Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

 

MEN OF WORDS
REVIEWS BY SARAH LAW

SAT GURU SNOWMAN by Owen Gallagher
[50pp, £6.95, Peterloo Poets]

This small collection explores the human condition, with all its conflicts and diversity, in compelling miniature. Gallagher is well situated for the project. As primary school teacher in multicultural Southall, he is a privileged observer of the possessive and creative tensions of playground and classroom, and from them constructs a series of vignettes, haunting and amusing by turns. Reading through these poems, I find there is a celebratory note to the tensions despite their incongruity, as the young children in Gallagher’s classes are ‘pulled between/ banghra and pop, salwars and Levis’ ['A Common History'], and, if the moment is right, a child’s introduction to difficult cultural division can be heart-warmingly handled: witness ‘Partition’ which discovers a metaphor of hope, as ‘…flags / symbols, different flight paths / to God emerged, / all passports valid, stamped.’ But when things go wrong, the note is menacing and prophetic. In 'Little India', the children

          squabble over a strip of grass,
          stake a claim for a football pitch.
          ‘We were here first!’ The Sikh boys cried.
          The Muslims stood their ground.

They may be distracted by the throwing of a ball, but the real situation they mimick here is not so easily resolved. As if to further the distance between the child’s and the adult’s world, bullying and abuse within the family are also explored through the poet-teacher’s eye with the raw delicacy of the tiny, telling gesture. Some of the poems are sobering indeed.

Perhaps because of his close proximity with these young lives, Gallagher is close, too, to his own childhood with its Irish roots, his parents undergoing the indignity of displacement and exploitation: ‘We were tethered like livestock behind horse traps’ ['My Father Was For Hire']. The child-like myths and scams of Irish folklore fit in seamlessly in this collection which explores magical beliefs with wry wonder. I liked the simple lines of 'The Cloughaneely Goose' and the simple rhymes of ‘Our Lady in Concrete’. And this wonder leads us back to childhood again, the remembrance of being young enough to squirm, with siblings, into your parents’ bed, and lie ‘Lodged between them, tiny casts/ of themselves’ ['God the Father']. As another facet of the same innocence of eye, death too leaves its impression by the small things it leaves behind - a worry stone, the memory of a rattling tea cup. And the disjointed and the lonely nature of life can be just as apparent in relationships, where Gallagher depicts two consciousnesses ‘orbiting each other like satellites’ ['Atlas']. Far better the joyous intermingling of the playground, for all its harshnesses.

Not all of these poems capture the succinct magic of the miniature – some left me with a shrugging feeling of incompletion. But when the magic is there, it restores faith in the fallible, comic, and hopeful human world – ‘The infants’ eyes flickered like the candles/ their faith kept alight by our tongues.’['Diwali']




SO by Steven Blyth
[76pp, £7.95, Peterloo Poets]

Steven Blyth’s third collection marks out a distinctive personal voice. Blyth’s poems are very personal, many of them rooted in the working, and, above all, domestic life of the poet, with little attempt to embellish them with elements of the cultural, the political, the mythical. But they are not sentimental in any cloying way. There are no euphemisms: a birth is a birth, a death, a death. The lines are direct, often end-stopped. People are spoken of by name, embedded in the context of workplace or family, and the poems have titles such as ‘Gob’, ‘Crap’, ‘3 AM Feed’ and ‘Dad’s Early Retirement’. This gives them  a very earthy quality, a gritty ballad-like tenacity which draws the reader in. Blyth is insightful about his own talent to stick with narrative: ‘My poems are little stories / Not the sort that reflect on single things’ ‘I can’t pluck you from narrative’s river bed / Hold you up to the light and see pure you. / I’ve had a bash. No Luck. Sorry’ ['Poem (For my new born son, Robert)']

What Blyth excels at is capturing the moment of life, experienced (or as if experienced) at first hand, and allowing it to crystallise into insight which verges on the tender. When the language is rough, the insight is all the more powerful.  After the sudden death of a work colleague, the light has gone in the smoker’s basement. ‘My eyes will not get used to it’ [Memo to Colin]. And again, considering an unfortunate childhood peer, ‘I’d think of him as I lay in bed – / The horror of his aunt’s cold bare spare room. / Watching the stars through the crack in my curtains / I’d remember dad’s words, wonder if, instead // He lay counting the dark bit in between.’ ['Lucky Stars'].

Blythe is a very accomplished and subtle rhymer, mostly a para-rhymer, from the experimental symmetry of ‘Junk’, to the nonchalant couplets of ‘A Common Interest’, where we have Pertwee/Yeti, met in/seventeen, couple/Neil, facts/hearts: the form in this story of the narrator’s gay sci-fi fan friend fits his teenage struggle to understand. My only query was with some of the over-weighted last lines of his poems, where I wanted to suggest that less would be better – ‘The Sceptics’, for example, where ‘Finding this new stuff underfoot so strange. Like Armstrong himself’ is too long and doesn’t need the second sentence. The image works by itself. Having said that, all the poems earn their place. When imagery is to the fore it is powerful – feeding his son at 3 a.m., the nursery is transformed to a sea bed. Elsewhere he wonders if his baby can see angels and ghosts. I half-suspect the same of Blyth, though he is too rooted in the tangibilities of  life ever to float away with them.




