Thomas Ovans identifies with many of the distinctively-voiced observations and reminiscences in John Forth’s substantial collection.

john forthLow Maintenance – Selected & New Poems
John Forth
Rockingham Press
ISBN  978-1-904851-615
208 pp    £12.99

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I have found myself, of late, using ‘dense’ as a poetry descriptor, in order to indicate one or more of the following: poems that make glancing references to multiple ideas and images; poems that use long sentences with many parenthetical clauses; poems that feature blocks of text with long lines and few stanza breaks. The term may also carry an underlying implication of ‘difficulty’ – which could suggest the possibility that I am the one deserving to be called ‘dense’ in the sense of being slow on the uptake.

John Forth’s Low Maintenance – Selected & New Poems might be called dense for some of the above reasons but the label could also be justified merely on the grounds of the amount of material it contains. It offers about 300 poems, reflecting a (still unfinished) poetic career spanning some forty years and four previous collections. This seems like very good value; and a retrospective volume like this is certainly represents a pleasing piece of consolidation for the author and his admirers. But, irrespective of the merits of the poems, it is not necessarily easy for a reader (and for a critic) to appreciate such a book all in one go. This is because it has been shaped largely by chronology rather than a conscious development of themes. Hence there will sometimes be a sense of déjà vu as certain ideas are (inevitably) revisited. This review should be understood therefore as a response to a fairly concentrated reading of a collection that may be better suited for periodic dipping into.

If one can generalise, one might say that Forth’s poems often deal with personal and family reminiscence and observation of the everyday. Broader subjects are dealt with as well, of course, and in each of the book’s five sections it is possible to identify at least one fresh departure. Forth’s poetic tone is usually conversational rather than lyrical; but this is a thoughtful and measured conversation rather than an idle chat. The words are carefully chosen; and one of Forth’s particular gifts is for the wry and surprising one-line comment or image. At the same time, however, his fondness for the surprising or oblique perspective sometimes leaves me feeling of not quite grasping what he is trying to tell me – perhaps because he is crediting me with some local or specialised knowledge which I do not possess. This does, for me at least, introduce an occasional element of ‘difficulty’ into the reading of this substantial collection.

The book’s opening section consists largely of narratives of family experience. The first lines of ‘Cold War’ give a flavour of Forth’s style with minor twists to familiar phrases.

Annihilated by her long silence
we’d never outface Mother,
tight as a gunman who knew
how little she’d need to do

Again, the first verse of ‘An Old Piano’ packs a good deal of information into six lines – including an unexpected slide into intimations of mortality in the third and fourth lines and a neat use of a double meaning in the word ‘party’

Bought too late for young Albert
who couldn’t play and didn’t
make it back from Burma,
it stood taller than three coffins,
forbidden like us to make 
a racket or be party to one.

Forth’s poems are not always as clear as the preceding examples, however, and I confess that ‘T S Eliot on Casette’ leaves me puzzled (although also intrigued) by its opening lines.

 
The Wasteland’s conjuring trams, not ceremony or kings,
and has me thinking of a pub by the Thames drowned
in sepia or the model town I’d sit in – with a muddle of
desert-rats and pre-war cars baring teeth in chaotic jams

The reader soon grows accustomed to language which is dense with concrete nouns – trams, kings, cars, teeth – and active verbs – conjure, drown, bare – making up sentences that are both energetic and enigmatic. ‘Friends & Neighbours’ sets a scene with

Disconnected but still burning, I recreate
the spread of a Blitz blaze in electric
storms and shut out school for the day.

and declines to explain itself in the eleven lines that follow. (Is this a migraine attack? The author offers no note to help or confirm such a theory.)

