Alan Morrison on
Smokestack Books, 2019
Smokestack Books, 2018
A greasy house, laughter
Amir Darwish is a British Syrian poet of Kurdish origin who was born in Aleppo. Darwish has a growing international reputation, which is quite an accomplishment given he's published just two poetry collections before. Due to limited time and resources as sole editor of Recusant and pretty much now also its sole (occasional) reviewer, I'm forced to make fairly quick judgements on what to review and what not to review of the books I receive. In the case of Smokestack Books, which demonstrably The Recusant regards as the UK's most important imprint (primarily but not entirely in terms of socially and politically engaged poetry), output is so prolific compared to most other poetry presses that I have to be very selective.
So I neglected to review Darwish's first Smokestack collection because I was slightly put off by the flippancy of its title, Don't Forget the Couscous. No such impression this time round with the very direct and empirical title Dear Refugee. With a continuing propensity towards reassertion of national identities and borders throughout a Europe swept by populist and Far Right anti-immigrant feeling, it is an imperative time to champion the hopes, experiences and sufferings of the world's refugees, and to give them the voice they are so often denied.
Dear Refugee is a very slim volume at just 44 pages. Its poems are in the main fairly short and spare lyrics often resembling prayers or meditations. The first three poems, inclusive of the short opening title poem, are unremarkable but empathetic pleas on behalf of refugees. It's only really with the fourth poem, 'What I Left Behind', that Darwish seems to start engaging with language to the extent necessary for effective poetry, descriptions and images that are adequate sacraments of dispossession:
I left that table with three books, a tea glass dirty
The TV remote still lost somewhere between cushions
A wall with a mixture of rotten green broken yellow light
A lonely white tissue blowing in a ruined alley
I left a pregnant apple tree
A sink full of pans from last night’s meal
My plate among them with a tulip
I left half a bottle of red wine near the bed
Money notes wrinkled
A belt with broken buckle
The painting in the corridor
The tearful man in it has his hand on his cheek
The forest behind him is as huge as the memory it left behind
I left a tape-recorder a lover once gave me
Playing the Kurdish singer Mohammed Sixo
Singing ‘Oh the land Oh the land’
I left my school desk engraved with my name
The teacher who lectured me every time I brought a poetry book
To school instead of my homework
I left the old corner shop
Containing a debt book
at has my name in it a pair of new shoes
e yellow laces I bought
To go with them
However, this is not, of course, the poet's first language (Arabic is), and may well not even be his second, so it's perhaps churlish to pick him up too much on specifics of description. The poem is resonant and powerful because of its depictions of the abandoned objects and rooms that mark the genesis of refugees and simplicity works in those respects. But one of the images is rather awkwardly constructed: 'rotten green broken yellow light' -while the absence of commas can make for slightly confusing syntax as with: 'Containing a debt book/ That has my name in it a pair of new shoes...'. Breaking up clauses by enjambment works fine, but it can be disorienting when clauses lack commas to mark them out on the same line.
'The news has just arrived' is a verse-missive reporting the survival of a bottle of red wine in what is presumably a refugee's bombed-out former home, and is an effective vignette:
Near it there is a broken window
An open door and a woman crying by the corner
The liquid inside the bottle rattles every time
A tear falls then it settles again
The dust of falling buildings
Has covered the full half.
'I will write' is another lyrical meditation which contains nice images and sentiments but doesn't really come to much although the final line is curious:
I will write of birds, streams, trees and clouds
Of a husband who places a peck on his wife’s forehead
Of the dry rose in a book of love poems
Of the lover who writes habiby on a pine tree in a park
Of a girl who smells jasmine on her way to school
I will write of her as she runs barefoot
en pops her blisters at night
I will write of the song she hears in her head when she wakes
Of the neighbour who calls in for coffee
And leaves secret love letters under her pillow
I will wrote of picnics, melons swimming in water,
I will write of solitude and its thirty-six children.
'Fizzy Drink' is again going for the spare epiphanic approach which recalls the techniques of Lorca, however, I'm undecided on its worthiness for that canon -it comes across as a little bit too simplistic:
Once near a Grocery store,
I bought a fizzy drink
Then shook it.
Twenty years later,
I gaze into that bottle
On a window sill
Lift the lid,
Come what may,
I will open
'I am an immigrant and I love life', though well-meaning, is pretty inconsequential, and really just recapitulates the sentiments of the second poem in the collection, 'We want to live'. 'If I ever see love' seems even more throwaway:
If I ever see love wondering alone,
I will take it in,
Make my heart its home
And my eyes its window to the world.
I will keep it there forever
And ever And ever.
The short love poem 'Have I done enough to love you?', for me, fails to leave much of a mark -its final line seems a bit lame: 'I have left a pen near my gravestone,/ So write and tell me if I have done enough to love you'. I'm not sure if 'This heart' imparts anything particularly sublime though its tone aspires to such:
This heart is a house.
Love knocks at the door
And sits on the floor
Looks out the window
And see lovers pass weeping.
'Poetry and me' is an improvement:
Deep in a forest
I see a stream,
On the bank.
I sit down
And put a hand
Across its shoulder
Never have I felt at home
But by this point I'm already a bit fed up with poems about poems and am impatient for poems with more of a point to them. Similarly, poems with 'heart' in the title are becoming too commonplace too quickly, and nothing much of import seems to be said in 'Take my heart' that Darwish hasn't already said in a couple of other previous poems:
My dearest, take my heart,
Take it since it’s you who owns it
Nurture it as you go along,
Because it longer beats as it should.
Talk to it gently and cool its passion.
