What I look for most in any new poetry is originality—that it should stand out from the flat landscape of the hegemonic mainstream. Originality—and attitude. This new collection has bags of both. The originality shows through the formal adventurousness, the dazzling range of imagery, the daring use of language. The attitude is bohemian, defiantly anti-authority, barefoot, rapscallion. The book contains a multiplicity of voices: Irish, Elizabethan, Biblical, even Pidgin (a multiplicity evoked in the title ‘black/white’) but these all cohere in a poetry that is both rhapsodic and satirical, communing with the past but at the same time sharply contemporary.
McDevitt is well known in the London poetry scene as a new Blakean, poet performer and proponent of ‘psychogeography’. (His work has also featured extensively in past issues of The Wolf) He conducts walks around the London haunts of Shakespeare, Blake, Rimbaud and Yeats, and these four poets are the presiding spirits of the book, quotations from each introduce the book’s four sections. But its dominant spirit is surely Rimbaud. Consider the opening of the poem ‘The Jewess’:
in the freedom of the trees a Jewess comes to rope
to arks of red and blue and green
warning of dangers rains masochisms
things dragged by horse-sense
fire and neurosis
to which she must cede control
bled from the Matronit
red from the Shekhinah
The exoticism, the hermetic references, the sense of intoxication are all characteristic of Rimbaud. Above all, the lines have that quality which is so essential to Rimbaud, of mysteriousness. The poem is a strange mixture of rapturous love-song with Biblical prophecy, strands that are difficult to unravel. But even though we don’t really understand where it is leading us, we trust the pulse and the power of the language and we are carried along with it.
Something of McDevitt’s background in London’s alternative subculture is evoked in the poem ‘The Drum’ which describes a celebration of the Millennium as far removed as one could imagine from the official one:
We have drummed the millennium, out-there, cultic, weird,
In the noumenal city of sha-manic cabaret,
In blue face-paint, black face-paint, bird-claws, robes and shrouds
It portrays an anarchic carnival, propelled by a headlong drumbeat: ‘Invading the Drome of the shape-shifters, time travellers,/ Goblin hordes in the skunk-perfumed dust tunnels’. The other participants— presumably based on real performers—are portrayed in grotesque and colourful terms: ‘At Cathedral, Satan strapped on her red-hot dildo./ At Globe, our Christ-on-a-Bike drank Tennents Super.’ The poem captures all the riotous variety of a spiritual/artistic underworld. It is McDevitt at his most uninhibited, and it is an exhilarating romp.
McDevitt has written a manifesto promoting a poetry of ‘Urban Shamanism’ and this is a key concept in his poetics. He describes it as an attempt to ‘reconnect poetry with its aboriginal light’, and a celebration of ‘mysticism/magic/mythology’ as counter to materialism. But its realisation in the rest of the book is much more subtle and more grounded than in ‘The Drum’. As a materialist, I am deeply wary of spiritualists who try to elevate life onto some otherworldly plane, and unconvinced by poets who claim to see ‘the streams of Albion’ still flowing in London sewers. But McDevitt’s ‘shamanism’ does not depend upon any overarching spiritual schema that we are expected to swallow on trust. Nor does it represent any kind of escapism from the harshness of modern urban life. On the contrary, as in Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’, the moments of vision are completely enmeshed with the squalor and confusion of real-life London streets. It is an ‘accidental magic’, the poetry caught in flashes through the messiness of real lived experience. This is the ‘urban’ balance to the ‘shamanism’ in the concept; the visionary and the everyday are inseparably intermixed.
So, in the poem ‘Visions of Sophia’, the visions of the lover are intercut with flashes of urban reality:
fare-dodging a dance
(transport fascists of London)
which leads immediately back to:
but all city brings
is visions of Sophia
—an eden in eyes—
holding onto life
through better way
The form and language here are so tentative and delicate, in stark contrast with that of ‘The Drum’. Poems like this stretch the concept of ‘shamanism’ to encompass very different effects, tender and intimate as well as propulsive and prophetic.
Of all the poems in the collection I am most impressed by those where the visionary flights are constrained by a tight pattern of short two or three line stanzas. The poem ‘Moon Rituals’ applies this pattern to a London night-walk. Where the constraints of the form might be expected to limit the imaginative scope to something flatter and more prosaic, they actually sharpen and intensify it. The effect is a kind of visionary imagism. In the stanza: ‘a helicopter gallops overhead/ moon-horse/ neighing war and apocalypse’, the word ‘gallops’ (echoed by ‘apocalypse’) evokes the chopping of a helicopter so precisely that it condenses and fixes the whole startling image. The stanza ‘postermobiles flap and swivel/ batlike/ in cages of information’ is again both compressed and transformative. And the stanza ‘I stand in a kiosk of glass/ primeval/ a science fiction unto myself’ enacts a similar alchemy, producing an effect that is both exact and deeply mysterious. So the compact order of short-line stanzas becomes a perfect form for conveying the nature of nighttime wandering, the disconnection of lonely London streets shot through by fragmented flashes of vision.
