Full Disclosure: Alan is my PhD supervisor. He’s taught me a heck of a lot of what I understand about poetry.
Review: The epigraph to Scapegoat is from Jeremiah, and is as optimistic as you’d expect: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’; the poems that follow play out under the shadow of this failure. The book’s cast of characters (and Scapegoat’s dramatis personae goes deeper than most) undertake a series of failed quests, attempts to wrest meaning from a huge, cold, complex and shifting culture that sometimes actively wishes them harm, sometimes appears to be purposefully rigged to manufacture the powerless fall guys of the collection’s title. What Scapegoat does so well so often is to weigh its transcendent moments against its clear-sighted, unsentimental, unpolemic excursions into neoliberal 2014.
The book’s first poem is ‘Zeitgeist’, which in spirit and vocabulary borrows from MacNeice’s 1934 ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:
‘What will happen to us when the State takes down the manor wall
When there is no more private shooting or fishing, when the trees are all cut down
When face are all dials and cannot smile or frown’
in ‘Zeitgeist’ become the refrain ‘with no smile, no frown, / I call you down, I call you down’, while the question ‘what will happen to us?’ underwrites much of the book. What both poems convey is powerlessness in a mechanical society, the poet a misfitting cog gumming up the works. The poem toes a fine line between panoramic scene-setting and the peculiarities of an individual life, and ‘Zeitgeist’ acts something like the ninety-second intro sequences to HBO drama series, using particular aesthetic choices to suggest the pattern of meaning-making about to be taken up. Here, the wandering, unsure-footed observer, the rock/hard place of occupational solitude and claustrophobic herd-mentality, the fear of understanding nothing in a time when the internet provides ‘a room / for all things’, all figure large in an impressively long-sighted book. These ideas, along with a syntactical circularity that implies a constant dicing with meaninglessness, seem to animate Scapegoat’s recurring conflicts and unresolved questions.
So far, it might seem, so heavy. But one of Scapegoat’s great strengths is leavening its ethical-philosophical dilemmas with humour, generosity and an invaluable willingness to make the speaker look ridiculous, to wear its authority light. The very next poem, ‘Instagrammatic’, makes a point about the basic untrustworthiness of both technology and our own sensoria to accurately capture the world. The poem concerns a photo that begs the question:
have words, if even in a photograph
from a Song Cyber-Shot DSC-RX 100
the living moment is caged, held off-stage?
All that we might see or say is half-wrong.’
What the poem provides is a kind of mock-romantic portrait of the narrator’s beloved, ‘ your ears are biscuits’, ‘your legs are identical twins, / your chin is a dove or, at least, you have a bar of Dove soap for a chin’. It is that rare thing, the poem that permits itself to be enjoyed as it recreates the narrator’s enjoyment; in this it enacts a kind of relational mutuality, in which both subject (being described, or poetically ‘read’) and speaker (being literally read) are both designated givers of pleasure. This mutual gain is echoed in the following poem, the powerfully understated elegy ‘The Hourglass’, in the departed’s advice to ‘‘Remember, take and give, give and take.’’
The book’s few moments of unqualified joy come via sensory overload, in which ‘the proposition there is no // fixed position / is now the only / fixed position’, as prompted by ‘Lunch Break on a Bright Day’:
‘for you can’t take in this one tree,
rutty dark of its bole,
its thick arms
out of branches,
sprigs and spangs spouting
into a four thousand-
fingered trick of light […]’
The poem eventually falls to the ‘the rust and the ashes and the dust’ of the workaday, but suggests that if hope is to be had, it might be in the indefatigable cycles of nature, these life- and pleasure-giving rituals in the following poem, ‘Spring’, ‘the here- / it-comes and there-it-goes of everything.’
If hopelessness is to be had, it is almost certainly in personal abuses of power, society’s complex network of oppression and often sexualised cruelty. In ‘The Estate’, a woman has her personal space invaded on mass transit by a man eating Monster Munch, ‘he was like look here missus / this here’s a public bus’. The humour and ostensible harmlessness of the scene is complicated by the following section, in which
‘a boy show[s] his hard-on,
tracksuit bottoms pulled tight,
saying her tits were satellite
dishes, saying she burnt her ears on his thighs
with sullen eyes, sullen eyes, sullen eyes.’
Two events, one character. This dynamic is quickly learned in the schoolyard: ‘Kylie’s a dog. Tracey’s a whore. / Ben has Simone groaning for his ringtone.’ Aiding and abetting this gendered violence, meanwhile, is its economic counterpart:
‘You queue and queue
for the intimidation of a too-
tidy desk, swanky office gear,
the bulletproof screen crystal clear.
Hello I’m here to kill you,
please sign here, here and here.’
An essay could be written on Gillis’ repentends alone. The poem closes with a section worth reading in full:
‘Sigourney was down to her knickers and vest,
the alien about to spring, when the fucking doorbell rings.
