Poetry review – THE LAST DINOSAUR IN DONCASTER: James Roderick Burns finds gritty lyricism in a promising first collection by Sarah Wimbush
The cover of this nicely-produced Smith|Doorstop pamphlet is fire-engine red – certainly attractive, with its white title and faded orange author bio, but also a useful guide to the political hue, and cultural impact, of the twenty five poems inside.
Though she starts small, with a fractured haiku introducing images of radical potential (“One pink match. One black”, ‘Strike’) Wimbush is clearly at home on a larger canvas – looser free verse poems running to a page and a half, two pages, which are evocative, deeply rooted in finely-worked detail and explore the colour and punch of local speech. ‘The Lost’, for instance, charting the unveiling of a restored statue, ranges far and wide around this moment of cultural pride, from
the Travellers and Gypsies pitched up with the wily hares and kingfisher flits, while the filthy rich lorded-it in NCB’s Coal House
Rovers playing Barnsley FC, or Leger week fair; spinning waltzers and gobsmacked goldfish
brandy and Babycham on special occasions, a curry at the Indus; good evening ladies.
The varying moods, modes of perception and registers are dazzling, but the poet keeps them under tight control, cinching up her amble across the scarred face of the city with an image of complex beauty, invoking passed time, falling on
the model villages and the churches selling carpets and the factories turned call centres, the schoolyards, the ginnels, the smokeless chimneys and beneath them, beneath all that, those lost men, and all that blackness still down there.
It is a threnody, yet a work of celebration, too. In similar vein, ‘Our Language’, a great block of a prose poem deliberately hefty with packed lines, sits on the page like a single seam, both mourning and calling back to life the vivid culture of the mine.
Like many of these poems, ‘Our Language’ is angry – “It is not dole-wallahs, nor the never-never, not the light-fingered … It’s friendship. It’s fuck the bastards!” – and tender in the same moment: “This is the language of the pony riders and jumped-up check-weighmen, of Davy lamps and Dudleys, the oncostlads and gaffers, of black-nails and snap-tins, and names like Arthur passed down through time until it’s more than a name”. She visibly works this seam throughout the collection, from the puzzled, dented masculinity of men queueing up outside the M&S lingerie department as their wives attend to the mysteries (‘Inside Lingerie’) to the fleeting dazzle of wildlife, burning brightly against the dark valley, which reappears throughout:
Each pair of eyes holds a sunset, holds the ache of landscape, holds red-coats on a line of washing flailing in the wind, holds the wolf in contempt. (‘How Red the Fox’)
As this resonant image attests, landscape is powerful both on the largest and smallest scales, and Wimbush similarly is not restricted to broad canvasses. At the level of line and phrase she also excels. In ‘The Pencil Sharpener’, for instance, contrasting technology and tradition-based means of sharpening a writing implement produce “a skin-fresh pencil” and “peel a pencil like a pear”; in ‘Ripper’, a worn-out relative whose face still “wondered at every sunrise” crouched by the fire, “grey-jowled; the world/was a sack of nuts on your back”; and proving rage at past political neglect doesn’t preclude a nifty sense of humour, the crabs of ‘Things My Mother taught Me’:
On Doncaster market you can buy crab in all sorts of ways. Brown paste, arm-and-a-leg white meat, or a hotchpotch of both. Or from regiments of ceramic croissants with pie-crust edges, boiled into pink oblivion next to the uncooked; wide-eyed and numb on their bed of ice.
It is another wide-spread social canvas, only for crustaceans.
In almost all the poems within ‘The Last Dinosaur’, we are invited in – to history and vivid cultural tableaux, to the various communities through which the poet moves, to rage and despair and tenderness. No piece, even the ostensibly lighter poems, is without some small freighted meaning along these lines, and is all the better for it. The ex-miners meeting on street corners, for instance, in ‘Markham Main’:
Go over the end again, and again. How they were the last by three days to stay out in Yorkshire. How they’d gu back tomorra. After school, they take the grandkids to the Pit Top Playground, look forward to the night shift at Ikea. Together.
Even in a blasted post-industrial landscape – barren, culturally, as tamped down slagheaps grassed over and called wildlife parks, or here, playgrounds – where decent employment founded in community and deep utility has been ripped apart by Thatcherism, then remade into consumer paradise, the miners remain miners, together.
Overall, the book packs a punch for a slim volume. Its heart, gritty lyricism and commitment to the preservation – and creation – of culture are a winning combination, and presage great things in any full collection to come.