The Garlic Press, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Ross Kightly, Jehane Markham and D A Prince
It may have been the fact that I started reading this pamphlet one evening in Délice de France near the Arrivals door in Terminal 3 at Manchester Airport—so was fairly easily distracted—left it aside as something rather pleasant but not completely gripping; but then picked it up again at four in the morning a few days later, thinking of the review needing to be done; and whatever had happened, the transformation was remarkable: I think it must have been the line in ‘At Ramsholt’ when after a bit of skilful and admirable scene-setting, the word “cancer” is dropped into the placid pond of the poem and all is changed.
In the previous four poems I had found much to enjoy in terms of imagery and characterization: the Caretaker whose belly “just fits beneath the steering wheel” or the damselflies who come to inhabit “a painting by Miró” like the “scattered insides of a wrist watch” and the little egret in the eponymous poem that
with the beat of its wings
slows the afternoon down
And I was moved—even at Arrivals—by the idea of the lifeline used to rescue “a mother with her babe strapped to her chest” being “kissed by barren wives desperate for a child”.
But then, after ‘At Ramsholt’—apart from two poems apparently about other characters and not seeming directly to involve the poet—there is a short sequence of wonderfully controlled but powerful poems about death approaching and arriving and then about the process of grieving, of seeing and feeling the lost person in the natural world: in birds, a stag, the sky and
[. . . ] angled light outlining
what you want me to see.
Today, it’s a herd at Tunstall.
And among the rest of the poems are some about other relatives: father, daughter, brother—each is very moving. And there is one, ‘Orphans’ about a daughter working in the Balkans with “orphans” amid “floods in England” and “war in Iraq . . . hotting up” while she, with “love, optimism” is
being driven and driving herself
crazy to make a difference
This surely cannot be read by any parent without a gasp of recognition and the tears of acknowledgement that this is a commemoration of something common in our humanity and of the highest possible value.
But if that’s not quite enough, I can’t leave this book without remarking that there are also poems of humour and ironic control, and that the pamphlet ends with the poet in a new relationship which has reached “a spring tide”—fitting final words for a small collection that floats a greater cargo than I had thought possible.
My spirits always rise on finding out the poet is, or has been, a doctor. Perhaps it is the mixture of compassion, precision and detachment needed in the medical profession that can translate so well into poetry. Slowing the Afternoon Down is an interesting first collection that moves with consummate ease between the banal and the singular. Several poems are elegies to the author’s late wife and most of the time he steers a delicate path between grief, love and sentimentality. Sometimes he manages to mesh the landscape he sees before him with internal imagery of grief, in phrases that startle and arrest:
The flock rises unevenly
as if lifting the weight
of the days, weeks and months
since you died.
Healey’s voice rises out of the Suffolk landscape with a natural sympathy but it’s also shaped by an acute eye for urban detail and a sardonic awareness of modern life in Britain. A lot of his poems are set inside car journeys, the prosaic nature of the image acting as a metaphor for the difficulty of trying to contain anguish within the formalities required for living a civilised life:
I fold your wheelchair and put it back in the car.
The weather holds.
There’s also a dry, self-deprecating humour that leavens the collection and is an added strength:
Nowhere for a pee
so I crouch pretending to change a wheel
which is fine but the wind is getting up.
Much of our life is spent in cars, ferrying family around, driving to work, driving to find somewhere empty of people. Healey manages to convey the claustrophobia and the excitement that can still be generated by this activity.
There are also pieces about close relatives, the divides and the intimacies that make us laugh or weep. You sense that Healey is setting himself challenges, to admit the ugliness and pain of life while still finding his own points of beauty, passion and peace.
May I suggest this is a good introduction for men who are frightened of reading poetry?
D A Prince:
The title catches the tone of this collection exactly: these are quiet, reflective, deep-rooted poems. There’s nothing showy or overtly experimental here, just a close attention to everyday language and rhythms, and how much can be achieved by careful balancing. These poems don’t shout. Healey does not force his subjects and metaphors into acrobatic tricks but deliberately lets them do their own work.
This is a first collection, charting East Anglia, the coast, its birds and wildlife; within that lie sickness and grief. Even the poems that stray beyond East Anglia carry with them the same register, and thus look back to it as home. This is not limiting, but simply underlines the necessity of that home place, and what has happened there. ‘The caretaker’ opens the collection with its themes of migrant birds and close observation of small things: “Frank he calls himself, from Holt/ I think he said” who travels every winter Sunday to see the geese at dawn on the Wash, with “his Embassy fags on the dashboard/ and his tools on the back seat.” It’s the precision of ‘I think he said’ that fixes the poem, and its first-person speaker—another dawn traveller, losing himself in the sounds of geese flying overhead, anchoring himself by what he sees, what he hears. It’s low-key, pitched to draw the reader’s attention away from the speaker, as though it’s too soon for any revelation, yet.
The grief emerges quietly and totally. ‘At Ramsholt’—“the shadows of your cancer”; two pages later, ‘Hospice’, where
The pond was frozen. The plastic duck
couldn’t fly away. Ribs showed on icicles
hanging from the eaves of the summer house.
Close observation of the natural world, a concentration on life outside immediate, personal pain slowly lifts some of the grief: the lines of geese in flight, the olive-backed pipit at Thorpeness, links to other bird watchers, and the rattling activity of the next generation. The rhythm of the lines takes on a new lightness, barely perceptible at first; we sense there is a change before the poems move to music, to jazz and karaoke. Coltrane on tenor sax: in ‘The phenomenology of jazz’ Healey shifts from sound to a memory of flocks of Painted Ladies coming in off the sea, to String Theory, to a fossil, and back to the way “. . . Coltrane/ makes everything seem right and his jazz makes us happy/ even when he’s playing the blues.”
With its careful consideration of the many ways of survival, Slowing the afternoon down is an admirably cohesive collection.