Carcanet (2004), £8.99
You can learn something about a poet's interests and obsessions from his critical writings. In McDonald's last collection of essays, Serious Poetry, he looked at the ways form is used in modern poetry to implicitly articulate contexts explicitly defined in the poem's content. In an essay entitled 'Yeats and Remorse', he writes of 'the returns, postponements, confirmations, and surprises of rhyme': Yeats's forms, with their 'recurring sounds', enact 'the possibilities (and the liabilities) of going back over the past'.
The same possibilities and liabilities are the subject of McDonald's third volume of poetry. Its centre of gravity, towards and from which the poet periodically swings, is remorse. Pastorals is haunted by disembodied voices, echoes of the birdsong we hear in the book's epigraph from Satyrus. These echoes find their shape, and are preserved, in the artifice of McDonald's traditional forms. His translation from Theocritus's first Idyll provides an emblem for the artifice that dominates the book, and indeed the pastoral tradition as a whole: 'The Cup' gives us a microscopic rendering, à la Ode on a Grecian Urn, of the surface of a goblet, 'with clusters of yellow berries / picked out hard and minute in the sculpted wood.' The discord, happiness and struggle recorded in the poem are frozen in the cup's carved figures. It is a celebration of craft, and, with its rendition of the boy making a cage for crickets, 'plaiting and turning the stalks, snapping them, starting again,' a vertiginous ars poetica. In 'The Long Look', the 'painted figures' of an underground tomb carry more conviction for the poet than the 'real birds on the wing' who look 'sidelong, and different, and not right.'
Most of the poems are engaged in conversations with the past in one way or another. 'Air and Angels' engages with Donne's poem of the same name: 'For, nor in nothing, nor in things / Extreme, and scattring bright, can love inhere'. McDonald's poem expands on these lines, where a confused landscape of mirages and sun glare stands for the 'disparity' in a troubled relationship. 'The Road to Rome' forms the centrepiece of the collection, a narrative poem in rhyming couplets describing a visit to the catacombs on the Appian Way. A tension is struck between the uniformity and drabness of what endures, and the evanescent and fragile. The shadowy text is adorned with trompe l'oeil details: for example, a 'tiny lizard, green and blue / has scamper-scuttled into view' against the grisaille-like backdrop of 'pines the colour of the dust.' Pastoral is used here as a framework in which to enact a retreat to a locus amoenus from which the poet draws some lesson, before returning to the world. It is also a device for catching and preserving the contingent, the echoes of voices, traces of human contact:
against death's evidence everywhere
Pastoral works according to the laws of retreat and return. 'Going back over the past' is a form of retreat intimately bound up with remorse and redemption, a sounding for 'the thin ghosts', 'listening for their voices in mine' ('Eclogue'). This acknowledgement of the dead is a responsibility felt keenly by the poet, the avoidance of which is rebuked in an oblique potshot at the august politician who, after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, spoke tritely of feeling 'the hand of history' on his shoulder; the same man who, just after coming into office, had exclaimed 'New new new! Everything is new!':
his voice's frail career in air
is something infinitely small
Nothing is new, and it can't be:
The 'returns, postponements, confirmations, and surprises of rhyme' mirror those of the voices which inhabit these poems. McDonald's poems exercise a wide range of traditional forms, like those of his poetical forebears Yeats, MacNeice and Longley. Speaking of the combustible poetic forms of Yeats, Derek Mahon described them as 'The hissing chemicals inside the well-wrought urn; an urnful of explosives'. McDonald's pastorals are somewhat colder, perhaps - one has to put one's ear to the surface to hear the hissing. But this is to be expected: concealment and artifice are the mainstays of pastoral, a form which, as moth-eaten as it may appear to some, arguably provides the most apposite framework in which to take the measure of society.
liars who talk about history
as something whose warm hand they feel
guiding them in a chosen path
vanish, and never answer to
all of the anger or the grief