London Grip Poetry Review – Martin Figura


Poetry review – THE REMAINING MEN: Pat Edwards admires Martin Figura’s poetry for having a clear purpose and achieving it


The Remaining Men 
Martin Figura
Cinnamon Press 
ISBN 978-1-78864-154-8

This intriguing and ambiguous title prompts the reader to think of those left behind, the ones still doing battle, the men not yet emasculated. It makes us pause to consider how they got to where they are, what battles they have faced and how we might help them. As we turn the pages of this striking collection, we encounter both the personal, the somewhat familiar and the stranger; all kinds of people fighting their own battles either privately or very much in the public eye.

The collection begins and ends in Liverpool, the first poem referencing a birth, the last a re-union where a man reverts to speaking ‘scouse’. In certain parts of the book there are black and white images, mostly photographs of family and other figures. These hauntingly enhance the reading, evoking a spirit of former times in which much of the book is set. The first photo and poem feature a brother and sister so it is all the more shocking when the second photo, which depicts a wedding, is accompanied by a poem which imagines the father and mother never having met and hence a family tragedy never becoming a reality. But clearly this dreadful occurrence did take place and it shaped the children’s early years, the boy experiencing various institutions and becoming a rebellious ‘strange little boy’.

After a group of personal poems about family memories in which a son attempts to figure out his father, we encounter poems commemorating soldiers from different campaigns. In “The Sea”, Figura describes a young man following in his grandfather’s footsteps and becoming a Welsh Guard. His mum waves him off on a deployment to Basra, but the abiding image is the thought ‘that when covert in a derelict building/you must be able to fight your way out;/you must know your exit route.’ Figura has a real affinity with these soldiers, and is able to go beyond their sense of duty and professionalism to capture something of their mental turmoil. Each poem digs deep into their mindset, the inner man faced with war zones and fights not of their making. In “Sacrifice”, Figura considers the Battle of the Somme as it ‘moves gentle and slow’, the awful loss of life contrasting with the false expectation that the war would be over ‘before the leaves fall.’

Figura also remembers men who worked the mines during the war years, and the fruitless search for employment and purpose when soldiers return, often scarred by what they have been through. Poems also cover the decline of the mining industry when pit workers, much like discarded soldiers, found themselves with no focus, living in towns with no industry, their lives changed forever.

Throughout the collection, there are poems grappling with the meaning of individual lives, the mystery of ‘what it’s all for’. Figura uses evocative language, a heady mix of dark realism and strangely comforting surrealism. Who couldn’t admire the skill with which he conjures up the athletic figure of Burt Lancaster in the film “The Swimmer”, which he re-imagines as an escapade that destroys swathes of neighbours’ lawns ‘on a stolen lawnmower’ leaving ‘wet shreds of flesh/on tattered hedges’. In trying to find meaning in a society which sometimes pushes people to despair or recklessness, Figura wonders if therapy can ever work if it is no more than ‘outsourced wellness sessions, a dragged circle of chairs and/breathing exercises.’

Perhaps my favourite poems in the collection are those which portray familiar political figures of the recent and not-so-recent past: Churchill; Eden; Edward Heath; Gorbachev; Nixon; Harold Wilson; Thatcher; John Major; Tony Blair; Cameron; one of the Milibands; Jeremy Thorpe. What a mixed line-up of dubious merit, depending on your viewpoint! It is to Figura’s credit that he can take inspiration from this diverse group, and have such fun with it, at times using controlled irony but often scorn for apparent disregard for responsibility on the part of those in positions of enormous power and influence. In “Tony Blair’s Sleep App”, Figura wonders how the man can get any rest at all when bearing the weight of so many questionable decisions – not to mention their impact on ‘a Welsh/scientist with a kind beard, a forest glade,/a silver penknife glinting in the grass’ (a reference to the suicide of Dr David Kelly). But politicians of every complexion come in for scrutiny. Figura writes about the condition of the UK under the Tories by the year 2020 and looks at the hopelessness of the NHS and of social care:

Here we are then, huddled
on the exhausted stained mattress
in the seaside boarding house of state

And yet Michael Gove claimed to be able to see ‘a new start for everyone’. And there is special irony pointed out by Figura in “Calculus” because, back in 2010, George Osborne predicted that Britain was stepping ‘back from the brink’. There is both bitterness and honesty in recalling politicians’ ‘malformed dreams and lucky charms,/their easy mouths and golden teeth’.

In closing the collection, Figura returns to the personal with a journey through significant life events which culminates in a sense of coming home to a place he feels he belongs. The Remaining Men is a mature, endlessly moving and thoroughly eclectic masterclass in how to make poetry do its job. Here is a poet with composure, considering his readers at every turn, drawing us into the existential angst we all share and using poetic devices wisely and skilfully for maximum impact.