The finest moment, my darling, is when
My heart divides itself: half mine, half yours
Once more I take into account, as is only fair, that these poems are composed in the poet's second or third language, and so it's not fair to expect the same levels of poetic sophistication as one would expect in poets writing in their first language. However, a spirit of experiment, which might at least lift the poetry above the trite or banal, is lacking here; and in any case, there are occasional lines that jar due to absence of commas, or slightly confused syntax, so little harm would have come from more ambitious stretching of language even if it means more effort on behalf of the reader to process the meaning. I think really if writing poetry in a second or third language, the poet really needs to trust their linguistic instincts and go for broke. Not necessarily in every single poem, but certainly in some of them; peculiar opacity can often be more enchanting than prosaic simplicity.
The epigrammatic 'Kurdistan' starts out more promisingly with its van Gogh-esque image: 'Uneven earth, roaring trees' and imaginative 'Childlike water and fashionably late thoughts', but then seems to dip in poetic quality and intelligibility with the oddly constructed 'Land of no-one open its arms and take the earth in'. We then get 'Flatter the symptoms of joy' and the needlessly generic phrase/iconic film title, 'Gone with the wind'. The final two lines aspire to Lorcan symbolisms, somewhat undermined by the missing 'e' from 'breathe': 'And push open the window/ To breath in the perfume of pomegranates, olives and love'.
'The Shade' is undoubtedly the most successful poem up to this point in the collection, and it's taken over 20 pages -so half of the book!- to get here -the image of the second and third lines is particularly effective:
The shade is balm to my eyes
The blinding sun sends honeyed arrows of love
Like feathers illuminating the steps.
I walk on wine and sink into burns.
Scars decorate the entrance
To a stone heart and a door made of pearls.
Hairs fall on a bed the air is free.
You can give up the world
But the world never gives up on you.
On other occasions, Darwish's hankering after effective images doesn't work so well and can hit on the almost inane, as in 'My place': 'As cold as it feels/ Your love is still inside me/ Boiling like lava in my arteries'. However, it seems clearer at this point that Darwish is emphasizing how the only places humans ever truly belong are in their hearts, minds and spirits, those unquantifiable 'places' they carry within -and this is a powerful and important point on behalf of refugees, those forced to flee the geographical, physical places of belonging. It is also a resonant spiritual leitmotiv which echoes the teachings of Christ and Buddha. In similar spirit comes 'It’s a mistake to think love ends', which is to my mind another more successful poem of Darwish's, partly because it doesn't overdo its message, but mostly because it engages more with language:
It’s a mistake to think love ends.
Love is the bud of the bud,
The rose of the rose,
The soul inside the soul of the clear sky.
During the day it is blinding like the sun
At night it’s a moon in the shadow of a mountain
And that old café in the corner of your eye...
Two chairs, a table, a glass, the two of us, one heart, one beat.
It’s a mistake to think love ends,
That it dies like the nerve-end of a finger trapped in a door.
It’s a mistake to think love ends.
A greasy house, laughter.
A leaf, a tree.
It is a mistake to think love ends.
A mistake. A mistake. A mistake.
A single bed.
One pillow (stuffed with wool).
A colourful sheet.
There's an effective use of alliteration here with the 'v's of 'Love' and 'nerve-end', and the striking image, 'A greasy house, laughter'. 'Close love' is a less trite romantic meditation:
When lovers kiss
Hands find their way around the body
Eyes shut themselves slowly
Throats swallow love thoughts.
Love is always closer than you think.
But 'Dear love' veers again into the realms of pubescent poetics:
Were you drunk when you wrote this postcard?
Gone are the days when Mozart sent you to sleep in my arms.
Gone is the time you flew into my heart to shelter in winter,
Beside the warm fire of my thoughts.
'I must look love in the eye' continues this unabashed pubescence:
I must look love in the eye and tell it the story
Of two new lovers,
Their netted hands holding one another,
I see them walking under the crescent moon,
Swinging and jumping into an ocean of lilies.
They swim against the entire universe,
Change its behaviour
They make humans more human
Become lovers forever.
'I once loved a girl' is verging on throwaway:
I once loved a girl
Who gave herself to me beneath a hill.
I laughed and asked:
Will you marry me?
Ask for my hand, said she.
Of whom? said I.
My parents, said she.
Where are they? said I.
Far away, said she.
Let’s go, said I.
Now? said she.
Yes, said I.
'When my beloved appears' continues to plough the same furrow, and apart from brief flourishes of imagery, 'My beloved is hungry/ She invites herself to eat from a banquet/ Of trance-like devotion, passion and roses', and 'When a shadow enters a shadow, a lover appears in between,/ Walks with the moon and goes close to its heart', slopes off into the more commonplace:
It is difficult to tell them apart.
When love appears on a mountain peak,
Near a lonely rose, it releases a sigh,
Blinks an eye to swallow the moon,
Relaxes deep into a trance.
When a lover appears suddenly in your life,
You can do nothing but surrender.
'Words to a lover' is subtly effective:
Through the window comes a full moon.
In the middle there is a rose with five red petals.
The stars are clear.
The branch of a pine tree comes between us.
The shadow of a man crosses the pavement.
A lover comes close, so close,
Rests her chin on my shoulder,
Fastens her arms around my heart and silently sighs.
She takes my heart in exchange for the moon.
Its closing trope seems almost a non-sequitur: 'The lemon you once gave me/ Is still here in my pocket'. 'Star' is a more meaningful and successful lyric:
A star shone on the path
The path we walk and will always be walking.
The reflection of its shining eyes
Cracks Efrini’s walnut trees.
And the star’s gaze,
Oh it lit the way
Through a Kurdish olive grove
That changed our hearts from
Sense to senseless
In the land of dismay.
Today Shareen was born.
