Unknown Territory, John Short
The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2020 — £5.00
Island memories conjured in evening sunlight
John Short’s pamphlet charts an itinerant life of manual jobs across different Greek islands. The mood is as languid as the setting. Surrounding us are the sea’s sounds, smell and ‘thousand edges / of light’ (‘History Lesson’). Evening drinking, bars, street-life and feral dogs populate the cobbled streets. Sometimes we’re taken up into the mountains for a view, or along a beach.
I felt like I was there. And I have met real people not unlike those introduced here — the less-seen — those refusing the expected corporate path: the musicians, the artists, the lavatory attendants, the hotel cleaners and fruit pickers. There’s a sense of disenfranchisement. The shadow of fractured histories still affects each village. You can see it in ‘Dog Days’ when strays ‘rifle through garbage / re-enacting the plunder of centuries.’ The narrator’s ‘battered old guitar’ becomes ‘a weapon / that still bears a mark’ against ‘The Dogs of Athens’.
Various ‘you’ personas appear alongside the narrator; they seem to shift between friends and lovers. And then there’s a powerful poem in which the narrator’s father visits in ‘On Philopappos Hill’:
he is not to be impressed
by any aspect of my world
yet remarks upon the stamina I show
as the city roars and hoots below.
Says he needs to get back to his garden.
This is a poem in which hurt is absorbed and it is characterised, at least in part, by an overall languorous, sometimes weary, mood. This mainly feels pleasant — relaxing into quiet drunkenness after a hard day’s labour. It’s similar in ‘Poem for Rodos’ where ‘evening strollers / gradually acquired haloes then / an extra body to tease my vision’ as the narrator relaxes amongst these quiet communities where ‘time has slipped / through the world’s fingers’ (‘Kaminia’). At other times, the hold of the wine seems risky, perhaps mentioned a little too often for comfort.
Overall, I found myself immersed in a sense of place and mood, created by skilfully structured poems with pleasing variety of rhyme and metre.