Claire Booker reviews Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection ‘London Undercurrents’

 

Image result for Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire's collection 'London Undercurrents'

 

For five years, Hilaire and Joolz Sparkes have been on a mission to excavate the hidden histories of London’s long-forgotten women and celebrate their lives in poetry. Thanks to in-depth archival research (partly funded by an Arts Council Grant) London Undercurrents offers a cornucopia of female experience across four centuries, from spirited cockneys and land girls, to factory workers and women in service. The result is both fascinating and educational.

 

The poems speak clearly from each page in generous point size, with only a letter S or N to indicate the poem’s provenance. For the curious, Joolz Sparkes has written the north London poems, and Hilaire, the south-of-the-river poems. But it’s quite possible to relish these stories without needing to attribute authorship. It’s a truly collaborative project – not just between two poets, but across time, and between each poet and her subject.

 

I decided to read the poems right through without interruption. They flowed, dare I say it, like the river that runs through the whole collection.  Reference notes at the back are handy. Some are small prose poems in their own right. Others reveal the journey the poet took to find her subject. A few divulge shocking information. Coining money was a capital offence, for example, but I had no idea that male counterfeiters were hanged, whilst their female counterparts were burned at the stake.

 

So what of the poems themselves? They are largely free-verse, with a handful of form poems, including a classy villanelle about a missionary wife; a delightful concrete poem across two pages which ‘shows’ a tightrope walker crossing the Thames; a ballad in rhyming quatrains about a gypsy encampment; and two sonnets about work in a fountain pen factory.

 

Many of the poems carry the rhythms of natural speech, creating a deceptive simplicity that is wholly appropriate to their subject matter. Mostly they’re written in the first person.

 

A French Huguenot plants asparagus in ‘First Crop’ – “fervently/ larding the beds/ with manure, praying/ for engorgement/ embonpoint.” In ‘Sacked’, a girl who “never pilfered, never dibbed/ a wet finger in a sugar bag/ for a sneaky suck,” is caught dancing the Charleston on the worktops of Cook’s Confectioners.

 

The sheer escapism of cinema is captured in the aspirations of a 40s housewife in ‘Hollywood’ Comes to Holloway’: “I’ll style my hair like Joan’s, drape over/ the settee bought on HP, dream of the man/ who doesn’t leave his socks on the floor/ or try it on when he’s back from the boozer.”  ‘Dido Belle Sits for Her Portrait’ introduces one of the black women to feature in this collection: “Father shipped me/ half-slave, across/ waves of guilt.” Dido, the natural daughter of a slave owner, is “full-placed/ in an artist’s/ composition yet/ kept at the edge/ of the real canvass.”

 

There’s fun too – plenty of it. The ‘Lady Cyclist’ in Battersea Park, circa 1895, cares “not a fig/ for my flushing cheeks/ my runaway hair/ the flash of azaleas/ nor the gentlemen who stare.”  And there’s rebellion under the surface in ‘Clippie, Top Deck’: “I won’t be cooped below stairs/ when I’ve had the run of London. . . .Whatever peace brings, from here on in/ I’m polishing nothing but my own boots./ Step up now./ Hold tight./ Ding ding! Ding ding!

 

Some poems tell a tough tale. In ‘Cat and Mouse’ a suffragette waits “to cast off knee welts, for gums/ to bud skin torn by metal jaws.” The brilliantly titled ‘Marking The Sheets’ offers us a 13 year old apprentice laundress who spends 9 hours a day stitching household codes into sheets, then finds her own sheets marked “for the first time, a fistful of cramp/in your belly, staining the sheets,/ helpless to staunch the flow.”

 

Back-street abortions, lead poisoning, sit-ins by Gujarati workers, frost fairs on the Thames, 18th century lavender harvests, knitting for the Spanish Republicans – wherever women have tilled, toiled, laughed, suffered or survived, Hilaire and Sparkes follow, with empathy and imagination.

 

Very occasionally the vernacular tips towards cliché, but capturing speech patterns across 400 years is no easy matter.  The poets have tapped into a rich array of character and circumstance and transformed it, with exuberance and clarity, into poetry which is fresh and accessible. The design is vivid and inviting – and at £10, London Undercurrents is surely ludicrously good value. Exactly the kind of book you can give friends and know it’ll be a hit. That’s Christmas sorted, then.