'Daily Routine' reads more like a doodle in a notebook than a fully formed poem:
I wake up everyday
Pair my thoughts together
Like I do when I put my black socks together aer a wash
They are all the same colour
But there have to be picked carefully.
Not all dark colours are the same.
Presumably the 'there' in the penultimate line is a typo and should be 'they'. The four-liner 'Just saw a moon' is sparse but more effective:
I just saw a moon, half shy, half out.
Its light is still in my eyes.
The figure zigzags away in front of me.
Oh, I am in trance, a trance.
Is there a missing 'a' before the first 'trance'? In 'I Speak of Teesside' Darwish aspires to more figurative imagery to evoke his subject, and it's largely successful, even if the image in the second line seems to be either missing an 'a' or should read 'men' as opposed to 'man', while the final line could have really been phrased more imaginatively:
Of the big giant chimneys that pump air, life, and laughter
Into the sky in the shape of big muscled steel man.
Of the sky and its birds as they fly high and low,
Making noise in circles while children watch, point and scream.
Of Osmotherley and the homemade honey
That found its way to my heart.
Of Teesside Park on Thursday nights,
Beautiful as a Middle Eastern bride
Waiting for her groom by the candle light.
I speak of Victoria Road as it feasts on Eid
And the students walking home from the library.
'Morning of tulips' just about acquits itself:
It is a morning of tulips.
Ones that open with your eyes
And stay awake forever.
My dear, every morning there are new tulips
Come alive at your awakening.
Good morning to my habiby,
I am coming to collect you soon.
'Stone' unfortunately cannot support its own weight:
I watched a rolling stone
Drop from the heights of a castle
Into the swimming pool of your eyes.
It’s the same stone
I kicked while surfing
The skin of your body
And watched closely
As it landed here, in my kidneys.
There it bounced up to reach
The unknown mountain
Whose peak we want to climb.
Sad and lonely,
It stayed there
Until you forced it into my mouth
Where it fell into my heart.
Now my heart is made of stone.
Much more effective is 'Toilet', which emphasizes lavatories as great levellers:
There is a tile on the right hand side
There is an exotic art picture on the wall
There is comfort in looking at it
There is a man in that picture embracing a lover
There is consistency in everything around here
There is nowhere like this
No other place where we are so equal.
But the two-liner that follows is banal to the point of impertinence: 'Last night the moon shied away./ But the sun is out and waving today'. Second or third language aside, this couplet is so artless as to almost be insulting; less Stevie Smith, more Patience Strong. Though by no means anything exceptional, the more figurative 'Hailstones' immediately reminds the reader that Darwish is capable of so much better:
So white, circular
Identical to each other
In weight and temperature.
They live for just a few minutes.
They speak the language of those they fall on,
Utter the sadness of every human they touch,
Sliding slowly down your face, leaving scars as souvenirs.
It seems Darwish has saved up his more poetic splashes and quota of imagery for the two final denser poems of the collection -but the quality and effectiveness of the images in 'Tonight is the night' are wildly variable:
When a blade will make its way across my veins
Like a toddler walking gingerly
When a rope will be tight around my neck like a lover saying goodbye
When the tablets will fill my stomach and rattle like two Middle
Eastern tribes swallowed by a whale and continuing their blood feud
in its belly
When the train will scatter my body into a million pieces like a ton of
cherry tomatoes let loose from a mountain peak.
Where a fall from the tenth floor will turn my bones into salt
And a jump from a bridge will flush my body like a ten-year-old
intact kidney stone
When my head in the oven will burn, burn, burn, until nothing is left
but ashes, or until my brain becomes a tiny piece of charcoal
When a bullet will dig deep into my heart like an endless dark well.
The second and final stanza has a more triumphant tone but its point isn't very clear:
Tonight is the night to give up everything that matters and that does
Tonight I will masturbate for the last time with you in mind
I will not think of all the fertile sperm I le behind
I will be free from everything and nothing
Free from agony, pain, embarrassment, funny memories
From the stain of all lovers on my body
Free from freedom itself
Free from the ifs and buts and dos and don’ts
Free like never before
When contemplation of you will end at long last
When my breath will stop
Tonight I will shout free at last, free at last,
Thanks to all those who know me I am free at last.
It's perhaps fitting Dear Refugee comes to a close on a poem of defiance from the refugee/immigrant viewpoint, 'If you are British I am British too', and the message here is especially powerful given the egregious legacy of Theresa May's “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants and refugees in the UK, and the increasingly poisonous discourse post-Referendum:
If you are British I am British too
I sleep every night just like you do
I find myself in situations I never knew
I sniff the same air as you
I travel by plane, train and car
Where the language is concerned I also don’t have a clue
I eat fish and chips too
I go to the shop to buy bread and milk to see my hunger through
If you are British I am British too
I eat with my mouth
And go to the loo
I bleed the same colour as you
I get sick just like you
I drink coffee and tea and I take milk too
If you are British I am British too
I walk the dog when he wants me to
I see the birds fly in the same sky as you.
If you took time to walk in my shoe
You will see that if I am British you are British too
I am American, Syrian, Bangladeshi, Colombian, Indian,
Pakistani, South African, Polish, Brazilian, Korean, Chinese,
I am white, black and pink
But above all I am human like you
If you are British I am British too.
The poetic approach is rudimentary and the points being made fairly simplistic but arguably more potent for that, and while one might reasonably categorise this poem more as Spoken Word than page poetry, it does what it says on the tin, and sometimes simplicity of presentation has its place. The only problem here is the truncation of 'shoes' to fit the rhyme with 'too', which isn't even really necessary as it still would have been a near-rhyme in the plural -'walk in my shoe' just doesn't sound right and almost gives an image of hopping. But 'If you are British I am British too' is a trope powerfully counter to the xenophobia and Little Englandism of immigrant and refugee-scapegoating Brextremists everywhere (and unfortunately it currently feels like they're everywhere).
