Milk Snake, Toby BuckleyThe jacket is an abstract design in white, greenish brown and pink. Four horizontal white shapes, like fish or snakes, go from left slightly downwards towards the right. They are joined by brownish straight lines, not completely straight, maybe handpainted. Behind these shapes everything else is blotchy pink, some areas a paler pink with white veining. The title is painted in huge brown lettering, uneven and handformed, one word on one white shape, the next on the next. The subtitle (POEMS BY TOBY BUCKLEY) is in tiny caps on the bottom white shape.,

The Emma Press, 2022       £7.00

‘The moment crystallises / into your retinas’: the centrality of the visual

Toby Buckley’s pamphlet is bursting with visual images that serve to capture moments and bring them to life. The opening poems, for example, take us back to the speaker’s childhood through vivid detail. ‘Our News’ describes how a boy ‘put his hand / in a pencil sharpener’, describing his ‘skin’ as ‘a discarded Elastoplast / on the desk beside us.’

Meanwhile, ‘Inver’ remembers a childhood perception of local ‘fish farms’ as ‘great dark floating monsters’. ‘Bufo’ paints a picture of frogspawn as ‘looking impossibly human, impossibly / like smears of dark toothpaste’. A little later in the pamphlet, ‘Pip’ takes the common childhood myth of swallowed fruit seeds sprouting in the stomach and renders it intensely visual:

I squeak the first
bulge of a chubby pink
apple in my neck.

Other poems which do not deal specifically with childhood memories are also strikingly visual. ‘Cold Today’ depicts a winter afternoon where the moon is visible

like the residue
from a round sticker you couldn’t peel
off quite right.

‘Companion’ takes ‘an uncertain comma’ and animates it as both a maggot and a ‘caterpillar’. ‘Sands’ describes a train with rain droplets on its windows as being

a vast, tubular man
sliding into his morning

In keeping with this strong visual bent, Milk Snake contains ekphrastic poems that respond to artworks. ‘Fog in the Emerald Necklace, Boston’, for example, describes Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures, while ‘Tree Forms as a Mother and Child’ is ‘after’ a work by Henry Moore. The latter is also a concrete poem, taking on the shape of a tree, blurring the lines between written and visual artforms.

‘Oh, It’s You’ is centred around a photograph of an unnamed person. ‘Today I found you secreted / in dusty Kodak clarity’, says the speaker. The close attention in describing the photograph reveals a relationship of considerable closeness and complexity.

These are poems, then, which bring moments, memories and relationships into sharp focus. Buckley takes the image and makes it central; in doing so, he creates a poetry at once sensual and evocative.

Isabelle Thompson