Making Ends Meet by Andrew McNeillie
(Guillemot Press, paperback, 100 pages. Out now)
Review by Declan Ryan
About a third of the way into Making Ends Meet, Andrew McNeillie’s seventh collection, comes a poem called ‘A Poet: 21st Century’ which reads, in full, ‘A redundant light-house keeper/striking a match in a storm.’ There’s a disgruntled kind of glee in this, a pained recognition, but there’s more to the poem than aphoristic harrumph. The sense one gets, in context, is that this lack of worldly fame, the role as oddity, leftover or outsider, keeping on keeping on to little consequence, is no bad thing when all’s weighed up. This is a book of enthusiasms, hauntings and refusals, but often its keenest note is one of unexpected, at times distrusted, contentment.
In ‘Laertes’ ‘The day swims in and out of light’ and ‘I struggle up and down my plot/carrying water for my husbandry’, so far, so bucolic and seemingly ordinary. The poem shifts up a gear, in register and feeling, with the phrase ‘My son came back alive’, leaving the narrator ‘no reason now to dwell on wars/and casualties. I have enough scars/besides and wounds to nurse that come with age.’ This is a voice ‘quietly resigned within my shrinking orbit’, determined to ‘hold out here, while will-power lasts’. As in the earlier, skewered, 21st Century poet’s lack of fame, this narrowed, scaled-down horizon doesn’t point to grumbling solipsism, but rather humility – learned not innate – a level-headedness and willingness to tend to one’s own acre instead of setting out into the wider world on a wind of ambition.
One of the high points of this often tender, ruminative book is a series of poems called ‘Notes from an Island’, a mix of prose poems and lyrics, which talk about ‘the long off-season at the heart of life’, painting the quiet, ignored, unglamorous business of what it means to be a local in a place others visit for a few weeks of the year. These are ‘Experts in silence. The oldest language of all, hardest to learn’, who find, like the voice in many of the poems here, that life is richest when whittled down to essential sights, the walking rhythms of a known road. ‘He wrote to say, ”I can see Ceann Boire at the end of the Burren from my bedroom window”…Surely that ought to be enough for anyone in life’s adjustments’.
There are guiding voices called back and spoken to; Seamus Heaney, Richard Murphy and Louis MacNeice are all summoned and addressed. Lunch with Heaney isn’t just a diary’s anecdote, but a place to address that ghost at the heart of many of these poems – fame, or at least reputation – and its downsides. Heaney says ‘I got the Nobel Prize too soon’, that it ‘stops the clock and steals your time./Shall I say, it made the electric light flicker…?’ The delight of the memory, and the poem, isn’t the trademarked Nobel laureate, but the man himself, the flesh and blood behind all the glamour and autograph hunters; the small details, his hands at cutlery, the turf-fire talk between the friendly pair. In the poem to MacNeice one of the book’s darker notes is struck, ‘We are defined by differences/and our doom is bottomless’, but this despairing tone doesn’t feel definitive, more like the reckoning of an eternally recurring threat that unsettles each generation, a sense that ‘The train was ever off the rails’.
In ‘Richard Murphy’ we’re told that ‘the world [is] kept afloat by running repairs’ and that’s a fair analogy for McNeillie’s poems here, that sort of noble crafting and useful tending which make and sustain a life. The collection is bookended with images of just such repair – the first poem ‘Net Mending’ sees the narrator ‘stitching rent and hurt, back into squares/and make-do diamonds’, while the last, title, poem manages to tie the collection up, figuratively and satisfyingly, in ‘Light like a shadow’, a voice ‘struggling to make ends meet.’ These poems are testament both to the struggle, and the success, of that dutiful, honest stitching, by a writer open, as in the earlier ‘Orion’, ‘to the kind of wonder nothing can buy.’
Making Ends Meet is out now, and is available to buy here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.00.