Thomas Ovans considers three recent pamphlet collections:

True Crime by Julie Lumsden;

 Mr Right by Steven Blyth;

and Homing In by Mo Gallaccio

 
**

 

Having once seen the marks on the wall of the Magdala pub in Hampstead, supposedly made by the bullets Ruth Ellis fired at her lover, I could relate immediately to the cover picture on True Crime by Julie Lumsden (Shoestring Press, 2011). The title sequence consists of ten well-crafted and well-imagined poems in the voices of people around the ill-fated Ruth Ellis: a best friend; a juror; a witness; and the hangman – who reflects on the public furore surrounding the execution (as it turned out, the last execution of a woman in this country):

     The one before Mrs Ellis, I hanged her also.
     I made this point to the reporters

     after the event.

I enjoyed this powerful opening sequence very much – if that is the right word for poems on so grim a subject as murder. A few notes might have been worth including, however, since some readers could be a little confused by the narrative underlying the first three or four poems in the sequence.

The second half of the book contains poems about people who may be real, part-real or imagined. Some of the characters seem rather unsure themselves, like the woman who thinks of her love-life entirely in terms of scenes from David Lean films; or the “boring couple” who may only exist in a not-yet-written play. There is a persistent note of puzzled regret – she’s uncertain whether she played Ophelia / at the National or in her head. And this often goes along with hints of betrayal: This year she’s wearing her marriage again, worn / thin enough to tear. A smoker by the roadside is breaking a promise / in a cul de sac between / where he’s been and where he’s going. In these little narrative poems the lines are cleverly weighted and the line breaks are carefully judged to point up the key observations. This is a book that I have found myself going back to and spotting subtle and deft touches that I missed the first time around.

I had not come across the work of Steven Blyth before; but the back-cover compliments on Mr Right (Shoestring Press, 2011) led me to expect some skilful use of half-rhyme. This expectation is fulfilled. Half-rhyme might seem a difficult trick to pull off without giving an impression of having failed to find a “proper” rhyme. But in a poem about two fifteen year old boys going to a hairdressing salon to experience the touch of “real” women. / In their twenties. Experienced. Heaven! the pairing of women and heaven works very well. So also does the matching of hands on us and awkwardness in the next stanza. For most of the book, Blyth works with couplets and four-line verses; but towards the end he successfully ventures into six or eight line stanzas with more ambitious (half-)rhyme schemes like ABBCCA or ABCADDBC.

Within his chosen forms, Blyth writes clearly and elegantly about familiar subjects of friends, work, family – especially about family. Only occasionally does he move away from the domestic – for instance to the peripheral mystery of why flowers appear on a long-dead child’s grave or a brief backstage brush with touring rock bands.

His family poems veer freely between reflections on his parents and grandparents and affectionate puzzlement at his own children. Bringing a fourteen year old son and his friends up from town after their first day out on their own he is happy to be their get-a-way driver / as they steal a bit more time as themselves. Yet at the same time Blyth himself seems a little reluctant to allow time for his own self in case that involves him betraying his parents’ working class roots. The clatter of his son’s drum practice reminds him of the sound / of the factory inside me that won’t shut down.

This is a book of very accessible poetry distinguished by impressive, but unshowy, craftsmanship.

Homing In is a first collection from Mo Gallaccio from Paekakariki Press; and the first thing to say is that it is a beautifully produced book (from a pulisher who is new to me) enhanced by illustrations by the author.

Gallaccio’s poems occupy similar territory to Steven Blyth’s and many of them deal with memories of family while others seem to be observations of her neighbourhood and her friends. These are well made free verse poems which include effective images: women with wraparound arms; a circus tent in the wind that strains like a beast among coarse grass that whips and cracks.  Gallaccio seems comfortable both with cheerful memories (like circuses and dances) and also with more regretful ones. After a visitor has gone away the air is frantic, arranging and re-/arranging molecules and atoms / to take account of your / absence.

A particularly strong poem is ‘The Purple Iris’ which deals rather mysteriously with deaths of two young people. This makes a marked contrast with the collection’s opening item which is a fairly relaxed meditation on death – she’s inclusive / up for everyone / without exception. Unusual to find death personified as female (rather a contrast with Terry Pratchet’s portrayal who is decidedly male and speaks only in CAPITAL LETTERS).  Gallacio seems surprisingly quite content for lady-death to envelope me completely / in that big black knitted poncho … and squeeze/ the living daylights / out of me.

Another departure from poetry of personal experience is ‘Pianoforte’, inspired by an Edward Hopper painting. This captures well the understated bleakness of a Hopper scene, beginning with

     The piano
     its back to the wall
     endures silence.

and ending

     choosing D above middle C
     quiet, but insistent
     I tap out SOS.

Alongside her already deft touch with the capture of personal experience, I would like to see Gallaccio continue to develop her skill with this more imaginatively detached poetic style.