“Make It Last”: an elegiac sequence by Davide Trame (Lapwing, Belfast, 2013), ISBN 978-1-909252-24-0
Flash Words by Paul Tobin (Lapwing, Belfast, 2014), ISBN 978-1-909252-78-3
Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition by David Walsh and Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Lapwing, Belfast, 2015) ISBN 978-1-909252-84-4
Reviewed by Gram Joel Davies
[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]
Lapwing make minimal, hand-bound booklets with a retro feel. Here are three I chanced on.
Davide Trame’s “Make It Last”: an elegiac sequence is heartbreaking but not maudlin. Page-long poems which layer sequentially in a way narrative may not, stirring one another into something more nebulous than linear.
Trame’s subject is loss. There can be little question he writes through his own disembodied eyes, orbiting himself in the aftermath of a lifelong love. Each poem is its own small story; each, at its core, a lament on the dissolution of companionship. Scene by scene, alongside harbours or on the tops of mountains, through endless plains and over the bridges of Venice, past everyday cottages that seem impossibly solid, after calamity, one lingering presence is returned to, via detail, again and again. Early in the book, Trame tells us,
All is coincidence because nothing is,
like you who are everywhere and nowhere.
(‘With You Without You (i)’)
Places are remembered keenly in Trame’s neat diction, which is neither shy of poetics nor fanciful.
I am on the bank of the canal waiting for the boat
to appear around the bend, there
where the air stares at the lagoon
in lilac-stillness and ripple-strewing.
On the skyline of ships, cranes and factories
the cormorant is passing, slender neck
and black wings like blades quickly cutting.
(‘With You Without You (ix)’)
The addressee of all his narration is the same “you” for whom he mourns. Sweetest of all are his direct recollections.
Your gaze when you were looking out
of the train window standing by the door
your eyes mirroring the sandbars’ veins,
the ripples on the water, the sky skin
in your eyes I sensed vast acceptance,
a hello to anything that could turn up and go.
(‘With You Without You (vi)’)
Trame’s prose turns seamlessly, at intervals, to his timeless partner, confusing the mode of inner dialogue with that of conversation, speaking out his ego’s need to come to terms with its individuality once more.
I was wrong about no more anxiety, maybe it’s that
“life must go on”, so anxiety flows and longing expands
I talk to you in your expanding, in your relentless
spreading I’m enduring, in and beyond the heart,
with the wish of following you and simply falling apart.
(‘With You Without You (vii)’)
“Make it last” is a delicate book, not dainty but crafted with a surgeon’s precision, cleansing through what feels like infinite iterations of a love remembered. Although it comes again at its theme from every angle and scope, turning loss over and over in a pulsing hand, it does not feel static. Trame is not wallowing here. Beyond the principle sequence is a series of individually titled poems that have a sense of remembrance made at greater distance and, finally, the feeling of having ebbed into a quiet place of reflection not shattered anymore. By his exquisite filtering of detail, Trame models that prolonged, bewildering act of beginning again.
Ever present, the figure of the one “everywhere and nowhere” who suffuses mind and landscape alike but, over its long course, a settling occurs like dust finding equilibrium.
You are not here.
You are not.
(‘Daily Chores in Your Absence’)
I closed the book peacefully. One day, I will reopen it, when I also have need to begin again.
Paul Tobin’s Flash Words is titled with misnomer. His writing is solid, precise, observant. Not glitzy. But, perhaps, what we have here resembles the world taken in in-a-flash, the camera shot.
I have been fortunate enough to hear Paul Tobin read aloud on a number of occasions, and his throwaway delivery belies pointedness in his writing. The book opens, coincidentally, with a pair of elegies, piercing snaps compared to Trame’s winding lament.
I stole that second
captured her forever
just before she tells me,
not to take her picture
(‘Poem for Christine’)
Flash Words is a miscellany of characters, from old-time professors to Amundsen in the Antarctic, the friend on a bridge to Gagarin in free-fall. Tobin creates compounds from unlikely materials, stirring counter-culture-cool with hard science, political critique with folklore. There is something a little zany beneath his sober testimony.