ENDORPHIN ANGELS by Dennis Casling,
[63pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop Books]

This haunting collection by blind poet Dennis Casling deserves much attention. I found a compelling balance between the personal and the philosophical, Casling’s metaphysical speculations given the sharp insight of one who cannot take our sighted world for granted. ‘This is the world of the unexpected. / Gravity will tip you suddenly upside down’, says the foetus in the egg/sperm/foetus spirits of 'Initiation'. The collection is full of twists and reversals, but sharply plotted, too, with myths and geographies delineated against each other: 'The Unicorn' precedes Casling’s thoughts on a 'Stag’s Skull'; dysfunction between the generations is sandwiched between 'Disneyland' and the 'Garden of Eden'.

I would not draw attention to Casling’s blindness if he does not do so himself: ‘the night still has its stars, or darker clouds’. 'What the Blind Man Sees' explores his sensory landscape in almost hallucinatory terms, provides the title phrase of the collection, and is immensely memorable in its succinct incantation, as is 'Where Does the Dark Go?' and the longer and more free-ranging ‘Blue’, where surreal images surface despite the text having ‘everything bathed in elemental light’. There is a feeling for art, shape, colour, throughout this collection in fact, though it is not impressionistic so much as distinctively dreamlike. Streets and furniture shrink and scuttle in the dreamer’s night, an uncertain framework for an unflinching poet, who wakes to a morning where ‘a blackbird flies singing from the water tap’ ['Absence'].

This is a poet whose brain, like the baby in 'Family', is ‘brimmed with language’ and it is a pleasure to see how language is used here. The longest line in the collection describes a newly sightless Casling ‘summoning the courage from somewhere to stumble and be stared at’ ['Fish']. The courage flourishes as poems come as tautly beautiful as, for example, the last lines of 'Church Window',

          Beyond the rectangle, beyond the cross
          Beyond the desiccating, flaking stone,
          My finger traces suddenly a crest
          Of hill descending like your collar bone.

Philosophy slides easily into place in the linguistic control of 'Sisyphus' and 'Signs', where mythical rock-pusher and modern sign-seeker (Derrida) respectively are wryly depicted in their own self-reflexive worlds. And 'The Shape of Things' paints Euclid reaching towards his ‘ghost of an idea’ beyond the experiential and the mundane. 

Casling’s own ghosts hover over the collection just as much as do his endorphin angels. Life before and after life is present here, communicating, withdrawing, and leaving the reader with the shifted perspective of a substantial book.




FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY by Michael Henry
[80pp, £7.95, Enitharmon Press]

This is a panoramic volume – charting an entire life – which took me several sittings to access: not necessarily a bad thing, as its scope is large and serious and the style generally slow and subtle, though not without flashes of levity and illumination. It was the illuminative flashes which first attracted me: early on there are childish intuitions which run counter to the established rules of the household: 'I watched the light play snakes and ladders / with the shadow until they shut it out/with clerical plain black curtains' ['The First Crusade'], and again, in 'Honour System': 'the tawney amber light / that streamed in through the window', which is in opposition to paternal discipline. I wished that the light had stayed present as a hopeful alternative to the course of a life which we witness, its descent into mean, desperate wartime situations and a recovery little more than poignantly partial.

Henry's 'fictional' character (he is not named) is a celebration of the life of one Dennis Bennett-Jones whose existence spans that of the twentieth century. Like Auden, he has a doctor father, and aesthetic and surgical imagery vie for dominance in the 'formative years' poems:

          To scrape out with a curette
          the fruit from the fluid,
          to tap on the glass
          with obstetric fingers
                   ['A glass-stoppered bottle']

Subsequent poems edge us, inevitably, into war, and it is with this that the major sections of the book are concerned. And here there is horror, made all the more unpalatable through stark language verging on the clinically distant; as if a disclocated veracity will serve as the best vehicle for articulating unimaginable abuse. Sometimes this style works well, (the prison poems 'Dover's Powder', 'Number 77 D.S.C’) while at other times I longed for more drama in the lines to heighten both the tension and exhilaration (the planned escape of 'Rommel Roulette'). Henry is quite capable of this drama, as the pre-war 'Train Band, 1930' shows, mesmerising with its neologisms ('clamber through the scramblespace / between compartments') and programmatic rhythm ('Newspapers, tunnels, darkness, ghosts / Little did they know! Little did they know!').

Where the poems swerve from deadpan brutality, I found the most original poetic observations:  for example, of the terrified Jewish girl running for her life: 'She should have gone to ballet classes / with your little Degas nieces' ['Paraphrasing Churchill']. But it is only on the prisoner's return, the gradual and only ever partial rehabilitation to British life that fragments of the surreal are allowed to surface and mingle, oddly and effectively, with memories and endings. Henry's phrase in 'Let It Stand' sums up this quality of 'batteries turned off turned on again/ with sickly convalescent charge'.