 

 

 

 

Claire Booker lives in Brighton. Her poetry pamphlet Later There Will Be Postcards is out with Green Bottle Press ((www.greenbottlepress.com/our-books).and her work has appeared in Ambit, Magma, The Rialto, The Spectator and Stand among others. She blogs at www.bookerplays.co.uk

 

More details about London Undercurrents and copies of the book are available at www.hollandparkpress.co.uk

 

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Alison Graham reviews ‘While I Yet Live’ by Gboyega Odubanjo

 

 

 

 

While I Yet Live begins sudden and bold; the speaker of ‘Obit.’ Announcing

i will die in London in the neighbourhood
i grew up in…

When the poet writes:

…sweat
-ed tongues and pidgin song to cease

Stumbling is put upon the reader’s tongue by the cut of the line. There is an exactness in the handling of the clipped, high ‘i’s of pidgin and spreading low of ‘tongues’ and ‘song’. I think this balancing act, of speakers always just on the brink of becoming, is in part why the pamphlet is exhilarating. In ‘John 19:28’, restraint and expanse work in tandem to create an ecstatic feeling. The reader anticipates entire sentences and space on the page denies these, in

of me       please       everything    on me

Only by letting go of expectation and leaning in on loosening syntax can you proceed through the poem. There is a movement forward by relinquishing. I the reader pass through lighter, more motile. With regards to the how the speakers of these poems move, I like how attuned Odubango is to his speakers invoking themselves, often with Biblical urgency. The poet outlines his subjects by writing of these subjects outlining themselves. In

you tar
me so

“you” comes before “me”; the ‘I’ is dependent on you to begin. These lines are dense with vowels, but none of the same; it is a moment of  differences held together. The gathering of varying things is shown again in ‘We’; the self-negating of

talking nothing
but nothing but

brought together under “my own name”. There is no shying from contradictions, or falter. It is said because the speaker wants to say. Odubanjo is closely attuned to spoken speech outside poetry; to everyday conversation, and how to bring it through into poetry, inflecting it newly. In ‘Ineffable Name’, the poet makes “cos” the line’s point of orbit, patterning sound around it, just as it turns the line casually.

you don’t know no more cos he had your name

The sequence itself is one of differences held together. I am struck by the range of forms. There is the found poetry of ‘I’. Here, Enoch Powell’s speech is appropriated. It is broken open, into a river that breaks “intractable” from its course. There is the blank verse of ‘Watershed’, the poem writing its own rules just as the “we” within explores and finds

…cds our parents kept
in cabinets

The poem is studded with detail; the nostalgic texture of “soft carpet on toes”, the precise cultural marker of “when michael sang ma makoosa”. Blank verse is rendered more sparsely in ‘Songs in the Key of Terror’. Repetition beats dynamically amongst this pared-back language, as in

so petite mort
so rumpunchblooded
so in the flesh

In these poems, the speakers seem to exist, suspended, just before they come into singing, and when Odubanjo begins singing through them, these ‘I’s start to gather themselves into bodies ardent to be alive.

 

 

 

 

Order your copy of  Gboyega Odubanjo’s While I Yet Live (Bad Betty Press)  here: https://badbettypress.com/product/while-i-yet-live-gboyega-odubanjo/

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Amit Shankar Saha reviews ‘Love’s Autobiography: The Ends of Love’ by Duane Vorhees

Image result for Love’s Autobiography: The Ends of Love' by Duane Vorhees

 

 

Duane Vorhees’s Love’s Autobiography: The Ends of Love comprises of selections from The Many Loves of Duane Vorhees. Apart from the Prologue, the book is divided into three sections titled “Beth”, “Jenny” and “Yeobo”, with the last section having the greatest number of poems. As the title suggests and the poet himself acknowledges the poems are about the many aspects of love and relationships. But what is so different in writing about love by Duane Vorhees? Duane’s poetry is highly steeped in allusions which provide the poems their richness. It is also his craft that catches the readers’ attention. The opening poem “Either Alzheimer’s of the Lightning” starts like this:

Whizdizzyingly
cruising The Moment,
arrowing past all awareness:
highway, enginewhiine, (p. 7)

Duane employs Joycean syntactical innovations in his poems because a poem is as much, if not more, about expression as communication. His poems display metaphors that make a reader pause and ponder: “The sun is a gong hung low across the sky” (“Another Spring Night In Farmersville, Oho), “Ah! Nights you were a harem/ and I the unmade Bedouin too long in the thirst” (“Ah! Nights”) or “:daybreaks are harlots all scarlet and huge with rouge and paste” (“Her Name is Jenny and Many a Morn Has Worn Her Face”).

