Friday, April 22, 2011


Andrew Duncan's painstakingly edited run of Joseph Gordon Macleod poems, Cyclic Serial Zeniths from the Flux (Waterloo Press 2009) appears to have been as quickly forgotten as Macleod's work was the first time around. Aside from brief mention in the TLS or the books blog at The Guardian, the selection has fallen quietly away — I mean, I don't get the sense anyone's actively reading Macleod, though of course there may be a substantial readership out there somewhere.

Macleod's Ecliptic, out of print since its publication through Faber in 1930, is an utterly singular poem, or a poem of singular force, one of the few that manages to sustain an intense and electric charge across the whole of its sixty-some-odd pages. The poem is architecturally underpinned by the diurnal confabulations of the Zodiac, each of the twelve signs signaling a transient stage in a "single" consciousness. Duncan selects three of the twelve sections: Taurus, Cancer, Leo. Although "Cancer" has continued to circulate with a surprising measure of consistency since The Ecliptic first appeared in 1930 (cf. Rexroth's New British Poets; Keith Tuma's Oxford anth of 20th-c British and Irish po), "Taurus" and "Leo" appear here in print for the first time in eighty years. A stretch from "Leo":

Wherefore he turns, oblivious of the yells
Desiderative employers and pert damosels
(With similar intents) direct at him —
If he is Lion, he has Lion's whim —
Yet not forgetting manners due to friends
Nor due success honorarium
He bows the compass of the auditorium,
And walks away. And so the contest ends.

Macleod's approach to diction is wholly his own. Syntactic formations are largely normative, prosody and meter are, with some exceptions, remarkably conventional in the early poems. But his diction radically defamiliarizes the work, particularly The Ecliptic and his second long poem (unpublished during his life) Foray of Centaurs. Bunting — with Pound one of Macleod's earliest supporters — had little use for Foray, regarded the poem as an exhausting failure. But Bunting's dismissal of the poem is a little baffling and no doubt partially misinformed, or at the very least hasty. This from "The World Bursts Like a Pod" (1936 version of Foray):

Deliberately broken cycloid, bitten pediment,
correctly ovolated entablature
and hexastyle unpinned by utile dummy or urn:
the lawn's compaction and the tailored topiary,
salvias uniform in column of platoons,
the muted parterre quasi-semi-italianate:
these masses gather, these lines join
where apsed marquee lies anchored
within the balustrade,
and the wedding breakfast is spread, and metal peacocks
share mulberries with enamelled chinese pheasants.

The striking distance is reduced considerably in such passages; we encounter the brute force of an unfamiliar object. The objects closest to us are utterly alien. And this radical unfamiliarity is delivered through wholly conventional means: viz. largely Anglophone words arranged in completely conventional linguistic formations. The poem offers the promise of meaning, but this meaning is persistently deferred. And what we have is not indeterminacy or the free and unanchored play of language but philological saturation and overdetermination (a crucial distinction that needs further consideration).

Duncan's Macleod edition excludes three-quarters of The Ecliptic, but it offers the entirety of Foray and a rich selection of Drinan poems (by the late thirties Macleod begins publishing poetry under the name "Adam Drinan"; Duncan notes in his smartly titled introduction "The Gaelic-Soviet-Greek Triangle": "The books Macleod published as 'Adam Drinan' are Socialist-documentary works, usually set in the Hebrides, which are seen as a region ruined by Capitalism." The opacity that characterizes the earlier poems, "modernist" in orientation, is exchanged for a faux accessibility, but the facility with language Macleod demonstrates in his earlier poems resonates through the Drinan poems, most of them, like The Ecliptic and Foray, book-length works, work given often to the figure of the book and the possibilities available in the flexible arc of ballad-like narrative structures. The Cove (1940). Men of the Rocks (1942). Women of the Happy Island (1944). Others.