Sphinx eight stripes

HappenStance, 2010   £4.00

Reviewed by Ross Kightly, Hilary Menos and Richie McCaffery

Ross Kightly:
At times the focus of many of these poems can be tight: the pug shitting truffles, the epaulettes of bird crap on a statue, a worm as a glistening roll of bruised flesh. But in other poems the scope is convincingly vast, as in ‘Comet’ where a man’s crisis point is seen in terms of an aberration in the movement of a comet.

Like the wine in ‘Fenchurch Street’ which is “dry but not dry-dry”, much of the collection is resonant with suggestion without being ‘clever-clever’. An instance is ‘Forecast’ with its fourteen-line analysis of the decay of a relationship expressed through weather phenomena.

The poems also get around a good deal in a geographical sense, with stops (among others less specific) in London, Geneva, somewhere for a Bone Hunter to dig up Wehrmacht relics and bodies, Holm [sic] Marsh and Al Wazeer Street. Ms Google tells me that such streets exist in a number of places, but this time the location is a country at war with the men talking about how their sons will soon face the same choices and compromises to which they themselves had submitted. But there’s some literary travel going on as well, with a nod to Wordsworth, I think, in ‘Evensong’ with its meditation that takes place on an urban bridge.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction in a collection of many pleasures is the fact that not everything is explained. In ‘First’, for instance, a beautifully balanced list poem, the first line of the second stanza sets us up for this intriguing lack of easy resolution: “Too many firsts.  First party, first drink, first. . .” and the pay-off in the cold bus shelter: “Her first big question. Her first wrong answer.”  And that’s the finish of the poem, but of course, not its end.

There’s much that is disturbing here, such as the whole of ‘Naked’ with its focus on the nature of sexual attraction, from the “slippers of chalk” and “abandoned fingertips” in the first stanza to the allusive and sinister final stanza:

     but she knows it is her shadow that excites him,
     the twisted crucifix on the wall,
     the black rivulets that flow
     from the soles of her feet.

The most elusive poem for me is ‘The Visitor’ with its dialogue between an official of some kind and the person who gave shelter to the “young, smart, sexy” woman who arrived during a storm. Again the ending resolutely refuses to explain her death.

With its balance between the public personae of some poems and the sensitivity of the poet’s voice to what is lost in relationships with the passage of time, this is a varied but unified collection. Highly recommended.

Hilary Menos:
Hands are everywhere in David Ford's pamphlet Punch. On thighs, up skirts, inside dresses, often loaded with threat. Hands, he seems to suggest, somehow define a person. In ‘Hangman’, he says, "This is how God drew me . . . the splayed hands a hieroglyph". And there is a telling moment in his poem ‘Crosswords’ about his dying father, whose carpenter's hands were stained with Devon clay:

     They were his voice and they spoke to the wood
     more intimately than he ever talked to me.

     Now I am a father. My hands are pale and office soft.
     Imprisoned in my pockets, they make nothing.

Ford looks long and hard at the tougher, dirtier side of human existence, the stresses and strains of human relationships, our dreams and our fallibility, and finds a whole load of dark. Even a poem about happiness in childhood lingers over boats—‘Lucy and Polly and Rose Marie—rocking lonely on a barren marsh. But his poems shed a little light into this darkness; they are considered, compassionate, and studded with delightful images: a "luxurious pug shitting/ truffles in the snow", a statue with epaulettes of bird crap.

He can be heavy handed at times, though, to my mind. In ‘Couples’, each one of four stanzas gives us a different viewpoint from each of four people illustrating their lack of communication and understanding. It's a bit stereotyped and predictable—the hopeful, silly girl, the antsy youth, the disillusioned woman who knows the day will come "when you realise the kids have gone,/ that you haven't talked to each other for the past ten years", and her husband whose "tie round his neck feels awfully tight".

Ford also occasionally falls into the trap of trying to pack up a poem in its last line. I think he intends to be pithy but it can come across as pat and sometimes just too obvious. In ‘First’, for example, a girl's "First party, first drink" lead inexorably to her "first big question. Her first wrong answer". We don't need to have it spelled out so clearly. In ‘Fable’, where a nursery plate with its decoration of fairy tale animals is sent "spinning towards/ humankind" he doesn't quite earn the weighty abstract noun, and in ‘The Bone Hunter’ the final line, "the rain-washed badge with its great deceit/ Gott mit uns . . ." smacks a little too much of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.

However I'll pass over these minor quibbles every time because Ford also writes poems that take your breath away with their (forgive me) punch. These are assured, muscular, colourful. Probably the best is ‘Punch and Judy’, which opens

     When he closed the curtains
     and came downstairs to bed
     she was already lying there,
     the nightdress tied tight
     around her neck, the big
     mittened hands sewn into her sleeves

and goes on, quite beautifully, to make me cry. This theme is revisited, again very successfully, in the last poem of the pamphlet, ‘Mrs Punch’. These poems have a powerful sense of the inevitable about them, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of the poetry—they couldn't go any other way. In ‘Hangman’ he does it again, shedding new light on an old idea: "a stick man hanging from a three line gantry/ searching for the word that will save my life". I wish I'd written that.

Richie McCaffery:

     “a life of saying the wrong things
     can gather as burrs in your throat”
          (‘Hotel Montana’)
And so David Ford takes on the emotive and cathartic task of clearing his throat to channel the right things and sets a mood of revelatory urgency that underscores this exemplary first collection. Punch lives up to the promise of its title, offering poems that vigorously, viscerally and sometimes violently impact upon the reader, much like the eerily casual tones of the closing poem ‘Mrs Punch’ which brings a new and raw meaning to Punch and Judy with its “gale of shocked laughter”. However, amid poems of exhumation ('The Bone Hunter' with its hauntingly empty last line “gott mit uns, gott mit uns”) and those that conjure up the line of police questioning (such as 'The Visitor' which offers poetic answers to script-driven questions), it is perhaps the poems of tender but acute discovery and observation that stand out most in this collection.

Days after reading this pamphlet, it is 'First' that endures in my memory for the intensity and simplicity of its focus: a teenager waiting at night at a bus stop with “the thud/ of the party still ringing in her ears” and where “she breathes on the shelter's icy glass,/ draws a question mark with her finger”. I don't think I have ever read adolescent rites of passage dealt with in such a sensitive, percipient and almost affectionate way without sounding at all wistful, but 'First' succeeds in being immediate, alive and relevant.

The ability to shape-shift into other minds is also deftly demonstrated in ‘Second Honeymoon’ with its beguiling limpidness and sensuousness—“she wanted to yield to his touch/ wanted his fingers to run to water”. The register always finds an effective balance between stark utterance and imagery rich in unexpected and inventive ways, such as the wine glass in ‘Fenchurch Street’ in which “the city smothers the flaring sun”. Among poems of cocky rebellion (‘Free Speech’) and witty cynicism (‘Demagogue’), it is the dazzlingly sharp vignettes of domestic unease, unhappiness or uncertainty that win the reader’s imagination in this impressively assured first collection.