London Grip Poetry Review – Andrew Geary

John Forth appreciates a carefully-compiled first collection by Andrew Geary

A Shoal of Powan
Andrew Geary
Rockingham Press, 2018
ISBN 9781-1-904851-73-8
80pp    £9.99

I think it was Holderlin who claimed that every poem is a homecoming. In the opening poem of Andrew Geary’s debut collection, ‘Homing’ tells of two friends with different origins heading back to camp after an evening in a pub near Loch Lomond:

Twenty fathoms down, a shoal of powan
moves like a blue whale in a million pieces
drawn by the moon, a memory of tide.
Shut in the loch these last ten thousand years,
the powan patrol, still itching for the ocean,
still (call them what you will) Atlantic herring. 

In this, the third and final stanza, the sudden comparison of a shoal to a blue whale is held in place by a strong guiding hand and an explicit narrative, presences felt throughout. The theme of homing occurs in several poems near the start, and the collection is full of lost homes, damaged homes and of the longing and distress that go with such territory. A similar-sounding narrator tells the story of ‘Carlos’ who plays guitar in restaurants and seems to have become a part of his native landscape: ‘He has Andalusian blood / and it needs to be shaken’. Then, in another vein, ‘Salima’ tells her own story in her own voice of longing for home:

I am as my mother made me, and wear what she taught me to put on.
I read the Quran, and pray, and feel at peace.
There is peace of a kind returning to Mogadishu.
I want to add to it, as a trickle adds to a stream.
I want to return to the Seat of the Shah, to the sea.

In one of the best of the ‘Homing’ poems, ‘The Malecon’, two lovers and a group of old men provide the contrast that drives a story forward in old Havana:

Lovers sit linked on the wall of the Malecon
lit by a vivid sunset. Intent on each other,
they would be nowhere else.

And then later the old men ‘in the cracked but classical architecture of age’ have grown

Sentimental by evening, they tremble with memories.
The wall defines their home; they will die here.

The poem is completed by a mention of another group who long to be elsewhere but are afraid of sharks and border patrols. The three perspectives combine to leave the reader with a transparent view of the place, and this clarity characterises all of the poems in which Geary explores identity conceived in a variety of ways. ‘Rite of Passage’ recalls the speaker’s teenage years and being hauled around Glasgow with his brother and sister in the back of a van by two Scottish cousins – a potentially hair-raising experience laughed off later as it ‘slithers and skids its way into…poetry’. But there’s also a strong sense of displacement of peoples and cultures. ‘A Thank You’, a competition prize-winner, has as its narrator one of the survivors:

The camp is comfortable but confinement is hard.
Your money feeds us rice and tinned pilchards
for which we thank you. Visit us! Come at evening
when the air is resonant with our tribal keening...

Indeed, ‘stories’ here come in a couple of guises. Some look as if they pre-exist the poem, ready for honing; others barely resemble narratives at all but evolve with the author standing well back. Sometimes a poem can look like a mix of the two, as in ‘Acknowledge and Destroy’ in which a very knowing speaker is introducing different kinds of soldiers with their varying skills, preparation and experience:

                                Look out for soldier poets – 
wide-eyed types who will wander under fire
into the open fields looking for poppies.
Before you bury such, go through their pockets.

There are some powerful personal poems concerning fathers and sons – one, in the form of a letter (‘Dear Son’) addresses a wayward boy in the clearest and saddest terms; another in which the speaker visits a cemetery in search of his father buried in an unmarked grave is unbearably poignant:

I wait for the muntjac deer
that tiptoes across from Coldfall wood
to drink in the late afternoon
every time I am here.
                ('Looking for My father')

‘The Boy with Three Fathers’ is a seriously sad but amusing take on real Dad, Stepdad and God the Father, seen via the point of view of a child and displays the understanding associated with innocence:

Father number three is the one Nan tells
the boy about when she takes him to church,
which is like a school for old people...

and the poem goes on to make use of howlers like ‘our father Richard in heaven’ and the fact that, as in Cider With Rosie, ‘we can all enjoy his presents’.

Judging by the acknowledgements page listing prizes, commendations and magazines covering some few years, it seems that this first collection has been gathered patiently and with great care over a period of time. These accessible and moving poems are unusually strong and without any noticeable ‘duds’.