Dec 10 2023
Poetry review – GAMES OF SOLDIERS: Thomas Ovans enjoys being teased and perplexed by the prose-poems of Mary Michaels
Games of Soldiers Mary Michaels Sea Cow Press ISBN: 9780950672960 53pp £9.50 (available from Sea Cow Press 28 Carysfort Road N16 9AL cheques payable to M. Michaels)
Games of Soldiers is an elegantly-produced collection of mainly prose poems which capture complex – but quite often inconsequential – moments or trains of thought. Sometimes these seem to be scenes taken from a TV drama; sometimes they feel like half-memories being re-enacted and re-examined; and sometimes they might be pure imagination. One could interpret the title as suggesting that these are moments that can easily be rejected or abandoned (as in “Sod this for a ….”). But the fact that the poems contain images that are persistent and unsettling rather undermines that way of looking at the collection. So also does the presence of real soldiers in some of the poems.
The unsettling elements are frequently to do with the impermanence of familiar things
Every evening walking home from the train, she has the same fear – of rounding the corner and finding nothing there. [“Salvage”]
Elsewhere they reflect anxiety about intrusive and recurring fantasies
Sometimes I’m walking a parked up street on a bright sunny day and get a sense that there’s someone at my shoulder,very close,tracking me,never overtaking.When I turn, there’s no one; just the house-fronts sliding into fun-fair distortions on the bonnets of cars. [“Beauty”]
Worse still are the actual memories
A nasty experience.It was in childhood but decades later she still hesitates to put it down on paper, even to pro- nounce it. …The memory of something that took place in a room makes her fear that whole building and the street that it’s on; the name of the street and street-signs in general; the postcode that forms part of the address… [“Space, Time”]
Even though these threats seem largely ephemeral Michaels also introduces real and physical dangers. The second part of “Salvage” is set in a war zone and, as I write this review, the picture of civilians emerging from ‘communal refuges’ into ‘open sky and rubble’ instantly evokes television images from Gaza. That horror had not begun to unfold when Michaels was writing these poems; but she may well have had in mind the conflict in Ukraine – or indeed any other of the many instances of wanton destruction of homes and families that the world has witnessed in our lifetimes.
The poems move surprisingly easily and swiftly between the mundane and the shocking. Among the war-damaged buildings we are shown ‘the flaking announcements on the walls of old tenements’ and may be reminded of those semi-permanent advertising signs painted on walls which loomed in the background of our own childhoods – the dated slogans and the familiar (but now defunct) names of products and manufacturers which we saw and spoke so often that they almost became incantations without any immediate meaning. The single line ‘With what complacency we also watch’ convicts us of our ability to spiral off into such wool-gathering reminiscence even when looking at the real and present dangers fcing other people.
The extent to which the likely readers of this book are insulated from disasters occurring elsewhere is bluntly summed up by the observation that, if our lives were filmed, ‘you’d have to spool through for hours and hours, to find anything significant.’ But Michaels isn’t inclined to leave matters there. Perhaps we are more complicit in the world’s troubles than we think:
I’ve done my share of killings of course. Mostly through an agent paid for the job. [“Nordic Noir”]
In this case it turns out that the poet is not admitting to homicide but merely referring to the hiring of an exterminator to get rid of rats nesting under a bathtub. But in a later poem “Wake” there is a confession that does not relate to anything so trivial
I am accomplice to a double murder. Supply the string, a neat new ball,and tie the victims up. My partner,a woman, is a serial kller. I stop her, however, from the third….
Some might regret that the book does not tie up even such a substantial loose end as this. For me however this does not matter and I am quite content when the next poem comes down to earth and presents an innocuous – but still mysterious – domestic interior (that puts me in mind of a work by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi)
She’s framed by the serving hatch (dark green like the picture rail, skirting boards and floor). We see only the back of her. Long sleeves gathered at the shoulders… [“Tea and Garibaldi”]
Some of the indoor conversation pieces appearing in poems like this one are as near as the collection gets to light-heartedness. But, in spite of its undoubtedly downbeat content’ the book makes for a pleasing read. The prose flows with an easy rhythm and is quite conversational albeit with a cool and detached tone. It sometimes has the matter-of-fact-ness of stage directions but frequently the word choices and phraseology are quietly surprising. The way that certain topics recur gives the impression that we are being allowed some access to the poet’s subconscious. For instance a mysterious and elusive brother comes up more than once:
I dreamed last night that my brother came home. After all these years.It was the occasion of a big funeral – his, oddly …. [“Nordic Noir”] ….He was the other side of the world and I knew very little of the life he led there. He put it about a bit I imagine…. … Any woman finding herself pregnant might have weighed him up as not a good bet,once he’d been pulled back from walking into the sea with stones in his pockets. [“Coins, Foxes”]
As an occasional variation, Michaels sometimes lets her prose breaks off into a few lines of free verse, as in “Butterfly”
A walker – ‘somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan,’ as she describes herself –throws a ball for her ageing springer spaniel She blames the forests for bursting into flame she blames the whales for beaching and the fish that gasp as the mud dries beneath them facial recognition for those fish! let’s identify the culprits!
There is a touch of unexpected humour here — but it is also an uncomfortable reminder of a regrettably accusing tone that prevails in today’s media and other public discourse which more often than not looks in the wrong direction and finds culpability in the weak rather than in the powerful.
This is a collection that is very hard to characterize. Yet within its own unconventional conventions it holds together well and the reader can feel that they are being escorted through a world with its own internal consistency. It labels itself on the back cover as ‘a blend of vivid immediacy with oblique storylines and meanings’. I think , however, I would take issue with the word ‘vivid’; for me the immediacy is better described as subtle and insinuating – which in the long run I take to be an advantage because it suggests that fresh shades of meaning may be found on repeated re-readings.