HappenStance Press, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Richard Meier, Hilary Menos and Sue Butler
From the outset, with the deft half- and quarter-rhymes of the pamphlet's opening poem 'The man who paints the bridge' (can/hand; cradle/diagonal/ Road/beard; slept/paint; skin unevenly; claws/knows), it is clear that one is in the hands of a skilful writer.
Aside from the aural skill required to pull off such rhymes, there's a tonal skill in evidence here, as in the poet's ability to turn her sprightly, quirky eye on a subject without losing a sense of seriousness.
'Tom Potter' is a poem that also demonstrates this knack. Seemingly a rather slight piece at first glance, on re-reading it grows more substantial, ably conveying the devastating hold which this eponymous figure maintains, years on, over the 'I' of the poem:
Tom Potter was enormous at the Bank of England.
I'd phone Tom Potter and he'd say Sorry but do nothing.
I'd visit Tom Potter, he'd sparkle and call me
Darling, do nothing.
This same blend of lightness and seriousness, this lightly-worn seriousness— the best word I can think for it is naturalness, a quality which is rarer than one might think among poets and one, I suspect, you can't teach—runs through what is probably the most assured and inventive poem in the pamphlet, 'Estd in 1769 London', a paean to alcohol, or gin in particular, in the form of meticulously loving portrait of a bottle of Gordons:
If the Green Knight
his blood would bleed
the colour of this glass […]
You will notice I
have not touched
the white screwtop with
its helter skelter
thread and its circumference
of vertical thumbgrips, or actually mentioned
the liquid itself.
How rare it is to read poetry that tells it slant without losing its power in the process.
I wasn't convinced by all the poems— for example 'John O'Neil's diary, 10 April 1864' seems a bit prosily slight, while 'All around the Withy Trees' seems a little sentimental for my liking—but the poignancy of many of the others, and the élan with which they are carried off, more than make up for the few that misfire. Impressive stuff.
Gill Andrews has reach and ambition, and a cosmopolitan confidence which gives her poems freshness and makes them enjoyable—even fun—to read. This is not quite underpinned by a fully developed poetic sensibility; she's not as sure-footed as she first looks. A strange or weak line break here, an odd bit of syntax or unconvincing word there, put a stumble in to the otherwise sparkling flow. For example, in ‘Skein’ she says, "One day, a famous acrobat in England'll wear/ that very silk", and in the poem ‘The Thief’, "my lips are parchmenty with the grey of it". And her light touch can be too light: sometimes there’s not quite enough information to enable a reader to connect with the deeper meaning.
Some of the poetry in this pamphlet reads like text found, borrowed or overheard. Andrews also experiments with patterned and mirrored text, inventing forms to suit her own purposes. ‘Greater Love’ starts with a piece about a couple reassured that their daughter hasn't been caught up in a terrorist attack; mirrored diagonally on the facing page is a piece from the perspective of the suicide bomber. The last word of the last line of the first piece is the same as the last word of the first line of the second piece, and so on. It's a nice conceit, although the business of working out what the poet has done rather detracts from the emotional power of the individual pieces.
The title poem, ‘The Thief’, is also a written in an arresting form, each couplet harking back to the previous one and linking it to the following one; "Thief, you're the Viscount . . . // Viscount, you're the spider . . .” etc all the way round to "Bridegroom, you're the Thief." Reading it feels rather like getting on a merry-go-round and being spun past an array of vivid images and weird characters; you end up dizzy and not much the wiser. The colour and dance of the poem is beguiling though, and there’s clearly intelligence and humour at work. This is also evident in ‘Variations on works by Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Jaime Sabartés in the Guise of a Spanish Nobleman’, where she says:
Those round spectacles make you look like a librarian.
Nobody recites limericks like you do.
But I'm left torn. I love her playfulness, her irreverence, and her range, but I have to admit that if there's something to get, I'm not getting it.
This poet is at her best, it seems to me, when she's not trying to be clever or showy, but focusses on something real and deals with it in a fairly straightforward way. I particularly liked the poem ‘Caryatids’, about a funeral in an army town where "male cousins shoulder/ the terrifying box", and the last poem in the pamphlet, ‘Happiness’, which begins:
The glass is so old in the Rickets display
that I need to squint to read that 'the fight
continues in places where custom or faith
prohibits any exposure to sunlight'.
Andrews is pitching to bat with the best. She comes up a bit short here, but with more attention to the poetics—and fewer pyrotechnics—she has the potential to do it.
For me, two images jumped out from this pamphlet. In the poem’ Greater love’
[. . . ] He clutched his face with both hands
so violently that even ten minutes later the frowns
of fingernails were white on his cheeks.
And in the poem ‘From Margaret of Antioch’
In dreams I re-enter the belly of the dragon:
its oboe pulse, its bone-red pearls,
the widdershins swing of its gait.
The oboe pulse of a dragon. The oboe pulse of a dragon. I know we all have busy lives but just stop for a moment and think about that. Hear it. See the movement under the scales.
So compelling and powerful do I find these two images that I’m tempted to end my review here. By writing less, I could give you a few minutes to contemplate these images.
However, I wouldn’t want you to think there isn’t a wealth of other treasure in this pamphlet. For example, there’s the man in ‘The man who paints the bridge’:
People on Battery Road
set their clocks by him. They measure his beard
to see how long they’ve slept.
He understands the nature of paint:
And the eponymous lawyer who wants to retire where
Nobody will know what I look like in a wig
and dinner part conversations rarely turn to
divorce settlements or stratagems for parking fines.
This lawyer wants to live on a farm and learn to rear rare breed pigs. And “To walk home amongst apple-blossom after dark. And not get/ BBC2 except in summer and even then only in black and white.”
There are meditations on works by Picasso, poems on space travel, family relationships, stone, a gin bottle and happiness. Truly something for everyone. In ‘A likeness in stone’
When you offer me love, I give you stone.
We both pretend you covet stones [ . . . .]
You prefer a hard mattress. You’re thin. Your knuckles
and shoulders and knees are skin covered stone.
Is a cold poem? No. Is it a hard poem? No. Gill Andrews avoids cliché and makes you think deeply—because I’m pretty sure we’ll all see a bit of ourselves in this poem. Sadly, very sadly, I certainly did.
But I digress. Did I mention the oboe pulse of a dragon? The oboe pulse of a dragon. . . .