Emma Lee reviews Mike McNamara’s ‘Loose Canon’

‘Loose Canon’ Mike McNamara
Subterranean Blue Poetry



Mike McNamara, an Irishman resident in Newport, Wales, and front man for Big Mac’s Wholly Soul Band, influenced by Little Richard, Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke, sets out his stall with ‘No Fixed Abode’, observing the people who are normally overlooked or deliberately ignored.


‘To trace that nameless place beyond the pale
listen to your heart, tune into life. All time is beating there:
the bleating of the lambs on Purnell’s Farm in centuries past
and the girls on the swings who would never know Persian rugs,
French kisses, Turkish coffee, Spanish wine, Brazilian wax
or the countless sentient pieces that constitute this vast kaleidoscope.

Old numbers written on walls that none will ever phone.
On this endless thoroughfare
the truly homeless are always home.’


‘Beyond the pale’ could be ambiguous here, it means outside normal bounds or convention. The phrase originated in Ireland in the Middle Ages so signposts the switch from a contemporary walk around the docks in Newport to the history of ‘centuries past’. Outsiders have always been with us and always brought new ideas, new trade and their own history and traditions. The ‘kaleidoscope’ suggests this is a good thing, creating new ways of looking at familiar things, a merging of local and foreign. Those who have found homelessness learn to create new homes wherever they end up, but risk rootlessness. An observation underlined by the part-rhyme of ‘phone’ and ‘home’.


There’s a sense of time passing in ‘Cycles’ where ‘yesterday’s flowers’ are noticed along with,


your face. I do not know you
but you remind me of someone.
Some days in the mirror still
I see you there. ‘


A man with a youthful mind not yet ready to acknowledge middle age perhaps? Or a recognition that the middle aged version would not be recognised by the youth? The long vowels and double consonant in ‘still’ hint at melancholy but a life that doesn’t turn out as expected offers a chance for growth and learning.


Naturally music creeps in. ‘Sense of Purpose’ sees,


‘Folk musicians play
old songs on new strings and,
without hat or coat, an unschooled man
with twitching sticks is finding water:
as birds course leylines,
the moon sucks waves up

out of a calm green sea
and a girl makes eyes,
that wordlessly speak
of devoted delight.
in the undying death of living. ‘


There’s a timelessness in the ‘old songs on new strings’ and music as a prompt of desire is as old as time. The ‘undying death of living’ takes some unpacking: the music is living and will be passed on and outlive the musicians. In ‘Someone Singing’ an overheard singer, reminds the narrator of,


‘a young woman, my mother
humming, and my wife’s sweet lullaby
to our babies a lifetime ago,
soft as the springtime rain.’

Here too is tradition and legacy resurfacing in a modern time. As his mother lulled the narrator to sleep as a baby, his wife does the same to their own children.


A series of poems towards the middle of the collection come with extensive notes. For this poem the note is ‘Bridget Cleary (née Boland; Irish: Bríd Uí Chléirigh; c. 1869 – 15 March 1895) was an Irish woman killed by her husband in 1895. Her death is notable for several peculiarities: the stated motive for the crime was her husband’s belief that she had been abducted by fairies with a changeling left in her place; he claimed to have slain only the changeling.’ The poem ‘Ballyvadlea 1895’ follows:


‘The unsung art
of the changeling.
Knotted clumps of grass, crossed cob,
strange scratchings in the bark.
A pipe, a yell
from distant marshland,
tiny points of light that bob
and flicker in the dell.’


Normally changelings are babies or small children: a parent finds a placid child is replaced by a temperamental one or a mother with undiagnosed postnatal psychosis believes her baby is no longer hers. A man believing his wife has been replaced is an unusual excuse for domestic violence. But there’s no romance in determining a man’s motive for murder or why a woman was killed by someone who claimed to love her. Instead the poem focuses on the notion of lights in the marshland, the implication of outsiders. The note is more interesting than the poem. The poet ducked the job of getting to the truth. There’s a similar dodging in ‘Unchanged’ which contrasts the wealthy with the poor,


‘People who drank Turkish coffee with ginger,
who smoked Gitane cigarettes
(though monks will douse themselves in flame)
and watched the late-night show alone
wearing cravats and chewing liquorice
(though men kill men in some god’s name)

or those who prayed to the moon and sang to the dawn,
adding milk and egg to their mashed potato
(though poets starve at the rich man’s gate)
and walked in the springtime through southern fields
of maize and corn with static hair aglow
(and sisters of mercy are drowned in a black fugue state).

Who had their own time,
who, their own tale would tell.
Unchanged. All changed.
Time will tell.’


The poem offers a conclusion which isn’t much of a conclusion: things change but stay the same. A similar theme is offered in ‘Death and Addiction’,


‘but there’s rich men in the cemetery
and poor beneath the grass.
Forget those fine connections
the income that you yield,
death and addiction
make a level playing field.’


We’re all human whether rich, poor, rooted settler or migrant.


‘Loose Canon’ brings songwriting skills and a sense of timelessness to poetry that concerns itself with those on the fringes of society. The outsiders who observe, write, sketch or seek inspiration in the side alleys and back streets, away from the mainstream. Mike McNamara builds a sense of history sliding into the present and the present informing the future. He presents the possibility that, while not much may change, the journey will be interesting.