Review of Exactly My Own LengthJane Draycott, PN Review 210

Quietly Visionary
Olivia Mccannon, Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) £9.95

In a year of many strong debut collections Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length has been awarded the 2012 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, in addition to an earlier nomination for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry. As its title suggests, this is a book of beautiful exactitude, thoughtful, acute and inventive, interested in intricate harmonic effects, in pinning down the largest-scale moments of all: ‘You gave me life / At 1 a.m. / It weighed 6 pounds 11 ounces’ (‘The Weight of Life’), ‘… a narrow gap in a smooth rock / Your own length, the fit exact / And soft enough to give up thought for sleep’ (‘Exactly My Own Length’). Like others of her generation McCannon is an international citizen, a literary translator living in both London and Paris from where she writes the arc of her close family’s history – Liverpool, Cairo, Normandy, Kiel – always with a dramatist’s sense of scale, apprehending lives simultaneously in their most historic and private manifestations:

Hope went into flowers that outgrew borders
Ambition into the hammering in the shed
Happiness into gaps so small it had to bow its head…
(‘No. 3’)

Hope, together with the rejection of its inverse, false hope, is a powerful presiding spirit in the book (‘Hope Street 1966′ stands as a key poem imagining her parents’ first meeting), and not least in the marvellous title poem: ‘Hope is allowed – while we talk – / I hope for you one of those coffins / Found in evening light on a summer walk’. In addition to her work as a translator McCannon collaborates with musicians on lyrics and libretti, and she has a very finely tuned ear, as skilled at barely audible echo and cross-rhyme as at more formally obvious patterning. The most subtle and moving harmonic work comes in the sequence of poems addressed to her late mother which constitutes the second half of the collection:

Be watchful – she’s weak now
And may falter. Keep her awake
lift her up with thermal breezes
Always fly in daylight zones
(‘A Request to the Cranes’)

McCannon handles the transformative action of elegy with moving subtlety, her deliberate light tread, the mode in which she apprehends the world and recreates it, pushing with a very precise pressure on her material. Her imaginative delicacy is a determined one, pressing with powerful effect always to an exact dynamic point: ‘I hold your bruised hand / As tightly as it can bear’ (‘What To Do With a Baby’).

Like the speaker in ‘City of the Dead’ (‘I live in the shadow of the Sultan’s tomb / … I listen at dawn / For the voices of his retinue’) McCannon’s imagination operates ‘between the lines // Of tombs’. Here she feels most able to act upon the world, recall and reinvent it, consider her place in it. The poems in Exactly My Own Length are often quietly visionary, but their inventions are honest inventions, circling always back to the truth and ground-root of experience, its detail and limit, and all the more powerful for it.


Review of Exactly My Own LengthIan McMillan, Poetry Review, Spring 2013

Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length deservedly won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize; it’s full of beautifully crafted poems built carefully from compassion and empathy, whether they’re remembering (and half-imagining) an intimate past, ‘Into Number Three they poured / The past, the present and the future / Held in the space between four walls. // The past tied up in the deposit / The present in the sum paid out each week / The future in someone else’s pocket’ (‘No. 3’), or detailing in heartbreaking stanzas the fading away of a parent: ‘I know you can hear and every day now / we are living through the horror / Of the one-sided conversation.’ (‘Conversation’). In the best possible way this is a self-help book, a collection that underlines the role that the heightened language of poetry can play as we try to make sense of our changing lives. She writes ‘Each page so busy and thronging / We won’t see the digits changing.’ (‘Book of Hours’). Except we will, because McCannon has pointed those changes out to us.


Review of Exactly My Own Length, Writers News, January 2013

Announced on 2 November at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, the winner of this year’s Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize is Olivia McCannon for Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet). Olivia wins £2,000, a week’s paid writing time and a paid invitation to read at next year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

‘In a very close field, what we valued in Olivia McCannon’s book was the judged authenticity of her voice. Her collection has a subtle craftsmanship, and her clean and precise language rewards several re-readings revealing new layers of connection and meaning.Exactly My Own Length is surprising without ever being showy, feelingful without overplaying its sentiment, and universal without being predictable,’ said chair of judges Robert Seatter.The shortlist for the prize was: Bee Journal, Sean Borodale (Cape); Loudness, Judy Brown (Seren); Exactly My Own Length, Olivia McCannon (Carcanet); Misadventure, Richard Meier (Picador), and Breaking Silence, Jacob Sam-La Rose (Bloodaxe).


Review of Exactly My Own Length – Aime Williams, Times Literary Supplement, 30 March 2012

Olivia McCannon’s ‘City of the Dead’ is typical of the beautifully crafted rhyming poem found in Exactly My Own Length. Its power seems to ‘live between the lines’ in a kind of sonic memory. The ways of memory or commemoration are explored within formal boundaries (‘the past, the present and the future/ held in the space between four walls’). McCannon is particularly interested in taking a single object, and yoking the minds of separate people to it. ‘Barometer’ delicately handles parentheses, or pseudo-parentheses, to gesture at the muted irrelevance hanging over the instrument (a piece of seaweed). McCannon’s tone is deadeningly controlled: ‘The first girl knows’ that ‘it responds because of Physics, not volition-/ she finds that interesting’, while ‘the other is sure she won’t go back…she keeps it alive remembering’. Perhaps, fittingly for such a musically accomplished poet, the object is elsewhere done away with altogether in favour of its narrative (‘not so much the people or the blood/ as the talking, the telling, the making’).

The danger for this poet is a slide into aphoristic neatness, though McCannon always seems to stop just short of that (‘I’m afraid. How can your absence/ Be imagined except as pain?’; ‘there is nothing afterwards/ You won’t be fobbed off with eternity’). These lines come from a run of touching poems written for and about a dying mother. Although ‘dying is a fragile domain/ to be entered with caution’, McCannon’s formal talents work effectively to create the sweeping panoramas of flight (‘A Request to the Cranes’), a somnambulant mind fading in and out of consciousness (‘Vigil’), and despairing lists of pointless tasks (‘Nothing I Can Do’). Cheery pragmatism is rendered helpless (‘I’m just a helpless pair of hands’), though hands elsewhere allow a delicate sharing of different strengths between the poem’s characters: ‘I hold your bruised hand/ as tightly as it can bear’.


And in other blogs….

Josephine Corcoran, poet and creative writing tutor, writes about Winchester Poetry Festival 2014, including a reading I did there with Liz Berry and Jacqueline Saphra. Read more…

Gareth Prior, poet and librettist, reviews a reading by Sasha Dugdale and Olivia McCannon at the Woodstock Festival. ‘Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length was one of my favourite books of 2011 (coincidentally, Sasha Dugdale’s Red House was another).’ Read more…

John Field, reviewer and Aldeburgh Festival blogger in 2013, writes about some of the poems in ‘Exactly My Own Length’. ‘Olivia McCannon opens her collection with Liverpool Echo, which presents a newspaper seller who’s as much a fixture as any litter bin, or lamp-post.’ Read more…

Edmund Prestwich, secretary of Manchester group Poets and Players, gives a close reading of ‘Map’, writing that it ‘has the kind of simple line through it that’s essential if a poem is to communicate when you hear it just once.’ Read more…