Julie Hogg is impressed by a debut pamphlet collection from Alex Toms
Alex Toms has written a lubricous debut collection. East Anglia is her home and this provides solid roots for these twenty-five poems. However they can’t be contained, and won’t be confined, between the pages of this book. They slither alongside cut-out illustrations by Ella Johnston and full-bleed water photography by Martin Bewick. These illustrations exquisitely and completely complement Toms’ work which is attractively produced by Dunlin Press of Wivenhoe, an independent publishing house focusing on emerging writers and visual artists.
Who is the eel catcher? An eel catcher is perhaps the main character of this peopled and ghostly collection; although elusive and hard to pin down. Eel catching is, after all, steeped in traditional history through the ages and the ripples of time on the Fens are captured fleetingly, with depth and empathy by the poet.
Your day begins before the last stars have faded, and the river still dreams beneath its blanket of mist. It ends at sunset when you’ve laid your last trap.
The title poem of the collection announces the eel catcher in the poet’s assured and competent voice. Here the poet is ghostlike, writing of ancestors and deaths and hopes; weaving along each stanza deftly as through a wicker snare, slick and slippery:
You’ll be out in all weathers: when elvers of rain trickle down your neck; when the sun beats down, heavy as the hand of God. The elements will burnish your skin, turn you into a living icon.
This is the first of a sequence of five eel catcher poems, naturally writhing throughout the collection and cleverly interspersed with evocative phrases: ‘sly knife’, (“On Entering the Eel Catcher’s Workshop”), ‘I found you in the darkest corner’, (“The Eel Catcher Calls me Home”), ‘know the waterways/ as well as the veins in my wrist’, (“The Last Lady Eel Catcher”), ‘the invisible thresholds where land and water meld’, (“The Eel Catcher Dreams of Horses”).
Eels and humans are predatory creatures and Toms captures animals in an achingly contemporary way in “The Mermaid in the Dime Museum”. Skilfully and hauntingly, Toms compares a trapped Fiji mermaid and a trafficked young lady. Preened, punted, 100% real hair, stitched-up; is this the greatest show? The poem is indelible and stays with me. The folly of captivity is explored again in “The Garden of Intelligence”, which is written after King Wen of Zhou in the Ancient Chinese Shay dynasty and his creation of the first nature reserve:
I watch my concubines take daily steps: peahens dressed in peacock colours,
A relieving sense of freedom is achieved in “Becoming Sei”, remembering an author who served the Empress Teishi a thousand years ago:
Your voice whispers to me from the pages of your book: soft as a pillow, sharp as a paper cut.
Many more famous women are celebrated here: Boudica, Bess Houdini, Sophie Scholl, Valentina Tereshkova and, ‘The High Priestess of Gropekunte Lane:’
I’ve seen enough of humankind, know desires don’t change, despite the boulder roll of time. So, would you be prepared to do the thing they whisper timidly, afraid of what you’ll think? And do you trust enough to share the want that gnaws away at you?
Toms writes tenderly about relationships, both candidly and taut with restraint. “The Summerlands” tentatively narrates precious shared experience: ‘you traced a future in my palm/ arousing a strange alchemy’. The form of, “The Poet of Witch Countie – A Tragedie in Five Acts” is particularly pleasing, using ampersand and stage directions. The title of the poem, “When Daedalus was my Lodger” implies the marital chaos which ensues and the poet tongue-in-cheekily writes: ‘my husband handed me divorce papers.’
Subtle, deeper, undercurrents of meaning articulately infuse this collection and the tonality of the poems across the whole sequence is pitch perfect. The final poem in the collection describes how silver eels swim out from the estuary to the Sargasso Sea. When Alex Toms navigates the wider waters of a first full collection, I very much look forward to reading her work.