HappenStance, 2011 £4.00
Reviewed by James Roderick Burns, George Simmers and Nick Asbury
James Roderick Burns:
Which is more taxing—to read a pamphlet (and a first pamphlet, too, in which a poet introduces himself to a wider world than the narrows of magazine publication) in which flashes of excellence shoot out of the occasional page, or to pick up a first work which is dull but competent, not disappointing expectations because it doesn’t raise any?
For me it’s the former every time. Every third or fourth poem—and sometimes every third or fourth line—of Ross Kightly’s Gnome Balcony lights up the sky:
.......the memory of his perfume fades
......like sweat and ozone and cold rosemary
......And this is like knowing if I’m pulled over,
......it won’t just be breathalysing
......but opening the boot where the body is bundled in carpet
......even slime-green dank dark crab-scuttling
......coastal caverns close to high tide
Across a wide range of subjects, Kightly delves into the guts of things, coming up with numerous buried insights and wonderful, sticky phrases. But with similar frequency his work seems to drop off into spongy or vague wool-gathering, a kind of dithering on the page. The opening poem, ‘Bergamo’, for instance, falls prey to this tendency:
......Be very careful with that sharp little knife
............some cheese half a panino tomato salami
..................a light luncheon
At best the piece is slight; at worst, a disconnected series of jottings for some future, unrealised poem. (Oddly, Kightly is able to deploy this same unpunctuated style to great effect, pinning down random currents of mental violence in ‘not again never’.) Or take the wistful ‘Even more’, a loose meditation on the congruence of past and present in a down-at-heel café:
......But then there’s a tall, broad-shouldered lad
......I’d like, perhaps, to have been some time ago
......in some other, even more fortunate
This voice is radically at odds with that of ‘Rats’, which captures the urban horror of vermin with brutal clarity:
......screaming children suddenly stilled;
......fathers’ earlobes missing in the night;
......rats snuggled in bellies like backward babies.
But perhaps it’s the title poem that best illustrates this flaw. ‘Gnome Balcony’ is a wonderful poem—intelligent, subtle, balanced and meaningful, without ever straining after meaning or pushing it in the reader’s face.
But at the end of page one, where the poem ends, I actually scribbled ‘Where’s the rest?’ in my copy. I had been swept up in a miraculous saga about marshmallowy gnomes in their moist, loamy element. I had felt their living and their loving and their sad parting. Though the conclusion gestures at mortality (a hint of algae in the elbow), there’s so much more that could have been made of the poem. Not by changing a word of what’s there, but by building on an excellent foundation, developing the characters and rounding out the experience to the satisfaction of the reader.
There are some good poems in Gnome Balcony. ‛Between’, for instance, which deals with the unknowability of another person. I also liked ‛Template for understanding a city’, in which an imagined city reveals its darker side
......where tail lights draw red scars
......along the wide night streets
......do you feel their hot blades?
These pieces work well, but many others in the pamphlet did not, at least for this reviewer, who became annoyed by Mr Kightly’s habit of explaining too much, usually by cramming in a large number of adjectives. This is especially a problem when the poems treat light themes in a rather heavy manner. The title poem, for example, takes the (rather well-worn) subject of garden gnomes. One gnome explains his romantic feelings for another at some length:
......In the case, we stood side by side, my elbow
......just touching her marshmallow plump shoulder,
......her exquisitely delineated smile turned towards
......my roguish, still virile grin of mischievous
......anticipation . . .
The persona’s voice has got completely lost here, while the writer displays his love of adjectives. Like many of the poems in this pamphlet, this one could have been greatly improved by reduction to perhaps half the length.
And by the way, a poem on whisky that snootily looks down on “that supermarket stuff” is unlikely to convince when it spells Laphroaig incorrectly.
There’s a wonderfully sly joke at the end of this collection. ‘A soft answer’ recounts the tale of some English yobs abroad accosting an Italian gentleman with the eternal question: “Does any Bastard in this / town . . . / . . . speak fuckin English!”
The final stanza reads:
......My paragon, he merely smiled, and in a voice
......of perfect calm, in pure Italian, replied,
......‘No, ma per voi, gentilissimi Signori, imparerei volentieri.’
If your Italian is like mine, you’ll have to look up the translation (included on the verso page of the pamphlet). It’s a great reply. But it’s also a nice poetic joke, because it leaves most English readers as nonplussed as the yob on the beach.
The collection starts and ends in Italy, but it’s far from being as neat and tidy as that makes it sound. The word ‘irrepressible’ comes up on the back cover, and it’s well chosen, because these poems don’t easily settle into any obvious overarching theme, and certainly not a single authorial voice. It makes for a jumpy and fragmented read, but also entertaining.
‘Rats’ is a particular favourite for me—on the face of it, quite a conventional poem about revisiting childhood. The poet recalls the rat traps his father used to leave around the house and how he came across one three decades later:
......I couldn’t bring myself to ease at last
......the spring and lift the burden
......from the grinning broken neck.
......Under a paper-lip, the front teeth still
......were neat and sharp.
This is a poet who knows how to tell a story—the sweeping generational arc and the closely observed detail—and he weighs his words carefully. But there’s also a refreshing resistance to formality (in every sense) throughout the collection. In ‘Unexpected’, Kightly describes an encounter with his mother—unexpected because she’s no longer alive. She tells him to “stop/ worrying, stop trying to be right all the time”. The poem ends with the poet “resolving to/ do better next time—because falling short/ is still what worries the shit out of me . . .”
Many poets would have sought to express that more obliquely. Ross Kightly just comes out and says it, and it’s better that way. This is a good collection, in which I’m still discovering new things. Thoroughly recommended.