Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2010, Lachlan Mackinnon’s last book, Small Hours, concluded with a long poem, “The Book of Emma”, in which he reflected on the death of a friend from his time as an undergraduate. Reviewing the book in the Independent, Boyd Tonkin suggested that poems about death seemed to be coming back into vogue, adding that “The Book of Emma” brought “a new richness and resonance to the rediscovered art of mourning”. Mackinnon would no doubt prefer not to become pigeonholed as a laureate of doom and gloom, but in his latest collection, Doves, death is once again at the forefront of his mind.
There are poems here written in memory of Seamus Heaney, Dennis O’Driscoll, the Czech translator Ewald Osers and the Polish poet and essayist Wisława Szymborska among others, but this is by no means a funereal collection. While Mackinnon is evidently struck by the sense that his generation is beginning to die out – “Already I am not a young man” he writes in “Nocturne”, addressing another recently deceased acquaintance, this one anonymous – the poems here are surprisingly diverse in tone.
“Lament,” written in memory of O’Driscoll, is a short, staccato snapshot of raw grief in which a standing stone “braced by and against / any Atlantic weather” is proposed as an apt representation of the dead poet. By contrast, “Doves”, dedicated to Heaney, is mellow and meditative; circuitous and tangential; and allusive, too, in a Heaney-esque sort of way. Elsewhere there is even humour, albeit of the bittersweet variety. In “On Reading an Obituary of Sir Lattimore Brown, Soul Musician” Mackinnon recounts the various unfortunate incidents in the life of the phenomenally unfortunate singer in simple, stripped-back tercets, piling disaster upon disaster in a veritable carnival of calamity, yet also noting how his subject seemed to endure all these slings and arrows with surprising good humour. “Hard not to laugh / at such unmitigated bad luck;” the poet concludes, “harder still not to flinch / at such nobility”.
Mackinnon’s preoccupation with death certainly permeates this collection, but it wouldn’t be fair to say it dominates. Indeed, some of the most memorable poems here are very much concerned with the land of the living. “The West”, for example, is a wonderful evocation of the infinite complexity of human civilisation, with an unimaginable number of people waking up and going to work every hour as the sun rises in each new time zone.
Not everything in Doves takes flight. In “1988” the poet asserts that, while the fall of communism may have made the world a safer place, “eighty-eight was also the last full year / of the red threat that kept our bankers honest”. It’s an interesting thought, but hard not to reflect that certain irregularities may have crept into the capitalist system before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “California Dreaming”, meanwhile, which imagines a future world decimated by drought due to man-made climate change, is perhaps a little over-dramatic, ending as it does with the image of the last man and woman alive wondering whether “loincloth and invocation” will be their best hope when they discover she is pregnant. Such misfires are rare, however; this is a magnificent collection, suffused with gentle wisdom and studded with moments of quiet revelation.
*Doves by Lachlan Mackinnon, Faber & Faber, £14.99