The Fire Station, Sarah Barnsley
Telltale Press, 2015 £4.00
When the form fits, wear it
I have written elsewhere about my becoming over-sensitised to couplets in contemporary verse. So needless to say, the first thing I noticed about this slender pamphlet was this: of the twelve poems inside, no fewer than eight are entirely (or for the most part) in two-line stanzas.
This means there’s a lot of white space, and the pamphlet is quick and easy to read, though one should not read too fast: the text has undoubted layers and depth.
I might question the over-use of one particular format. But I’d rather focus on two poems where the two-line stanzas seem to me to work particularly well. Couplets are often good in a love poem, for example, where there’s desire or resistance at work between two people.
‘Slow Ships’ deals with love delightfully, and has the added attraction of being about snails. Here ‘The snail is love’s compass’, and that metaphysical idea is pursued carefully and wittily throughout 9 couplets which succeed in slowing the reader down (as is fitting with the snail’s progress, and the evening perambulation of two somewhat disenchanted lovers) and to delay the ambiguity of love’s conclusion. There is time to think, and – very slowly – to savour and smile.
And in ‘Cross Wires’, there’s another central image: the telegraph pole. This poem is in two-line stanzas with a single-line on its own at start and finish; and the lines are very short: the longest is seven words, and most are much shorter. Effectively, the poem is tall and thin like the telegraph poles that the poet so much distrusts. Why does she distrust them? Among other reasons, it's 'the way they stand stiff / in bowler hats’, says Sarah Barnsley, and her text stands stiffly, reinforcing her point and unfolding its series of personifications. In this way, she pleasurably delays each new and delicious detail up to, and including, this splendid ending:
Not a word to the signal box,
shut up as if it knows
what’s good for it,
nor to the abandoned
bicycle slung over the ridge
ripped from a face.
Cables seething sideways
into maroon flame insulators,
they are furious inside.
They burn with talk.
Poems that travel
Movement in poetry is something that always grabs me. Poetry anyway moves across a page, and down it, in ways completely different from prose. It makes shapes, and it travels distances.
The shorter the lines, the ‘faster’ the line breaks, the greater the speed at which it hurtles. And sometimes it travels with a force and energy that’s itself part of the project.
Take Mary Oliver’s famous ‘The Journey’, a ragged, short-lined poem that builds up a momentum central to its own narrative. A momentum that’s needed to propel us through its ‘journey’, to break through ‘the old tug / at your ankles’, and find a way along the road ‘full of fallen / branches and stones’.
For me, the group of poems that make up The Fire Station have something of this kind of force – movement – running through them. And, perhaps too, a similar necessity. They rattle down the page with urgency. And they do cover ground.
A number of the poems look back, reflect on a chaos of childhood memories. These seem quite combustible, starting with the opening title poem:
The fire station
is a box of matches,
Perhaps most notable is the shocking ‘Big Hands’, which starts ‘When you put my budgie / under the grill / and apologised for not being // able to afford a microwave / to resuscitate him / I didn’t think you were mad.’
But, as with Mary Oliver’s poem, where we end up is somewhere quite different. My favourite piece is ‘Les Rapides Faciles’, which I read as a love poem. It begins ‘We kayak to the supermarket, / arms chopping air rhythmically’ and is itself, of course, a poem that travels, in a sense. But it’s also a poem that marks arrival – in this case, arrival at where a person wishes to be. And that, for me, justifies the journey.
We may rush corners,
tumble down the rapids of
but it’s the gliding I like best,
the effortless, continuous flow
of being with you