BOOK REVIEW / Battlefield of the body: The patient by George macBeth, Hutchinson pounds 7.99

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE MACBETH died earlier this year, aged 60, of motor neurone disease. Scottish by birth, 1890s-ish by inclination, he seemed not so much a man divided as one who revelled in his various incarnations: the Oxford-educated litterateur, the dedicated BBC professional, the selfless talent-spotter, the demon-lover and lord of misrule, the exuberantly happy family man. Behind all these was the poet, and one whose work was more problematic: confident in its versatility, but less certain which of its several voices was the truest. The compassionate ironist? The wounded autobiographer, dourly paying his debts to the wartime past? The dandy indulging dark fantasies, glorying in the name of MacBeth?

Most of these MacBeths are represented in The Patient. It would be good to agree with the publisher's blurb that the volume contains 'some of the best poems of MacBeth's life'. It doesn't, but it contains some very striking poems of his death. The patient suffers the terrible depredations of his disease and writes of them with sadness or rage. But he invests his last, nearly posthumous role 'late MacBeth' with grim vigour. There is much wit here, a wit that 'knows no shame', but knows how long it's got: 'All flesh is grass and his is shortening rye./ We get the point, hour after hour we wade/Up to our necks in far worse than this.' A short sonnet-sequence speaks frankly, 'unflinchingly', about the indignities of the flesh. Other poems, clipped, almost telegraphic, engage angrily with the follies of the technological world.

There are pieces in the latter part of the book which seem, perhaps inevitably, only sketches for poems never to be written (and whether the book embodies choices made by MacBeth or by his estate isn't made clear). Yet illness and wasting powers give a painful resonance to the language in which MacBeth's imagination found its most fertile terrain: the language of armed combat, the 'war-tied knot' of violence and grief. The Gulf war, the First and Second World Wars are in the background, but the final, unchosen battlefield is the patient's body:

The bombardment never stops

In your nerves. You go on

As if into a blizzard

Where luck is invisible.

A kind of semi-permanent secret war that flares into terror and violence is the condition of the near-future single-state Ireland in Macbeth's last novel, The Testament of Spencer (Deutsch pounds 13.99). Spencer, an English poet and civil servant, attempts to settle himself and his pregnant wife, Liz, in a grand house on land to which the Desmonds, a local clan, have strong ancestral claims. Haunted by a vengeful ex-wife and by his Elizabethan near-namesake's every wrong move, Spencer writes a propagandistic allegorical work, maintains shadowy contact with his murderous courtier-poet friends 'Riley' and 'Philip' (who, bizarrely, seems to have written Philip Larkin's poems) and pays a shocking price for his angry prejudice and (eventually justified) paranoia.

Weakest on the men-of-power fantasy and historical parallelism, at its edgy, overwrought best when evoking the physical realities and ancient tribal alarms of a dank and hostile world or the lyrical solace of Spencer's love for Liz, Macbeth's novel is a testament to the inspiration and happiness the fears as well that he found in his last, Irish home and his third marriage. More dispatches from this troubled, richly gifted and fantastical artist would certainly have followed.