of another train.

Compared with her fine and well-received earlier collections The Night Trotsky Came to Stay and Miming Happiness, this new one reveals slower and deeper currents in McVety’s poetry.   ‘White Jeans’ and ’Saturdays’ are examples of the engaging and accomplished poems that I might have expected to find in previous books; but in Lighthouses McVety seems to be mining new seams of inspiration and technique.  Besides the poems already mentioned, particular examples include:  ‘Last Known Good’, a startling use of computing language to describe bereavement ; ‘Afterwards’, which – like ‘Eighteenth’ – delicately handles a war-veteran’s peace-time recollections; and ‘Dog’, a wonderfully textured version of  the homecoming of Odysseus.  ‘Dog’ also manages to sneak in a reference to the book’s lighthouse theme

All forget.  All but dog and wife,
with their raw hearts held aloft
as lanterns, forget.

There are poems here which will not easily be forgotten.

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                                                                                           Michael Bartholomew-Biggs