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Magee, Wes

MAGEE, Wes


Nationality: British. Born: Greenock, Renfrew, 20 July 1939. Education: Ilford County High School, Essex, 1951–56; Goldsmiths' College, University of London, 1964–67, teaching certificate 1967. Military Service: British Army Intelligence Corps, 1960–62. Family: Married Janet Parkhouse in 1968; one son and one daughter. Career: Worked as a bank clerk in the 1950s; head teacher, Blackthorn Junior School, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, 1978–81; and Brough County Primary School, North Humberside, 1981–90. Since 1990 full-time writer and lecturer. Editor, Prism magazine, London, 1964–67. Awards: Leeds University New Poets award, 1973. Address: Santone House, Low Street, Sancton, Yorkshire YO4 3QZ, England.

Publications

Poetry

Postcard from a Long Way Off. Portrush, County Antrim, Ulsterman, 1969.

The Radish. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1970.

Urban Gorilla. Leeds, School of English Press, 1972.

Proust in a Crowded Store. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1974.

No Man's Land. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1976.

Creature of the Bay: A Set of Poems. Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, Court Poetry Press, 1977.

Headland Graffiti. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1978.

No Surrender! Liverpool, Headland, 1978.

The Dream Spectres. Nottingham, Byron Press, 1978.

No Man's Land (collection). Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1978.

Aberllefenni: At the Slate Quarry. Bristol, Xenia Press, 1979.

Wrecks. Bristol, Xenia Press, 1980.

Poems for a Course [2], with John Cotton. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 2 vols., 1980–84.

The Football Replays. Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, Greylag Press, 1980.

A Dark Age. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1981.

Flesh, or Money. Todmorden, Yorkshire, Littlewood Arc Press, 1991.

Verse (for children)

Reptile Rhymes. Bristol, Xenia Press, 1977.

The Space Beasts. Maidstone, Kent Library Service, 1979.

The Witch's Brew and Other Poems. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Morning Break and Other Poems. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

The Legend of the Ragged Boy. London, Andersen Press, 1992; New York, Arcade, 1993.

Surprise, Surprise! Harlow, Longman, 1994.

Amanda and the Pot of Gold. Loughborough, Ladybird, 1998.

Plays

The Real Spirit of Christmas (for children; produced Swindon, Wiltshire, 1976) London, French, 1978.

The Working Children (for children). Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Ginn, 1993.

Other (for children)

Oliver, The Daring Birdman. London, Longman, 1978.

Don't Do That! series. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Ginn, 6 vols.,1987.

Story Starters series. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Ginn, 4 vols.,1987.

The Scribblers of Scumbagg School. London, Orchard Books, 1993.

The Scumbagg School Scorpion. London, Orchard Books, 1995.

Sports Day at Scumbagg School. London, Orchard Books, 1996.

The Spook Spotters of Scumbagg School. London, Orchard Books, 1996.

The Emperor and the Nightingale: A Story from China. Oxford, Ginn, 1999.

John's Birthday Party. Harlow, Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

The Fantastic Four at the Seaside. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Poets Writing in a Variety of Forms. Harlow, Longman, 1999.

Other

Imaginative Writing. Leamington Spa, Scholastic, 1994.

Editor, All the Day Through. London, Evans, 1982.

Editor, Dragon's Smoke. Oxford, Blackwell, 1985.

Editor, A Shooting Star. Oxford, Blackwell, 1985.

Editor, A Calendar of Poems. London, Bell and Hyman, 1986.

Editor, A Christmas Stocking. London, Cassell, 1988.

Editor, A Big Poetry Book. Oxford, Blackwell, 1989.

Editor, Madtail, Mimiwhale and Other Shape Poems. London, Viking Kestrel, 1989.

Editor, Matt, Wes and Pete. London, Macmillan Children's, 1995; as Lost Property Box, Macmillan Children's, 1998.

*

Manuscript Collection: Colin Huggett (private collector), Tregarth, Gwynedd, North Wales.

Wes Magee comments:

Tough and muscular language appropriate to the experiences of our age has always been of central interest to me in poetry. Principally I have used personal experience in the poems in an attempt to make wider and even universal gestures. Underlying my interest in human and animal violence has been a concern to record the compassionate, the need for humans to stand together. Such a paradox lies within many of the poems, and it is the need to resolve, for myself, such an issue that makes me produce poems even though an awakening and increasing activity in the world of writing for children tend to consume more and more of my writing time.

*  *  *

Wes Magee's poetry explores the dark side of the human psyche. Its author searches a hard, unpitying universe, examines the signs, and draws a stony conclusion from what he finds. Death, cruelty, and suffering, whether inflicted by mankind upon itself or encountered in the animal kingdom, serve Magee as central themes that recur constantly in his work. From the early poems of Postcard from a Long Way Off, through Urban Gorilla, to the mature, assured expression of A Dark Age, the reader is assailed by images of a continual, unrelenting violence. Exposed as a young farm worker to the appalling conditions of battery production systems and a nature "red in tooth and claw," Magee writes from an experience that confirms his worst forebodings. Seen through his eyes, the universe itself becomes a threat, taking on malevolent life to attack the poet and with him the rest of the human race: "Night comes jackbooting through the wood /And the sky roars at trees and a dying light. /Pregnant, the river is gulped into darkness /While sheep, like town lights, blot out one by one."

