Making Sense of the Madness

Whitehall Jackals, Chris McCabe & Jeremy Reed (Nine Arches Press)

This is a collaboration between two of this country's most prolific and energetic poets, Reed, now in his mid-to late sixties, I'd guess, while McCabe, still in his thirties, is a librarian at the South Bank Poetry Library. Both writers have published extensively, both are at odds with 'the mainstream' of British poetry (a way of saying that the mainstream has failed to catch up) and with the status quo of political and cultural life which prevails in these islands.

Their approach is more-or-less psycho-geographical and their location is London, its geography and history, a mixing of past and present, an immediate presentation of the here-and-now, telescoped through a critique of received historical traditions yet fused with a skewed erudition and an angry response to the aftermath of the war in Iraq. There's a short introduction by Jeremy Reed and the first poem, by McCabe, is followed by one by Reed. This juxtaposition is followed throughout the collection. All of the poems appear to have been produced during a four-month period in 2011 and a follow-up sequence is envisaged.

   Insensitive as a mortuary fridge,
   a jackal's
   asymmetrically psychopathic grin
   like killing's chutzpah, meltdown's fun
   people like stuck eggs to a pan

   fried by depleted uranium
   under a radioactive desert sun
   neon-red as a traffic light.
   Blair's the hipster-suited super-killer
   the cool czar monetising war

   into personalised futures capital.
   The burnt, the mutilated don't move now,
   nor bacon-rashered Iraq amputees.
      (from 'The Right Hon. Jackal Blair' by Jeremy Reed)

Reed's mixing of relish and dark testament has rarely been so evident, almost incongruous, but it holds together and is most effective when he melds past with present, as in 'Norton Folgate' where Dick Turpin's 'bandit dude' embraces a murderous outsider glamour which is the other side of legal mayhem, an uneasy contrast which pitches the gangster against the politician and the banker. There's a Brechtian concern with thuggery here which appears to have conflicting and complex sources. As an essay on late capitalism, it's a sobering text, even as its jaunty, aesthetic despoilation provides thrills and spills:

   Dick stick-up Turpin's parish, bandit dude,
   no plastic, only bling and flash,
   a leather wristlock grabbing cash,
   a gun snouting the carotid's
   blipping quasar, he'd strip them nude
   if they resisted force. .......

   His dealing room's his killing field;
   spread-betting while thunder slams in
   as fizzy atmospheric dialect,
   a black slash over Spital Square,
   breaking that moment into violent rain.
       (from 'Norton Folgate')

In 'Execution Dock' Chris McCabe combines grim humour - 'de-vowelled pirates at Execution Dock' - by way of an exploration of the gallows at the side of the Thames:

   his gibbeted corpse cindering for twenty years
   by the river in an iron cage

evoking a harsh historical pageant - 'this is no joke' - which is juxtaposed with an up-to-the minute commentary on the cost of renting property in the capital:

      (from 'Execution Dock')

While this is in some way related to Conrad's narrator in 'Heart of Darkness', reminiscing about the capital's dark yet glamorous-sounding past (ironic in relation to the journey's end), there's a more fractured, abstract aspect to McCabe's poetry, which manages to combine a delicious playfulness with a sharp, scrutinising gaze. Each writer has a different approach, Reed's dark gothic glam compared to McCabe's
sharper, more descriptive yet skewed  intelligence and this produces a rich mix, a fruitful contrast which pulls the reader in.

Reed's 'Death Tango' appears to hint at both Paul Celan and a more brash, poppy, visceral lyricism which also suggests song:

   Jeremy, poetry's your death tango
   cellular addiction (dopamine receptors)
   the moment turns on language that the street deletes
      you'll die wearing a black highwayman's coat
   a repro, pills to OD as a last saliva tango
   it's you
   Jeremy who
   watcha gonna do
   do baby blue

Chatterton rubs shoulders with Pete Doherty and William Blake, psychedelic blues with punk, located variously in Holborn, Soho and Whitechapel, a mix of celebration and edgy, streetwise poetry.

In 'The Chelsea of Wilde & Thatcher' McCabe quotes from 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' in a breathlessly delivered clash between deviant culture and stockbroker money:

   Bladder flicks a blade in consciousness. I size up
the Lady's baize-green door. The coward does it with
a kiss, the brave man with a sword. Don't fancy either.
Put back my cock. No milk-snatcher's worth your piss.

David Caddy has called this work '(a) wide-eyed, X-rayed Cubist vision of London' and I know what he means. This is an attempt to 'take it all in', to embrace different perspectives and to encompass movement and shift, to create out of complexity and multiplicity a sort of 'cobbled together' overview which makes sense of the madness. This book is both a celebration and a dark critique, appropriate for the dark times we inhabit. Intense and uncompromising and I'm already looking forward to reading Part Two!

     Steve Spence 2013