Anthony McNeill, Chinese Lanterns for the Blue Child
Elaine Savory, The Caribbean Writer vol. 13, 1999
This last collection from the late Anthony McNeill contains quotations from a number of other writers and poets; Pablo Neruda, John Donne, Derek Walcott, Stephen Spender, William Burroughs, Wayne Brown, Elliott Coleman, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Theodore Roethke. Also several poems are dedicated to writers, (such as Wayne Brown, Edward Baugh, James Baldwin and V.S. Reid, as well as a Mervyn who is probably Mervyn Morris and a Dennis who is probably Dennis Scott). This indicates a poet’s poet, writing in a conscious literary frame, and indeed in his collection McNeill experiments elegantly and very evidently with transgressing the boundaries of the poem, as in his section 'Prose Poems' and the title poem, divided into dated sections. The prose poem section is divided into sections, some with numbered one line aphoristic statements such as 'If God exists I’m in a lot of trouble' (43) and 'Wild lily show me the way,' and some with numbered sections of longer length. There’s a conscious literariness here as well, in the references to Selvon, Saul Bellow and Kierkegaard, and references to writing, 'Everything that happens is words' (43) and the pain of writing, 'All day I worry the wounds I inflict on myself like additional shrapnel. The poet’s first station. This statue of pain. . .' (48). But the concern of the literary never weights the poems or makes them pretentious. They are slender and finely boned, 'Those who write represent despair, and those who don’t suffer in silence, Keirkegaard stated. This is how he divided the world. I alter his verdict to fit my work. Before the words knocked, they had shifted. . .' (45).
McNeill’s lightness of touch is deceptive, for his language is often like a coiled steel spring, beautiful, tensile and complicated, even when he is writing of familiar elements of the natural world in the Caribbean, 'At sunrise / at moonset / The sky on the sea / submits a faint lantern / Underneath more coral declines' (13) or of commonplace but central emotional abstractions, 'Love is Earth’s mission / despite the massed dead' (17).
Death is often present here, appropriately, since he clearly was foreseeing his own death during the period in which a good many of the poems were written. It is puzzling to only have the third part of 'The Chapel of Death,' but it is a hauntingly enigmatic poem, 'I wonder who sings / sad / from the ruins / Somebody with wings' (18). Sometimes death is very personal, 'I arrive at the sites of the graves' (41). Death is sometimes associated with ugliness and violence. In 'American Hooker,' the language is frank and confrontational, 'American hooker / with Death through your body. . .Your cunt is a plant / for CIA missions' (27).
Not only death, but life, and especially a life with poetry, is often McNeill’s subject: 'I wouldn’t have chosen another life' (with the clear reference to Walcott’s famous title); 'I demand the right to assess the worth of my own life' (40); 'I realised very early I had no gift for conducting a life. So I shifted my focus and sang a wreath' (42); 'Life is too short' he said to his wife. 'They rhymed on something at last' (39); 'I cross to the top of the rise / with a lifetime of poems' (34).
This 'lifetime of poems' marks his other great theme here, which is love. The volume opens with an elegant lyric about an early romance, 'La! Rose She was Lovely' (I have not reproduced the capitals in which all the poems are printed in the body of the volume, but used the titles as printed on the contents page). 'Sister Dorothy Hart' conjures Lisa 'met only once / ten days ago / very precisely / at the blue north' (18).
The colour blue is complexly important in relation to love as both religious faith and human attachment, 'God has no father / That’s why / The sky’s blue' (26). It appears in the title of the elusive and affecting title poem, where the blue child of the title casts 'word-lanterns' (38). In 'Anthers & Omens/1-12', 'Blue is the shade of the most exquisite flower. / The same as for ruined love' (41).
Love is also at the side of death: In 'William Cries Up To Heaven Falling Through Birds', the character William Ruth, who appears in several poems, receives no evident answer from God to his prayers that God destroy his 'blasphemous verses' (23). All that can be gleaned seems to suggest a 'Lucifer-wedding' of Love and Death in the shape of violence (24). God is elusive in this volume, even lonely, but nevertheless constantly invoked.
McNeill’s spareness makes the last poem in the volume very moving as it wrestles with the finiteness of life so evidently fully lived. 'Perhaps if I’m lucky I have a year left,' he writes. 'Listen, Paulette, I’m sick / of the pain / marries / the poet. / This late in addition, / There’s Lowell’s night-sweat' (52). It is part of the pleasure of this volume to look up such a reference because Lowell’s familiar old poem reads differently in the context of McNeill saying a few lines on, 'Who wants to hear failure & death above the work’s subject?' (58). Lowell’s poem 'Night Sweat' begins with the poet’s work table and the illness which now confines him to a 'tidied room', whilst his supportive wife suffers the brunt of his emotional needs, 'absolve me, help me, Dear Heart', (Robert Lowell, Selected Poems. Faber & Faber: London. 1965. 58-59). In McNeilI’s 'The Girl in Green', Paulette is confidante and companion, bearing witness to the struggle to write and the hope for life to extend, 'Paulette I’m tired / for not having slept / through the wound… Every day of my life seems the last' (53).
This is a volume to own and to read and reread, a collection of poems by a poet who fought against silence and won, leaving us an exquisite commentary of his own mortality and its necessary experience through words, for him as poet, and for us, who are left with his work.
This review relates to the book
Chinese Lanterns from the Blue Child
by Anthony McNeill