It is in the margins of this book's theme that I find the most ingenuity, the more attractive lines. Is this deliberate on the part of the author, or an indication of the terrible difficulty of conveying what is almost too horrible to think of, or some reluctance of my own to confront the real substance of this book? I would like to praise Henry's ambition, his stamima in envisaging a collection of such scope, and his intriguing ability to capture with thoughtful grace those strange marginal moments of life when ['Charter Party'] 'there is no more matter over mind'.




DELIGHT'S WRECKAGE by David Chaloner
[ 66pp, no marked price, Shearsman Books]

Chaloner's resistant lyrics take some time to yield the ambivalent glimpses of light with which they are concerned. If you think that line is difficult, read the poems – a deliberate refusal of easy meaning forces the reader back onto his or her own metaphysical speculations, which is perhaps the point: 'Shining channels engage the interval, / emphasising choice....Change is one thing, then it is another' ['Interval']. I changed my mind several times about many of the poems in this collection.

Images surface throughout of disturbed water, refracted time. 'Surface tension segregates the random influence/ of a hand sampling water' ['Shoal']. Other poems are elusive, not least because of the apparent detachment of the poet: 'You struggle to avoid the personal', we read, in 'Ancient Wishes'. But the personal does seep through, – in 'The Excommunicant' Chaloner ventures a narrative 'I': 'My apparent delusions, the debris of betrayal...' I felt a gathering sense of  remorseful, small-hours anxiety repeatedly rupturing the poetic line, and eventually couldn't stop myself thinking of that poem Fleur Adcock wrote about 'things' gathering around one's bed when one woke in the night and looking 'worse and worse and worse'. Chaloner distrusts the dispersing rays of morning light, which is why I came to think of many of these poems as existential aubades. Sometimes this distrust is expressed beautifully – 'Naming', 'Repair'; at other times an epigrammatic line rather reminded me of unlikely newspaper headlines: 'Tomorrow's stroke of indecision informs today' ['Moves']. Chaloner himself questions reading too much story into the poems: 'Narrative infiltrates fragile consequence' ['Repair'], although there are a few which do seem to celebrate the more particular: 'Sub-Tropical Garden', for example, with a child's perspective on the unknown, and 'Thomas' Splint', with its sliver of white going diagonally through punctuated lines (I liked this, whether it was intentional or not).

The language of Chaloner's poems is quite distinct. Sometimes it has a stuttering quality ['Interrogation'] , sometimes a 'sustained, fragile hum' ['Ruse'] of layered adjectives and abstractions. There are repetitions and cross references, as well as hallucinatory nods to other poets – Auden's 'sleeping head...', and possibly Eliot's Four Quartets. One poem in Chaloner's collection is repeated in its entirety under different titles –  'Recoil' and 'Delight's Wreckage', which seemed a little excessive to me. The poems express both a fragility and a versatility that make nothing happen, but open up the possibilities of innovative reflection.




THE MUSIC LAID HER SONGS IN LANGUAGE by Michael Haslam
[46pp, £5.95, Arc Publications]

I would concur with the back cover blurb declaring Michael Haslam a 'Holy Fool'. This long, lively poem, complete with an equally poetic sequence of notes which are themselves refracted several times through the turning verbal mill, is the work of a talented maverick, skilled in the wilder arts as well as in canonical courtesy. Haslam's poetry dazzles and seems as unstoppable as a sunlit twist of water. It appeals both through its novelty, and through traditional resonances such as its alliterative panache, and its insistently staccatto iambic weave – 'the seeing of blank verse in colour'.

Through the scintillating language, images suggest at one level an allegorical fancy (Music laying all those eggs), at another, a personal oddysey. I haven't picked up all the literary references (Haslem kindly points out Drayton's Poly-Olbion as one) but know they are there. The overall sensation is 'not so much a metaphor as an ideal of dance'. 'I want to ride up on a reader's back', he states, and so he does - though sometimes, where the language is slower, we almost get our bearings; there is a fragment about a stately home which moves in easy, lucid lines. Elsewhere, the lines agitate with linguistic velocity, 'do the mazy riddle / of the marbles to a grid set in the middle' ('small fricative explosions' as Haslam also writes). Strains of pastoral flow into lusty riverside references and back onto dry land (read page 20 to find out what I mean). Every so often, the lines accumulate to present 'one of those ghost places / when the psyche wakes', and music (or the muse) takes on a mythical, primordial presence, the ungenerate poetic material waiting for someone such as Haslam the craftsman: 'We welcome spinners ever drawing lines / out of the flocculence.'

'The Music...' delineates one childhood memory: 'Forty years ago today / a chalk tip splintered....Figure-brain finds something funny / in the algebraic squiggles that it doesn't understand'. The poet-to-be, mind presumably firing on all cylinders, was evicted from the classroom for giggling: 'and there I was perfectly careless'. It seems to have been a lesson well missed. Like his own art on the cover, Haslam's poem is chromatically, carefully chaotic. As long as you have a liking for the ludic, I would recommend this playful publication.


                   © Sarah Law 2002