Finding Fresh Words
Big Bella's Dirty Cafe; Paul Summers (67pp,
Thom Thomson in Purgatory, Troy
(93pp, MARGIE/IntuiT House Poetry)
Trouble in Heaven, John Barnie (67pp, Gomer)
Paul Summers is a poet who certainly knows his
craft. The language is muscular, often delivering an alliterative punch, as
in 'fishing at blithe harbour with jimmy's ghost' where,
glass of your specs
Or again in 'Wake for an Unborn Child' where alliteration retains its
strength, but is also put to more tender use,
a norse wind
weight of absence.
There is some innovative imagery at work, mourners 'congealing like storm
cloud' ['bird'] and a sense of familiarity that comes from precisely observed
details. Having been born and brought up in the north east the language
tastes authentic on my tongue and I recognise Summers' characters. The best
poems also have an element of surprise, as in 'fossil' when future
generations will find the poet's corpse in a cliff:
my eyes will
have dissolved, my lips shrunk to nothing
and my hair
will need some serious attention,
The very best combine surprise, brutally incisive observation and poignancy,
as in 'the butcher's craft'. The butcher has a beautiful wife, and no wonder
given that he is so skilled, 'his deft knife skating on the rind' and yet:
their humid bathroom,
double-checks a lump on her breast,
hands reading the curves,
smile masking fear,
the smell of
meat still on his fingers
Time is a central motif in this collection and generally it is late Š we are
in autumn or winter, even when it appears to be summer, so the 'girl with
perfect hands' picks blackberries in
of the ghost
a woman with
lays a yellow
rose on her mother's grave
season of weed, stands a while
the sweetness of autumn in summer
Or we are on the verge of death,
as in 'last rites' where
...the dying can yearn
comfort of soil, of clinging fire.
Sometimes we are even taken beyond death to a time outside the bounds of our
own mortality, as in 'fossil'.
Against the landscape of time writ large, the finely honed human details
become all the more sharp and affective, so it's a pity that there is an
occasional lapse into clichˇ as in 'The Comrades' which begins 'every season
brings change' or the final poem 'Another Marlboro Cowboy is Dying of Cancer'
with its prosaic ending that might have been uttered by my Teesside granddad:
one for the
one for the
Of course, these touches of the banal could well be intentional. Summers is
clearly fond of the people he writes about and his lower case titles and
poetry hint at a sense of belonging and egalitarianism. For me, though,
Summers is at his most potent when he lifts the characters to another level
and that enunciating 'norse wind' will stay with me for a long time.
In his 'Foreword' to Thom Thomson in Purgatory Billy Collins speaks of 'startling leaps typically from the mundane
to the philosophical and back' but I have to confess to not being startled,
though I was sometimes overly aware of the mundane in Troy Jollimore's two
part collection; the first part what Collins refers to as 'a miscellany of
other poems' and the second part a connected sequence in the 'American
tradition of the extended persona poem'.
The poetry is well constructed and there are flashes of amusing word play, as
in 'Mockingbird and Whippoorwill', and real poignancy, as in 'After':
And if people
speak of the 'break-up,'
let us hear
in that cold overtones
of the word
as applied to a glacier...
However, when the character of Thom Thomson was introduced in 'Trout Quintet'
in the first part of the collection I was less enthralled. The crafting is
all there; there is a lot of use of anaphora and rhetorical questions by a
poet persona are cleverly juxtaposed with the earthy, woodsman philosophy of
the illiterate, but wise Thomson, who is 'a living totem pole', who 'snorts
at philosophers' and
touched a tape measure.
But I remained unconvinced for most of the rest of this collection, despite
some moments of pleasure with poems like 'Fireflies' where
breathes them. The rigid stars above
envy the way
their nervous constellations
make and then
There were just too many tired sentiments here for my taste. In 'Tobekobekon'
we learn that
The feelings you
thought were genuine
purchased at a discount
While in 'How to Get There, we go all round the houses by way of
'drive-though espresso stands / like so many Monopoly hotels' only to learn
that the road
not taken would have led you to the same place;
or else, it
was never accessible at all.
The poet offers to eat his slippers rather than his hat ('The Height of My
Powers'), but otherwise the clichˇs and truisms remain in tact, perhaps
because ultimately Jollimore distrusts language, as he hints in one of the
best poems in the collection, 'A Plea of Silence':
Did I forget
of the spring
of the waning
the soft sluice of rain water
rain gutter Š
are fragile. We
them when we tell
stories. Leave them be.
speak for themselves.
