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C.J. Allen

The Song After It Has Ended

If We Could Speak Like Wolves – Kim Moore (Smith/Doorstop, £5)
Breathing Through Our Bones – Julie Mellor (Smith /Doorstop, £5)

It might’ve been Sigmund Freud, but it equally might’ve been Jimmy Carr – my memory doesn’t reliably serve & neither on this occasion does Google – who once observed that ‘Jokes are very short stories that you make you laugh.’  Reading these two slender & elegant collections, it struck me that what so many of the poems in them have in common is that they, too, frequently take the form of very short stories with a concealed emotional punch.  These tiny episodes from life might make you laugh, or think, or feel, or, very occasionally, an uneasy combination of all three.  None of them are much more than forty lines & most of them are less than twenty.  Yet they each manage to tell a story or at the least darkly hint at one.  Both collections were prize-winners in this year’s Smith/Doorstop pamphlet competition – judged by Carol Ann Duffy – & it’s really not hard to see why.

The poems in Kim Moore’s If We Could Speak Like Wolves are beautifully modulated, decked out in confident, well-judged rhymes, with a keen rhythmic intelligence.  So when, towards the end of the collection, we reach the poem ‘Teaching the Trumpet’, we can be reasonably confident that there is some authentic autobiography in here.

I say: imagine you are drinking a glass of air.
Let the coldness hit the back of your throat.


Imagine you are spitting tea-leaves
from your tongue to start each note

Not only is the image of drinking a glass of air deft & fine, but ‘coldness’ (pronounced with a long northern ‘o’) has the perfect vowel-sound to chime with the drawn-out ‘o’ in ‘throat’.  And all those spitty, ticking ‘t’s in the second excerpted couplet are further evidence of Kim Moore’s sonic alertness.  She has, I think, a musician’s ear.  Probably two.  In ‘The Rabbit and the Moon’, ‘A bird calls kehaar, kehaar to the moon.’  That rendering and transcription of the bird’s cry is also undoubtedly the result of careful listening.  In our visually saturated culture the eye is of course hungrier than the ear, and we expect poets to be tuned-in to the visual, but there are plenty of moments like this in Kim Moore’s poems that remind us not to neglect the other registers of the sensual world.

I’m very fond, too, of ‘In Praise of Arguing’ – which is a list that tumbles head over heels (‘And the vacuum cleaner flew / down the stairs ...And one half of the house / hated the other half ... And the doors flung / themselves into the street ... And the bed collapsed ...) before subverting itself with a punch-line-ending ‘... and the walls developed / scars and it was a glorious / glorious year.’  It puts the ‘falling’ into ‘falling in love’, don’t you think?  The list-thing occurs elsewhere in the collection too.  It’s always well controlled & walks a fine line between not saying enough & saying too much, & always achieves that important thing for a list-poem: a final image that resonates with the reader.  For example ‘... ducking into a doorway / and carrying the smell of rain inside.’ – from ‘Sometimes You Think of Bowness’.

Fiona Sampson calls these poems ‘drily hilarious but also mysterious’ & whilst I think that might be playing a little fast & loose with the word ‘hilarious’ – I’d  have gone more for witty or even comic – there is something undeniable in that assessment.  It’s exemplified in the outstanding poem ‘Train Journey, Barrow to Sheffield’.  Written in two agreeably rambling sentences – a long one & a much shorter one – it evokes the in media res quality of both the train journey &, at the risk of getting a bit too metaphysical, life.  At one point we ramble into a story about a man who drowned in a salt-marsh because he couldn’t figure out which way to turn, ‘but in a train,’ the poet goes on to explain, ‘there are no choices , / just one direction, one decision you must stick to.’  Which is like a poem – that takes you inevitably to the place the poet intended, & not like a poem – which retains the privileges of ambiguity.  That’s the end of the first sentence.  The second comprises the final stanza.  Here it is in full.

This morning the sun came up in Bolton and all
the sky was red, and a man in a suit fell asleep
and dribbled on my shoulder till the trolley
came round and rattled loudly and he woke up
with a start and shouted I’ve got to find the sword.

It’s the extraordinariness of the ordinary.  It’s natural & clever & funny.  It’s a very good poem indeed.

