Harpercroft, 2012 £5.95
Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Peter Daniels and Helen Evans
Gordon Jarvie’s pamphlet, Withering into the Truth, is beautifully designed and produced. From the choice of font to the colour scheme, great care has been taken, and it reflects the passion for poetry that Jarvie displays throughout his collection.
The passing of time is a key theme in this book. It is deftly explored via the juxtaposition of temporal perspectives, as in ‘Coming back to Derry’, in which the reader encounters variously “fifty years on”, ”first ever”, “early years”, ”tonight”, ”so long ago” and “at last”. The second stanza brings these threads together as follows:
Once we find the house, we try to imagine you
on the steep-sloping terrace at 7 Marlborough Avenue:
a small, Edwardian child with two big sisters
who like to mother you. We take some photos
to refresh the memory bank in case we don’t return
That afore-mentioned passing of time also gains a specific focus in terms of Jarvie’s attitude to the ageing process, as in the pamphlet’s title poem. ‘Withering into the Truth’ gains its inspiration in a quote from Yeats and gives it a personal twist:
From wartime beginnings in seaside sun,
from all the warp and weft of my youth,
a lifetime’s fabric is woven and done:
now I’m weathering, withering into the truth
Jarvie’s achievement lies in the way he manages to convey his awareness of a life having passed, all without any sense of confessional narcissism. There’s a self-deprecating delicacy at work here, as when he refers to himself as a “churchgoing atheist”, while a love of life runs through the book, demonstrated by the closing lines to ‘Autumn Morning’:
Another day’s begun –
full of fun.
Withering into the Truth isn’t just a lovely object to hold. It demonstrates a fierce belief in the energising powers of verse. We could all learn a thing or two from Gordon Jarvie, and I’ll be holding these poems in my mind the next time I sit down to write.
Gordon Jarvie is a dog-lover, and includes a few poems here about his new dog Brodie, acquired late in life. This fact may already have given some readers a warm feeling, while perhaps setting others against him. Many may be put off by the first poem in the book:
Life is neither black nor white,
good or bad, wrong or right.
We find perhaps with slight dismay
it’s shaded deepest grey.
Reader reservations may be on the grounds of obviousness or of singsong. I’ll be honest and say that both of these are evident in the pamphlet, and can put me off. I don’t rule out poems for reasons of obvious sentiment, nor of rhythm, but I do get bothered when they don’t come out quite right, as is sometimes true here.
Jarvie is uncompromising but happily open to surprise, even if this is a puzzled disappointment as with an old lady’s ‘Cold Contempt for Crocuses’— “Nae sooner here/ than gone!” In their uncompromising nature, his poetry and his personality inhabit a world of stern Protestantism. He is a “church-going atheist”, as he unfortunately admits to his Presbyterian landlady in Ulster. “It’s rare for me to write a poem inspired by anger”, he writes in a note to one poem, where he campaigns against the self-righteousness of church authorities. It seems inevitable that this leads to the rhetoric Yeats meant when he said “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry”. Yeats is an explicit role-model (the collection’s sub-title is Poems from the Rag-And-Bone Shop) and perhaps also a hostage to fortune.
Most poems contain at least some Scots words, always glossed, so not unfriendly to the outsider while consciously belonging in the poetic tradition of Scotland. The most thoroughly Scots poem is in fact another Ulster one, ‘Bessy Bell and Mary Grey: An ould ballad concluded’, where the two women and Mary’s lover, in Calvinist mode, “pey the price o sin” and die of plague. But Bessy’s lover becomes one of the Scottish settlers in Tyrone and names two hills after them. This is a fetching conceit and works well, except that the ballad metre of the start—“O Bessy Bell and Mary Grey”—gets overextended by cramming so much in, and by the end we’re in pentameter—“an nemd thaim thus to mind him o his dule”.
Withering into the Truth was my first encounter with Gordon Jarvie’s work, and I enjoyed it. Well-designed, with good production values, it is his latest pamphlet and is published by Harpercroft, his own small press. The pamphlet feels like a generous sharing both of his everyday life and of the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime—an impression reinforced by three pages of endnotes in tiny font, and the way the collection is organised in date order. Poems about his new cocker spaniel (‘On the wisdom of acquiring a dog at seventy’, ‘Brodie the dog: Part II’), are immediately engaging, with a light-verse approach that suits his subject. I especially like the puppy’s-eye view in ‘Autumn morning’:
There’s work to be done:
sparrows to be chased,
bones to be dug from the remains
of a herbaceous border
when no one’s looking.
And I warm to the straightforward anger of ‘The wrong Christmas message’:
Robert Burns warned us to beware—
beware the kirk establishment, the unco guid who entertain
more than a sneaking kindness for a wee vendetta.
In poems like ‘Delphiniums in an off-white vase’, sharp observation (“cut flowers, wind-blown and garden-fresh/ exhaling something untidy, pungent, showery”) serves the emotion behind the description well. But at other times an anecdotal approach sits uncomfortably with a mannered style: using inversion, for example, to accommodate end-rhyme, or pairing forsooth with truth. And, oh, how I want to edit this pamphlet! I feel many of these poems would work so much better without their explanatory lines—often, though not always, the concluding ones.
At its best, Withering into the Truth showcases a humorous and humane, yet still realistic, view of the world. And one final pleasure is being reminded of Fife: bird watching on the Isle of May, or walking through the woods near Bishop Hill. I like to imagine that one some occasion, visiting Gordon Jarvie’s home town of Crail, I’ll bump into him as he’s walking Brodie, and we’ll pass the time of day discussing the preoccupations of puppies and the introspection of puffins. That would be fun.