Feb 8 2024
Poetry Review – BECAUSE WE COULD NOT DANCE AT THE WEDDING: Jean Atkin discovers that these love poems by Michael McKimm benefit from his keen ear and sharp eye.
Because We Could Not Dance at the Wedding Michael McKimm Worple Press 2023 ISBN 978-1-905208-49-4 60pp £12
Because We Could Not Dance at the Wedding is really a collection of love poems, informed by a practice of close, observant living. Michael McKimm writes beautifully, at once vivid, embodied and restrained. The title and the cover place the book squarely in context – this is about the experience of being gay, and being alive, now – and the final line of the title poem reads like a credo: ‘I have always believed in a god who dances’.
The collection is divided into three sections, each headed by a poem linked to nature – so “Love Poem with Goshawk”, “Love Poem with Beech Coppard” and “Love Poem with Sanderling”. These poems stand to describe the poet’s deep bond with the natural world, alongside the intimate sharing of it within a human relationship. From “Goshawk”: ‘bird-shock black against twilight’s burn’ … ‘the something other the quare fellow/ the shy and skulky the beautiful’ – in five concluding lines so spare, so mythic, they put me in mind of Heaney’s translation of the medieval “Names for the Hare”.
After that, the title poem begins the book, and shows us both how far society has to go to be inclusive of queer people, and how human love can see us through despite it all. The poem dances through appropriate couplets, serious, tender, swinging – ‘
and I laugh like tin pipes. If they could see us now, half-cut on smoky Ardbeg, exhausted, staggering, my love we’d cause a sober brawl all right.’
McKimm’s own long-term relationship is both foreground and sometime backdrop to the poems that follow. This is a collection that rewards reading steadily through – don’t dip. “To Go About” takes a relationship in ten skilled rhyming sonnets from 2006 to 2014 – so there are early student days in bed – ‘We wake into the single-bedded spoon/ and lie like that, and doze, and sleep again’ – through later civil partnership and the practised sharing of two lives – ‘Always like this: full speed, hell-for-leather,/ holding doors, finding seats, working together.’ On the way, I was charmed to find there was birdwatching, in the sonnet titled “2013”:
the Ordnance Survey maps you’ve pinched off Bing, the Observer’s Book of Trees, a wildflower guide – me quoting Longley: “tway blade, crowfoot, ling”
The rhyming of ling with Bing is like being let into an in-joke…
The following poem “Conversion, 2015”, is about that historic opportunity – to convert a civil partnership into a marriage. So the date matters. The poem is written in triplets, simply and clearly describing the process. ‘It’s efficient and mundane./ But I realise I’ve not looked at you/ since we sat down’. Then this apparently straightforward poem changes gear as it concludes
I don’t think I fully knew before what language can do: that the weight of our vows is something writ larger now is not something I thought I would admit.
As I read into this collection I’m being let into the mind of the poet, learning his world, and how he thinks of it. The poem “Black Snow”, subtitled grassfire – east London – 300 acres burned is one of these. This poem is so beautifully structured and interconnected. It begins: ‘To make fire requires a simple chemistry: heat, fuel, oxygen.’ The couplets proceed to demonstrate each of these components, which are such everyday, combustible, ordinary risks. ‘For heat read spark: dropped cigarette,/ sun-pricked curve of broken bottle, our bodies as we fuck.’ So grass is fuel, and what you get is ‘now a field of ash, slick as a burned scalp’. And devastatingly, what is left is:
your hand in mine, the thermal that the buzzard rides in the air that holds the smoke like a mist-net which is the oxygen, which is what we breathe.
The twist here in the last phrase, reminding us of climate crisis, and of the state of London’s air quality, is live and political, and took me by surprise.
I could write about every poem in this collection, but a significant feature of many of them is McKimm’s attention to the quotidian, the homely and the local. I was entranced by “Romford Road and Broadway” – which turns out to be a poem about street-cleaning. ‘I watch from the top deck of the bus a man in overalls/ and thick green boots power-hosing the pavement.’ There is beautiful, accurate detail: the man is ‘firing a focused jet into the little grouty avenues between the polished stones./ Is there any job in the world more satisfying?’ I find I’m watching the poet watching the man working, and it’s a delight: ‘I see a smile across his face as each new layer/ gives way to show another patch come clean’.
Which brings us to “Love Poem with Beech Coppard”, in which the poet is awake in ‘Another heavy night/ the endless freight trains speeding past’. It becomes a study in the power of imagination to transform fear – ‘I try to think of the beechmast// we collected in the woods/ on Saturday: those little shells’ – and when he wakes once more, his invented wood has taken root:
And so I start to grow around our room a veteran of beech, the coppice from the ground to nest our bodies, heads, then a claw of ancient pollard encircling the bed. And while you sleep so fast and hard I will attend the tree
Imagination has provided safety and protection of each other inside the darkness of night, and so at last the poet too will sleep, will be pulled in ‘against the fight,/ to dream in just the leaves,/ just woodland noise and woodland light’.
The subsequent “Poem for one whose birthday falls in winter”, is a companion piece to “Beech Coppard”, where the duvet becomes a deserted beach in Kent and it’s ‘our anniversary/ thirty degrees stripping casually as a Swede’.
“What the greenfinch actually sounds like” recalls us to the strange time of the first lockdown of 2020, and the sudden focus on keeping fit and taking exercise. ‘I hoover the dust off some 4kg dumbbells, find exercises/ online and set to/ in front of an upstairs window’. There is also close observation of the natural world, as so many of us found that spring. But as well, of course, there is: ‘A daily needling that I/ should feel luckier or sadder or more afraid’.
In the same topical vein, in these years of heightened public awareness of new and fiercer heatwaves, the poem “Heatwave” takes us into the ‘knotted naked heat/ that has kept us feverish for weeks’. But now the rain has come – and this is a beautiful poem, in which simple language alternates with precise, original imagery:
the streetlamp’s showerhead, pavements black as jet, creeks running kerbstones frothing drains, early drivers going slow, their wipers flicking seismographs.
Once more, the poem concludes with loving closeness between two people, as does the collection, on “Love Poem with Sanderling”. Here the tighter line and stanza shaping of much of the collection relaxes into an inventive, spaced freeform which is gathered gently together by repetition and half-rhyme:
Love I sing of sanderling quickety quickety sanderlinging
What a marvellous ear McKimm has. As his reader I was engaged by openness, alertness and love, qualities which characterise this memorable, sensitive collection.