Review of Stuart MacKinnon, The Welder's Arc.

[Review of Stuart MacKinnon, The Welder's Arc. Quarry 18.4 (summer 1969): 62-4.]


Many of the 25 poems in this book have been published in periodicals, but they are greatly enhanced by being printed together; for most of them gain by being read in groups or sequences, the perplexities of single poems being resolved at least to some extent by reverberations in other poems.  The welder’s arc, for example, which gives the book its title, is “a phosphorescent arc” in “Alexandria on the Grid-Plan”; in “Love’s Anarchy” it is “a cool green-white/Against the heavy leaves”; it may also be the star Polaris; and it provides a closing simile for the morning star Phosphorus.  The poems have an occult air as though the strong and complex feelings they spring from were focused first into recurrent crystals – some clearly defined, others not – and these refract into colours and forms that are not those of their origin.  Ken Tolmie’s drawings help to evoke visually some of the light-sources, and are useful guides to the unfamiliar universe of these finely executed poems.

Short, condensed, often witty, usually epigrammatic, many of the poems remain enclosed in the manner of epigrams, yet seek to resonate with something outside themselves.  And when the resonance occurs, that too is in the slightly acrid, tantalizing, and ambivalent manner of epigram.   The opening poems turn on the word crystal, variously explored as substance, as light-refracting, as structure, as name, to imply a geodesic and many-faceted psychic form seen from within – a crystalline geometrical model of a personal universe that has architectural perspectives opening upon vistas startling and austere.  As counterpart, in “Nexus” the ex sound of the title penetrates the whole small poem like a surgical needle or a shard of glass.  If this all sounds a little menacing, it is not menacing enough to drive Stuart MacKinnon out of humour.  Solemnity gets short shift here.  Another group of poems turns upon the word interval.  The vitreous quality of the opening poems dissolves into the compassionate and unguarded openness of love-offerings, In “The Hollow Town by the Sea” a precious memento is discarded as “the only thing . . . to withstand an interval”; the hermetic word is explored in “Love’s Trance” and “Snow on her Birthday”, and in “Love’s Anarchy” it joins with the welder’s arc: “I am not allowed loving/Without the burn of revelation/Or the interval of darke roads”.  And in “The Runner” the crystallographer’s enclosedness, which was stricken from outside by a shaft of light, is now turned (as it were) inside out and humanised: as the runner races along the corridor of trees “From his side the original world goes out”, and

From my side issues my heart,

Gone to ragged discard

To serve its curious appetite.

In the intervals of grey masking trees

We have respite as in

The interstices of being.

Near the end of the book another group of poems touches upon contemporary brutality and the powerlessness of grief – feelings aroused not by the fashionable bomb but (it would seem) by something more like the twisted face of old Adam or the impassivity of Cain, and the way the inventors of murder go on practising in like addicts, absentmindedly, without joy.  “Justice in a Field”, “The Accident”, “Golden Age”, “Transplant”, and “On the Way to the Vivarium” deal with such matters, I think.  But this group, like the earlier sequence, is not assembled according to any obvious program, being interspersed with other poems of notable strength and comparable allusiveness, occasionally intimate in harsh self-scrutiny or open tenderness.

Few of the poems are simple and direct; and all attain a high level of assured craftsmanship to match their initiating force.  Much more various to the ear than they look on the page, yet of no marked sonority, these poems are devoid of rhetoric and of any factitious effect.  They achieve a haunting clarity that eludes exposition, for they seem to be couched in a secret language entirely original, forged out of stillness and passion.  Surely this small collection is a first token of much more, for there is nothing tentative in these perplexing concentrations and in this intricate clarity.  The opening epigraph translated from Horace bespeaks the imaginative integrity of this work and the way it has come into being “Coolly and superbly”: “That which you seek is here/At Alubrae unless your mind fail to be calm and clear.”

The Quarry Press is to be congratulated upon setting this book by hand and printing it at a hand press to remind us that it still takes a light hand and a light heart to penetrate the mystery of printing from movable types.