Josh Ekroy reflects on poetic risk-taking and difficulty in relation to Chris McCabe’s new collection. speculatrix_cover_smSpeculatrix
Chris McCabe
Penned in the Margins
ISBN 978-1-908058-25-6
80 pp   £9.99

The publisher’s blurb for Speculatrix describes it as McCabe’s most daring work to date and that is true. The recently late and justly lamented John Hartley Williams was suspicious of risk. “He hasn’t flown to the moon has he?” he would ask if told of some poet’s bravery. McCabe has flown to Jacobean London trailing the devices and desires of the London de nos jours. The other risk he has taken it seems to me is in the prefacing of his poems. We’re presented first of all with ‘Black Lodge Recorder’ – after David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But what follows is not only a description of that but also a black box. Which is of course orange. “Almost anything can be described as a black box, even the human mind.” The human minds that partially articulate the first nine poems are to be found in various Jacobean plays – Vindice from The Revenger’s Tragedy, Brachiano from The White Devil and so on. But, in spite of the elaborate, almost didactic introductions to each poem, the real guts of the poetic experience resides in the combination of ancient and modern, what McCabe has described as a collaboration – just as Ben Jonson and others “collaborated” with classical authors. And these voices also, like the investigator in Twin Peaks, are spies’ voices but also the spied upon. Whether they are specifically feminine (a speculatrix is a female spy) is only sometimes the case. And the characters, as they speak, reveal themselves to be conscious of the theatrical conventions and conditions. It’s a lot of background to assimilate before the poem proper is allowed to take off.

“I felt my voice riffing off their voices, that’s what gives the sequence its energy” McCabe explains to Sarah Dustagheer in a peripatetic interview in The Londonist. This is the strength of the sequence: the sparks that fly off the words as they collide, illuminate a violent and fresh version of history, an excoriating commentary on our own greedy mix of external smartness and inner putrescence. The way each prose poem with its staggered spacing and accented syllables veers back and forth between the ages is a giddy-making experience but an exhilarating one too. This is what innovative poetry needs to do – scorch and tear at the boundaries of language in order to expose uncomfortable truths. One reason, I suspect, that this indirect method works so well is because our present situation (in which the wealth gap has grown into a chasm and the tax gap has been allowed to as well) means that everywhere you look it is hard for someone with even a smidgen of disapproval to know where to start. Where better than the childhood of capitalism – in the early 1600s, during which the full ramifications were more than a glint in the eye of a Volpone or a Vindice. Of course, the poet could have gone further back than that, but the Jacobean age was one in which the voices of the playwrights reach across to us so strongly you can taste the stale sack on their breath. And it is stimulating to hear a voice from our own age responding with equal scabrousness, equal fire:

.   “Link me in the rain, where the cockroach of the cab scratches its back with wipers   Link me    because what are teeth but calcified time plugged in pulp & dentine & gumline     The Globe on .    Google Earth like a shitbasin of rivets, a cistern of balconies…”

The second two-thirds of the collection is more varied in form. A poem about the riots of 2011 repeats and revolves around images of permanence and impermanence:

  “Words, words, we are dreams, riots, bricks, words.”

The overall effect is disturbing in an unexpected way, and the light that is shed is starkly violent .

.                                                             (wind – glass) .
they took her & hit her in the crotch….”

Repetition is, pace John Hartley Williams, risky as the sense of progression is buried deep in reference. It works well in ‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’, where the words contort as they revolve, but less so in the tribute to Francis Bacon which, though suitably excoriating, has a list quality lurking in its barrage of spittle.

‘Our Glasnost Love’ partly shares this one-damned-thing-after-another element and flirts with satirical product placement:

  “our Monoprix fix axed by Teutonic crows”

That plays on the French pronunciation, translating it into “monoprefix.”

But what makes these poems ones to go back to and savour? It is their variety, for one thing. ‘Mortsafe’ – “dying is decay, to live practises filth” – employs bravura imagery of a more accessible kind: “No bank can crash this, no collapse, no rush.” The apparently descriptive ‘Fairground’ also comes from a nearer part of McCabe’s register:

.   “A boy pulls a father into his past”…. And concludes: “This is Anfield. This is America.”

‘The Boy Made of Marble’ introduces a surprising grace note: .  

“The kerbs ring with happiness, the Boy looks seawards, smiling…”

thus the corruption is counterbalanced by a cautious, youthful questing.

Speculatrix is for readers who want to explore the infinite and, yes, the difficult (in the best sense) possibilities of what poetry can do. Its anatomy of what it means to be living in Britain in the 21st Century is compelling. .


Josh Ekroy’s first collection Ways To Build A Roadblock was published by Nine Arches Press in May, 2014. He lives in London.