Smiths Knoll, 2010 £4.50
Reviewed by Sue Butler, Patrick Yarker and Helena Nelson
This is the fourth in a series of pamphlets generated by the Smiths Knoll Mentoring Scheme designed to support the development of a promising poet. The scheme runs for a full year and offers detailed feedback on work in progress via email and face-to-face meetings. And if this pamphlet is anything to go by I’d suggest you:
1. Get on the scheme if you can
2. Get hold of the previous three pamphlets
Stephen Payne’s poems reminded me of some of the paintings you see shortlisted for the BP National Portrait Award each year. That’s a photograph, you say to yourself. But stepping up really close, you have to catch your breath when you realise it is indeed a painting. The mastery and confidence of the brush work amazes you as much as the look on the person’s face or the light from an open window settling on their skin. For example, in ‘Maths Teacher’, Mr Harrison, “speaks just what he is writing” on the blackboard, and his pitch becomes:
a notch higher,
his scribble a smidgeon quicker
as we approach the conclusion.
The final equation is triple underlined before he “straightens his smile./ A small throw of chalk from hand to hand.” Then there is the person playing the guitar, discovering, “the pleasures of not striving,/ the songs his fingers remember.” And the boy who turns heads on his unicycle,
rodeoing over kerbs,
weighing the probabilities of balance
and defying them
on his reinvented wheel.
In this portrait gallery there is the ex-head who “chairs a few talking shops” and his wife who “keeps her doubts to herself”. There is a dyslexic son, a commuter and in ‘Career Academic’, the man whose personal profile on the internet dating site lists, “a few of his proudest / peer-reviewed publications”, put there to manage impressions
while being true to himself,
as well as giving her
a chance to prepare,
offering a topic or two
for those first, diffident exchanges.
In a few spare lines, Stephen Payne paints a portrait of the kind of woman that might reply to this lonely heart. And in the four lines of “In My Dreams” he tells us:
Enter my teenage son,
arriving home late.
He tiptoes across the bedroom
to kiss me as I sleep.
It takes Stephen Payne just four lines to say so much. Amazing.
Trying to describe the portraits in this gallery in a way that does them justice is really a hopeless task. Apart from the four lines above, at best all I can show of each portrait is a small piece, a hint of how the whole will look. I also think these are portraits that you need to explore and savour, read aloud, discuss with friends, think about as you cycle home from work.
These are very visual poems, but Stephen Payne doesn’t limit himself to one sense. Long after leaving the gallery what I can hear, as I weed between the snowdrops in my sodden February garden, is Stephen’s mother in ‘Given Name’:
The voice of the young woman
who called me from my sleep those school-day mornings.
Very near the end of this cleanly-printed set of twenty-three poems is a sonnet to a newborn child juxtaposed with four unrhymed lines about a teenaged son. The latter poem is downbeat, its sardonic title undermining the narrative plainly presented in the lines beneath. The sonnet speaks feelingly about the infant, and about what it is to become a father, through a narrative straightforwardly stated but emotionally heightened by the tension the form imposes. The sonnet is written in the past tense; the poem about the teenager in the present. By placing the poems side-by-side Stephen Payne suggests something about how irony as well as love informs a parent's perspective a time goes by.
There are several other poems about childhood. In 'Watch' the poet turns up a concealed present two weeks before Christmas: "perfection: a diver's watch with a black dial". Payne catches the boyish thrill of ownership and finds the right words for what the light does, and the watch-hand:
Nights I would load the phosphor from my anglepoise,
then lie awake just to watch
the second hand sweep the dark like radar
In 'Maths Teacher' he memorialises Mr Harrison through attention to details of speech, sound, stance and the way character is revealed in small actions. The poem ends unexpectedly, and warmly. There's also a portrait of a commuter: two balanced unrhymed stanzas characterised by wit and a point-of-view which makes a commonplace worth looking at again. There are humorous poems here featuring John Motson, academics, and the end of the world. The last poem in the collection is about states of mind, almost a mini-meditation suggesting undercurrents of "unease" (the collection's last word) below the surface of the ordinary. It sent me back to the opening piece, a narrative of potential infidelity. There are poems to the poet's mother and father, both presented in plain ordinary language shorn of imagery but deft with fact or detail and so able to coalesce what reads to me like emotional truth.
Indeed, so plain is the language of many of the poems here that when an image arrives it can gain in power because of its rarity as well as its justness. The poem 'Guitar' begins:
It's part of the furniture,
slumped open-mouthed against the wall,
sleeping off the party.
I like the poems here which work through such concision and compactness. The collection's title is drawn from the six lines of 'Unicyclist'. The unicyclist "rodeoing over kerbs" weighs "the probabilities of balance". For me this suggests the possibilities of un-balancing, and hence the gamble taken in trying to make art.
I've had an eye on Stephen Payne (in a poetry sense) for some time and so I'll come clean: I was on the point of offering to publish his first pamphlet when Smiths Knoll came up with a better deal. Payne follows three worthy predecessors: Richard Kemp, Philip Hancock and Marianne Burton, and I'm delighted to say he sustains their quality.
The Smiths Knoll mentoring scheme is designed to accelerate the development of a promising poet, chosen by the editors for the quality of their submissions to the magazine." It lasts for a year during which time "detailed feedback on work in progress via email and face to face meetings" is offered. "The mentorship culminates in the publication of a pamphlet which is distributed free to subscribers".
It's a great idea, and loyal readers and submitters to Smiths Knoll will already know it as one of the few magazines to return significant feedback to poets. Poems are rarely accepted without comment or suggestion, and sometimes there's a lively discussion by post before the poem appears. It is invariably an honest exchange: Michael Laskey and Joanna Cutts really read, not just to see whether a poem appeals, but with a view to its best interests. Has it wholly 'arrived'? Is it weak around the knees?
Everyone needs this sort of reader. Few of us find them.
Having said this, an interaction of this kind results in the poet him- or herself becoming more like themselves, not more like Smiths Knoll, or whatever standard is held up as exemplary. That's the point, really, and it certainly holds good for Stephen Payne because here he is, between these pages, plain-spoken, quirky, self-effacing, a cheeky gleam in his eye.
If there's a single quality that does link these Smiths Knoll 'mentees' (because in fact they are very different poets), it is their ability to pack a punch through understatement, something that has, I think, been a central feature of the magazine itself throughout its lifetime. The best Smiths Knoll poems know when to stop.
Stopping a poem at precisely the right point reminds me (unaccountably) of the experience of forgetting a word, and knowing it is just on the tip of your tongue . . . just nearly . . . nearly. . . . It's that sense of imminence, of knowing you understand something without actually having it openly said—a marvellous thing to be able to do that. And Stephen Payne can.
It's in 'Dyslexia' and in 'The Pool' and in 'The Career Academic' and in 'Commuter'. It's in 'Journey Home', which may be my favourite poem in the collection, a perfect final piece. I can't quote it: it would steal the thunder of the pamphlet as a whole. You need to arrive at it last.
There's fun too, here. I have a weakness for poems about teachers after the fact, so 'Maths Teacher' is a delight, 'Holes' is very cheeky; 'Watching Paint Dry' catches you off-guard with its wry ending.
If there's a weakness, it may be the resolute separateness of the poems. Each one closes off finally before the next one starts, and the main connection is the author. The pamphlet is very definitely neither a sequence, nor a themed set. But then, I'm not sure this is a weakness. It's a set of good poems, not a dud among them, offered simply. First-rate reading.