London Grip Poetry Review – John Mole

Poetry review – KEEPING IN STEP: Rennie Halstead explores the many themes and moods in John Mole’s latest collection

Keeping in Step 
John Mole
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978 - 1 - 915553 - 20 - 1

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.