London Grip Poetry Review – Paul McDonald



Poetry review – SIXTY POEMS: Rennie Halstead commends the diversity and range of Paul McDonald’s poetry

Sixty Poems 	
Paul McDonald 
Greenwich Exchange, London 
ISBN 978-1- 910996-72-0

Paul McDonald’s latest collection is a delightful mix. He includes poems about nature, the cinema, love and dementia, along with a range of ekphrastic poems, especially featuring the work of Edward Hopper. It is only possible here to skim the surface of this collection – there is so much to be enjoyed.

The love poems scattered through the collection are all quietly beautiful. In “The Sea Envies Me” McDonald adopts a metaphysical view, sitting on the balcony watching the sun set over the sea whilst the woman remains inside. The moon ‘kisses me, and I let it’ the sea is ‘emerald with jealousy / blue-green, indigo and then something darker …’ the woman ‘waits for me patient in the bedroom: / her amber light aglow’ and as he turns to come inside:

The sea envies me, and I feel it,
tell it ‘hush’ before I turn my back to join her,

hear it soothe itself with sobs, swallows.
It envies me […]
I let its lullaby caress my life.

“The Map of Me” is a great portrait of intimacy, again with a metaphysical twist.

Your hands feel their way,
deft against the braille of my body:
they can see me in the dark. […]

You’ve artistry enough […]

to spider walk my body,
bind it in a tracery of mesh:
no need to see the map of me,
my captive mind, my willing flesh.

The sequence about dementia offer a different perspective on love. These poems bring the heartbreak of relatives and the frustration of the dementia patient to vivid life. The wonderful “Dementia Butterfly” highlights that dreadful moment of diagnosis: ‘peering at the scan / you’re thinking: butterfly wings’. There is pause for thought, for realisation of the implications of the diagnosis:

Evening looms like
a giant slowly standing.
Together we wait
for him to speak. You squeeze my 
hand as if it is a cure.

The poem ends with the moment of acceptance:

Like a butterfly
you accept what you have become.
A pair of dove white
petals unsurprised when the
wind transforms them into wings.

The other side of dementia is shown in the equally brilliant “Yellow Clouds”. Here the sufferer:

		walks barefoot 
to your house […]
The February morning

pine-scented freeze that follows
like a phantom through the door

[…] lead her to the sofa,

take her head in your lap, light as an orchid

Similarly the last stanza of “Dementia Morning” picks up the feelings of dementia sufferers. After a morning trying to make sense of the day, frightened by ‘door hinges, squeaking conspiracies’ where daydreams go from ‘a child’s frightened whisper, becoming screams.’ the sufferer finds herself ‘sitting in the wrong chair.’

Many of the poems in this collection are ekphrastic interpretations of the art of Edward Hopper. McDonald’s carefully observed interpretations of well-known works is fascinating. “Office at Night” asks the unposed, unanswered question about the relationship between two office workers apparently working late. They appear to be ignoring one another in the small office, and McDonald focuses on the man’s thoughts:

He struggles to ignore her ink tight dress,
pale skin against the blue of it,
thighs bound like geisha feet.

He wonders what she thinks, whether she has hopes or expectations of him, whether he should act, be positive:

Would she want to turn the light off? Would he?’
He tries to focus on his papers
senses creaturely proximity.

The girl sees a man with

			neatly parted hair
his performance of indifference,
to view a scripted future.

printed on the hard wooden desk,
the heel-pocked carpet.

Like so many of Hopper paintings, there is no resolution. McDonald draws out the essential loneliness, so characteristic of the artist’s work. in “Woman in a Cafe at Night” he draws on the painting Automat with its lonely young woman:

It’s not the kind of cafe for shedding coats
despite the crushed velvet
heavy on your shoulders:

McDonald pictures her feeling alone against the darkness ‘vast against your back’. The woman relaxes enough to take off ‘a glove for coffee, made tepid by the chill, anticipate the artificial taste. The sense of loneliness is picked up in “Sadness”, based on Summer Interior, where ‘Sadness should slide you from the bed to the floor,// naked from the waist down, shaming you’ and where unhappiness leaves the girl:

Slumped beside the bed’s wooden frame,
a hand held fast between your clamped thighs,
young white skin, so beautiful and perfect;
to be struck by the pointlessness of this,

and every other fact of ruined days and nights.

The sharpness of observation in the ekphrastic poems and the energy of the metaphysical in other poems sharpened my interest and enjoyment. The painful detailed observation of dementia is quite outstanding. This is a very accomplished collection, well worth reading.