No the repo, but the Green Party canvassing.
I said I like your manifesto, put it to the test.
Oh go for a while with no cash flow no tobacco no quid pro quo
no Giro no logo no demo no lotto no blow no go no go no go no no no.’
There’s a lot to unpack. There’s the scene from Alien in which Ripley, momentarily aligned with the poem’s sexualised victims, finally destroys one of sci fi’s most Freudian monsters; note also this section’s decision not to disclose the speaker’s gender. There’s the intrusion of the Green Party, which perhaps suggests that even well-intended politics are the domain of the respectable classes. And there’s the closing lines’ echo of MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, ‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw, / All we want is a limousine and ticket for the peepshow’, its critique of both the market forces that hollowed out Hebridean communities and the hollowness of the alternatives. The following poem, ‘Bulletin from The Daily Mail’, is a balladish broadside against the paper’s cosy demonization of youth and poverty.
These poems lead into a series of (maybe, somewhat) autobiographical poems, episodes from adolescence in Newtownards and its surrounding hinterland. ‘Before What Will Come After’ and ‘A Further Definition of Memory’ in particular cast doubt on whether even fixed historical events are immutable; in the former the poet ‘can still feel my raw hands lose grip / of the shaking branch’, the latter posits that ‘Nothing of those times can be changed / although their connotations constantly change’. The past and present interfere in each other’s business. And again, these questions are posed by poems still rangy and various enough for lines like
‘Morning, when it comes, might snigger
the way Shonagh O’Dowd raised her finger
to McCandless, then split her smackers
at the sight of me in my undercrackers’
There’s context. The McCandless who debags the poet joins the UFF and eventually works as a driver for a ‘botched job / on Cliftonville Road’ in the poem ‘Scapegoat’ shares his surname with Chris McCandless, the enigmatic hero of the 1996 book and 2007 movie Into the Wild. Scapegoat’s McCandless is obliged to live by his wits on Scrabo Hill with nothing but a ‘bin bag of corned beef and baked beans’ while his colleagues ‘figure / how to handle the matter’. Like his historical counterpart, he suffers physical collapse; unlike the seeds that paralysed Chris McCandless, however, the mushrooms he eats in Scrabo Golf Club (implicitly) convince him he’ll be sacrificed like the stray dog he kills in a fit of psychosis. When they come for him with a gun and two shovels, he is as gone as Muldoon’s Brownlee, with only the slogan ‘No Surrender’ carved into an ash tree at the edge of Killynether, which, incredibly, is the real name of a real place. It’s a thoroughly odd poem that almost breaks the cycle of violence while suggesting it might be little more than a stay of execution. Again the following piece sheds light: ‘The Wake’ concerns the death of a local ‘Hard bastard’ who monetises his skill ‘teaching / what it means to police your back yard’ in ‘Kabul, or Mogadishu’. His son’s suicide, set in the poem alongside Bill’s spoken advice for shooting practice, hints again at an only partly broken cycle of murder passed from father to son, from UK to oil-producing, terrorised states; this pattern of violence moves almost seamlessly from the domestic to the socio-economic sphere, the powerful policing the powerless.
Like McCandless, however, Scapegoat itself never quite surrenders to the void, and the book’s ultimate stoicism and good faith seem earned and genuine, bearing in mind that the eponymous ‘Scapegoat’ to an extent gets away with it and (maybe) starts a new life. It’s even possible to read Gillis’ own series of gentle, generous domestic poems (unsettling though some are, witness the ‘hazy form / in the mirror’ of ‘The Return’ asking ‘who are you again?’) as a counter to the familial disturbances elsewhere. The book’s last poem, ‘The Sweeping’, gainfully employs a raft of words doing double duty as both aural artefacts and carriers of semantic meaning, understood before defined. The poem’s baptismal rainstorm is a visceral event:
‘a glair and squelch
ooze and dreel
of curdled quags
gubbled and squinnied
in hinnying gallops’
that corroborates the book’s (I think) central message that life’s circularity (the closing lines’ ‘uprooted and reeling / yet circumfluent. / Good to go.’) have the potential to rejuvenate as much as stagnate. The poem is a more mature twin of ‘Lunch Break’ in its sensory exuberance and reclamation of responsibility, and above all else is a bloody joy to read aloud.
There is, as ever, plenty left to talk about, not least the book’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, its syntactical gymnastics, its ability to convincingly inhabit its personae, its ability with the line-break punchline, the thematic significance of adolescent sexuality, or the gloriously bonkers ‘No. 8’, which might be the best single poem I’ve read all year. I sincerely hope there’s an audience for a book that seems to care little for social nicety.
Tl;dr: Scapegoat makes no compromises, and asks the reader to implicate themselves in some strange and unpalatable ideas, but the journey (or quest) is its own valuable reward. Wholeheartedly recommended.