Reviews / September 2014 (Issue 25)

Nostalgia Is What It Used to Be: Comedy and the Colonial Upbringing in Dave McKirdy's Poetry

by Andrew Barker

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David McKirdy, Accidental Occidental, Chameleon Press, 2011. 94 pgs.
David McKirdy, Ancestral Worship, Chameleon Press, 2014. 88 pgs.


There are two poems from Dave McKirdy's first collection Accidental Occidental that easily demonstrate what McKirdy has always done best. Are they funny? Well, you judge.

The first is "Missionary Position".

I was met by two guys in the street
with perfect bright white teeth.
They wore bright white shirts
and neckties, in spite of the heat.
'Elder Smith' and 'Elder Young'
declared the black plastic tags on their breasts.
I was the elder of both added together.
So young and so sure of their mission
travelling in pairs to ward off Satan.
and the temptation of a cup of tea.
They asked if I had heard the one true word.
I've heard many a true word, some spoken in jest!
They're collecting souls. So where do I sign?
And when can I collect my wives and my new teeth.

Their God was a white American in a white shirt.
They were right and everybody else was wrong.
At the end of their mission they'll be taking their souls
and going back home, to help make America great again.

Now that put the fear of God in me.

The second is this one. "Inspiration".

A writer
needs to feel stress, strain, angst,
needs to experience bad times, sad times, hard times,
needs to bleed, sweat and cry,
in order to write from life.
Real life.

My parents never hit or abused me.
They supported my dreams and aspirations,
spent time as a family and never divorced,
refrained from eating any of the children when times were tough,
provided good education,
instilled a social conscience in me,
and loved with equality.
They were saints.

The bastards!

Well, they make me smile. They do. And here's the real trick, they make me smile even when I know the pay-off punch-line is coming. They make me smile more than once. A cigar may sometime be just a cigar, Freud tells us. But he adds that a joke is never just a joke. Those Mormons scare me. "They were right and everybody else was wrong," and off home they go "to help make America great again." I'm still smiling, but I'm not laughing.

"They were saints." Wait for the pause. "The bastards!"

Yes, I'm smiling, but it's an uncomfortable smile. I reckon some people actually do think like that. And isn't he kinda right in that first stanza of "Inspiration"? And who wants to be involved in such a lack of gratitude? And isn't this view of our progenitors slightly inevitable? And ... I could go on, but doesn't McKirdy get a lot into those few lines? It's Larkin's "This Be the Verse," too, that last poem, isn't it?

McKirdy's second collection, nine years in the composition, is Ancestral Worship from Chameleon Press. The stand-out poem of the very McKirdy type shown above is "Corporate Identity".

In Sai Kung Town
gambling grannies congregate
in the Ronald Room
with rows of gold teeth flashing
beneath the golden arches.
The baby-sat run riot
as septuagenarian sitters
preoccupied, pass on tips and loans
discuss runners and riders
odds and options.
A real life Joy-Luck Club
Win lose or draw
"They're lovin' it."

It's not a found poem, but the poem is there to be found. It's not funny, but I'm smiling. It's not a poem attempting great meaning, but there is much meaning there. Those gambling grannies are giving Ronald a run for his money, his space and his advertising slogans. And they'll win. The "it" they are "lovin'" is nothing they are being sold by the advert, but there they are. The title "Corporate Identity" is doing some strong lifting for the poem, too, something I cannot but think is underused in poetry and should be encouraged more often. There is a timelessness here. McDonald's is a temporary irrelevance in the background. The timelessness is not with the multinational corporation but with those ignoring it, playfully using its space for their own ends. The timelessness is what Tomas Hardy spoke of as, "This will go onward the same though dynasties pass." Hardy used a country scene, "thin smoke from a heap of couch grass"; here we have riotous children being nominally overseen by distracted, well-meaning grandparents who sort through the racing and the stocks. It was a rare line of Hardy's that made me smile, but McKirdy's do with a pleasant regularity.

The humour is not forced. When McKirdy tries too hard to be funny, he fails. "Giles Villanelle" is an attempt to get the racing driver Gilles Villeneuve into a villanelle by any line necessary. It nearly works, but we tend to think it a bit beneath the author of the stronger stuff on offer here. For stronger stuff there is.

