Peter Ualrig Kennedy finds there is so much to reward the reader in Naomi Jaffa’s riveting second collection of conversational and hard-hitting poems.
It will escape no-one’s attention that Naomi Jaffa is a name to conjure with; Director of the Poetry Trust until 2015, and author of acclaimed collection The Last Hour of Sleep (2003). The cover of Driver, this second collection, may be an undistinguished grey – but what con-tent! These poems (which are extraordinary in the sense of stunning, not bizarre) form a conversation between the poet and both herself and the reader.
‘Deal’ presents a clever conundrum of opposing feelings that we all may have experienced at some time or another, but will not perhaps have formulated so pithily as Jaffa does here.
I resolve to be happy or sad in this house, this new life, according to whether my crumpled list of ‘house move’ instructions lands in the unfamiliar wastepaper basket in the corner …
The two poems that follow, ‘Daughter, Sister, Aunt’ and ‘Let’s Go Look at the Dead Pig’ are threnodies for childlessness. Counterbalanced by ‘Trouble’ which indeed is trouble, cleverly describing in its clipped manner a small problem (a small discontented nephew) in the extended family. Then a sudden shock, a real shock, in ‘Getting Together’; from where has this poem jumped up? Is it a real event, a nightmare, or an allegory? Or perhaps wishful thinking … surely not:
This time, it’s the man in the boot of the car routine. They’ve picked him up from nowhere, roped his wrists behind his back, sealed his mouth …
It’s a poem of callousness, of unknown men who, in the final lines, experience a terrifying relaxation as if they’ve just been out on a country walk or a rabbit hunt. Are they sadists, terrorists or hired killers?
It’s a Friday evening, the grass is luscious underfoot, the sun is still warm across the shoulders, and they know no better way to finish the week.
Why does the next short poem ‘Pull’ end definitively with: “to cradle or wank”? Unusual. Look at the title and its double meaning, and understand the tension between recreational sex and procreative sex: “Baby or balls, / balls or baby –” I’m not sure, but that’s how I see it.
‘Merry Hell’ starts off “I have an embryo, in vitro, to keep / alive in a horse box I don’t know how / to drive and in which I attempt / steep steps of an auditorium.” An uncomfortable dream, it seems, and a mysterious one. A pair of traffic cops come to the rescue:
They suggest I wake up, get a grip and fetch myself a glass of water. Don’t I know that carrying on like this plays merry hell with one’s imagination, they say.
Well, yes. It’s an interesting diversion. The impressive realities of ‘Office Fire’ follow, dealing with the imperative of necessary decisions in a dangerous situation. There is further convincing realism in ‘Mindfulness Practice’ (dedicated to Tania Kindersley, who grew up with horses). Now I have never groomed nor owned a horse myself, and so this closely observed poem, in its enticing detail, shows me that I have missed something in life:
… we finish with her head, eyes half-closed, ears drooped, great long face lowered to the rub of the bulb of my hand against the bone of her cheek, right where it itches most.
Taking Up Our Posts’ is a dour poem of the closeness of death, the good luck and the bad, with a tinge of black humour – or deadpan reportage:
No one knows who will go first, or how: the man jumping from the 40th floor – shot by mistake from a window on the 20th by a wife missing her husband;
‘Next Door’ encapsulates Naomi Jaffa’s perspective; it is a poem so honest that one sees where compassion stops and irritation takes over:
… I go round, say I’m sorry and how is she and is there anything I can do wondering when in god’s good name she’s going to die –
‘Violinist’ is an affecting little vignette in which Naomi and her mother are brought together, courtesy of YouTube, with her late father – who of course is Max – “come to join us, hovering / beside the screen, for a second / life perfectly triangular again.”
A few pages on is the title poem ‘Driver’, conflicted and dense with suppressed fury:
the void unfilled by food, or persevering with a lover who spat I should have burned in the ovens along with the rest of my kind …
To persevere in the face of such scorn seems almost pathological. But then philosophy gets a huge look-in with ‘Sign’ (The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk). Just when the poet has finally decided: “At the start of the week I make it clear I’m leaving,” … an owl, “a big white wedge / of a bird” brings an understanding of what is the all too human tragedy of waking up to action in the nick of too late:
This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant. After twelve and a half years and in the week I make my intentions plain, only now does he see and touch me, talk about how much he understands, can’t bear the loss of.
I like the way the whole poem, freighted with meaning, ends with a simple preposition, ‘of’; the poet is talking directly to us (or to herself) without pretension. She expresses a certain envy in ‘Marriage’, the poem which follows; she is in flight (literally – “When I boarded at Avignon with my lunatic / quantities of luggage …”) and encounters a short plump American: “and I’m certain she is happy with her husband …”
‘Time of My Life’ and ‘Good at Sex’ are both so confessional that it hurts; but there is a final accommodation in the last poem of all, ‘Poem for Wednesday’. Jaffa, seemingly a bit deflated by the “humpback of the week”, rouses herself:
and on Wednesday, I think come on, let’s go for it, let’s be lavish and splash out.
I have not discussed poetic form at all in this review. The poems are free verse at its finest. The interest here, the fascination, is in the stories each one tells. Naomi Jaffa has produced a marvellous collection of sinewy poems that need to be read and re-read. And then read again. Highly recommended.