A Book of Fragments and Dreams has been published by Unthank Cameo Books to commemorate the life and work of Rebecca McManus. Rebecca, a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2010, was due to graduate from the University of East Anglia when she was killed by a speeding driver in 2014, aged 21. Her Book of Fragments and Dreams, reviewed below, collects and celebrates Rebecca’s extraordinary poems.
What is immediately astonishing about A Book of Fragments and Dreams is the richness of it – collected here are over 150 poems that leap from the page as deft, finished pieces of work. There can’t be many poets who can match such an extensive body of work (and work of such quality) at the age of just 21. The sheer amount of poems here speak of a poet endlessly observing others, the world, herself, and capturing those observations with wit, acuity, and a wonderfully un-jaded sense of life’s possibilities. The sense the reader has from these poems, again and again, is the colossal generosity, the huge warmth that their author had towards life. Her enthusiasm for the world is obvious, and her impulse to share her excitement in her writing is truly infectious.
‘Heaven on Earth’
On days when the washing machine
drowns out your thoughts
When people play piano
to the muted beat of raindrops
When jewelled saints
appear in your dreams
When the sky is absent
and life must be present:
Where is heaven if not here?
The book is studded with short poems – some of the fragments of the title – which reveal a poet of deserved confidence. It’s not easy to create a good poem in just a few lines, but Rebecca does this again and again with such quiet skill, leaving just a few carefully-chosen lines resounding purposefully into the white space around them:
I want my children to be musical
in all senses of the world.
I want to raise them on travel, folk, and Monteverdi.
I want them to choose their instrument
and stick to it for life.
We’ll have lovely sunny days
free from whoever.
Together, these short poems, some of which read like prayers, others like battle-cries, create a rich poetry manifesto that advocates for the significance of every moment and every experience, no matter how small or fleeting.
Love recurs endlessly in this collection, never tritely or coyly presented, but examined wryly, at times ruefully, with intelligence and self-awareness:
I too was a young and thrusting student,
Until I awoke one day and saw
that the one I lay next to
utterly repulsed me.
Now Cicero is my man,
those reams of pages of levelled argument
Comfortably substituting for daily disputes over dinner
There’s so much to enjoy here – from the tongue-in-cheek, reminiscing vein of the opening line, to the bathos of “utterly repulsed”, to the hearty avowal “Cicero is my man”. It’s utterly unpretentious (those references to Cicero could so easily have become mannered and self-conscious) funny, and assured. This smart, incisive humour, sliding into pathos, is a real hallmark of Rebecca’s writing, the voice that imagines dropping “to my knees […] sell my soul to whoever’s asking”, but also acknowledges “I need to pick my shopping and myself up before they build a road over me”.
Elsewhere, Rebecca doesn’t shy away from rawer sentiment:
I have stood,
the lonely tower above the mist,
the statue beaten by weather,
the lighthouse without beacon
[…] I also noticed
that I keep lying to myself
despite being faithful to others
Her writing is honest without being self-indulgent, astonishingly mature and clear-headed. Although the voice in many of her poems struggles with feelings of being ‘out of step’ or different, it’s not splendid isolation she writes about, but the overwhelming impulse to connect:
The surrounding blackness
embraced the audience,
bound us together
for a few short moments
From ‘How would you like to spend your July?’
The imaginative power of Rebecca’s language is startling – she coins phrases and conjures images that lodge in the memory like lines you’ve always loved: pineapples fall from a mouth as “tropical lies”; memory is a “dormant volcano […] evergreen, ever-growing”; the sun “like a penny that hadn’t yet dropped”; “[d]espair tastes like garden peas” (it does!). Absurdity never exists for absurdity’s sake in these poems; rather it’s vital to the way Rebecca viewed the world, skewering everyday objects, everyday scenes, with ideas that turn them on their head and yet at the same time get to the truth of them: think of “the man made of wine, fermenting in his suit”, or the candle “crackling […] like a wireless”, sending the wrong message.
Striking also is the fact that these poems are full of sky. Shreds of it are scattered throughout the book, along with wisps of cloud, and occasionally we get the full, upturned bowl. It’s variously bright, hazy, interlocking gently with trees, weeping forlorn, showing a blank face, or an angry one. This is a poet always looking up and out, determinedly facing the world, but also reaching way beyond it, into the eternal and the impossible. In ‘Lightness’, she writes: “I won’t close my eyes/ if the stars are out”. This book is Rebecca’s own glittering comet-trail; it’s impossible to close your eyes on its brightness.