Poetry review – UNKNOWN TERRITORY: Julie Hogg responds to John Short’s poems which recall his time in Greece
Black Light Engine Room is an independent press that has been publishing for over a decade. It is based in Teesside and has a canny, intuitive, almost mystical knack of publishing highly individualist writing and John Short’s Unknown Territory fully affirms this. Short’s pamphlet contains twenty-eight concise poems of maverick, free-spirited realism.
The introduction of the work informs us that ‘John Short grew up ten miles north of Liverpool and studied Comparative Religion at Leeds University. Later, he set off for France, surviving as an agricultural worker, factory operative, hotel receptionist, English teacher and musician. He settled for eight years in Athens, returning home in 2007.’ These poems are inspired by the poet’s time in Greece; Flaubert’s words are pertinent to this text; ‘Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’
Appraising this work on the hottest day, so far, of 2021 only adds to any reminiscent cloy of my own sweltering memories of Greek summer, and does so deliciously. Short’s tone and the title of this work are born from the voice of experiences on the edges of another country. These poems are infused with dignity, gratitude and respect which never attempts to intrude, overwhelm, or own. ‘Poem for Rodos’ declares
I’d like to relive the days when I lounged in those bars near the fragrant Turkish shrine, watched local women pass, their dark hair fine as silk while barrel-bellied fishermen shouted over ouzo and cards and the fading amber sun made harbour wavelets dance.
Imagery in each free verse poem in this book is perfectly measured, often sparse and acutely precise, allowing the reader freedom to intersperse, perhaps, anecdotes of their own chance meetings of travellers in those universal bars. When bountiful, imagery is an onslaught on all senses. ‘Transition’ describes
the sea-hammered cliffs, blue lavender hills and scattered pockets of pebble coves
The poet’s lines are short, mostly tetrameter, of quickness and celerity and they tell of time spent surviving by one’s honest wits.
Turkish mountains loom like spectral presences across the winter sea. It’s a land I want to visit but first comes the grouting: each of us bent double, smearing tiles with paste shaped carefully to lines. [‘Zero Hour:’]
There is a searing authenticity within this entire collection which is immensely refreshing and satisfying; I am reminded of Glück’s insight that, ‘honest speech is a relief.’ The poet charts his journey in the shadow of ancient architecture, juxtaposing its magnificent size and position in the poem ‘Severance:’
then took a tiny room to nurse fever top floor of some sad hotel with a curious and unprecedented angle on the Acropolis,
There is a slight reference to mythos in ‘On Ikaria:’
No sign of wings at all, though certainly alive, it seemed, as if to contradict mythology.’
‘Island Candles’ is a beautiful poem of faith and chance and in ‘On Philopappos Hill,’ an exquisitely painful generational understanding is expressed with finely wrought candour when, ‘My father has come to visit/so I take him for a walk.’ In ‘Kaminia:’
It feels good to live here in a shaded neighbourhood behind the port, where time has slipped through the world’s fingers
Short is extremely adept at writing the most interesting characteristics of those he meets along the way, always with respect for their journeys too; football fans, old salts, tourists, a stray dog carried to water, an ‘Albanian Maid.’ In the poem ‘On ‘Taigetus:’ ‘He was never a friend/ just some guy I met in a bar’ or a waitress; while in ‘On Zakynthos:’ ‘she glides/like a tall, efficient statue washing/wiping and collecting cups.’ Other character sketches are:
One time I had a refugee in my hut, seeking work. I gave him space and in the morning when the boss walked in he sat up, thrust a cigarette at that leather face by way of introduction or ingratiation: [‘Back to the Greenhouse:]
War memories disturb sleep, you wake at four and dress, limp all the way to the bakery where they take advantage of your overwhelming qualifications. [‘Deserter:’]
This poem depicts necessarily controlled unemotionality until withheld feelings dissolve:
I reckoned it was destiny to find this place but now sit impotent with vodka, sad that you cried once when telling how you left her at the border.
Unknown Territory is a deeply contemplative collection of poems full of awareness, both inferred and explicitly written; Short knows how people tick and I am drawn into his words of universal truths. This work is distinctive. This book is warm, sometimes against all odds. I get the sound of bluegrass bouzouki in my ears, the taste of tomato and oregano on my tongue and a desire to return to each poem and the Mediterranean places so well evoked.