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, 4 April 2018

"Assembly Lines" by Jane Commane (Bloodaxe, 2018)

Poems from "Bare Fiction", "The North", "The Morning Star", etc. "Our Old Lady of the Rain" was in the Guardian, with notes. "The shop-floor gospel" with notes was in "Proletarian Poetry". "Sand" was in "And other poems".

At times it assaults with density. Syntax is clear (no linguistic fireworks) - it's the content that forces a slow read

  • Manning barricades/ for a word plucked/ from the bible-paper-thin/ passport pages/ that open on/ another world entirely/ but refuse to navigate/ on dialects (p.12)
  • [a school anthem] will be composed of skiving off and suicide alley,/ the sound of civic pigeons colonising the silverware,// the clash of boy meets girl meets tragic ensemble of light/ somewhere beyond the silos of a different town just like this (p.14)
  • Being not much to look at is my first footprint/ on the unmade bed of your heart;/ unassuming, with my shark's under-bite,/ I scent the blood of single parent (p.50)

Phrases are packed - "a bent penny jamming the mind's jukebox" (p.49); "Framethrowers hiss the shocked verse on the impromptu plaza of a flattened city" (p.54). "Night as rag-soaked petroleum" (p.60) uses a tricksy word-swap. "where the washing waves our shadows from the line"(p.62) needs unpacking too. The poems require and reward attention. I struggled with the poems on p.24, p.27, p.37, p.39, p.43, p.55, some of which I liked all the same.

It's perhaps unfair to isolate lines, but these following downers are just some that appear at/near the end of poems, where you'd expect conclusions - "a seam of light is struck/ to fade the poster of a one-hit wonder" (p.9); "All you have taught us/ is the story/ of our own/ destructions" (p.11); "We seem to be moving along without gaining ground,/ giving way to actors who do a better job of the poor drama,/ shifting to the sidings of our own roadside attractions" (p.16). Industrial/urban decline is symbolised variously. There's a sense of inevitability to it, the "I bloody told you so" of "The Shop-floor Gospel" echoing implicitly throughout.

  • In "Fabrikgeist" a ghost manifests itself as movement of abandoned factory objects.
  • In "The Shop-floor Gospel" a shutdown isn't compensated for by retail parks or hanging around in public libraries.
  • In "Coventry is" the city's "always the bridesmaid and never the bride ... only needs a good architect to get rid of the dark roots ... and get herself back on that bloody horse" (like the young Godiva, but also a reminder that after a fall, the advice is to get straight back on the horse).
  • In "Midlands kids," "car plants, company overalls, jobs for life" all vanish.
  • "Our Old Lady of the Rain" was "a Midas inside-out", making things rust and clog up.
  • In "Odds On" the golden age of Red Rum, Dawn Run and Arkle is over - "Mass graves for the trophy ponies".
  • On p.33 "the shammy camouflage of enterprise zones, the vortex of estates and vast retail shacks" don't compensate - "heartlands become poundlands".
  • The title of "How the Town Lost Its Song" continues the theme. Later in that poem it's time to "monetise the hinterlands".

The book cheers up when hearts are "proof then, even in our age of surfaces, that/ what is hidden, messy, within, still matters" (p.32) and ends on a high, in a back garden of a nondescript town - "There is so much that could be said about/ the commonplace miracle of being here in this moment".

There are few signs of rebellion - "An afternoon misspent in the study of gravity's trajectory; stones chipping the verandahs of the elite" (p.13); "You are the lone no on the shop-floor" (p.18). There's little hope for an authentic future - "Fortune-teller, free agent,/ laughter in grubby canteens;/ Mark my words./ We’re a living museum!/ There’s no future" (p.18).

If I told you that my paternal grandfather was a pipe-layer in Coventry, you'd already know more particulars than you'll find in this book. Classmates wouldn't recognise the personae, Midlanders wouldn't recognise their towns. There are no computers or phones, and more horses than cars. No families. No homeless. Some poems, nostalgic though they may be, make it clear that there was no Golden Age - not for the towns nor the narrators. What's the connection between the narrators and the setting? "Our Old Lady of the Rain" ends with "I loved her, though I didn’t know if I should" which could be read as having doubts about risking pathetic fallacy, or guilt about using such imagery if one isn't on the breadline too. In "Homing" the narrator has a sense of class-based detachment, of being a square peg in a round hole - "the fault lines of class are never far from the surface of conversation, though it will ache to know this. Odd then, this squareness of feeling, round wholeness of being apart, homesick for a place where there are no manners to feign".

There's much daisy-chaining of themes and images from one poem to the next. Here are a few examples -

  • Themes segue from maps (p.24-28 - also on p.51 and p.54) and horses/dogs (p.29-31) to hearts (p.32).
  • "How the Town Lost Its Song" is followed by "The poem written to settle an old score" (pun on "score"?) and later, on p.54 by "Only slow decades will ... give back the words with which the street's aria is sung"
  • "a biscuit tin of fireworks under the stairs of a matchstick house" (p.49) twins with "I'll squat in your lives, a tinder box waiting for a stray spark" on p.50
  • "Disturbed, a blackbird's nest" (p.52) is followed on p.53 by "an ill-rumouring wind disturbs the birds"

What impresses me most about the book is how consistently the poems made me work - there are no easy rides, and there's always something to appreciate. My favourites are "National Curriculum", "Sand", "Border Dispute" (a relationship argument is symbolically resolved by ripped up and regluing a map), "Seven Horse Secrets", "Double Exposure", "How we fell in love with big data", "The Ghost Light", and "Otters, Avon".

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