Smith/Doorstop, 2007 - £4/00 www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/smithdoorstop.aspx
Lately I’ve been reading various discussions concerning the insularity (what else?) of the poetry world, or how in writing this review I’m likely to be more concerned with Michael Laskey’s reaction than with telling the unabashed truth to the reading public. Timely then that this pamphlet from Smiths Knoll editor and Aldeburgh festival founder Laskey ruminates on exclusion v. inclusion, solitude v. company.
One of the best poems, ‘Concert’, finds a harpist envisioning that just the richness of her playing will share the news of her double-pregnancy with the entire audience. ‘Down the Rec’, conversely, is about a stranger lingering on the edge of a football game where he clearly isn’t welcome: “We know what he wants, that he’s waiting/ for a skewed one, a skyer, the chance/ to sprint after the ball, bring it back./ And we know we won’t be able to stop him/ joining in.”
‘The Page Turner’ concerns another outsider, the pianist’s assistant who “sits in her shadow” and “stands/ apart disclaiming applause,/ head down”. The title poem deliberates on abandoned religion, the poet trading a community of rituals for “waves…a couple of gulls…black flags…orange buoys…crab pots…a shag”. “I’ll miss/ mass and not miss it, belong/ instead to myself and this place.”
It’s far from polemical; solitude has its rewards and company can be stifling (tempers flare, tellingly, in ‘The Shared Room’) or the two can complement each other, be part of a balance (see the comparison of food-making habits in ‘On My Own’). Then there are the less obvious kinds of company. The first poem, ‘Offering’, regards the heart as a companion of sorts, while others deal with memories, items or actions that connect people to one another.
But does Laskey himself connect? Does he exclude or include? Fact is, he’s an old hand at the lean, simple, quietly precise poem—“bread, off the bread board, no plate …hard cheese” is how he makes his lunch. Nothing too fancy. And with friendly preoccupations like family, health, food and love, how can that not add up to accessibility?
Yet when he starts ‘Old Notebook’ with “Sometimes there’ll be a poem in it/ that I’m ready to write now” you can imagine the collective appreciation of thousands of poets (We know that feeling!) and the almost audible mystification of everyone else. Whereas titles like ‘Offering’, ‘Lesson’ and ‘Concert’ are deliberately unexciting—joyless even—but they are strong, rich concepts to the poet who has ritually undergone the search for the weightiest of weighty words.
It’s readable, it’s certainly skilful, and it’s amiable too, but maybe, to be as sure as his harpist, Laskey could reach out a little more. (Is it ok to say that, Mike?)
Young Reader remarks:
The chapbook looks great. I was drawn to open it and look inside. I was a little confused at first, and the poems were a bit hard to get into. But I could recognise that they were good poems—something still compelled me to read on.
Once I’d got about four poems in, I was absorbed by them. The poems were a lot easier to get into, simply because I’d really broken into them. I now feel that I could read them again any time.
Of all the poems, ‘On My Own’ really stood out for me. I think it’s because, no matter what sort of poetry you’re into, it has an element of that. It is both a love poem of sorts, and a bit of a food poem as well.