Thomas Ovans wonders if David Perman’s new collection is being knowingly undersold by its own cover

acumen_-_scrap_irin_wordsScrap-Iron Words
David Perman
Acumen Publications
ISBN 978-1-873161-43-2
78 pp   £8.99

The back cover of Scrap-Iron Words seems slightly to undermine David Perman’s credentials as a poet by saying he is ‘better known as a supporter of poetry’ and by laying emphasis on his biographic and historical prose writings. Even the title seems a bit self-deprecating if one has not read the title poem to see what it is really about. It is almost as though an effort is being made to play down expectations…

David Perman has in fact published two previous poetry collections and this latest one begins most promisingly with ‘Distant Copse’ in which a driver who is whirling around the elevated way like a discus- / thrower winding up catches a glimpse of a copse on the horizon, like a cock’s comb catching the sun. The memory of it stayed with him all day, flashing like an emergency exit /during speeches, overrun agendas, routine reports. As the poem develops, the man’s plan to find and visit the copse becomes an effective metaphor for the way that many of us deal with our fond intentions and fantasies. Perman hits the target again a few pages later in ‘Normal’ in which one simple, well-chosen image – after the cyclone a leaf spiralling down / and caught in a spider’s thread – reminds us of the pleasure of things returning to a peaceful status quo when a crisis is over.

Since Perman is a biographer and historian it is no surprise that a good many of the poems are strongly narrative based. ‘Intentionally Homeless’ is essentially a short story set in a benefits office and it allows Perman the chance to show clearly where his sympathies lie in the debate about welfare cuts and austerity. ‘Meeting in Mortsach’ describes a romantic encounter and ‘Through Train’ is a rather dark and mysterious parable about escape which has a bit of a cliff-hanger ending. ‘Queue’ is a fascinatingly bleak and somewhat Kafka-esque piece which begins

It was a queue like no other queue under
the sun – or the moon or artificial lighting –
a queue apparently not for anything, or to anywhere

After a while, the people waiting in the queue are presented with the news that all offers and availability have now expired. It turns out however that new offers are available and the queuing strategy then becomes dishearteningly simple:

If you wish to take advantage of these
then form a queue against the left hand wall.
Those not wishing

to queue for new offers should form a queue
for the exit – against the right hand wall

‘Queue’ is followed by ‘Proof’ which is about an author receiving the proof copies of the most fascinating / book in the world – my life condensed / in one volume. Sadly he finds that great violence has been done to his own recollections; all my I’s changed to he except / for a few in double quotes. After a while I realised that, set alongside ‘Queue’, this poem reminded me a little of the wonderfully lugubrious ‘In the Museum’ by the late John Rety (and I mean that as a compliment).

Besides these more imaginative story-poems Perman also gives us some gentle and uncomplicated personal reminiscences alongside elegies for departed friends and anecdotes about those still living.  He also has fun playing with language – for instance finding multiple rhymes for ‘attitude’ (with an ultimately quite serious purpose) or, in the title poem, reflecting amusingly on words and phrases that have come clattering into the English language during his lifetime – nimby, tweeting, Red Nose day. He also makes good use of his right to look at other aspects of today’s world through a prism of nostalgia.  Modern motoring may have certain good points:

It’s so convenient.  Out of the door
a clink and the car winks back

But can that really compare with the pleasures of the past when

AA men saluted your badge,
petrol cost a pittance and there was never
a problem finding somewhere to park.

Contemporary financial follies are neatly transposed to the world of the old-fashioned pantomime.  Jack’s beanstalk becomes a wondrous growth vehicle – and when it collapses and Jack turns out to have stolen the goose that laid the golden eggs Perman takes mischievous delight in coming downstage front to ask

Now children, you knew he would
didn’t you?  So why
didn’t you tell the grown-ups?

In spite of the pleasures mentioned so far, however, it must be admitted that the collection does suffer from some unevenness. A longish anecdote about James Cameron and Albert Schweitzer is interesting but rather prosey. ‘A Fair Question’ attacks the supposed piety behind the Bush-Blair rationale for the Iraq war but – in spite of having some rhyming line endings – seems to reflect Perman’s indignation more than his poetic skill.  Something similar could also be said about ‘Keep it Burning’ and ‘Zacchaeus’ which might work as performance pieces but are rather weak on the page. In contrast, ‘Blame’ draws on the same well of indignation about war and its consequences but is much more effective because it is not ad hominem and taps into the wider human tendency always to look for someone on whom to pin blame – that funny schoolyard word.  And ‘Thrown Away’, concerning itself with those bereaved by conflict in Afghanistan, is made more powerful by the repeated refrain Did she know how? … Did she know when? …  Did she know why?

Perman may indeed be ‘better known as a supporter of poetry than a poet’ but he can also write poems which deserve to be taken seriously.