Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Learning to be Very Soft, Callan Waldron-Hall The jacket is pale blue. Occupying a huge area in the centre are the giant words (one per line) NEW POETS PRIZE. They are in darker blue. New is in curly italics. The other two words are in wide, chunky caps, with a textured surface, possibly photographs of blue sky with streaks of cloud. The title is in black (or very dark blue) in the bottom third. The word Learning in a regular font comes first. On the next line, slightly indented from 'Learning' 'to be Very Soft'. 'to be' is in uncapitalised italics. The other two words are in the same regular print as the first word, and each begins with a capital letter. Below this, centred, the author's name in small blue caps, same color as the huge print in the middle.

Smith/Doorstop, 2020    £5.00

Learning about life-saving

There are plenty of poems about water, in all its forms, and about swimming but ... life-saving techniques?

What emerges in these poems is a fuller picture of what’s involved in learning about ‘Chest Compressions’ (title of the first poem) and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There’s a specific factor that I’d never considered, although it’s obvious: there are two people involved in the exercise.

There’s the active rescuer, the person doing the dramatic life-saving stuff, but for training purposes — i.e. the ‘Practice’ (title of the final poem) — there’s the one whom Waldron-Hall calls the ‘Victim’. That’s an equally necessary but difficult role, requiring someone ‘to fake drowning / when you can swim’, as well as ‘to be as heavy as [they] can’. Although Waldron-Hall has shown this in the opening lines of the collection I’d missed it on first reading —

by the pool again one boy is pretending
he isn’t breathing/ that his heart has stopped
so his friend leans down/ exhales

what he believes is life into
the wet cave of the other’s mouth
then linking his fingers/ simulates

a steady heartbeat/

Too eager, first time round, I’d given all my attention to the heroic rescuer, neglecting the one with the quieter role.

Other poems in the collection explore relationships — a sister (unnamed), other swimmers shyly observed, as well as the poet’s awareness of suppressed suffering and other bodies.

‘The Most Kissed Face of All Time’, a prose poem, shows in unsettling detail how Resusci Anne (the whole-body mannequin used for resuscitation practice) provides memorably vital experience. Despite being ‘kissed’, as instructed, ’The dead girl stayed dead, mouth open, waiting to be cleaned.’

It’s the last line of the final poem that provides the title for the whole collection —

      I am practising how I would be Victim

or better practising how I would wait to be saved

     it is like learning to be very soft

Double spacing and indentation give a sense of semi-consciousness, as well as that type of submissiveness which is an essential part of the relationship in question. A metaphor? Yes, but also rooted in the practicality of the previous poems. It’s an original and haunting collection.

D. A. Prince