Smith/Doorstop, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Paul Lee, Eleanor Livingstone and Richie McCaffery
This is a collection by a poet who seems to me still to be finding his feet, but nevertheless, there is much to admire. The poems do indeed focus on love, but more than its ‘loose ends’—that’s too modest. There’s simple physicality here, humour, acceptance, wry memory, loss and ecstasy. Here are some lines from ‘Heart’:
..... Its slow bang reminds me of sonar,
.....of airbags at rest in a stationed car
.... .then love love love
.....like the shunt of a truck
..... and pillows are beating
.....and walls are vibrating
.....and we’d sooner just smile than sleep.
I especially like the accumulation of images in that sequence and the clarity and control of the writing, which is a feature of all the poems. It’s also good to see so many poems with regular stanzas and regular lines. It adds to the impression of control, and imparts that rhythm I see as a distinguishing feature of poetry. Tait also has the good poet’s gift of sound patterning, some of which, read aloud, is luscious to the ear, eg from ‘Luzhkov Bridge’:
..... Don’t bring me photographs as proof.
..... Swallow its key. Let it tumble and swirl you
.....like a fateful bouquet. Have it snag in your throat.
Some of the writing tries too hard. I didn’t understand how fields “crowd-surf the shadows”, nor how a farmhouse can “like a lighthouse unlock its light.” In the otherwise fine lyric ‘love chord’ the use of the phase “emoticon smile” jars and stops the poem being as memorable as it merits. Funny as it is, ‘Last Night I Slept with the Gas Boiler’ is out of tenor with the rest of the poems in the collection, and should have been omitted. Otherwise this is a fine pamphlet. It was also one of the winners in the 2010 Poetry Business Competition.
I’m seldom as immediately smitten as I have been by the poems in this slim chapbook and I’m not at all surprised Love’s Loose Ends was a prizewinner in the Smith/Doorstop competition. Opening it at the first poem, ‘Elsewhere’, I found clear and careful lines which tasted interesting on the tongue:
..... We make do, close our eyes, do things
.....our other lovers love . . .
Then I turned to the last page and read the final poem, ‘End Credits’, and the poem before that, ‘Self-Portrait with Headtorch’, in which: “. . . even though we don’t have running water/ we have the evening hours.”
I dipped in and out of poems which looked at mechanical breakdown, rural walks, trips on the District and Circle and gas boilers, and I found love thriving or striving, waning or questioning amidst the ups and downs of such everyday situations. The poems also felt very contemporary with their references to dictaphones and the DLR—romantic love with a modern backdrop. I read through all eighteen poems in order and thought I understood what they were about, and there wasn’t a single one I didn’t like. I read the collection again and realised perhaps I’d mistaken what it was about, and I liked it even more for being a bit elusive.
Four of the the poems read like a sequence, ‘Cory and the Winter’ and ‘Cory and the Spring’ are followed by ‘. . . Summer’ and ‘. . . Autumn’, though interspersed with others. My initial approach was to read the pamphlet as the history of a relationship. Then I had second thoughts. If it is the story of a single relationship, the time line’s all over the place, the romance which seems past tense in the opening poem blossoming in others later. The voice throughout is first person, either in the lines or in the titles, and many of the poems are addressed to a male lover, past or present. In ‘Cory and the Winter’, the narrator:
...... . . woke up early
.....to put on my coat, and wrote you
.....a sonnet in the snow
It’s easy to assume each “you” in the poem refers to the same person. But the collection’s title is from Jon Stallworthy, who said: “My poems all are woven out of love’s loose ends”, so after a couple of readings, it occurred to me there might be ‘loose ends’ here from different relationships, or none. After ‘Cory and the Winter’ comes ‘Heart’ which concludes:
..... We cover these richnesses:
..... that flare in our chests like Chinese lanterns,
.....drop as bells through churches.
So is that “we” the specific pair of lovers I’d first taken it to be, or a more universal comment? And then I noticed some of the poems, such as ‘The Peacock in their Shed’—if read out of the context of this collection—wouldn’t obviously be love poems. Also, who is the “she” in ‘Her Book’, pretty much the only female mentioned throughout—how does she fit in?
These puzzles made Love’s Loose Ends even more intriguing. It’s hard to find any fault with a collection of poems this good, but in the interests of balance, I did notice an awkward phrase in one poem and I wasn’t sure about the poet’s use of the colon for punctuation; but these were trivial matters compared to the huge enjoyment I got from poems which I will read again and again.
.....our love’s loose ends, blurred
.....to cigarettes, an unmade bed.
..... I often think of you in thread.
These lines are some of the most starkly revelatory in a collection that sets out to capture the aftermath and haunting memories of a relationship. The powerful opening poem ‘Elsewhere’ reads like a fresh, spikier updating of Donne’s lyric about the souls of lovers becoming entwined. The poem reminds the reader of the sensuousness the lovers enjoyed: “I cup/ the curve of your hip from memory” but goes on to show how the language and rhetoric of love can become “cold air” where “our words uncoil above us”. The collection is at different times elegiac, earthy and affectionate, and it is the combination of these factors that makes for glimmering poetry.
A break-up is a messy affair and leaves behind frayed nerves and loose ends that somehow need to be woven into a coherent utterance. ‘The Thread’ refers to the messiness of love with its unmade beds and cigarette butts. The triumph of Love’s Loose Ends, though, is the way it demonstrates how strands of these lovelorn memories can be finally tied up into spirited but affecting poems such as ‘North York Moor’ with its characters revealing their vulnerability against a bleak landscape:
.....In the end we gave up, shuddered
.....like owls on the back seat
.....until the sun came, tidal,
.....flooding through the heather.
Far from seeming a farrago of naïve patches, this collection is a carefully stitched garment where each poem segues into the other. The poems relating to ‘Cory’ are perhaps the most visceral and moving where the speaker wonders “how you talk now, old lover,/ new friend; if your accent/ ever adapted to Tokyo”. The imagery relating to love here is precarious and fleeting (the “sliding belt of train, heading back / to the darkness of our mutual friend’s bed”). The love in these poems often occupies lonely moors and interstitial places—even the satellite looking down on an old lover’s haunt in ‘Google Earth’ but this only adds to the poet’s position as a victim of, as Patrick Kavanagh once wrote, “having loved too much”. In Love’s Loose Ends the speaker is too vibrant and witty to merely play the victim. Instead, he deftly plays the projectionist who has pieced together memories as old film:
.....It was about coming to terms, and afterwards
.....we’d had a fight and made up and had another fight
.....as the credits rolled and we tore off our clothes
.....and love spooled before us. And we were cameras.