How should writers remember the beloved dead? Some strange flurry in the zeitgeist means that mourning and memory have edged out of the literary shadows, with Antonia Fraser and Christopher Reid among the leading voices of loss. Small Hours, Lachlan Mackinnon's fourth collection of poetry, begins with a series of delicately watercoloured poems in which departures and memorials loom large, as "Grief gusts around us/ In stories we shall never know".
For the rest of the book, Mackinnon tells us one story in particular. Mixing elegy and memoir, he recounts a passionate friendship with a university friend, "Emma". She died very young, never fulfilled her promise, was never the poet's lover but was always loved, and remains "an open wound in me". This cairn of quiet grieving takes the form of 54 short sections, most in a supple and intimate prose. Mackinnon's mode in "The Book of Emma" has nothing to do with that monstrosity, "poetic prose". It is a poet's prose: thrifty, rhythmic, specific, given to darting shifts in pace and focus.
A student of "extraordinary gifts", Emma, talented and vital but unanchored in her life, becomes "a figure of the ideal". That makes her sound like some floaty pre-Raphaelite fantasy. Rather, Mackinnon makes from her elusiveness a model of the mystery of any beloved but unreachable other: "You went wherever you were going and I went my ways to whatever."
The poet's own ways open, scene by scene and image by image, into a vivid miniature history of his postwar generation: childhood accidents and terrors (of war, past or future); student wrangling over books and ideas; the false "gravitas" of grown-up jobs in education and culture; the hard sweet labour of family, old and new. Throughout we hear the secret hum of that "inner life" which Emma, the "drifting girl", embodies above all. Still and lucid on the surface, running deep and swift beneath, "The Book of Emma" adds a new richness and resonance to the rediscovered art of mourning.