My copy is signed "from grease monkey to a chippy." I was a bricklayer in my youth not a carpenter, but never mind. McKirdy likes to see himself as a grease monkey and why not? It means mechanic, in case you were wondering. His point is he's from the working classes. We get a lot of poetry from the campus, a lot, and I would be the last to knock it, but I would also be unable to defend the campus poet from the accusation that the campus poet's poems are often about the trials of being a campus poet. Fine as such work can be, who can deny that it is at least refreshing to hear poesy from other sources of employment, other sources of experience? Certainly not McKirdy. He's got his source for poetry alright, and it's not a bad one. He may be from the working classes, but he's from the post-war colonial working classes and that's something altogether different. And something worth writing on. His dad was a welder on the ferries. From "Star Struck":

My father built these vessels.
Northern Star, Night Star, Day Star
each one contains his essence
Shining Star. Twinkling Star
paid out school fees
Morning Star, Silver Star
put food on food on our tables.

McKirdy grew up through a life that he sees as now having become a tee-shirt-experience. Much of this book, and all the best stuff, is his attempt to get those experiences down remembered and evaluated.

I have a friend who at the most far-off mention of the word "nostalgia" will quip, with a seemingly Pavlovian inculcated inevitability, "Nostalgia 'aint what it used to be." Every time! Without fail! I think the first selection of McKirdy's book may be used in future as specific evidence to prove him wrong. For here, we find if not McKirdy's theme, his main source of inspiration. For in Ancestral Worship, nostalgia is what it used to be.

McKirdy has some wonderful young-colonial based memories. From "Star Struck" again:

Downstairs for the unwashed masses
Deliver bicycles with baskets of live chickens
British schoolboys
With long hair and a twenty-a-day habit
Upstairs in first for the rest.

The undeserved, unacknowledged privilege. Again. Long hair and a twenty-a-day habit. It's the ha in hair and habit, I think. I love that line. And there's many a good line to be found in this collection. Go to "Outward Bound," certainly one of the strongest you'll find: "Working class folk with boots strap aspirations […] The apartheid of imperial caste […] leaving monochrome memories and the 1950s in our wake." This is McKirdy and kin's Scotland to Hong Kong crossing.

But let's be critical. Or let's at least acknowledge the probable criticism. Haven't we heard this sort of thing before? Check out "Empirical Truth," where once again the title is doing some much-appreciated actual work as McKirdy remembers working class women socially elevated by the colonial situation. A type. It is well done, but we have heard this before. Somerset Maugham did this type of thing very well. "Very much like Somerset Maugham!" That's a fair enough critique. It is. Check out his short story "Force of Circumstance" for an example if you're interested. But is that "Very much like Somerset Maugham!" statement an insult or flattery? That's surely up to whether we think McKirdy's take on the theme is done well or done badly. For the record, I think this one "Empirical Truth" probably the best on offer. It's a good story. It doesn't hurt to revisit the type of character presented. They reappear throughout time. And who reads Maugham these days anyway, for us to be bothered that the type has been catalogued before?

The book is nine years in the writing. That's a long time, but check "Tour de Force" and "Tour de Farce" for the benefits, to us, of the book taking so long to write. These are about as genuinely heartfelt as such poetry can get. Likewise, "Friends for a Day" comes from experiences so personal that complaint at the poem seems a personal attack at the author. Luckily, I like all three poems, too.

This is not to say all these poems are immune from critique. What work is, or should be? There is a certain no-nonsense approach to McKirdy's writing that encourages us to believe the poems are robust enough to survive, enjoy and profit from some serious attention. Let's pick one. How would McKirdy's take on watching Seamus Heaney read, "Digging Heaney," fare? "A world view condensed into one loamy sod?" That seems nice at first but doesn't it sound rather restrictive for the world view? Doesn't he mean "expressed through" rather "condensed to"? Or "distilled to"?[1]

Similarly when Heaney

rips a poem off the page
and slaps it into life
like a recalcitrant baby at birthing

While I can imagine a poem being read like that, I don't remember Heaney reading poetry like that at all. I remember, if we use the birthing analogy, Heaney coaxing the poem into existence. Google him doing it. See who sounds closest to what you see. While I'm on this poem, a personal peeve of mine: Heaney is described as delivering a poem "like you'd drive a stolen car." How do you drive a stolen car? Cautiously to make sure you are not seen? With abandon because it doesn't matter if you wreck it? This matters. Those two possibilities are polar opposites. One is fast, one is slow. What is the simile helping us see, if anything? I see the driver of the car rather than Heaney reading the poem. Relevant questions, I think, and ones I'd only bother to ask of a poem I'd ... well, bothered to ask the questions of. And I ask the questions, I think, because of the poem's immediate charm. McKirdy's poem. And Seamus's of course.

