Speculatrix by Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins - December 2014)
You may be forgiven for assuming, based on the title, that this latest poetry collection by Chris McCabe has a futuristic theme; there seems to be no limit to the author’s scope and he is quite a visionary when it comes to reaching beyond the present. The word ‘Speculatrix’ does not feature in the English Dictionary but, according to A Latin Dictionary of 1879, it is an old English word that means ‘she who spies or watches or a (female) spy or watcher’. This collection is not really about a 007 in a corseted dress but might be described as a journey through history as seen through a warped yet discerning looking glass—nothing is quite what it seems. Indeed, I dare say these poems remind me of marmite; not that you will either love them or hate them, but because, no matter how hard you study the list of the ingredients, it is impossible to compare the distinctive taste to any other flavour.
This collection is written in the style called pastiche and so sets out to mix and match several genres, various vocabularies, text sources, personal experience, historical contexts and much, much more. The first poem has an epigraph linking it to Twin Peaks by David Lynch, to give an indication of the range of eclecticism that can be expected from this book.
What follows are nine poems based on London-staged debut performances of Jacobean plays. These are the heart of the collection. Each one has the intensity of a monologue as it might be spoken by a culturally versed and candid time traveller. In the poem ‘The Alchemist’ (Ben Johnson), McCabe moves with ease between a playhouse in Blackfriars during 1610 and the dilemma of a 21st century commuter. Here are the last few lines from the poem ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts’ which refers to a play by Philip Massinger written in 1625:
You lean skull You privy creature You
slave to meat Fill this glass with white froth &
watch me knock it off You buyer You drudge
You ditch to what’s inside Enter “human skulls in
the Thames” ERROR 404 You hedge-funders to
our best Players You bond-slave You cur
Both the use of a diacritic mark above the i of ‘white’ and the reference to an error message that translates as ‘file or directory not found’ give us an indication of the sheer inventiveness that inhabits these poems.
Yet despite the playfulness there is a serious core; no matter how open to interpretation the references in might be, the critical intent behind the words cannot be dismissed. The reader is made aware of how little has changed in London Town in the last four centuries, particularly when it comes to the tension between the rich and the poor in society. The rebellious spirit of the underdog is conjured up; there is talk of ‘riots’ and of ‘zombies of ambition’. Some of the lines penned by McCabe are both as fast moving as quicksilver and as venomous as mercury.
McCabe is not shy when it comes to namedropping. We find poems dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud, Barry MacSweeney and painter Francis Bacon. In the poem ‘Aut Vincere Aut Mori’ he manages to refer to both Rosa Luxemburg and Sir Walter Raleigh as if they had been neighbours. For me the poem ‘Orchestra’ stands out—a witty fable about a ‘role reversal’ of a bird and a fish. It starts and ends with the following lines:
- The fishermen are cutting brown fish
- And the birds feel haul – [...]
- The birds beneath us, the fish above.
Mostly, McCabe uses the form of prose poetry but also makes good use of free verse, triplets and quatrains. There is a great sense of freedom and creative nonconformity to this work; the author is not restrained by conventions or intimidated by expectations. These poems really do convey a powerful sense of artistic achievement and he makes also the right noises when it comes to academic cross referencing. Nobody would dare to suggest that, after working fifteen years in the Poetry Library, McCabe doesn’t know the rules of poetry and he circumvents them in the most brilliant way—the liberties he takes seem fully justifiable.
He has been called ‘one of British Poetry’s most arresting and pioneering spirits’. I am sure it is no coincidence that McCabe uses the word ‘combust’ repeatedly throughout the 74 pages of his collection as indeed these poems glow with the fire of inspiration—he is a torchbearer in the dark catacombs of poetry.