The Elephant in the Room by David Grubb

(76pp, 9.00, Driftwood, 5 Timms Lane, Formby, Merseyside L37 9DW)

There's a lovely poem called 'A map of my father's mind' in this, the most recent of David Grubb's many collections, which seems to encompass much of what his poetry's about:

              This is a map of my father's mind
               in the winter, at the edge, where there are bells
               and Irish ancestors and the sea's slow sermons

begins the poem, taking us into Grubb's territory, 'at the edge', where the ordinary and the surreal lie down together. There's also memorable imagery ('the stench of Latin pronouns'); humour ('a kite lifts / a  visiting bishop off his feet') and loss ('his mother floats between hymns / and griefs' or 'he prays for the drowned miners'), and the poem as a whole looks at the idea of memory and what goes on inside the mind.

These are themes that move like riffs through Grubb's poetry, where the edges between 'madness' and sanity are blurred, as in the beautifully rhythmical poem for John Clare, aand where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as in 'Commandments' where a grandfather's daily actions begin to seem strange ('Later he gets up to light three fires and turn / the bread into toast and consume porridge begun the evening / before.') Like Gillian Allnutt, Grubb gives the reader snippets of stories which are not quite explained and so open out the imagination: 'Last year we were caught in the ice for seven weeks.... // Today I hear mother singing again. / I wait outside the door / not to hurry her'; and like Paul Durcan he mixes the religious and the bizarre, as in the poem 'Jesus skipping'. There are also nods to Beckett, specifically so in one poem, but also in lines like 'We / are... tucked between births and deaths / to make a meaning of our names', and in the recurring question of 'what can happen between one idea and a silence'. Grubb probes this particularly for the musician, and for the poet, whom he defines as someone 'who finds birds inside silences'. The birds appear often, for example in a poem about Kosovo, where 'birds in the fields' represent 'the normal / world, the old existence', as they do for a Cornish gardner sent away to war, who speaks elegiacally: 'When I died I saw the birds over Heligan woods...'

This is an interesting and provocative collection, in a sure and highly original voice. If Grubb occasionally teeters in his walking of the tightrope between surealsim and twee-ness (for example in his use of words like 'dream' or 'angel'), it feels like only a slight wobble, and the safety-net of his good, thoughtful well-wrought poems is always there. It's a shame the production of the book doesn't live up to the quality of the poems, with its stiff glossy pages, ugly typesetting and sloppy proofreading. But ignore all this, read the poems, and enter the strange and enticing territory of David Grubb.

                   Elizabeth Burns 2004