Sometimes he can be sexually explicit in his imagery but in a beautiful way reminding of the metaphysical poets like Donne or Marvell. In the poem “The Beast” the two layers of meanings simultaneously skim in our imagination as we read the lines:

Imagine our bodies in Braille,
finger tongues perusing,
teasing our nuances,
weighing every significance.

We turn over
sheet after sheet.
Each climax foreshadowed,
we read ourselves to sleep.  (p. 24-5)

The poem is as much about making love as it is about poetic creation where the poet makes the reader foreshadow and the lovers reading each other’s bodies and the reader reading the lines of the poem into a single act. Sometimes he can be succinct and yet profound as in the poem “Evidence for the Mutational Codependence of Time”:

Yesterday
today
was
tomorrow.
& my future

:ours. (p. 44)

This short poem not only convey a sense of loss but also a pathos and more so when the last line comprising of a single word comes as a separate stanza. It is this structuring that makes Duane’s poems so potent. He is a serious poet who uses his experiences of love, loss and longing to hone his craft of poetry. In another short poem “Hawked and Doves” he writes “Love is hawked from every ad,/ is sent like doves from all our arks,” and achieves in two lines a contrast between the new and the old concepts of love through the allusions to the contemporary and the Biblical and through the imageries of the bird of prey, the hawk and the mild and docile dove.

Duane Vorhees’s loves have become his muses and nowhere it is more evident than in his poem “(And) Purple Prose” where he writes:
And I’m just a poet in search of a muse,
just a sea-starved seaman in need of a cruise.
A poet needs a muse to sweeten his songs,
so won’t you play sugar if I play tongue? (p. 58)

There is a sort of mercenary-ness in poets who make their loves their muses. Duane is no exception. The duality of being a lover and a poet is sometimes conflicting because it no longer love for love’s sake. Now love has more purposes – of inspiration, of stimulus, a sort of utilitarianism is attained. This might not be acceptable to the love-turned-muse who might object to the poet when he says: “For to fill my verse up, rim, barrel, and bung,/ let me borrow your breaths to stuff my lungs.” This is the tragedy of the poet and Duane further expresses it with an innovative metaphor:

Poet needs muse to keep his thoughts young.
The muse is the clothesline on which are hung
poet’s pants & fancies before they get cold. (p. 58)
This is it. No doubt a melancholy pervades the love autobiography of Duane Vorhees.

 

 

 

 

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is a widely published award-winning poet and short story writer.  He has authored a collection of poems titled Balconies of Time. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University.

 

Love’s Autobiography: The Ends of Love by Duane Vorhees is published by Hawakal Publishers, and available here: http://www.hawakal.com/books/english-books/loves-autobiography-the-ends-of-love/

 

 

 

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Pat Edwards reviews ‘The Healing Next Time’ by Roy McFarlane

 

 

Before I embarked upon writing this review, I had only read the words on the page. However, recently I had the very great privilege of hearing some of the work read by Roy himself at an event in Mid Wales. When I say read, what I really mean is delivered with the gusto of a spoken word artist and the passion of someone who clearly cares deeply about its content. Roy powered his way through the most convincing performance which actually helped me feel the poetry all the better.

The first part of this collection uses the device of listing significant world events from 1999 to more recent times, as a kind of annotated diary McFarlane calls New Millennium Journal, alongside the lives of real or imagined characters referred to as ‘the activist’ and ‘the family man’. The former is presented as a worthy, political type determined to fight prejudice and expose police brutality whilst being a force for change and radical new thinking. The latter is presented as a weak man unable to resist the sexual charms of an adventurous and willing lover. For this cheating husband, “only the gravitational pull of his children draws him away from the black hole of his guilt.” Between the two of them, we are escorted through a familiar backdrop, including the fears about the Millennium Bug in 1999, the horror of the attack on the twin towers in 2001, the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, various football World Cups and the earthquake closer to home in Dudley in 2002. In their different ways, these stand as metaphors for the extraordinary racism blighting our nation during this period. McFarlane unravels this social history in our faces, just as the marriage of ‘the family man’ unravels and ‘the activist’ spends “summers in the discomfort of whiteness.”

