Some Kind of Ghost, Mike Barlow

New Walk Editions, 2018  £5.00

Subtle connectors

The first poem in this group is ‘The Secret Life of Hands’ — how these strange things are connected to us, but with a life of their own, betraying nervousness or excitement or boredom: ‘those autonomous lives at the end of our reach, / puppets of the subconscious’:

And though we’re married at the wrists, spliced,
   wired in ways never to be untangled,
       they’re not answerable to us.
Someone else, it seems, is pulling their strings.

Lots of these poems are threaded in similar but their own ways. ‘The Stump Cross System’, for instance, takes some sort of cave-diving as a starting point:

Blind faith and fear in equal
measure held me awestruck.
Without a ball of string, I asked myself,
how would we ever find our way

This then becomes an analogy for making our way more generally, ‘on the surface where the heart / knows what it’s doing / but something underneath still pulls / like gravity, steadying my thread.’

Each poem in this collection has its own rigging and infrastructure. It extends beyond itself. There are threads and tendons and breezes: subtle connectors.

Missing people are often strangely present, as if we’ve stepped through a gate into alternative realities. Many of these poems feature guest ghost appearances — those tenuously linked still, absent while present. I enjoyed the (maybe) sonnet ‘I explain to my long dead father how poetry is less authentic than dreaming’, when the dreamt father delivers the elegy for which he (the son) has been searching all this time (this very poem?).

There’s another poem where he takes a completely different, tangential leap — imagining ‘The man who was not my father’, and how that life might have been: ‘I would have been a sly tyke, / mouthy git, scrapper’.

And in ‘Ridge Walking with Maddy’, the poet imagines a walk many years hence, when he is dead (aged 96) and walking with ‘Maddy’, someone he knows now as a child (I think). They walk along ‘this long-dreamt-of ridge / the known world drops away. She links an arm in mine / and once again I get that knife-edge feeling’.

Of course, there’s one tenuous connection always there in reading poetry: that between writer and reader. This idea is acknowledged (though of course at one remove, and subtly) in ‘Fellow Travellers’, where the poet encounters other readers, who’ve jotted notes or coffee stained old books he’s reading.

In this book, in each poem, the poet has trusted his reader to follow the thread of his thought — and arrive satisfied somewhere different and the same.

Charlotte Gann