Back to Back Poetry: Review of Michael O’Neill and Jamie McKendrick at Durham Book Festival

Michael O’Neill’s The Return of the Gift and Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly are two compelling poetry collections. Though individual in style, both encapsulate the personal experiences that have shaped the mind of their authors. Aalia Ahmed and Lucia Scigliano attended their reflective reading at Durham Book Festival.

Cover of Return of the GiftMichael O’Neill’s reading incorporated a diverse selection from his latest collection, starting with compositions inspired by the magical allure of Venice and concluding with selected readings taken from From the Cancer Diary, which poignantly express a recent moment of the poet’s life.

Some poems in the collection are concerned with the art of looking and seeing (‘jumbled perspectives’), the intriguing nature of patterns, ideas of memorialisation, and the conflation of time, to offer insightful and alternative perspectives on what may otherwise appear trivial and quotidian. In ‘Criss-Cross’ a magical vista is conjured by the poet from the watery vault of the Venetian lagoon. The scene from the past is revived in the poet’s imagination by the sensory detail of the ‘heat and motion’ of bodies, the flashing lights of the ‘ambulanza’, and bouncing of the ‘motor-boats’. The poet also reimagines the ‘blue tesserae’ of a Venetian church as the metaphorical ‘gown’ of the sky. San Michele, too, is imbued with an ancient, living spirit of its own as it ‘still looks back like a destiny / deferred’. An alternative manner of perceiving events is also presented in the title poem of the collection which reflects on the serendipitous mappings of life where spots of time and physical objects somehow cycle back to us—how an old gift finds its way back to the gifter. ‘On Hold’, From the Cancer Diary, evokes the intimate and private emotions of the man coming to terms with the distressing reality of the ephemerality of life. ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ is a line that pushes to the forefront of our thoughts the haunting and lingering realisation that death will inevitably visit us all.

Next, the audience was treated by Jamie McKendrick to readings of several poems from his various collections.

‘The Hunters’, from Anomaly (2018), borrows its opening line from Thomas Heywood’s play, A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603). ‘We that have been hunting all the day’ is a sentence that revisits the image of hunting that has been prevalent in the English literary tradition since pre-Renaissance times. ‘It is a metaphor for all kinds of things’, McKendrick remarked, ‘and it is something curious as we are quite distant from that reality’. The poet then proceeded to another reading from the same collection; ‘Back to Black’, as McKendrick pointed out, was inspired by Amy Winehouse’s album of the same title and ties into the poet’s enjoyment of painting and working with Chinese and Indian ink. An alliterative ‘ck’ sound permeates the poem and imitates the sticky, tacky inkiness of the black ink on the page. The viscosity of the object is further emphasised by the materials present in the poem and the artist’s workshop, such as lacquer and shellac. After a few recitations, the poet joked about the lack of love poems in his oeuvre, a comment made by one of his readers. Although he ‘was slightly annoyed’, he jokes, he agreed with the person’s analysis! McKendrick finished his reading with a selection of Haiku, a form of poetry he admires and reads in translation but believes to be unsuitable to the rhythm of the English language. ‘Quince’ is a rhyming Haiku divided into five sections with the theme of ‘quince’ (both the image and the sound) threading through all of them. Like much of McKendrick’s work, the Haiku possesses an antiquated tone and incorporates ideas from Italian poetry, which has been a lifelong interest of the poet.

Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly is published by Faber, RRP £14.00. Michael O’Neill’s Return of the Gift is published by Arc, RRP £9.99. Durham Book Festival ran from 4th to 14th October 2018.


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