Catching Stars: Review by Penny Boxall
‘Holy Toledo!’ by John Clegg, ‘To Catch the Evening Star: New and Selected Poems’ by Ian Mcmillan, and ‘Skies’ by Alison Brackenbury
Review by Penny Boxall
… And later on we came to love the dark
for what it really was, admired how
(unlike a candle) it could fill a room,
(unlike a torch) it focused everywhere,
(unlike a streetlight) it undid the moths,
(unlike a porchlight) anywhere was home,
(unlike a star) it couldn’t be our scale.
In utter darkness we were halfway down…
These stanzas from ‘Lacklight’ demonstrate what a fun and exacting master John Clegg is of his own imagination. How we name things (darkness, in this case) determines our feelings towards them: ‘At first [he opens] we didn’t call the dark “the dark”’. Instead, whether lazy or frightened, we tiptoe round the edges of that which we don’t understand. But Clegg is here to shed light into the unknown for us, and in such an affable and pleasing manner that we can’t help but go along with him.
This collection – his second after 2013’s Antler (Salt) – has an enjoyably bonkers premise: a critic-figure is unleashed on the Old West, a practically clueless but intellectually rigorous cowboy at loose on the wild frontier. Like the pioneer he pushes forward into the unplotted, but carries with him his personal tradition: ‘He needs backstory’, Clegg writes in ‘Zorro in the Bear Republic’, in the same way that, earlier in the poem, ‘Meadow needs backstory’. Cannily, though, Clegg doesn’t provide this for us, instead ending the poem on the legendary-sounding ‘there came a rider / dressed in black’ – no full stop, no closure. Of course he will not provide a restrictive and ultimately unedifying backstory – we need to provide our own. Thus it is that Clegg makes us apply lit. crit. theory into practice; we, the readers, must fill in the gaps with our own backstory, a personal resonance, so that this familiar story-opening is local and specific rather than remote and universal.
So it is, too, that we swivel from New Mexico to Cambridge, from Oxford’s Port Meadow to Toledo. A strikingly successful page-pairing which juxtaposes the inner and the outer worlds is ‘The Lasso’ with ‘The Great Tradition’ – the one luridly outlining a lassoing accident with grisly comic aplomb (‘My thumb, erratic firework, shot past’) while the other sketches a boredom-inducing stint of photocopying in which the speaker is on a mission to find the end of every wire in the room. The ropey reach of the lasso reaches across the page and into the last line of its successor poem: ‘Two wires seemed to have no terminus’. Both poems are deft and unusual treatments of our hold on the self and the way in which we cling to experience, good and bad, as something tangible.
Clegg has a rare talent in being as precise in plain-talking English as he is in the more convoluted, modernist syntax of many of the poems: we can follow him more or less easily, and we are always rewarded. At times there is a hint of Don Paterson in his tone. So the experience of reading these poems can be likened to the expression of the road-killed ocelot at which Clegg asks us to look more closely:
on the angle
which you read it from.
The narrowest surprise
shades into (are you
sure?) this sudden, massive joy.
Ian McMillan is, of course, another joy: in fact, I found myself settling down to read To Fold the Evening Star: New and Selected Poems with the sort of juicy anticipation I normally reserve for a bowl of ripe cherries on a hot day. Like Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, most of these poems are narrative, playful, and the majority of the poems collected here are, somehow, deeply reassuring. Take, for instance, ‘An Archaeologist Finds an Umbrella’, from 2014’s Jazz Peas:
… The archaeologist
Made a thing of opening it,
Stood there, half a brolly
Above her head like a fossil.
And it wasn’t even raining.
Now try and guess
What this says about the past.
McMillan is as jolly a guide as you could hope for. But that’s not to say that the comedy belittles the dark in these poems. Far from it: the warmth of his fire often casts sinister shadows. See ‘The Continuity Girl has Died’, which opens ‘Came in through the door / in a red hat, came in through / the door in a blue hat’ and mutates its spot-the-difference game into the condensed and devastating last line: ‘tears, smile, ring, no ring’. It’s notable that the continuity girl has died, not moved onto another job. This uncertainty (red hat, blue hat; stick, no stick) is the only certainty we have.