In the second part of the collection, McFarlane lists the names of eighteen black men and women who have died in custody. He uses the constriction of the sonnet form, maybe to echo the constraint used to hold down the detained. He utilises repetition such as “and nobody came” in Orville Blackwood 1999 and the visually graphic “whyyyyy?” as in Shiji Lapite 1994. McFarlane also experiments with the shape of the poem on the page, suggesting a bullet in Cherry Groce 2011 and a winged angel in Mark Duggan 2011. There is wonderfully chilling play on the word ‘tape’ in Joy Gardner 1993, where McFarlane throws sticky tape, mix tape, tape measure, red tape and even tapestry into the death by suffocation of this victim. The footballing imagery is obvious but still effective in Dailian Atkinson 2016 where “there’s no extra time” for the young man who dies. You cannot fail to be moved by this litany of gruesome death, so starkly laid out for us by McFarlane.

In the final section of the book we get the Gospel According to Rasta. Here McFarlane roots the reader in the city of Birmingham. He tells us “in a city of a hundred tongues we should always make room for another one” and he uses dialect to warn us “Dis Rasta rose from the oven-ash of holocaust.” McFarlane challenges us to question the cultural and religious elements we surround ourselves with and asks “Dis Rasta is he fiction or truth?” There is more than a suggestion that we need to speak out about all the injustice, “We are the disciples who beareth witness of these things so write, write it all.”

Throughout the work there are musical and religious references and the recognition that “every woman is somebody’s daughter”. McFarlane has clearly researched his material with great purpose and conviction. What emerges is a kind of rage that the new millennium did not bring with it change and justice, but rather hypocrisy and a dangerous, nasty under-current in society. McFarlane makes startlingly effective use of the idea that hands can be “outstretched to help refugees”, can be a woman’s “hands that worked hard” and a mother placing “her hand on his troubled heart”, just as much as hands “holding a rose in a clenched fist”.

I would be lying if I said there was much hope in this work, apart from in Gabay of hope which urges us to “breathe.” The work is bleak, challenging, angry and exposing. As a relatively privileged white woman living in a rural community, I like many am shielded from these experiences and able to observe them through the lens of the media. McFarlane does something important by using poetry as an unmistakably brutal tool to force me face down and hold me, maybe against my will for a while, where the reality of being black and marginalised is very visceral. I read and enjoyed McFarlane’s last book because it was full of humanity, a deeply emotional read. This latest work is wonderful for its change of pace, for coming from a very different but equally real place. I believe this is poetry shouting serious messages at a time of deep uncertainty. McFarlane shows his broad and remarkable technical skill, his passionate and convincing voice and is destined to disturb his way into our conscience. Go and hear him read from this book and you will feel it too.

The Healing Next Time is published by Nine Arches Press and can be ordered here: http://ninearchespress.com/

Pat Edwards is a writer, teacher and performer from Mid Wales. Her work has appeared in Prole, Magma, Atrium and others. She hosts Verbatim poetry open mic nights and curates Welshpool Poetry Festival.

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Anna Saunders reviews ‘&’ by Amy Kinsman

 

 

9781910834770

 

 

Dylan Thomas believed that fine poetry is marked by words that ‘lift off the page’ and a prize winning pamphlet by Amy Kinsman fulfills this criteria beautifully.

 

& ( Indigo Dreams ) is a collection of poems which leap of the page by way of their inventive syntax/form and their rich and musical lyricism.

 

‘Orpheus, the trick was not to look away’ – ends the first poem of Kinsman’s startling and fiercely original pamphlet.

 

And like Persephone the reader feels themselves falling into a mysterious and transfiguring universe.

 

These are luminous poems which give intimate and domestic scenes a sense of universal import by way of their lush lyrical voice and powerful, revealing imagery.

 

In bathsheba is writing again the biblically inspired protagonist describes herself as ‘just a scribe, the one who trails in your wake to scratch the parchment and make record’ – and this fine pamphlet demonstrates how poetry can bear witness and transform the prosaic into the precious.

 

I will pen whatever your decreed to be honesty, line the pages

with gold as if it may take the ugliness out of the verse. we

will all become mythology

 

Kinsman’s voice is urgent, playful yet profound and emblazoned with Latinate language.

 

In the delicate yet dramatic the moth, the moon and the bathroom light the moth beats against the wall knowing ‘nothing of lycanthropy/satellites, orbs, celestial bodies’  whilst the poet stands observing ‘pitiless, apathetic/ as a spent bulb’.

 

And there is much drama in these poems. Some poems are tense and taut, for example the breathtaking anton yelchin in which an actor with ‘kiss curl hair/dimpled cheeks, still keen to talk about stanislavski’ ‘ is killed in a collision.

