Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Gatehouse Press, 2011    £5.00

 

 

Sphinx seven and a half striperReviewed by Stephen Payne, Noel Williams and Matt Merritt

Stephen Payne:

The idea that a collection of poems should have a theme is popular these days, though personally I'm as happy with a smorgasbord of topics. But anyway, I doubt if there are many others where the theme is professional wrestling. My own knowledge of wrestling comes from boyhood afternoons in front of World of Sport (plus one evening at Butlins, I'm suddenly reminded). . . so one of the pleasures of this pamphlet was being introduced to a new world.

 

 

The poems are of a kind I’m often drawn to, with effects relying in the main on sensory details (a noticeable, unusual focus on smells along with the sights and sounds) and overall atmosphere. There is image, and there is music, but both are rather subtle, understated. If this sometimes makes the poems a little plain, at least there’s the intrinsic documentary interest of the subject matter. More usually, the poem's unshowy surfaces lead the reader in, allowing the allusions to do their work:

.......Eventually, your muscles remember the dance;

.......over time become malleable, obedient.
.......That second left foot finds the right stance
.......with a little reminder, a little encouragement.
..............(From ‘Muscle Memory’, unusual in its regular rhyme scheme.)

 

 

One technical aspect of the poems is worthy of comment: the use of the second person pronoun—as in the lines quoted above. The first poem, ‘Saturday’, begins:

 

 

.......You got square eyes watching that ring,
.......sat in pyjamas, face lit by the glow.
.......The Saint was your favourite:

which could be addressed to me (although Mick McManus was my man). It isn't though; it's addressed to the self, an I-substitute. And 'you' is used in this way a lot throughout the pamphlet.  I think it works to separate the poet-self or narrator-self from the wrestler-self; which in turn reflects (and therefore emphasises throughout the collection) a necessary split for a fighter (or at least one who wants a well-adjusted social life). Such a transformation must be achieved every time he steps into the ring, as in ‘The Dressing Room’:


.......You slowly become your neon-clash leopard-print costume;
.......wrap electrical tape round your wrists, lace fifty-six eyelets,
.......go over the falls like a mantra.


Noel Williams:

This is the first pamphlet in Gatehouse Press’s pamphlet series, a collection of eighteen poems about professional wrestling written by a Norfolk wrestler who won the fourth Café Writers Norfolk Commission.

 

I’m pretty sure this is a unique collection, giving us something of the visceral experience of the wrestler himself, the physical, tactile and deeply sensory nature of the sport:

.......You run heel, ball, heel, turn against
.......the ropes, criss-cross the squared-circle,
.......rope burn across your back again and again,
.......faster and faster, hit the corner-buckle.
..............(‘Muscle Memory’)

 

This means that much of the poetry in this pamphlet is heavily descriptive, whether of the action (as here) or the sights, sounds and smells of the ring:

.......He had a smell like oatmeal and butter,
.......cod-liver oil breath covered by peppermint.
..............(‘Saturday’)

 

These sensations seem directly experienced and they’re generally presented in a voice that we can believe is authentic, too: colloquial, conversational, story-telling. You can almost believe other wrestlers will appreciate these poems, though I suspect reading poetry is not the most popular of wrestlers’ relaxations.

 

Sinclair is also keen to present the many angles of his profession. There’s training under a railway bridge, travel between contests, dressing room, audience. Anyone who knows wrestling will find poems of familiar things, and anyone new to wrestling will get more than a scent of what the life is like.

 

Occasional moments seem a little characteristic of a novice, as Sinclair cannot resist saying in one poem, “learning the ropes”. There’s perhaps too much sensory documentary. It’d be nice to see some deeper insight, some analysis, some analogy or extrapolation from the business of simply being a wrestler. I think Sinclair recognises this, but hasn’t got there yet. Instead he’ll settle for a somewhat sententious ending:

.......And now I think how an operating theatre
.......is like a wrestling arena;

.......the outcome less certain.
..............(‘Looking Up at the Lights’)

 

This observation is fair enough, perhaps, but feels rather a let-down, a little clichéd. The potential for a richer dialogue between the imagery of wrestling and something wider or deeper is evident at times, however:

.......The ring’s cross-irons have developed a bend
.......which exactly matches the curve of your spine.
..............(‘Canvas’)

 

Whilst a literal description, this begins to suggest an interdependence of wrestler and ring: the world is conforming to the fighter’s occupation of it. From here it’s only a small step to finding a more general truth.


Matt Merritt:

I’ve a confession to make. I’ve had a soft spot for old-fashioned, Saturday afternoon wrestling (none of that WWF rubbish) ever since being taken to see Les Kellett at the local miners’ gala when I was seven. So, the first poem here, 'Saturday', struck a chord immediately:

.......After each week’s episode you grappled

.......with the sofa cushions for hours,
.......got the stuffing beaten out of you,
.......but always, in the end, dived

.......slow motion off the windowsill
.......across the villain for the win.

Sinclair actually is a wrestler, though, so rather than cosy childhood reminiscence, this is the kindling point of a lifelong obsession—vocation even—that’s explored thoroughly throughout the rest of the collection.

 

 

For the most part, he tells his story in a plain, almost journalistic style, but it’s all the better for being leavened sparingly with some quietly startling images. In ‘Narcissus’, for example:

.......in every clatter of every bodyslam
.......a little life rattles out like change.

Occasionally, the tone does become a bit too flat, the language a little unsurprising, but Sinclair holds your interest in other ways. ‘The Saint versus Lord Nelson’, for example, considers the whole scripted nature of wrestling, how it’s more theatre than sport, while the poet is never anything but unflinchingly realistic about his passion. ‘Looking up at the Lights’, for example, feels utterly immediate:


.......Laid flat to the canvas, I look up
.......at the white light suspended above

...................................— soft peripheral shapes
...................................I understand to be bodies,
...................................visual murmurs —

.......and think how an operating theatre
.......is like a wrestling arena;

.......the outcome less certain.

Such lines (especially that subtly ambiguous last one) mean there’s plenty here for the reader who has no knowledge of or interest in wrestling, and they promise good things from Sinclair in the future. For now, this is an unusual, often gripping and entertaining first collection.