It’s interesting to note that McMillan’s ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ – presenting himself as ‘Ian McMillan, poet’ in his own poems – is evident right from the earliest works, and continues into the present (see 2012’s ‘Ian McMillan’s Unfishnished Poem’ and the workshop leader in his story, ‘Poetry Matters’). He is interested in mouthpieces and masks as well as openness: in the short poem ‘Going’, part of the ‘Slip of a Man’ sequence,
fall onto a newspaper,
now the child in the photograph
is wearing my glasses.
He gives us the implements to see the world through his own cheery vision, confronting the darkness face-on and with a sense of absurdity which can dispense with our worries – death, pointlessness, loneliness – deflating them as quickly and as jubilantly as a popped balloon.
One of the (pleasant) issues of reviewing a Selected is that sometimes there is all meat, no bones, and the arrayed quality of the poems can feel somewhat exhausting. That is, however, a very happy problem to have. Catch a folding Star and put it in your pocket.
There are stars, too, in Alison Brackenbury’s Skies, her ninth collection with Carcanet. The eponymous poem begins:
It began, like wonder, back there
in the village’s dark huddle
which I can never visit, like a star.
She deals with the familiar but remote, so that it’s not only the past that is inaccessible, but the world and even language: ‘skies prickled with white until the night / swam with its stars’, that possessive ‘its’ locking us out even further from any hoped-for commonality. Earlier in the poem Brackenbury marries ‘wreath’ and ‘breath’, tipping us off that, in these poems, things that look the same don’t always sound the same.
Indeed, the collection’s first poem, ‘Honeycomb’, looks the same as ‘A Jar of Honey’, the opener to Jacob Polley’s 2003 The Brink: both are statements of authorship and appropriation through the sticky medium of the honeycomb. But whereas Polley’s jarful is offkilter and creepy (‘a lit bulb, / a pound of light’ containing the grisly ‘knuckle’ of honeycomb which ultimately ‘attest[s] to the nature of the struggle’), Brackenbury’s is a ‘liquid sun’, ‘too beautiful to eat’, making of her a ‘god’. Brackenbury has her honey-tinted glasses on, and perhaps the effect tends a little towards the sickly-sweet.
The more uncompromising poems carry their momentum further, creating a better impact. The excellent ‘So’ begins ‘[t]his is the trouble with spring. The snow comes down… cats must be tunnelled for’. It’s miserable, out there in the cold. But it thaws, and everything’s not quite as we wished; Brackenbury recoups a melancholy poise by the final lines:
At the end of a war,
your life limps home. And you are not sure that you want it.
In fulfilling our hopes we’ve been shut out, again, from the past, altered and lonely.
Two short poems deal particularly neatly (but satisfyingly) with the collection’s preoccupation with the altered and altering: ‘Next’ and ‘Aftermath’. ‘Next’ appears later in the collection, but could serve as a prelude:
We read their lives, we know they will head for
the Asylum, or the War,
the one Great Love. But who can show
where we are stumbling, whistling–? Oh.
The rhymed quatrain works well as a pithy medium for Brackenbury’s thoughts, as evidenced by ‘Aftermath’:
I cleaned two homes. I learned one thing.
What will survive of us is not
our careful words, our gardens’ grace,
but rubber bands; green balls of string.
Brackenbury’s legacy, in poems like this, is much more: a sense of a shared pathos; that commonplace, small skills (peeling parsnips, growing beans) ultimately matter.
Penny Boxall graduated from the University of East Anglia with an MA with distinction in Creative Writing (Poetry). Her debut collection, Ship of the Line, was published by Eyewear in 2014. She is currently shortlisted for the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Awards, and Gladstone’s Library’s 2017 Writer in Residence programme. She won second prize in the 2014 Jane Martin Poetry Prize. Her poem, ‘What You Mean to Me’, was commended in the Forward Prize in 2014. Her poetry has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Rialto, The Forward Book of Poetry 2015 and Mslexia, amongst other places.
Formerly the Literature intern at The Wordsworth Trust, she is now Education Officer at Oxford’s University Church, programming arts events.