Overall, however, Dear Refugee feels unfinished, more like an early draft of a collection, or the germ of an idea, than a fully realised body of work, and I'm unconvinced by the ubiquity of 'love' poems in what from the title gives the impression of being primarily a book about the refugee experience from a poet who was a refugee himself. Perhaps some of the point being made by Darwish here is that, as I speculated earlier, we really only belong within ourselves, our own hearts and minds, that our only homes are our own souls, and in these senses the sentiments herein are defiant and life-affirming. Indeed, at almost every turn Darwish's oeuvre is life-affirming, and, indeed, love-affirming, and that is to be admired.
But for me in poetic terms Dear Refugee doesn't fully rise to the occasion of its highly important and timely theme, mainly because there is too little heightening of language to give weight to the egalitarian and humanitarian messages. I don't intend this review to be entirely negative but recognise much of it might be perceived as such, but I can only give my genuine point of view; critical it may be, but, I trust, constructively critical. I believe Darwish will in time produce a more substantial and significant empirical testament to the experience of the refugee, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Dear Refugee, for me at least, is more the beginning of this journey, the point of departure, but I feel we've yet to reach the actual destination.
The Profundity of Idle Gossip
Fiona Sinclair's Slow Burner is an even slimmer volume at just 36 pages -effectively a perfect-bound pamphlet; but its poems are in the main denser and longer than Darwish's. The collection's main theme revolves around the poet's numerous and ongoing hospital appointments in relation to a chronic balance disorder which necessitated her early retirement from English teaching.
What first strikes me in the energetic and image-abundant opening poem, 'Time Travellers’ Picnic', is the absence of much punctuation, particularly hyphens, and an even more puzzling lack of capitalised nouns and brand names -it's confusing, since 'Roman' is alternately capitalised and in lower case 'roman', while 'sports direct' is un-apostrophised, un-italicised and in lower case. Some lines are also peculiarly constructed: 'Spotting imperial chaise lounge fashioned in marble,/ awaiting cushions and reclining dignitary, giggle'.
In 'Crashing with Buddy Holly' Sinclair recounts the start of her debilitating chronic condition:
the ice snickering with slap stick intentions,
pavement’s punch awaking the disorder like a sleeping curse.
Your symptom’s alien language clumsily translated to GP as
Can’t walk, pins and needles, numbness,
after glockenspiel play on elbows and knees…
('Slap stick' should be one word). There's some imaginative descriptions with charged language and breathless lines:
In the library your trembling fingers slid down columns
in medical dictionaries stopping ominous as a Ouija board
at MS ME MND, your heart amplified to a stethoscope roar as
you scanned symptoms which on paper seemed a perfect match.
Sinclair's occupational tenacity in spite of the illness is admirable:
Months on the symptoms slowly subdued leaving you
lacking the muscle now to queue for the Next sale
but managing to command a classroom perched on a table;
unaware that the fifth column affliction still sabotaged your body…
'A Game of Hide and Seek' is a clipped, well-sculpted poem:
Her last chip, this London hospital,
clinical records given the slip somewhere in Kent,
a scribbled note from her GP, she sat before this consultant
with a new-born’s medical history.
Lottery numbers excitement as he nodded at her narrative,
flourish of his fountain pen and she was entombed
in an MRI machine.
The present tense of recollections of her diagnosis are nicely paced in 'Careless Talk':
Student’s pen sprints across the pages of his notebook,
a sudden lift drop in your stomach,
exiting senior medic tosses over his shoulder
'All in the Mind' depicts a psychiatric screening:
Any family history of mental illness?
I can offer no great aunt teaming tweeds with straight jacket,
or uncle lurking in the lingerie section of M & S,
but shrugged mum was an alcoholic,
aunt’s depression keeps turning up like a bad penny…
A line of stick figures conga across the psychiatrist’s notepad.
After his questions empty the contents of my past like a dustbin,
He urges a leap of faith across my disbelief to his diagnosis.
Later I keep to myself internet research that somatic
was only recently divorced from its shady coupling with psycho.
Nevertheless explanation to friends
about a leaky mind contaminating its body
still met with a change of subject;
far easier to wear the fashionable label of bi-polar.
There's a flippancy here, a caustic documenting of symptom, pathology and consultation. This almost deadpan tone continues in the equally well-phrased 'Muscle Man':
Her fears frozen with permafrost local anaesthetic,
she grinned as the specialist rolled up his sleeves,
plunged a medical cheese tester into her thigh,
then knee against bed for purchase, tugged.
No breath held for results, knowing this branch of medicine
calliper limped towards any kind of cure, instead she planned
to have purple tyres on her wheelchair and a compartment for gin.
It's suggested her symptoms might be psychosomatic -a favourite cop out for countless Atos assessors when compiling their largely specious reports:
I can find no evidence of muscular disease. Destitute of next moves,
some relief when he suggested a colleague, but at neuro-psychiatrist,
she stared as if he had told an obscene joke, You think this is
He translated complex medical ideas into fact sheet simplicity,
overwhelmed brains could sometimes take it out on their own bodies.
Homeward it didn’t occur to her to cancel thoughts of stair lifts and
'Bedside Manners' is a particularly well-phrased poem with much serendipitous alliteration:
Whilst he read a copy of The Lady, you hid your eyes from
a young woman toddler tottering to the loo,
the man whose disobedient hands spilt tea.
Well it’s good news from our point of view.
10 years of baffled shrugs, suddenly during a courtesy check up
a medic spotted something out of the corner of his eye.
