A Different Key, John Mole
New Walk Editions, 2017 £5.00
Quality, not quantity
12 poems across 14 pages might look like meagre value but, as ever, it’s the quality that’s important, not the quantity.
A Different Key is suffused with grief which has to be exteriorised. In ‘The Rebuke’, John Mole reflects that he’s always been ‘Driven by language, as a pianist / By the sight of ivories’, but widowerhood provides no such consolation: ‘Which is why now / In bereavement’s wake, the undertow / Of loss, I fear the doldrum drift / From one false start to another’. The marine imagery, implying the sense of drowning, counterpoints the musical metaphor with which he reproaches himself for failing to let ‘impulse’ get the better of ‘conscious effort’:
that such wordiness
Should seek for reassurance, and that loss
Has yet to lighten, finding the way
To make fresh music in a different key.
The rhymes are quiet, unobtrusive and underscore the understated (perhaps stereotypical British male) response to grief.
The pamphlet, despite its underlying theme, contains some unexpectedly lively treasures, such as ‘Piano Man’, a bravura response to a performance by Oscar Peterson:
Athlete of jazz,
His racy razzmatazz
From hot to cool
Breaks every rule
But he knows that his act is
Perfected by practice.
In my experience it’s hard to write well — whether in prose or poetry — about music per se, let alone jazz, but Mole succeeds brilliantly here with words that match a talented musician who is ‘Heavyweight but handy / With the glissandi’ (a memorable couplet).
‘Comma’ wittily takes the punctuation mark as its unlikely subject: ‘Not a boomerang or a frisbee thrown / in the expectation of return / but a careless comma loosed mid-air / on a breezy page, insouciant’.
A Different Key’s closing poem, ‘Fraught’, superbly brings to the surface the emotions caused by a well-meaning friend or relative:
The interrogation of a hand
laid too lightly on the shoulder
or upper arm, those gestures
that make of me a man apart,
how I welcome yet resent
the mild, compassionate intrusion.
It ends, as the pamphlet began, in self-reproach; but with these particular poems what the poet deserves is fulsome praise.
Words for grief
How do we write about grief? Or rather, in its immediate wake? And where does a lifelong love of poetry leave us then? This short collection is a moving reflection on these things. How grief changes everything (to a different key) but can also render us wordless. The resultant soft, self-doubting poems are themselves delicate elegies.
The opening poem, ‘The Rebuke’, is in two halves. The first half describes life up till now — a musical delight in language running in tandem to the everyday:
Driven by language, as a pianist
By the sight of ivories, and restless
When not at the keyboard
Improvising word after word
To discover myself
The second half, ‘In bereavement’s wake’, describes a new and different state: one of drifting, as he characterises it, ‘From one false start to another’; the rebuke being, in part, ‘that such wordiness / Should seek for reassurance’.
‘A Premonition’ talks about ‘wordlessness’ — where words fail, or are inadequate? Or maybe just the hubbub of their habit to make-sense breaks down? Music is a better consolation: ‘a wordlessness which mends’.
Risen above all incidental sounds,
Leave its crescendo with the living
As music is a wordlessness which mends.
Why do words fail him? He also weighs ambivalence, or guilt perhaps, around putting loss into words: ‘Hacked’ is a strong exploration around this. ‘Find the body where it fell. / All is very far from well. / This is a story that will sell.’ The poem ends on the harsh note ‘Grief is worth its weight in gold’.
A Different Key closes on a note of acceptance — for the time being at least. Wordlessness for now, then. Or just these imperfect words:
But does it help me at all
to write like this? Probably not
so to those who have read thus far
I give you leave to go,
as I shall now, about the business
of getting on