There are no horses in heaven by Frankie McMillan.
Christchurch: CUP (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Frankie McMillan’s second poetry collection, There are no horses in heaven, is full of wonderful imagery from an undoubtedly curious mind. Predominantly charming yet lively McMillan’s poems take us into historical, botanical, medical and anatomical elements, surprising us with their subject matter and details. The day-dreaming nun in the title poem ponders on equine facts: ‘horses do not have collar bones/ their front limbs are directly attached/ to the spinal column’, yet humanity is acknowledged in the final three couplets: ‘Sister Teresa wakes to the taste/ of an iron bit// she does not recognise underground water/ the wild grasses good to eat// she stands, shuddering in her skin/ the world laid bare before her.’
The work is well-crafted, imaginative, subtly humorous, often deep and yet accessible. Words and phrases delight with impact and information. In “The campanology of wishes”, we read:
She had always wanted to say
the thickest part of the mouth
was a sound bow
and appear nonchalant with
her learning, say at a dinner party
over a glass of pinot
where she could change the tone
entirely with a word like ‘muffled’
or a phrase including ‘a thick leather pad
strapped to the side of the clapper’.
There is both redolence and resonance in the bell ringers’ vocabulary, also a recognition of human inclinations.
The prose poem, “In the nick of time, a deer” starts:
It’s 2 a.m. and I’m running in my pyjamas through the snow to the neighbours because that’s what we do in trouble or even for just a cup of flour and I hammer on the glass door, the door with an etched deer in the frosted pane, my father is killing my mother.
“In the nick of time, a deer”, is pacey and alarming, vaulting off the page at its fantastical end:
The deer leaps out of the broken glass door; shards of white fall over his back and litter the steps. His antlers toss away the thin glass trees, tinkle tinkle. The deer bounds over the glistening road. Here he comes, prancing through our front door, his antlers lowered.
Relationships with people and animals thread through this volume of 41 poems. Sometimes a poem will roll off another as in “The glassblower’s boy” and, only two poems later, “The glass slipper was only half of it”. I am unsure if this does either poem any favours tending to believe that the uniqueness of each might be better appreciated if entirely separate. Repeated use of vocabulary in the above – ‘the tungsten pick’, ‘stretch(s) colour’, ‘hood’, ‘glass dress’ – slightly detracts from the turn each takes.
McMillan looks at subjects from different angles, tackling intestinal worms (“The visitation”) in a matter-of-fact way: ‘She is philosophical over the worms/ taking them on day trips to Paris’ and poignantly in “After you have gone/the visions”:
the stories we tell ourselves –
you’re out there still
chasing the rooster back home …
are our prayers woven
from nests small litanies
love, scattering this way and that.
There are many emotions ‘woven’ with the reassurance of human kindness in the poem “Observing the ankles of a stranger”: ‘you cried out the name of your hotel but/ the streets began to flood, thick sludge/ over the asphalt/ and such was your astonishing concern/ over the ruin of your shoes I almost laughed’.
As a resident of Christchurch, McMillan records the devastating earthquake of February 2011 in a distinctive way, noticing the small details, the human way we observe and care, and it is remarkable:
… like dumb animals we clung to the side
of Retro’s, a wooden building, walls
swung in and out, we dropped to the ground, flattening
ourselves and that’s when I fixed on your pale ankles
the bony mound, the muddy sandal strap …
… you told me to Save myself, and I said God bless and
in this grandeur of occasion I felt like Joan of Arc’
… I was just another woman hurrying
home ticking off a list
candles, shelter, food and water.
A poet of many accomplishments and accolades, this new collection is a credit to McMillan. The artwork on the cover and inside flaps is bold and simple in blue and white, titles and the five section dividers are in blue; it is interesting before you start to read. All poems start on the right-hand page which is a comfortable way to separate poems (more than half of which are short and in couplets) with a visible breathing space created between each.
I recommend this book – not just because it is the perfect size to put in a pocket and enjoy anywhere, any time.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.