Rush hour is cruel to those going nowhere. To stand frozen as the city wheels about, reconfiguring itself for dinners and duvets, is to feel exposed, even as the press of humanity ignores you. I’d been waiting for a friend who, having forgotten, had left me beached on the pavement where I met Helen. We sat on a bench, lit like film stars, as lesser mortals hastened from shadow to shadow. Helen was weathered, drunk and still gasping cider from an oversized plastic bottle. The smell of alcohol was toxic and, instinctively, I wanted to retch, to run into the night. However, once someone’s started gabbing I’m trapped until I can find a tactful exit – and Helen wasn’t stopping. She was certain that the drink would kill her. She wept for her family, for the children she had abandoned and pulled a religious medal from out of her clothes, asking me to pray with her. This was too much and I refused. Stung by embarrassment, she started to rearrange herself but my guilt was too much. And so she sat there like a child while I played priest, struck with stage fright.
Olivia McCannon opens her collection with Liverpool Echo, which presents a newspaper seller who’s as much a fixture as any litter bin, or lamp-post. ‘He’s not there any more, the man outside Marks and Sparks, / Twice a minute every day for years, he shouted – ‘C’o!‘ You need to be in empty, enclosed space to hear an echo and so the man’s echoes, which reverberate through the poem, suggest that, although he was physically present on the street with shoppers, tourists and workers, he was in fact alone. The walls necessary to generate an echo also suggest confinement; it may have seemed to those who walked past that he was in the open air just like them but, rooted to his spot, the nameless man was tethered by poverty. He was no ordinary street seller but a harbinger of death: ‘It was always winter and always dark, / His – ‘C’o! was church-loud, hollow and cold. // A blast of mist, shaped by his mouth’s warm hole / Into an O as irrevocable as crematorium smoke’.
Although the collection’s opening poems sound a knell with titles like City of the Dead and Dust, McCannon’s Jubilee Portraits steer a deft course between domestic warmth and a meditation on mortality, as her father’s photographs were ‘Taken fifty years ago in black and white, / Developed with the enlarger he made from a gunsight / On a ship in Kiel, waiting to be demobbed.’ That McCannon has to remind the reader that the photographs are black and white signals the technological revolution which divides the generations yet, even in these prints, actions are preserved in the present tense as ‘The top one shows she never swims, just paddles’. The sonnet’s concluding couplet revisits the ground of Liverpool Echo as the father, the photographer, is ‘The man who repaired the guns but didn’t fire them / The man who took the photos but wasn’t in them’. McCannon’s caesuras highlight her ambivalence, as the father is at once both active and absent, his passing marked by emptiness, like the absence outside Marks and Sparks.
In Exactly My Own Length, the bespoke qualities of the coffin present death more attractively, as the grave could lodge in ‘Say a sheltering hollow in the heather / Marked by a wind-quiffed hawthorn / Rounded, sweetened and softened / By clumps of sheep wool and droppings / Where the ground is still herd-warm’. However, the titular phrase, taken from one of Coleridge’s notebooks, evokes the cosy sleep of the living and the poet thinks that she’d ‘be happy to stop a while’ in such a place. This is either the lightest of ironies, or a humorous indication of the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. At this point, the poem darkens as burgeoning nature ‘is also the never-hoped-for / Slow-sucking bog on the darkening moor / That forces you to watch yourself slide / Feet first into its changeless archive / Of petrified time and trapped light’. Suddenly, the oblivion which swallowed the newspaper seller looks the better option, as at least his body is spared undeath and indignity which, given the collection’s final sequence of poems, begins to look like a metaphor for the way in which modern medicine desiccates us.
Although the closing sequence allows McCannon to explore her feelings on the loss of her mother, she evokes modern medical care with a precision which chimes with the reader. Landing Light’s title plays with associations, suggesting both the homely light at the top of the stairs and the technological precision of the night flight. ‘Transparent tubes and strings / Anchor you to life / Heavy machines and bags at the end of each / Whenever you move / I must stop them pulling out’. A ship should never be anchored to something moving: it risks both vessels and tears up the sea or river bed. Despite the mother’s fragility, death’s will to power makes light of the machinery, personified as ‘pulling out’ which, in turn, forces the speaker to struggle to stop it. There’s nothing dignified about the three-way struggle of this deathbed vigil.
In these final poems, language is stripped from the speaker. In Vigil, she becomes a pair of eyes flitting between objects in the austere room: ‘The bed / The twisted sheets / The chair by the window // The wind / The wind’ and Nothing I Can Do offers a gradually disintegrating litany of care and questions: ‘I don’t know what the answer is / I tidy the pills you’ve stopped taking / I make a hot-water bottle for your feet / I put on some music / I light a candle / I hold your hand / I weep / There is nothing I can do’.
A couple of weeks ago, Exactly My Own Length won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and it’s not difficult to see why. McCannon’s collection is a focused and spare exploration of our responses to loss. By working with a restricted palette, McCannon’s work gains intensity and a deceptive effortlessness.