REVIEW by Phil Clement

NWR Issue 103

The Good News

by Rob A Mackenzie

The second of Rob A Mackenzie’s full-length collections, The Good News offers disillusioned readers a sounding board for their fears. Mackenzie successfully navigates the emotions familiar to all viewers of reality television and reanimates one of the dustiest of old questions: What is happiness and how much is it worth?

Confident and versatile in his use of form and metre, Mackenzie (based in Edinburgh, a city coincidentally voted the second happiest town in the UK as of May 2013) uses this collection to joyfully deconstruct the world, often symbolising this with the white space of a well-placed line break. The reader has to tread carefully through Mackenzie’s odd world of disenfranchisement for fear they might take a wrong turn, forcing them to retrace their steps in search of firmer footing.

In three sequences which explore different yet complementary themes, the poet ‘investigates fate, love, politics and death’ in his wandering musings, conjuring a picture of the poet travelling in the footsteps of Voltaire’s Candide, wide-eyed and naive: all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

The first sequence, ‘The Lingua Franca’, commentates on the contemporary politics of Scotland and questions nationality in the heated climate. Playful and inventive in equal measure, here Mackenzie exhibits his true form as ‘one of the best Scottish poets of his generation’ (Ian Duhig). He uses enjambment and end stops to evoke a stop-start voice of disillusionment that draws on the likes of Woody Allen and Blade Runner, here illustrated by the first poem in the collection, 'Sunday Morning': ‘The New Year headlines are retro. Graves / open and close like coinless fish-mouths.’

Mackenzie’s poetry may well deal with the disillusioned, but it is equally effective at depicting our distrusted triumvirate of party leaders: Cameron, Clegg and Milliband. In ‘Willow Branches’, a translation from the original Italian of Salvatore Quasimodo’s ‘Alle Fronde die Salici’, he is tender and bittersweet; in ‘Tippexed Speeches on Scottish Independence’ he is rub-your-belly-hilarious.

In the second sequence, ‘Autistic Variations’, Mackenzie sets out to deal with autism, with brilliant and moving results. In particular, ‘Routines’, without resembling a clichéd therapy poem, portrays beautifully the effect of autism on family life, dealing frankly and boldly with conflicting emotions.

The final sequence, ‘Human Manoeuvre’ is tight, wry and existential. In ‘Nocturnes’ we watch on, disattached, as Mackenzie forces his narrative Candide to stare in at humanity on Christmas Eve, to draw upon slacker-angst, and to bait our reliance on spoon-fed pop culture: ‘to celebrate “winterfest” / obliterate consciousness / add meaning / stripped down/ to the least offensive point/ a continuous period/ extended ellipsis.’

While The Good News is undeniably amusing, thought-provoking and captivating in its composure, it is possible that, at times, Mackenzie's poetry is too politically engaged. Each poem, (certainly within the first sequence), is a critique on the question of Scottish independence. Mackenzie being a practising minister and unafraid to tackle big questions, this comes as no surprise, but it is perhaps a little overdone.

The Good News, though, is no minister’s self-help book, and as Colin Begg (writing for The List) states, ‘[Mackenzie] gives no coffee table answers.’ It feels as though the poems are charged, booby-trapped; will you find Mackenzie’s stance on independence in the poems? – probably not. Do you want to? – no. The joy in reading this collection is found in riddling your own perspectives on fate, faith, travel and death.

This is a highly engaging, intelligent and enjoyable collection, the lines of which mingle together and reveal new layers with each reading. It is difficult to imagine a reader coming away from it unchanged.

Phil Clement writes short stories and currently lives at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, as part of an extended marketing residency.


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