Mar 11 2023
Poetry review – BACK COUNTRY: Bill Jenkinson finds both craft and empathy strongly evident in Kathleen McPhilemy’s new collection
It is a pleasure to review Kathleen McPhilemy’s fourth collection Back Country. The influence of the past is a theme that runs through this book, as are the mystery of the other, the imperatives of justice and the fragility of the natural world. Throughout, the poet is in full control of her stripped-back, bare language and her compressed, charged line.
The poems are presented in five sections, never entirely sealed off from each other, all but the last section untitled and divided by Roman numerals. The first two explore the Back Country itself, the second is centred on today’s threats to the natural world and the fourth on individual, private, experience. The fifth section is entitled “Days in April,” in which the titles of the 22 poems are taken from the poems of W. S. Graham, and is a feat of intertextuality. The poet uses a variety of forms, mainly stanzaic, of four or more lines, which are treated with a free but never cavalier assurance. There are also some wonderful exploded couplets and one entrancing villanelle. There is fine control of rhythm, not least because McPhilemy’s line endings are so beautifully placed. There is meticulous observation of nature, great skill and accuracy in using language and some remarkable eulogies (“Blue Girl” and “Rip tides”).
One of the most striking features of this collection is the extended metaphor of the ‘Back Country,’ from the second poem in the volume. It would be easy to identify this place, so vividly instantiated, with Northern Ireland and specifically Belfast and County Antrim (in such poems as “Bonamargy Friary”, “Sausages”, “Medbh McGuckian’s Cottage”) although there are excursions to other parts, as one of the poet’s objectives is to point out the limitations of arbitrary boundaries, despite their cruel power. Though resident in Oxford for many years, Kathleen McPhilemy comes from Belfast and lived there through the Troubles. She knows oppressive geographical, political, and cultural landmarks at first hand and evokes that terrible time and its roots with consummate skill:
How long does it take till history settles like old tombstones in a grey landscape? [“Bonamargy Friary”]
Nevertheless a great strength of these poems is that their remit is universal: the Back Country may stand for any beautiful and tormented land racked by its own history, characterised by raw violence
Over and over, a voice with a gun comes into the house, the walls fall away [“Behind the Wall”]
The poems convey savage abuse of power, the blight of liminal space, harsh voices over the telephone, constant danger especially as day turns into night:
On these half-known roads between the city and the sea grey condenses on the grass colours fade from the fields trees transform to shadowy signallers… [“Back Country”]
One of the themes of this poem is the play between what may be and what may not be imagined. What may be imagined is sometimes characterised by the notion of comfort, as experienced in everyday life, even though made strange and available only to some:
lights wink on in the imaginable comfort of other houses, other lives
On the other hand, what may not be imagined is characterised by hidden historical fact and therefore must be told:
What is not imagined is the later darkness cars without plates or lights sweep into a farmyard hard men step out.
Notice the work done by the full stop at the end of these five lines. McPhilemy adopts a pared-down approach to punctuation and upper case lettering in this collection, only using them when strictly necessary, which admirably suits her subject matter. She frequently demands that the reader fill in the blanks in these poems, as in “Another, someone, you” an urgent meditation on the human:
shadow faces rising from the pavements everywhere are my fear whisper of other languages in doorways, in buildings I don’t belong in the new is what I’m afraid of in bedrooms I shouldn’t be in
This empathy informs the many strong poems in the collection dealing with war (See the magnificent “Orestes”), gender inequality (“Pietà”), injustice on a global scale and with the ongoing environmental crisis (“Cassandra”), which is a paramount issue in McPhilemy’s poetry. With this she deals admirably, not least by staying local, as in “Bats”:
The last one I ever saw was so small, light like a leaf dried up, its limbs and wings the design of itself
Incidentally, these poems on our casual abuse of nature often shrewdly serve as a commentary on abhorrent human attitudes to the other generally, specifically anyone who does not (or is not allowed to) fit in – namely the outcast, the immigrant, the refugee:
I have not lost my language nor travelled to a far city to live among strangers; [“Vowel Sounds”]
This is one of many in this collection dealing with language, the profound role it plays in confirming identity, not least for the poet. One of the nightmares McPhilemy confronts is the loss of language,
on the strand of wordlessness are those people still our people whom language has forgotten whom we tend with careful terror? [“Always Language is where the People are”]
In this, as in other areas of loss, she is able to demonstrate her remarkable empathy with the many predicaments involved in being human.