Smith/Doorstop, 2008,  £4.00

This pamphlet was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2008. It carries the trademark plain cover—a handsome shade of magenta—complete with end flaps, which is a nice touch.

River Wolton’s poems usually centre around narrative. She employs plain vocabulary, free verse, and a fairly regular stanza and line length within each poem. There’s little new ground being broken, but the poems generally succeed in achieving their intended effect, which is rarely disguised.

My favourite section was the closing sequence set in Israel/Palestine from which the pamphlet gets its title. The standard of poetry was nevertheless inconsistent: ‘Statistics’ and ‘The Visit’ resembled prose narratives split into lines, like several poems elsewhere in the collection, but ‘Departures 4.30a.m.’ captured the staccato, repetitive questioning travellers encounter when leaving Ben-Gurion airport, and ‘Old City’ painted a chilling picture of the complex politics within Jerusalem:

Two Hasidim stride by, black coats, Dickens top hats.
One hawks and spits, saliva landing
on the piled fruits outside an Arab shop.

The owner doesn’t see it or, if he does, is silent.
I push past, way out of my depth.

A number of poems relate the illnesses and deaths of the poet’s parents. Two about her father, ‘Seymour Baths’ and ‘Shoes’, were the most successful of these, both focusing on affecting human vulnerability. It’s hard to bring fresh insight to poems on a subject which has been written about so many times; Wolton deserves credit for managing it.

My favourite image came in ‘Thrill’, about a canoe trip which attracts the unwelcome company of alligators:

In each encounter there’s a snapshot of the years to come.
For us it was this darkened undertow
that sensed us well but didn’t change its course
while our hands bristled for each other.

That’s strong, metaphorical imagery, a vivid depiction of fear and love. It’s River Wolton at her best.

Rob A. Mackenzie

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