Mariscat Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Jon Stone, Matthew Stewart and Robin Vaughan-Williams
This is a difficult pamphlet to review, in that it's really very good but not for the reasons I usually praise poetry. In fact, thematically, it walks a line that normally has me sighing—there's ageing, death and country wildlife in abundance, the umpteenth kingfisher poem I've read in the last year, the umpteenth fox poem too.
But Thornton really does rise above the seemingly unadventurous subject matter and undercut expectations. In the kingfisher poem, for example, after playing the usual descriptive card (“rare flash . . . arcs through the sunlight . . . electric blue”), she ends with a sublime bit of bathos:
.......Elated, I tell the janitor.
.......'Och, I see them all the time
.......in my back garden.
.......Big black and white birds.
.......Noisy . . .'
Then there's the wonderfully inappropriate image at the end of 'Avoiding the Limelight', where the “quiet black” clothes of the poet are “a dark prophylactic against the silence of graves”. Or how the “shrunken mother” in a state of advanced physical and mental decay is “waltzed” back to bed by her husband “with his saline gantry” in 'Visiting Hour'. Three dead bird poems in a row get increasingly grisly, from a respectful laying of the body under a fence in 'Prospecting in Partick', where “the mites/ that burrow and chew spirited it away”, through the “ragged lump of tumbling feathers” hit by a car in 'Black Bird', to a cat eating the heart of the casualty “on the marble floor [leaving] a black fan/ laced with rubies”.
What's missing (and this is a good thing) is the earnestness that usually accompanies poems on these weighty subjects. Instead, Thornton is inclined towards the mischievous and macabre, with the occasional pun thrown in for good measure, whilst at the same time employing tenderness as her principle tool of investigation.
And it doesn't matter how many fox poems you've read; this one ('Walking Backwards at Muirshiel') is fantastic:
........ . . the sunshot fox will streak down
.......from the hill, long and lean
.......through the autumn bracken,
.......slip silver-bellied across the burn,
.......slink up this gorge . . .
The materials used for the pamphlet are top quality, although the layout is somewhat lacklustre, with a different, lighter font used for titles that doesn't seem in keeping with the tone of the pieces. It does the job though, and the little snipe (or woodcock?) silhouette logo used throughout is a neat touch.
Town and country, local and exotic are brought together here. In the title poem the two environments are closely welded, as the poet imagines the Hebridean island of Coll being situated on the city’s doorstep:
.......of Archie’s lobster boat
.......is lost in the drum
.......of a washing machine,
.......repairing his window
.......the wingbeat of a raven
These are not the poems of an urbanite’s escape to nature; rather, they feel equally embedded in both urban and rural environments, whether Partick in Glasgow or Muirshiel (Renfrewshire) and the Orkneys.
The back cover of the pamphlet informs us of the author’s love of birds, and while there are plenty of avian appearances, from the thump of a blackbird hitting a wing mirror to the last dance of a brace of pheasants, they are not, as these examples demonstrate, all viewed through binoculars.
There are also plenty of neighbours, with house numbers referenced in two poems and a sense of involvement in the lives of those living in one’s immediate vicinity—so close, they could hardly be concealed from view. These were some of the poems that stood out most for me, such as ‘When the Dishes Are Done’, where the poet is the first to learn the news of the death of a neighbour’s only son.
A couple of other poems that drew my attention were ‘Night Fishing’, which surprised me with its contrast between a woman’s two jobs—on a fish stall by day and as a prostitute by night—and ‘Springboard’ which, unusually for this collection, focuses on movement, and pulls off a freeze-frame representation of a diver’s leap before speeding up to normal play for the descent into water.
The pamphlet is attractively presented, and while there is nothing fancy about the poetry, it is clearly written and consistent throughout.
Valerie Thornton’s beautifully-presented Mariscat pamphlet, If Only Coll Were Two Floors Down, might possess a title that doesn’t trip off the tongue, but the poetry inside its pages is surefooted.
Thornton explores her relationship with wildlife in this collection, at times evoking the tension between man and nature, as in this description of a brace of pheasants:
.......Their last dance ended,
.......they hang by the neck
.......from a coat hook behind
.......the cloakroom door.
The poet’s Scottish identity, meanwhile, is both implicit and explicit throughout the book, yet never evangelical. It simply plays an active role in her understanding of the natural world around her.
Thornton is also deft in her handling of narrative, especially when rendering emotionally important events into poetry without being mawkish. She does so via the steady accumulation of details and observation, as in ’When the Dishes were Done’. Its subtlety of effect means that quotations wouldn’t do it justice, but the poem moved me.
Once or twice, there are pieces that lapse into self-consciousness, attempting to start with everyday language and moments, before shifting into a higher lyric gear in a search for significance, as in the ending to ’Springboard ’:
.......before the clean plunge
.......into deep water
.......as the board shudders
.......like sudden thunder.
To my ear, the attempt at aural patterning overreaches here, so that I become aware of the poet’s straining for effect, whereas in most of the collection lightness of touch abounds.
It’s certainly worth stressing Valerie Thornton’s achievements in If Only Coll Were Two Floors Down, particularly her ability to lift characters off the page. By way of example, I’d like to finish with the description of her mother in ’Visiting Hour’:
.......Her spine is twisted
.......and her head hangs
.......heavy as a sunflower
.......at summer’s end.
This extract is representative of Thornton at her best, specific yet universal.