Love Makes a Mess of Dying, Greg Gilbert
Smith/Doorstop, 2019 £7.50
Poetry in Colour
Love Makes a Mess of Dying is a mix of poetry and prose. It is an unflinching and uncompromising look at what a diagnosis of cancer does to an individual and his family, told without sentimentality or self pity. It is a chronicle of the spread of, and campaign against, a dreadful disease. You might be forgiven for thinking such an anthology would be dark, with forbidding images of imminent death, but the theme of not giving in runs through the volume like a watermark.
Greg Gilbert is an artist, and was lead singer in the Southampton band Delays. His strong sense of colour is a recurring theme in the pamphlet. The curtained bed is a blue cube but it turns yellow after diagnosis. The nights are orange. His daughters are ‘golden sovereigns / bubbling like mad honey.’ A magpie is ‘like black ink.’ The priests who visited his Nan wore clothes that were ‘bruise hued vestments’; the crystal ball is kept in ‘a black sock that only foretold woe’. Pain is ‘the red of clenched eyelids — not blacking out / but narrowed, compressed into a livid strip’.
Gilbert’s imagery is striking. In ‘Holy River (Last Poem Written Before Diagnosis)’ ‘Filthy green swans, covered in ash search for the sky.’ They fly over the ‘estate — orange, white and serpent coiled’, ‘above the terracotta, / Pulling for the porcelain white’ of the sky, ‘Their filthy green now playground grey’.
In ‘Creating an Image to Focus on During the First Bout of Chemotherapy’ he describes how he makes:
[…] an image
For healing […]
A silver Cossack army
This army is like ‘Flashing sickle moons […] / Sparks catching / The teeth of ecstatic horsemen’.
Love Makes a Mess of Dying has strength of will running through it, the author’s determination to live, to see his girls grow up.
Gilbert wants to see the colours in life, and this vitality carries the poetry through even the darkest moments.