Jun 28 2023
Poetry review – KEEPING IN STEP: Rennie Halstead explores the many themes and moods in John Mole’s latest collection
John Mole’s latest publication is a mix of rhyme and free verse, covering a range of subjects from film, jazz, and the news to the personal. Most poems are short and the most memorable for me are the personal. A sense of loss, both of lost love and the loss that comes from ageing is a thread that runs through the collection. In that sense, it is an introspective volume.
The personal poems portray the difficulties of relationships. In “An Open Secret” we find the poet left with terra cotta copies of Easter Island statues after a lover has departed.
as if this garden were the landscape of our love, mysterious and remote yet so familiar. […] the distance between then and now […] so intimately strange still making of our love an open secret ready and waiting
“A Comma” sees the punctuation mark as a pause in a relationship, a mark that
has placed itself between the two of us allowing pause for thought
The pause invites consideration of the relationship, and an opportunity to ‘consider / what has gone before’. It’s also an opportunity to consider where the relationship might be going:
Take a deep breath, it seems to say […] don’t be in a hurry to make up that mind
But once more there is a lack of agency on the poet’s part. He is a passive observer who says
I lie in wait to see what happens next.
“A Fable” has a different take on loss. Here the relationship has suffered a change:
When their sweet wine became a bitter cup they drank it,
But this time there is hope. The pain has been accepted, and, through this acceptance, a transformation has occurred, so that ‘the bitterness changed back // this time to water / pure, original’. The change is positive:
offering the sweetness of a second chance
A more optimistic memory of the theme of love features in “The Deal”. The dramatic opening of the poem grabs the attention:
Last night I dreamed I was playing gin rummy with Shirley MacLaine:
The dream triggers memories with the lover becoming the card player on the day they met:
I looked at my hand but it was empty and all the cards lay scattered on the table like the years ahead face down.
Although the relationship seems uncertain, there is hope:
I woke to find myself alone yet sure that we should play again
The jazz poems strike a chord with this reviewer, particularly “Rhapsody in Blue”. Mole captures the dreams of any would-be musician fantasising about playing an instrument and meeting their musical hero. Once again we are in the world of dreams, with the poet believing he can play the clarinet like Artie Shaw and, later in the dream, in the hotel,
there is George Gershwin waiting for the elevator’s upward glissando, his neat feet tap dancing to a tune in my head as I finger the keys of a phantom clarinet.
For any lover of Gershwin’s masterpiece, Mole captures the magic of listening to a classic performed at the highest level.
The jazz theme returns in “Keeping in Step”. Once again Mole is in the world of dreams. Here he appears to be in New Orleans, joining a marching Dixieland band heading towards the graveyard, about to play When the Saints Go Marching In. The procession sparks Mole’s dream protagonist’s fears:
Not yet, Mr. Bones, not yet. Let all be carnival, death’s dream deferred, and at this point, the jazz gods willing, I shall wake.
A third theme that Mole touches on is the experience of getting older. “The Map” is a metaphor for life’s journey, starting with the innocence and naivety of childhood:
The geography of childhood is a map without history each landmark innocent of the future it holds.
Later in life the map becomes worn with use and experience so that ‘when you take it / from the bottom drawer’ it is ‘folded, threadbare, / spread out on a table’ showing:
each journey you made to be burdened by history or promised release.
Mole’s view of ageing isn’t entirely bleak. In the beautifully positive “Her Hands” he offers another view of it. The hands ‘lie abandoned on her lap / […] unable to call for rescue / and folded in resignation’. Here, memory sweetens loss:
she still remembers their gesture of love when she held his face and drew it closer at that first meeting for a sudden kiss.
Mole touches on a different problem of ageing in the moving “Four Trees”. He shows a mother, suffering memory-loss and unable to recognise her children:
Four trees stood in her memory’s garden as if to name each brought a child out of hiding.
and looking at them helps her remember who her children are:
as if what was lost called out to be found
Mole uses the theme of trees again in the lovely “A Quartet”, where he describes four trees that he appears to love. The cherry ‘is irrepressible / like children’s laughter.’ The elm, by comparison is serious. It has ‘propriety / among memorial stones / keeps solemn watch.’ And finally:
Letting her hair down beside still waters the willow weeps for us all
Mole also addresses world events in a three-poem sequence about Ukraine. In “March 2022” he comments on the start of the war: ‘Futility blazons its shameless plan / as it falls from above on a child.’ In “Sandbags” Mole highlights the determination of resistance:
so may it hold firm and remain until dawn for the light to discover a mended nation whose cities awake from their troubled sleep.
The trio of poems ends with “The Leader” a portrait of Zelensky, seated ‘at a spacious desk / and framed by two flags’, highlighting his sudden importance on the world stage:
Nothing he will say can be without consequence. Tomorrow awaits what must happen next.
Keeping in Step contains some rich and atmospheric poetry, often in the form of dream sequences. I found the poems about love and ageing particularly engaging and thoroughly commend the whole collection.