Svetlana’s Dance, Tom PowThe jacket is a dark mossy green, no images. Title is in very large white caps over two lines at the top, left justified. The first word takes the full width of the publication. Immediately below this, justified right, in paler , slightly smaller italics, is the subtitle 'Triptychs'. The author's name is in large white lowercase, in the bottom right hand corner.

Mariscat Press, 2022    £7.50

Telling tales

Tom Pow’s Svetlana’s Dance takes a pointillist approach to storytelling. The pamphlet is made up of two sets of nine poems, the first nine more or less inspired by medieval religious autobiographies and iconography, the second focussing on more modern events, often tragedies, and touching everything from Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, to the Grenfell fire.

Gathering all these stories together in one place gives the feeling of one of those northern European medieval paintings — full of life, and the life on display full of suffering, suffering here being something commonplace, almost expected. The effect is often macabre. In ‘The rat-catcher’, the central figure — who is ‘half man, half rat’ (‘One has formed on his / shoulder like a tumour’)— is particularly memorable.

I was interested in the way these stories were told, too. The language is simple: often the poems read like the folk tales on which many of them are based, cut up. Coming across that familiar, fairy-tale voice in a poem is simultaneously nostalgic, and unsettling:

Whenever anyone tried
to pull the knot out, great pain
tormented the girl.

Having three sections to each poem also allows Pow to move easily between different moments and play with the spaces between them.

‘Blown’, for instance, is a story about a man whose father and uncle would collect birds’ eggs on the cliffs of Dover. In the first and second sections, the narrative is second-hand, the narrator perhaps reporting a story they heard a while ago:

It was tricky work and both hands
were needed each way. They wore
peaked caps capacious enough

to hold the eggs they picked from ledge
to ledge. Climbing down, they felt them
roll lightly over their scalps

or bounce gently just above
their brows

In the third section, however, the storyteller becomes part of the story. Time is suddenly condensed:

He tells me that his uncle
many years after he’d been
a ten year old egg collector

would be killed as Allied Forces
fought their way up Italy.
A sniper bullet
a clean shot

to the head. His nephew pauses;
an old man, reflecting on
the fragility of a skull.

With the speaker present, the previous sections become more personal. There’s a link drawn, too, between the nephew (now an old man) and his father and uncle as children: he is still a nephew, however ‘old’.

Then there's that final image of the skull — which is also, inevitably, an egg. And those eggs, too, riding in the boy's caps, they begin to look a little different. More like skulls.

Jeremy Wikeley