A GHOST CORONA OF PETALS: Ash Caton reviews Carnation Lily Lily Rose by Jane McKie

The first and easiest grounds on which to recommend Jane McKie’s new collection (available now from Blue Diode Press) is the sheer hit-rate of its imagery, writes Ash Caton.

In the poem ‘Aurora’, look up at the “celestial hem” of the northern lights. In ‘Cairn to a Dead Biker’, hear “crows […] rust the twilight with their caws”. Later, a distant husky’s tail makes, “a vigorous feather of misgivings”.

Alighting on a phrase that took his fancy, W.H. Auden would write in the margin ‘GETS’ (Good Enough To Steal). Poets are notorious for reading with their fingers in the till, and those who have matured from petty imitation to wholesale theft will leave Carnation Lily Lily Rose with enough loot for a change of scene.

The title suggests an overlying musical architecture, a couplet bedded within a transformation. John Singer Sargent’s painting of the same name depicts two girls lighting lanterns in a garden on the cusp of evening, “the time things / are held perfectly in balance”.

McKie’s ekphrastic title poem provides a palette of her own textures and symbols: deer, dusk, papery dermises, captured light, the limitless metamorphic possibilities of liquid.

Sargent’s drying oils are the final answer to the poem’s question: “What makes the girls hold/in the twilit hush?” The painter himself took the phrase from a song by Joseph Mazzinghi, “A wreath around her head, around her head she wore / Carnation lily, lily rose.”

Restoring these eight incantatory syllables to a lyrical context is the first way McKie brings things full circle. Tolling like a mantra, they reverberate into four movements: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Across them, reflections flash and dissemble, some proximate and muffled, others remote and crisp as a mountain lake. With uncanny alchemy, McKie rangesthrough elements, from “gauze, to ghost, to gold”.[1]

A childhood photograph of the poet and her sister (‘Iconography’) evokes the ghosts of Sargent’s painting: here are another “two girls with one look on their faces”.

Broader symmetries enfold twinned poems: the double-yolked perfection of ‘Where’/’Are You?’, a pair of ‘X-ray’ studies. Set on opposing pages, these two x-rays anticipate the double negative of the adjacent ‘Lily’ sections – death, followed by new life – and epitomise the former’s atmosphere of forensic calm. A poem is a frozen instant. So is a painting, and McKie observes Sargent with comradely compassion; running over the lawn in rapidly fading light, as he “stops, makes/marks, [and] stops again”.

The ironic deathliness of this urge is well known. Hearing ‘The Universe Ticking’, the artist races to preserve life, but the process turns out to be lethal. Surely as pinning moths, to paint or photograph a child is to make a death’s head of them: the white-gowned girls of Sargent’s painting strike McKie “like revenants”.

Cold creeps the other way too, frosting up the artist’s arm; to contrive is, to some degree, to opt out of life.[2] To dance with shadows, McKie says: “I tell them I’m dead. That’s how we’re able to talk”.

Entering this underworld, we find a theatre dressed with white masks and spectral inversions. A bullet-wound in a skiagram resembles a rose: “a hole that blossomed/in his head.” Images interchange with their negatives to unsettling effect.

‘Following’ dreams of falling into a liquid mould, “Everyone […] mistook/my body’s shape for me.” Thorns grow in the purple-tinted evening: “carnation, lily, lily, antler-velvet rose” – an unexpected dimension of shadow casting forward to the x-rayed stag-skull, where “the grey-blue tips/of velvetless antlers/could almost flex/they are so like fingers”.

With this shiveringly delicate touch, we return to the fingers of the girls in the garden, holding their tapers, mindful the lanterns are fragile as bone where it “wicks into […] thinness” (my applauding italics).

There is no wreath in Singer’s painting, as there is in Mazzinghi’s song. But McKie finds one in the sunflower’s x-ray: a ghost-corona of petals. Coronae[3] and caro (“flesh”) are two Latin etymologies given for the word “carnation”. The second refers to flower colouring, and also Christian incarnation. Spiritual frameworks proliferate this first section: ‘Amniomancy’,[4] the prayer of St. Francis, cairns and totems, Oxfam’s “second-hand/Elysium”, ‘Hydrofeminism’.[5]

Theological diversity is matched by an array of registers: from the confessional immediacy of ‘‘Next’’ Blouse, Oxfam’ to the Ballardian psychogeography of ‘The Adjacent Estate’. By the time we reach ‘Rose’, many skins have been donned and shed, disparate beliefs coalescing into watery monism, an embrace of life’s fluidity.

That unliving quality of art revitalises when compared to grief and in particular, to pregnancy. McKie highlights the abstract side of both experiences: they are faiths of a kind, faiths upheld in an existence that is not yet, or no longer, material.

CLLR is a quiet epic of the elements, from the opening ‘Pool’ to the final “ghost of inundation”. By the end, the early “shades of […] sand” the poet pictures within herself, have worked themselves into the turning glass of a kaleidoscope, “reassembling its poem”. We watch the release of lanterns, like mothers who can’t stop their children “lifting off the ground”. Flames will catch. And later, fear will stare from the mirror with “a drowned lantern of a face”.

“I am building something” McKie writes, and the completed ‘Feature’ is equal to the epigrammatic brilliance of its most pinchable lines. This is music with the quality of “birdsong […] trickling in from every coordinate”.

About our contributor

Ash Caton is a poet and playwright living in Edinburgh. He regularly performs his work in the city, and has been published by the Edinburgh Literary Salon and Poetry Scotland. He is also the creator and host of Ear Read This (“Edinburgh’s most powerful book podcast”) and editor of John Kay’s Press based in John Kay’s bookshop in the Old Town.

[1] McKie agrees with Ted Hughes here: “ghost” is not merely a single apparition, but a material.

[2] Sargent missed untold rounds of lawn tennis and conversations with Robert Louis Stevenson, in order to enshrine the light of evening that had faded from the world months before.

[3] “wreath, garland, chaplet, crown” (Cassel’s Latin Dictionary).

[4] Predicting a newborn child’s future by scrutinising its caul.

[5] As referenced in the opening poem, ‘Pool’. The phrase comes from an essay by Astrida Neimanis, in which ‘Becoming a Body of Water’ is seen as a transformation both ideological and spiritual.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

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