But one trope is oddly phrased: 'but each We don’t know revealed the specialist to be ignorant/ of your condition as an 18th century saw bones'. There's an accomplished polish to the following stanzas:
At your whispered Will I end up in a wheelchair?
the consultant’s smirked Oh I think you are over-egging there,
unintelligible to you as Latin.
In the nearest pub, your friend gulped red wine
gabbling about stem cell technology,
you downed a large gin, examined the doctor’s words,
but finding only a few tight-lipped phrases,
unknown disease, no treatment,
you delivered your own dark prognosis.
'The Loved One' depicts an old car as a family heirloom and contains some nice images such as 'the hood’s mossy pelt, the sunken tyres'. Sinclair's poems have an anecdotal quality that is quite disarming and reminiscent, in a way, of monologues a la Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, or even Victoria Wood:
When cancer began to feast on mother,
Triumph Spitfire needs attention in the local rag,
drew eager boy racers, mid-life crisis men,
who caressed the scarlet bodywork...
There's a matter-of-factness even at the profoundest moments: 'you found her watching from behind nets,/ the car towed away at cortege pace,/ the look on her face far worse than cancer’s gnaw'. Tercets seem to suit these vignettes -in 'How to Mill a Snake' I'm also reminded of the similar potted verse-narratives of Bernadette Cremin whose poetry, too, is populated by assorted bedsitter-style characters:
It was your grandmother played into uncle’s hands,
sending him down each evening to ‘do the garden’,
after cancer had consumed your dad.
Mum, knowing his catalogue model looks
had captured both your grandmother and aunts’ hearts,
forced to listen each evening to his obscene suit.
You became her body guard. Deadlock in the kitchen
as uncle must censor his speech...
'The Reluctant Bride and Groom' is to my mind the most effective and linguistically energised poem up to this point, it has some great descriptions throughout, particularly in its second verse:
Knocking for him, she negotiated the furniture thicket
that comprised the shop’s stock,
its lichen streaking her summer coat.
Gagging at fry-ups ossified on Georgian tables,
she declined father’s tipsy gesture towards stained tea pot,
tried to engage mother turned to stone by a gorgon disease,
whilst her date in peep toed socks
shamefully scooped out sandwich remains from a shoe...
The poem seems to be a musing on what sociologists would term the 'immediate gratification' culture of the working class:
But after too many Saturday evenings
listening to the light programme,
when he suggested ‘Dreamland’ the following week
she agreed with wallflower relief.
Soon weekends were football socials, cricket club tea rotas…
Friends catching marriage like measles...
This is almost what one might call gossip poetry, and that's by no means a criticism. Working-class anecdote can contain much humour and wit, descriptiveness and colourful turn of phrase than more abstracted middle-class vernacular. For an historical example of the distinctive poeticism of the proletarian idiom I'd recommend Mayhew's Characters, originally entitled, A Few Odd Characters Out of the London Streets: As Represented in Henry Mayhew's Curious Conversazione, published in 1857 and beautifully illustrated. After all, one of the most poetically effective sequences in T.S. Eliot's abstruse masterpiece The Waste Land is the “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”-punctuated pub gossip of 'II. A Game of Chess': 'But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling./ You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique./ (And her only thirty-one.)/ I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,/ It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said' etc.). Sinclair's narrative peters out from comedy to tragedy:
Finally his mumbled ‘I suppose we’d better get hitched’,
her mother’s counsel over cocoa,
You’re nearly 30; you’ll be left on the shelf.
So she accepted his proposal like a below reserve bid.
But every few months a tearful I don’t love him,
her mother reacting as if cancelling a wedding
was like recalling a launched invasion.
Until one May afternoon she found herself conveyed in a car
that seemed to fly at a whip-cracked pace to the church,
where she spotted her bridegroom’s panting arrival
aer a cartoon sprint across fields,
chanted to herself the inverted vows I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
That final trope has a horrified resonance, it reminds me of the darker poems of Stevie Smith, such as 'Do Take Muriel Out' which unexpectedly breaks its nursery rhymes and short rhythms on a last staggered image in unexpected iambic pentameter in its final line: 'Do take Muriel out/ Although your name is Death/ She will not complain/ When you dance her over the blasted heath'.
'The Visitor' is another anecdotal poem about a day trip with a friend, it's littered with arresting images -'your mocha skin, black cherry eyes', and some bravura alliterative tropes, 'My eyelids shutters closing on the day, you take yourself off for a/ stroll round Canterbury, chat to a young barman over a nightcap' and 'We titter at adults sporting hop headgear but two lagers later, I wear a Titania chaplet, you a Bacchus crown'. Again, there's a Stevie Smith sort of bittersweet twist in the tone at the end: 'You leave. I do the washing up, change the bedding …/ feeling as if I have suffered a mini bereavement'. The next poem, 'Women of a Certain Age' is descriptively rich:
Her voice says late 40s, Louboutin heeled,
he giggles like a bashful girl, claims Little English.
But she has key phrases and gestures expressive as deaf alphabet,
so they manage a slow dance chat all the way into Side.
Two weeks sleeping in the sun all day like a cat,
evenings accessorised with scotch and Marlboro,
(Why 'scotch' isn't capitalised is puzzling, while 'Louboutin-heeled' needs hyphenating). Again I'm reminded of Cremin, but also of the slightly seedy narratives of faded demimonde in the novels of Jean Rhys, particularly Good Morning, Midnight (1939), itself titled after a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem ('Good morning, Midnight!/ I'm coming home,/ Day got tired of me –/ How could I of him?// Sunshine was a sweet place,/ I liked to stay –/ But Morn didn't want me – now –/ So good night, Day!'). It appears that the poet ends up teasing a male prostitute while holidaying in Italy:
takes my laughter behind hands as coy fan coquetry.
