Big freeze at Pompeii

THE MARBLE FLY by Jamie McKendrick OUP pounds 6.99
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Jamie Mckendrick is a fine and fastidious phrase-maker, with few hints of the punk diction that characterises trendier young contemporaries, yet never merely self-absorbed. "The air was cut and dried / as though reconstituted in the basement's lungs / and laid out, and folded, in cool dry reams" he says of a cheap hotel; "I woke as though I'd feasted / on finely-ground enamel". Hard to say where simile ends and metaphor begins. The wry, nimble tone of voice is committed to making us taste and touch, not merely categorise, dust off our hands, and move on to the next trick.

The title poem is about life imitating art, as Vesuvius erupts to freeze the inhabitants of Pompeii into one big mural or museum of statues. What lifts it above dozens of others on the same subject is McKendrick's empathy with the "unrecovered world" of "stone fruit that Felix / the fruitseller sold, stone-cold / drinks from the hot drinks stall" as though it was all part of the marvellous here and now rather than a text or dusty ruin awaiting some po-faced moral. When the punchline does arrive - Vesuvius making its own "murals, mosaics, mysteries", as though it was an artist- craftsman in its own right - it takes the form of an imaginative leap that calls the whole art-life distinction into question, even as it uses it to vault into airy speculation.

Memorable phrases come thick and fast, giving their own small shocks of pleasure: "a lizard can-opening a cricket, / a mouse airlifted by an owl"; "A BT counterfoil / deep into its scarlet monitory phase". He's good on plants, insects, birds, and those who care about them. He also likes vaulting from small to large - from a watch to Skylab, from Domesday to D-Day, from an Edinburgh cellar to the multiple legacies of empire - "consuming each second with a sated quiver". This makes of imagination a sort of lover, determined not to let anything pass without a precision cluster of pangs.

His fondness for writing poems about being a poet, "sitting ready at my station / and waiting for the bugle or slughorn", is a bit worrying, for all the graceful self-deprecation, since there are bigger itches out there waiting to be scratched. "No one can say it's wasting time," (the poem retorts) "my time, the time I've got, / to enter the very thread of the helix, / to live always expecting the unheard of". Well no, but who is being reassured here, the reader or the writer? And what sort of guarantee is unheard music unless it arrives on the page? "The Spleen Factory" tells us about another kind of poem he'd like to write, one that's ugly and comfortless, "like stitches done without anaesthetic", ie where the aesthetic turns into "a wall with a hole pissed through ... / transmitting incomprehensible clarity". A fine manifesto, but wouldn't we rather see the actual government of the tongue itself, the poem in action?

"A Flight of Locks" begins well but tails off into exercises, and "Banana Boat", about a Liverpool childhood, is competent but not very compelling. His strengths are evident in such poems as "Ultima Thule", "In the Hold", "Vehicle", "Boneshaker", "The One-Star", "Name-Tag", and "Survival". This last is about those daft birds the booby and the noddy, discovered by early naturalists, so tame

I could have killed

any number of them

with my geological hammer

- there in a nutshell

he'd hit on

the origin

of the origin

and the twilight of the Species.

This breathes new life into the cliche "in a nutshell" (so easily cracked with the geological-conceptual hammer wielded by science) and nicely conflates Darwin's Origin with Original Sin, and perhaps a hint of Wagnerian hubris, too, in the space of a few syllables. It's not a question of art vs science, it's one of the depth and breadth of human response. With this third collection, Jamie McKendrick confirms his place as one of our most exciting young poets.