No guiding star, John MillsThe entire jacket is an arresting monochrome image of a miner, crawling forward on his stomach, his eyes raise to stare straight at the reader. He has a dark beard, and a miner's helmet with lamp. Just below his hands is the title, centred in lower case bright red lettering, with the 'o' of 'No' in yellow. The author's name a few sizes larger is below this in lower case white, a different font, sans serif this time (the title is a seriffed typeface).

Fair Acre Press, 2020    £7.50

A witty light in the dark

This is a powerful pamphlet that touches on themes such as chronic illness (Mills has Parkinson’s Disease), caving, and relationships. It was hard to choose only one point of interest because many appealed to me, but Mills’ wit weaves through these poems, even in the darkest moments, and that’s what stays with me. When I read the opening poem, ‘Conjugation’, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry:

In the beginning was the verb
and the verb was

The witty word play continues to the final haunting stanza:

His fumbling is comical

I laugh
You laugh
He cries

‘What dreams may come’ also looks at illness from an unusual perspective:

It is not the book
that trembles in the night
but the reader.

‘Darkness’, a poem about caving, is a mirror poem, so it comes full circle and, like ‘Conjugation’, uses skilful wordplay and repetition:

how fast the heart
how deep the water

How swim
How underwater
How swim

How underground
How swim
How underwater
How swim

How deep the water
how fast the heart

There are also some beautifully quiet poems about relationships. The poem ‘Pies’, for example, is a wonderful celebration of a mother. It made me laugh out loud:

But the day she got a freezer coddled her mind.
She embarked on a frenzy of baking.

Alas, this was only for the baker to realise ‘she hadn’t labelled a single one. / For months on end we had Surprise pie.’

Not all relationships end well. Mills has the knack of creating the unexpected, as in ‘Autumn Leaves’ which starts as a lyric poem:

There was an edge to the air,
a flicker of rain in the breeze,
red leaves tussocked
round the feet of lamp posts.

It ends, however, on a very different note, once again revealing Mills’ witty take on things:

I was there at seven
but she stood me up.
A few littered fag ends
in the shop doorway.

The poems in No guiding star are skilfully ordered, contrasting light with dark. I’m glad this pamphlet has come my way. I can’t quite put it out of my mind....

Olivia Dawson