Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Alan Buckley – The Long HaulBook jacket. Title large caps in top third, then picture of a budget, start black with white spots on his back and characteristic stripy face. He's not moving. Name of author lower case below the badger's snout.
HappenStance, 2016    £5.00

The word ‘space’ in The Long Haul (Marion Tracy)

Ever since I enjoyed making and colouring in a complicated bar chart for homework re. the images in Macbeth (blood was a favourite) I’ve been intrigued by repeated words in literature. What’s their purpose?

The word ‘space’ is present several times in Alan Buckley’s sophisticated and moving collection. It’s a word with many meanings both real and abstract depending on context.

In The Long Haul it’s accompanied by mention of shape, line and geometry: ‘an aching geometry, that shapes / our journey whether we know it or not.’

The word is used in two of the poems as a transit between the realistic beginning and the establishment of the metaphor. In ‘The Unchosen’ two former lovers meet in a café and as they kiss they make a literal space between their two bodies. A space they lean over, which becomes a place inhabited by their imaginary children judging them.

‘His Failure’ starts with meeting a woman whose beauty tempts the narrator to have his first cigarette in a year. The next stanza is about Gawain, the pure knight, falling for a foxy lady and his feeling of shame. The transit is ‘To fall just short of perfection / is to leave a necessary space’, and the poem ends with the satisfying idea of imperfection finally making him properly human.

In the poem ‘Pastoral’, the word ‘space’ is used at its most important. It is vital to the meaning of the poem and is its climax. The space here is both an imaginary and possibly very real hole waiting for the body of a dead badger. The hole is described with a moving dignity, ‘a small darkness,’ and ‘the entrance to a private room’ and what I take to be death is ‘a silent, untouchable space.’ 


A ‘winded tinnie’ in the poem ‘Red Rock’ (Carl Tomlinson)

Alan Buckley’s ‘winded tinnie’ rests on a ‘Red Rock’ on the Wirral where he finds himself at home. Buckley’s recent pamphlet, The Long Haul, speaks clear and crisp, and we are more or less exactly half-way in when we find this unremarkable piece of litter remarkably, arrestingly described. It’s as close as he gets to a self-consciously poetic image in the whole collection, and has that elusive quality of being both obvious and original.

Obvious because of course the curved, crumpled form of a discarded beer can looks like a felled sportsman cradling his shocked belly. Original because we need the poet, and the poetic, to show it us in this light.

The gentle internal rhyme lulls us into accepting that this originality isn’t a daring suggestion, just a beautifully phrased observation. We can choose to pick up the litter and pick away at the layers of meaning. The ‘tinnie’, in this exposed spot, has been buffeted, blown clean of its lacquer by winds and weather; the air was sucked from it thirstily, its last gasp crushed by the drinker’s squeeze. We can see the transient – most beverage cans are recycled within 6 weeks of being filled – against the geological; we can note the banal humanity of its presence on this ‘myth’; recognise it as either an ‘erratic’ or a ‘product of weathering’, with origins as unclear as  the rock.

Or we can leave this ear-catching encounter between the demotic and the poetic where it lies, twinkling at us like litter in a landscape.


The Art of Framing (Charlotte Gann)

The first poem in this quiet strong book is instructive: respect each match in a box, ‘Flame’ says. ‘I bring you no fireworks.’ Less is more: what isn’t said is as important as what is. These are phrases often employed to describe poetry. In The Long Haul they’re earned. ‘A room is never so dark / that it needs more // than one slim burst / of sulphur…’ And a number of the poems seem to me to address this, at least partly, as their subject.

‘Loch Ness’ explores a myth that the real monster’s long since been buried in favour of ‘the ache of possibility’. ‘Sherbet Lemons’ equates the tasted explosion of the sweet in the mouth with a girl or woman’s ‘shock / of blonde’ hair: ‘I think of her, late at night // in a room I’ll never see’; while ‘Being a Beautiful Woman’ evokes almost the opposite—its frame crammed with the hefty difficulty of physical beauty, ‘like owning a dog. A dangerous / dog’.

‘Psychotherapy’ does not seem to be about psychotherapy. Except of course it is—because that’s its title. It purports to be about a magic show. Step back, it seems to suggest, have a peer behind the curtain: what is this trick? ‘How d’you not burn your mouth?’ (Truth is, you do, reports the poet-therapist, ‘especially to begin with’...)

There are many other things going on in this lean, brilliant collection. There are ghosts, and hauntings: gaps where people have been lost or never born. But time and again I’m struck by the choice of frame—same as for Hockney when he composed ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’.

Here Buckley writes ‘I like how I’m shown / too much’; and ‘I’m made complicit, / a triangle’s third point.’ Then he zooms in: ‘But what I love is the cat’, the cat who sits, back turned, ‘slender and erect’, ‘staring out at something beyond all this / deceit, at something beyond my grasp.’