Before the Dust Gets Us

Selected Poems,
Chris McCully (9.95, Carcanet)

A 'Selected Poems' performs a similar function to an old-fashioned, hit-free compilation album: it introduces the reader / listener to a voice he may wish to explore further with. It needs to be, therefore, representative, whilst also presenting some idea of range and breadth of work. This useful selection of Chris McCully's work so far is bookended by pieces from Polder, his 2009 collection, beginning with a six-page prose piece, 'Dust', which rather forbiddingly analyses mortality and decay. The narrative voice in this is precise and quite beguiling, but it is a risky strategy with which to confront the casual reader. McCully reasons in his foreword that later poems from this collection should then be read as a response to the 'intricate nihilism', but first the earlier poetry intervenes.

There are only a bare dozen pieces from
Time Signatures (1993), but even early poems such as 'Houses' suggest McCully's interest in the temporary and passing nature of life: the titular buildings 'seem solid' but are vanishing, being dismantled, their solidity an illusion as all returns to a natural past, which itself 'unravelled on its stick of string'. Elsewhere, the travelling stranger in 'Towards the unknown region' finds his journeys 'behind him vanishing' as he contemplates a watershed, perhaps recalling Auden's 'stranger' in an incommunicative landscape, but 'scenting danger'.

McCully's next two collections,
Not Only I and The Country of Perhaps, find him becoming more ambitious with formal verse-forms and widening his subject-matter considerably. The use of repetition and casual poise in poems such as 'Song' and 'Gold in the Hudson' still at times smack of Auden, and occasionally Lowell, too, but the delightful recipe-poem 'Simply take...' and later explorations of myth in 'Icarus' and 'Demeter' reveal great facility, even if this particular field has been over-populated by rewritten tales and reimagined figures lately.

Leaving aside the selection of Old English poems and riddles, which tend to leave me cold, we finally arrive back at work from
Polder. Here, formal considerations such as the villanelle and ballad-forms again recall Auden, but a pantoun such as 'The Gravy People' tackles cold-war rationing and the culture of 'making do' effectively:

     We won the war on tea and cigarettes and lard,
     on patience, mending, knowing not to feel...

Here the mundanity of the detail - lard, longed-for cod and chips - stake out the emotional numbness of the ration-book culture. The mundanity and the everyday detail often informs MCCully's work at various angles: a sequence of poems on the Dutch Old Masters demonstrates this strikingly. Vermeer's painting 'Woman reading a Letter in Blue' considers how such details are fixed forever by the painter's gaze: 'A moment later, and she would have been / leaning on the table for support.'

The precise gaze of these poems is almost enough to counterbalance the grimness of 'Dust', and this is certainly a valuable introduction to an interesting, still - developing voice, but one can't help thinking that the selection has been hamstrung by peculiar editorial decisions - McCully's slightly uneasy, defensive preface hints as much.

       M C Caseley 2011