London Grip’s poetry editor makes no bones about his enjoyment of the new collection by Jeremy Page

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Jeremy Page
Pindrop Press
ISBN 978 0 9573290 6 5
92pp £9.99

 

I like this book.  It talks to me in conversational – sometimes quite confidential – tones about memories, relationships, bereavement and the small oddities of life.  And as it shares its narratives, observations and speculations it does so deftly and economically, with wit and employing freshness of language. It does not bore me or exclude me by self-absorption. The (mostly quite short) poems say what they have to say, say it well and then move on.

The above is not to say that the book is fragmentary or disconnected.  There are certainly themes which hold the collection together.  But Page seems to have mastered the art of knowing when a poem should stop.  (Readers may have their own experiences of encountering poets who still have something to learn in this respect.)

Page writes a good deal about memories; but these memories are often of a kind that readers will be able to identify with.  They sometimes appear to be quite personal (although of course the reader need not suppose that all the incidents are “true”); but, even so, the poems do not take themselves excessively seriously.  A pleasantly objective tone is set by the very first poem, about an un-named seaside resort: They say it smells of dead holidays.  I say it always did.  This is one of several which look back to childhood, school-leaving and student life.  The name of ‘Jono’ – to whom the book is dedicated – flits in and out of some of these poems without much explanation, almost as if we too are expected to be able to call his appearance and personality to mind.  Page can write perceptively and sensitively about others, as in ‘The Lit Room’ where he scans the faces in an old photograph with Jono somewhere near the middle , where he belonged. But self-awareness is never far away and so he has to add I’m almost out of the picture, / and that’s about right too.

Some of the poems mix childhood memories with present experience.   ‘Stepping Back’ describes a rare visit to a parental home – He hasn’t slept here for a year or more. It catalogues the associations stirred by furnishings in his old bedroom along with its photographs and letters and books he should have taken years ago; but then the focus shifts:

And downstairs two people sit in chairs
they’ve come to claim, growing older,
growing slowly faint.

Letters, photographs and sometimes actual views provide much of the raw material for Page’s poetry.  And the material is sometimes very raw, especially when it deals with recollections of a broken relationship.  In ‘Another Elephant’ the poet looks out of a window in his present home

…  to the old house
where it all goes on as it always did
except that I’m not there

and we feel, with him, the grim weight of everything that brought me here – … the changing of so many locks.  That still-visible former home appears again in ‘The Memory Bird’ which imagines that the robin in the garden / has followed me here / from my old life / in the house on the hill. In these poems, Page shows that he – like Hugo Williams, for instance – understands the value of understatement.  Small and quite mundane observations can convey the fact that ordinary life has been – or is about to be – deeply disrupted.  In the short poem ‘Being here’ a couple begin to face up to their difficulties. As they share another glass of wine; agree that this is / somewhere that we never meant to be the skilfully drawn context gives these simple phrases a powerful weight of wistfulness and regret.

There is also a well- controlled poignancy in ‘Shaving my Father’, based on a simple act of caring

He once taught me the art

Tomorrow he may not know
who I am or who I was,
but today he does, and is grateful
for the care I take
as I soap his face

Such uncertainty about who I am or who I was appears to underlie several poems about identity and recognition.  Quite early in the book we meet somebody troubled by a rather basic question

Who he was
was something he often wondered

One thing alone was certain:
He’d been to India.
He’d remind himself
at unexpected moments
as if in answer
to some existential need…

and in the final pages we find the poet himself is facing a similar problem:

One bright spring morning
I woke to find
I’d forgotten who I was

Sometimes, instead of being concerned with self-discovery, Page writes of self-effacement:

Someone will find my Vauxhall Corsa
parked near Beachy head
and wonder. No clues.
No passport to confirm
I haven’t left the country
                                 [‘To Whom it May Concern’]

Elsewhere, Page shows that a passport can be something more threatening than a travel permit or passive confirmation of identity.  After complying with all the restrictions governing the taking of a passport photograph – in which, for instance, There Must Be No Shadows – the poet is left with no choices when contemplating the result:

Now look: this will be you.
Your passport says so.

A thread of black humour can be discerned in some of these poems; and this thread becomes somewhat broader when Page writes about encounters, both real and imagined, with literary figures or characters from films and plays.  We are, for example, treated to an alternative version of ‘Brief Encounter’; we learn about the poet being mistaken for Elton John; and we are offered short dramatic scenes in the manner of Kafka, Beckett and Pinter. The Kafkaesque piece is set at the Russia/Ukraine frontier and involves an unfortunate citizen whose outdoor privy is in a different country from his house.  His greatest fears are incontinence, war; the closing of the border.

Although the cover does not proclaim the fact, this collection is something of a ‘Selected and New’ containing items from some of Page’s previous pamphlets.  However, if it is part of a reviewer’s job to report how many poems are strictly ‘new’ then I am afraid I am failing in my duty.  Although I knew I had seen several of the poems before I had no wish to count the number of such occurences because it was simply a pleasure to meet them again in a fresh context. This collection – whatever the provenance of its components – feels satisfyingly coherent as a record of Page’s quiet and distinctive poetic voice

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs