Faith Restored

Available Light
, Estill Pollock [78pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]
Salt-Sweat & Tears
, Louisa Adjoa Parker [77pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]
Morocco Rococo
, Jane McKie [60pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]
, Katherine Gallagher [101pp, £8.99, Arc Publications]

I could tell, about three poems into Estill Pollock's collection, that there was going to be two ways of looking at the task ahead - either the other three books I'd received were going to have difficulty living up to the standard of the first, or, more hopefully, I'd been sent four brilliant books to review and this was only the first taste of more to come.

Mind you, it didn't stop there. By about five poems in I was becoming more and more overawed by the quality of this work, to the point that I'm sure I remember myself muttering something into my cup about it being the kind of poetry that makes me want to give up writing - however, that would be to admit having wasted the past twenty-five years in the pursuit of personal literary accomplishment - I was forced to retract my mutterings for fear of the truth.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make by all this preamble is that, if you're the kind of saddo who's only going to buy one poetry book this year, Available Light
should be it.

Not only is Pollock's craftsmanship and diction stunning, but these poems simply ooze with an authoritative confidence that encompasses place, history, the moment and narrative drama with such apparent ease as to draw you in to wallow in the richness of detailed imaginings and realities. Content ranges from Chernobyl to Hiroshima, from war-zones to meetings with the good and great of classic literature, from South American conquest to North American upbringing - and all within the space of some sixty-six pages.

Often, there's a raw intensity that serves to mirror a writer who actually cares about his subject matter - the empathy is tangible and contagious. For example, Pollock, in 'Ground Zero', talks of

     a child running, running,
     face sliding down the jut of jawbone, the drip of fingertips
     on the burning road,
     from high, silver distance, a city sighted,
     the crosshair the bridge and river made
     marking blast ratios,
     shadows, vapour where they stood, the thin
     scrawl of their humanity across ransacked stars.

This raw intensity is brought to its climax towards the end of the collection with 'Resurrection Suite', which is described as a “version rather than translation” of the poems in Burden
by Lyubov Sirota published in Kiev in the late eighties. She saw and suffered, first hand, the immediate and long term effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, having witnessed the explosion from the open window of her house in Pripyat, about 1.5 km from the scene. 'Resurrection Suite' takes us through the chronology of the generalised negligence and procedural indifference surrounding the initial meltdown to the organisational incompetence and technical ignorance of the emergency response, then on to the official denials and unscrupulous whitewashing in its aftermath, alternating between highly technical detail and the bitter voice of human tragedy.

     In the inventory of deaths, our names
     are missing, and the grief of mourners
     is saved for others.

     The wreath never laid, the music never played...

     The accident
     that hides itself in chromosomes
     lingers too in the party line, its sly dismissal of our lives
     to lesser maladies.

     The bureaucrats on long lunches
     took steps, because of us they weighed
     the advantages, trading us in kind.

Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. There are lighter moments. Yet, throughout the book, Pollock consistently maintains a level of quality that is both intelligent and absorbing. If poetry is about making every word count, then Available Light
has to be one of the best examples in recent years.

If, on the other hand, poetry is more about emotions and personal experience, then Louisa Adjoa Parker's collection Salt-sweat & Tears fits the bill admirably. Where Pollock's poems were worldly, Parker's are domestic. Where Pollock's rested on empathy, Parker's are laced with venom. Given her life experiences, she is justifiably bitter and doesn't hold back in exorcising a paternally violent, unstable, insecure and abandoned childhood, followed by a similar adulthood in her own relationships with men and, almost inevitably, the beginnings of a continuation for her own daughter - a kind of recurring nightmare that sociologists and anthropologists would so easily put down to cultural practices, but which goes much deeper, being, in essence, something of a psychological phenomenon - a classic case of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Parker repeatedly speaks of the violence of her father. In 'English Rose'

     ...sometimes he'd blacken
     her eyes with bruises like plums
     that she would try to hide
     under eye-shadow the colour
     of bluebottle's wings
     and her tortoiseshell specs.

Or, in 'Memories Like Muddied Stones'

     ...the silver poker my father held
     above my mother's head while we stood and watched, frozen
     into silence...

But it's not this overt violence that Parker uses to generate pathos. Rather, it's the overall sense of fear she grew up with, even after her parents' separation, even from her mother...

     You're just like your black
     Bastard of a Dad
, she'd say.
          [from 'Just Like Your Father']

     She snaps at us this morning,
     grinding her teeth
     like dog waiting to bite...

