D A Prince finds that Christine McNeill’s poetry demands – and repays – the reader’s full attention

 

mcneillFirst and Last Music
Christine McNeill
Shoestring Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-907356-93-3
62 pp. £9

 

All we are given by way of biography and background to Christine McNeill comes from the back-cover reviews of previous collections:  The Scent Gallery, The Outsider, Kissing the Night. No publishers, no dates. Is this a conscious decision, I wonder; are we to deduce that although First and Last Music is a collection from an established poet it stands entirely alone and without introduction?  Perhaps the title is sufficient?  And do we, as readers, rely a little too much on dates and geography that lead us to make assumptions about the poet and the poems even before we have opened the book?

However, I found I was more open to McNeill’s choice and grouping of poems once I had some brief background details.  English is not her mother tongue. She was born and brought up in Vienna and learned English from the age of seventeen after moving to London . Bloodaxe published her first collection, Kissing the Night, in 1993; subsequent collections – The Outsider  (2005) and The Scent Gallery (2011) – are published by Shoestring Press. Taken together these three titles show her preoccupation with her parents’ generation and the war, exile, and displacement. There is a sense that she is watchful and solitary despite her attachment to her family. She has a consistent voice, clear and without ornament, which suits what is, at times, a poetry of objective reportage. Her uncluttered poems are not weighed down with adjectives.

All this gives context to the ‘First Music’ explored in the majority of the poems in her latest collection. Vienna is the connection between the composers who come together here, starting with Walther von der Vogelweide (the twelfth/thirteenth century Middle High German lyric poet) who joined the Babenberg court at Vienna, and continuing to, among others, Fux, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Johann & Richard Strauss and Lizst. Some only passed through, but most had a longer relationship with the city and many lived nowhere else.  They were students and teachers, performers, lovers; above all, part of a complex musical network.  In general McNeill chooses to avoid writing about the major works but chooses to examine some intimate detail of private life – Mozart’s pet starling, for example, or how Brahms would spend his evenings in The Red Hedgehog. Among the poems on composers it is Mahler who inspires the longest and, for me, the most moving poems:  two sequences around the death of Mahler’s first daughter who died aged five. ‘Kindertotenleider’ ends with ‘Moving on’, the quiet dismantling of a child’s room in the tired numbness of grief –

The bunk bed was taken apart.
Next, the desk. One drawer handle
turned up, as if a secret inside
were having a laugh.

That drawer handle, that small detail, the precision and detachment of the writing: these are what make McNeill’s poems piercing in their emotional charge. While the poems that make up three-quarters of the collection are, in general, not directly personal in approach and are discrete, they can be read as background to the personal poems at the end – the ‘last music’, perhaps.  It is as though individual survival and the ability to come through can only exist because of what we know of others, the connections we make – like the network of composers and musicians across Vienna. It’s as though we need the life outside in order to deal with what affects us most.  So the whole collection leads up to ‘Coma’, the final poem, which begins –

I saw you sink on to the paving stones
by the gate. It was there
our journey out of time began.
You fell into something so deep,
as if night itself
had taken you.

Through the spare simplicity of her language McNeill focuses on the figure who is alive but beyond reach, leaving the poet in the continuing world of time and seasons.

The garden is mourning you.
I chopped down the Michaelmas daisies.
September – six months
in which your countenance hasn’t changed.

[…]

The roses you smelled;
closing your eyes, longing for peace.
That peace has taken you like lightening.
And now you sleep, neither in this world, nor the next.

Language and the careful placing of each word in the sequence of four poems records the ‘vast stillness’. I recall Virginia Woolf’s line – “Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded.” It captures what is driving this poem, the need to commemorate this stretch of time that extends beyond ordinary time, even while the ordinary continues to happen around it. It is the culmination of what the earlier poems are working towards, a way of placing one’s own life in a wider frame.

Poems that are pared back to their essentials are more demanding of the reader than those that fill in every corner, and McNeill’s poems make demands that only emerge if the reader pays full attention. She is worth seeking out  – not just for this collection but also for her earlier volumes; she can balance language with precision to reach what is beyond language.