PAINTED LADIES by GORDON READ
78pp, £5.00 (£6.00 inc P&P) from The Woodward Press, Streatham Rise, Exeter EX4 4PE. [Cheques payable to ‘Robert Joyce’.]

Gordon Read's second collection of poetry is subtitled 'A Look into the World of Daughters'. Some four dozen poems explore this pleasing theme. Gordon Read writes without sentimentality. He draws on his own experience as the father of a daughter who died young and as a former probation officer, well travelled, with a wide interest in human beings.

The poems are arranged in seven groups: they cover an unexpected range of subjects – Student Banking, Pan's People, Billy the Kid: A Cowpoke's Pieta, One of our Shoppers is Missing, New Zealand 2001; The Singapore International Airlines Bus.

'Cover Story', in the section 'Yesterdays', refers to the painting reproduced on the book's cover of 'The River Tang' (1914) by Philip Connard RA (courtesy of The City of Manchester Art Galleries) which for the author 'sprang a sudden deja vu' of a time spent by his family living close to the Thames. The painting of a mother and two children in sunshine beside the River Tang in Suffolk with its ‘uncanny resemblances across the years' generates anecdotes and resonances of happy times beside the river at Runnymede. This long poem is arranged on the page in a flowing, meandering form which echoes the course of a river. 'Is Now the Time?', the first poem in the book, deals with the poignant dilemma of a parent wondering whether now is the time to dispose of a dead child's possessions. In three unobtrusively rhymed ten line stanzas, small objects evoke an ordinary childhood which is now mourned:

            [...]
            Deftly crafted figures in hardened clay
            of tortoise with a Cyclops eye and whole
            nativities with babes and lambs away
            in mangers. [...]

These things have acquired a meaning beyond their everyday identity. How hard it is to burn them or send them to jumble sales. But why keep them and for whom?

This is a wistful poem as is a closely related piece, 'The Daughter's Room – Pavane pour une Infante Defuncte, which starts:

            Sunlight still streams beneath your door
            And fragments from your lifestyle crowd the room

Again the clutter of objects left by the departed daughter are used to summon a picture of her life – jewellery, clothes, the mute guitar, pre-Raphaelite posters, scalpels, formaldehyde, cameras, love letters, three comic puffins, postcards, dance-drama programmes, childhood magazines, pills asserting womanhood, eleven milk teeth, and cards from all your birthdays gone. In this sad but not mournful celebration of a beloved and busy existence the author accepts that a life has gone:

            Your room, the house, is empty save for ghosts
            whose aura soon will vanish with new paint...

but rejoices that other, different, lives have been enhanced by knowing the daughter who has now departed.

It is only in the poems 'Westside Story' and 'Bogside Story' that Gordon Read displays any anger. He tells us in the Notes & References at the back of the book that these poems are both partly 'found' and originated in reports in The Guardian in 2001 of the horrifying fates of two Indian women.

'Painted Ladies', the title poem, is about painters, paintings, daughters, places, flowers, butterflies and names. It brings together many of the themes in the collection. It is illustrated by reproductions of two delightful paintings, 'The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly' by Thomas Gainsborough and 'Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose' by John Singer Sargent. 'Gaining Face', a moving account of a child’s experience of facial reconstruction carried out by the maxillofacial surgeon, lain Hutchison, is touchingly illustrated with a contemporary painting by Mark Gilbert of 'Mazeeda' after her treatment for a gross disfigurement of one side of her face. The poem is written as if spoken by the child.

This group of poems which sets out 'to look at daughters of all ages in diverse roles across many countries' succeeds in holding the reader's interest through the sheer variety of pen pictures and anecdotes which are the subject matter here. I much appreciated the addition of Notes and References at the back of the book and would have liked even more background. I would have enjoyed also a greater variety of form. The fact that different pieces are characterised by stanzas of varying lengths does not conceal a certain evenness in some of the writing. However, Gordon Read is well able to produce a terse and vivid picture as in my favourite poem, 'Landlady (i.m. Carlo H. Spalding)' which conveys an affectionate and lively portrait in six lines.

            © Sally Chisholm 2003