Stride Magazine -


Calling Myself On The Phone
by Steven Waling, 64pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND
Bags Of Mostly Water
by Sandra Tappenden, 71pp, £7.00, ‘original plus’, Flat 3, 18 Oxford Grove, Ilfracombe, Devon EX34 9HQ

Calling Myself On The Phone
is a fitting title for the wry, self-deprecating autobiography contained in Steven Waling’s first full collection. The life he describes is contemporary Northern urban, but there’s nothing self-indulgent or parochial here. It’s a real world we can all share. ‘To Convulsions’ the second poem in the book, addresses a childhood affliction:

One minute running out of the bogs,
the next on a table with faces
I dreamed were devils, more
scared of me than I was of them.

Telling observations, anecdote and apt descriptions flavour these often droll, always compassionate poems. You can see how these are condensed in ‘Getting Home Before You Left’:

In the driver’s seat
you have my sympathy with those CD’s:
Pavarotti, Dire Straits, Cats
. Society won’t
make an emergency stop if you don’t get home
by midnight but you or your marriage might.

He manages to make familiar thoughts and states of mind fresh and vivid with simple idiosyncratic language, often threaded with a sense of alienation. Early on, in ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ this is tackled with a typically light touch:

The part
of my brain with a horse in it
galloped West over Morecambe Bay
like the Lone Ranger, dodging the
quicksands and arguments as I rode
my own shadow over the cliffs.

Through it all runs a sense of someone relishing the world he experiences. In ‘Starting With A Line By Declan MacManus’ we have:

…..inside the skull
the wakeful brain decides to enjoy the ride,
so keep your hands inside the dodgems

and don’t let go the bar.

The language is plain, everyday - ‘demotic’ according to the cover blurb - which unfortunately gives rise to the grammatical clumsiness of ‘there’s small gaps in my head’ [‘To Convulsions’]. On the page the poems look neat, controlled, with equal stanza lengths and no straggling lines, though line breaks often seem arbitrary. At first the conscientiously ‘crafted down’ language irked and I began to hope for a piece of poetryspeak, or perhaps one of those words proscribed by the poetry police. But no. Even his love poems, sensitive as they are, stick to basics. In ‘Night Before’:

I want it and I
don’t till by the door as you

leave you touch me,there.

Initial reservations dispelled, I was intrigued by the companionable voice that could belong to someone you strike up casual conversation with in a secondhand record shop or queuing for a Miles Davis concert. Just as I might afterwards have wished I’d swopped phone numbers with him, so too I will certainly want to remember where I last put his book down.

Compared to the easy company of Steven Waling, reading Sandra Tappenden’s ‘Bags of Mostly Water’ is like riding pillion to a garrulous biker. Even if you jumped off you’d still hear this stuff rattling round in your head for ages afterwards. The voices are sardonic, witty, philosophical, and down to earth. I like the pace and the way contemporary and personal subject matter is used to tackle universal themes. In ‘Anything Much Is Always Happening In Heaven’ the speaker, evoking the spirit of Robert Frost, begins with:

Mr Frost, you looked upward a lot in your long life. Me, if
my gaze travels further than my navel the giddiness can
keep me prone in a darkened room for weeks’

and ends:

I look in, and look, we’ve written each other’s obverse
poem, your plod my fast-forward only some freer arbiter
could determine.

The book opens with autobiography. In ‘Search Results’ she considers those she shares her own name with, longing

To swim with my people, these flickering lights,
this untuned radio, cut-up text, not, please, not looking for connection.

It ends with fiction, a sequence about a woman spy: ‘A world in code, I thought, needs a nut to crack it.’[ ‘The Melissa Files’]

Between these, common themes of identity, reconciliation, love, loss and alienation acquire new life in a variety of styles reflecting the confidence and skill of someone who can suit form to subject. There are syllabic sonnets, clever use of rhyme and half rhyme, as well as free verse and more experimental, breathless prose poems and racy cut-ups. While this makes for variety there is a certain uneveness, as if some pieces were included just to showcase the poet’s range. While I can admire the tenderness and accomplishment of sonnets like ‘The Boy I Didn’t Know’:

The sleek chin’s dinted, scooped out, like a dune
virgins have daydreamed in. Yes, all too soon
that big mouth will get kissed.

she is most exciting where she engages top gear and, indeed, goes fast-forward. In ‘Madness…a monologue to be spoken in a high wind’ she gives us:

I contemplate gulls and swans, who appear to do
quite well without recourse to analysts, rented families or gods,
whilst the storm-dirty sky rips open its raincoat to reveal intense
blueness,and, staring across the water at a row of sober
cormorants, I think about madness, and don’t know what it is…..

Certainly not this, a book of manic sanity.

         © Mike Barlow 2003