Speculatrix, by Chris McCabe: A Review

Speculatrix, by Chris McCabe, Penned in the Margins, 2014, ISBN: speculatrix_cover_sm978-1-908058-25-6, £9.99.

There is a long tradition of poetry set in and about London, one that dates back at least as far as Layamon’s Troy Novant. This idea, borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth and kept going by, amongst others, Spenser in his Faërie Queene helped establish a foundational myth that was to prove useful to English imperialism in the centuries that lay ahead. At the dawn of this empire, the city featured heavily in the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, both directly and indirectly, the latter often by locating plays in Catholic courts, to allow commenton the Court of King James. Generally speaking, these plays painted London as a place of corruption and opportunity in equal measure.

In the 18th century, both Dryden and Samuel Johnson continued this tradition when they recast satires by Juvenal as commentaries on what was by then the most populous city in Europe. While extolling the virtues of life in the capital, both poets were at pains to record its underbelly, a world of prostitutes, footpads, young bloods in search of a fight, and chamberpots being emptied out of upstairs windows. In Johnson’s words, London was ‘the needy Villain’s gen’ral Home’.

In the Romantic era, Blake was the city’s chief bard. As an native Londoner who rarely ventured elsewhere, his love of the place was greatly tempered by his vision of its dehumanisation by the Industrial Revolution and he incorporated the city into his apocalyptic vision, adding the idea of a New Jerusalem to the myth. Most of Blake’s fellow Romantics were more committed to rural visions of Englishness, and so his work was a major influence on much of what was to follow in the way of London verse.

In the early 20th century, apocalyptic London lies at the heart of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and later on the major poems of the Blitz: Four Quartets, HDs War Trilogy and Dylan Thomas’s elegies. However, the most significant of all poetic explorations of the London mythos was written after WWII; this was, of course, David Jones’ The Anathemata. Jones’ work was a key influence on many of the British Poetry Revival writers, especially Iain Sinclair, whose book-length poems Ludd Heat and Suicide Bridge bring together many of the themes of the London myth.

These poets, and many others, have established a kind of framework within which any poet writing about London will find themselves constrained to operate, even if they end up rejecting it.

In their writings, London is both sacred landscape and criminal playground. It is characterised by political and financial power, but also by poverty and oppression. Its anonymity both crushes and liberates the human soul.

Whitehall Jackals, Chris McCabe’s 2013 collaboration with Jeremy Reed, was firmly in this line, with the influences of Blake, Jones, Eliot and Sinclair all being evident. In this new collection McCabe harks back to the earlier voices of the Jacobean stage, with the titular sequence comprising a set of nine poems named after Jacobean dramas: The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Changeling, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Alchemist, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Duchess of Malfi, Women Beware Women, and The Malcontent. The primary themes running through these plays are love triangles, money and class (many of them feature relationship between noblewomen and their servants), and the conjunction of love and death, éros and thanatos .

These themes are woven through McCabe’s texts, each one an imagined speech by a character who forms one point of that play’s triangle. The poems weave phrases from the plays through overlapping visions of the city now and then, researched on the Internet in a Jacobean tavern from leads provided by the eponymous female spy. The formal constraints that McCabe uses, justifying both margins of the text to create visual boundaries but using left-margin indents and internal spacing to invoke the freedom of open field verse, add to the sense of barely contained and conflicting energies: wealth and financial collapse, creativity and death, reality and play. This is a city on the verge of a riot it doesn’t really understand. ‘I have’ to quote Lovewit in McCabe’s ‘The Alchemist’, ‘a real toy sword bit I am in the wrong play’.

The sequence is flanked on one side by a short prose preface called ‘Black Lodge Recorder’ in which poetry is compared to an aircraft flight recorder, a system of inputs and outputs, and on the other by a series of twenty one short poems, or odes. These display a greater range of formal control than was evident in Whitehall Jackals. They range from prose poems, through free verse and list poems to tercets and quatrains in fairly regularly accented meters. Many of the themes that dominate the Speculatrix sequence resurface here. There is anger:

they took her & hit her in the crotch, even as
the camera turned, I heard a shout

“It’s a girl, it’s a fuckin girl”

(‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’)

dry verbal humour:

Back in the Häagen Daz we made Bang & Olufsen plans

(‘Our Glasnost Love’)

and tenderness in the face of death:

……. Dying is decay, to live practices filth.

There were forty-nine unfinished things in your life


— boyhood dreams included — that you were going to live for.

That’s been nixed : you cannot rise in a state of unfinishedness.


A number of the poems are addressed to individuals, mostly dead ones, and the two poems for the late Barry McSweeney are particularly fine, unpredictable elegies. The poem addressed to book artist and Circle Press founder Ron King is perhaps the most accomplished in a generally highly accomplished collection, with its playful use of expanding structures to create a sympathetically careful unfolding:

Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son.

Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son’s death.

Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son’s death to cancer.

(‘Ron King at the Estuary’)

This book has the air of a poet emerging from the shadows of his influences, finding his true voice and expanding his range, both technically and thematically. I look forward to seeing where McCabe goes next.






Althea Gyles: Irish Woman Poet

A Gyles
Gyles, on the right, with Constance Markiewicz.