Yet despite this mistrust Jollimore goes on to the Thom Thomson poems in
which Thom is introduced as 'an Honorable Failure and an Honest Attempt' ('Prologue: Thom Thomson in Perspective')
Thomson is in purgatory because the gods 'cannot afford to leave a man in the
world who is privy to any of their secrets' (Thoreau, 1852) and so we move
with Thom through various conditions, from love to limbo, from his office to
orbit, from Vogue to Flanders Fields. There is plenty of allusion along the
way, as well as some wit and a good deal of formal inventiveness; Jollimore
can write, but I was left hungry for something less clever and more original.
Jollimore might answer with the first line of his final poem 'Epilogue:
Thom Thomson in Absentia':
that are worth doing have been done
Perhaps, though the question then becomes Š if this is so, why write at all?
Barnie clearly doesn't think that everything has been said and done. His
collection Trouble in Heaven takes up his longstanding
interest in how we relate to the natural world. He's explored this theme before,
not only in poetry, but in essays on the interface of Neo-Darwinist
evolutionary theory, genetics and poetry in No Hiding Place
(University of Wales Press) and in essays which cast his lot squarely with
the environmentalists as in Green Agenda (Seren). Yet
Trouble in Heaven sees him returning to familiar themes
with something fresh to say and with questions that push us further than
At the outset we are immersed in the natural world with the kingfisher that
has the sheen of the sacred about it:
was it being
smug? a shiver of feathers
sent up a halo of
Trouble is not far behind. In 'Goldfinches Outside
the National Library' only Dafydd ap Gwilym notices the birds, and the
leafless sapling that affords them no protection becomes
endure for a whole, long winter.
Even more ominously, in 'The Butterflies' there is an allusion to 'the coast
/ after the terrible accident' and the tortoiseshell is stamped into the
Human human human human,
believe in ourselves.
The tension mounts with Barnie reminding us that 'Earth the gyroscope / we
need to keep us human'. He manages to stay one step ahead of pessimism with
the European blues, which, despite defeat, are 'like badges for a party /
believing in loveliness' ('An Aside') and his compressed, precise evocations
of nature never fall prey to sentimentalism or mawkish anthropomorphism:
starlings 'have never wished for anything / never will' ('How They Survive'),
the kite remains 'a claw / in the eye' asking 'what's so holy about the /
soul;' ants' dictionaries do not contain 'the word love' ('What, Us?') and
the brutally described pitcher plant is 'an old girl/ who seldom smiles'
But this is not a collection of innovate and brilliant nature poems. Having
set the scene Barnie drops in skilful sub-plots. Barnie's intelligent
questioning of Judeo-Christian theology and suggestions of a spiritual through-line
in this work emerge clearly in 'Divorce':
in four wings
margins of the
As the collection develops there is a growing pre-occupation with a
spirituality that eschews dualism (reminiscent of the tradition of Matthew
Fox's creation spirituality in Original Blessing). This theme is brilliantly and ironically realised in 'On that Great
Resurrection Morning' when everything is blessed, 'but wait a mo' Š heaven,
after all is exclusive and anthropocentric; a human club without beetles,
honeysuckle, mountains, where there is only room for saints so that the rest
are told 'Lie back, dear bones, it is too late.' Similarly in 'Gospel' the
'good news' quickly evaporates into emptiness with '...nothing to see here.'
As the theological unease grows descriptive nature poems give way to more
discursive pieces in which, in place of adjectives, we are treated to exact,
honed images of humanity's footprints: traffic is 'a bracelet of energy',
('The Question') tank tracks are 'the braille / of the species ('Destruction
of Paradise') whilst the tanks themselves are '...a visor against the prayers /
of the just / that gutter like knuckledusters / on steel.' It is not only
heaven, but earth as well that is in trouble and yet we are not left without
hope; in 'Chatting with Wordsworth' 'the sun breaks through' and Barnie
mention the word
don't want God
the lumber room and
beard; but joy, old-
joy, will do.
I am put in mind of the conclusion of Alice Walker's powerful novel The
Secret of Joy, in which 'Resistance is the secret of joy'.
Whether or not you share Barnie's perspective, this is an exceptional
collection: persuasive, intelligent and beautifully crafted; read it.
© Jan Fortune-Wood