Often, an apocalyptic edge lines Tobin’s work, and he appears to speak to humanity in a manner poets are not supposed to: begging of us, “What have we done?” All his poetry, however, feels embedded, personal.
Now we hug the earth, bankrupt and dreamless.
We have wasted your chance.
(‘The Tears of Yuri Gagarin’)
Overshadowing these poems is a feeling that history is already over, the future gone. Tobin speaks with understated humour, comparing our aftermath to a hangover.
You do not taste the first glass, so you pour another
we will all regret it in the morning…
(‘The Case for Fracking’)
At his best, Tobin is able to animate relationships with a Spartan turn of phrase. Although Flash Words is a long book (upwards of 80 titles), flickering through years and across cultures like documentary montage, his poems do not prevaricate. There feels to be a fondness in them as well.
I am asked to
look at a dead man’s brewing paraphernalia.
I make my own beer, so this qualifies me
to sift through another’s boxes and tubes.
(‘As I Am Here, Now’)
It is almost like a time-machine, stepping into Paul Tobin’s poetry with its mixture of nostalgia and steampunk-esque reveries, through titles such as “John Wyndham’s Blues” and “Harold Wilson in Widnes.” At times, a scene takes on a sharp focus both painful and lovely at once, and from within his wryness and humanity something elemental looms.
Big, blood moon,
A scouring tidal surge that pulls muscles,
And sets the shark to follow
The lodestone in its head.
Tobin’s poetry merges grit and fantasy ceaselessly (“thin cranes… Martian war machines… anodyne housing”), and simultaneously warms his characters as he wows us with a backdrop of far-out facts (“Florence is a stupid name… she swaps it for Spike… rain runs down her face… hydrogen bonds pulse”). Binding it all together is an arc of history, become myth.
This time, she tells me, there will be no snake
I am scared of her vision, her clarity
for this world seems huge, far more complex
even than the sea which gave us form.
(‘The Water Becomes Air in Our Lungs’)
I share his wonder and unease.
Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition is a creation-myth chant with a difference. David Walsh is a visual artist whose paintings appear alongside Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ accompaniment of poems. Images with a primary, dreamtime air that couple well with the origin-tale of this poetic sequence. A sequence which, unlike Trame’s, builds very much on a narrative form.
Framed first as a walk into a gallery, we are immediately asked to “extract a narrative” and are led presently into a story-song from “before there was a word for garden”. “Voices From The Walls” comprises the main body of poems, which are titled only by their opening lines.
Like most visual-poetic collaborations, the text is no literal response to the artwork but riffs on its suggestive tone. Walsh’s slender figures on landscapes of red earth become actors who emerge like infants into a world of indigo silhouettes, bluffs and forests. First, through self-reflection and language, then upward through invention and discovery, then at last toward temptation and a fall from union.
Bartholomew-Biggs takes the collective voice of this emergent people. His poetry is gently rhythmic, sometimes a little clipped in syntax, as though mimicking some proto-language. What has, in its underlying structure, many of the characteristics of an archetypal tale of evolution or descent from paradise is, in its specifics, a perceptive re-imagining.
It must have been by pulling springy branches
down around us, thick with foliage
as well as fruit, we first discovered
how to hide, and hiding had a place
in teaching us to tamper and pretend.
(‘There were at first no words for artefacts’)
Bartholomew-Biggs uses a kind of allusion to the literal image which could sound like a contrivance in some other poetry, but woven into his primordial sequence it maintains the awkward newness appropriate to his strange tribe. He touches on subtle concepts like our uniquely human theory of mind, and obliquely evokes the key milestones in our maturity, such as weaponry and the taming of fire.
The cradled ache began
to pulse and stretch the skin of darkness
to a dome where we could watch
(‘By striking stone like this on stone’)
Taken as a whole, Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition is artsy but not prim, a literary set with larval, bubbling innards. The poems mesh with the simple aesthetic of the paintings, their desert brushstrokes, into a depiction both of primal innocence and its loss.
And we were sleek,
replete enough to be at ease
with gratifying one another.
(‘Our coupling beneath the leaves’)
Lapwing host unusual voices, a little out of synch with fashions and times. In their own manner, each of these books examines origins, catastrophe and ebbing away, in terms of the intensely personal, the historic and the mythic, by turns.