Templar Poetry, 2008. £4.00
Reviewed by Kirsten Irving, D A Prince and Tony Williams
Taking the title and front-cover confetti of mathematical terms a bit too literally, I was looking forward to Mike Barlow’s first Templar pamphlet being full of logarithms, formulae and bizarre algebraical experiments in form. In fact, it’s nothing like that. So I had to get over that to start with.
As you might expect from a National Poetry Competition winner, the work in Amicable Numbers is tight and well composed, without being cold. There’s a great deal of tenderness to be found in many of the pieces, such as ‘The Long Loss’ and ‘Brother’, two of a number of poems addressing family relationships and the absence of loved ones. The latter in particular has a really nicely understated close:
And though they now live miles apart
and may, like us, lose touch, at least
each one will know the other could, theoretically,
turn up one day and ask to stay the night.
Barlow is concerned with the significance of intimate moments and quiet observations, from the blister on a palm left by a wedding ring to a phone call to a dented charm. This works well in the unspoken frustration of ‘A First Anniversary’, where a young husband, desperate to help or please his wife, can’t work out why she is so cold to his efforts, while she declines to tell him. The breakdown of communication and the relationship is affecting and subtle.
I don’t feel the observational style comes off quite as well in ‘The House Without Memory’. Here, the repetition of the title in the final lines of the first, second, third and fifth stanzas seems at odds with the description of the attic and an old tin trunk linked to the speaker’s uncle. Clearly the house holds memories, unless I’m missing something. The change in the later stanzas, from “the house without memory” to the “house that’s lost its memory” and finally “the house in her memory” might have worked better if this shifting had been a constant element throughout. That kind of twisting and altering of the meaning of the words would have given added dynamism to an already interesting poem.
The title poem has a really nice conceit—the link between spies exchanging encrypted documents and two lovers or friends exchanging personal letters. The specific use of actual amicable numbers 220 and 284 is a nice touch, but I don’t feel they needed to be mentioned in the epigraph to the piece. Better as an Easter egg for poetry-reading mathematicians. The letter itself in the poem is loving and nicely textured, thoughts nipping here and there like Nabokov’s referenced butterflies.
To return to my initial (slightly unreasonable) gripe about craving weird and wonderful structures in this collection, I do still feel that perhaps an element of that could have pushed this collection out of its safety zone and into riskier, but more eclectic territory.
D A Prince:
A large cast of characters, range of references, lightly-sketched historical contexts—Mike Barlow can draw these together into one pamphlet that is substantial but never heavy. These are poems about relationships and connections, good-humoured and confident, the sort I want to share, to read aloud to friends. Barlow’s view of the world is generous and humane, and his colloquial pitch and natural rhythms make him accessible. As a man he’d be good company, and as a poet he can make language lively and inclusive, even when tackling ideas that are initially unfamiliar.
The title poem is a good example. ‘Amicable numbers’, he tells us in an epigraph, are “those where the sum of the divisors of one is equal to the other. The smallest pair of ‘friends’ is 220 and 284.”
This information would normally make me turn quickly to the next poem, but Barlow has placed this poem at the centre of this collection—and by now I trust him completely. And here’s the story, a metaphor for the curious codes of human relationships, taking place not on a set date but “the week the Berlin Wall came down.” The poet finds a second-hand copy of The Encryptor’s Companion, Volume 1, with an undated love letter tucked into p. 220, and his hope is that the reply will be in Volume 2, at p. 284. At the heart of the letter is the line “Surely it is enough to witness one’s life as metaphor.”
Barlow doesn’t answer this question, leaving his reader to consider it, and connect it with other poems—‘Cauliflower Cheese’, with its vivid concentration on the cooking process and two lovers “trying to leave a little for cold, tomorrow./ But we won’t. We’ll finish the lot.” Or with ‘The wedding ring’, in which a man destroys the ring that “time had worn into him”, but can’t destroy “the blister on his palm/ just where the mount of skin/ used to catch.”
The real world of family connections runs through the collection: father, aunts, brother, daughter. When his daughter, suffering with back pain in San Francisco, rings for advice about her return flight—
The journey’s hers not mine, but suddenly
the fear I’m listening to is mine, not hers.
‘The long loss’ reveals his continuing sense of bereavement, listing some of the times he “lost” his father:
of the Prague crowds chanting
Dubcek, Svoboda, Dubcek, Svoboda,
I lost him when the tanks rolled in.
. . . .
I lost him
through a long divorce, decades
of sub-Saharan famine, hostage takers, Aids,
I lost him when his younger sister died. . .
Barlow tells time by the real world’s events, not by calendar dates. The world’s clock is regulated by the lives of the people around him. I like this—and it multiplies the layers in the poems.
Don’t be put off by the cover with its pattern of mathematical terms: this is a pamphlet about friends and family, alive and dead, and, in Barlow’s words, how “Shadows reach/ and touch each other through me.” It provides more nourishing reading than many full-length collections.
Amicable Numbers opens with a couple climbing a cliff. It’s a neat image of intimacy: “What we commit/ to one another’s care up here’s not spoken of.” It also makes an apt beginning, because the whole pamphlet is concerned with intimacy and the messages which express or fail to express it. The title poem picks up the theme:
But enough. What I ask from you
is not something you might know about.
It is the hint of knowledge passed over,
the hidden current your smile rides
when I look the other way. Yours ever, Jack.
And later, in ‘The Moon Unfinished’:
Night driving strikes us wordless,
for all there is to tell each other. Dark
hides a smile the other knows is there.
Appropriately enough, perhaps, the methods Barlow uses to explore this material are quiet, elliptical: he generally uses a slightly prosaic free verse, which needs the strong images he puts in to quicken things (a river seen from above is “a dark scar stitched with bridges”; cicadas’ music is “malediction with intermissions”).
When things go wrong, when the sense of intimacy isn’t sufficiently realised, the poems can look slight (I didn’t like ‘Cauliflower Cheese’, for example); and sometimes (‘Shift’) I was left wondering whether a poem was slight or, rather, delicate—I can see how other tastes might like them more. Meanwhile ‘Sir Guy and the Lady Isabella’ contains a good conceit, but it is realised rather modestly, so that it doesn’t stretch the reader as far beyond Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ as it could have done. (‘Evenings, the organist crusades against the air’ is excellent, though.)
My favourites here are the ones where Barlow allows more leeway to the strangeness of his imagination—‘Twins’, for example, where the speaker meets two ghostly twins:
He waves and vanishes again. My footsteps echo
as if I’m being followed. Shadows reach
and touch each other through me.
And I like the metrical pulse in ‘The House Without Memory’; and—best of all—the poem about his father, which is full of charming, playful touches and a sympathetic complexity:
Moustaches tusked above a smile, a coy joke
no one gets, a command they do.