Finding Fresh Words

Big Bella's Dirty Cafe
; Paul Summers (67pp, dogeater)
Thom Thomson in Purgatory
, Troy Jollimore
(93pp, MARGIE/IntuiT House Poetry)
Trouble in Heaven
, John Barnie (67pp, Gomer)

Paul Summers is a poet who certainly knows his craft. The language is muscular, often delivering an alliterative punch, as in 'fishing at blithe harbour with jimmy's ghost' where,

     paralysed snow slaps
     the cold glass of your specs

Or again in 'Wake for an Unborn Child' where alliteration retains its strength, but is also put to more tender use,

     a norse wind enunciates
     the dead weight of absence.

There is some innovative imagery at work, mourners 'congealing like storm cloud' ['bird'] and a sense of familiarity that comes from precisely observed details. Having been born and brought up in the north east the language tastes authentic on my tongue and I recognise Summers' characters. The best poems also have an element of surprise, as in 'fossil' when future generations will find the poet's corpse in a cliff:

     my eyes will have dissolved, my lips shrunk to nothing
     and my hair will need some serious attention,
     but I'm smiling...

The very best combine surprise, brutally incisive observation and poignancy, as in 'the butcher's craft'. The butcher has a beautiful wife, and no wonder given that he is so skilled, 'his deft knife skating on the rind' and yet:

     later, in their humid bathroom,
     he double-checks a lump on her breast,
     his strong hands reading the curves,
     a tender smile masking fear,
     the smell of meat still on his fingers

Time is a central motif in this collection and generally it is late Š we are in autumn or winter, even when it appears to be summer, so the 'girl with perfect hands' picks blackberries in

     this blackberry time
     this season of the ghost


     a woman with perfect hands
     lays a yellow rose on her mother's grave

     clears a season of weed, stands a while
     remembering the sweetness of autumn in summer
     (autumn in summer)

 Or we are on the verge of death, as in 'last rites' where

                             ...the dying can yearn
     for the comfort of soil, of clinging fire.

Sometimes we are even taken beyond death to a time outside the bounds of our own mortality, as in 'fossil'.

Against the landscape of time writ large, the finely honed human details become all the more sharp and affective, so it's a pity that there is an occasional lapse into clichˇ as in 'The Comrades' which begins 'every season brings change' or the final poem 'Another Marlboro Cowboy is Dying of Cancer' with its prosaic ending that might have been uttered by my Teesside granddad:

     one for the road, compadre
     one for the road...

Of course, these touches of the banal could well be intentional. Summers is clearly fond of the people he writes about and his lower case titles and poetry hint at a sense of belonging and egalitarianism. For me, though, Summers is at his most potent when he lifts the characters to another level and that enunciating 'norse wind' will stay with me for a long time.

In his 'Foreword' to Thom Thomson in Purgatory Billy Collins speaks of 'startling leaps typically from the mundane to the philosophical and back' but I have to confess to not being startled, though I was sometimes overly aware of the mundane in Troy Jollimore's two part collection; the first part what Collins refers to as 'a miscellany of other poems' and the second part a connected sequence in the 'American tradition of the extended persona poem'.

The poetry is well constructed and there are flashes of amusing word play, as in 'Mockingbird and Whippoorwill', and real poignancy, as in 'After':

     And if people speak of the 'break-up,'
     let us hear in that cold overtones
     of the word as applied to a glacier...

However, when the character of Thom Thomson was introduced in 'Trout Quintet' in the first part of the collection I was less enthralled. The crafting is all there; there is a lot of use of anaphora and rhetorical questions by a poet persona are cleverly juxtaposed with the earthy, woodsman philosophy of the illiterate, but wise Thomson, who is 'a living totem pole', who 'snorts at philosophers' and

     ...has never touched a tape measure.
     He eyeballs every measurement,
     and is astoundingly accurate.'

But I remained unconvinced for most of the rest of this collection, despite some moments of pleasure with poems like 'Fireflies' where

     The wind breathes them. The rigid stars above
     envy the way their nervous constellations

     make and then remake themselves...'

There were just too many tired sentiments here for my taste. In 'Tobekobekon' we learn that

    The feelings you thought were genuine
     were purchased at a discount

While in 'How to Get There, we go all round the houses by way of 'drive-though espresso stands / like so many Monopoly hotels' only to learn

     that the road not taken would have led you to the same place;
     or else, it was never accessible at all.
The poet offers to eat his slippers rather than his hat ('The Height of My Powers'), but otherwise the clichˇs and truisms remain in tact, perhaps because ultimately Jollimore distrusts language, as he hints in one of the best poems in the collection, 'A Plea of Silence':

     Did I forget to tell
     of the spring melt?

