Calder Wood Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Ross Kightly, D A Prince and Christie Williamson
Though what I understand or really care about boxing could be written longhand on the head of a pin with a blunt felt-tip pen, I tried not to allow this to prejudice me against a collection of 24 poems, almost all strongly reflecting the author's background as "a national schoolboy boxing champion and internationalist", as we learn from the back cover.
I need not have worried. Though the harshness and inevitable violence of gym and ring pervade this book I found much else to admire and enjoy here. 'What's in Our Hands' dramatises the ambivalence of the man remembering the boy's "one left hook" that "hit a man so hard his nose burst" and grounds it in the knowledge that the answer to the question which is the first line of the poem is in the hand itself: "How could a man hit a man with a hammer?"
Throughout the collection there is much elegiac celebration of friends, family members and mentors; this is an extremely humane and tender meditation on those common but universally relevant themes of friendship, love, loss and memory.
There is a variety of styles, shapes and tones as well, and though some pieces seem a bit prosy there is also a great deal that speaks directly to the ear and the heart: in 'Saturday Morning' the final couplet is
And cursing Cinderella hobbles by a fallen yob
and hand-bags the heel that cracked on a kerb
This concludes a series of telling vignettes of people in various states of stumbling through a small passage of life.
I shall be coming back to this book for nourishment, but this is also where I register a typical ex-pedagogical pedant's point: in the first poem we had 'practicing' as a verb and here is "a transit van full/ of bleeding noses, bruised ribs, battered ego's." Is it silly to be slightly concerned at such sloppy editing?
Or perhaps I ought simply to have been prepared for this by the quotation on the back cover:
"Very imaginative content. Spelling needs attention."
Mrs Taplin, 19th May 1989, Kelty Primary School Report
Teach me to be too fussy!
D A Prince:
Boxing—that world of amateur boxing clubs, routines of training, the boys and men who make up its small and local world—is the starting point for Ross Wilson’s collection. He expands into work: in a factory for pleating fabrics, as a broccoli packer, on a programme for the unemployed, as an extra in a film. It’s heavy work, unsatisfying apart from the shared companionship. He shows family members connecting from one generation to the next, sharing hardship. His is a tough and physically gruelling life, closely observed, where there are few choices. In ‘The old patterns’ he describes his hands bleeding and blistered with repetitive labour, and ends
We felt the material we’d been given:
we fixed it into the old patterns.
Wilson, I think, is talking about more than fabric production here.
The voice in these poems fits the subjects: there’s a blunt plainness in the language, a general avoidance of decorative imagery or formal structures, a rough phrasing in direct speech from a dead boxer. Beyond that, though, and touched in very lightly, is the larger metaphor of what ‘the heavy bag’ can represent. In the title poem (the second poem in the pamphlet) it’s the punch bag in the gym but in the final poem, ‘Milne’s Bar’, it’s become the poetry of older poets: respected, weighty on his shoulder, anachronistic in an environment of cell phones and texting. The poem opens with a glimpse into the writing side of Wilson’s life—“Scanned plastic bought me/ another Mackay Brown book” —setting up the idea before he points us to it, and ends very simply—
and their words still here
in the bag I shoulder,
and carry on.
Wilson’s world rarely appears in the softer, more comfortable bookish scenarios inhabited by much contemporary poetry, but this pamphlet gives the reader an insight into equally valid experiences.
The Heavy Bag centres on the boxing gym and the ring—the training, the sparring and the winning and the losing. It’s no surprise to learn Ross Wilson was a schoolboy champion—he writes with complete authenticity. There is urgency in the language of the title poem:
He forced hands into gloves
tense as cats stuffed into bags.
This isn’t exercise, or even emotional release. This is survival.
Perhaps the strongest pieces in this pamphlet are memoria to people who have come and gone. ‘The Way John Went Out’, for example, charts the pain and the glory shared by boxer and trainer, and the impact of his loss—“The best punches come from nowhere.” This is followed by ‘Anithir Season’, a depiction of a man devoted to his own and others’ craft, who drops dead at the age of 59, refereeing a bout. But the hardest blow in this book for me is in ‘The ABC 2’ where—
Graham went sixteen and two,
won a few district titles,
a national,boxed international and
.........died inhaling aerosol.
These tales of the boxing world are compelling not only for their visceral pain, but for the warmth and respect with which the characters are remembered. Plenty of people have called a lot less ‘love’.
But don’t imagine that’s all you’re getting for your very reasonable fiver. Alongside, there are poems of family, good jobs, boring jobs, joblessness. There’s humour, tenderness and a political conscience that neither preaches nor hides behind a bushel. On top of raw power, there is also technique. Surprising imagery is commonplace in Wilson’s poetry, and poems are developed skilfully and sparingly.
It is fitting that the collection ends in ‘Milne’s Bar’ in Edinburgh, where Wilson communes with George Mackay Brown and the other writers who frequented the Rose Street haunt in the 1950s. Here, another heavy bag is at play—filled with a literary tradition, which Scotland is rightly proud of.
And we should be proud of Ross Wilson too. He’s got a good team in his corner, has come out with his hands up and he means business.