Josh Ekroy takes a thoughtful look at a poetic military memoir by Nigel Pantling

 

pantlingBelfast Finds Log
Nigel Pantling
Shoestring Press
ISBN: 978 1 910323 06 9
34 pages  £7.50

 

Nigel Pantling’s first collection is a carefully crafted set of twenty-four poems about the Northern Ireland troubles. He served as an officer in Belfast and other centres of the conflict. His involvement is not overt, unlike, say, that of Barry Turner or Kevin Powers. A poem is not a bullet, we are not wounded or left for dead after reading Pantling, though we are alarmed by the shot and sometimes the ricochet too.  The sights, sounds and voices of urban warfare include those of civilians caught up in it. In ‘Night Patrol’, the military register pays off: You check for rattles, shines, / gaps in your cam cream, / make sure the wound dressing / is gaffer-taped to your belt. And later in the collection, ‘Training Officer’ contains the beautiful lines, they smelt the marzipan of / home-made explosive and / moulded Semtex, which (deliberately awkward line-breaks aside) marries sensory awareness with the technical. This is one good reason why we go to war poetry, to be put on battle-alert.

The penultimate poem, ‘Photograph Album’, has the daughter of a retired officer ask twice: Yes, Dad, but how does that make you feel? It’s the final line of the poem. With emotion repressed, there is quite a lot of nervous laughter pitched a little high in some of these poems which does deliberately feeble service as cover. Juxtaposed with crisp orders, the result is well cleansed of received bellicose images.

A case in point is ‘Car Insurance’, which enacts an off-duty soldier’s fear of being recognised.  This, together with its companion poem, ‘Vehicle Patrol’, presents us not just with a suspected car-bomb but also an unstated explosion which is all the more powerful for being unstated. The use of straight military language is an advantage when the reader feels the intensity of the experience. ‘Cover Observation’, on the other hand, with the words he remembers being six and ‘Night Patrol’ – the hug of your flak-jacket / close under your arms / like the lift of your Dad’s hands / when you were small – (which doesn’t need that last line,) introduce a perspective that other poems might have benefited from, and ‘Cover Observation’, with the hooves of his own heartbeat, untypically experiments with metaphor.

Use of technical language as a cover for emotion is poignantly used in ‘R&R in Liverpool’ which details a reunion between soldier and girl in an art gallery: he scans the pedimenti for signs of movement; and the stanza with which the poem ends: Over dinner, he talks about stags / sangars, sunray, felix and goliath, / radio call-signs and radio silence.

In the title poem (“Finds” is a noun), which is a list in couplets detailing secreted weaponry unearthed in searches, there is a moment: Fifty sticks commercial explosive, / mostly weeping / in City Centre dustbin… It catches the eye if only because many of the other items do not possess this level of imaged feeling, with the more obvious exception of: AK 47 rifle warm and smelling of cordite / under female baby in pram, on the Falls Road. which suffers from being placed as the final item on the list. But as the couplets unroll, we feel, here we have a thoroughly charted map of Belfast’s tragic death-wish.

There’s a well-managed sestina – ‘A Wager with Special Branch’ – which avoids the pitfalls of the form and develops a narrative full of irony and gritty humour, a fresh dimension to the collection which is not devoid of wryness.

Yet, ‘No Surrender’, as a portrait of grief and loss, exploits the trope of the no-longer-needed garment. You can see the grief in the final line approach as you read.  ‘Londonderry, August 1971′ suffers from an overemphatic ending also. And there is a handful of poems which are content to show, as if mere authenticity was enough. The found poem, ‘Instructions for Opening Fire’ and ‘First Contact’, a dramatising of a house search, are among these.

From the second poem, ‘Duck Shooting on Clapham Common’ in which the ducks are smiling metal and the venue is an amusement park, to the final poem, ‘Back in Tesco’s’, where the plums are black as blood (the last words of the book)  the precise terms frame the seemingly imperturbable face of the British officer.

 

 

Josh Ekroy’s first collection Ways To Build A Roadblock was published by Nine Arches Press in May, 2014. He lives in London.