Red Squirrel Press, 2013  £5.00Sphinx seven and a half striper

Reviewed by Helena Nelson, Matthew Stewart and Ross Kightly

Helena Nelson:
My first thought was ‘Oh the poor publisher’. Because the title of this pamphlet, and the title poem, involved symbols not easy to reproduce, and one of them in colour. The dot has to be red. So like it or lump it, this means two-colour printing just because of that one poem. Does the poem merit it? It’s not my favourite in the book. I’m not sure I would have paid for a red dot just for its sake.

Nevertheless, I savoured some of the poems that followed. ‘Two naked women’, for example, has a blunt ending, blunt and sad. It understates beautifully and achieves an effect far out of proportion to its length. Equally ‘Red Dirt’ is a moving graveside reflection. ‘Bastard’ saves its shock to the very last line, where the chill runs you through. ‘Hiding Places’ is strange and interesting – again the aftershock is poignant.

‘The Cello’s Song’ is the biggest poem in the book, and it’s complicated, drawing on three different fonts as the voice changes. This didn’t work for me. I lost the narrative thread and found myself irritable with the typefaces and gaps instead of punctuation – I was so aware of the visual presentation that I lost the poem. I see it was performed on radio, and I wonder whether that it’s its natural medium.

But I think this is a poet who can command an audience, who poses more questions than answers. If this collection doesn’t totally come together for me, it works in part, and in sections of most of the poems. The last three lines of ‘Something to be said’ are fabulous. It’s about a relationship, but it extends to embrace the relationship with the reader, I think. The tone may be tender – or menacing. It’s the uncertainty that creates a fine and coruscating edge:

You got something to say?
I’ve got something to say.
Come here. Come close. Closer.

Matthew Stewart:
The title of Degna Stone’s pamphlet, Record and Play, appears on the cover in the form of the symbols from a recorder. This might seem something of a gimmick at first sight. In fact, it’s key to an understanding of her verse.

Stone’s poetry often takes loss as a starting point. It’s the loss of moments as seen through photos (“Pictures of Goldie and Aston”, “The Commission”), of places via episodes that took place in them (“Ghost Town”) and of relationships (“After Marwood”, “Two naked women”). However, in the face of this loss, Stone is recording and playing as an act of defiance and belief in life.

Some poets do possess the ability to condense coherently the plot of a story, but few manage to condense its emotional impact at the same time. Stone is one of them. My favourite poem from the collection, titled ‘Bastard’, is an excellent example. It’s difficult to quote because the language is straightforward, never relying on flashy imagery. Instead, it builds effects, layer on understated layer. Anyway, here’s an extract:

The walk along the Old Forest grounds
had done nothing to slow things down

[ . . . ]

She hears the neighbours still playing
that same Christmas song that plays

every year. She sits on the third step,
hums along as she loosens her coat,

takes off her knickers, reaches down,
feels the baby’s head.

Stone accumulates seemingly humdrum details in everyday language, holding back their significance, before bringing the poem to an arresting final line. The power of this ending lies in its capacity to transform everything that has come before, while also leading the reader back to the poem’s title, which now makes full sense. The poet has achieved a delicious circularity, simultaneously inviting us to reread the piece in a fresh light.

Some other poems from the pamphlet are slightly more uneven, perhaps groping too far for effect. Stone is at her best when she harnesses words with gradual graft. When she does so, the reader is touched and her poetry is enriched.

Ross Kightly:
This is a handsomely-produced and visually appealing pamphlet: the title actually appears as the red dot for record, then ‘and’ followed by the black triangle pointing right for play. Which is either clever or annoying depending on how you look at it.

The symbols are, however, integral to the similarly-titled poem about the poet’s mother recording her favourite track from a Christmas Day chart broadcast on TV, which also introduces the ‘pause’ symbol and concludes with the mother pausing the tape and half-smiling at the thought of other sounds of gift-unwrapping that will also have been recorded. This is a complex and layered poem, as are several others in the collection.

Other poems seem more straightforwardly descriptive but immediately begin to resonate. Here, for example, is ‘Lipstick’:

Every morning
she sits in front of herself and looks –
takes bruise colours and blood colours,

paints her face,
begins to look less and less
like herself,

finally she twists lipstick, applies
a gaudy split
where her mouth should be.

It is possible to gobble this pamphlet up in a sitting, believe me, even the long, complex, multi-voiced poem ‘The Cello's Song’.

Nonetheless, I know I shall be returning to the collection in the future to enjoy the poems over again: immediate appeal plus sufficient complexity and subtlety to demand further reading: not a bad combination!