Acumen Publishing, 2009 £3.50
Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, Matt Merritt and Sue Butler
‘Waterhouse and the Tempest’ is the title poem of this attractively prepared pamphlet. An eye-catching painting on the cover is credited to Caroline Curtis, and the blurb explains that this is the poet Sean Elliot’s first collection. This is fairly formal poetry, in that there are a lot of full and half or para end-rhymes, and several traditionally structured sonnets.
Though the poems in this collection don’t seem to have any particular connecting theme—and no reason why they should— the last two, possibly the last three, are war poems of a sort, or at least poems which reflect on the fact that we’ve had to get used again to being a nation long-term at war.
In ‘More Statues Please’
Far from the tower-blocks, each name a town,
(Sherborne and Stratford, Arundel or Rye,)
some lonely, tearful soldier goes berserk.
There are a number of more personal poems, childhood recollections and more recent musing. ‘Saloons and Tomahawks’ is a bittersweet sonnet about the ‘Star Trek-gazing child’ literally turning his back on his father’s sketches of the Wild West. Ten years later:
Your head would sway:
across the moon the whooping cowboys came.
I suppose if I had to categorise the rest, I’d say they were mostly poems of observation—of drunks and beggars, winter tourists, a woman in a laundry, in a waiting room. I felt a coolness, a bit of distance, in many of the poems, as if they were being written by someone sitting in a corner taking notes, and the ones which were most memorable for me were those in which the poet seemed more present—‘The Migration’, ‘First Days’, and ‘Bangladesh 1977’. I don’t know whether this last is a personal poem, or based on something Elliot read or saw in the news, but it certainly stuck in my mind. It concludes with this:
Do small children die small deaths? I do not know.
Smallest of babies, half your proper size, the
dwindling ward re-echoed to your cries.
You won the food the others were denied,
adopted, you outlived them long ago
but still the silent ones press to your side.
Sean Elliott is the sort of poet who gives formalism a good name, using traditional forms such as the sonnet to work with the natural rhythms of his thoughts and language, rather than forcing them into straitjackets.
The fine title poem opens this collection, and sets the tone for what follows, marrying an excellent control of rhythm to a subtle use of both end and internal rhyme. Elsewhere there are a number of fine sonnets, too, but Elliott never gives the impression of showing off his technical skills or carrying out some workshop exercise—he writes that way because he has to.
Family relationships are a major concern throughout, with the poet’s father and a failed marriage taking centre stage. Elliott’s willingness to speak the plain truth, even when it’s uncomfortable, and even couched in that seemingly restrained formalism, is what gives these poems power.
So, ‘The Migration’ manages to write empathetically about both sides of that marriage, while breathing new life into the now-familiar image of a starling flock, ending with:
Amazed, she walked away to watch alone,
head back, her lips one line and lost for words
(estranged from me by more than simple yards),
her whole attention on those gusts of birds
that dusk as flocks of starlings interwove
preparing, with a nearness much like love,
to leave the worst of winter, not to starve.
It’s not hard going, though. Early on, Elliott opens the excellent ‘Butchery’ with the line “All art is praise”, and he remains aware of that throughout.
One gripe. I have to admit I was a bit perturbed by the blurb. It does the poet a great disservice, because the reader really doesn’t need to be told that “his poems, although appearing autobiographical, have a much wider context”. They’re subtle and well-crafted enough to gently insinuate that message into the reader’s head, rather than hammering it home like that.
When I think of this pamphlet, it’s the descriptions I remember. Peter Levi, “A crazy bank manager/ deskbound but drunk on vast analogies”, wondering if his poetry will last. Or Sean Elliott’s father in ‘Butchery’ asking the women what their husbands fancy, the laughter, the raw meat in bags and later:
Older and half-retired, beyond the bleed
and dribble of the butcher’s shop, you trail
behind my mother now; what calls assail
you still from all those women, bright with need?
Or his parents again, that “stooped, unworldly couple on the coast”, waving, “almost as one”. Or even the eponymous giraffe, who, proud and overqualified:
wears his helplessness
like medals on his breast
with heart destroying pride . . .
Long legs, high mind and never
much cash, he plagues each friend
for loans until we bless
the spiteful rows that sever
our friendship . . .
But these poems are much more than well-crafted descriptions. There are Atlantic depths of emotion here. For example, in ‘Indira’s Laundry’, Sean Elliott shows us a woman crying because the washing is flecked with shredded tissue:
split from a nightgown’s
pocket, because you were so tired you didn’t check
and more you cry from shame, perturbed that such
a trivial slip can flood you with such anger
There’s a complexity of emotions captured here that certainly resonates with me: the scalding, choking tears because I’m crying over something trivial; the sulphuric, stomach-churning anger because I’m so angry and don’t want to be.
These poems are often tender, often sympathetic to their subject. They’re also very accessible. The language and syntax are engaging and compelling but simple, only sometimes being twisted to accommodate rhyme, which gets used well; not too much, not too little, not always at the end of a line. Many of the poems seem autobiographical but again, not in a way that excludes the reader.
This is a fine pamphlet and Sean Elliott seems in no danger of becoming dead stock like the books in his poem ‘Dead Stock’ where the diligent assistants “sift the nameless from the soon forgot.” A salient message to us all.