London Grip’s poetry editor takes an optimistic view of two first collections from a new poetry press

 

cookstantonPrimer by Caroline Cook
Soundswrite Press,   ISBN:978-0-9550786-6-8
32 pp   £5 

Beyond the Tune by Jayne Stanton
Soundswrite Press,   ISBN:978-0-9550786-7-5
32 pp   £5

 

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The name of Soundswrite Press is new to me; but the two chapbooks Primer by Caroline Cook and Beyond the Tune by Jayne Stanton make an immediate favourable impression by their simple but attractive design. These are both first collections by poets who have quietly built up a  whoserecord of success in competitions and publication in a variety of magazines.

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The back cover of Primer features dictionary definitions reminding us that ‘primer’ has many interesting overlapping meanings. I had, for instance, forgotten that it could mean an explosive detonator. Unfortunately, Cook does not seem to make full use of the possibilities she has chosen to lay before us and much of her book focuses on birth, childhood and parenting – the primary stages of life. Some of her poems remind how difficult it is to ‘write white’ – to praise the virtues and delights of something without sounding trite. In ‘For the newborn’, for instance, the couplet

a funny thumb     a crookèd nose
a key-shaped space between the toes

is surely an accurate enough snapshot and key-shaped space certainly isn’t a cliché. And yet these lines – like the rest of the poem – run the risk of sounding like a greetings-card jingle. And do we really need that accent in ‘crookèd‘? Other poems praising the mysteries of infancy are a bit more muscular, however. A child learning to walk is a little sleepwalker into space whose explorations lead the poet to coin a new word

.                               you launch
and dock ledgefingering, swaying
dangerously.

One of the stronger poems in the first part of the book is ‘That wolf, life’ where Cook quite cleverly deals with the perplexities and anxieties of growing up by framing them in the tale of the wolf and the three little pigs. In the first stanza she imagines how a small child learns:

.                      What of substance we picked up
was cobbled together from the underside
of a kitchen table; bricks made wall, sticks fire,
straw slumber.

But later in life when out in the wide world as a mature adult things become more complicated:

…. we thought straw would do,
then sticks, then bricks, or possibly mettle, or true love
– but none could match the huff and puff of ill winds.

Should we tell the little ones?

High marks for that effective last line payoff which brings us back to more or less where we started.  Praise too for the neat piece of wordplay in the use of the word ‘mettle’.  In ‘Self-protection’, Cook shows again that a good poem often springs out of a sense of danger and an unexpected way of expressing it.

Aren’t we lucky that we have flaps
for our eyes that we can use
to stop us seeing?

The poem leads up to a well-judged tone of strained optimism

What a blessing that we don’t know
what’s coming in through our skin
– because we can’t stop it.

Readers will find another good pay-off waiting in the final couplet.

There are two poems that stand out for me. ‘Whoosh!’ is an exuberant piece about a mother playing on a swing (while children look on in disapproval – they’re not impressed) because she needs to show she’s not forgotten she can still do this. ‘Stone’, by contrast, is much more sombre and straightaway declares its dark subject:

There’s the hard kind and the crumbling kind
and my brother fell on the hard kind and it broke him
and he lay on the driveway far too long
in front of his own front door and he was alone

The rest of the first stanza is as skilfully bleak as that opening; but the second and third stanzas use a neat variation on the first line to bring a more hopeful note without diminishing the painful reality of the situation. This successful example of ‘writing white’ seems to me to be, by some way, the most effective poem in the book and I hope Cook will be able to reproduce this sort of form in her future work.

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Beyond the Tune begins in territory similar to Primer with recollections from childhood. Stanton chooses however to concentrate more on externals than on the growing child. ‘Vintage’ is an evocative check-list of 1960s objects – Pac-a-Macs, duffle bags, that ruched nylon swimsuit – all of them caught in the blink of a box Brownie’s eye. Another poem authentically conjures up the attributes of a clothes horse and its strategic placement in a home without central heating:

… this wooden workhorse stole our heat
its frame spread wide to shoulder the line-dried failures.
Our double bar electric fire purloined, it coaxed the steam
from dampened spirits, raised our hopes of extra layers.

(Stanton’s knack of celebrating household artefacts led me, at first reading, to interpret an ornamental gondola in Bakelite as a fanciful description of a mid-twentieth century wireless set; but on closer reading I think it may mean no more or less than what it says!)

Stanton’s eye for detail and her verbal skill at pinning it to the page are well displayed in ‘Ritual’ which describes the process of brewing a pot of tea until we sip / its tannin, bitter through the Tate & Lyle scree. ‘My grandmother’s kitchen’ uses similarly close domestic observation but cleverly goes beyond it into family history. The colour match between a bartered sari’s pinks and greens and her grandma’s rhubarb and ginger preserve leads into a story pulled from a bottom drawer. The sari, we are told, was brought from India by the grandfather I never knew when he was invalided home as the shadow / who’d filled his uniform the year before.

After the grandmother poems, Stanton moves down a generation to write evocatively about her father.  She writes first with an adult’s hindsight: Brylcreem slick, that wayward quiff / has aspirations – think Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis; and then speaks frankly about the present: Easy company: the daughter on a flying visit, father / plied with refills till he’s whisky-winged.

It is at this point, about midway through the book, that the poems take a darker turn with a short sequence ‘Some stories from the other side’ which seems to deal with abusive relationships (in a way which reminds me somewhat of Helen Ivory’s fine recent collection Waiting for Bluebeard). In ‘Found in cupboards’ there is a coincidental echo of Caroline Cook’s poem that borrows from nursery stories:

Teddy bears with stitched mouths won’t tell
which Prince Charming is the wolf

Matters become darker and more adult in ‘Pet’

He brings her home, hungry
for his scraps. She learns to shrink
into a world defined by walls.

These are strong poems even if the stories they hint at are somewhat enigmatic. I was a little disappointed therefore that the final part of the book contains some  oblique reminiscences that I’m afraid I found a bit self-indulgent. There are some dark and half-explained double-meanings involving flowers, shrubs and boats; but these seem rather private and the chief things I remember are knowing references to album covers and place names that made me feel that the poems were not really meant for me. (Interestingly, Helena Nelson’s Happenstance blog has recently considered several of the ways that a poem can fail to include the reader – see http://www.happenstancepress.org/index.php/blog/entry/shutting-the-reader-out – but I don’t think that my reading of Stanton’s poetry was pre-conditioned by this.)

I don’t wish to end on a negative note, however, and so I commend once again the precision and energy of the poems in the first two-thirds of the book which show of Stanton’s talent for poetic distillation of what she sees and remembers. This first collection is – like Cook’s – a promising one; and even if there is some unevenness there is plenty to build on in the future.

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Michael Bartholomew-Biggs