The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs
Wayleave Press, 2017 £5.00
If your forebears only leave disjointed traces of their lives, it can be easier to explore these through poetry than through weighty conventional prose.
Poetry lets both poet and reader dwell on detail and doubt, holding both simultaneously. So a family story, handed down — perhaps somewhat embellished along the way — can take on the cloak of truth, while the unravelling of its threads (whatever they are) can be more intriguing than several decades of substantiated fact.
Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ Irish grandfather, Thomas Ovans, was always going to be an enigma. On arrival in England he changed his surname to Evans, worked in Middlesborough shipyards, but left these for the engine rooms of the P&O line as a ship’s engineer. Only guesswork can suggest why (or why after twenty years of a single life) he married — or why she accepted ‘a semi / -missing spouse.’
When he died (off Bombay in the ship’s engine room as the boiler exploded)
It took three months to get him back
in paper form.
That’s a telling line-break. Then form-filling muddled the records —
[...] because they’d written
simply L’pool in the space
allotted for his nationality.
And in this way he died without a country.
Even his age was recorded wrongly. Had Thomas claimed to be older when he first signed on, eager to travel? Or on his marriage certificate, conscious of their age gap? Or was the ship’s Captain simply careless?
Then, what of the family story that he’d been friendly with Dame Nellie Melba on her way to Melbourne? Certain poems (‘Visiting the Diva—Melbourne, 1911’ and ‘Studio Portrait, Melbourne 1913’) can suggest what might have been, nudging the scant information into a possibility, something plausible as a series of encounters. But it still remains conjecture.
Family is blood-line, and there’s another, more personal, narrative of identity underpinning these poems. It’s relevant now that boundaries are headline news. This pamphlet is about what matters.
D A Prince