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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