Nationality: British. Born: James Stewart McKendrick, Liverpool, 27 October 1955. Education: Nottingham University, 1973–76, B.A. (honors) 1976; Oxford University, 1976–79. Family: Married Xon de Ros in 1992. Career: Lecturer, Universita di Salerno, Italy, 1984–88. Since 1991 part-time instructor, Sarah Lawrence Program, Wadham College, Oxford, and since 1999 poet-in-residence, Hertford College, Oxford University. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1983; Southern Arts Literature award, 1992, for The Kiosk on the Brink; Forward-Poetry prize and Poetry Book Society Choice, 1997, for The Marble Fly.
The Sirocco Room. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1991.
The Kiosk on the Brink. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
The Marble Fly. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Sky Nails: Poems 1979–1997. London, Faber, 2000.*
Critical Studies: By Roger Garfitt, in Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994; by Lavinia Greenlaw, in New Statesman (London), 13 March 2000.* * *
Jamie McKendrick's first volume of poems, The Sirocco Room, which appeared in 1991, received that rarest of things in poetry, a reprint prompted by the critical enthusiasm with which it was greeted. McKendrick's immediate success was due to the fact that years of diligent application to the craft of verse had filled his first book with fully achieved poems rather than journeyman work. His undoubted skill has not led to a slick technique that presents a calculated face to the reader; rather, it has enabled him to express himself in a subtly original way.
The Sirocco Room introduced a number of key themes to be found in McKendrick's work: an interest in science, history, language, and everyday life and an ironic sense of humor that undercuts what has appeared to some as a perhaps rather unhopeful feeling in the poems. The book was praised by Tom Paulin for its "haunting sense of displacement, a fineness of aesthetic perception combined with a strangely laid-back despair." It is filled with knowledge. "A Petrified Zoo," for example, contains references to the Silurian age and to fossil ammonites and trilobites. In "Ill Wind" we meet McKendrick's characteristically edgy tone of voice:
To talk of the weather was a morbid sign.
The winds blew wherever they wanted to
raining their freight of dust.
The Kiosk on the Brink appeared in the same year McKendrick was selected to appear in Poetry Review's influential 1993 New Generation Poets promotion. The book was praised by the novelist William Boyd, who identified a "cool, complex intelligence, a wry worldly lyricism." It contains the sequence "Mountain," on various phenomena of the natural world. "The Crystal Sky" juggles complicated concepts in an entertaining way—"The city of glass was throwing stones / of glass at the neighbouring city of stone"—and follows the concept through to the ending lines:
Then in the brittle hour before dawn
it occurred to me there might might there not
still be time to set my house in order.
The tentative sense of a possible hope in the face of an apparently impossible situation is made clear in the language of the poem, which repeats itself in "there might might there not," demonstrating the mind changing direction from hopelessness to hope within half a line. McKendrick's effects are often as subtle and as intelligent as this, providing a tenuous sense of the possibility of discovering the good life while living on the brink of a volcano. The memorable image of "the kiosk on the brink / vending cans of molten sugar" appears in "On the Volcano," part of the "Mountain" sequence. The poem, which has the feeling of a fable, ends with the memorable lines
with those chunks of pyrite, fool's gold, fire
cooled, cast and cubed in the dire forge.
McKendrick's third volume, The Marble Fly, received both the Poetry Book Society Choice and the prestigious Forward-Poetry prize for the best collection of 1997. "Gainful Employment" is a good example of the tentative but very real sense of spiritual advance and meticulous self-honesty to be found in his work. The poet sits at his oak desk "putting the house / I haven't got in order." The thought in the poem is subtly expressed and unfolds a sense of poetry as "an unconsolable / joy," ending with
No one can say it's wasting time, my time, the time
to enter the very thread of the helix,
to live always expecting the unheard of.
Again we meet a careful repetition, here of the "wasting time, my time, the time I've got," which wins through from an almost Thomas Hardy-like "waiting in unhope" to "expecting the unheard of" with its modest but nonetheless clear affirmation.
McKendrick's poems can appear as riddling as the novels of Philip K. Dick or the fable poems of Norman Cameron, yet they are usually rooted in a reality, sometimes learned, sometimes reflecting the basic things of everyday life, in which we can share. McKendrick has also produced memorable versions of poems by Montale, Machado, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade and a remarkable poem, "Galatea and Polyphemus," after Ovid.
Sky Nails: Poems 1979–1997 contains a generous selection from all three of McKendrick's previous volumes and makes a welcome addition to the collection of anyone who cares about poetry today. It is telling that McKendrick took the title of the book from the poem "Sky Nails," on the imaginary nails his workmates teased him about but that he then turns into a positive definition of his poems:
that will nail anything
and make it stay.