Templar Poetry, 2007 - £4.00 www.templarpoetry.co.uk
Any poet who says she’s been Writer in Residence for “a canal, a coalmine, a chalk cliff and a cabbage” must have a sense of humour about the literary life. Or perhaps Pat Borthwick is simply the sort who’ll cheerfully pursue any opportunity to write and publish. Many poems in this handsome booklet have won prizes in various contests, and the collection itself was a winning submission in Templar’s Poetry Pamphlet Competition. Sometimes these contests stretch the poet out of her element, as in ‘Katya’, which won an Amnesty International award. Written from the point of view of a victim of rape and political violence, it doesn’t—can’t—come near what its subject really feels.
Borthwick usually has the good sense to stay on her own turf, where nature and the human beings in it, including herself, are observed in spare, startling detail. In the long poem ‘Bought Cakes’, a farmer is forced to wring the necks of two thousand hens (presumably because of avian flu): “Our hands were raw, our wrists/ and arms and backs . . . Jen had to hold the mug to my mouth/ cut up my food, undo my fly and that.” When they burn the birds, their dog dies in the fire, and the wife, slightly unhinged, hides its skull in an ice-cream box: “Just fits, nose to back of skull.” Now that’s an unforgettable image.
And so is Borthwick’s description of a boy catching a speckled trout with his hands in ‘Passing On the Tickle’:
You were taught to watercreep your fingers
toward where he wafts his fins….
D-rum, d-rum, d-rumdiddy d-rum. He feels
your drowning beat. D-rumdiddy d-rum. Hook
two fingers in his closing gill and he’s in air.
Can this be done? I’m willing to believe it can. I’m even (almost) willing to believe Borthwick’s deliciously imagined tale of conjoined twins who share a single heart, visiting the doctor who wants to separate them. It’s far-fetched, yes, but the dark, deadpan whimsy rings true.