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Taking its name from the term for a female spy, Speculatrix is at once the voyeur and the observed. Fame and death are McCabe’s subjects, sifted and strained through his poems’ urgent rhythms. At the heart of the book, a sequence of wild, neurotic sonnets tears at the corpus of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre to conjure a visceral landscape of decay and financial collapse. Extending the collection beyond his trademark urban locale are startling poems for the loved and departed: from the artist Francis Bacon to the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Barry MacSweeney. In Speculatrix McCabe has pulled out all the stops, showing why he is considered one of British poetry’s most arresting and pioneering spirits.
Speculatrix, [McCabe's] blazing, breakthrough fourth collection, explores the sleepless metropolis by Jacobean torchlight. Breathtaking verse combusts in dark Thames pubs where revenge-tragedy dramatists drink with hedge-fund managers.
Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Sunday Times
Deliriously anachronistic, Speculatrix is an act of witness as much to modern London as the early modern plays that inspire it … One of the most original contributions to British poetry in quite some time.
Dai George, Ambit
This is a book of mirroring, of artful repetitions and binary reversals: life and death, men and women, dark and light, fecundity and decay … McCabe approaches the actualities of love, death and loss with a steady, unflinching eye.
Karen McCarthy Woolf, Poetry London
Bold, woozy and thrilling
John Canfield, Poetry School Book of the Year
Speculatrix is a book in perpetual motion, alive, dynamic, galvanised by its sources but not overwhelmed by them. It is a sublime work of artistry, unashamedly clever, eschewing the parameters apparently agreed by committee for poetry of directly lived experience and everyday language to produce a work of jacked up, febrile intensity.
Tom Jenks, The Wolf
McCabe’s suburban commuters are ‘the zòmbies of / ambition’ and, in this cadaverous updating of The Waste Land, suppurating fiscal and physical corruption take centre stage.
John Field, Poor Rude Lines
Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts [...] These are complex, strange, boisterous and unsetlling poems.’
The formal constraints that McCabe uses… add to the sense of barely contained and conflicting energies: wealth and financial collapse, creativity and death, reality and play. This is a city on the verge of a riot it doesn’t really understand.
Billy Mills, Elliptical Movements
McCabe is a poet for modern times and Speculatrix – in its dark mechanical thrum – gets closer than any book to defining the cross-narrative, digital, consumerist, money-defined, zombified, alive world we inhabit.
In this haunted work, history, tragedy and comedy roil in energised and dynamic engagement with language of the early modern period, bringing it confrontingly into the here and now through a lens of gender, the gaze fixed on the stage of the poem, intrigue, injustice and the city of London. The linguistic goalposts might shift, though the mouth might still speak ‘Elizabethan’, and the relationship between subject and object will still demand explication with the verbal tools at hand. This brilliant work taps into the materials of early modern theatre and problematises patriarchal impositions on the ‘heritage’ of language – not glibly, but with zeal and razor-sharp insight. The London riots, the machinery of capital and city, the failure of ideology, the undercurrent of revenge and deliverance, all warp in these frequently dialogic poems to reveal a theatre of the contemporary in which language is macabre, brutalised, and yet generating possibilities of insight into the condition of survival. A formalist in a fresh way, Chris McCabe’s ‘play-poems’ are compactions of history and place, manifestations of the violent struggle for identity towards which many of us are impelled. This poetic work is long overdue. It’s one we need.
The apparatus of capital, sexual intrigue, notoriety and death, and the City of London echo through the taut and visceral musicality of the sonnets that are at the heart of Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix. This collection is one of the poetic highlights of 2014.
David Caddy, Tears in the Fence
As fast moving as quicksilver and as venomous as mercury … these poems glow with the fire of inspiration—he is a torchbearer in the dark catacombs of poetry.
Valeria Melchioretto, Writers’ Hub
In his splendid new collection, Chris McCabe merges the London of the Jacobean and Elizabethan stage with the here and now in language which spits and fizzes with a dark eloquence both demotic and high-art.
Steve Spence, Stride
The way each prose poem with its staggered spacing and accented syllables veers back and forth between the ages is a giddy-making experience but an exhilarating one too. This is what innovative poetry needs to do – scorch and tear at the boundaries of language in order to expose uncomfortable truths.
Josh Ekroy, London Grip
Cover design by Ben Anslow
Artwork: Anthonis Mor Van Dashorst, Portrait of Stevan Van Herwijck, 1564 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Published 1 December 2014
The Sunday Times
Chris McCabe was born in Liverpool in 1977. His three previous poetry collections are The Hutton Inquiry, Zeppelins and THE RESTRUCTURE. He has recorded a CD with The Poetry Archive and was shortlisted for the 2014 Ted Hughes Award. His creative non-fiction book In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery was published in 2014. His work has been described by The Guardian as ‘an impressively inventive survey of English in the early 21st century.’ He works as the Poetry Librarian at the Poetry Library and teaches for the Poetry School.