London Grip Poetry Review – Chris Bullock

Poetry review – HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN: A first collection by Chris Bullock is enlivened by some sharp and surprising insights


How the Light Gets In
Chris Bullock
Stone Lantern Press
ISBN: 9798859693634
No price quoted

In this book Chris Bullock gathers poems written and/or published in magazines since 1968. They are mostly personal and particular rather than, say. political or abstract. They are grouped by theme – for instance “Nature and Place”, “Family”, “Friends and Lovers” – and it is probably true that poems written over a long period of time will speak to one another better in this way than if they were presented chronologically.

One of Bullock’s strengths that becomes obvious within the first few poems is a knack for making apt and surprising connections. The common observation that many men have trouble expressing their feelings is rendered fresh by his drawing of a contrast with the male red-winged blackbird who seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. Walkers who make “purposeless” journeys – ‘nothing to do with food or reproduction’ – and are simply making ‘a circuit on the landscape’ are said to be ‘working our way like blood / through the body of the world.’ Some might say this is an overstretched comparison; but it is certainly an original and interesting one. Somewhat more familiar is the picture of an invisible and encouraging companion coming alongside a solitary walker. But Bullock gives this a new twist by making the companion the walker’s own better self who is keen to replace a jaundiced view of the surroundings with a delight in ‘a riverbank shining with frost’.

These first few illustrations come from the nature-themed section but are often concerned with human interactions with the landscape. People come even more to the foreground in the family section of course; and again the descriptions are enlivened by unexpected similes. When an elderly man, who probably doesn’t have many conversations, gets a chance to expound on some subject that interests him the words burst out of him as if from an old fashioned pump:

explosive talk like hiccups of water
from a well rarely used, rarely drunk from.

An old woman who resents being in a care home says she feels ‘like a wasp in a bottle’. And indeed she is evidently somewhat insect-like in other ways

She’s never forgotten a criticism,
repeats each one, with hands crooked
like the forelegs of a praying mantis,

Not all the elderly members of the cast are spikey or grumpy however. One carries and transmits a ‘gift of peace and slowness’. The slowness could feel irritating during daytime activity but the poet notices that, mysteriously, whenever the woman visited his house ‘I slept better than I ever had before.’

Bullock is prepared to look squarely at the grimmer bits of family history and, in the way that Sharon Olds has done, he recalls how his own father and mother met and – knowing now some of the misfortunes they would later face – is tempted to tell them to go their separate ways. But since he cannot really turn back the clock he finds some consolation in the inevitability of the lives he and his parents have actually lived:

Who am I to know what were better choices?
Besides, I want to come along, to be scared
into writing by the spaces between you

In “A Small Scene”, Bullock makes powerful use of one particular memory of his home life as a child. His mother used to dry washing on a wooden rack which was lifted on cords to ceiling height where warmth from the fire would air the clothes. On one frightening occasion the rack fell down and, from that time on, the raising of the rack was a moment of breath-holding tension for the boy which had to be endured week after week. Nor did matters end there…

Why is the boy, so many years later,
still afraid? Something holds the weight
of clothes that never dry above his head.
The rope of memory,
frayed and mended, mended and frayed,
lives in him, holding the weight.

Looking at another marriage – this time one whose beginning he was present for – Bullock uses a game of pool as a neat metaphor for how relationships work out over time, partly guided by good and careful intentions but never free of unforeseen and unintended deviations

The balls will fall into the pockets,
one by one, guided by what skill
we can muster, but also shepherded 
by the rules of a game we didn’t invent
into a future we can’t yet see.

In the next section of personal reminiscence, friends and lovers seem to get off a little more lightly than family as regards being accorded understanding and benefit of doubt. But it is in the two short closing sections that Bullock springs a couple of new surprises. In “Ode to a Burnt Stick” he meditates on rejection by considering a batch of straight and slender branches which have been chosen for whittling into walking sticks – with the single exception of one set aside for poking the camp fire. The poet unwittingly probes one of this reviewer’s childhood anthropomorphic sensitivities when he invites us to imagine ‘all the other sticks chosen for hiking, and you, / the odd stick out, never leaving camp, / being called on only to suffer …’ The poem goes on find something ingeniously positive in the experience of the fire stick with its blackened tip: ‘I could draw stick figures – / black on Utah red rock – with you. / You were a great five foot long carbon pencil!’ (Personally I am not sure that this counts as sufficient consolation.)

The act of writing itself becomes the subject of one of the book’s final poems. ‘I look at the sentence / lying under my pen / already asleep, though the ink’s /barely dry.’ This is surely a sadly familiar feeling for all writers – and reviewers – even those who compose at a keyboard rather than with a pen. But the sentence – or perhaps its siblings and ancestors – has been too often ‘assigned to forced marches’ on pieces of mundane required writing. Is it now too late for it to hear and respond to a promise

 “This writing’s an experiment,
You can run where you please”

Happily, this accessible collection is enlivened by sentences that do run to pleasing and unexpected places to capture interesting observations and recollections that are presented, fresh and intact, to the reader.

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs