Review : Mel McMahon – Out of Breath

On the book cover for Out Of Breath, Paula Meehan calls Mel McMahon “an archaeologist of memory, private and communal”. It’s a perfect summing up of this collection, heavily rooted in childhood games and experiences. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine modern poetry capturing the experience of flying kites, playing marbles, conkers and quoits, and revelling in such uninterrupted innocence. While other poets might lament the passing of such fond times, McMahon chooses to celebrate and rejoice, giving the reader as much a history lesson as poetry.

It is also a collection firmly tied together by people and friendships; only five poems in the entire book come without a dedication to someone. Take This To Your Father finds a spiritual reverence in the simple act of bringing a cup of tea to the poet’s father. The unexpected shift to an allusion of faith is both tender and fearful. The simple quatrain Ties explores the role-reversal aging bringing, the offspring now helping to tie the parent’s shoes. McMahon brings wisdom and enlightenment to such small moments, yet isn’t afraid to tackle the bigger issues in life, namely death. There are more deaths and funerals here than your average Paul Durcan collection, although whereas Durcan’s funeral poems can feel like reportage, McMahon places his own sense of loss right at the centre: “no surge of grief can uncoffin soil | or animate their bones”. Elsewhere, Summer Roadsides and The Kingfisher explore death in nature with a veneration reminiscent of Walker Hamilton’s All The Little Animals.

McMahon’s crafting of verbs shines throughout: “neighbouring a fire”, “sky swacked out rain”, “scraggy pets | scabbing the tar”. Here is a poet not afraid to be inventive and push language into new applications. He can also turn a mean phrase, illuminating whole poems with just one or two dazzling lines of original thought: a storm finding “its voice in the dry throat | of our attic” and the innards of a conker compared to “a white womb, | a dense talcum pith, white as the inner cheek of a coconut” are just two hair-raising examples.

It’s a shame this collection has not received a wider release, being published by Summer Palace Press in a limited run. It’s a rewarding read, balanced between a childlike fascination of the world, and the wear-and-tear of loss and things only found in hindsight.

Mel McMahon – Out Of Breath, Summer Palace Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-995445290-9, £10
Copies are available from the poet directly by emailing


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