I lead him on with empty Yes’ half believing,
despite this town’s fake Rolex, Mulberrys…
his I will not charge because you are pretty.
But at his sudden What time shall I come to your hotel tonight?
I thrust 20 lira at him, escape with a savvy 50 year olds
bad cheque promise to call the number on his card later.
Scurry back to You should not be allowed out alone.
Not for the first time I'm confused as to the absence apostrophes. 'Absent Friends' could well have been a poem by Jean Rhys's Sasha Jansen if she had lived today in the social media age:
Their embrace brings a friendship back from the dead,
then chaotic questioning as they sit with beaming emoticon faces.
A thickening in my throat as I remember:
the man whose weekly calls bi-polar swung between suicide strategy
and stomach cramping wit, who no longer phones me,
the woman whose getaway van I drove beyond
the reach of a husband’s fists who has Facebook defriended me,
because my slot machine life suddenly paid out the windfall of a husband…
ese two women never quite trashed
youthful remembrance of hennaed hair and flares,
whereas I am an amnesiac memory that no prompts
of Dickens, handbags, Paris will revive.
So I wrestle with yawns as a screed of texts sent to a lover
are read to me once more by a rebound friend.
'Drama Lesson' is one of the most linguistically striking poems in this collection, it has great drive, rhythm and consonance -here it is in full:
Wrapt in the world she is writing,
the others have grabbed the glamour jobs,
temperaments are unleashed like fighting dogs
as they embark on an anarchy of improvisation.
Bursting through the barbican of her concentration
she delivers the script to girls whose thoughts
quicken with movement straight into the action
of a fairly-tale familiar as their own lives.
Catching their kinetic fever, she attempts to maintain
order, defending her work from eye-watering criticism.
Sudden as a spell, she casts herself back into
the stillness of a writer’s stone memorial,
leaving the rest of the class to disintegrate
into a chaos of egos until the bell goes.
She packs away Drama. Her chatter wiping
the surface of her mind, ready for Maths.
The alliterative and assonantal chiming of 'egos' with 'bell goes' is particularly striking. 'Love Struck' continues a tour of Italy's sights and is laced with evocative descriptions:
Chronic illness commits marriage and Florence
into it will never happen box, then you bob up like a reprieve,
hand me lap top, credit card Book it.
Weeks between are tallied with teased
Do you believe you’re going yet?
But at the airport I anticipate freak weather,
in the plane I predict engine trouble,
on Pisa platform I expect rail strike.
(For clarity, 'it will never happen box' really needed to be hyphenated).
Merchant Ivory lead me to expect
my breath would be taken away on sight,
instead we drag cases over pedestrian crossing
plunge into thoroughfares that echo Rome, Milan.
Strict mini break schedule, we aim first for ‘David’
but find all streets usher us to the Duomo’s presence.
This is luscious poetic prose partly sent-up by a tonal flippancy:
Citizens, glamorous as their city, fashion police inspect us,
your Crombie, my fake fur coat passed with approving nods
until we strut the streets. Boldly by passing two hour queue at Uffizi
with tale of your ‘bad heart’. Ushered through entry rope like VIPs,
tourists straining to identify us behind our Ray Bans.
Inside, I snub Raphael, blank Titian in a room to room search
for the Botticelli Venus, 20 minutes audience
in her Rita Hayworth presence, and I develop a girl crush.
Ponte Vecchio, we anticipate Bridge of Sighs but get drab,
your Perhaps its better inside cancelled by rows of blingy jewellers.
Compensated by Best hot chocolate ever so thick we toddler giggle
as you stand your spoon up in it like a joke shop trick.
Outside the Medici palace, you are not to be fooled
by another plain Jane building, but I insist sensing treasure .
Your grumbles about more steps becoming Have a look at this,
two hours ogling emblazoned ceilings, walls, floors…
It appears our sight-seers are struck by a spell of hyperkulturemia or Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic panic-like and sometimes hallucinatory aversion sickness after exposure to too much high art, hit upon by French writer Marie-Henri Beyle after his visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, which is where this poem is set, the culturally rich city being personified here:
Late afternoons, wanting the city to myself,
I persuade you, with tryst palpitations,
to rest your sight-seeing strained back with
Won’t get lost, Over spend, Be long,
then pelt down pension stairs, into the streets’ embrace,
where I two time you with Florence.
Stendhal defined the temporarily disorienting condition in his book, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio (1817):
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves'. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling...
In 'Class of '76' Sinclair takes us back into Jean Rhys territory, particularly in one arresting trope: 'my face and name met by many/ with blank expressions quickly masked by hug./ I too struggle with faces changed by cosmetic time,/ mostly just recognise a name'. The tone is again caustic and ripe with social commentary:
Biographies are started but soon hijacked
by questions, talking over, laughter…
We get the gist that most of us le qualification poor.
Careers advice, a head shake to college,
You’d make an excellent sales girl dear
so Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Snob…
marking time until marriage.
There's some wonderful use of alliteration:
Some lives took flight though;
naughtiest girl has a nursing degree,
prettiest girl has a wealthy husband,
boldest girl has a demolition business in Australia.
I stage fright forget half my trophy cupboard ‘s achievements
deliver 40 years in one rushed breath to wall, table, carpet,
avoid Q and A session by hasty You next to my neighbour.
Afterwards, scuttling down high street
head bowed as if still behind that face,
men outside restaurant suddenly shower compliments
I straighten up, sashay back to my car.