 

Even here in violent moments the precise, ethereal imagery isn’t lost – and he

is ‘ pinned there like a butterfly/his lungs fluttering in the darkness’.

 

Throughout the book Kinsman makes new – often taking mythical ideas and weaving them with the contemporary. A fine example is the god of husbands which explores identity, sexual politics, and platonic ideals.

 

The poem is full of erudite allusions and fuses classical imagery with an urgent, and questioning address. It is witty, knowing and at times deeply moving.

 

you said: look at he who severs us, forgetting

how love first was born and wrecked alone on the beach

dirty, half – drowned, wrapped up in a fisher mans net.

 

In these mysterious interiors, so much occurs. I relished dark rooms – with its slashed lines, staccato statements and astute depiction of intimacy and vulnerability.

 

In a haunting scene skin becomes ‘that ghost of flesh /between two seams /

and ‘breath hangs in the atoms between us’  yet there is the violent imagery too of

‘divided parts meeting slowly/thunderous as tectonic plates’.

The dizzying descent is honed and spare too – yet packs a punch. This potent poem is about the creation of identity, and a life lived fast and with fire.  The poet urges

Embrace

terminal velocity

enjoy it.

Kinsman’s pamphlet is experimental, highly original and risk-taking. This is a poet who peppers her work with complex and sometimes even scientific language.

In the visceral lovers with lysergic acid diethylamide, a ‘ white half moon in tin foil’ is swallowed – ‘corrupting light out’. 

The poem becomes a celebration of the immersive poetical of poetry itself – ‘ there’s nothing so ecstatic as drowning’.

The pamphlet ends with a poem entitled disappearance of the poet – its broken lines evoking a fragmentation which makes it impossible to read without feeling breathless.

The poems begins with the line

 ‘ there is no precedent in this tongue

for unbecoming’

and is again, a recognition of the poet as one who bears testimony, even at the risk to the self.

‘ and poet

disintegrates

     into witness’ .

 

An electrifying pamphlet by an exciting new voice in poetry.

 

 
Order your copy of & by Amy Kinsman here: https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/amy-kinsman/4594216097

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Alan Price reviews ‘The Space Between Us’ by Neil Elder

space_between

 

The poetry of Neil Elder has a compelling domestic surface. By surface I don’t mean superficial. By domestic I don’t mean limited. What he makes of family incidents, whether joyfully tender or horribly upsetting is very distinctive. It’s very difficult to write about being a father in a family, caught at home, on holiday or observing your children. Such subject matter can threaten sentimentality. But Elder is too shrewd and witty a poet to invite that criticism. Just take an apparently simple and direct poem like “Art Appreciation.”

 

Somebody’s rule of inversion;

appreciation is proportional

to what is left.

Crookedly the vase leans in all its orange splendour.

I see you shake your head in disbelief

repeating Fabulous with wonder.

 

The epiphany lies in the repeat of the word Fabulous. It begins with the term as

a mother’s “amazement that sticks in the mind.” Her reaction to the vase is observed

as a “disproportionate delight” that “might be the start of a decline.” Elder makes you hear the mother’s voice. It’s distinct, clear, tense with possible judgement, and then

loving approval. Fabulous was a very 1960/70’s word. Its usage evokes a parent of that generation and her values.

 

There are many examples of a quiet tenderness in The Space Between Us. A further mother poem, “What we Could Not Give” has the poignant lines,

 

It wasn’t possible to find a wall

Large enough to mount a mirror that could

Reflect the love that you have shown.

 

Elder’s insights and remembrances are often shot through with a very funny observation of things. There’s a skillful balance between the absurd and the deadly serious that draws you comfortably into his world and then shocks. “Not One of Us” is ostensibly a poem about how a gorilla is lovingly accepted into the family domain until they discover it has a flaw.

 

Then one day I opened the front door

To find ten billion tiny flies

had hatched from underneath Loretta’s ear;

Fur rippling and the air a shivering cloud of nightmare.

 

And for this diseased ear, the gorilla is destroyed.

 

…we struck a match and cursed

her back where she belonged.

 

A family’s abandonment of a wild beast makes for a bigger statement about intolerance, normality and evolution

 

we’d think of Attenborough and smile

 

Occasionally the compassion of Neil Elder can prove to be a shortcoming. He can admirably engage us in the human scene, with all its frailties, yet technically his language sometimes fails him. Elder strives to say something profound but fails to arrive at a philosophical conclusion. It wasn’t because I wanted some rhetorical summing up but a deeper searching. Poems like “Your Poem” and “Hopeful” are slight truisms. However there is so much honest, direct, and thoughtfulness in The Space Between Us which indicates that Elder will get better in the books to come.

