Thomas Ovans reviews Mike Barlow’s latest collection Charmed Lives
After my first reading of Charmed Lives, two of the words that Mike Barlow’s poetry brought to mind were “dependable” and “consistent”. Such first-impression adjectives could simply reflect the fact that the poems mostly present a pretty regular in shape on the page, being usually structured in stanzas of fairly uniform length, with well-judged line-endings and steady, easy-on-the-ear rhythms. The collection is thoughtfully put together, with clear links between themes or images in successive poems. I also find it significant that the poems are rarely less than a full page long: this suggests to me that Barlow deals in poetic ideas which have depth into which he is prepared to do some digging. Or, more succinctly, Barlow doesn’t do glib!
All of the above could sound like the beginnings of a review which is going to “damn with faint praise”; but this is not my intention. My opening remarks may not have made Barlow sound like a spectacular performer; but it is a fact that he has won several major international poetry prizes – so clearly he can and does produce outstanding work. His poetry, however, could perhaps be called inwardly, rather than outwardly, showy. Instead of relying on surface effects, Barlow’s work catches the attention firstly through skilful choice of apt yet surprising words and images and secondly because of his knack of finding subject matter which can engage, intrigue and startle his readers. He sometimes writes movingly and with a fresh eye about quite ordinary situations; but elsewhere he draws us into imagined worlds which are not so far from the real one and yet where no point of reference can truly be relied upon. The sense of subtle unease that he can induce is perhaps what Alan Dent refers to in his rather understated back-cover compliment that there is something ‘slightly breathtaking’ about Barlow’s work. So let’s use a closer reading of the book to try and see what Barlow actually does in his poems and (maybe) how he makes it work so well…
The back cover of the book points out that charmed lives are not necessarily blessed ones. A charm may indeed provide protection or attract good fortune; but it can also carry some kind of curse. Barlow gives examples in the prefatory poem ‘Notes Towards Charmed Lives’, where he lists his suggested wishes for a variety of potential recipients, ranging from the compassionate
for the deaf
the wing beat of a moth trapped in a cello
to the wry
for the ambitious
a sneak preview of posterity.
The book proper begins with several poems in which – through memories and dreams – we meet shades of the poet’s parents and wider family. I was particularly moved by several mentions of the poet’s father who, after the war, comes home with his terrible reticence. We meet him again in ‘Queues’ – a strange mixture of war story and holiday reminiscence – where, on the beaches at Dunkirk, there are
queues of men inching out to the horizon.
Then there was music. A tinny
Greensleeves as an ice cream van
came over the dunes. We joined a queue …
This is the first, but certainly not the last, example of a Barlow poem in which things do not remain what they seem at first. Barlow is fond of a kind of “shape-shifting” in which one situation slips into another just as we think we know where we are. And yet, within a few pages of ‘Queues’ (and the even more mysterious ‘The Lifeboat’) we find Barlow equally at home with poetry of the everyday. In ‘Watching’ he discovers how to tackle a household job properly by remembering how he once observed his father proceed:
… each task
a step in a ritual which,
performed in the right order, unlocks
a secret I’ve known all along.
Barlow likes to take a fanciful view of familiar and unglamorous objects that other writers might overlook. He dignifies a lonely and deserted bus shelter, granting it some kind of pivotal significance in a greater scheme of things by observing
Any further and you meet the North Atlantic,
its grey spume, its slap in the face. Turn around,
look south, and everywhere you’ve been already
and beyond. Is this what you want?
(‘The Bus Shelter at Road End’)
His imagination turns well-known phrases into tangible form in ‘From the Cabinet of Idioms’ and makes something wonderful out of driving the family car (‘Starship Mazda’). He weaves a particularly strange fantasy around a prosaic object very seldom commemorated in verse (‘The Frog-eyed God of the Septic Tank’). Yet, on the other hand, he writes of a rougher and harsher side of everyday life with sharp accuracy. In ‘Fear of Fire’ an accident victim’s eye is staring through crumpled tissue … as if smudged with a potter’s thumb. A prison warder’s keys hang like the fingers / of a smashed hand. A child whose father is serving a life sentence makes the excuse I’d say he was at sea and gets the response
If only, my mother said,
giving me the sort of look grown-ups give grown-ups.
And yet the aspect of Barlow’s poetry that most intrigues me is his skill at venturing into mysterious twilight worlds where the stoneweight of foreboding reminds us of different kinds of unease we have all experienced. He places his characters among mysteries and enigmatic influences:
We stop the clocks when guests arrive,
their stays so brief, their visits so rare.
Out here where deserts eat our fields,
we dine on solitude, hear mirrors talk.
(‘As Is Our Custom’)
Sometimes the atmosphere becomes still more Kafka-esque:
Where I come from, I try to explain,
a word can have many meanings.
They don’t seem to hear.
Terms of endearment in one tongue
can be expletives in the other.
I am not good at translation.
Very occasionally the poet turns the tables and casts himself as the person who is causing harm or bewilderment to others – as in the surprising revenge he plans to inflict on someone stealing logs from his woodpile (‘Sootfall and a Cracked Mantlepiece’). But in none of his poetic explorations and adventures does Barlow become remote or abstract; his settings and situations, whether familiar or strange, always feel tangible and accessible.
It will be clear from the preceding paragraphs that there is not very much exuberance in Charmed Lives. It may seem a little churlish of me to mention this, given my earlier praise for Barlow’s avoidance of outward showiness. But when viewing the book as a whole, I think I would have liked a few — only a few — of the poems to be broader and wilder. As it is, the biggest smile that I got came in the payoff verse of the tall (but probably true?) story about the fridge which got ‘No Mention in Despatches’.
This last minor point aside, there is more that I could say and quote to explain my enjoyment of this book. However I’ll close by mentioning that it amused me to fancy I detected echoes of other poets here and there. Is there perhaps a hint of one of Hugo Williams’ whimsical recollections at the start of ‘The Lifeboat’ – Already there were too many of us / and the war hadn’t started yet? Is ’The Attic Fox’ with its softly softly trip of padded feet a distant cousin of Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox? And when in ‘Last Minute Leave’ I read of the delicate pink teacup which is the only thing to survive the war which interrupts a romantic encounter in a teashop, am I wrong to be reminded of the undamaged bird’s nest at the end of Philip Larkin’s ‘The Explosion’? These faint resonances suggest to me that Mike Barlow has absorbed a lot of craft and sensibility through his reading of other eminent poets; and what he has absorbed is now augmenting his own considerable gifts and original poetic perspective to help him become a significant and distinctive voice in his own right.