Alongside the precise contemporary imagery, b/w conveys a sharply political perspective. McDevitt’s attack (in ‘Babel’) on the pervasive Anglocentrism of ‘news in England of England in English delivered in English accents’, is hardly surprising given his Irish roots, his anti-imperialism and his fluency in Pidgin. But his extension of the theme to an English media ‘mid-Jihad’, contrasting the publicity given to Muslims in current news with the suppression of Irish voices in earlier troubles (‘in the time of the Irish Jihad’) offers a more provocative slant on the issue. And other poems carry more original political angles. The poem ‘Powerless’ is prefaced by the phrase ‘We shall be in the service of the most monstrous industrial and military exploitation’, and the opening line sets the scene succinctly:
after the march on sellotaped streets, I was drained of power and
went to the speakers
This locates the poem immediately in a contemporary march (anti Gulf War? pro-Palestine?) at Hyde Park. However what follows avoids all political sloganising and develops instead into a vision of wilderness and a meditation upon powerlessness, a surprising change of tone that subtly shifts the ground of the debate.
The poem ‘Ode to the Dole’ presents an even greater overturning of expected political attitudes. Here McDevitt bypasses the usual language of political victimhood to present the unemployed as a type of divinely entitled Elizabethan aristocrat:
city is their arena. like Ralegh, they deal drugs and write techno-
sonnets, all in towers
The poem is extravagantly defiant, dismissing any bourgeois moralizing with disdain, with a roar from the streets ‘like a Red Indian praise song’. Its political message is actually very sharp but it is delivered with an outrageous flourish:
the media is today what the church was in the Middle Ages: the all-pervasive
brainwash. it brands the psychosphere.
dole is the antidote, a final overturning of serfdom, a compensation-package for centuries
It is a wonderfully liberating take on ‘welfare dependency’ and the perfect antidote to the current climate of miserable judgementalism.
The book culminates in a final section that shows McDevitt at his most daring—a sequence of poems representing a love affair with the poet in the persona of Christ. The sequence plays upon the lover’s name Sophia (Greek for ‘Wisdom’) to present the affair and its painful break-up in terms of a mystical communion between Christ and Wisdom. My original response to this section was of complete astonishment—the poet-lover as Christ, how could that possibly work? The potential traps for self-indulgence are so huge and glaring, yet somehow it succeeds wonderfully. From the start the tone is assured and compelling:
Christ awakens, pale member in hand, pisses an epiphany,
flushes the banes
Christ limns his film, his pearls of come, to be this font
Although this language is exalted, it is graphically real (a combination that reminds me of Joyce). Perhaps the one fault McDevitt can be legitimately charged with is blasphemy, but that probably wouldn’t worry him:
(her leprosy is cured, first caught from him, who kicked her
in bed with nails like thorns)
Christ in New X, locked in his body, a public toilet
As the love affair begins to break up, the poetry maintains the surety of tone and language. The pain is palpable but McDevitt’s wit keeps it from ever becoming self-pitying. Christ is portrayed appealingly as a bohemian idealist— ‘Christ flaneur’—a Rimbaudesque figure forever on the losing side of battles with authority. As Sophia turns against him she mocks him for his lack of success, and in a final comment sums up his failure with the crushing verdict: ‘the Romans had won’.
Elsewhere in the book, McDevitt intercuts the mysticism with sharp modern references:
the coins are chewed, the virgin calls back, he stands in the kiosk,
listening to the rings, pretending to be gone
So we never lose contact with the reality of the break-up, the bitterness and the sadness. The exalted language actually makes us feel them more keenly.
My last word must go to the first poem in the collection, ‘The Icon’, addressed also to Sophia, no doubt before the affair turned sour. I leave it to last simply because I think it is the loveliest. It is certainly the most extraordinary in terms of its formal originality, following a tight three-line stanza pattern I have never seen used elsewhere. To describe its form (eight tercets rhyming loosely ABB, ABB, ABB … where the B rhymes feature the same word repeated) suggests only a dreary formalism and conveys nothing of its beauty. If one set out to apply such a form it would certainly end up forced and mechanical, but this actually reads as if it arrived in the poet’s head perfectly formed. If anything were to challenge my materialism it would be a work of art like this, which appears to be the product of pure ‘inspiration’. How else are we to account for it? The meaning of the poem remains deeply enigmatic but the unity of form with meaning is so complete there is no sense of anything missing.
What appeals to me then about b/w and the ‘urban shamanism’ it embodies is not any spiritual element, which does not figure for me in the book. What I find so appealing is how it breaks completely with the narrow and constricted poetics of the mainstream. McDevitt’s manifesto speaks of the need for art to be ‘outrageous because life is outrageous’, and it is this daring which finds a whole new world to explore outside the dominant conventional discourse of restrained and civilized feeling. By breaking free of that, while at the same time steering well clear of the academic avant-garde, McDevitt opens up space for a whole range of energies, for performance, vision, anarchy, love-rhapsody and mystery. In the process, McDevitt gives back to poetry the raw excitement it too often seems to have lost. It is a liberation not of the spirit but of the imagination.
N.B. This review was first published in The Wolf.