 

Back to the collection I hold in my hands. I have nothing but praise for “Not One Of Us” and such companion dark poems as “Testimony”, the sharply written “Horse Drawn” and the semi-grotesque “Being Dinner.”

 

“Being Dinner” reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with the eating of food

(Especially his late great film Frenzy). And the collection also has a poem about the shower scene in Psycho coupled with Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Yet “Being Dinner” is for me the more effective Hitchcockian / Elder experience. It opens surprisingly, and madly, from the food’s point of view!

 

Flat on the kitchen counter;

to your left, each night,

a figure in chef’s whites sharpening a knife.

You suspected this ending.

 

I loved these gleefully black comic lines.

 

Perhaps the poem in the collection that moved me most was the very direct, “What We Could Not Give You.” Yet The Space Between Us has love, other than mother-love, to give us. These are caring, insightful and generous poems. And any reader of this book will return to its power.

 

 

Order your copy of The Space Between Us by Neil Elder from Cinnamon press here

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James Roderick Burns reviews ‘The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here’ by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

 

 

‘The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here’ begins with a useful scene-setting in prose, and a mystery – perhaps two.  Thomas Ovans, the poet’s grandfather, was born in County Leitrim, moved to Middlesbrough to work in the shipyards and married a local woman, went to sea as a ship’s engineer (becoming friendly with Nellie Melba on board) then died when his ship struck a mine in the Indian Ocean.  With a few additional facts – he was from the same area as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, for instance – and an overview of the poet’s year-long genealogical research, we embark on a remarkable act of imaginative recreation, and then encounter the second mystery: unnumbered pages.  An arc, yes – the death register, reports of the sinking, a butcher’s-daughter bride; all told, a life lived from back to front, with postscript poems charting its ripples into the poet’s own.  But none of the trusty way-markers of an ordinary poetic journey.

For, over the span of nineteen poems, Bartholomew-Biggs unearths an extraordinary life.  In the near-absence of documents, it is one which revels in concrete detail – from the ‘Marine Death Register’, its “old sweats … grimly fending off the final quayside”, to “mines/among the slobbering of waves/whose thick wet lips concealed spiked tongues” (‘Official Recognition 1919’), his grandfather – sunk – “a dozen lung-tight ladders from good air” (‘Died from Scalds’) to his first emergence from the country, “city streets … loom[ing] up at him like rocks” (‘Baptism Record’).

Nor are these markers of departure, relationship or destination simply slipped in as free-floating colour, bulking up a thin historical record; each serves in its own way as a fixed point on the trail, looking forwards and back, illuminating the corners of a life lost to history.  That early quayside, for instance, is picked up again as a dog marooned by the shipwreck, “saved and reached Bombay before its master./It was at the quay to greet him” (‘Press Reports’).  Here the physical separation of land and water serves as a bright counterpoint to its earlier, stark image of the border between life and death.  Similarly, Bartholomew-Biggs’ figuring of family history as a sealed bottle, the poet poised with “a corkscrew in my fist” – “Will the bottle/hold fine wine or just a scribbled message?” (‘Birthright’) – reoccurs at the end of the book, but deliberately fails to answer its own question, eschewing easy readings:

 

Our bottled epitaphs will splash

and bob away from where we vanished

then wash unsmashed on distant shingle

to disappoint beachcombing vagrants

who always find

our trampled lives are quite undrinkable.

 

(‘Protest Song’)

 

Yet the poet is perhaps too harsh with this conclusion.  Salty, sweet, harsh or heart-warming, they are always drinkable, always worth finding at the end of a trail of footprints in the sand.  At the book’s end, too, we understand the lack of pagination.  In capturing the precise marks of a life well-lived, Bartholomew-Biggs charts his grandfather’s progress far better than any sequence of numbers.  We remember the spiky mines, the burning air and superheated steam, but also “what small celebrity/accompanies the return/of the man who wasn’t ever here”.

 

 

James Roderick Burns regularly reviews for London Grip, and has just published his third short-form collection, ‘The Worksongs of the Worms’.  He is the editor of ‘A Gathering Darkness: Thirteen Classic English Ghost Stories’ (2016)

 

You can order your copy of The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here’ by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, here: www.wayleavepress.co.uk

 

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