Rachel McCarthy – Element
Smith/Doorstop, 2015 £7.50
Poems with notes
Do poems need notes? Should poems need notes? How do you read the notes bulking out some poetry collections – if you read them at all? First confession: notes intrigue me. If the contents page promises Notes I look at them first. Something nags: is this the way to read a collection? But we all have to start somewhere. Notes show me what the poet thinks I don’t know/ might not know/ need to know. They map the extent of my perceived ignorance in the poet’s eyes. Do I use notes myself? No: but that only feeds my guilty fascination with poets who do.
Rachel McCarthy prefaces her nineteen-poem pamphlet with the information (warning?) that ‘Each of the following poems take their starting point from the transition metal elements known to science by 1869, the year Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table.’ Second confession: ignorance, generally, of anything scientific. I can justify my note-reading indulgence.
And they are beautiful. Each note, headed by the title of the poem, is a tiny essay – full sentences, proper sentences – giving one or two explanatory facts about the metal and how it connects with the poem. They are varied, wide-ranging – like the poems, which are not about metals (at least, not directly), although the symbol sits on each page as a reminder.
Take the opening lines of ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (Paul De La Roche)’, the well-known painting in London’s National Gallery:
He ends it here.
Saves me from my own spectacle
with a white silk blindfold, has me counselled,
cosseted and fearful,
guided down to my knees,
muscles soft as butter, beseeching.
Her vulnerability is visual, with those ‘muscles soft as butter’, and aural too: long pleading vowels – fearful, knees, beseeching. This, the symbol tells us, is Zinc. The note reads:
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey: ‘Zinc white’ is an oil paint containing the metal. The inclusion of Zinc made it possible to portray pure white tones in oils, such as Jane’s nightgown central in De La Roche’s painting. His staging is imagined. Jane was executed before a limited public on Tower Green.
Clever, challenging, inventive poetry – and impeccable notes.
D A Prince