Danielle Hope samples some double delights from Shoestring Press: featuring football – Paul McLoughin – and small creatures – Nadine Brummer
What Light Does
It’s pleasant to see publisher and poets staying loyal to each other, especially in these austere times. Many poetry publishers are struggling for grants, closing their lists or shutting down completely. These two fine collections, both from publisher John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, benefit from attractive, distinctive productions, both with accomplished poets on their fourth or fifth collections with the press.
The Hungarian Who Beat Brazil is Paul McLoughlin’s fifth poetry collection; his fourth with Shoestring Press. It is seven years since McLoughlin’s last collection in 2010, The Road to Murreigh, except for an appearance in Wood & Ink (also with Shoestring Press, 2013) where McLoughlin, along with five other poets, responded to the wood cuts of Alan Dixon. Born in London of Irish parents, retired from even part-time teaching in 2012, McLoughlin writes poems, writes about poetry, wears great hats and sometimes plays jazz saxophone and flute.
My interest and enjoyment in this collection led me to seek out the background to the title poem ‘The Hungarian Who Beat Brazil’. The poem is dedicated to McLoughlin’s father and is in memory of Flórián Albert (1941 – 2011), a Hungarian international football player and one of the most elegant footballers of all time. I didn’t know of him, but found Albert in action on You Tube. In the 1966 World Cup, in England, Albert’s finesse led to the surprise victory of Hungary over Brazil, in what is regarded by many as the greatest match in the history of football. In what must be one of the finest examples of poetry about football, McLoughlin transports us into that stadium:
.. For you he was a dancer with the ball tied to his boot; the way he’d glide. He floated over grass like a human hovercraft, you said. It wasn’t just the guile, the finishing, the grace that made us all forget the missing Pele. It was that movement in the gut that followed Albert running rings around brawn and brilliance..
This poem demonstrates McLoughlin’s dexterity with language and resonance; his alliteration of ‘g’,‘h’,’’f’,’m’,’r’ and ‘b’ sounds mirroring the footballer’s flair. McLoughlin has a light droll touch with the second subject of the poem, namely Albert’s skill which was “one thing we agreed on,/ recovering from another Sunday row/ when silence was the aftermath/ and balls were neither here nor there”.
Many poems in the book narrate similar, seemingly past, encounters and reflections, giving a sense of personal experience and of loss, of shops, basements, school, people (‘from Chippy to the priest’), listening to Radio Luxembourg, going to Mass, life in the factory, Woolworths, carousels at the fair, going to the old Chiswick Empire. And although much of the landscape is London, McLoughlin ventures out, as in: ‘There is a Good Service on All Other Lines’:
At Watendlath, reached driving straight-armed up a single car’s width between head-high drystone walls, a smiler asks if I enjoyed the view… …. It’s quieter and less peopled the further north you go, but the weekend Keswick Market still sells tat. There’s no escaping that.
In the vein of the great Yorkshire-born poet Ken Smith, McLoughlin’s poetry is accessible, unsentimental, with visual, audible and tactile language, skilled in form and occasional rhyme, often internal, as in the example above. Although, on a first read, many seem quite straightforward, his poems creep into your subconscious and challenge the world in which we live now. We have a harpooned seal, the 2009 earthquake in Italy, a reflection for Helen Dunmore (‘Witnesses Don’t Agree’), Christmas, the rebellion of letters in poetry, and most poignantly, ‘Not Heart Surgery’, where:
She’s been in hospital all week— not because she fell out of her wheelchair, which she did, but because she still has diarrhoea, which she didn’t, and because her kidneys are not functioning efficiently. They haven’t been functioning efficiently for years but there was nothing of that……
and ending “Had her life when she came in been/ threatened, she’d be out by now.”
Another example of McLoughlin’s wry wit is ‘In Praise of Drab’ where:
Drab does not reveal itself immediately and its bum is never pinched. …. Drab would not be seen dead on a catwalk nor in a rainbow.”
This is definitely not a drab collection in the common understanding, but one to enjoy and re-enjoy, read and reread, reflect and re-reflect. It might, however, make McLoughlin’s idea of drab, as for McLoughlin: “Drab’s different/ when you get to know it,/ comes out of its self/…. is ‘full of surprises,..”
What Light Does is Nadine Brummer’s fourth collection of poetry. She was born and brought up in Manchester, read Classics and Philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and London, then taught Latin, worked as a psychiatric social worker with children and families, and was a Lecturer in Applied Social Studies at Goldsmiths College, where issues of race and culture were some of her central concerns. Shoestring Press published a chapbook by her (A Question of Blue Tulips, 1998). Her first full collection, Half Way to Madrid (2002), also with Shoestring Press, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Out of the Blue was published in 2006 and Any Particular Day in 2013.
Brummer’s poetry has a contemplative pace and tone, yet captures striking portraits of the world around, in nature, seasons, sounds, colour, music, paintings, interiors and more. The collection has three numbered sections, each with poems of a slightly different timbre. In the first section there is an echo of the American poet Mary Oliver, with vivid sketches especially of the smaller creations of the natural world, the moorhen, woodlice, a waterdrop, shells, woods, wren, sparrow, robin, crickets, a house-hatched butterfly, migrating birds. The opening poem (‘Chasing’), written in eight semi-rhymed three line stanzas, seems to introduce Brummer’s philosophy of why the moment of natural beauty is important, and I particularly admired her image of chasing a life like a wind-blown hat:
Chasing our lives we hang onto coat-tails of selves that aren’t ours. Do selves wear coats? Do shadows or ghosts?.. ... There’s this high wind, gale or typhoon, blowing us through this and that street, chasing a life like a blown-off hat.
Sunlight has a special significance throughout, as in ‘Moorhen’, when: “Low, autumn sun highlights/ the red disc on her face/ as a new, strange fixture” and
the frontal shield tapering down to the yellow tip of a bill now glowing ... with yellow that outshines turning leaves? This is what light does to beak-tips as to tree tops
Brummer seems to be contending that the natural world is beyond our understanding: “Who really knows how oceans work?” (‘Abalone Glose’).
The second section shifts into wider register of observations, with the same strong eye, but here Brummer is more challenging of commonly held beliefs. At a Quartet at Beaminster Festival, Brummer craves: “more primitive sounds made/ by men contriving dance as a tool/ to survive dark times – ..” Brummer now interacts with nature, she names and talks to the birds, even if people think she is “going doo-lally” (‘Grosbec’). She wants to see what the birds see, hear what they hear. This is the world she values: “.. year by year I’ve found/ small galaxies in woods/ when February unearths/ its first white flowers” (‘Not Crying For the Moon’). Reflections on her culture, including in childhood, emerge in this section including on Kol Nidrei and Gaza.
The third section comprises ten poems, with insightful studies of paintings, people, the sea, places, carvings. ‘Madame Cézanne in Yellow Chair’ exemplifies Brummer’s ability with detail, colour and cadence while exposing the deeper strains of the Cézanne marriage:
She holds a rose; the flower, close in colour to her frock though barely visible, is there, perhaps, to help compose a harmony of reds. Her eyes, asymmetrical, may discompose a viewer. The picture’s angles slow down our perception ..
Brummer’s poems often appear to start in mid-thought, as if we are overhearing an intimate conversation. Her last poem, ‘The Sight of Brooklyn Bridge – Uplifting’ (with a footnote date of Jan 20/2017), returns to the three line stanza form, adding a precarious undercurrent:
Today Washington’s Capitol is on TV and I recall the height of that strong safety-net .. slung across East River and how it could become a place where people jump.
Here, as elsewhere, Brummer shows her skill at description and celebration, and her ability to delve what lies beneath.