London Grip Poetry Review – Michael Bartholomew-Biggs


Poetry review – IDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECTS: James Roderick Burns finds present day relevance in a collection of poems based on Old Testament verses


Identified Flying Objects
Michael Bartholomew-Biggs
Shoestring Press, 2024
ISBN 978-1-915553-47-8
62 pages, £10.00

Identified Flying Objects, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ sixth collection, is framed – not quite on a verse-by-verse basis, but very consistently – by the Book of Ezekiel: each poem has at minimum a pertinent quotation, and sometimes a small philosophical gloss on both the passage at hand, the poem and often the connection between the two. The poet also includes a Foreword laying out the thinking behind the construction of the collection, and some of the ways in which it should (and should not) be understood.

It is a bold conceit.

Many contemporary collections have a much looser drift, perhaps two or three vaguely themed sections, and others no seeming organisational scheme at all, relying instead on the power of each poem to build patterns of meaning in the reader’s mind, with strong opening and closing pieces to nudge us in the right direction and ensure we make it across the finish line.

This collection is much more guided, shaped by a litany of personal and social disasters marking the times: injuries, bereavements, the injustices of time and ageing, war, political speech (principally lying), conspiracy theories (particularly those surrounding alien craft), politically-inflicted austerity, and the overall malaise of Britain in the first few years of the third decade of the new century. At first sight, it feels a long way from the history and harsh, often mystical prophecy of the Old Testament; surely it will be a reach for the poet to draw together such disparate times into something coherent, packing a punch for the contemporary audience, let alone to shine line-by-line and poem by poem?

This is where Bartholomew-Biggs’ conceit comes into its own.

We often remark on our seeming-biblical times, particularly with the despicable treatment of the poor in the last fourteen years, as well as the recent antics of the bumbling Caligula in the White House. But with each poem broken at the foot by italicised snippets of Ezekiel – the eye is drawn immediately to the italics, as though to a footnote, and thence to the frequent wry and witty glosses – we are drawn back time and again into a clear biblical frame, then invited to resume reading, title down. It subtly drops a lens of altered understanding, perhaps enhanced understanding, across each poem before the poet has even started a line, and is unique in doing so.

Take ‘Maiden Speech’, for instance. On the model above, we cast our eyes over lines from Ezekiel about a rebellious house, note that Bartholomew-Biggs sees the prophet aiming to assist anyone aiming “to cut through the cant of an entrenched ruling group”, and then encounter stanzas absolutely bristling with perfectly-couched cynicism:

     They may admit his knack with rhetoric but mock
his ignorance of how the world must work.  He’ll have no truck
with what he calls the politics of scorpions
and economics founded on a currency of thorns.

If we had not been subtly framed, first by Ezekiel 2:6-7, and then the poet’s pithy note, we might have found this deliberately dry imagery ill-fitting, perhaps slightly artificial in its description of what is usually acknowledged to be the one interesting speech most MPs make. But within the conceit, we’re primed to read imagery of the desert (and perhaps later, the crucifixion) – scorpions, thorns – in subtle and revelatory terms. As the speech evolves, and is received in greater and greater discomfort, we realise it is telling unpalatable but vitally necessary truths – “This frowning man lets bitter words go tumbling from his tongue” – and at once think of how much our culture needs this sort of prophetic rigour, and how infrequently receives it.

It is a theme repeated often – much as Ezekiel excoriated his audience, so the poet locates his world of warnings, revelations and necessary wakenings in our world of moral compromise and vacuity. As ‘Choruses from the Flock’ demonstrates with its absurdist refrain – “as one sheep to another” – we are a flock that profoundly needs waking. Bartholomew-Biggs’ 9/11 poem, ‘Falling Bodies’, does so in heart-breaking fashion, with only a slim quotation from Ezekiel (“They will destroy the walls of Tyre, and break down her towers”) and no gloss, but an abundance of alternating feral-competition and supernatural imagery:

how fast a heart beats
when a beast which feeds on speed
has seized it, sensing freefall’s smell
as sharks detect a spreading smudge of blood


To know too much leaves less room on a ledge for hopes
or prayers that sweet angels caught
and stopped their thoughts before they struck the stones.

The awful, unspeakable sensual overload of falling human beings – both towards the rushing earth, and for people of faith, simultaneously upwards – is not sugar-coated, but neither is it sensationalised or turned into mawkish comfort. The poet pitches his own prophecies in the language of reasonableness, engagement and persuasion. Never didactic, he nonetheless raises uncomfortable questions which do not have easy answers.

Identified Flying Objects, while lampooning the more outlandish conspiracies and extraterrestrial interests generated by ‘wheels-within-wheels’ and visionary, planetary craft found in the Old Testament book, is also gently humorous in regard to our inability to listen to anybody:

You’ve grown accustomed to old pessimists
like pigeons on a ledge – a nuisance to ignore.
Crumb-scrounging and defeatist flutterings
seem minor irritants; those intermittent squirts
of excrement on windows soon get wiped away.
                                                       (‘Forthcoming Events’)

We know from his substantial body of work that the poet is not an old pessimist, but nonetheless, this wry lament underscores the fact that the world he inhabits could easily make him into one. Instead, he retains an easy technical grace and deft touch at the level of word, image, line and stanza. We must be here, in this corruptible (and often corrupted) world of selfishness, disease, war, famine – the meat and drink of Old Testament prophets – but we don’t have to like or put up with it.

When the truth arrives, however, and makes itself plain, we might feel as the woman does at the heart of ‘Mourners’, an exploration of stoicism (according to the gloss) reflective of God’s endless patience with wayward humanity:

A stay-at-home daughter hears ghost footsteps
in empty bedrooms overhead.
She does and doesn’t want the phantom
to descend the actual stairs.

It is to Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ immense credit that when the phantom descends, we can meet it with a prophet’s seasoned eye, and a knowing smile.