Review of ‘Love All The People’ by Gerry McGrath

Readers of poetry south of the border may be unfamiliar with the work of Scottish poet, Gerry McGrath. His new chapbook, Love All the People ((Hybriddreich Ltd, 2021), provides an opportunity to remedy that and to acquaint oneself with the work of an exceptional, mature talent. The book contains poems written by the poet over the last decade and with the exception of the opening poem are arranged in chronological order, providing a unique insight into the development of this very special poet.

I think it’s significant that McGrath begins the chapbook with Belvedere, signposting as it does some of the principal concerns of the poems that follow. The piece opens with the conversational, matter-of-fact statement ‘So they were sitting beside the belvedere, in shade’. The scene is one of relaxation: the sun is shining, they sip their drinks and delight in the view before them. ‘Words are beyond them’: perhaps because the combination of alcohol, peace and warmth has made them drowsy, or perhaps because the beauty before them defies the power of words. In the second stanza the tone changes. As McGrath describes the scene, some of the certainty has gone, he introduces a note of contradiction: the three peaks in the distance are ‘lost in the thin blue air…yet to exist, as if they existed’. Though the onlookers know the mountains are there, they are not there. This is the first indication that the reality before them is not what it seems, an idea developed further in the remainder of the poem when everything is suddenly thrown off kilter: ‘the world tilted’, producing ‘a mix of joy and terror’ for some. For the subject in the poem, however, this sudden transformation prompts a calm reflection: ‘He thought there must have been days/ when people forget that they had gone to sleep/ and woken, reborn.’ The moment is transformative, unlike many in the scene he accepts the fluidity of reality: he sips his drink, thinking ‘days like this will come again.’ He acknowledges that there is no fixed, objective reality, no unchanging truth: reality is unstable, arbitrary.

This same idea is captured in the playful and witty Chinese Whispers, a down-to-the-sea scape. The title references the party game in which a message is passed from person to person and through the retelling becomes garbled so that the intended message is significantly different from the final iteration.   The poem is made up of sequence of three line, sharply observed descriptions of features of a landscape. The first two lines echo each other in sound, using rhyme or slant-rhyme: ‘tree stumps// neat clumps/// of pis-en-lit and grass’, ‘cracked walls// jackdaws///bouncing on the baths.’ The third line acts as a sort of coda or commentary on what has gone before.   The end result is an amusing impressionistic description of a landscape that simultaneously exemplifies how language can transform the reality it seeks to describe. Through the simple change of a consonant (‘flat roads’ becomes ‘flat toads’) or through the changing a syllable (‘reveille’ becomes ‘diwali’) McGrath changes the focus of the description.One could argue that this might be an indication of the calibration of a language that has the capacity to convey in fine detail the nature of experience. However, the reference to Chinese whispers suggests the opposite: it reflects the fact that attempts to capture the fluidity of reality in words are doomed to failure: the very attempt to do so results in its transformation. As McGrath states in a later poem, I’m over here, ‘the real stories/ are never told’ because it is impossible to do so.

Another poem that captures powerfully this slipperiness of reality is McGrath’s My Brother lived light-heartedly in which the speaker finds his memories of his brother challenged. He remembers his brother as ‘on the road at twelve’, absent for ‘ten years’, who returns home only out of a sense of ‘duty’. Yet at a funeral in answer to the speaker’s question of why he had returned, the brother answers ‘I never left..I was here’. The sense of shock is palpable in his reply ‘What are you talking about.’ He realises from the look in his brother’s eyes that he was telling the truth: ‘I had imagined everything.’  In that moment his memories of the past are proven to be false. He acknowledges he has constructed a false reality: he has either misread or made up his ‘father’s pride   mother’s tears/ A sister’s illness   red-brown blood/ Filling the hearth// Even the joy short-lived of his occasional/ Returns.’  Memory in this poem, as in his Hippocampus, is shown to be subjective and partial. In the latter poem the narrator recalls a relationship with her ‘first American.’ There is sharp sensory detail: she is ‘Tall/ coffee skinned’, she can remember the feel of her ‘hand cupping your breast, yours/mine’. Yet the surreal image of the river that ‘swam uphill,’ of the narrator walking ‘among the pink/marbled columns, twisting, winding/ blood of slaves’ and of her driving ‘over lemons’ suggests something more subjective, something half-fantasy, half-truth. As she says towards the end of the poem ‘I think it’s true’: though she can relive the moment, she is uncertain that what she remembers is what truly happened.

These are stirring, thought-provoking poems and though this chapbook contains only twenty poems  it would take more space than I have available to unpick the complexity and richness of Gerry McGrath’s highly accomplished writing. Suffice it to say this small sample of his work suggests a prodigious talent that merits the attention of any serious lover of poetry.

Gerry McGrath was a teacher of Modern Languages for some years before quitting in 2000 to recover from ME. He is the author of two full collections; A to B (Carcanet Press, 2008) and Rooster (Carcanet Press, 2012). He was recipient of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship in 2004 and received a New Writers Bursary in 2007. He is the author of numerous reviews, mostly of contemporary poetry in translation. To date he has published four essays on the poets of Global Modernism (Brodsky, Montale, Szymborska and Transtromer) and has recently completed another on the Belorussian novelist, Svetlana Alexievich. He helped (in a personal capacity) with the editing of The Novel: a biography (Harvard, 2014). He lives in North Ayrshire with his family.

Next week read a drop in by another of Dreich’s finest, Kate Boston Williams, reflecting on a poem from her debut collection, Snake Skins, (Hybriddreich Ltd, 2021).

Unmuted, the latest collection by Nigel Kent is available NOW for £7 + P&P (£1.90) UK only, for more details, including how to order, click here and message him using the contact form.

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