Graham Hardie finds that Oliver Comins’ poems about golf also have an appeal to the non-enthusiast.
Any connoisseur of golf will appreciate this new collection of poems from Oliver Comins. It is an insightful and refreshing journey played out as a round of golf on his local course. Highly inventive and unusual, the book contains the different stages of this journey from “Locker Rooms” to “Nineteenth Hole” and the main focus of this collection is 18 poems about each hole he encounters. Anyone not interested in golf might expect the book to be dull: but they should be encouraged to read it for the sake of the poet’s effective and evocative use of language to describe the surroundings, the history of the course and the particular challenges presented by each hole. Comins uses a fluid style of writing and easily accessible language to achieve a level of engagement with any reader and help them navigate the ups and downs of a round of golf.
An endearing feature of any sport – especially golf – is that it is almost a reflection of life in that all the emotions one experiences in a lifetime are compacted into four hours of play: hope; despair; frustration; joy and pleasure. Comins clearly illustrates this. The scene is set in the first poem “Locker Rooms” which are aptly described as “snug”, “A labyrinth of sorts” with “Spick flowers in vases and a span of towels / in a neat pile by the shower door.” The staff are friendly and “No-one is made to feel / unwelcome, even those who are interlopers.” Nevertheless, the author has opted to “change in a packed car park” before he sprints to the first tee.
In “Castle Green (1st Hole, 345 yards)”, the frustration of the game is neatly expressed in
Shooting straight at it is the favoured tactic, because hitting a target is the least likely of all possible outcomes.
In “Nether Haven (2nd Hole, 459 yards)” the game’s frustration turns to despair when
you’re frozen in that classic follow-through, suddenly conscious of the way everything seems to be falling apart so early in the round and so completely.
In any game of golf, you must expect the unexpected however good you are: the poet clearly was brimming with optimism on the first hole but now he is touching on the nerve of foreboding. Nonetheless, as in life, things begin to pick up and the poet’s mood changes for the better by the 6th hole, “Soft Acre” which begins
Sceptical, precious or indifferent, there’s no point in trying to persuade them how sweet it can be to see an effortless ball follow the exact line chosen.
This trajectory of emotion continues throughout the collection: failure one minute and then satisfying success the next. Through his honest, clear and simple style and choice of language, Comins skilfully conveys the nature of the game to the reader.
The human condition is never far away from the golf course and Comins describes a couple of unusual incidents. One is a birth in the poem “Willow Waters (7th Hole, 359 yards)” where
Members will tell of a first time mother who gave birth, prematurely, on the apron of this green, while walking the July medal
and a death occurs in the poem “Orchard (10th Hole, 148 yards)” – “It was a round you didn’t complete” and
I like to think of you finding yourself lying on the ground quite suddenly, at the back of the tree, and smiling quietly as you realised what was happening and how quickly.
The poem “Snake Meadow (17th Hole, 567 yards) repeats the idea that the ordinary, the everyday is never far away:
Ladies from the locale gather there to tempt passers by with piles of handmade basket and carved trinkets.
Their distant singing in afternoon heat may reach you, lining up an apparently challenging putt...
Also “a man with a tenor saxophone” joins the ladies and his music “can turn out to be, an unexpected source of consolation /as their rounds peter out,”.
Evidently there are legends and myths associated with the course. The poem “Nymph Hollow (12th Hole, 197 yards)” suggests that “on the wrong day” golfers who steal “a birdie” on this hole may be disturbed by “Sylvan spirits” who curse them as
a worse fate could soon become apparent, as each increasingly painful day succeeds the one before.
Other notable poems include: “Half Way House” about a place to rest and grab a bite to eat before the next nine holes; “Nineteenth Hole (Not Much)” about chatting in the clubhouse bar after the round; “Breakfast at Turnberry” a homage to Tom Watson’s performance at The Open in 2009 and finally the last poem of the collection (and undoubtedly the most poignant) “Rose Bed, Wisteria and Apple Trees” which concerns the author’s fond memories of an elderly neighbour, who introduced him to the golf at the age of ten.
After reading this collection a number of times what becomes most apparent is the poet’s love of the game of golf. However, it is the honest and slightly understated expression of his feelings towards the game which really draws the reader in and makes it a pleasure to read. What also impressed me about this collection is Comins’ description of the natural world which he encounters on his round. In “Dear Deer (9th Hole 397 yards)” he observes “Woodland creatures will pause to examine / a practice swing” and then continues
Cautious/ deer and timid rabbits have seen and heard more than you might expect, are familiar with all the florid oaths of golfing despair.
This is an enchanting picture and it adds a further dimension to the author’s portrayal of golf. Furthermore images like “skylarks clattering above you on a summer afternoon”, “diffusing sea air that billows or gusts intermittently”, “morning sun is barely seeping through opaque air”, “the country’s sultry summer murmuring” and “high wisps of cloud / are indifferent to your fate”, all produce a subtle “Romantic” sense which I found extremely attractive.
In conclusion, Battling Against the Odds brings to life the world of golf but does so without sacrificing literary merit. Comins appeals to the reader’s senses and emotions with his “Romantic” descriptions of the course and his honest appraisal of the ups and downs of the game – all in an easy and accessible style of poetry. This book might not change the world but it will certainly entertain golfers and might encourage others to take up the game.