Hearing Eye, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Fiona Sinclair, Sue Butler and James Roderick Burns
This pamphlet's cover comprises vivid colour photographs depicting the locations in the collection. I feel this tends to give it the characteristics of a tourist booklet rather than a collection of poems. The eponymous 'loves' in the title are broadly: landscapes, churches, politics and family members.
Lockett has a deep affection for the environs of Kentish Town. The poems 'Leighton Road' and 'Brecknock Road' are packed with detailed descriptions of the sights and sounds of a vivid multicultural world. I particularly like the marrying of the area's past with its present. The lines concerning Crippen and his mistress provide a gossipy titillation for the reader, whilst the details about "our hoodie clans" who devour "sunshine fries" are refreshingly without censure towards teenage culture, the use of the inclusive "our" suggesting the persona embraces all the inhabitants of his neighbourhood.
Both these poems adhere to a dominant rhyme pattern, which is, for the most part, couplets. Since "Brecknock Road" in particular is a substantial poem, I find this intrusive. The rhyme adherence seems to me to be at the expense of stronger imagery.
It is to the poet's credit, however, that he can switch from the urban bustle of London thoroughfares to the stillness of church interiors and remote countryside. These poems are for me the most successful. Being shorter they are less wide-ranging and, unfettered by rhyme, produce some fine imagery: "roundhead landscape of drained fens", "a bruiser's profile scenting the salt-edged wind from Morecambe".
In many such poems, the church lies at the heart of the community whether it is urban or rural. Lockett shows how these buildings become the setting for landmark events in the locals' lives: "On every mantelpiece a photograph of a confettied couple and the great West Door".
Running through the collection is a passion for left-wing politics. This is manifest in tributes to local union leaders, revolutionary art and the poem 'Apprenticeship', which recalls years as a trainee printer. The danger when recounting something so personal is the imperative to be faithful to every particular. As such, this work is very long and, though packed with interesting details, tends to become more of a social document than a poem.
The set of verse dealing with the family includes the love poems 'Lyric' and 'Dinah'. For me, these are standard love pieces intended for private consumption. However, I find other verse where the lover forms part of the "we" on country excursions much more effective, since the loved one is an integral part of that particular fond memory: "I remember you walking slowly, hunched against the wind".
The most successful poems dealing with emotions focus on parents, family friends and indeed a family grudge. The narrative poem "Smiths Falls" recounts an old familial grievance using a vivid lexis of anger: "my rage red phone call to Canada", "The old fury writhes back into life", before becoming a study in forgiveness with the fine lines:
The corroded time bomb, fifty years of anger
is diffused by this invisibility. . . .
In the poem 'Saturday London' Roy Lockett visits the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. He goes down "the longest launching ramp in art history/ into the furore of October 1917." He picks up a book of Mayakovsky's poetry. An hour later he is still reading and
thinking about his 'full stop with a bullet' suicide and
revolutionary art shouldered aside by Stalin's realism
and I have to say that in some of Roy Lockett's poems, the lack of full stops made it harder to appreciate the full power of the words than it need have been. I confess I'm asthmatic, and even when I read in my head it's with an asthmatic's lack of breath. But these are fine poems and unfortunately the long sentences sometimes left me struggling to keep up. The poem 'Leighton Road', travels four lines without a full stop to
the thirties flats where if you look
you'll find a plaque to Donald Cook
whose rent strike back in sixty four
shook Camden Council to the core
and there are still another eight lines to go before the white hospital roof and the very welcome full stop. But being left slightly out of breath is a small matter when there is so much pleasure to be had from these poems.
Roy Lockett uses rhyme with confidence. Such confidence, that in the 28 stanzas that make up 'Apprenticeship' he dispenses with punctuation altogether:
Apprentices made tea in the mornings
Went out to fat Billy's for rolls
Posted comp' pools on a Friday
At lunchtime took leisurely strolls
And the same in the six stanzas of 'Lyric':
Oh I will wrap you in soft sheets of poetry
Hum tunes so sweet your eyes will turn to sky
Plant seven seas of flowers at your doorstep
And never ask you when or where or why
In his 1917 poem, 'Our March', Mayakovsky says (roughly translated):
Songs are our weapons, our power of powers,
Our gold, our voices - just hear us sing.
Roy Lockett's poems sing with his joy of everyday life. They are full of people and food and birds and love and all the things that make up his daily round. Even the dead are remembered with a smile, as in 'Rondeau for Jack Amos', a lifelong union man, who "waved and did not drown/ made Union Jack his laughing noun".
So inhale deeply and enjoy this pamphlet. It's like a long cycle ride or a workout at the gym - you'll feel breathless but richer afterwards for having made the effort.
James Roderick Burns:
Kentish Town and Other Loves is an excellent first pamphlet. Like all first ventures, it has aspects which the author would probably want to revise, with time: a tendency in many poems to belabour a point, or stretch a conceit beyond the limits of its potential, or include work which has been undertaken as an exercise (both 'London Bird Report' and 'Collective Nouns' fit this category).
Where Lockett overdoes an idea, for instance, there is always a kernel of new and bright thought at its beginning. In 'Love and Dying', his father's stroke - deftly captured as "the great unclenching" - is contextualised at too great length:
The silken knot of intimacy
no longer laced them.
There were no embraces,
no touching of lips wrapped
in quiet smiles, no funny
special phrases, no secret verses
of body poetry.No shooting stars
that I could ever see.
Though the poem finishes well, with the poet's mother striving to rebuild "that sweet repository of all she cared for:/ this man lying in Rose Hill Hospital,/ the bed awash with sunlight", it takes 77 lines to get there. It is a pattern repeated in 'Apprenticeship', 'Smiths Falls' and 'The Burying Way'.
Similarly, 'Charlie Keen' establishes a useful conceit (a working man's characteristics bodied forth in his tools) but pushes it too far, developing detail and then explanation that undermines the force of the image, beginning to tell rather than show:
He had the character of those old tools
he carried in a grease-stained canvas bag,
strong like the long ropes of wooden beads
he used to bend lead pipes, balanced
and functional as a round-headed mallet,
simple as a lead-tipped bossing stick.
A tough and square-slabbed man
beaten into meaning and value by
the shaping tools of working life
and laughter on London building-sites
But when Lockett overcomes these urges to excessive length, his work is superb. 'The Parish Church', for example, builds with perfect, cadenced energy to a magnificent hymn to the lasting power of churches. It has all the wry gravitas of 'The Whitsun Weddings':
Butted against that grief, the laughter
of a thousand weddings, the pride,
the Sunday suits, the homburg hats,
the swirly dresses and seven seas of flowers,
the families from Old Town, Pitlake
and the Mitcham road, riding in big black cars
to walk with due solemnity and secret smiles
through the clustered chatter of neighbours
into the sun-laced twilight
of the Parish Church
Or the clean, devastating conclusion of 'Gaza', ripping apart our cherished notions of the power of art in fewer than twenty lines:
No poem is able to record
the decibels of human grief
or images of shellbursts
at twenty eight frames per second.
A poem is everything it cannot do
a scatter of words.
There is evident quality and power in Kentish Town. As the poet works to bring them out more consistently, his work will be something to look out for.