Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"New Wings" by Robyn Bolam (Bloodaxe, 2007)

The poet used to write under the name Marion Lomax. In the book it doesn't say that she's Professor of English Language and Literature, St Mary's College, University of Surrey.

This book's a New and Selected with poems sometimes squeezed 2 to a page. Here's a chunk from "Just Another Commuter", selected from 30 years of poems - "I look into the dark window/ And try to see his face, but his neighbour/ Is nearer and hides him from view.// From here he could well be my father, But rather than make, what can only be/ An embarrassing mistake, I sit until/ We reach our destination. His thinning hair/ Has one side brushed over". I've written about an episode like this. I think most poets have. The implementation's not striking - the window used as a mirror and the comb-over have been seen many times before. Perhaps the use of cliché's deliberate. Perhaps I just don't get it.

And yet, a couple of pages on there's "Thethera" ("Swifts flit in and out where the mountain/ Allowed our forefathers to enter. We gather crooked spires of foxgloves") and then "Topsoil" ("I walk these moors for what they are./ The wind's runways. ... I walk these moors for what they are./ Neglected roof gardens of the mill towns"). This variety continues throughout the early section of the book, as if two different markets are being aimed at. The page-long "Ghosts" begins "In her dream she woke as usual ... The room felt full of people ... They seemed./ To hover round the bed" and ends with "One drew the curtain./ Another lifted the sheet/ To her face". I've heard all that before. "Somewhere Else" is shorter and less standard, but still recognisable - "When I phone part of me listens for home/ hidden behind you ... I wake confused with/ windows in new places, the wardrobe moved. ... As I staunch the sense of severed self,/ I feel you move silently, somewhere else". "Beyond Men"'s conclusion is "Tonight the sea's moans/ make women yearn/ for something beyond/ the love of men", which sounds familiar.

And yet, "On Independence and Resolution" includes "Bells drag their shadows across the sand/ To a glimmer of children ... When the tide comes in, the sea is always warmer;/ And your smile does not curve into a key". Sometimes the message of a poem is expressed as a metaphor. I like these -

  • "We are never free from borders./ My mother died on an ocean,/ shores at its reaches; no fixed limits,/ just sea reclaiming then retreating" (p.47)
  • "we're low in the water, dragging/ so much dead past with us/ it can fill the whole boat.// We can't see what we need to cast/ over the side for our dreams to swallow" (p.88)
  • "We need/ to keep climbing high enough to see in perspective:/ we need to keep on stealing each other's best bridges" (p.91)

In other poems though, the imagery's rather stale. The 2nd and 3rd examples below are the central images of the poems they're in.

  • "[The City Bride] arrives/ and scales the steps/ in impossible shoes/ with a smile that lifts the spire even/ higher .... The blessing ends: / bells clang an ancient tone/ against the ringing of her mobile/phone" (p.90)
  • "These mornings, you leave the place in darkness ... The closed door has disappeared:/ the track starts at your feet// though you cannot yet see it" (p.67)
  • "Cacti reminded me of my mother -/ difficult to touch without injury to each other./ But when she was happy, relaxed, no tensions,/ her smiles were exotic, unexpected flowers ... cacti and love outlive their owners" (p.77)

There are sections of prose that I like in poems that are moving, but only because of the prose - "I always thought that when blood/ didn't come, a child would,/ that when it finally went, I'd be old ... I try not to think of all the wombs/ they test later, to be able to tell you,/ 'It was for the best' -/ for life - but only your own" (p.68-9). "Signing off" is a prosey anecdote. "50s jive" is far too long. "The Attachment" begins "You always click with a virtual man./ He knows the right keys to press for instant release". In other poems the speed and global nature of e-mail is treated as if it were a novelty.

A few poems are in a Scottish dialect. "Meeting again after almost eight years" is a sonnet. "Through-lines" is a pantoum. Before p.35 each line begins with a capital letter. The house-style changes afterwards.

I liked "The Boatman's Dream" which comes from "Raiding the Borders". That section has several poems about war and a mother's death.

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