     She looks at us, hisses,
     spits out the words
     I wish you'd Never Been Born
          [from 'Pieces of Reality']

     Whilst trying to get us

     and wanting somehow to hurt us,
     she fell through the glass door
     like a hippo falling through ice...
          [from Falling Through Ice']

     ...because I was becoming someone
     you didn't want me to become,
     you'd break my things,
     call me a whore.
         [from 'Teenage Whore']

And then, being of mixed parentage, Parker raises the whole issue of racism - whether encountered during childhood or in adulthood - this, itself, subtly adding to her sense of apprehension towards the world.

     The kids in our street would call us
     a whole dung-heap of names -
, Blackie, Wog and Coon
     were the favourites...

     But the kids in our street still played
     with us blackies
     with our hair like frightened sheep,
     who were just beginning to learn
     it was impolite to have been born...
         [from 'In Our Street']

     I'd feel confused when they'd tell me
     to go back to the jungle
     and make monkey noises.
          [from 'Jungle']

Exploring her own first-hand experience of racism further in adulthood, she imagines herself as an African servant girl brought to England two centuries earlier, treated well, but trapped:

     ...I know
     how the magpie they keep in the garden
     wrapped in wire must feel,
     bruising its black and white wings against the cage,
     pretending I was born for this;
     smiling and dusting and cleaning white people's rooms...
          [from 'Sometimes When I'm Making Beds']

Of course, this notion of being trapped may also be a reflection of female sensitivities, as appear elsewhere in the collection, but it is the race card that is more often played. Yet, rather valiantly, despite the years of racist abuse, she is still able to hold her head up and envisage the possibilities. In 'Mulatto Girl' she manages to express a sense of pride and find hope in her African bloodline:

     She shows twentieth century people brave enough
     to cross a line made of different tones of skin,
     to love in spite of hate.

Finally, and quite appropriately, amidst the wealth of family, race, generational and gender politics, food politics is slipped deftly into the mix with the particularly well observed 'When Less Is More and More Is Less'. This piece explores the extremes of the British female figure, from the women who 'wear their thinness with pride' to those who are 'the size of buses' and the choices that are available to each. The fact that we in the developed world have these choices is seized upon with a final rebuke, noting that 'the rest of the world watches, choice-less, / and starves.'

So far, so good.  Two out of two. But then, in being ambushed, it all goes pear-shaped with Morocco Rococo
. The standard slips. Plummets. Forty-six poems that simply fail to engage me at all. Christ! Nothing? I begin to wonder if it's just me, or if one reading wasn't enough. I try again and, no, nothing. And again. Nup. Still nothing.

Then I begin to wonder if it has something to do with the abundance of foreign words and place names. But, then, I don't usually have a problem with them. Indeed, I have spent the best part of a lifetime developing an appreciation of the extra dimension they can add, if used effectively and purposefully. With this collection, however, I feel their failure maybe has more to do with the way they're dropped in, decoratively peppering an otherwise seemingly empty text with ostentatious superficiality in the hope that the reader will be impressed by such knowledgeable sophistication  - but, the reality is that they serve no obvious purpose other than, like so many crass holiday snaps with tourists standing in front of landmarks, to show that she's been there. Maybe, in my own ingrained, inbred, presbyterian way, I'm denying myself engagement because of the sinfulness of this display of arrogance?  Maybe not.

So, perhaps some footnotes or a glossary might have helped, but I think not.  These exoticisms basically don't bring anything to the text in terms of deeper understanding or even emotional flavour. And, I could, at this stage, of course, quote from the many lines thus peppered, but it wouldn't provide anything close to a usefully representative illustration of the overall effect. So, I shan't.

Yet, assuming this to be a wholly minor rankle, I am still left wondering why these poems have altogether failed to engage. There's something special about this one. Even the books in the past that have disappointed on a literary level have riled me or, at least, showed signs of being able to provoke some similar kind of negative emotion. With these, there's just a feeling of vacuity.

They're neither good nor bad - they just exist. They're neither evocative nor provocative - they just pass.

Perhaps, there's even something of Blairite Britain in them - the tick-box society - read them, tick them off as having been read, then shelve and forget them without having done so having really made any kind of difference to anything.

Though really, in a nutshell, the problem lies in the fact that it's just too easy to skim unthinkingly through this collection - there's nothing to challenge or excite - nothing to engage the reader - too much to leave the brief, passing thought, 'right, well, that's that, but, so what?' In all honesty, I can think of many much better ways of idling away some time.

