Complicity, Tom Sastry

Smith Doorstop, 2016   £7.50*

Turning on a sixpence

Tom Sastry got me thinking about ‘turns’ in poetry. I knew about the turn (or volta) in a sonnet, but hadn’t thought seriously about the energising effect of turns within any poem, and across a group of poems. The choreography of twists, swerves and shifts kept me alert and delighted throughout this pamphlet.

The poem ‘If my grandmother had had balls’ is a particularly nifty example. Take that title for a start. It spins you round before you’ve even begun. Grandmothers are supposed to have plump, round arms and fulsome bosoms, aren’t they? Not balls. The title runs on into the opening lines:

she would have been a juggler
and joined the circus

Oh, I see, you say to yourself, he means those sorts of balls!  He goes on to explain how his grandmother-with-balls might have learned to eat fire without burning her mouth. Now I understand, you think. We’re talking feisty, practical, fearless granny. But the next stanza begins:

Instead, she kept house

Phew, you think, we’re back on proper granny-territory. So she was one of those could-have-done-anything-but-sacrificed-all-for-family grannies. But the next lines swivel you again:

with the violence
of a perfectionist

The violence of a perfectionist? That juxtaposing throws you yet again. Then come the last two lines:

and left bruises
and is not missed.

It’s almost literally a slap round the head. It knocks you for six. The pamphlet’s worth buying for that poem alone — a masterclass in turnery.

This pamphlet (Carol Ann Duffy’s Laureate’s Choice for 2016) is full of poems that surprise in different ways. The arrangement of the poems shifts perspective too — from tender, to surreal, to painful, then back to tender once again. Life, Sastry knows, is like that. In the extravagantly titled, ‘A man begins to understand his failure as a husband whilst visiting The Museum of Epiphanies with his soon to be ex-wife’, he tells us:

just out of reach is a jar of the sixpences
on which the world once turned.

Annie Fisher

* may be low on stock now, but still listed as available in the Smith Doorstop shop.