Eloquent rawness


Speculatrix, Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins)


In his splendid new collection, Chris McCabe merges the London of the Jacobean and Elizabethan stage with the here and now in language which spits and fizzes with a dark eloquence both demotic and high-art. The furious energy of Barry MacSweeney and Francis Bacon are referenced here (among others) under the umbrella of the collection's curious title, which highlights the role of the female spy and points towards the dark recess of the police state:

     You're so dark your clowns clone tears for future downpours
     down St. Paul's Churchyard You're so dark you want
     the cathedral's bosom realigned phallically
     on Ave Maria Lane You're so dark your hymns bass thrum
     to seventies porn and even in the May sun the City cloaked
     its white silence was too dark to riposte
          (from 'City of London Dark Hymn')

It's McCabe's precision and his relish of language itself which makes this collection such an enjoyable read. Consider, for example, the exactness of imagery in the following line from 'A Human Face' - 'Swallows sail leadbolted down wires of air', which takes you into the intimacy of a vignette which is refreshingly strange while at the same time appearing perfectly natural and real.

'My Mouth is an Elizabethan' hints at Samuel Beckett in the tautness of its rant,
a high-wire performance which is as angrily playful as it is splendidly mangled:

     a night hook to hang desires on, a dawndamp wench that o-blows, a
     ditchdog that salivates for kiosk sallets, smooths over pickledevants,
     shuns the rules of peccadilloes, hey ninny-ninnies to the night-time
     hours with wounded secrets, plays naughty nuncle to a crate of
     Stellas, a carafe of warehouse shiraz, hurricanoes the smoke of
     Class Bs, perpetuates the faux mistakes bookmakers pretend to
     closet, .........

The central texts of the collection use as their starting point a number of plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a practice which facilitates great play between
the politics and mores of the respective periods and our own. Darkness is at the heart of this collection, betrayal and violence are everywhere as is a sort of excessive revelling in the chaos of breakdown and madness:

                         They will rebuild the same lines to walk
     us down            these  dead  concocting   dictionaries
               defining madness            We  could  have   this
     conversation at the door of any tavern       at any time
               but it's tonight          in this thirst         this first
--------------------------------------------------------------------

                                 combustion

          (from 'The Changeling')

'Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation' brings in a contemporary note - 'FIRE
IN SHOPFRONT IN TOTTENHAM HALE' - while 'Subjective Knitting'
has a more lurid, theatrical glaze which reeks of dark glamour:

     Subjective Knitting


     in radical lace . Polemical
     strapless in contentious
     corset . Inflammatory
     glimpse in conjugal silk.
     Restive straps in purple
     fishnets . Agitative susp
     ension in first time red .
     Pointed heels in Argento
     gloss . Pinched  elastic in
     woven threads . Frayed
     string in slippy hooks .
     Obsidian stockings in
     breathless gauze . Latex
     belt in ribboned lengths .
     Laced boots in Saxon black.
     . Frayed poppyhead
     ripped pink to the core.

Apart from the nods to Barry MacSweeney and Tom Raworth, both in terms of form and content, I'm also thinking Sean Bonney, Niall McDevitt and Andrew Jordan here, as more fully contemporary British poets who deal with the subjects of place and politics in an adventurous and experimental manner. McCabe's exploration of the nooks and crannies of London also owe something to Iain Sinclair, of course but there's an eloquent rawness to his work which somehow combines precision with an emotional directness which is unusual and full of impact.

     Steve Spence 2015