Review of The Book of Revelation by Rob A Mackenzie, pub. Salt 2020

One slight caveat first: apart from the obvious influence on this collection of the last book of the Bible, according to the back cover it also owes a debt to a pop group called The Fall and its lead singer. This angle I can’t comment on, having no knowledge of them.

The Bible, however, is another matter; many will recall reading the highly figurative, visionary, freewheeling language of Revelation in a state of bemusement, wondering what exactly the author was on at the time. Mackenzie’s collection begins with a long sequence of poems, each with a quotation from Revelation as epigraph, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a very modern take on the text which inspired it. The first poem, “Chapter 1”, with its epigraph “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’ (v.8)” sets the ultra-contemporary idiom:

    matters if all of it matters more
    or less equally to everybody.
    No matter! Mark the epoch
    of lips and tits. Which are
    more popular with your
    target group? Or mark
    the apocalypse with
    twats on Twitter,
    you decide! The
    people have
    spoken. By
    refer end
    dum di

As we see, layout and typography are key players here and will be elsewhere. But even in the more conventionally laid-out poems, the tone, references, language are anything but conventionally lyrical. There is a pulsing anger and acidity throughout this sequence, and a relentless insistence on exactness, on debunking cliché and lazy formulae:

    Our thoughts and prayers
    are with them, even though we never actually pray
    or think. (“Chapter 3”)

There is also, I think, a degree of despair. Later in the sequence, the epigraph “a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night. (v.12)” leads to a recurring refrain of “thirds” which culminates in the end of “Chapter 13”:

    One third
    believed it; one third never believe anything;
    one third seemed aware that they ought
    at least to check for proof, and some did.

In Part Two, a guinea pig intermittently takes centre stage. I’m not sure this little chap should always be seen as purely metaphorical; in “The Experimental Guinea Pig” he sounds pretty real, but in other poems, notably “The Guinea Pig’s Search For God”, he does sound ruefully reminiscent of humanity:

    Minor troubles: lumps, thinning fur, the Internet’s
    fatal diagnosis; the guinea pig probes its bowl
    for short-term solutions disguised as mark-down

The technical adeptness continues from part 1: there are two centos, one made up of lines by people assassinated for political reasons (“Lines from Those Killed By The State”) and one of “Lines from the Drowned”. Two other things that continue are the contemporary idiom – I don’t know when I last read a collection that used, in particular, the argots of social media and commerce so effectively – and the underlying acerbity. For all its wit and wordplay, the tone of this collection is dark; its take on humanity often understandably jaundiced. In “The Future” (whose title I don’t think is a reference to the bleak Leonard Cohen song, but with a poet so aware of popular culture one can’t be sure), one can hear the frustration with shallowness, ignorance, complacency:
   Doncha see the future
    brightening like a golden sunset? The future is in capable
    hands, between tweets. Headlines are a kind of poetry,
    that’s what we think. Shut up, everyone says, you don’t
    know anything, you just think things.

Look at that peerless line-ending, forcing one to read "incapable" in tandem with "in capable"... this is the sort of technical detail he uses so well, not for the sake of cleverness but to alter and deepen the reading experience.

This is a dense, allusive, layered collection and I feel I shall need several more readings to really get under its skin. That will be no hardship, and anyway I always feel it is a virtue in a book not to give up all its meaning at once.


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