Of course clarity (of a kind) often re-asserts itself, as in a dreamlike sestina ‘Immersion’. (Forth uses such standard forms fairly infrequently but is an accomplished technician when he does so. The same can be said of his rather more frequent use of rhyme.) ‘The Fifties’ is rich with coded references which evoke memories for readers of a certain age – for instance, Disney’s lemmings / pouring in thousands over the edge and the subsequent unspoken question why the cameraman didn’t stop it. (The1956 film of Moby Dick must also have made a profound impression on the young John Forth because he mentions more than once the mechanics of the artificial whale used in that production.) And Forth’s verbal dexterity and fondness for subverting familiar phrases come together neatly in ‘A Gift from South America’ with its mention of a tarantula’s black prance.

Recollections of the author’s own life and ancestry continue in the book’s second section. ‘Contact Prints’ shows Forth’s fondness for slightly convoluted reasoning: these were the days when cameras / didn’t lie. We knew what never happens / wouldn’t happen and we were right. A more fanciful and less fact-based style appears in ‘Summers with Merseysound’ and ‘The Strangely Neglected Bookshop’ which stocks a History // of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, illustrated, with maps. A more sustained venture into imaginary lives occurs in the sequence ‘Jobbers’ which gives eloquent voice to – among others – one of the gravediggers from Hamlet, a carpenter at the siege of Troy and a mine worker who evidently appears in the Book of Job (chapter & verse would be helpful).

Early in the third section, in ‘Sick-Note’, Forth turns his attention to the pitfalls of being a poet (having previously avoided the well-worn genre of poems about writing poems). A mischievously subversive tone that has been evident in earlier poems is now turned upon himself anda temporary addiction to high-flown poetic language when he found himself seeing

shards of memory, shards
of feeling – anything in fact
except for ceramics or glass.

Others were willing to collude in his addiction/affliction so that any of his writing

 alluding to or celebrating
shards provoked a trance-like 
state accompanied by mmmmm!
when it surfaced at readings.

This is light-hearted fun but there is a judicious combination of both fun and seriousness in the sequence ‘Living on the Fault-line’ which uses domestic detail as a way of looking at close relationships. In ‘Cuts’ for instance Forth considers an accident-prone but stoic partner and observes

you’ve taken your thumb for a potato
and sliced it, ready for the oven.
No fuss. Except, that is, from me.

And in ‘Heading West’ he touches on what seems to be another favourite theme, the unreliability of first impressions, when he notes that a place is new, or feels new / though we’ve been here before.

A feature of the third section that feels new (and, by golly, it is new – to adapt a TV commercial that surely resides in Forth’s memory even if he hasn’t yet written a poem about it) is a sixteen-part sonnet sequence ‘Modern Science’ which moves away from Forth’s previous fairly down-to-earth concerns. Forth does not set himself up as a scientific expert – if space-time’s curved / the shortest way between points / is beyond me – but he still makes some provocative assertions: Impractical, and lethal as anti-matter,/ is the need for what we cannot have; and he raises playfully teasing questions like whether / or not a near miss ought to be called / a near hit for semantic reasons.

In the fourth and fifth sections, poets and poetry occur more frequently. ‘Two-in-One’ is a vigorous four-part response to Don Paterson’s 2004 TS Eliot lecture; and in gentler vein there are elegies for Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. The author also indulges in a little self-reflexivity when poems at the start of section five seem to comment on his own poems earlier in the book. But it is the persistent strand of affectionate observation of human nature that remains strongest all the way through to the end of the book. There are many other illustrations that I could have given, but one of the later examples that best displays Forth’s skill with both the rhythms of human speech and the irregularities of human logic comes from a short sequence ‘The Reclining Years’ which is dedicated to his parents. I shall quote ‘Odd Couple’ in full in order to let John Forth have the last word.

He’s watching the pan while he waits.
Bacon egg and tomato? she says.
From miles away he says No beans?
Yes beans, you want beans? she says

No, I was only wondering whether
to have some beans instead of an egg.
So you want beans instead of an egg?
Deep breath, counting: one, two...

No (decisive) I won’t have beans
and I won’t have an egg. He’s
re-adjusting when a plate appears
with egg, tomato, bacon, beans ...

After weighing the load he says
I didn’t know I was having one of these.
No answer. A bad sign.  I didn’t
know I’d be having an egg, he says.