I expected to be able to read through this book rather quickly. In fact, I often had to stop and re-read, reflecting on my reading practises as well as the poems.
These poems come from Antiphon, Magma, New Walk, The Rialto, etc. Quite a few of the poems aren't light, paraphrasable, or easy to label. Many are sonnet length with a sonnet's conceptual shape, though there are few formalist pieces beyond a sestina and a villanelle. The odd poem extends beyond a single page - "Advanced Level" is worth reading by Flash fiction writers; it show just how much can be packed into a few hundred words. There's little humour (except for "Memo to self" perhaps), few might-have-beens (barring perhaps "It couldn't happen") and no regrets.
The predominant theme is the search for, or inevitable return to, common ground. In the title poem it's a burial ground. More generally it's
- Home - the security of returning it; its maintenance; making do with what it is. A refuge. In "Until they close" for example, a shop selling "DIY Sundries" is described. The last 2.5 lines are "Patching, making do;/ a shop of second chances and amends./ Each time you're glad they haven't shut for good"
- First language - the security of returning to it ("Ridding" begins "In hard weather the old words come back"); nostalgia for old words; exploration of it; exploring using it. See p.18, p.21, p.24, p.25, p.42; 'His poems have been aired on BBC radio' and 'Losing Mr Winter'
- Self - connected with Home and First Language: estranged from both, the Self drifts. In "Any Other City" the persona wanders in a foreign city thinking "It could be worse. You could be/ where you are known". Not for the first time (see "The Only View", etc) the persona's comforted (or at least distracted) by sounds, sights and smells.
In "Past", when a parcel arrives plastered with old addresses, the final stanza is "Look at the string - knots we've lost the words for./ that tangle we struggle with, hardly/ holding it together. Must I sign here?" The Self wonders what obligation or gratitude is owed to its past. The past's not be over estimated though, even if it's better than the present - in "Was" "She says nothing's what is was .... only the old bread made proper crumbs". Archaeology features - in "The Rescue Dig" "Each day brings us closer, ... lifting each small loss into our summer" - and fading photographs are gateways.
These secure harbours become more important the more that darkness encroaches, merging as they do so. The end of "Obsolete" as well as bringing the sestina's words together, brings together the themes
Tomorrow we'll try a new place for repairs, but tonight the board|
is spread with matchless bowls and glasses - relics of us.
Will we see a cloudless sunset? This sun can't last for ever.
Let's consider some individual poems -
- "Losing Mr Winter", set in October, begins "I lost Mr Winter last May". That evasive wording is pondered over. Later we read that "her grandson - he can lift them two at a time - unloading bags of compost for another season" - looking to the future, preparing for the first winter without Mr Winter.
- "Sea Interlude" is reprinted in full on the back cover. I presume the title's related to the Benjamin Britten works. A line of clouds is compared to a "line of fine knitting", or
possibly braided rope. One day
I won't be here to ask
Would you ever write that?
You, looking up, puzzled, saying What?
The rope is more masculine, maybe more threatening. The persona presumably didn't realise they'd said out loud the penultimate line. The poem/world boundary is explored elsewhere too - in "Everything I know about" we learn that "everything I know about the Ramones/ I learned from a poem."
- "Leaving the World Service" is a burst of imagery - "Minutes are slowly hardening in their shells, setting into hours ahead. The radio talks us down, out of that far unknown of dreams" then there's the shipping news (more R4L than world service), its details acting as "anchors for the unknown day here: rough ground once more called Home"
Time and aging are frequently mentioned. In "Are we there yet?" the grown-ups have reached the stage where "it's enough to be here, lengthening the moment". The children "will be there soon enough". In "Responsibilities" children worry about their parents being out late; humour with an edge. I like "The Best of it" too, though even that can be read as transcendence of the mundane beyond the visible world. "Shibboleth" goes on too long (even if that's the impression it's supposed to give). I didn't care for "Jack".
Compared with work of younger poets it's the proportions rather than the ingredients that are different here. I suspect the most common template in this collection is still observation/anecdote that becomes a metaphor, though the final revelation's increasingly implicit. Without the first and last couple of lines, and a more obscure title, poems like "The good poems" might have been written by a New Gen poet who might not be as keen to say what the poem's "about".