The opening (& title) poem of Julie Mellor’s mysteriously powerful Breathing Through Our Bones begins ...

The roots of lycopsid trees have the span
of a giant squid; their bark is patterned
like the skin of a pineapple or a globe artichoke.
Ex-mining towns rest on their fossilized remains.

This is engagingly dense writing.  Only four lines in & already I’ve had to look up a word (lycopsid), learned something about the earliest forms of vascular plants, prehistory has been invoked, along with the strangeness of the natural world and the casual brutalities of our own more recent history (‘Ex-mining towns’- my italics).  It’s a poem about connection and closeness – in space & time.  And these are big issues of course; ones that creative writing classes might sensibly encourage us to be very cautious of taking on.  But Julie Mellor has a peculiarly certain grasp on both the language & the subject matter.  The poem goes on to counterpoint & obliquely connect ‘the wings of the first dragonflies’ & ‘the thigh bones of tyrannosaurus rex’ with ‘heaped remains of old bathrooms’ & ‘carcases of kitchens’.  It’s that careful choice of ‘remains’ & ‘carcasses’ that does the job so efficiently.  This connectedness & proximity become almost claustrophobic in the concluding stanza:  ‘...Here in these towns where everyone / is someone’s cousin twice-removed, / we are all breathing through our bones.’

There is a sense of closed-in-ness about many of these poems. ‘Whisk’ – an ostensibly modest twelve-line portrait of a mundane domestic object – is introduced as follows

Like the winding gear at Dodworth pit,
the cogged wheel turned.

The simile, expressed in this inverted manner (i.e. saying what the thing is like before introducing the thing itself), telescopes us suddenly & a little disconcertingly down into the visual image of the mechanism of the whisk.  Later in the poem, smoke above a heated frying pan recalls the metallic blue of a Ford Zephyr that looms ‘...in the darkening street, bucket seats / waiting to swallow us whole.’  Again, that wonderfully creepy sense of suffocating menace.

This & other effects that Julie Mellor achieves, with such seeming ease, are built from painstakingly selected & positioned pieces of language.  The first lines of ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ tell us

All that remains is the guttered candle
of his left leg,

The enjambment does its nifty work of momentarily wrong-footing us (so to speak), but think about how cleverly ambiguous is that ‘remains’ too.  It’s used as a verb but we hear the echo of the noun.  And the candle is ‘guttered’ rather than, for example, extinguished – which of course contains the word ‘gutter’ & which makes us think of a sort of low-life greasiness.  The poem’s last images are stickily effective ...

... the gleam of condensed fat
on the window panes, burnt sugar
on the breath of the room.

The room itself becomes a kind of spent organic force.

The gradual, incremental evocation of place is something of a speciality in Julie Mellor’s poems.  ‘Distances’, for example, greets the reader plainly enough with the unadorned ...  ‘If there’s a towpath, we follow it,’ (so far, so straightforward) & then goes on ... ‘measure the distance by counting locks.’  Which sort of slows us down a tiny bit – with that sense of studied calibration, implying a not entirely carefree stroll.  Next ...‘We like the straight and narrow,’ which introduces another hint of restriction, even discipline.  A little later we learn ... ‘Here on the canal, the slow ripple / of ducks, the slow ripple of air // as people wave off hired barges. / We never answer.’  The air is not – as we might anticipate – light & airy, but slow and liquid, & the people who wave go unanswered.  The whole thing has a kind of unsettling, dream-like feel to it.  ‘Each bridge’, we’re told, ‘is a bleak stone rainbow / and when the water is calm, / it mirrors the arch // to a circle, a giant gun barrel ...’ Such grim, sinister imagery for such an innocuous pastime.  And note, in passing, how those quietly clever internal rhymes – ‘bridge’ / ‘arch’ & ‘circle’ / ‘barrel’ – tie the lines together.  There’s nothing light-hearted & untroubled about this walk along the towpath, even if on the surface that’s how it appears; rather there’s a brooding, ominous note sounding underneath everything.  Again & again, it’s this quality that keeps the poems singing long after they’ve ended.


Copyright © C.J. Allen, 2012