Acumen, 2010 £3.50
Reviewed by Matt Merritt, Richie McCaffery and Sue Butler
There’s something rather old-fashioned about this debut chapbook, but in the best possible sense.
Lyon uses rhyme and traditional forms throughout, but that’s not nearly as important as the fact that he uses them well. Few of the rhymes are forced, none could be described as flashy, and the rhythms are surefooted yet unobtrusive.
The title poem, consisting of four rhymed couplets, sets the tone for what follows both stylistically and thematically, first setting up the possibility of reading all sorts of meanings into everyday details, before deflating any pomposity in the final lines:
No: children sketched these designs today.
I watch the tide’s rubber scouring the bay.
It’s something Lyon does again and again, with one of my favourites being ‘Conn’, in which a legendary hero’s boasts and listed accomplishments are suddenly put in humbling perspective by the closing lines (which also draw on another of Lyon’s preoccupations—the Classical world and our relationship with it). ‘Balls’, on the other hand, deals with a more specific real-life tragedy, and is effective for being laconically understated.
Elsewhere, ‘Iona’ shows the poet capable of spreading his wings, with kenning-like phrases used sparingly but evocatively, while ‘Upon Bow Bridge’ is both a good Wordsworth parody and a fine serious poem in its own right.
There’s a gently elegiac feel to much of what’s here, as, for instance, in the last stanza of the excellent ‘Travelling Through Mountains’:
Till, gazing back at mountains crossed
(Cloud-hidden now like an old dream),
I mourned the crisp air I had lost,
The torrent’s rainbow, the peak’s gleam.
There are one or two stumbles, but for the most part this really is a little gem, accessible yet deeply felt and well-crafted, and proof that traditional forms can always be made to pull their weight by a skilled practitioner. I hope there’s much more to come.
[. . . ] children sketched these designs today.
I watch the tide's rubber scouring the bay.
‘Sandcastles at Evening’
The opening eponymous poem of this first collection by Martin Lyon shows the poet's interest in impermanence, of human effort undone like children's sandcastles against the waves. This is also a work steeped deeply in the past, rising out of classical heritage, mythology and even lighthearted literary parody. For example, there’s the seriocomic updating of Wordsworth in 'Upon Bow Bridge':
[ . . . ] this petrol purpled river cries disgrace;
Dear God! the very birds have taken wing,
And cans, not fish, swim past the bridge's base.
There seems to be a dearth of high-quality rhyming poetry published at the moment. This perhaps has less to do with literary trends than it does with the difficulty of crafting lively and relevant verse that rhymes without the message of the poem being straitjacketed. While Sandcastles at Evening is not entirely free of metrical stiffness, it does succeed in capturing the poet's tireless fervour, sense of the sublime and of wonder and mortality, along with the occasional playful sally like 'Poetry Competition' with its all too familiar “avalanche of failure”.
Poems like 'Fancies' and 'Iona' are vividly allusive and learned whilst also being exuberant and entertaining. The collection concludes with a series of interpretations and translations of Horace, and although I found them lyrically strong and august (almost faithful) updatings, I couldn't resist hunting the bookshelves for Angus Calder's Horace in Tollcross with its wonderfully seedy and idiomatic takes on Horace's ‘Odes’. That said, Martin Lyon's translations are inspiring, passionate and timelessly carpe diem in tone with their plea to “Enjoy today/ And trust the future least of everything”.
Before you open this pamphlet, be prepared to be delighted and entertained. And be prepared for a kind of music you may not have heard for a while, because almost all of the poems in this collection use rhyme in some form or another. Yes, Rhyme rime (noun):
1. Correspondence of terminal sounds of words or of lines of verse.
2. A poem or verse having a regular correspondence of sounds, especially at the ends of lines.
3. A word that corresponds with another in terminal sound, such as behold and cold. Or cliffs and hieroglyphs, as in Martin Lyon’s poem ‘Sandcastles at Dawn’:
As breakers advance on walls and cliffs
The beach bears only these hieroglyphs.
So ancient they look: patterns, round and square,
Like Saxon buildings traced from the air.
Martin Lyon uses rhyme with an elegance that stops these poems feeling arcane and out of touch with the modern world. I really enjoyed his wry nod to Wordsworth, where in ‘Upon Bow Bridge’ he says:
Earth has not anything to show more drear.
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A vista so offensive to the eye
Without a twinge of nausea.
These poems made me think of nice manners, tea made in a pot and drunk from china, the waiting room at Settle station with its coal fire blazing—things perhaps less common than they were in the past but which should never go out of fashion.
However, on my first reading I did skip ‘Villanelle’ because I harbour a prejudice I perhaps shouldn’t admit, that they require a level of technical skill to which most of us fall short. But when I did go back to it, Martin Lyon’s poem reminded me that prejudice is a nasty quality that only makes my life poorer. ‘Villanelle’ begins:
My love for you is falling, scattering now.
How can it bloom? Dark storms roll overhead.
Under man’s grief my heart’s a broken bow.
And it maintains both the music and the narrative until the end. I did, however, find it intriguing that the poem entitled ‘Poetry Competition’ doesn’t rhyme.
Five hundred poems, most bad or mediocre,
Have now been judged. We’ve picked out some, a shortlist. . . .
Yet as we marvel at such lack of talent,
A dreadful doubt demands, ‘Can we do better?”
I’ve no idea if the lack of rhyme is significant or not but I do know that this feature in Martin Lyon’s poems is a valuable asset. His poems reassure me that rhyme is alive and well. In ‘Horace to Leuconoe’ he reminds us that we need to “Enjoy today,/ And trust the future least of