Two from Anvil

Biographies etc.,Ruth Silcock (103 pp, 7.95, Anvil)
Orphan Sites, Julian Turner (63 pp, 7.95, Anvil)

Ruth Silcock in Biographies etc. provides dark, close to the bone humour. Her jokey tone (drawing on the frivolous and light such as, say, musical ballads) acting as cover for excruciatingly sad subject matter, is what creates the incongruity that lies at the heart of these cold unforgiving poems. There are clearly demons in her own past which she wishes to exorcise and her years as a social worker has also given her plenty of harrowing encounters with individuals deprived of love - creating poems peopled with misfits and outsiders. The book is dominated by two main groups of poems: explorations of her childhood and the very 'English' world of her past (captured with no sense of nostalgia), and her more recent experiences as a social worker. 

She opens with a number of 'sad' characters: 'The Vicar at Ninety' who is something of an anachronism and the relative of  'Walking Tour' who spends her life travelling to make herself appear more interesting: 'And she was less lost when she went to countries where every foreigner seemed the same'. Throughout, Silcock's humour is varied: she relishes the absurd in 'Henry' (about a boyfriend whose uncut toenails curled up into the soles of his feet) with its lovely understated: 'We somehow drifted apart'; but is then bitterly ironic in the World War One poem 'The Birthday Party': 'She'd planned to have such a lovely party/But all the young me were missing'; or, finally, in 'An Englishman's Love Song' we see her lightly sending up a certain 'Englishness' in: 'We'll love each other until tea'.

In her own childhood poems one suspects that this ironic tone is her way of developing a tough hide to block out a neglect, which though different from that of her later clients is clearly just as real. The opening line to 'For Arthur Ransome' says it all: 'My mother was always busy', and as a result as a small child she is stuck with grandparents who - though experts in child development - have no understanding of her needs. Her poem 'The Orphan' manages to be both one of the funniest and moving poems in the book skilfully playing off notions of love and neglect with clever use of hyperbole:

     'I'm an orphan,' the giant Kiwi says,
     'I'm an orphan.'
     Three of us in Economy Class, side by side for twenty-four hours
     And the middle one
     Is the orphan.
     Huge hands and feet, huge shoulders and thighs,
     The vast orphan
     Is taking up half my seat, and I'm crushed
     Flat on the window, I might be a butterfly,
     By the orphan. 

The humour of the poem lies in the poem's conclusion where we see this 'monumental sad orphan' arriving at the airport to a large welcoming party while all the other passengers who spent the journey cheering him up have to wander off neglected into their various lives; at the same time the image of 'the vast orphan' remains to haunt us and interweaves with all the poems of neglect elsewhere in the collection. A final catchy little poem that shows the child developing toughness at an early age is 'When I Was Twelve' with its mix of practicality and emotion:

     when I was twelve, and crying,
     I found that tears were salty,
     I found that tears could make rainbows
     If I blurred my eyes.
     Suddenly here was science,
     Also here was creation--
     I tried to cry again,
     to recover the world.

When it comes to her poems on social awareness she is not afraid to tell it like it is. She criticises superficial attempts to right the world's wrongs such as in: 'Working for World Peace' where she states: 'For two and half days/I worked for World Peace' and is clearly cynical about how these charity organisations function describing the delicate 'peaceful' environment where presumably no one will rock the boat and very little actually gets done for world peace:

     Everyone cared for peace
     Quietly fought for peace
     Gently, ambitious for peace
     In a diffident way.

Notably she gets paid a large cheque for her two and a half days work. In her poems related to health and the Social Services she is equally direct as in 'The Doctor', which provides a conversation familiar to many who have had aging relatives labelled as 'bed blockers': 'Don't dawdle act. And don't come back/Find somewhere, anywhere'. The saddest of this group of poems sees Silcock once more falling back on the dark humour of her jaunty tone:


     I am sixteen today
     Sweet sixteen today
     I haven't a house or a key or a door
     But at last I'm sixteen and for evermore
     I am free to do what I like!
     Try and stop me! I'll do what I like!
     Though I haven't a bed to sleep in tonight
     I am free! I am sixteen today!

