Red Squirrel Press, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Emma Lee and Jon Stone
I can see why Lesley Mountain called this collection Dance of the Disappointed: it is, throughout, full of both. Her poetry is strong and very readable: clear and full of understated feeling. There’s a ‘lustre’— to steal one of her own titles— to her work that shines through even its grittiest moments. “From a distance you did not attract/ attention, but close up you shone/ like the inside of a shell”, she writes in ‘Lustre’:
Once that happened, you never
seemed drab again, not even when
threads started to come loose
and we began to realise
you would never be mended.
Threads do come loose. In this collection the writer charts the course of a life, from a tangled kid, in ‘Meeting Myself Coming Back’, through a glorious girl emerging in ‘En Route’, to, towards the close of the pamphlet, a decidedly older woman, preoccupied with night sweats, and hospital visits.
There’s humour, compassion and humanity throughout. “Not Everyone has an Ithaca”, Mountain suggests. Perhaps most redeeming of all about this collection—with its “broken gin bottles” on graves (in ‘Dance of the Disappointed’), and “Hula Hoop packets, Coke cans,/ torn-off breasts (and worse)” littering school bus shelters—is the wonderful inverted figure of ‘The Sky Sweeper’, clearing “Ambrosia cups,”— although I do have to stop myself from thinking custard at this point— “discarded swan suits,/ bay leaf wreaths, grape stalks,/ other clutter of the gods.”
At her most tender, Mountain conjures a sense of human frailty and warmth, perhaps not unlike film director Mike Leigh at his (Life is Sweet) best. In ‘Under the Sun’, “below the give and take of branches”, a couple, or a couple of old women-friends, “rest on flaking seats” in a characteristically untended garden:
In a decade our granddaughters
will decorate their rooms with chintz,
blowsy roses, tassels everywhere,
think the fashion all their own.
From its blurb I know this pamphlet was the result of a competition win, so maybe its look-and-feel was predetermined. I did think the cover a pity though. The figure on the front, the colour and the title typeface combine to make the thing look to me rather like a booklet you might pluck from the back of a church pew. Yet the poetry itself delivers so much more than this, combining exceptionally gritty realism with some wonderfully redemptive flights of fancy.
At its most basic, a dance is the execution of steps in time to music. But in order to differentiate dance from someone walking in time to the beat, dance has a second element—musicality. Likewise, poetry isn’t just about putting the words in order and producing a technically accomplished piece, but also making the words dance.
Lesley Mountain can certainly put words in order. In ‘Poppy Emerging’:
Crumpled silk and dark-red veins crinkle
with the effort of escape. Already my outer petals
are curling at the rim, vermilion fading to orange,
fragile as skin on the edge of a wound.
Oh God, what if you fail to notice
my nail-varnish lure?
What if I fail to shock you?
That “orange” is disappointingly ordinary after “vermilion”. It’s not clear in the penultimate stanza whether the “Oh God” is an exclamation, or if “Oh God” is literal, which seems an odd expression from a poppy. I think the last line is overly climactic: “shock” feels out of place after all the references to desire, particularly coming immediately after “nail-varnish lure”. I feel as if it’s trying to draw me into an Argentine Tango by using a flamboyant costume to cover the pretty basic steps underneath.
Lesley Mountain doesn’t just write of flowers and nature. People and her home metropolis get a look-in too. In ‘King Midas Visits Tyneside’ the sonnet ends
A bright disturbing stranger’s come to stay,
his case a shiny yellow edged with chrome,
designer shoes, aroma of latte,
he’s turned the burned-out warehouses to homes.
Yet now it’s all ciabatta and sunglasses,
there’s beggars on the streets and some are lasses.
While the poem follows a sonnet form in that the first eight lines look back at working class markets and men-only bars, with the next four dedicated to the influx of yuppies, yet the conclusion lacks power. That the poor are always with us is hardly a new idea and I fail to see the significance of the final “and some are lasses.” Is the reader to conclude it’s somehow worse that there are female as well as male beggars? Is the poet implying things were better when women were tucked away in kitchens while men worked and went out on their own? Or is it simply there for the rhyme?
Dance of the Disappointed left me with the impression of a writer in search of something to write about. For me, the words were well-executed but didn’t dance.
A word on the presentation first: it really helps, in poetry, to give the reader a lead or clue to the character of the poet, something to work with when approaching the collection. Red Squirrel have presented Lesley Mountain as the prizewinner of a competition and nothing more. “This pamphlet is the prize”, the back cover explains, giving the unfortunate impression there's something perfunctory about its publication, that it amounts to the paying of a debt.
This is particularly problematic because I really needed some help with Mountain's poems, which are predominantly gentle tales of rural/suburban life—spying a kite whilst pegging out the laundry, asking the local kid for directions, an awkward romantic catching the bus and so on—and are not the sort to draw you in with dazzle. The prizewinning poem, ‘The Timewasters’, presents a sort of fragment of a cast list and itinerary:
. . . posh people with horses, harassed
parents selling pushchairs, desperate old folk
raking around their toolsheds. We flush toilets,
question pedigrees, poke and prod, look keen.
There's a sense (perhaps lent by this poem) of bittersweet boredom, together with a creeping bewilderment at life having flashed by. In ‘Meeting Myself Coming Back’, the narrator's proximity to 'some scruffy kid' whom she recognises as an echo of her younger self is achingly fleeting, and her attempts at small talk brushed off. ‘Under the Sun’ similarly hints at both the anxiety of being left behind and the futility of looking back:
Our corncrake cries
In a decade our granddaughters
will decorate their rooms with chintz . . .
think the fashion all their own.
Whilst there's certainly a quietness to the style employed, I wouldn't call it bland. For one thing, Mountain should be commended for not trying to steer every carefully documented observation towards false profundity. Most remain powerfully punchline-less, like a zen joke. However, at times she is over-restrained. Poems such as ‘Incony and The Mermaids’ branch off in new directions but are still tied to the over-arcing tone. One poem in particular, ‘Thirty Springs are Little Room’, hits exactly the right note but seems oddly lonely.
Typesetting and cover do little to reduce the initial impression that this pamphlet was a matter of obligation. For that, you need to turn to the poetry itself.