Humanity and Skill

Canterbury Road, Ian Caws (£7.99, 75pp, bluechrome)
The Oracle Room
, Fred Johnston (£7.99, 96pp, Cinnamon)
A Stone's Throw
, James Caruth (£5.00, 65pp, Staple)

The first thing that struck me about Ian Caws' The Canterbury Road was the understated technical skill, a restrained and formal sense of rhythm and rhymes so pleasingly unobtrusive it's a paradox they should have initially distracted me from the content of the poems.  For these are poems that go about their business in a confident and unshowy way, speaking lyrically and subtly, not in a confessional voice but in a personal one which expresses the poet's sensibilities and pre-occupations. This is work haunted by what's not there. For instance a widower adjusting to absence:
          He moved some cushions, rearranged the chairs,
          wiped his mind of all remembered things while
          she, who, it seemed, tidied every room
          she'd entered, conferred, like a stranger's stare,
          some sense of unease, something hot, like shame.
                                                            [All In The Morning Early]

The collection is coherently put together, poems following naturally on, one from another.  Whilst the ostensible subject matter is varied - rural sketches, history, early christianity, music making and art and artists - the overall theme remains consistent, the sense in our lives of another world, elusive and missed:

          The song remained Jimmy's though never played
          And people talked of it though never heard.
                                                           [Jimmy' Song]

In the end what he addresses is mortality:

          the time goes, each week a little faster,
          and we dance at the end of his fingers
          like his puppets, unsure where they came from
          or what songs we hear and who the singers.
                                                           [Puppet Master]

Books of poetry should perhaps not be read through in one sitting, by reviewers or anyone else. And in this case the repeated theme, engaging as it is in itself, began to lose impact as the book progressed. Better undoubtedly to take it in smaller measures for, as William Oxley comments on the back cover: 'his poems are subtle and blended like the finest malt whiskies - it takes a while to sort out the echoes, the suggestions, the allusions from each other, to get the full flavour of meaning - but the result is very rewarding.'

Fred Johnston's The Oracle Room is also a book I found increasingly rewarding the more I read. Mature and thoughtful writing, varying in form and subject, with an easy musical quality, something of the Irish gift. I gave up on the reviewer's need to find a way in to do it justice and simply enjoyed myself. The writer has a taut focus on life, able to see beyond the surface and present the world he lives in with a surprising and often unnerving twist.

          A puck-devil grinning on a branch,
          A man standing in the middle
          Of the midnight road,
          Old love in the eyes of the new:
                          Scarier this last
                          Than the other two.

And there's a poem titled 'The Kafka Prize for Poetry' which consists of a list of competition entry rules. You read it expecting a twist, but these are the normal rules we play by; the twist's in the title. In the one or two poems about poetry itself he is keenly aware of the marginality of poetry, and yet the pieces in this book which engage with major events or social issues like the July 7th bombing, political demonstrations or sexual abuse are perceptive, humane and authentic.

He has the gift of sympathetic realism. In 'Fantasy' a young waitress in a lunch-time workers' cafˇ wipes a table and 'frees small breasts the colour/and shape of your chipped cup'. 'A young lad, waving an empty glass, tries out being a man.'... 'demands something she cannot hear,' This is a place of 'rough hands roughing up the heart.'   

Even with poems I don't quite understand, and there aren't many of those, it is sufficient to enjoy the lilt of the voice and the imagery,

          to bother with the woman in the post office
          who has a question balanced on her lips for you, and
          will one day tip it out into the air from behind her wire veil.
                                                               [There is No Need]

He seems fond of epigraphs and dedications, and while these are sometimes lost on me, I nonetheless enjoy them for the way they place the poem in the context of a lived life and well-read mind. There is a limpid intelligence, a compassionate but clear eye at work here in serious poems at ease with themselves.

There's a danger with James Caruth's A Stone's Throw that you'll have no choice but to read it from cover to cover. Not that it's a narrative, but these direct and accessible poems are compelling in their craft and authenticity. I could sense the man himself speaking there in each of the poems, and yet he's managed to remain sufficiently objective to keep the writing taut and well-pitched.

The book divides into four sections. The first, Migration
, focuses on place, movement and belonging. 'On the grey mud-flats/ Brent geese are gathering, /cropping the last ell-grass, /dipping into their own reflections.' [Migration]. There is a poem using moths as a symbol of transience. Nothing new here, but it's the language and cadence that keeps it fresh  with 'a pennyweight of dust that burns/ to nothing in the heart of a star.'[Moths] And where a father considers the tension between his child's need for freedom and his need to protect 'my feral daughter confined/ to the garden's puzzle.'[Alice in the Garden] he has the ability to compress complex emotions into a simple form.

, the second section, addresses relationships and solitude. In 'A Father Teaches his Son to Draw' he says 'I bring you back again,// tie you to a string from a pencil point;/ for you will outline all our lives.' and the poem ends aspirationally with 'a line so suddenly sublime/ that it will take your breath away.'

But it is in the last two sections that the book seems to gather power. Section three, Gleaners
, concerns itself with the poet's relationship with his parents. Among individual poems about both parents, there are two moving sequences about his mother. In 'Seven Studies' each poem takes off from the title of a painting by Celia Paul. Here the poet displays not only compassion and sensitivity but also unflinching honesty:

          my mother and me

          sparked like flint.
          Love knapped an edge to us
          that would cut to the bone.

          I'd whet it on my tongue,
          pare soft muscle, sever
          sinew and tendon
          until she could bear no more.

          Like the day she broke
          and called me bastard.
          And I replied -it's you should know;
          the deep wound opening.
                                                         [Seven Studies]

In the final section Lodestone
, he examines his ambivalent relationship with his roots, Ulster and its sectarian tensions.. The first poem sets a scene with

          It's not what you say exactly.
          It's whether or not you spell
or haitch that marks you down
          as one or the other, Taig or Prod.

and concludes:

          Here, Jesus himself, would need
          to watch his step; need to know
          never to return a glance.
          And to be careful
          how he spelt out Heaven and Hell.

The first of three short pieces about Patrick Finnucane, the murdered Belfast solicitor, has a tone not dissimilar to Heaney's in 'Station Island': 'Forgive me, I mean no harm/ but this torn face unnerves you.' [Finnucane Appears as Casper at the Adoration]. And when he travels back to his roots with his son who has been brought up in England, there are difficult contradictions to explain.

          I'm driving home when he says
          this could be Sheffield
          or anywhere;.........

          But around the next corner
          on a gable wall, a brick canvas
          of hooded men, guns
          and a clenched fist,
          underneath it written - Saorise.

          And in a word
          a translation begins.

A well-known film director once described how he wanted his films to exercise the audience's emotional muscle. James Caruth does this with these poems.

              © Mike Barlow 2008