Commentary, Jock Stein
Handsel Press, 2017 £5.00 (no postal charge)
A sense of finish
Jock Stein is particularly good at endings. Whether witty, prophetic or simply resonant, he is skilled at concluding his poems with a flourish that has depth as well as flair. The biographical detail on the back of this pamphlet says that his poetry ‘began seriously when he turned 70’. Considering the quality of the work, this seems astonishing. I imagine he is a man who enters any verbal altercation intending to win, and if he doesn’t defeat his opponent on facts, will do so on style.
Stein uses all the craft at his disposal – metre where it aids and abets, rhyme where it strengthens – and he does so both artfully and effectively. ‘War Talk’, for example (his opening poem), pursues the euphemistic irony of such terms as ‘friendly fire’, ‘smart bombs’ and ‘I.E.D.s’. This is not in itself a new idea – but take a look at the ending to which his careful analysis leads:
[ ...] Sheer
damage must be totally excused
by multiplying syllables till they spell
co-lat-er-al – well, to make an omelette
you need to break some eggs –
and what are eggs but tiny shells
in which the future of a species dwells?
This is a man to reckon with. And he is unafraid to tackle the most sensitive of issues, and their roots in language. My favourite in this collection may be ‘Jihad’. It also ends with a beautiful subtlety and strength. I will not quote its ending here, because it is only 12 lines long, and every single word counts in the achievement of the whole perfectly poised piece. Again, a rhyming couplet drives his last thought home.
Often I would argue that ending on a rhyme in a non-rhymed poem is less than ideal. There are exceptions, and some of them are here. Besides, Jock Stein can accomplish an elegant placing of words without any rhyme at all. The last poem in the pamphlet, ‘Read the Signs’, which name-checks Jeremiah 32 6-12, places one word after the next absolutely securely, and ends thus:
The boy puts down a stone, seeing
the ancient tree roots crack a wall;
somewhere a prophet buys a field.
This is a writer who knows how to end a poem in the right place.