The Canals of Mars

by Patrick McGuinness
96 pages,
ISBN: 1857547721

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Mind-Muscle In Flex
by Kelly Grovier

Given that its author is a Tunisian-born Belgian of Irish extraction who lives in Wales and lectures in England, and whose academic expertise is in French literature, it is perhaps not overly surprising that this extraordinary debut collection should be devoted to what Philip Larkin called "The Importance of Elsewhere." Moving from Bruges to Bouillon, Palo Alto to Pont Aven, Mersey to Mars, Patrick McGuinness has constructed an atlas of displacement, a rough guide to a lonely planet, full of unquenchable cultural curiosity and irresistible ironies. Pointing out that "surveys showed that most Belgians questioned / would have preferred to be from somewhere else," McGuiness muses with enviable verve in his poem "Belgitude", that "truly this was home."
Alive to every undulation of the linguistic landscapes in which he moves, McGuinness's poems often pivot on the cross-cultural possibilities of a single isolated word. In his glimmering poem "Glo", the ashen density of the Welsh word for "coal" and the shining resonance of its English homonym, 'glow', are crushed into the dark brilliance of the poem's last lines: "Now only afterglow: burned to ash / what once was thunder for the eyes". Such synaesthetic shimmer recalls Seamus Heaney's conclusion to "Personal Helicon": "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing".
That collapsing of connotations, "glo" and "glow", the morphing of meaning from one tongue to another, is also at work in the poem "Cwlwm", in which McGuinness captures the familiar phenomenon of feeling strangely unestranged even from what one recognises as strange. Tripped up by the "tangle-throated syllables" of street names in Wales, McGuiness says initially that he "saw double before [he] saw them twice", when all of a sudden something clicked:

. . . the roadsigns started to take root,

the place-names lifted off the letters
that composed them as in films the spirit
leaves the body. Calon into canol,
heart into centre; fluent as a stencil

peeling back to leave itself behind.

Seizing dyslexically on adjacencies in the alien lexicon "calon" and "canol"¨and on an intuition of the proximity of their meanings, McGuinness is able to get to the "heart", to the very "centre" of what Larkin meant when he said that "Lonely in Ireland, because it was not home/ Strangeness made sense".
That is not to say that one must have shared McGuinness's idiosyncratic itinerary to appreciate his poems. Indeed what one quickly realises is that, for all of its regional restlessness, McGuinness's work is moving in much more than merely a touristic sense. So recognisable is his cartography of the human heart, one feels that he could have written just as beautifully had he been stranded in Slough his whole life. His strength, in other words, relies less on the insistence of his travel agent than on his own innate visionary power. Some of the most memorable poems are in fact nationalistically indistinct, such as the short, sharp, almost epigraph "Another Language", which encapsulates the poet's ultimate purpose:

Writing was to build on paper;
To speak was to make things out of air;
To see was to take light and to shape it
Into something that was never there.

Though there is much that is exotic and remote in this collection, often it is the most mundane, the most quotidianly universal of things that glitter brightest. Take dust: in a poem by that unlikely title, dust is elevated to an almost Christ-like status of created and creator¨"form and form-giver, light and light-bearer"¨and is credited with being all but essential to the imagination, "mak[ing] sight substance". Finally, dust's unexpected transformative power consumes itself as it simultaneously "disappears and is lighter than disappearance".
Dust's near immateriality is anticipated in its existential absoluteness by the near materiality of something else that's universal¨thinking¨in the dazzling "Short Life of a Thought". Described as "mind-muscle in flex", the mysterious movement of thought is painstakingly dissected in language that at once seems strangely scientific and theological: "Not yet itself: a flickering pilot light, a meteor's / dead surface pocked / with DNA", "And so it grows . . . devours likeness / creates nothingness in its imagez'.
That palpable paradox of an imaged nothingness unsettles and invigorates the whole of McGuinness's visionary volume. It's there in "Surfers in a Wing Mirror" which imagines "insurgents storming barricades of air", and there too in "Bruges" where "the real and the reflected / swap dimensions"; it's there in "An Ending", which insists that "Our not moving is what dizzies us, not our speed", and in the haunting "Death whispers softly", which contemplates "the beauty of what would be me / without me". And if McGuinness has already mastered that sleight of mind here, at the outset of his career, who knows what other worlds he still has up his sleeve? ˛

Kelly Grovier is one of the editors of Oxford Poetry.

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