Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Photo of long grass fills the cover with white lettering ontopThe Grass Boat, Imogen Forster

Mariscat Press, 2021    £6.00

Fat fingers

Imogen Forster’s grandmother was sent into service aged eleven and when she speaks

She tells me only that this house is a lonely house
and that she has been taught a few words in French
in case they should be required: le lait, the milk;
le pain, the bread; le sel, the salt; la bonne, the maid

The reader is told nothing about the physical appearance of the grandmother, and yet The Grass Boat is packed with physical descriptions of men. The fingers of Imogen’s Grandpa, for example, are ’contracted into claws, unable / to grasp a tool’s handle’ (‘At the Station’), while Mr Bond the butcher has fat fingers, and the man who cuts the cheese with a wire has fingers that are thick.

In ‘Coming from New Cross’ the man on the bus wears a turban. He is old and dressed in white, ‘leaf-slender, a steel bangle / falling loose round his wrist bone’:

He is quiet, blood-warm,
and it does not seem
impossible that he might
simply stop breathing now,
both of us silent together,
both on our way home.

This man on the bus is very different to the men in the poem ‘Fat Men’. In this poem, ‘Toad lies snug in its hole / while bellies grow drum-hard under shirts, / button straining encumbrances.’ Then the narrator asks:

How many are loved with hot pies and chips,
thick yellow custard and pounds of shortcrust
worked in cool hands to crumbly perfection
and rolled out on boards year after loving year?

No actual numbers are provided but the suggestion is — a lot. There’s no physical description of whose ‘cool hands’ prepare all this food. And here I put my hand up and admit I assume it’s female people who are busy in the kitchen.

What I’m trying to say is that the women are very present in these poems but not, it seems to me, in such a visceral way as the men. It’s not a criticism, just a point of interest.

Sue Butler

A strong impression

I enjoyed the poems in this pamphlet for the apparently simple way they conjure up scenes and memories. In ‘At the Station’ the poet’s father walks straight off the page towards us, we smell him as he gets nearer:

And here’s my father, the sweet
cattle-cake scents of cumin
and fennel on his working clothes,
coming to meet me.

In ‘Leveret’ the poet hears a tractor and imagines the dead animal

burst open under the high roaring wheel
I shoe it into the long grass, seeing it now
as itself, this hare, four inches long.

But it is the title poem I keep coming back to. The ‘Grass Boat’ is itself an impression in the field:

Then we’re almost home, lingering
in the unmown field behind the house,

[...]

Breathing seeds and  stems, I see
we’ve made an outline in the grass,
the space a little rowing boat would fill.

All four of us can comfortably
lie between its sides, summer’s
dry sea waving above our heads.

This image is so well drawn I feel as if I know exactly what the ‘dry sea’ is like. I can smell it and feel the spiky bits of grass sticking into me way back in one of my own childhood spaces, but there is a lot more than that here. The poet acknowledges the temporary nature of the grass boat but is not afraid to leave it behind because:

a thing can both exist and not exist;
I understand I have created for myself
this boat, and that I’m sailing in it.

Suddenly the scene is a state of mind, a metaphor for the poet’s subsequent journey through life. I think each reader will create their own ‘grass boat’. To me it says: fragility, vulnerability and bravery, something which might or might not exist until it comes to mind or is captured in a poem.

The epigraph to the pamphlet is by Helen Tookey: ‘writing......is like trying to catch a fish that doesn’t actually exist until you’ve caught it.’

Anne Bailey