Ruth Silcock thus provides us with a strong collection that is not for the fainthearted.

Julian Turner has already made a mark with his first book Crossing the Outskirts that was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and short-listed for the Forward Prize. In his latest collection Orphan Sites there is much evidence of technical skill and a poet who is prepared to explore dangerous personal territories. Occasionally though, his poems lack clarity leaving the reader to do too much work.  He also has the odd tendency to drift towards sentimentality with a 'Keatsian' luxuriance that is just a little too much.

The first stumbling block for me is in the opening poem 'Blessing' dedicated to his daughter. Take the opening verse:

     Daughter I wish you words as rich as this:
     a smorgasbord of sense, it both connotes
     a bare-boned pleasure and the hint of haute
, all taste condensed into a kiss.

His pronouns are confusing - are we to assume that 'this' and 'it' both refer to the smorgasbord of sense? Presumably he wishes that his daughter might be able to reason both with common sense and sophistication. This works and one might say well let's live with the ambiguity. However, because 'it' is so central to the poem (repeated five times in all) the poem becomes increasingly obscure as you work your way through it, until finally one wants, like Woody Allen in 'Annie Hall', to drag the writer on the set to give us the answer to the puzzle that is his poem. Pronouns distanced from their antecedents are dotted through a number of his poems and I found myself get slightly irritated on each new encounter.

But then perhaps Turner is deliberately providing us with puzzles: there are other poems - with a real 'martian' feel to them - that work better. 'Airport', for example, describes an airport from a quirky angle: 'runways like hands held palm-up/to coax down aircraft out of ether's grip'. The poem also provides a satisfying and relevant conclusion for our modern times:

     making this piece of earth a telescope
     to bring the improbably distant close,
     for those lost souls who stand behind the wire
     and blindly scan the clouds for hope.

Turner's poems are strongest when touching on painful personal experience. 'Superstition' manages to convey a post-Nine Eleven angst as well as, presumably, mid-life fears - here the mild ambiguity is suited to the subject matter:

     No need for owls. The dark edges
     we cannot see within ourselves are starting
     to assume their shapes, to unfurl their velvet wings,
     starting to stir themselves.

One of the most powerful poems in the collection is the one to his mother. The poem is dark, cold, honest and above all clear. This gives it more emotional weight than some of the poems where the reader is left in confusion. In 'Cold Spell' he describes a conversation with his dead mother. Though we don't have all the details there is little doubt she failed as a parent:

     My childhood passed as if she wasn't there.
     What I remember most was her blank face
     turned to the window, empty as the air.

It is mainly in some of his nature poems that we see him edging towards sentimentality with language which reads a little out of place in twentieth century poetry. Take 'Compass':

     a gold-leaf glitter of immortal corn,

     the technicolour hoverflies and bees,
     their zizags patterning a warm air pearled
     with marbled sticky liquid from the trees,
     each scent a door which opened a new world.

Turner is on safer ground when he describes a more immediate nostalgia as in say 'Gaspoker', a poem that will bring back memories to anyone born around the same time as him (yours truly). 

Finally, the title poem 'Orphan Sites' is certainly doing something special. It pins down those stretches of wasteland with which we are all familiar - and the way they retain a certain the dignity in the midst of decay - in a technically adept poem with its iambic pentameter and end-stopped lines topped off nicely with unobtrusive rhyme:

     At first light this one shimmers in a veil
     of corrugated air, its apron spread
     with dust and rubble where the ghost of oil
     fades from the forecourt; silhouetted sheds,
     abandoned drums, old tyres in dim relief
     against the shoulder of the city's rim
     reflected in the puddles left by brief
     before-dawn bursts of rain, their rainbow skim
     like breakdown products of old promises;
     all quarantined by wire mesh from the sprawl
     of suburbs which once have fed off this,
     a mocking echo of the water hole.  

All in all, Turner is a poet who is technically skilled who needs to rein in his occasional tendency towards sentimentality.

         Belinda Cooke 2007