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The Borrowed Notebook, by Chris McCabe

- Cris Paul

The Borrowed Notebook is a personal elegy to one of Chris McCabe's dead older relatives - maybe his brother, very probably his father. It is hard to be exactly certain who, and this is kind of the point. The central figure is constructed from glimpses of the poet's past and disassembled hand-me-down memories, splinters of the oral tradition that exist in family. Borrowed notes. These notes become means of exploring the construction of subjective space, identity and the structures that surround and weave though it.

It is a personal work and quite a beautiful book of narrative and memorial fragments piled together. Displaying common magic, common to good poets, remembrances and very specific fragments come together, gestaltlike, to be greater than the sum of their parts and to reveal the subject, in this instance Paul McCabe. In this way the subject is not expressed as a hermetic and inviolable whole, but as micro-fictions in continual process and conversation with others, requiring interpretation and patience. What we recognise as the self surfaces only momentarily. Identity, in The Borrowed Notebook, is consistent, yet part submerged, and in flux.This effect is achieved by the combination very of specific memories.
The specificity of these memorial fragments are endearing. They remind us that memory, and the narrative world we inhabit psychologically, is often not a hazy image creating mechanism, but a very definite, if disconnected, sequence of pictures and events we hyphenate with language.

"dank notes as you shot me your most cynical stawberries in gravy look"

This appears to be a definite memory describing an absolutely certain occurrence. But the residing image attains this certainty because of the incongruous, almost surrealistic, connectivity in use. Uncertainty, if you like, summons up a briefly linear order and coherence.

If I recall Chris McCabe correctly I think I have heard him read his poems live before.  I seem to remember that he is a Liverpool poet, but much more Robert Shepherd than Roger McGough. He reads his work well, and because of this I assume that there is something essentially performative in his poetry. So as part of the review process I decided to read these poems out loud to myself. I'm glad I did because I liked them a lot more having done so. Reading poems out loud slows them down, and with the ears as well as the eyes engaged metrics sing, the imagination warms, and the dissonance between

"Kraftwerk attired crisbits"

and

"flowers above the wheel, a code"

seems less contrived and more composed and measured.

An unsympathetic critic could say of The Borrowed Notebook that these poems are nothing more than thematically linked memories that jar with conventionally poetic language use. Or, alternatively, that while linguistically "gruesome" and "NEVER KNOWLINGLY UNDERSTOOD" they are formally lacking invention.

There is, however, a delicacy to The Borrowed Notebook that titillates towards more wild and marginal territories than can exist in the centric form presented here on the page. Both the word and the subject, McCabe seems to intonate, can get into more peripheral spaces, at odds with assumed convention. Quick evidence of this includes his politicising "the protesters face herniad into silence"

or

"No January giroday/only post office loans/on the have you ever."

Also his use of invented compound words (poets should never steer away from inventing new words that expand the conception of the possible.)

"snowshake"

"lightleaved"

"nightscrawled"

"dawnpulled"

for example.

The politically charged aspects of the lyric are not so much juxtaposed as placed alongside more biographical observations.

"Woodbines smoked in woodbriars...looking downwards like an Olympicdiver that can't swim."

There is no crude compartmentalisation of human experience here. Subjects are, it seems, an amalgam of the social, genetic, and political. Identity is formed and represented in unitary flux.

While as biographic treatise The Borrowed Notebook is deliberately partial, this hints at the difficulty and complexities encountered when writing memory, and family heritage. In some respects this seems a poem about the problematics surrounding biographical writing. What to leave in, or out, and why, and what does it all mean once externalised? How does narrative correlate with the subject? Also - we live in a world of representative emotional falsity, soaps and tabloids etc, so what happens to language when we make earnest endeavour towards something complete, bearing emotional integrity - plural scarcely linear fragments could seem to possess a more accurate degree of realism than more straightforward, and popular, approaches common to some kinds of prose.

While as a bookwork, and visually, in many ways The Borrowed Notebook is indebted to poetic formality and convention the lyric is charged with an innovation and self assured radicalism that escapes centric drag. The centre therefore becomes a more tantalising and engaging space with McCabe's writing at the heart of it.

 

The Borrowed Notebook is published by Landfill Press (2009)

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