Rosie Johnston is pleased to find both a sense of the dramatic and a feeling for the past in this first collection by Jean Watkins


Jean Watkins
Two Rivers Press
ISBN: 978-1-901677-94-2
56pp  £7.95


Jean Watkins’ first collection Scrimshaw (published in 2013 as part of Two Rivers Press’s First Collection Series) takes its name from the carvings nineteenth century whalers used to make from the tusks and bones of whales and walrus.  It’s a clever title, conjuring up not only the filigree craft of those sailors biding their time on icy seas but also the miniature dramas they depicted.

Watkins shows a fine sense of the dramatic in her finely honed poems too. In the title poem Scrimshaw, about Aunt Ellen’s collection of sperm whale teeth, she leads us by our senses into the scrimshander’s world:

I hold them and sense rope-callused hands
scratching with a jack knife; the thumb
smoothing in lamp-black. A stench of blood and blubber
in his nostrils, he gouges an arrow piercing a heart.

Every poem is full of dramatic movement.  In Boatbuilder, for example (From a walnut face his eyes/ mirror the sky like moorland tarns) we’re in the action in no time:

By the river we are building a boat:
plank by plank our hull takes shape
and hammers sound its drum. Buzz
of saw pauses when rotten wood clunks
to the pile. We drink pine-scented air.

We have only that second or two to take a breath with the crew, then:

Gaps are caulked with oakum and tar,
our mast is hauled and slotted, bolt upright.
As she slips into the water I hold my breath
but she floats; wind catches the sails
he has set, carrying our craft away.

But she floats.  Anyone who has made something that works smiles at those words.

All forms of human creativity are here. Even the collector of Lalique glass has a fine dramatic monologue, full of character, as he tells us about the moment when his vocation first made itself felt in Glass:

 … My first buy
was this wine glass, 17th century. I was
eighteen, riffling through coats in Oxfam.
A slat of sun just caught it, made me go
over to the bric-a-brac shelves although
I knew nothing of glass. I liked its weight,
its chunkiness, the barley sugar coil
inside the stem. The way it swells
to a cone-shaped cup in perfect balance
with the foot. It felt right in my hand.
Of course it led to libraries, the V & A,
a change to Fine Art and you know the rest.
I still remember plastic hangers clicking,
a smell of mothballs just before I saw it.

Again Watkins works our imaginations through our senses and as with the best short poems, the story is rich in what Roland Barthes called blind field, the white area around a photograph, the world around a poem.

But it is probably the past that is Watkins’ home country; she tracks and labels each detail in case it is lost for ever. In Denham Bros: Leather Goods and Saddlery:

We turned over school satchels, chose one red-brown, conker glossy,
The inside softer, grainy, where I would write my name.

A persistent presence is her father, the complex violinist whose ‘undernourished Bach … accompanied my homework, and dog collars / came in smutty from the line.’ Such perfection in that word ‘smutty’, so much in those two syllables. Again in His Pocket Diaries, the poet’s concision is masterly.  We know immediately that her father has died – ‘He had kept all his diaries’ – and then we get to read them: ‘Chess match, York. Daughter born. / Cut the grass. Flight to Stockholm.’ The bonfire in the garden is simply described and all easy assumptions about book-burnings, and father-daughter relationships, become redundant.  As the diary pages take light, ‘scarlet snakes sidewind across a page’. More is being said than we know, and the heart breaks: ‘Smoke smell / lingered in my clothes, his jottings in my head.’

Watkins has been published in magazines and anthologised many times. This first collection is the work of an experienced poet who combines emotional wisdom with technical finesse, and is beautifully presented by Two Rivers.

Rosie Johnston’s third pamphlet Bittersweet Seventeens has just been published by Lapwing Publications (Belfast). She also writes fiction and facilitates writing groups in London and Cambridge.