2012, Nasty Little Press £5.00
Reviewed by Kirsten Irving, Jennifer Wong and Andrew Sclater
Arthur is unromantically described on the Nasty Little Press website as being “fertile ground for Martin Figura. His last narrative sequence Whistle got him nominated for the Ted Hughes Award and scooped him 2010′s Hamish Canham Prize.” It seems like a crass introduction to the collection, to hint that it’s simply capitalising on earlier success, especially when the poetry is so genuinely tender.
Part of a collaboration between Figura and the artist Caroline Wright, Arthur is both a love letter to swatches of Suffolk and a quiet fictional biography. Each of the 20 short poems is tight and direct, documenting a fragment of interaction between the protagonist and his loved ones. Wright’s accompanying film is titled On Tides and Fathoms, and there’s an almost tidal feeling to the ways in which Arthur’s family and wife are delivered to him at points in his life, then swept away again.
Not being able to view the film alongside reading the collection, I may be missing out on necessities of pacing here, but the rapidity with which we pass through the man’s life did leave Arthur feeling a little Solomon Grundy. An adjustment in pace might have allowed individual segments to stand out more.
It’s only down to Figura’s sharp, thoughtful details – rapid, precise brushstrokes – that we’re able to get a handhold on the characters as we power through. In ‘Charlotte’, we see the title character’s “hands flutter/ like small white birds when she speaks”, and we understand why Arthur falls in love. In ‘Charlotte’s Kitchen’, we’re shown the grotesque, yet memorable image of “great pans of blood/ and bones” and the kitchen springs into life. It’s honed, concentrated poetry that does a lot, convincingly, in a small space.
In terms of design, it’s an attractive pamphlet with a cream wraparound cover, featuring a black and white image of the sextant discussed in ‘Charts’, and simple, clean typesetting that sits well with the emotive story. A couple of editorial niggles, though: I didn’t really see the point of the titles in the collection, especially as many felt like afterthoughts (‘The School’ is a good example; the poem really has nothing to do with the school, except in its basic setting). A final proofread might also have caught a few errors here and there, like the tense shift in ‘Arthur’s Father Leaves for War’.
That said, no amount of typos can dilute the powerful detail of Arthur “[struggling] in the policeman’s arms” while his wife is trapped in a burning building, or the breathily erotic suggestion of “the basket’s/ rationed sweetness” in ‘The Picnic’. To all teachers who want to illustrate the clout of ‘show, don’t tell’: hand your students this pamphlet.
Fusing war history with fictive past, Figura’s pamphlet offers an imaginative and entertaining account of Arthur, son of a silk-weaver who lives through the Second World War. The pictorial detail of marvellous happenings, combined with the use of an original, heavily monosyllabic staccato, sustains the narrative while giving the poems a medieval resonance.
Inspired by Caroline Wright’s film triptych On Tides and Fathoms featuring the lives of people in remote outposts, Arthur emphasizes the intricacy of family ties and companionship. The poet employs a candid, descriptive language typically found in medieval and Chaucerian tales. The pamphlet’s title comes across as an endearing irony because instead of a heroic, stately figure, we are confronted with an intimate portraiture of a tradesman, his modest struggle and romance with a young village girl. Figura embeds historical references in colloquial, figurative language. For example, by integrating “the little boats at Dunkirk” (a reminder of the significance of these small boats in the British evacuation at Dunkirk) and, in ‘Music’, memory of the war as “one long ache”, he makes history a personal and authentic encounter.
It is exciting to see Figura’s originality in manipulating storytelling perspectives, his interwoven fabric of history and fiction. In ‘Arthur’s Father Leaves for War’, the father shares his ancestry with his son as he prepares to join the army, highlighting the conflict between lineage to the family and to the nation. In ‘Charts’, the young couple fantasise about their escape to faraway places in the kitchen:
.....................................They lay out charts
On the kitchen table, steer a pencil through sand bars
And into the Atlantic, beyond the Bay of Biscay.
Charlotte, Arthur’s girlfriend, sees herself as being the “expert of tides and fathoms”, even if neither of them has much knowledge of the world beyond the immediate reality of war.
My favourite poem is ‘Wedding’, in which the poet conveys the strangeness of wartime living conditions. People adjust to modified rituals and limited resources: the doctor can only give goat’s cheese as a present; and the wedding cake is an “upside-down apple pie”. The humour in such imagery is a delight.
Punchy and sensitively told, Arthur delves into the destructive impact of war on human relationships, with much to admire in its honest and assured language. If only the pamphlet were longer. . . .
Martin Figura was commissioned to write the poems in Arthur to accompany Caroline Wright’s film On Tides and Fathoms. No easy task, but it seems to have posed no problems to Figura. If you know his striking, terrifying, but ultimately tender sequence Whistle (Arrowhead Press, 2010), about the death of the poet’s mother at the hands of his father, you’ll not be surprised. That book, which stands for me as one of the best books of poetry this century, is an example of a more-than-difficult task marvellously performed.
The story of Arthur is tragic too. Although we aren’t given Arthur’s precise identity, it seems he was a real person. Early on (in ‘Quest’) we meet the boy Arthur as
He places his palms on the bus’s
red flanks as it shudders to life
at the edge of the Square,
closes his eyes, inhales
its fumy breath, lets himself be lifted
onto the seat’s cracked hide.
Figura has been complimented for the visual quality of his poetry – he is a photographer – but here he appeals to all the senses, the touch, the colour, the sound, and the smell. And the nursery rhythm of the first stanza drifts when he closes his eyes, and in vibrant darkness we find the space to imagine more. I could feel that leather under my thighs, and warmth, too. This poetry does quiet and highly efficient work.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur builds a relationship with buses. When his father doesn’t make it back from Dunkirk, and he’s turned down for the army, Arthur gets a job with the bus company (“The cool Bakelite wheel/ runs through his hands/ as he swings the Eastern Counties omnibus/ onto the High Street” – ‘Service’)
And then he meets Charlotte, an evacuée from France to his Suffolk and they fall in love and marry. He plans to build a boat to take her home. It’s a utopian dream, full of navigational devices – hence the beautiful engraving of a sextant on the cover of this exquisitely produced little pamphlet (the lovely size of an old-fashioned I-Spy book!).
After Arthur loses Charlotte, he retires with his cello to the very hut that Caroline Wright seems to have asked Figura to reimagine. In the final poem, ‘Requiem’, he plays his cello in there for the last time. Arthur’s decline is charted in a final sequence of seven poems, the first of which (‘The Last Bus Journey’) I quote in full:
The passengers are marsh mist. Arthur
has Reeds Nautical Almanac in his head.
The bus drifts the wrong way around
the roundabout and down Leiston Road.
Dubhe, Merak and Polaris align
with the windscreen wipers.
He is navigating by a different system now. To sail he needs the stars, but has no boat and no crew. Nonetheless, sometimes at night he “sails/ his sacred upturned hut/ off out to sea.”
Sensitive, sad, and in places arresting. Thoroughly recommended.