London Grip Poetry Review – Owen Gallagher

Anuther Glesca: a poetry review by Brian Docherty who takes a thorough look at the twists and turns of Owen Gallagher’s idiosyncratic collection Clydebuilt.

Owen Gallagher, 
Smokestack Books
ISBN 978-1- 9160121-6-5. 

Clydebuilt is Owen Gallagher’s fourth book, as the acknowledgements suggest, representing several years work, and described on the Scottish Poetry Library website as ‘a memoir in verse’, presumably something the poet agreed to. He was born in Glasgow as part of the Irish Diaspora, but has lived in London for some time; the back cover informs us that he was a primary-school teacher in Southall, West London. Only one poem here, ‘The National Literacy Thief’, refers to his professional life; but as a teacher, and like all the poets your reviewer knows, he is sensitive to the range of languages, dialect, and idiolects encountered personally and professionally. As you might expect from Smokestack Books, Clydebuilt is political in several senses.

The book’s cover features a photograph of the infant Gallagher and his mother, possibly taken with a Box Brownie camera. Neither subject is looking at the camera, and our author’s expression is questioning, as if to say “What’s going on, how do I make sense of the world?” – always a good start for a writer. His parents are a significant presence in the book. We start with a retrospective poem, ‘Soot’ which opens

         Each time I flick a light switch
         I see mother strapped to a chair.

         A white-coated man throws a lever.
         Her body thrashes like a live cable.

and concludes

          She lived in a darkness

          no prescription could lift.
          I am the soot from her chimney. 

In this scenario, the narrator’s mother has been subjected to the barbarity of ECT, presumably as a consequence of suffering from depression or other mental health issues. A powerful and arresting image to start this ‘memoir’. This is followed by ‘Fathering Mother’ where the infant, pre-school Gallagher accompanies his mother to work

       She went from tenement to tenement,
       wore a full apron beneath her coat,
       carried a stiff-wired brush and a metal pail.

The poem concludes

       Once, I found mother on our own stairs,
       tears pumping out of her. My tiny hands gloved hers.
       I was her father, her son, her skin, her tears.

‘Newspapir Boy Meets Goliath’ is the book’s first poem in Glasgow vernacular, a tale of bullying, theft and revenge, that draws on the Biblical story of David and Goliath. There is quite a bit of revenge and anger in these poems. We switch back to standard English for ‘Cut!’ which details a childhood experience in a cinema toilet,

        You told the ice-cream man 
        you were sore when he found
        you in the cubicle.

The poem finishes here. The memory has been faced up to, but the reader has to guess if anyone was ever told about this event at the time. The next poem, ‘A Very Private Crucifixion’ might be related to ‘Cut!’ or it might refer to methods of classroom discipline that would be seen as unacceptable by most people today. ‘Crawlin’ ’n’ Trawlin’ deals with the subject of head lice in (or on) children, while ‘Carbolic’ is set in the present, where a bar of carbolic soap is ordered online as an exercise in nostalgia. We meet the poet’s father in ‘Lavender’ where

        On those rare Saturdays father was at home
        the whole house breathed of lavender

while ‘Plectrum’ introduces us to the realities of life without debit or credit cards, when sometimes two wages coming into the house were not enough,

           Accordin’ tae muther, thi three brass baws
           wir thi Faither, Son, ’n’ Holy Ghost.
           Pray hard enough, she declared, an’ we shall receive.  

On the occasion recalled, a guitar is pawned, but our young musician wants it back:

           Wan cloudy night, ah stood aw in black
            wi’ a glass-cutter in haun.

We have to assume that the guitar was not retrieved, or there would have been consequences. In ‘For Your Penance Say Ten Decades of the Rosary’ we find a similar scenario to that in Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Cuba’ where the priest hearing his eldest sister’s confession is asked a very personal question. Here, stanza two reads

              Youngsters like me eavesdropped, failed to comprehend;
             ‘And did you come, my child?’ ‘And did you do in return?’
             There was comfort in the act of revelation, being cleansed

              weekly from the grime of sin.

‘The Clyde Runs Thru Mi’ is one of several poems in the local vernacular dealing with the more colourful aspects of life in some parts of Glasgow in the 1960s and 70s. In this poem, the narrator is asked a question your reviewer heard all too often back then

                in a scene thit cood’ve bin shot in ‘High Noon’ 
                whaur thae droo nae guns but razors
                and snarled ‘Celtic or Rangers?’

Given that Glasgow had six football teams until 1968, this shows the negative aspects of the local obsession with football. Here, the response is to make a speedy getaway, others might try to pass themselves off as Partick Thistle or Clyde FC supporters and therefore ‘neutral’. “Ir Yoo Lookin’ it me Jimmy’ also deals with violence, while ‘Claiths-horses’, ‘Guinness Black’, ‘Thi Gorbals Knot’ and ‘Thi Unoffishal Toorist Guide Ootside Glesca Central’ show Glaswegians’ obsession with style and being well dressed in the latest fashion. If a young man wasn’t earning enough to buy clothes and shoes, some redistribution of resources by shoplifting was resorted to. Some readers might feel that there is some stereotyping going on here, and might point to Eddie S. Linden’s poem, ‘City of Razors’ as doing something similar; others might ask whether parts of Glasgow were any more violent than say, parts of London, Liverpool or Manchester?