Such poems are highly engaging because they are linguistically engaging. 'Three's a Crowd...' is very much a gossip poem about the phenomena of gossip itself and is similarly engaging and engorged with images, Sinclair has an interesting tendency to turn brands and trading names into verbs, but I still struggle to understand the reason for de-capitalising these and not setting them in italics either -at times Sinclair almost slips into stream-of-consciousness in her frenetic pace:
Snarl up has spin wheel landed him
directly outside their coffee shop.
Wife and friend sitting ducks in the front window,
for his ready Rabbit Rabbit gesture,
but clarinet toots become jazz trumpet blasts,
until he shrugs as the traffic propels him on.
Eve succumbed to coffee walnut cake and mocha,
the women lament between mouthfuls I’ve put on half a stone
place faith in the latest diet craze like a gambler’s new system.
Exchange bulletins; family, work, social.
Voices lowered, agony aunt each other’s ‘concerns’.
en free-run between Tory cuts and sale bargains,
Hands to mouth No at top trumped gossip,
Laughter running through like Margate in sea side rock.
Sound of the kitchen door
he abandons Liverpool match,
to shoot into the kitchen as if baring urgent news,
she unpacks shopping whilst he comic skits the incident,
but back turned stacking tins her neck hair senses
something crouching behind his
You two lovers – only had eyes for each other.
The spirit of Jean Rhys's Sasha Jansen inhabits 'The Artful Craftsman', another plush poem ripe with aphorism and descriptive image, and p-alliteration, though not with apostrophes:
Despite you upping the pace past siren stores,
I speed window shop. Spotting it, I tug your hand
like a strong dog on a lead, forcing you to backtrack.
A couture stationers, with elegantly dressed
window display; accessorised pens, paper, pencils
in gorgeous turquoise design, beckons me in
where I coo at paper carousal table decorations, though
we have no dining table, beam at books to note fine wines
though after years necking gin we are teetotal, searching
amongst these in breathe Ponte Vecchio proximity prices,
for an affordable item, whilst your hands are locked
in pockets against not value for money gewgaws.
Elderly proprietor, Italian charms us into ante room
for demonstration of paper design alchemy.
We firework Oh and Ah as paints are flourished
onto surface of porridge thick glue. Rapunzel combs
create peacock, Pollock, Missoni pattern. Thick paper
laid, then peeled to reveal perfect imprint.
You inspect racks of wrapping, confirm that despite
each designs familial DNA, hand casting is random element
that like human faces, makes no 2 sheets the same.
e owner watchers me with CCTV stealth
as I pace the shop, fighting urge to binge buy,
goes to work on me deftly as he paints,
gold and purple pattern I paw is Renaissance old,
then the Medici gambit For you an extra 10% off,
I scrabble in my bag, surrender my credit card…
The absences of apostrophes and hyphens gives the sense of spontaneous poetry, perhaps secreted in napkins under a dinner table and then hastily typed up later on. This one is strongly reminiscent of Bernadette Cremin's oeuvre, she also prefers tercets. 'Miss Nesbitt' is another gorgeously image-rich vignette whose language is tangible albeit at times grammatically deregulated, punctuationally anarchic and syntactically fractured -Sinclair has a real flair with assonance and alliteration:
Often before play we must pay her a visit,
bearing stale cake, suspect meat, milk on the turn.
I dawdled behind, hoping we’d not find her den
which seemed to come and go like Brigadoon,
but Jo had internal sat nav that always
lead us to the dilapidated dormobile.
My mother, Daily Mail indoctrinated,
toted up Miss Nesbit’s men’s trousers string belted,
Millet’s tartan shirt, builders’ boots
and hinted darkly at something worse
than food poisoning lurking behind
her offers to little girls of mildew biscuits.
I'd have italicised Daily Mail and hyphenated it onto 'indoctrinated', but there we are. I also note that there's a 't' missing from 'Nesbit' in the poem itself. The third verse has one or two more awkward grammatical quirks:
But beckoning us to view another injured bird
pushed from nest by siblings with fratricide intensions,
she was Amazonian indifferent to the bare breasts
it nestled between. Afterwards we worked our way back
through the woods our giggles bubbling up through
hand clamped mouths, Did you see…?
Surely 'fratricidal intentions' is the proper phrasing? And 'Amazonian indifferent' is a bit awkward without a hyphen. But the next stanza is brilliantly judged in shape and phrase, it wrings everything out of its language oiled on energetic consonance and sibilance, and the shabby-genteel elegance of the lines and the place name-dropping remind me of John Betjeman at his descriptive best or the clipped precision of Larkin:
When she pitched up at Jo’s house
cadging tea, sugar, conversation,
her mother, who collected characters,
would welcome her in for coffee,
where in cut glass voice soened by Irish gentry lilt
she let slip: Sorbonne, multi-lingual, Bletchley.
Most evenings spent at the vicarage
with cleric chum who enjoyed a drink too,
talking divinity and racing tips into the early hours...
As in all of Sinclair's poems, class commentary is never far away:
Fifty years on, estate’s new owners are many times
removed from original aristo family;
noblesse oblige not in their contract’s Ts and Cs,
they have fenced off the woodlands,
hammered in screaming signs;
No fly tipping, No trespassing, No eccentrics…
'Miss Nesbitt' is an excellent poem perfectly judged (but a couple of hyphens here and there wouldn't have gone a miss!). 'Last Respects' has a halting quality largely due to a curious omission of definite articles and again there is an absence of hyphens:
The few lines We’ve let Highwood, winded her.
After fifty years a flit to another ‘Lodge’ in the Midlands,
central heating, double glazing, the girls to keep an eye on them.
The phraseology is almost like note-taking -presumably 'prospects' means 'prospective' buyers:
Now building’s ivy beard trimmed, cottage garden de-tangled,
the house was already becoming a stranger,
Help yourself, permission from estate agent showing prospects around.
