Tyne and Esk Writers, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Robin Vaughan-Williams, Ross Kightly and Sue Butler
The poems in Tell Me About Them are largely split between those related to science and those that follow a trip to the USA, although there is some overlap. While there are a few interesting poems in the latter category, such as ‘The Kind of News’ with its sense of unsettledness and mystery, it is the poems in the former category that I was most drawn to. While poems that try to explore the wonder of science can sometimes get lost in their own imagery and analogies, these poems are generally marked by an attentiveness to the scientific underworld of our daily lives, whether the biochemistry inside our bodies that causes a diabetic schoolfriend to “stagger” and “wave wildly”, or the everyday potions we apply to our bodies or pour into them.
The back cover tells us that the author worked as a teacher, and I couldn’t help making a connection here, one which the front cover, with its photograph of what looks like a group of girls on a sixth-form outing wading in the surf, does nothing to discourage. The style is clear and the imagery always seems to serve a purpose—it doesn’t run off anywhere—both qualities which I thought had a pedagogic dimension to them.
Where the self does occasionally seem to recede, it is always temporary, and both caused and relieved by changes in chemical and physical conditions. We see this with the diabetic friend and how “[t]here seemed a magic in the way/ a simple sugar drink could call you back”, but also in the opening poem, ‘Questions of Identity’, with its exploration of the narcotic effect of deep-sea diving. Here, play with language (“A problem with personal pronouns: who/ is sitting on my shoulder looking in? Me, him?”) and with perception (his buddy becomes “a mutant, humpacked,/ tube sprouting from mouth”) is firmly grounded in the effects of high pressure at fifty metres down. This poem has the feel of an adventure to it.
In poems with titles like ‘Calcium Carbide’, ‘Oil of Wintergreen (Methyl Salicylate)’, and ‘Tincture of Iodine’, chemical compounds function as an anchor for memories of people and places, and as a route for the imagination to times past when technologies were different. We are taken back to the days of
carbide lamps on bicycles;
a society of wobbling, disembodied beams,
flowing through factory gates[.]
In ‘Oil of Wintergreen’, the oil serves as a thread running through the poem and through the life of the poet: as a child watching his mother and grandmother apply it to their backs, as a young chemist in a laboratory, and as “an old man, clearing out a cabinet”. In these poems science is very much part of our organic lives. The all too common tendency for science to be divorced from experience is satirised in ‘The Ideal and the Real’, where the schematic representation of a frog’s innards bears little relation to the mess revealed by dissection:
I opened up the abdomen, exposed
a mass of loops of gut and jumbled organs.
“Is it meant to look like this?” I mumbled.
I’ll begin with a list of things I didn’t know I was really interested in until I read this pamphlet: Scuba Diving [not since Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt on telly all those years ago]; mating behaviour of squid; chemistry in general; marine biology.
Michael Davenport managed to put me right on all of those, and he did it with style.
‘Questions of Identity’ took me—after a couple of readings—into the depths and into the deranging mind of a diver beginning to suffer the effects of Nitrogen Narcosis or ‘Rapture of the Deep’ [thanks also to Lloyd B. . . ]
My buddy signals;
though he’s now a mutant, humpbacked,
tube sprouting from mouth, I’d better
follow him, swim the way expanding bubbles go,
to lighter blue and wavering sun
In ‘Passing On’, the mating squid “cavorting in the kelp” end up as “an offering/ of minerals for the structure of [canaries’] eggs/ and songs for the future”—which sums up something I’d felt from childhood about continuity.
The Simple Sugar in the poem of the same title is not named but its connexion with the diabetes of a childhood friend is movingly explored. Equally, Calcium Carbide, Methyl Salicylate, Tincture of Iodine and Methylated Spirit all have poems of their own in which their connections with the human world are rather movingly explored.
I did know I was already interested in playing with gunpowder, psychopathological manifestations, geology, aviation, travel into the strangeness of the United States, the Mythology of the Western Film [especially Shane] and the poignancy of the evidence from World War Two that remains embedded in the landscape and the psyches of we who live now. There were pieces in this pamphlet to help me see all these in a new light.
Relatively few poems seem to operate solely in the mind of Michael Davenport, but those that do offer great insight into the workings of a simpatico sensibility in a variety of settings: waiting to deliver bad news, reflected in the screen of a television set just switched off, lying awake at night, and remembering how ice-cream in a cone “briefly Euclidian,/ dissolves with perfect smoothness/ on the tongue.”
This is a beautifully varied, classily produced selection of 37 poems by a poet with apparently only one other collection to his name, but with luck, many more to come.
However many of the poems I read in Tell Me About Them by Michael Davenport I kept coming back to ‘The Kind of News’:
Where you drive up to a gate
switch the engine off, sit there
Listen to the rain . . .
You delay and delay . . . Here
you can shelter for a little longer
from the rain, from the future.
And I really began to think he knew me when in ‘Toothache’ he asked
the world can shrink
so much and concentrate
itself in this particular
But of course, hiding from the future (anyone who knows me is nodding now) and physical pain (mine happens to be back-related) don’t just affect me—they affect us all.
Throughout Tell Me About Them what Michael Davenport does so successfully is tell us about ourselves. Again and again he takes something to which most people can relate and speaks of it in a way that makes the reader feel it’s their experience that’s being described.
Hands up all those who dissected a frog at school or grew copper sulphate crystals? Or those who’ve stayed in a motel with walls so thin you know that
my neighbour left early . . .
. . . moved with consideration
back into the vastness of the motorways.
Hands up who knows the perfect smoothness of ice cream; has been teased or bullied; unable to sleep, has watched “Moonlight—tree mosaics on the kitchen floor”; or visited an aquarium where
As in a shaded, sacred place,
voices lower in the muted light.
What I’m trying to say is that these poems may at first seem to be about generalities, almost clichés, but they’re not. In ‘A Simple Sugar’, a poem about diabetes, Michael Davenport suggests that “Sometimes our selves seem/ sure as a clear morning.” Since reading that line I’ve spent hours trying to recall when I last felt like that—if ever. That’s the power of these poems. They make you think, and not always about comfortable things.
In Michael Davenport’s world there are Westerns on the TV and people playing bowls. It’s a world pungent with the smell of wintergreen and methylated spirit. Iodine stings cuts, while homemade gunpowder leaves George, “ragged, bloody; meanings altered utterly.” These poems left me looking at my own life, ashamed that I’ve not been noticing or appreciating the small details as much as I should. A sunlit windowsill. The thinness of skin. Bones chilled by absences.
Unimportant? Clichés? Poetic whimsy? No, I don’t think so.