London Grip Poetry Review – Matt Gilbert



Poetry review – STREET SAILING: Mat Riches notes both the craft and the construction of a collection by Matt Gilbert


Street Sailing
Matt Gilbert
Black Bough Poetry
ISBN 979-8392137732
52pp   price not quoted

If you know any poets in real life, or follow any on social media, I am sure you will have seen them post a photo somewhere of them with their poems laid out on the floor while they try and work out the running order of their collection or pamphlet. It’s a winning technique, but if you ever wanted cast-iron proof that poets don’t just make this stuff up, I just want to register a note of applause for the way the last poem in Matt Gilbert’s Street Sailing neatly manages to close a loop opened by the first poem of this pamphlet. The first poem is called “Awake”. The last poem, called “Aurochs” ends neatly on the word ‘awake!’. Bravo. If there was nothing else to commend this book to you, this fact alone should be enough to warrant its inclusion in a class about sequencing.

This sequencing can also be seen in the way a few of the poems talk to each other, echoing through the pages. If we take the first poem as an example again, we’re woken up late at night or in the early hours by a banshee-like howl that sends the speaker scattering through their mind trying to work out what it is before they realise it’s ‘nothing but a fox, / turning the city inside out.’ And while we can marvel at that last image (and we should marvel at it), I’d prefer to leap forward to the poem that closes the first of the pamphlet’s three sections. The poem is called “Foxed”, but this time the fox is anything but “turning the city inside out”. The fox herself has been turned inside out by a train.

It must have cracked her body
like a nut, that train.

I doubt they stopped to look —
they never cleared her from the track.

Another example of this echoing of themes is the references to areas of landslip on the south coast of England called The Undercliff (Yes, I did look it up on Wikipedia). There are both implicit and explicit references to it in the book. The implicit mentions come in the form of poems like “At Black Nore Lighthouse” and “Seven Sisters”. The former gives a description of a walk from the titular place as

Lofted over a scary, driftwood scattered beach,
lording over chunks of rock, a stilted steam-punk
iron torch, painted in off-white.

The latter poem describes a bird of prey; ‘Abrupt above white cliffs, blood / echo of every ancient creature suspected / here, at the crumbling end of England.’

Just as Black Nore and Seven Sisters (assuming the Seven Sisters referenced is the one on the South Downs) are several miles apart, the explicit references to The Undercliff are ten pages and a section break away from each other. In the excellently titled “I made a mess of my own pathetic fallacy” we’re told

Lyme Regis let me down when I went there
to insert myself into a meta fiction — make
 a memory from the memory of a book.

'The French Lieutenant’s Woman.' Not for
its romance, Smithson was too stiff, Sarah
Woodruff more Victorian wet dream

than living woman. At least that’s what 
I felt when i read it at 16. As if I’d had a clue.
What I did like was the Undercliff.

The poem manages to neatly mimic the dual-storyline of the book through a marriage that fails, and the books notion of parallel worlds or endings is brought into stark reality with the poem’s last lines: ‘[…] A few gulls cried / out in passing, wheeling overhead — not, I think, for me’. It’s a sort of “sliding doors” moments. what-if and begs the question who are the gulls crying for? Another version of the speaker? Someone else entirely? It doesn’t matter, read into it what you will, but it’s great stuff

This poem offers another example of the poems speaking to each other by harking back to poem in section 2 called “Undercliff”. The poem begins

Called here by a book, I slip on a foot-worn
path, familiar from pages turned over long ago.

The final two stanzas of the poem talk about man being a stranger to nature, and almost setting us up for the later poem by discussing ‘an old oak, tailored in epiphytes.’ As everyone knows ‘epiphytes‘ are plants that grow on other plants—like poems growing on other literary works and on each other. The poem concludes

Thick limbs fur-soft with moss and brake,
life multiplied by life. Staggered by irate presence
I have to stop. Together briefly, we are a pair

of pilgrims, passing on the road. We touch
—cold hands, rough bark. To note I saw this
could never be enough, I have to saw, we met.

This idea of mankind needing nature to give us a sense of ourselves, to explain ourselves to each other is seen not just here, and in poems like “Foxed”, but elsewhere in poems like “Grasshopper”. This describes an encounter with the titular insect coming inside a house to ‘make a myth of a whitewashed wall’. The (human) protagonist moving the thing outside, says ‘we know what’s best for you’ and the poem finishes

So quivering through the door,
I gave you back to the outside,
returned to find my world had shrunk. 

Later in “A hammering”, a woodpecker does what woodpeckers are wont to do to a tree in the background while three strangers converse on what (I think) is train station platform ‘in awkward grins’.

 […] As a woodpecker fulfils 
its mission, unconscious of the miles 
east, the thumping stems from missiles.

No one mentions over-crowded trains,
or basements, mines, refugees, a war,
all unwilling to break the spell, the comfort
found, in a small bird’s insistent hammer.

It’s entirely possible that a less able poet could make this awkward and too direct..It sails close in the final stanza, but Gilbert is skilled enough to wrest this away from that potential misstep. Ironically, he doesn’t hammer things home, and leaves us to draw enough of a conclusion ourselves from what has gone before.

I am inclined to mostly concur with Mark Antony Owen on the back of the book when he says ‘This is a debut that feels too polished to poet’s first outing’. I say mostly, as I think Matt Gilbert will go on to demonstrate greater range and grasp of forms, etc. At present the majority of the stanza in this book all seem to form semantic blocks of thought, but there are enough in there to think that will change.

I did, at one point, sound the poetry alarm when I read the word ‘patina’ in “The Nature Present”. I was under the impression that was on banned list, but beyond that I keep going back to the phrase ‘life multiplied by life’ from “Undercliff”. It seems to be the neatest encapsulation of a wonderful debut.