Thomas Roberts reviews two pamphlets from Prole Books by Wendy Pratt and Robert Nisbet
Prole Books has published two first pamphlets by writers whose poetry is taking them in a new direction. In the case of Yorkshire’s Wendy Pratt and her collection Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, the direction is away from science and (if the voices in the poems reflect her own circumstances) personal loss. In the case of Wales’ Robert Nisbet and his collection Merlin’s Lane , the direction is from both teaching and short stories, where he has a considerable track record of publication. These backgrounds work their way through into poems with a heavy emphasis on narrative.
There is beauty in the writing of Wendy Pratt, but the shine within the beauty contains the glint of a kitchen knife, snatched by a burglar, and plunged into her womb. The pamphlet has fourteen poems in total. All are written in free verse save for the opening sestina “How To find Spaces To Lose Things In”. Seven deal directly with the topic of maternity and a lost baby, four are lyrical narratives involving a witch, Nan Hardwicke, and two others stand on their own. That said, there is a wholeness about the collection because those poems which do not deal directly with the loss of a baby have recurring themes, of a deep hurt, of being hunted, of seeking release, of escapism. Although the subject matter is for the most part heavy, what carries Wendy Pratt, at her best, is a musical ear, language that flushes with life, and an ability to paint portraits in miniature in which we are inside the drying paint, rather than outside.
In “Funeral“, she opens with,
The mourners are stilled to a stone circle
and in the conclave we bear witness
to the ribboned descent, the slow snowfall,
of a wooden shoebox in the shape of a coffin.
In “In the Bathroom”, she zooms our line of sight onto her pregnancy test,
I fished it back, fished her up
Out of the dark to sit, tiny and significant,
A faint pink line, too slow
In my palm. She was always too tiny
And too slow. I’m glad we didn’t know it then.
In Wendy’s work there is no fine line between what is obvious and what is oblique. She sides with the former. There are a number of places where Wendy could trust her readers more and let the whole of the poem, the whole of the pamphlet, work their effects. In “Equinox”, the last poem and one which points to happier climes, there is optimism in the thrum of life/still to be found in the burnt edges of leaves, the bones of trees but this is preceded four lines before by our baby’s death. You can hear the quiver with these three words but the mood lighting was effective, the neon lighting less so.
Wendy is at her best in the title poem “Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare” with a clear narrative, language that fizzes inside the mouth throughout the duration of the poem and a sensuous intimacy,
……..[ ]…………Her mind
Was simple, full of open space and weather.
I warmed myself on her frantic pulse and felt the draw
Of gorse and grass, the distant slate line
At the edge of the moor.
The other appearances of Nan Hardwicke, whilst entertaining, do not quite match this high standard for varying reasons. In the six-and-a-half page lyric poem “Scrying” (which means predicting the future by means of a crystal ball) I am in the saddle as a reader and there is a wonderful simile,
And it was like milk being poured into water.
The clarity I thought I had, diffused
With rolling white until the thing
I’d thought I’d seen was gone
However, the ride is a long one and several furlongs could be trimmed off without losing any enjoyment (indeed it would add to it). It would also be nice to have a greater mix of simile and other poetic techniques amongst the lyrical narrative, especially as Wendy has shown she can use them to such great effect.
Nan Hardwicke would seem to be both the present and the future for Wendy. I’ll look forward to reading more from her.
Robert Nisbet’s pamphlet Merlin’s Lane is a different collection altogether. Whereas Wendy Pratt shares an intimacy with the reader about two or three characters which feature prominently throughout her work, Merlin’s Lane keeps us at more of a distance although many more personalities inhabit the space. So we have, amongst others, John and Moggsy and Bodger in “Busted Fender Blues“, the English public schoolboy in “Bastard“, Miss Watkins in “Returning on the Evening Train in 1961“, Nell Gwyn in “Nell“, Morgan in “In Morgan’s Hedge“, Roy and Roy’s father Dougie in “Scholarship Boys” and , more classmates than can be counted on two hands in “Class of 62“.
In many instances, we don’t go much further than the superficial but that is by design so if you like your poetry this way, as a group photo rather than as an individual portrait (or portraits), then you’ll like this pamphlet. There are 24 poems in all, mostly, but not all, in free verse.
The collection could equally have been called Memory Lane because most of the poems are set in the late fifties or early sixties or if their setting is contemporary, they look back and contrast the contemporary with those times. And here is both the strength and the weakness of the collection. There is a sense that if you had similar experiences as are described in the poems (being brought up in the conservative fifties, passing the eleven plus, university and a sexual awakening in the early sixties), you’ll be “in” but if you didn’t then you are left looking through a slightly steamed up window, and are mindful of it.
“Hoodie” ends with some humour but it slides towards know-it-all You think this lane is boring, Sunshine Joe?/You should have been here fifty years ago, as does Busted Fender Blues, It’s all health and safety now. The tone is chatty, not exactly new lad speak but Sixties-lad speak and there are many winks to an adolescent’s top shelf (or lack of). In “Hoodie”, Oh boy, we really moaned the lack of serious erotica/within the barber’s shop….. In “And Here’s to You Mrs Rotheroe”, [Mrs Rotheroe] give[s] her pretty breasts some air and in “Returning on the Evening Train in 1961”, there are breasts bouncing now and the condom trail to the pier.
The poems that work the strongest either pare the characters back in number or they explore deeper human emotions and hererin may lie rich fishing grounds for Robert . In “A Postcard from Milford Haven“,
Those stormy mornings, we’d sing that hymn.
The fathers of many of the school
Were out there, trawlers taut against
the seas of Finisterre, Tiree. And
as the singing swung into the heaves
and hollows of its verse, my blunt
neck hairs tingled with the sharing
of fear….[ ]
Other times during a trip
The women would scent storm and,
like the clouds they’d gather, cluster, mutter.
This is good writing but it is not repeated often enough throughout the pamphlet. At seventeen lines with approximately four or five beats each, this poem is one of the shortest in the collection. Within its concision and simplicity lies its power.
A number of poems make general comments on the world around us, or indeed the England and the Wales around us. Again, if you are “in” on the author’s world view or Welsh view, you may chuckle. Otherwise, you’ll assess the assumptions in the cold light and knowledge of today and wish for greater probity. So in “Godiva’s Grand-daughter”, there is an imagined Lady Godiva riding naked on the London underground where the voice in the poem doubt[s] whether any bugger’d notice really. They‘d all assume she was raising awareness of something.
In “My Grandfather’s Clock” which describes the clock of the poet’s sea-faring grandfather who plied routes off Oban on Scotland’s West Coast, the poet has the feeling that in some fundamental sense, those boys didn’t do time-keeping (he was a Victorian sea captain!) and that once in a while they‘d gaze at the Northern Lights through an alcoholic wonder on the road home from the lean-to. (maybe, but if you understand a little about that area, the very entry point of Christianity into Britain, you understand the role of the church – and very often the Presbyterian church at that).
There is a very glowing foreward to Merlin’s Lane provided by the writer Phil Carradice which invites comparison with the very best writers. Dylan Thomas set out what he understood to be the highest of standards in poetry when he wrote, “Some people react physically to the magic of poetry, to the moments, that is, of authentic revelation, of the communication, the sharing, at its highest level…A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Authentic revelation is easy to quote but very difficult to achieve. In many poems, I don’t think Robert Nisbett meets this standard but in a few, just a few, there are lines that suggest that with more focus, he could.