Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews

Understudies by Anne-Marie Fyfe and The Man on Crewe Station by John Godfrey

It sometimes takes a little while to choose two books or authors with enough in common to justify a joint review such as this one.  But on this occasion the pairing of collections by Anne-Marie Fyfe and John Godfrey has been purely serendipitous: the two books came into my possession on the same day and were sitting next to each other on the shelf!   But it soon dawned on me that the work of these two poets does present an intriguing mixture of similarity and contrast.

First some similarities.  Both poets have very distinctive voices – indeed for those who have heard them read their poems, the actual human voice can seem almost audible to imagination’s ear.   Both poets have been very successful in competitions, suggesting they share a happy knack of writing poems that make an immediate impact.   They both locate quite a few of their poems in the USA – more, perhaps, than one would expect from British poets based in Britain.  And they both seem very fond of concrete objects: their poems are full of very substantial and detailed things placed in atmospheric settings.  Yet it is in their ways of using these physical elements that we can observe some contrasts.

Godfrey tends to deal with familiar people and things in their proper surroundings: gliders on Dunstable Downs, fishermen on Aldeburgh beach, a photographer in his darkroom and (of course) trains almost everywhere!   A Godfrey poem frequently begins with a fresh and well-crafted observation of something commonplace – the knock and drone of a passing train or squirrels which arc like fountain jets / between twig-ends and later disperse like street –traders … when the police come round.  But it then turns out that a “familiar” scene has been set only for an unexpected conclusion to be reached or a surprising comparison to be drawn. 

Fyfe, on the other hand, tends to put everyday elements together in a less realistic and wonderfully Magritte-like way: Out-of-true / sugar-tongs clink in temperance hostelry basins or …O. Henry scoops cake crumbs with / a letter opener in the Reader’s Digest lobby.  Even when her ingredients are quite matter-of-fact, they seem to be suspended somewhere between real life, film and  dream:  

Last Tuesday, before waking, I saw him
by our rusted gate, tan shopcoat, seams
greased with age, notebook and blunt pencil
in a high pocket, life in a regulation kit-bag.

I sense that Godfrey quite likes to make a point – he enjoys showing us that A really is rather like B – and his poems often feel like little stories with a beginning, middle and end.  Fyfe, on the other hand, seems content to convey the internal experience of someone in the middle of their own story – perhaps trapped in an empty building, perhaps thinking of running away from a bad relationship.  She does not feel it is always necessary to provide background: she may buttonhole us with opening lines like It all begins again in that familiar town / to a mission bell soundtrack as if picking up a previous conversation.

 Understudies (Seren, 2010) is a “new and selected”, which draws on Fyfe’s previous three excellent and well-received collections but also includes about thirty new poems.  ‘Synchronicity’, the book’s opening poem, quickly introduces some of Fyfe’s favourite themes.  In the lines  …the former trapeze artist surfaces / nightly to a dangling premonition we find her fondness of performance and performers (which elsewhere includes the trappings of make-up and make-believe); her regretful awareness of people and things becoming obsolete; and her sensitivity to unease about a future. 

 A little further into ‘Synchronicity’ comes a line the mynah preens on its clawed perch which reminds me of Fyfe’s splendid Cardiff Academi prize-winning poem ‘Curaçao Dusk’ (which also appears in this book) with its chaos of tethered cockatiels in the plane’s hold.  This injection of the exotic and slightly sinister – birds that may appear to talk – seems another typical Fyfe flourish.

 Other favourite ingredients – almost always used with skill and freshness – include travel and travel documents like tickets and passports; and these, in turn, raise questions of identity and possibilities of aliases, doubles and even ghosts.  Travel is often by road via long straight highways and bleak motels.  But there are also doomed journeys in aeroplanes:  A plane flies off a map’s edge / today …  or Since the night he was never found / his mother wonders what it’s like for him, / wrong side of the moon, in a rust-riddled / seaplane ...  Harbours are portrayed as neglected places where small, slightly sinister events occur: The reinstated harbour master rubs / ladder rust from psoriatic fingers. // An over-quota lamprey slipped tidal waters / yesterday …  And Fyfe’s railways feel more haunted and less functional than Godfrey’s:

Last night at last I caught the train
to Summertown, eight thirty-five.
I took a ticket from a blank window.
A tannoy coughed a small delay.
And then.

The poems in Understudy do not make much use of formal structure but they are consistently well-crafted and dense.  They seldom, if ever, exceed a page in length and Fyfe appears to prefer short lines to long ones.  This compactness ensures there is no slack, and every word and phrase feels well-chosen and worth its place.   These poems have a dark energy which both draws me on to see what may happen next but also holds me back to stay and savour what just happened.

The Man on Crewe Station (Rockingham, 2011) is John Godfrey’s first full collection and many will feel it to be long overdue.   As a past winner of the Peterloo competition – not to mention his many prizes in other contests – he might have been expected to be on his second or third book by now.  But, with many small presses under financial pressure, a poet’s road to a first publication can turn out to be a bumpy one with unexpected obstacles.  It is perhaps understandable then that the first three poems in this book all touch on with the subject of writing poems.  They are original and well-written poems about writing poems; but I was beginning to worry that the theme of life-as-a-metaphor-for-poetry would be overworked.  Fortunately Godfrey does not venture into this territory again.  Indeed he breaks out of it with an excellent poem ‘Stubble Burning’ … fire hounds are off the leash, chasing the drag // Air heats to visibility …

 Godfrey’s poems are distinguished by a measured, story-teller’s rhythm.  He shows good judgement in the sometimes-tricky matter of how a narrative poem should present background facts ( … the sixty seconds that it takes a slowing train / to get from the cutting’s end …).   He also has a story-teller’s way knack of taking a reader into his confidence with little sidelong remarks.  Thus, in a poem for his grandfather, he writes

 … your name, lodged between my other two
remains unused – unless I’m filling-in
official forms –  another part of you
that came to me

Godfrey knows how to play an extended word-game for laughs, as in ‘Job Application’ in which he seeks employment in a circus on the basis of his previous credentials in business, including  experience of going round / in circles and dealing with clowns.  But in more serious vein he can be touching without risk of sentimentality, as in the title poem ‘The Man on Crewe Station’ with its quasi-cinematic use of an initial long shot in which  departing trains / unpick the silver tangle of rails followed by a flashback sequence tramping the length / of snow-covered yards and finally revealing the poem’s central character caught in tight close-up  / behind rising credits.

The poems in The Man on Crewe Station are uncomplicated in the very good sense that they seek to share insights rather than to mystify.  And this directness may cause us to underestimate the unobtrusive descriptive skill that can picture a sewing machine as a small black pig standing on a table, / snout nodding or evoke its sound as ticks tumbling / one after another like a frenzied clock.

Godfrey seems content to occupy the same territory as his readers and to be a guide, and sometimes confidant, on a shared excursion whereas Fyfe’s poems are more like despatches from a (slightly) foreign country.  These are two poets who conjure up rather different worlds even though sometimes operate in similar ways using similar tools.  Given their particular pair of worlds, these two books between them come pretty close to giving us the best of both.