We seem to have skipped over poems addressing the deaths of the narrators parents, as in ‘Sad’ ,

            Sad was the father 
            who couldn’t say, ‘I love you.’
            before he dropped to the floor 

            and sad is the family choking
            on words of love
            still lodged in their throats.

while ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’ concerns his father’s funeral, which was attended by hundreds of fellow building site workers, and a verse of the song ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’ is sung,

            As down the glen came McAlpine’s men
            with their shovels slung behind them’
           ’twas in the pub they drank their sub
            and up in the spike you’ll find them …’

(For younger readers, ‘the Spike’ was or were the ‘model lodging houses’ where unmarried Irish working men lived.)

‘Damned That He Was Irish’ starts every couplet except the last with the word ‘Damned’ and is an indictment of the prejudice experienced by Irish people in the UK, since 1845 especially; while ‘Tea’ recalls a son and mother taking time to share a couple of tea together, and informs us of

            The day a policeman knocked my door,
            and muttered, ‘Your mother’s dead,’ 
            and left,  

We then fast-forward to contemporary in London, in ‘Counter-surveillance’ where a plain clothes police woman is monitoring a political activist, who is using his laptop to direct protesters away from police waiting to ‘kettle’ them. But she herself is under surveillance, and

           A collision occurs at the woman’ table.
           Her notebook has gone. She rises,
           slumps as if hit by a baton. 
           My friend still offers instructions. 

‘The Accumulation of Capital’ is set in the Red Lion pub, where Marx and Engels drank and composed The Manifesto of the Communist Party and deals out some Soho justice to a pickpocket, while ‘The Karl Marx Appreciation Society’ is written in the persona of ‘Comrade Einstein’.

‘The Blacklist’ is another revenge poem, featuring a man who commits suicide after being sacked without pay, then blacklisted; the last stanza reads

           No one saw him reverse his car
           into the river and drop out of sight.
           His workmates sent a sympathy card.
           his wife set his bosses car alight.

The book then presents us with a sequence of fifteen poems set in Ireland, mainly in County Leitrim and Donegal. The poems for the writer’s maternal grandparents are particularly successful, ‘The Saddest Passing’ starts

           I can see the shaft of grandfather’s cart piercing
           his chest. Not in a field in Leitrim but in a street
           in Glasgow. I can hear him gasp and grasp 
           the last of the strength he has as he stumbled 
           and crawled up the stairs of the tenement  

while ‘If He Was to Pass, Then So Would I’ finishes

                                         No kiss or hug
            from her children could loosen the tug
            she felt when he died and true to her word
            didn’t she let go of earth’s hold.

‘Christmas in Belfast’, dated 1991, takes us back to what some people call ‘The Troubles’ and ,once again, a woman seeking revenge features, this time for the killing of her son by British soldiers, finishing

            and didn’t she go out into the street, kitchen knife
            under her apron, and take three soldiers with it.

‘Donegal’ shows County Donegal as something like a pastoral idyll, a world away from Belfast, ‘The Road to Ireland’ is more pastoral, although the last line reads ‘and who sprayed ‘Ireland is out of order!’ Different aspects of life in rural Ireland are addressed, such as older men who remain bachelors, provoking the scorn of the formidable Kit Ferry in ‘Away and Find a Bride’ who wants to see her three unmarried adult sons married, demanding

            Have you men no feelings between your legs?
            Away and find a bride! 

Those bachelors, we are told, are all dead now, so unable to speak for themselves; but perhaps the local women emigrated to London or Boston in search of a better life. (Other readers may have insights that have escaped your reviewer.) We leave Ireland in the company of our narrator and his companion, who ‘stuff the car’s boot with peat / for the sniff, the gift of it, at home.’ Hardly surprisingly, we then encounter our narrator finding a couch in a skip near his home, and of course

            It resembled that famous sofa where where Freud’s patients lay,
            and where I intended to embark
            on an odyssey of conversation with myself.

He plays both parts in this adventure, showing that there is nothing wrong with talking to yourself, at least in private, and it is certainly cheaper than therapy, and less destructive than self-medication.

The books final two poems, ‘Before I Make My Ascension to Heaven and ‘Dear NHS’ are versions of last instructions about what is to be done with the poet’s mortal remains. The first expresses a confidence that he will ‘snuggle up to Marilyn Monroe’ in Heaven; how President Kennedy, or any of Monroe’s other lovers might react is not discussed. In ‘Dear NHS’, the second stanza orders whoever reads this missive

            My heart, liver and eyes are to be forwarded
            to a lyric tenor, a revolutionary peasant,
            and a salsa instructor. Once they are fitted
            and the settling-in period is done, a weekend
            of toasting will commence with potteen, tequila, and rum. 

We have certainly come a long way in this substantial and varied book, and it is to be hoped that this is not Gallagher’s valedictory collection, that maybe there is more to come, and that he will explore a new path. After all, for someone with Owen Gallagher’s political instincts, current developments, as of September 2019, including Brexit, Covid-19, global warming, and the follies of President Trump, should prove a rich source of material.

As Steve Jobs used to say, ‘One last thing’; there is no excuse for badly produced or poorly edited books, and Smokestack do not disappoint in this respect. Clear, readable type, no obvious typos (I accept potteen as one spelling of poitín) and anyone struggling with the Glasgow vernacular should go and read James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, or just listen to Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle on TV. It’s really not that hard.

Brian Docherty