This grim, comfortless vision of man and his environment dominates Magee's writing, with musings on the inevitability of cosmic entropy and human decay. With a keen, merciless eye, the poet documents man's innate propensity for violence—schoolboys stoning a dead rat, the scientist experimenting on laboratory animals. Scanning the packed, sweating cattle in their trucks, the pigs awaiting slaughter in their steel cages, Magee draws a chilling parallel with the death convoys of Belsen. Genocide, whether of pigs or persons, reveals man as a habitual and an instinctive killer who is himself destined for extinction. At all times the poet senses that he too is under observation from other nonhuman intelligences, galactic onlookers who may well judge his race and find it wanting. Man's savagery, it seems, is matched only by his insignificance in the face of creation.

Magee's writing fits perfectly with the bleak desolation of his themes. His poems achieve a powerful and imaginative reworking of language, abounding with unexpected images that startle with a visual, almost a tactile, force. Words convey the feel of rough surfaces, bringing to the reader the hard touch of stone, the sharpness of metal. Using a style that blends subtlety with aggression and adopting a deliberate starkness of expression, Magee creates a poetry whose perceptions are both deep and readily understood. Through this medium he presents the play of murderous natural forces and the cruelties of the animal world. "Pig Poems," from the collection No Man's Land, are a disturbing example of his ability, not least the horrific "Fairy Tale," in which a hen and her chicks are devoured by the pigs: "But her bowels are lead. The old sow has her /in the trough, thin bones crunching like wafers. /Crazed, her head shrieks from the pig's champing jaws. //Beak, feathers, feet, sucked to a terror world /where heat lies packed and light has never struck. /The thick dust whirls. /Blood's licked from lips like wine."

Shocking as these images are, Magee forces the reader to acknowledge the unpalatable truth that the pig's vicious instincts are surpassed by the humans who fatten beasts in cages to make them ready for the knife. All are part of the same uncertain, threatening world that may at any moment alter shape and turn on its unsuspecting victims, as in "Discovering a Sea Cave," where the poet emerges to find "the seascape oddly changed, the rocks restructured." Magee returns continually to death as the central reality of his poems. Whether comic-macabre reflections on human and animal skulls, memories of dead creatures trapped in suburban attics, or Magee's own visit to Belsen as a drunken National Serviceman, the message remains constant. Life is dogged by violence and brutality and brings us to the same final destination: "All ending up … in hushed places /Where only scrap-metal gypsies come /Or detectives with bright spades."

Thankfully, Magee ensures that the gloom is not unrelieved. Most of his darkest poems are lit by a gallows humor, a sly wordplay leavening the overall menace, as in "Mineshaft," where the black mouth of a slate quarry swallows "a stoned Welshman," or in "Cattle Trucks," where the poet visualizes the doomed prisoners standing "cowed" in the darkness. A handful of works evade the doom and horror. In "Love on a Mountain Top" Magee recalls an afternoon's eroticism with wistful sadness. The gentler side of his writing surfaces more frequently in his collection Flesh or Money, whose poems reflect on the pains and joys of adolescent love, the stolen idyll of a writers' weekend retreat, and poignant obituaries to Elvis and John F. Kennedy. In "State" an attractive female canvassing for his vote sets him musing on the dangerous blend of politics and lust, the "flesh or money" of the volume's title. Magee's memories of the 1970s love culture are analyzed in "Imagine," the peaceful hopes of that past age contrasting sadly with a bleak, merciless present that is tellingly depicted in "Cries of London" and "Incident on the Housing Estate." In today's grim world, where the stars gleam coldly as "studs on a leather jacket," there is little enough to be had in the way of love.

Magee's talent for humorous writing surfaces more openly in his collections for children, evident in such poems as "The Silent Teacher" in Morning Break, and it runs the gamut from shapes to counting and skipping rhymes in The Witch's Brew. In adult and juvenile works alike, his images stun with their visual power: a ship "claws grimly /up the horizon's steel rim," firelight "reels" off the walls "like a Christmas Eve drunk," while a bathroom cockroach "steals across the carpet like a hearse." Magee sees his poems as "shedding light down the white page's darkness," and the strength of his writing justifies the claim. In the end, however, it is the vision of darkness, so superbly lit by his words, that returns to haunt the reader, the cruelty and violence embodied by the waiting pigs in their cage: "their endless day filled tight with screaming. /Knives are ground on stones. And it's going on now."

—Geoff Sadler

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