But as ever Sinclair's use of language is energetic and descriptive:
Habit pulled her through naked rooms to kitchen.
Formica cupboards, enough to make retro dealers salivate,
removed, but trelliswork where family photos bloomed,
le on walls, the pictures plucked though.
In here, ordeal of raucous family suppers for the little girl,
eir mother her minder against family’s verbal rough and tumble.
The tumble of images moves the poem forward compulsively:
Two steps to the sitting room voided now of
wood burning stove, travel memorabilia on walls,
coffee tables littered with correspondence.
An adult friendship with the parents; tea in dainty cups,
wrapt by mother’s tall tales of gothic coincidence and slapstick mishaps
contradicted by husband in rich Lawrence Olivier voice.
Ducking under the back door into the garden reclaimed from
near neighbour wood. She and Jo hours in their virtual world
where giant pampass grass was a monstrous spider.
Double back down badger burrowed passages to room
previously clad with father’s 1,000 books. She beamed
when trusted with a Hemingway because I know you will return.
Not wishing to nitpick but Oliver was Laurence with a 'u' not a 'w', and there's only one 'm' in Hemingway. Grammatical strangeness and elliptical punctuation apart, this is another image-rich descriptive poem oiled with nostalgia:
For years an invisible rope across bottom of stairs,
Use the loo down here, dear. Now tip toe trespassed up,
open mouth discovering their secret, caved in master bedroom roof.
In Jo’s cabin boy quarters, no Whimsy menagerie to finger
with pick pocket itch, but spatial reasoning test, how camp bed
was fitted in for sleepovers they stomach cramp giggled through.
Leaving Highwood, she spotted beneath an ornamental garden seat,
the garland that hanging from door knocker used to greet guests,
hesitated to rehome, instead laid the wreath on the front door step.
'Leaving Highwood' has a sinister undercurrent, an ominous tone, unless I've grossly misread it, there seems to the hint of voluntary euthanasia of an ageing and no doubt ailing couple:
That last morning, it was business as usual,
except he was coaxed from monkish dressing gown
into smart day clothes by 8 am.
Down in the Formica kitchen, walls a photomontage
of family life glamorous as Tattler pages,
they drank tea from Wedgewood cups,
cold shouldering toast,
he tackling the Times crossword
she and daughters batting chit chat around.
Ten o’ clock applying lipstick,
Come on old girl to herself like a stern friend,
knowing full well another winter without central heating,
creeping damp from collapsed bedroom ceiling
would see them both off.
Cue for the car to pull round to front door,
looking straight ahead as if walking a tightrope
he passed through diamond paned room,
where wall to wall book cases housed his 80 years reading.
She followed straightening a cushion, adjusting a curtain.
e tearing skin of leaving after 60 years, unthinkable,
therefore family had agreed to be anaesthetised by double think,
only going away for a few days to give Mummy a break.
So whilst he occupied with sorting spectacles, Sudoku, sweets,
she turned and waved with vivid smile,
remarking the wisteria beginning to colour on this
everyone’s lottery fantasy cottage,
as the car pulled hearse slow down the narrow lane.
In the hall, the sisters keened for the family home,
then encouraging each other with it’s for the best,
marshalled packing cases, black bags, boxes,
junked old throws, dried flowers, broken bric a brac
wincing at the prick of each item’s memory,
but the bulk of furniture, china, childhood souvenirs were
itemised and packed with curatorial care to be transported
to well to do daughter’s estate 200 miles away,
where best chum, grandkids, other Kentish expats,
prepared invitations and gossip welcome basket
for the couple, at Highwood Lodge reloaded.
I can't help feeling, again, that the halting quality created by a puzzling absence of definite articles throughout and the heaping of adjectives without hyphenations, and the curiously constructed syntax – 'on this/ everyone’s lottery fantasy cottage' is particularly odd- all serve to somewhat undermine the descriptive strengths of this poem.
The final poem, 'Mystery Man', is another bittersweet nostalgic vignette which however is much less remarkable than the several poems preceding it. On the matter of unhyphenated adjectival phrases, it would make more sense, perhaps, to just join the words together, so that 'tight lipped as a spy' reads 'tightlipped as a spy' -this splicing of words to form portmanteaus would I think work much better and in the spirit of writers such as Dylan Thomas and James Joyce. There are some other nice phrases here, such as 'Occasionally history ambushes him', and the final verse is perhaps the most memorable, following a reference to her husband's 'dramatic monologues':
When I was married to: When I was inside…
sometimes sudden revelations slap shock her,
yet he is adamant as a lying child I told you this…
Nevertheless brief Q and A session permitted,
her questions answered as if she was the prying press,
then time up, back to work on his laptop.
But questions persist in her like weeds,
however much she tries to smother them.
Fiona Sinclair's Slow Burner is actually anything but: its a short sharp shock of a collection which is often so caustic in tone that its poetry is positively corrosive to the tongue, simmering as it is with alliterative verve, linguistic ingenuity, imaginative turn of phrase, rich description and energetic imagery. What occasionally lets some of the poems down, however, is a quite perplexing sporadic tendency to grammatically disengage to such a degree that some poems have halting rhythms which otherwise wouldn't have been there, and one wonders, was this deliberate on the poet's part, or accidental? Because these strange grammatical quirks and punctuational departures aren't actually consistent, either, on their own terms; while un-italicised and de-capitalised nouns and names are made all the more incongruous due to some other nouns and names being italicised and capitalised elsewhere in the book. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor gripes, since this is a very engaging slim volume with some flashes of disarming brilliance lit throughout. Recommended.
Alan Morrison © 2019