Feb 4 2024
Poetry review – END CEREMONIES: Matthew M. C. Smith finds Stuart McPherson’s poetry rewarding on levels beyond straightforward comprehension
Stuart McPherson’s collection End Ceremonies features a brilliantly-fearsome cover illustration of a bear in attack mode against a wintry backdrop. You may need to take a step back, regroup and then, somewhat hesitantly, open the collection.
End Ceremonies is made up of seven untitled sections of 60 poems and is the poet’s third publication with Broken Sleep following The Water Bearer and Obligate Carnivore. A testimony by Penelope Shuttle states that the work has ‘an achieved awareness of the strangeness of our everyday lives’, while Ian Patterson describes it as a ‘limitless, mysterious, engaging exploration of the self’. As a fan of The Water Bearer (who has not yet read Obligate Carnivore), I’m ready for this new book.
The poet reminds us in the first piece “Gradualism”, that
Nothing stays the same forever. Not the crumbling of brick, not the cleanliness of air. Tinnitus of running horse, the blacksmith in our ears
and, indeed, these are poems that are focused, with incisive bleakness, on the captivity of trauma, the illusory promise of release, the fragmentation of the self and the breakdown of everything in time. If this sounds incredibly bleak, it almost certainly is, and McPherson’s work is the antithesis of light, trivial, simplistic poetry. This is not to say that kind of poetry doesn’t have its place; but this is a poet who doesn’t want to go through the motions and might throw a piano into a quarry if he read a poem with clichés. This is not a thrown piano of a collection. It is far weightier. This is a neutron-star of a book crushing anything underneath it, including the intellect and emotions.
It is with such words of foreboding, the sound of the running horse, the pounding of the blacksmith in our ears, that we descend into the writer’s ‘colossal folding of / night’, a collection of ever-transforming poems, depicting the self in a state of cognitive dissonance, focused on the unstable nature of human perception, in a world that is in a state of ever-flux. Many of the poems are delivered with a sense of numb solemnity, where pacing is consistently slow-motion and disorientating. I was drawn to the second poem “Gasp reflex”, which seems to introduce the figure of a twin or sibling: ‘You and I, the same shape. Same curve of spine, same tone of sympathetic/ pupil depth’. This is an example where the poet adopts an elegiac approach, through poems of fractured images. Both speaker and the twin-figure are in different ways trapped, the speaker with shame, the other with ‘tentacles’ around their waist. This trope of the entangled, captive self recurs throughout. Stylistically, it’s interesting how McPherson frequently uses imperatives to numbly command the reader or figures within his poems ‘Deliver me’, ‘scare me’, ‘Be free from’, ‘Look upwards’. This technique often drives the poems forward abruptly, to kickstart a new phase or phrase. It’s an example of the control of the writer, which Penelope Shuttle alludes to in her cover testimony and we see this technique employed frequently.
Immediately appealing, for me, is the writer’s technique of defamiliarisation. A fist pump for lines like ‘Mount Jupiter or thrown/ shadow. Mist as sentinel haunting/ guillotined sun equivalence’, or ‘Watch you grow strong bathing/ in the ice melt, hanging upside-down from the trunk’ or ‘Emulsified; our blood as oil. / Stood upright to crush death’s head./ The orbit wield of a hunter’s sword’ (from “In this time I’ll fade awy”’). The poem “First Born” introduces other haunting figures, a ghostly mother, together with a ghostly sibling figure. The symbolism is striking, connecting, surely at a deeply unconscious level.
To you, there is a corridor. A pushing up of fists into throats or a sharp apple rolled beneath light […] A wound or a grey slab chiselled and blown. Sat beneath them all, this long luminescence, is a heart, is a bird clipping its wings
The collection is broadly made up of dense prose poems and shape poems. However, I found the couplet poems most appealing in terms of form, with “Lamplight, Lay Down Your Arms” and “Midwinter Prayer Cycle” being personal favourites with their stanza breaks allowing for greater pausing, and an improved ability to processing the many beguiling images. This form is arguably needed in many of McPherson’s poems to aid the reader to experience and to ensure that we really take in an imagination that seems, to me, to be totally unpredictable. We have no idea where we are going next.
Yet still, I brush it against my wings. Emerging to a light that holds within its pocket the distance of our souls. Of humid summers whispering that twilight is Rigged. To wake from sleep so clearly that it can be touched, A peeling orange unravelled as I fall in & out of sadness. (“Midwinter Prayer Cycle”)
As with McPherson’s previous work, we’re only allowed so far in and the JH Prynne-esque technique of distorting language and meaning, throwing us pretty much continually with unexpected details, highly abrupt shifts in focus from micro to macro, from real to surreal, makes this a complex and rich read, one that would benefit from closer attention and repeated reading over a long period – more than this review could encompass. Despite its dark gravity, there are lighter moments and an awful lot of beauty in the 139 pages. The darkness makes the lighter moments much brighter where we, too, can ‘float down/ rapids as two separate pieces of a / knotted branch. The bears are on their haunches. The ovaries, full of roe, ripe for the pawing. […] This is our ceremony.’
This is a rewarding book that comes highly recommended – definitely one for the more cerebral readers and those who wish to engage at a more emotional level; those who appreciate it as a subliminal rather than fully-realised experience.
The horses are still running in my ears but the blacksmith is not hammering and I don’t mind not understanding every poem, stanza and line in this book. There’s almost a sense of peace, of catharsis, at the end of this ceremony, a new beginning to be unveiled after this bear attack of an apocalypse.
Matthew M. C. Smith is author of The Keeper of Aeon