     The slow, stammering madrigal
     of the waning icicle,

     the soft sluice
of rain water
     through the rain gutter Š

     these things are fragile. We
     only corrupt them when we tell
     their stories. Leave them be.
     Leave them speak for themselves.

Yet despite this mistrust Jollimore goes on to the Thom Thomson poems in which Thom is introduced as 'an Honorable Failure and an Honest Attempt' ('Prologue
: Thom Thomson in Perspective') Thomson is in purgatory because the gods 'cannot afford to leave a man in the world who is privy to any of their secrets' (Thoreau, 1852) and so we move with Thom through various conditions, from love to limbo, from his office to orbit, from Vogue to Flanders Fields. There is plenty of allusion along the way, as well as some wit and a good deal of formal inventiveness; Jollimore can write, but I was left hungry for something less clever and more original. Jollimore might answer with the first line of his final poem 'Epilogue: Thom Thomson in Absentia':

     All things that are worth doing have been done

Perhaps, though the question then becomes Š if this is so, why write at all?

John Barnie clearly doesn't think that everything has been said and done. His collection Trouble in Heaven takes up his longstanding interest in how we relate to the natural world. He's explored this theme before, not only in poetry, but in essays on the interface of Neo-Darwinist evolutionary theory, genetics and poetry in No Hiding Place (University of Wales Press) and in essays which cast his lot squarely with the environmentalists as in Green Agenda (Seren). Yet Trouble in Heaven sees him returning to familiar themes with something fresh to say and with questions that push us further than ever.

At the outset we are immersed in the natural world with the kingfisher that has the sheen of the sacred about it:

     was it being smug? a shiver of feathers
    sent up a halo of shattered water.
            ('At Llanwenarth')

Trouble is not far behind. In 'Goldfinches Outside the National Library' only Dafydd ap Gwilym notices the birds, and the leafless sapling that affords them no protection becomes

     a storm-riding mast
     that will endure for a whole, long winter.

Even more ominously, in 'The Butterflies' there is an allusion to 'the coast / after the terrible accident' and the tortoiseshell is stamped into the tarmac while

     Human  human  human  human, we say,
     Trying to believe in ourselves.

The tension mounts with Barnie reminding us that 'Earth the gyroscope / we need to keep us human'. He manages to stay one step ahead of pessimism with the European blues, which, despite defeat, are 'like badges for a party / believing in loveliness' ('An Aside') and his compressed, precise evocations of nature never fall prey to sentimentalism or mawkish anthropomorphism: starlings 'have never wished for anything / never will' ('How They Survive'), the kite remains 'a claw / in the eye' asking 'what's so holy about the / soul;' ants' dictionaries do not contain 'the word love' ('What, Us?') and the brutally described pitcher plant is 'an old girl/ who seldom smiles' ('Pitcher Plants').

But this is not a collection of innovate and brilliant nature poems. Having set the scene Barnie drops in skilful sub-plots. Barnie's intelligent questioning of Judeo-Christian theology and suggestions of a spiritual through-line in this work emerge clearly in 'Divorce':

     What could the soul
     of a butterfly be,
     in four wings the mirrors
     of an indestructible
     truth, that loveliness is
     here, God hammers
     at the margins of the
     universe, but nature
     is playing the algorithm
     rag and cannot hear.

As the collection develops there is a growing pre-occupation with a spirituality that eschews dualism (reminiscent of the tradition of Matthew Fox's creation spirituality in Original Blessing
). This theme is brilliantly and ironically realised in 'On that Great Resurrection Morning' when everything is blessed, 'but wait a mo' Š heaven, after all is exclusive and anthropocentric; a human club without beetles, honeysuckle, mountains, where there is only room for saints so that the rest are told 'Lie back, dear bones, it is too late.' Similarly in 'Gospel' the 'good news' quickly evaporates into emptiness with '...nothing to see here.'
As the theological unease grows descriptive nature poems give way to more discursive pieces in which, in place of adjectives, we are treated to exact, honed images of humanity's footprints: traffic is 'a bracelet of energy', ('The Question') tank tracks are 'the braille / of the species ('Destruction of Paradise') whilst the tanks themselves are '...a visor against the prayers / of the just / that gutter like knuckledusters / on steel.' It is not only heaven, but earth as well that is in trouble and yet we are not left without hope; in 'Chatting with Wordsworth' 'the sun breaks through' and Barnie concludes,

     I won't mention the word
     'grace', we don't want God

     stirring in the lumber room and
     stroking his beard; but joy, old-
     fashioned joy, will do.

I am put in mind of the conclusion of Alice Walker's powerful novel The Secret of Joy
, in which 'Resistance is the secret of joy'. Whether or not you share Barnie's perspective, this is an exceptional collection: persuasive, intelligent and beautifully crafted; read it.

          © Jan Fortune-Wood 2007