Two new poetry chapbooks from  Wayleave Press  by Carole Coates and Pauline Keith successfully tackle some very challenging material.

wayleave coateswayleave keithCrazy Days by Carole Coates
Wayleave Press    ISBN 978-0-9928946-4-1
20 pp   No price given

By the Light of Day by Pauline Keith
Wayleave Press   ISBN 978-0-9928946-3-4
20 pp   No price given

 

 

Wayleave Press is a fairly recent arrival on the poetry scene and two of its recent publications are Crazy Days by Carole Coates and By the Light of Day by Pauline Keith. These two handsomely produced chapbooks can both boast something rather unusual – possibly unique – namely a fine, full-colour cover illustration by the publisher (who is none other than the poet and artist Mike Barlow). Both books are strongly themed collections: the first dealing with the stresses on a marriage when one partner becomes severely ill; and the second drawing on childhood experience of growing up in proximity to the family slaughter yard. In both cases – especially the latter – the reader has to be prepared for a diet of ‘strong meat’!

Carole Coates is a poet with a well established track record of three previous full collections. This level of poetic experience may explain why she had the presence of mind to record events and impressions when her husband, John, succumbed to a mental illness (which might have been CJD although that diagnosis is not confirmed). The poems, simply entitled ‘Crazy Days 1’ to ‘Crazy Days 11’ form a not quite chronological account of the illness and its effects.

The first poem introduces us to the situation when some degree of recovery has already taken place. Coates is able to look back on the first time when you cried out about the hole, the great pit / in the bed and when simple solutions do not work – so we changed places but you worried that I would fall / down the chasm you’d discovered… This first poem also incorporates a flashback to the early days of the marriage, when her new husband, walking in someone else’s orchard, touches an apple but does not pick it

because you’ve always kept all the rules
as if it would help, as if it would do you good.

And with those two lines Coates cleverly reminds us that misfortunes like illness are neither deserved nor are they avoidable by good conduct.

Subsequent poems show us the various symptoms of John’s illness. A craving for sugar turned him into the appetite that paced around the house / and had a look of you. His periodic seizures in public places were carefully ignored with the kind of politeness that is so English. Only once did a check-out assistant give such a look of sympathy and pity / it was a kind of validation. And validation was something that Coates desperately needed when she likened her loneliness to that of the lame child left behind when the Piper of Hamelin had taken all the other children into the hillside and the green trap // had closed.

John’s loss of short-term memory made their life resemble that of the wax model of a First World War soldier they see in a museum:

                              He’s not writing
with the pen he holds, the reports he’ll never
send …
This is a moment stilled and always happening.

And those unsent reports remind us of the notes that Coates leaves with her husband when he is admitted to hospital to reassure him hour-by-hour of what is happening:

I wrote: Don’t worry. You’re in hospital and I’ll come and see you
every day …

And I wrote: I’ve labelled your wash- back and your little radio
and this is our phone number …

These are well crafted, tender poems, whose long lines hint at runaway thoughts that sometimes seem on the verge of getting out of control. You should buy the book to allow Coates to tell you the whole story – including its ending.

By the Light of Day appears to be Pauline Keith’s first collection although her work has been featured in a number of anthologies. She propels the reader straight into a setting where death is regarded as matter-of-fact. ‘The Old Toll House’ introduces us to a family home / fronting a slaughter-yard. Here chained dogs rage at strangers and the day’s work is a matter of knives and livelihood.   The second poem consolidates the grim image:

Council-licensed, it lies
low in the valley bottom
like guilt. It’s hidden
behind the high church
and beneath the singlng
saw-mill

In this typically concise and uncompromising poem, the skilful line breaks twist the knife in our injured sensibilities; and we are shocked still more when we learn of a child being raised in this place who grew up close-acquainted / with blood’s many lovely reds.

A household whose livelihood depends on the work of the slaughter-yard seems likely also to embody violence in its domestic life. ‘In the Pantry’ shows us the child who is thirsty and wants someone to give her a drink but is all-too-aware that

the sewing machine is stitching seams
of her mother’s anger;
her aunt flings furious spoons and forks
onto the draining board.

Worse still are the unpredictable moods of the head of the household, who often slumps, /silent, centre of a force-field – except on the rare days he’s different and for a while smiles round at folk he frightens.

What does the child make of this environment? ‘In the Dark Stable’ shows her employed on the side-line business of gathering maggots in tins for sale to fishermen on the nearby canal. Keith makes a startlingly revealing parable out of the child’s maggot-friendly policy: If one falls free, she lets it go. Yet the child is nothing if not a realist. She knows the maggot

… doesn’t stand much chance:
one way open air and birds
the other back inside the yard
where …
it risks bucketfuls of scalding water.

Whichever of these outcomes occurs, the child reckons it to be not as cruel as the hook.

Words and images in these sixteen poems are as sharp-pointed and keen-edged as the implements and ruthless attitudes they hint at. The back cover states accurately that they throw light on an aspect of our world which is not often dwelt upon. One wonders how Pauline Keith has managed to emerge from such a background with sufficient recall to describe it so accurately and also with sufficient sensitivity to make her descriptions so poetically effective.

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Michael Bartholomew-Biggs