London Grip Poetry Review – Alan Buckley

Poetry review – TOUCHED: Wendy French appreciates the emotional insights in Alan Buckley’s debut collection

Alan Buckley
Happenstance Press
ISBN: 978-1-910131-62-6  

Although Alan Buckley’s debut collection has been a long time coming, he has had many successes along the way: he has had two outstanding poetry pamphlets and he has been the recipient of many prizes. This book is well worth the wait:

I learned how to negotiate
with pain, and quit that subtle opiate 
whose soothing helped me cope. 
I’d stayed unborn by living in hope.   
                                     [“Seven Steps On The Way”]

I wonder how many of us would own up to ‘staying unborn’ by not facing the reality of a situation? So much to think about in that last line.

This is a sincere, soul-searching collection of well-crafted poems that have universal messages and ideas for every reader to consider in terms of his/her/their own lives. It is an honest appraisal of many situations. It is a painful yet joyous collection of poems. The title Touched is exactly right. Each poem touches us in one way or another. Buckley relies on his own experiences and the experiences of others to form his words and connections. As a psychotherapist he sees deeply into other people’s lives and experiences.

The poem ‘Breath’ is one that stays with me. It won’t let me go. However many children we know or have read about in the situation described, the way Buckley tells the story is fresh and unforgettable There’s no sentimentality here. The poem is straightforward and honest with no recriminating in any way:

She knows you can hold 
your breath for all of your life. Her body is still.
You can’t even see the rise
and fall of her chest.    

The title of the poem, “Breath”, reminds us of what’s essential to every meaning of what it is to live. We are told in the epigraph that the poem refers to a young girl in 1946 but the words ring true today for this story is many people’s story.

So many of these poems left me wanting to know more beyond the words on the page. And this must be good writing for we can add our own life experiences to the words we are given:

Intimate Stranger. I sense this won’t end well. 
Whatever I said I brought you here to fix
a wound you can’t heal.

Buckley is not afraid to tackle deep and personal material. The words, ‘intimate stranger’, are paradoxical and yet manage to tell us so much about the situation that the writer is in – ‘What could you say, / anyway, if I told you my waking dream?’

Buckley explores the themes of connection with other human beings. It is not easy always to be on the same path/wave length with another separate soul however hard one tries or wants it to happen.

…I wonder how 
this meeting could ever be thought of
as casual, when a life time of mistrust  
and longing can pivot around every touch,…

Buckley has a way with phrases that transform the ordinary into the exceptional and cast in memory. He writes of his father:

As for my own father – who said before he died, 
he’d never really known what it felt like 
to be loved – with his sharp nose and gleaming eyes,
he’d fit in well with the crows. 

This is painful to read and must have been painful to write. How could anyone go to his/her death and not know what it was like to be loved? When the dead are gone we cannot make things all right and Buckley reminds us of the mortality of those we love. We don’t know about the relationship with his father but we are left to surmise:

Where is your voice
that tells me 
when to stop
that tells me
the game is over?    
                   [“‘The Well”]

Buckley manages through his craft and sensibilities to bring a heart-rending freshness to his work where an inherent truth is portrayed in an authentic and non-poetic way; and yet what he writes is poetry, nothing more, and nothing less. This is a skill that pervades all of his work.

This is an intelligent collection of poems; they are imbued with subtle emotion. The language is innovative and exciting. The poems are surprising in content and often have to be read twice to grasp the full implication of the meaning of the words.

There is, however, a darker side to some of the work – a sinister, energetic undertone which raises the words to another level of intensity; but because of Buckley’s skills with internal rhyme the reader is carried along with a speed that transforms a feeling of despair into something more uplifting and hopeful.

but not the Christmas day 
when I was five     your mind
gave way       you vanished
the police went looking for you
you ended up
                      on a psychiatric ward 
I can’t remember this…
                              [“The Vanishing”]

The last stanza of this poem observes that

from the moment the waters break
we’re swimming all our lives
                        swimming for dear life…

Most of us survive. Buckley survived and was left with a desire to help others.

The first two poems in the book alert the reader to the fact that this book is not going to be an easy read. But then why should it be? Life is never easy if we are truthful we lay ourselves open. “Badger”, the fine opening poem reminds us of all that is left behind when we die,

the heavy curtain at the entrance to a private room,
shielding from view a silent, untouchable space. 

And second poem “Life Lessons” leaves no room for doubt about the serious nature of this collection:

How do I live with grief and madness?
By telling yourself it’s your fault.

It’s the absence of the word ‘not’ that makes this poem so interesting. To confront oneself with the words that it is one’s own fault and to admit that to the reader is a brave, bold statement to make and commit to paper.

How do I learn to survive in a vacuum?
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t feel.

And yet the poems go on to move us, help us breathe and make us believe that we are not surviving in a vacuum. There are people out there, like Buckley, who can fix the fragile pieces, help to put together emotions we don’t understand through his writing and honesty and how he examines his own life in relation to others.

This is an intelligent collection of poems, imbued with subtle emotion. The language is innovative and exciting. The poems are surprising in content and often have to be read slowly to grasp the full implication of the meaning of the words.

Alan Buckley stands out with this fine collection of poems as a first-rate communicator entrusting the reader to intimate details of his life in order to help us understand our own. And while I know that a reader cannot presume that the ‘I’ is necessarily the poet, these poems are so authentically written and consistent in tone and content that I am assuming they all allude to personal experiences of the writer. And this for me makes this collection more commendable.

Wendy French’s latest collection is Bread Without Butter (Rockingham Press 2020)