John Forth observes that Ian McEwen makes poetry out of some unlikely material.

Intermittent-Beings-upload-194x300Intermittent Beings
Ian McEwen
Cinnamon Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-907090-89-9
76pp  £7.99

I probably shouldn’t own up to this, but for me any book calling its final page of end-notes ‘Rip Offs and Excuses’ is already half way there, and if the poems go on to reveal a similar disregard for nicer conventions I won’t be disappointed. These do more, behaving like sprung traps: deceptive and set for a purpose, and there’s also another current – one of motif, specific words or images brought back later for another good shaking. Here’s half an ode to clouds:

This dizzy marshmallow
.           expansion,
stacked confection
          so huge it feels like nothing,
in the middle, a few acid
.           pricks, too thin to
be sensation.

You begin by wincing at the marshmallow, but there’s more to it. The poem ends the first section and looks like a border-crossing into the mix of science and abstraction to be found throughout. ‘T’ai-chi in Buena Vista Park’ summarises delight, presenting its performers as they stroke invisible objects / like desire or fear / or beauty / folded in slow motion… and ‘First Days on the Houseboat’ just about delivers real rain: Is that the noise the universe makes? O, and if you were expecting well-behaved closure to the cloud-poem, this is the second half of ‘Cloud-ode-prayer’, which I take to be a throw-away manifesto as well as a neat take on the subject:

O aerial vegetables
.             hover above us:
do not be forever
.             wringing your hands
boiling your heads
.            cracking your knuckles
O clouds.

The opening poem ‘The Passenger’ unpacks the cliché about never stepping twice in the same river by giving an edgy view of a city as the plane comes in to land – but it’s not about the plane or the city, so much as about not stepping in the river even once. It’s a hymn to sameness without being an acceptance. Its imagery and concerns make a brief re-entry later in ‘Handsfree’ where some nights the city has no more to say and planes accept the sky’s been ground / flat enough for now. Confident, playful and largely unseen since the Martian games of thirty-odd years ago, the poems claim new territory. Some of those brief late-seventies’ visitors were taken to task straight away for being light on feeling, but that’s not about to happen to McEwen. Apart from the aerial displays there are poems strongly-earthed, such as a moving elegy to a friend remembered from running, walking and boating days: Lime pickle. / That’s the clearest thing / I owe you for, the jingle / of The Gate of India / and how not to trifle // with those chicken vindaloos (‘Minimum credula postero’). The elegist struggles not only with the memory but also with the hard work of doing it any kind of justice. For all this, I do wonder if all of the experiments come off. The title-poem of the second section ‘Father Lost Lost’ is an assault on language and the senses, its opening section standing square with the Dad who Hauls, become mere hauling. Cut adrift with a lonely figure far out on the ice and bent forward at the Wind insensible we become a part of the struggle and with the ‘Constant Present’ in which he lives. The capitals are McEwen’s and their frequent sudden appearance is often bewildering. This long, deeply sad prose-poem which so impressed the Forward judges is precocious and full of blow-backs and twists, designed to wrong-foot us with what isn’t said, but it maybe risks being remembered at least as much for its puzzles as for its undoubted effect.

In fact learning how not to trifle paradoxically involves the serious business of truth-telling. It almost escapes our notice that even the book’s title Intermittent Beings has complex possibilities, some of which might be small lives under the biotechnologist’s close scrutiny, as in ‘A true account of talking to my father as a ladybird’ – somewhat more than a glance in the direction of Frank O’Hara’s Talking to the sun at Fire Island and so listed as one of the ‘rip offs’ – it’s one of the more outlandish poems in the collection. Unsurprisingly, the creature is vivid: … he split his little pill, /uncreased the sails like varnish peel /and puttered up… but we also have the dialogue as a distancing tool for advice which otherwise risks being slight: make your days so they taste of each leaf / – not everyone knows how to look down. It’s quite shameless and also funny, and if it sends us to check on the original, who’s complaining?

Our radar should buzz and whirr when a philosopher calls his final section ‘The clockwork clockwork world’, a place where ‘Our lady of the pylons’ is implored to hum for us / or hum and where we can come to rest among ‘Classical models’, somewhere where we can stop / and live in what will not collapse. We’ve seen him searching for the soul in piles of British Medical Journal back numbers with pictures of brain-mapping: the origami of the head /all flattened out /to this and garish (‘Still life with BMJ’) where the well-worn origami just about survives intact. Some real grebes are likened to the mechanical ‘ Bowes Swan’ as disjoint performers who check/return / re-try it through. They’d send us whirling back to the T’ai-Chi artists in part one if they were just a little less mechanical. In all I was struck by the genuinely modest hard-working process of it all: the past, the present and making some unlikely material be art.

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John Forth was born in Bethnal Green and recently retired from teaching English after thirty-odd years. He has published four poetry collections (Malcontents in 1994, A Ladder & Some Glasses in 1998 and The Demon’s Phenomenal Filmshow in 2013 when a collection of early work, Spirits of Another Sort, also appeared). A New & Selected is due next year from Rockingham. He has reviewed new poetry for London Magazine and his poems have appeared in a number of journals.