Althea Gyles (1868 – 1949) was born into a very respectable family in Waterford and became one of the most colourful figures of the colourful 1890s. She studied art in Dublin and them moved to London, where she joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, entered a ‘scandalous’ relationship with notorious publisher Leonard Smithers and possibly took Aleister Crowley as her lover. She provided cover designs for The Secret Rose, Poems, and The Wind Among the Reeds by Yeats and, Ernest Dowson’s Decorations in Verse and Prose. Yeats thought very highly of her, both as painter and poet. Introducing ‘Sympathy’ in XXX he wrote:

Miss ALTHEA GYLES may come to be one of the most important of the little group of Irish poets who seek to express indirectly through myths and symbols, or directly in little lyrics full of prayers and lamentations, the desire of the soul for spiritual beauty and happiness. She has done, besides the lyric I quote, which is charming in form and substance, a small number of poems full of original symbolism and spiritual ardour, though as yet lacking in rhythmical subtlety. Her drawings and book-covers, in which precise symbolism never interferes with beauty of design, are as yet her most satisfactory expression of herself.

Arthur Symonds arranged to have Duckworth publish her verse, but she refused to remove a dedication to ‘the beautiful memory of Oscar Wilde’, so the book was withdrawn.


THE colour gladdens all your heart;
You call it Heaven, dear, but I
Now Hope and I are far apart
Call it the sky.

I know that Natures tears have wet
The world with sympathy ; but you,
Who know not any sorrow yet,
Call it the dew.

Maria La Touche: Irish Woman Poet

Maria La Touche married into the Huguenots La Touche family who owned the Harristown estate in Co. Dublin. Seven poems by her were published in The Irish Monthly in 1877 and 1878. They were collected as an appendix to her The Letters of a Noble Woman

Now tearful Summer dwindles to its close,
The leaves fall tarnished from the last white rose;
No perfume lingers in the heavy air —
The Earth seems sleeping in a mute despair;
All one unvarying plain of gloomy green.
The grey horizon bounds the cheerless scene;
While slowly drifting on, the untiring rain
Falls blighting on the fields of wasted grain,
And the black river gliding turbid by
In doleful pools repeats the doleful sky —
So from the landscape’s too familiar gloom
I turn my eyes, and fairer visions come.
Lit by the golden dream-light of Regret
The scene grows radiant, and ’tis Summer yet.
Summer is burning in the April days,
And Earth lies tranced and drinks the genial rays —
Earth, liberal, loving, fair — not such as this
Where daisies own a Sunbeam’s passing kiss —
But rich, warm, glowing, passionately rife
With all the scents and hues of lavish life;
True Earth, not Dreamland — yet more fair than dreams
Its lilied plains and olive-haunted streams —
More bright than Dream-waves shine its sunlit seas,
More sweet than Dream-air floats its fragrant breeze —
More blest than Dream-life pass the charmed hours
Between its sky of light and earth of flowers.
Alas! that save in dreams I may not see
The only land that can be home to me.

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination research seminar – all welcome

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination.

Place, performance and imagination

Wednesday, 28 January 2015, 4-5.30pm,

Tower Theatre, Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

LANDscape research seminar – all welcom


Dr. Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

‘Mapping the Linguistic Turn – language, space and place in Irish traditional music’

Billy Mills, poet and critic.

‘Words for Music; Music for Words’

Niall Keegan is a traditional Irish flute player and an ethnomusicologist. His PhD, The Art of Juncture – Transformations of Irish Traditional Music, focused on the language-based structures used by traditional musicians to account for and shape their performance practices. His research also engages the diasporic experience of traditional music, particularly in the UK. He has performed extensively throughout the world with musicians such as Sandra Joyce, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Clive Carroll.

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, literary journalist at guardian.co.uk. Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Getting to the Academy:


Rose Kavanagh: Irish Woman Poet

Rose Kavanagh (1860-91) was born in Tyrone. She was well known for her children’s stories, and was friendly with many of her contemporary women writers, as well as being very close to Charles Kickham. On her death, W.B. Yeats wrote an obituary. Her poems were collected posthumously in Rose Kavanagh and Her Verses (Dublin & Waterford: M. H. Gill & Son 1909) edited by Rev. Matthew Russell.

[Robert Emmet’s Burial place.]
Inside the city’s throbbing heart
One spot I know, set well apart
From Life’s hard highway, Life’s loud mart.
Each Dublin lane, and street, and square
Around might echo; but in there
The sound stole soft as whispered prayer.
A little, lonely, green graveyard,
The old church tower its solemn guard,
The gate with nought but sunbeams barred.
While other sunbeams went and came
Above the stone which waits the name,
His land must write with Freedom’s flame.
The slender elm above that stone
Its summer wreath of leaves had thrown
Around the heart so quiet grown.
A robin, the bare boughs among,
Let loose his little soul in song–
Quick liquid gushes, fresh and strong.
And quiet heart, and bird and tree,
Seemed linked in some strange sympathy
Too fine for mortal eye to see,
But full of balm and soothing sweet,
For those who sought that calm retreat,
For aching breast and weary feet.
Each crowded street and thoroughfare
Was echoing round it–yet in there
The peace of Heaven was everywhere.