19 July 2023, The Tablet

How the light gets in

by Nikolai Duffy

How the light gets in

Patrick McGuinness
Alamy, Lorenzo Dalberto


Nikolai Duffy finds contemporary poetry taking root in the gaps between faith and doubt, prayer and knowledge

The American poet Rosmarie Waldrop once wrote that “what matters is not things but what happens between them”. It is an apt notion that characterises recurrent preoccupations in much recent contemporary poetry: the cracks between faith and doubt, light and dark, presence and absence, prayer and knowledge, and how attention to those gaps so often reveals the inseparability of one from the other.

In his third collection, Blood Feather (Jonathan Cape, £12; Tablet price, £10.80), Patrick McGuinness explores the gaps between languages, between industry and marginalisation, and between the past and the present. In a series of often short lyrics, the first part, “Squeeze the Day”, memorialises the poet’s mother, her life lived between two languages, the traces left behind and the blank spots where everything else has vanished. In the repeated attempt to lay claim to her memory, the poet finds the foreground receding until, “some place up the disappearing path / where a woman washes in clear water, / where a cobalt cloth hangs / from the window of a house / three leagues deep into the canvas, / into the idea of space”. In the final section, this disappearing path becomes both a fleeting motif and a spur to contemplation. “It’s the anniversary of my mother’s death,” McGuinness writes, “and my mother’s birthday / the day she short-circuited the tenses / made the current flow both ways.” In that double-pull of time moving backwards and outwards, he tells a rosary of “ghost-stations that haunt the line”, a series of diversions which are really a glinting of the same view, “the ever-ramifying journey back; / the points change; a new track”. Built from the concrete details of daily life, these are arresting poems that crystallise into a deeply moving meditation on the spirit’s ability to find beauty in grief.


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