Dec 20 2023
Poetry review – A LAND BETWEEN BORDERS: Mat Riches explores the poetic territories mapped out in Mike Barlow’s latest collection
A Land Between Borders is a book that contains poems from two of Mike Barlow’s earlier pamphlets, The Promise Boat ( Wayleave, 2017 – reviewed here by Peter Ulric Kennedy) and Nothing About To Happen (Wayleave, 2012). The latter is out of print, so I can’t check how many made the leap across time and space, but I do have the former and can report that fourteen of its fifteen poems have made their way into this new collection. What I find interesting is that the one that hasn’t made it across is a poem called “Borders”, especially with its opening stanzas.
Crooked lines one a map, shade of difference. Yet on the ground it’s hard to tell, hedgerow, the point in the road one country’s snowplough stops. And the roadsigns: you’re driving across moorland, nothing in sight but peat bags and gritstone, when a city boundary sign appears.
Now, it may seem odd to start talking about new collection of poems by talking about what is not in it. Perhaps Barlow felt it was too on the money to include this particular poem; or perhaps room couldn’t be found. But whatever the reason, this left-behind poem does act as a bridge to this new collection both by its subject matter, but also by its reference to a ‘passport check’.
The opening poem of A Land Between Borders, “The Shingle’s Applause”, is concerned with those seeking refuge on our shores, and the various kinds of reception they may find themselves receiving.
[…]. Whether hot tea and blankets, or a cold stony cell, a stamp on a passport or a shove in the ribs
The poem opens with the quite lovely aural image of people stepping ashore to the sound of ‘the applause of shingle’, but the poem doesn’t stay pleasant for long with its talk of ‘the past with its nightmare/ and dreams, salt wind on their wounds, they struggle / up-beach. Two steps forward, one back.’ While this stanza does mention ‘dreams’, the use of ‘nightmares’ as the end-word of a line emphasises that this is the more likely outcome. (Obviously I don’t know this to be the intention; only the poet does, but it works that way for me).
This poem acts as a jumping off point, as a crossing of a border to get us started. It gets us asking what constitutes a border and how to understand what is in the land between these borders. It also sets us up for a couple of the collection’s recurring motifs – namely wind and ghosts. We have the ‘salt wind’ mentioned above to introduce the first motif, but we also get a reference to ‘exiled souls adrift’ that could be taken as a reference to the second.
In “Passage” we’re told
I’m woken by the wind in the rigging of the trees as if I'm embarked on a former life some bad dreams cracked open.
Every other line in the poem is indented as if representing a back and forth of passage between borders. It’s possible that the wind and ghost motifs above could also be considered able to cross borders at will – a speculation that might gain further justification in light of the back-cover quote from almost-title poem, “In The Land Between Borders”
there are two horizons, each with a flag of convenience there is a road but you never seem to be on it the grain if the air rubs your second skin raw the grounds criss-crossed by the tracks of travellers coming and going in search of their souls
In the interests of making sure ghostly presences are represented as much as wind, it’s worth quoting from “Familiar” with its opening stanza.
like a barely recognised acquaintance at arm’s length one pace behind and to one side I see you when I look askance or catch a twig of shadow through the window
While not exactly ghost-like, there is a similar sense of something ever-present, but invisible to be found in “The Hum” and its reference to a mysterious background noise that ‘ some of us hear it / some of us don’t’
Frequency from space round the void and back a wavelength dynamo or an echo from the pleistocene glaciers scouring rock continents shifting or evolutions nerve tweaked suggesting what might be outside us might be inside hear it?
This sense of permanent self-awareness, of being what we carry within ourselves is also present in “Martial Music” with its opening lines of ‘There’s a war we can’t afford to win, its flame / a pilot light behind the eyes’, but I particularly enjoyed Barlow’s updating of Yeats ’ ‘Foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ from “The Circus Animals Desertion” where he observes ‘In the sweatshop of the heart the pace / quickens, stalls a beat but then / thinks better than to quit.’ Is this an indictment of the way the world has moved on since the time of Yeats so that we force ourselves to process more and more, to create more and more in the sweatshop? Are we underpaying ourselves—however we choose to reward our endeavours—or overworking ourselves? However, the pessimism is counter-balanced by ‘thinks better than to quit’; it’s a sign of optimism versus the war we can’t afford to win at the start of the stanza?
After this questioning of head versus heart, a subsequent poem talks about how we are bridging the borders between humanity and technology as way of coping with life. In “A Chip Here a Chip There” Barlow writes ‘we have a polymer / / compatible with human tissue’ which is moving us ‘out into the slipstream / of our maverick intelligence’. He also suggests there are some benefits to becoming an android, of how we would save ‘years on medication and sleepless / soul-searching nights’
but it’s the algorithms their seductive logic I’d be allergic to and the soundbite bullshit one brain might implant into another where after all all this stuff began playing god when god’s our own invention
Once again, we are the ones who create the ways to understand ourselves for good or for ill. Throughout the collection, Barlow does an excellent job of demonstrating this, using the example of people seeking refuge (at the start of the book) or people perpetually seeing light in the darkness who appear in the final poem, “The Candles”
Yes, let us say there was a flame once. It went out. there will be others. they too will go out. Our hearts also are tired, our souls dark, but we — we are the candle-lighters, wedded to metaphor.
In the poem that begins the final section, “Urgent Blood”, we hear about
Ourselves caught in the flux of themselves souls searching for an inch long equation with which to explain everything.
At 80 pages long, A Land Between Borders isn’t an inch thick— it’s more like a third of an inch – but it does an excellent job of illuminating this flux, this space between borders. More importantly, I think it shows that we carry our own borders with us; if we can understand that we might be on the way towards explaining everything. That hypothesis alone could be worth paying £12 to the good folks at Templar Press…