An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Smith/Doorstop Books
The Poetry Business
Bank Street Arts
32-40 Bank Street
S1 2DS
ISBN 1 902382 73 0

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This page last updated: 28th June 2008.

Hugh McMillan's collection AFTER THE STORM was a first stage winner in the Smith/Doorstop Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2004. It is easy to see why it was such a strong contender in the competition. His style yokes an unusual blend of imagery and an uneasy humour. Overall the poems can be viewed as a critique of society, but not necessarily one that the author is divorced from.

WANDERED, the first poem of the collection begins with the image of the old mother waiting at home for the return of the prodigal son. The 'old' is emphasised by the imagery of the second line, the fading sunlight and autumnal crunch of leaves. Yet, the 'old scenario' of family that does not visit is readdressed with the amazing lie:

	I have been in orbit
The third stanza addresses the truth, that he has come home and how his mother's face has become
	soft as a girl's
adding to her pride and her steadfast patience, in waiting. It could be said that the theme of this poem is that of the wandering male and the stationary fixed female, perhaps in the manner of a fixed star and its binary, or the fading of a star as it ends its nuclear life. WANDERED seems a simple poem, yet unravelling it leaves many questions, which redirects the reader into re-reading the poem.

Some of McMillan's poems are like snapshots taken on the wrong side of town. His concerns reflect an engagement with the sordid, and broken down in order to make a criticism of society; perhaps how society fails the individual, or how the individual has failed society. THE END OF JUSTINE'S SUMMER brings the reader from an urban present with:

	oily clouds like autumn
	chip bags
south to a warmer clime, but only to try to fix the physical details of his subject, a lady that has abandoned her own present. She disturbs the
	half embarrassed passers by
who recognise for the reader her unannounced condition. The poem's voice assigns a past responsible for Justine's condition, which is lightly underlined by McMillan's use of half rhymes. Opposing "magically" with "Malaga" adds a dynamic to the poem, which could as easily just be a snapshot of a bag lady. The poem avoids being this by bringing a strong element of objectivity, by addressing Justine directly, rather than reducing her to a third person non-entity.

MY MOTHERS DICTIONARY conversely concentrates on an object, a dictionary, to give the reader a sense of the occupations of its owner. We are given a sense of sight, in 'seeing' the words underlined or noticed; all unconnected but for the mind of the person who underlined them. The voice describes the sound of the pages, and their scent is used to invoke the dictionary's owner, in a strong imagined picture that uses the elemental force of fire and the witches familiars; except that now they are become words. The use of senses in this poem conjures a powerful perception of the person being honoured.

MARKED gives the reader a humorous insight into the world of marking exam scripts under the influence:

	ten pints can leave in tatters
	the critical apparatus.
The voice of this poem draws a comparison between the notion of marking papers to earn money and having to pass exams in order to end up in the position of being able to earn money. Although a critique of a system that teaches dry dusty facts to youngsters who think:
	the Triple Entente,
	'Who cares?'
is implied, the poem's voice speaks with an empathy to the student:
	It is strange how fate has done us in

	people like you and I would stride out
	on the byways of history like giants
The speaker regards both itself and Linn McGarr as victims of
	valid pieces of wishful thinking
where the speaker is the disappointed voice of untapped potential and the student seems unaware of hers.

SUMMER IN DUMFRIES, describes a grim depressing town that still allows for McMillan's humour to elevate this wider townscape. His

		... clouds of small town
	ill feeling
that blocks the sunlight that might just illuminate the better aspects of Dumfries, express the sensation of a lost cause. The constant details of urban detritus blight the town and the poem, but not in an overbearing manner. They are used with a deft touch to lift the depressing scene of decaying society to absurdity:
	Our terriers crap on putting greens,
	and the river passes us by
	carrying our bottles and kebab boxes
	filled with messages for other cities
Perhaps the message is: don't come here! Later the graffiti on the picnic tables plays its part, the minute details observed raise the humour of the poem again. Even the local fauna, the herring gulls play their part in this anti-town, which really does seem a representation of the failures of society, heaped together in one poem.

Overall, IN AFTER THE STORM, McMillan has a really refreshing voice to listen to and one that I hope to come across again.

reviewer: Barbara Smith.