Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reflects on a new selection of John Rety’s intriguing and individual poetry

Notebook in Hand
New and Selected Poems by John Rety
Selected by Martin Parker
Foreword by Stephen Watts and Afterword by Emily Johns
pp 128 £10.95
Stonewood Press 2012



For anyone who knew the late and much-missed John Rety, the poems in Notebook in Hand will be a poignant reminder of his distinctive voice and his whimsical way of following a train of thought wherever it might lead him – even if this meant going off at a tangent when introducing a guest reader at a Torriano poetry evening. This posthumous collection from Stonewood Press contains new and unpublished work along with selections from John’s previous pamphlets. Unsurprisingly, many of the poems reflect his lifelong commitment to the cause of peace and his capacity for indignation with anyone he considered wilfully blind to flaws in the status quo. His political zeal did not rob him of a sense of humour and optimism, however – his regular anti-war poetry readings at Housman’s bookshop were always billed as subject to cancellation at short notice should world peace break out – and the collection is enlivened by his highly individual sense of fun.

I have been trying to imagine how the poems in Notebook in Hand might strike someone who had not met John and thus would have no context for his more surreal pronouncements and intuitive leaps. Anyone unable to picture the twinkle in his eye it may find it hard to be sure when he is joking and when he is not. Fortunately John was so widely known that stories about him still circulate to give those who never encountered him some idea of what they missed. More to the point as regards this review, the poems in Notebook in Hand are framed by excellent tribute essays from Martin Parker, Stephen Watts and Emily Johns which offer a reader some valuable clues on how to approach the varied and idiosyncratic poems that are the heart of the book.

John Rety was so enthusiastic a champion of other people’s poetry (at the Torriano readings and through Hearing Eye Press) that some people may not have realised that he also wrote poems of his own. Indeed, following the appearance of a small collection in 1989, he did not publish any more books of his own poetry until 2007. This relative lack of self-promotion makes it hard to know how John thought about his own poetic gifts. It may or may not be relevant that in one of the pieces in this book he describes himself as … being a poet or at least / A possessor of the poetic mood / At times of great stress.

Some of John’s most effective and affecting poems are those in which he is reaching back for clarity in his memories of a wartime childhood in Hungary and also for some sort of resolution with his parents and other family members from whom he was separated when he came to England in 1947. The book’s opening poem presents a few certainties and vivid images:

Certainly there was a door
And no doubt it was on the second floor

At every corner the smell of roasted chestnuts
And great plate glass windows through which
You could see rows of fatmen eating boiled eggs

But the poem also has to confront the gaps and limitations in memory:

… the dining room table. Did you sleep under it
At night or on a settee in the corner?
You must have eaten something, for you distinctly remember
A disapproving remark, ‘Stop slurping!’ Whoever said that?

Some of the other “memory” poems make images of war more explicit. Most touching, perhaps, is the opening line of ‘Address Unknown’ – Mother, they are killing each other. More detail appears in ‘The Boy’ which describes a walk across town while bombs are falling. The poem concludes

And at last he reached his destination.
His uncle was by the furnace baking bread.
‘I have come to help,’ the boy said.

And all night they baked bread
neither of them would admit that the
whole town was forever dead.

In contrast to this tightly-controlled and unnaturally calm portrayal of a bombing raid, the madness of conflict involving attacks on cities is conveyed in the opening lines of ‘World War Two’

My mother wore a paper shirt
My father wore a hat –
The metal albatrosses
Soon put a stop to that.

It is fairly unsurprising that images of war should occur quite often in John’s poetry; however another, less explicable, theme that also crops up repeatedly is a concern about ownership and responsibility for an author’s writings. In ‘His Worldly Goods’ an old friend of the poet gives him a parting present, saying Best I leave you my words / Let them sing in your head. The poet runs to the nearest pub with notebook and pen/ … before I may forget /My great friend’s passing words; but is then shocked by his friend’s abrupt reappearance demanding to have his words back! The poem leaves us with the hanging question

Are these words his or are they mine?
Autumn has come, deterioration is everywhere
Falling leaves are here and words are there.

A similar situation occurs in the oddly titled ‘H’onoponoonopono’ – which is supposedly the name of a dead author well-respected in his family circle / But otherwise little known. The poet decides to follow in the footsteps of H’ – and write his collected works myself. Later in the poem, however, doubts arise: perhaps H’ will reappear and say ‘How can you impute such thoughts to me.’ Questions about the ownership and value of written work come up yet again in what is, perhaps, John’s most famous poem, ‘In the Museum’:

In a glass case my manuscripts

My works of art, my writings
They charged me to see them –
All stolen from me.

‘In the Museum’ is a good example of John Rety’s “stream of consciousness” poetic style with its frequent use of long loose lines. He does occasionally use tighter forms (to good effect in a memorial poem for A.C. Jacobs); but his more usual, rather unstructured approach goes well with his taste for dream-like free flow of incidents and impressions. He has a knack – which sometimes reminds me of the comedian Eddie Izzard – of planting an apparently inconsequential thought early in a poem and then re-introducing it to good rhetorical effect later on. I am thinking, for instance, of the role of the cat in ‘H’onoponoonopono’ and the pigeon in ‘On the Platform’.

The dreamlike way in which John’s poetic thoughts and impressions come and go seems also to foster a dislike of precision. Statements that might be “too exact” tend to be immediately undercut, as in I collected nine pebbles / From nine separate beaches / Or possibly eight – the ninth could be polished glass. Assertions are usually qualified and alternatives are kept open:

What the father was saying to the mother
Or the mother was saying to the father
Was or could have been of great importance
To either son or daughter were they listening

One group of poems in which John is not elusive and does not hedge his statements around with qualifications are those written where with great tenderness for and about his lifelong partner Susan and their daughter Emily.

Having gladly acknowledged the virtues in John’s poetry, I must also admit that I find this collection a little uneven. Some of the poems seem rather lightweight while others have potential that deserved a little more working out than they actually received. Nevertheless, John’s sheer barefaced cheek – as in ‘The Poet Offers his Wares’ – can mean that even a somewhat insubstantial poem goes on giving pleasure after several readings. And my several readings of the book have persuaded me that, overall, the surprising and satisfying poems are in the majority.

I want to close with a mention of ‘Who Do We Adore’ which includes a typical John Rety speculation – Where do numbers come from or go to in the dead of night? This poem reminds me of a train journey with John to visit the Hearing Eye printers in Catford, during which he and I had probably our longest single conversation. Knowing me to be a mathematician, he asked me a question about numbers, rather like the one he poses in the poem:

Did somebody before we came about have prior knowledge of them
Or did we on a dull day invent them?

I don’t think my answers helped him very much; but I do recall him saying that, whatever the true origin of numbers, he thought it was scandalous that money could be made by selling them to publishers as ISBNs! On that same journey he also told some tales about his boyhood and explained how anarchy would work in practice. These recollections make me wish now that I had known John better than I did. That wish sadly is beyond granting. However I am pleased to say that Notebook in Hand – even though it is only a book – performs pretty well as a sort of understudy for John, giving a fair impression of what it was like to spend some time in the company of a quite remarkable man.