But, let's see if this batch of books can lift itself from the mediocrity of a potential fifty percent success rate to greater heights. Let's see if the last of this quartet can live up to, or even surpass, the standard set by the first. Oh, God, I hope so!

Prayers answered... Katherine Gallagher's Circus-Apprentice quietly restores my faith. Strangely enough, though, this collection bears similarities to Morocco Rococo, in that it has been written by a woman who has travelled. But that's where it ends. Rather than a series of holiday snaps, we get worldly-wisdom, real life experience, a sense of her having lived, of having absorbed and having been absorbed, of a fish out of water, of longing for, as she identifies in 'Yellow, Red, Blue (1925)', 'this country you keep coming back to, / that walks you home to yourself.'

There are constant reminders, some obvious, some subtle, of Gallagher's Australian roots that serve to provide a perspective to her observations that engages from the first line to the last, but without drowning in sentimentality. These are not poems about Australia. Indeed, they aren't poems about anywhere. They are poems about herself and her past in relation to her present, wherever that present may be.

     I have swallowed a country,
     it sits quietly inside me.
     Days go by when I scarcely
     realise it is there...

     It is my reference-point
     for other landscapes
     that, after thirty years,
      have multiplied my skies.
          [from 'Hybrid']

     I search her face across a hemisphere,
     embark on one more journey:

     Will you come?
          [from 'Thinking of my Mother on the Anniversary of her Death']

     breakaway happy

     to be on to real songs,
     Waltzing Matilda
- easy,
     like our next step up,
     The Bluebells of Scotland

     I'd never seen bluebells then,
     not known how they grow helter-
     skelter, how they hold April
     to ransom, waiting to unfurl.
          [from 'Tangents']

And, yes, there are foreign words and place names - there are bound to be with someone who has lived a life of exile - but, they blend, they add, they complement - there is no attempt to use them to impress, perhaps, again, because these are personal poems rather than poems of place written to justify public funding.

     Laanecoorie on the Loddon, with its long Aboriginal name:
     Laanecoorie, the strange sound of it, not knowing what it meant.
          [from 'Laanecoorie']

     Between Green Lanes and the New River's
     four hundred-year-old waterway,
     between ghost Victorian railway cottages
     and terraces fronting Umfreville Road,
     between the past and present's waiting shell,
     lies a rectangular patch of woodland
     and hedgerow - Railway Fields, broken by grassland
     where young foxes frisk in the evenings...
          [from 'Summer Odyssey']

     You planted fifteen trees here
     in Nadraogo, with just the Sahara's dry promises in your eye.
          [from 'From the Sahel']

     Some have names, public faces:
     Roc des Hourtous, Roc du Serre, Roque Sourde,
     Pointe Sublime
, alongside the unnamed ones -
     like a row of winners, guiding us,
     explorers in this unsaddled world,
     following the Tarn and the teasing signs
     to its source at Mont LozŹre.
          [from 'Les Gorges du Tarn']

But, more often than not, the exoticisms are consciously left understated, or not stated at all. Other, more subtle pointers are skilfully used to mark the map.  We are simply left to dwell on the thought rather than the place.

One final point worth mentioning is that, throughout, there is evidence of Gallagher having what can only be described as a painterly eye. There is a very definite appreciation in her observations of the aesthetic, of form, colour, texture, space, character - she is very much a creator of imagery, of impression. And this she turns around with poems written from paintings by Magritte and Vuillard, leading towards the final section in the collection, which concentrates on the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, appropriately prefaced with the quote, 'When you arrive at a state of shock, the paradox of colour will balance you.'

     Let the eye investigate blue
     and all the arrows focus gravity.

     Across the spectrum - cerulean,
     Prussian, cobalt -

     a patchwork of hues
     quilts galaxies.

     Remember Earth,
     the Blue Planet...
          [from 'Blue Painting (1924)']

     Sheering into extremes, prime colours that reach back
     to childhood - crayons and paints that you flew everywhere,
     sometimes colouring inside the lines, sometimes splashing
     on a blank slate, allowing sun to be orange, black or green;
     waves to be carmine, tipped with blue.
          [from 'Balancing (1925)']

If I was to sum up, I couldn't be more concise nor closer to the truth than Lidia Vianu of Bucharest University, for whom, 'Gallagher's poetry appropriates words and makes them the colours and movements of a metaphysical world.' As I said, my faith has been restored.

              © John Mingay 2007