My Name is Mercy, Martin FiguraThe jacket is turquoise blue and gives the impression of being a photograph of a man under water. He has a serious expression and black framed glasses, and he is kitted in full hospital protective gear, like a space suit. The title spans the width of the jacket and is placed in the top two inches in large mustard coloured lower case lettering. Below this in small lower case the poet's name is right justified. There is an endorsement quote in quite in very small white print at the foot of the jacket.

Fair Acre Press, 2021      £7.50

Varying form is key

This is another pamphlet dealing with the Covid pandemic, but in a more directly engaged manner than others I’ve recently reviewed. My Name is Mercy resulted from a Salisbury NHS Trust commission requiring Figura to interview hospital workers and use their words to create a poetic record. Unsurprisingly, the poems are deeply moving, like a war artist’s output, because the poet, in exemplary fashion, allows the voices and their emotional content to come across as naturally as the description.

One reason the poems work so well is that Figura deploys a wide variety of forms. These include Italian sonnets, sestina variants, a variation on Wallace Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, a pantoum and a villanelle.

The repetitive natures of some of these forms provide the ideal vehicle for different speakers. For example, here’s a nurse’s repeated words of comfort:

You’re doing well, you’re safe, you’re really safe,
if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
Would you like us to phone your wife?
It is difficult, I understand.

If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
Today is the nineteenth of January,
it is difficult, I understand.
Morning my darling, my name is Mercy.
     [‘My Name is Mercy’]

Then there are staff trying, but understandably failing, to switch off outside work:

Everyone walks their worries to the forest
with their dogs to bark and throw sticks.
It’s hard to know what’s for the best.

We delve into the dark of our pockets
for the list of what it is we need to fix.
Everyone walks their worries to the forest.
     [‘For the Best’]

From nicely varied viewpoints, Figura celebrates the quiet heroism of the NHS staff and others who provide invaluable support. In ‘The Parish of Odstock’, for example, there is the stoic chaplain (‘Many who don’t believe in God still ask / for a prayer’), and in ‘Here’, an unnamed immigrant takes pride in work (‘I earn my place on the bus home’). There’s a litany of others, many of whom are given their due in the fine praise/prose poem ‘Praises and Curses’.

The cumulative power of this slender collection is profound and memorable.

Matthew Paul