I can't help but point out that for all the working-class-colonial-mechanic's-realm-of-possible-life-experience I'm championing for McKirdy here, this is a poem about watching someone read a poem that is itself about the writing of a poem. Before you consider that observation an insult, consider that the "Digging Heaney" poem also points out that enjoying watching the reading of a poem that is itself about the writing of a poem is part of the life experience of a working class colonial mechanic. At least of this one.

McKirdy tells us these poems have been "thoroughly road tested at his local poetry group," and who isn't amused when a metaphor is swerved into place and parked so easily by its originator, so obviously located from his personal experience? He has, and I'd heard several before reading them and can attest how "Ambushed" works very well from the stage. It's a fine performance piece. It's funny. It's read in that twinkle-in-the-eye way that denotes resigned comic tolerance, and the recognition that a mildly comedic encounter triumphs over the temporary inconvenience such an encounter may cause, and demonstrates an appreciation of the inquisitive love of life some ageing people in groups manage. That is honestly how it sounds when it's read aloud. All of that. He reads it well. The good nature of the poet in the opening stanza, the Monty Python reference, the hyperbole of the complaint. Could anybody read this as an ill-natured piece against Chinese tourists? I don't ask that rhetorically. I think it is possible. Even probable. I am constantly amazed at peoples' inability to recognise an obviously comic piece of writing, and I must say this piece appeared far more ill-intentioned on the page than from the stage. (You can judge for yourself here.) I raise this point out of genuine interest? Do you think it is possible for anyone ... anyone to read this poem as if it were intended seriously? And you're not allowed to say "I didn't take it seriously so nobody could have taken it seriously," by the way. I ask this as I would imagine McKirdy to be rather shocked and hurt at a reading of the poem I consider, for some, to be very probable.

"I am an Asian writer," he tells us. "I speak Chinese badly very well." He likes to see himself as a "venerable uncle with an inscrutable Western smile heading back to my Chinese home," and who is to say he has not earned the right to see himself that way? He is more at ease with an eighty-two-year-old shoe shine boy than I am, "Shining," but as he points out, the man is "still paying his way" and there is pride for some in that. It is no surprise that it is the old Hong Kong, a world of tradition that McKirdy is attracted to. Rising Asia has little to offer him. Possibly his best line

the ever encroaching clamour
of vertical living
and anonymous lift-shaft thoroughfares

puts the fear of city-life banality as well as I've heard it for some time. McKirdy picks the Asia he wants to be part of and writes with warmth of it. He is more at home writing affably of an Asian he does like than in criticising an Asian he doesn't like. It's significant that his greatest vitriol is spat not against the changing Asian world, for that world he sees as his world, but against an England he sees himself as having no part of. "Abroad in England" has some great lines in it worth repeating, a fact McKirdy obviously concurs with; the poem itself is one of four first found in his debut collection but included here to enhance the theme of the section in which they appear.

Colonized by mediocrity, xenophobia, tattooed housewives
and the deification of the lout and the underachiever ...

Soap every night on TV depicts
lives more mundane than their own ...

A madness fostered by too much distance and too much time
masked my total alienation from this totally alien nation.

Certainly he's not at home there. But I sense little regret for that fact. There is little regret as he knows where he is at home For what would make one feel more Asian than this, "Bamboozled," McKirdy's poem of his home village?

I voted for
Mr. Yeung Tin San
a Hakka elder
a realist who values tradition.
He was elected by a majority of one.

The easy and there-to-be-used description of most of this collection is "Martin Booth's Gweilo as poetry." I can't imagine McKirdy would be too disappointed with that (consider the sales), but it is worth pointing out that there are a few more stories going on here as well. It is also worth acknowledging that rather than the comic ones of Accidental Occidental the nostalgic ones are the big ones here, the nostalgic ones are the ones we'll be reading again and smiling at in the future.

Read work by David McKirdy in Cha here and here.

[1] I questioned the author on this. His reply should raise a smile. "You are correct in your assessment, but the reason I used 'condensed in one loamy sod' was to get the double meaning that Heaney himself was perhaps a bit of a loamy old sod—in the fondest sense, that is." I have to admit, I hadn't considered that possibility.

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