TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—19: MAIRI MACINNES
Mairi MacInnes (1925-2017) was born in Co. Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford. Towards the end of World War Two she served with the WRNs. Her first book of poetry, Splinters: Twenty-Six Poems (1953) was one of a series printed by The School of Art at the University of Reading. After marrying John McCormick, she lived in Berlin and the United States. As well as some nine collections of her poetry, she wrote two novels and Clearances, a memoir. She received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Ingram-Merrill Fellowship. She received an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her lifetime’s work from the University of York in 2014. Two Rivers Press published Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc., her final collection, in 2016.
Mairi MacInnes writes:
I didn’t think of myself as a writer, no. I wanted to be a writer though. That is, to write well and all the time. I also wanted to be a girl rider in a circus, standing on a horse’s back as it cantered around the ring; but it turned out that to be a writer was better understood, and easier.
Yes, as time went on and I got better at it, it was natural to write in response to events. Writing was a way of dealing with them, even with confronting the opposition, with gestures in words, you might say. It is tempting not to care whether the writing has an effect or not.
I began with a clunking rhyme about the Dawn, illustrated with sun, rabbits, a deer, all in thick colour. The grown-ups were amazed. My brother, harsh critic, said it didn’t scan. From there I went on to a detective story, and so from poem to prose, poem to prose forever. I like writing both. The poetry, if it’s poetry, is subtler, and draws on different spheres, and doesn’t care so much to persuade, and if it works, is much more mysterious and one can be glad in it without self-congratulation.
Sometimes I’ve written draft after draft and got nowhere, to write the final one in my head during the night a long time afterwards. Or something simply writes itself, straight off. That is common. ‘The blood jet poetry’ doesn’t come with the morning post.
But it is the experience that matters, and the writing of the experience, not the author. Surely that is clear nowadays, when the reader is ready to throw the writer out of the window. That’s one answer. The other, from a completely different perspective, is that ‘we love other people’s lives: we need their focus.’ People, with all their oddities, are like us. Writers, therefore, are not only allowed to write what they want – they must. It is a duty they owe to the truth. One hopes the art is the proof of the truth.
People have mostly been kind. Goodness knows, we need our critics, and insight and careful analysis can only strengthen the will to write well. I could do with more criticism. I could also do with less. Hence, I tend to respond with disbelief.
[from ‘Mairi MacInnes in Conversation’ at 80]
Mairi MacInnes’s poems work like long-exposure photographs. I love the grainy and ferociously grounded sense they give of specific places, viewed close-up but through the medium of time and the undimmed eyes of a survivor.
Invited to choose two poems from Amazing Memories, I have lit on a pair that dwell simultaneously in two places at once, or which are, as Seamus Heaney puts it, ‘bi-located.’
The first, ‘In York Minster’, dwells in the present on one of the most numinous historical buildings in England, but takes off from a memory of an earlier time in Spain (‘Remember how they said in Aranjuez / in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies / because there were rivers underground / watering their roots?’) It goes on to reflect on the differences between the places, naming the different rivers in York and insisting the Minster is not a giant tree but ‘only stone, bare stone, magnesium / limestone, not wood.’ Having materially and nominally grounded the building (and the poem) in its actual place, however, the end conjures a magical convergence of the woods of Castile and the Yorkshire stone, viewing the cathedral’s mighty towers as like ‘stone oaks’ and the light ‘filtered as in a wood’ and people’s voices like ‘a rustle of birds in the undergrowth.’ At the close, the two places meet and marry, as she says: ‘I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.’
The second poem ‘Waking’ opens vertiginously by conjuring ‘A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy, / a hole in the head on the pillow this night.’ Thereafter it flips back and forward giddily between the dawn view from her bedroom in the present and memories of ‘a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash’ on the little island of Lundy, where she dwells on the birds ‘clumping together in rafts’ and going on to ‘nest on cliffs and in burrows.’ Again, the effect is to be in two places at once, and both aerial and deep-grounded, both with the birds in their nests, and the final shot of the young milkman ‘serving these houses like a messenger.’
In both poems, I find what MacInnes calls ‘Otherness’ and another of her poems describes as ‘other worlds that move / like ships at sea, faintly visible …’.
IN YORK MINSTER
Remember how they said in Aranjuez
in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies
because there were rivers underground
watering the roots? No rivers run under York:
when they dug a cave under the Minster floor
to pour new footing for the crossing tower
lest it collapse, they found only a drain,
a runnel oozed out of the compressed clay,
runt of the brotherhood Ouse, Seven, Seph,
Riccal, Dove, Foss, Rye, Derwent, Hodge Beck,
that spread upon our plain and keep it green.
If in the crypt you sense that giant trees root here
you err. Above is only stone, bare stone, magnesium
limestone, not wood; and yet the mighty towers
leaf like stone oaks, the window tracery flowers,
the transepts are two boughs, the light on us
is filtered as in a wood, people’s voices
arrive with the rustle of birds in the undergrowth,
and I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.
A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy,
a hole in a head on the pillow this night,
holes in the air, in the head, one in the other, containing
a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash,
aflash as they whirr and soar and plummet,
each like a well-flung bottle with trailing ribbon of feet
and a red and blue lozenge of a beak
in a white head that’s striped through the eye.
The last hour of night. The windows pale.
Quiet. The milkman hasn’t yet clanked up the path
nor the postman or newsboy come tramping,
the letterbox lid hasn’t yet clacked.
The geese haven’t flown over the gardens,
wings creaking like doors, giving each other advice.
True, the sky has winched a crack
of clear white line over the rooftops,
true that pigeons clatter up from the ash trees
(but now they clatter back).
A blackbird practises one phrase and then another.
Has someone spoken? No one.
Was that the telephone? No.
The puffins lift off from rocks by the sea,
from the floor of the bucket of mind
and the hole in the air off Lundy:
till, as they fling down the sky just this once
again and rashly mount to summit grass,
cramp strikes human legs, with sling-shot accuracy.
Some watcher on the cliffs has got me.
I slip from my bed and hobble the cold floor
(puffins falling through the enormous air),
and, yes, my legs come gradually free,
and words fly out once more
like puffins after winter storms spent on the great sea,
clumping together in rafts: in April
they break camp and whirr to the greening land
and nest on cliffs in burrows, and hatch their young;
and I that after all have no part in their kind
watch the milkman come, still a youngish man,
serving these houses like a messenger.