Prolebooks, 2011 £4.50

Sphinx six and a half striperReviewed by Emma Lee, Hilary Menos and Stephen Payne

Emma Lee:
The foreword praises the poet’s storytelling, which means I’m now expecting poems that have narrative skil; as well as work as a poem. In ‘Schoolroom’, in a block named Ty Coed:

across a windy yard, I saw a boy
called Fox crash and skid into a wall
and break his leg, he being borne
thence by prefects, only for word to be
passed around later that the leg wasn’t
broken, only badly bruised, and, by
the next morning, even the bruising
wasn’t too bad, bugger all
wrong with him really

Some nice alliteration and internal rhyme, but I didn’t find much of a story. It’s a recurring problem where a scene is set but little happens. In ‘And Here’s to You, Mrs. Protheroe’, a woman sunbathes topless in the garden. But there’s no suggestion of the affair central to the storyline of The Graduate (1967), which the poem references via a line from a song on the film’s soundtrack. The story is that boys gawp at a sunbathing woman. Maybe I’m not the target audience because I don’t identify with this.

In ‘Bastard’, with the subtitle ‘Interviews at Oxford December 1959’:

Who is this man, smile spread, grin, grown so great?
He has the Bard’s Collected Works, and totes
this ammo to his holster arm, before
he fires his first offence. Your school?

My glum, gruff Welsh response is slow:

It’s Milford Haven
(‘Grammar School’ left out).
I do not ask his school. He tells me though.

Readers never find out whether either boy was accepted for Oxford (the author’s biography doesn’t mention it either). From the poem it seems the bastard’s only offences are carrying Shakespeare’s Collected Works (not a crime in my book) and trying to be friendly. Given that both narrator/poet and ‘bastard’ are teenaged and living at home, is it fair to blame either for being born to working class parents in Wales or an upper middle class family in South East England?

It throws an unflattering spotlight on the glum, gruff boy who can’t overcome his class prejudice and respond to the public schoolboy’s attempts to be friendly. The poet assumes readers share his prejudices but, for me, he’s not done enough to justify reader empathy.

Hilary Menos:
There's something old fashioned about this pamphlet. It is partly the rather sweet pencil drawing of a small boy walking down a country lane on the front cover. And it's partly the diction; you can't use words like “wherein”, “thence”, and “sooth”, and phrases like “lanes of leaf”, and still manage to sound contemporary. But it's also the general tone, which is one of wistfulness for times past, and an occasional mild disappointment with the modern world.

Many of the poems are about episodes in the narrator’s early life, and draw comparisons between then and now. 'Schoolroom' describes what he learned at school; “translate, conjugate,/ equate, relate, speculate, hibernate,/ spit, skive, swear” and ends, “Nowadays/ they call such Life Skills.

In 'Hoodie' he addresses a youth with “dour and anti-social (unwashed) ear” and ends, “You think this lane is boring, Sunshine Joe?/ You should have been here fifty years ago.” In 'Godiva's Grand-daughter' he asks what would happen if a naked descendent of Lady Godiva rode the London Underground, and ends with similar mild grumpiness:

.........................I doubt if any
bugger'd notice really. They'd all assume
she was raising awareness of something.
Saving the Polar Bear maybe.

Some of the poems are prose-y (Nisbet has had more than 100 short stories published); others are too rhyme-driven. The poems that are neither of these things are . . . rather fine. I particularly like 'Morgan's Hedge', which describes the evolution of a local character and his expressive hedge,

.........................the whole damn great
overgrown heap of it, shouting to

Arcadia Avenue, This is Morgan's
. [ . . . ]
.........................By this time Morgan
was wearing a bandana.

Nisbet often tells us a bit too much, and sometimes runs the risk of sentimentality. But when he hits the right note his poetry is bright and lucid and clear and compassionate. 'My Grandfather's Clock' finds a lovely balance between show and tell:

.........................I listened, charmed,
as the clock rang an emphatic eight o'clock
by now a minute slow, but clear, kind,


Stephen Payne:

I was delighted to receive this pamphlet to review. Two of my very favourite poems from the last year were by Robert Nisbet, both published in Smiths Knoll.

I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that neither of these poems appears in Merlin’s Lane. The reason, I presume, is that this pamphlet is not simply a first collection of the author’s 24 best poems to date (the biographical note in the preface informs us that Nisbet has recently turned to poetry, having already achieved considerable success as a short story writer). Rather, this is a memoir in verse, with the poems moving from boyhood to adulthood, set in the author’s hometown of Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire (with occasional trips to Oxford, Swansea, Mid-Wales and Newport).

Yet, there are poems here that I enjoy just as much as the missing pair. ‘Scholarship Boys’ is a particular favourite: it moved me almost to tears as I read in a Penarth café. It tells the story of a butcher, with a son at Oxford. I looked at it just now to quote a few lines, but it works its trick at the level of the whole poem, which is a general characteristic of Nisbet’s poems.

The poems’ consistent voice is vernacular, sometimes played against a regular iambic rhythm, sometimes in free verse. Most poems are narrative and plain-spoken, with few figures of speech. Their power comes from the settings, the characters and the stories, which is why I struggled just now to quote meaningfully from my favourite.

Instead, let me quote the first paragraph of another poem, rather pleasingly titled ‘Bastard’, about the author’s experience as an interview candidate at Oxford:

The guide book phrase is dreaming spires, the facts
are pleasing too, the staircases and quads.
Train-loads of schoolboys shuffle in, disperse.
I’m bound for Jesus, for an interview.
Sounds pleasingly irreverent, that phrase:
“I’m bound for Jesus”. Then alas, ill-met,
here’s John the Baptist getting on the bus.

I hope these lines show how skillfully Nisbet works that Frost trick of setting ordinary speech against iambic pentameter. I hope also they show his playful sense of humour.

Sometimes, I must admit, I found the humour just a little off. There’s a very occasional slippage into jokey asides that are generational clichés—“Nowadays they’d call such Life Skills”, “It’s all heath and safety these days”.  And once or twice the vernacular breaks down and an expression seems out of keeping (although this may be my own lack of familiarity with Pembrokeshire custom).

In any case, I forgive these few flaws for the sensitivity these poems show to language and to lives, their directness and their emotional force.

The pamphlet is very nicely presented by Prolebooks. My only gripe would be the foreword by Phil Carradice, which is fine and generous but which, like all blurb, I personally could live without.