Nigel Jarrett, Miners at the Quarry Pool, (Parthian, 2013), 78pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781909844063
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP5, December 2014]
Miners at the Quarry Pool is Nigel Jarrett’s first collection of poetry; his collection of short stories, Funderland, was published in 2011 to wide acclaim, and this work is equally deserving of praise. Dedicated to “the memory of my coalminer grandfathers” who “burrowed daily into the flanks of Mynydd Maen”, these are quietly visceral poems, pregnant with the peril and pain of the excavation – of all types – that Jarrett’s dedication implies.
These are difficult poems, though I differ entirely from Matthew Jarvis who, writing in Poetry Wales, called them “resistant to reading” (which, anyway, is surely not a categorically negative trait). Although some of these poems evaded me at first reading, they still saturate my mind – it’s an old English teacher’s pet phrase, playing out to the letter here, that ‘you don’t have to understand a poem to enjoy it’. Further to this, the reader isn’t beholden to decipher Jarrett’s work to instinctively understand the value of it. Too often I read poems whose stanzas are pockmarked with sudden lurches into some high falutin’ phrase, which gawks out, unintelligible and inelegant. These often fall, predictably, at beginning, middle and end, like the traffic lights of ineffability which serve, more often than not, to signal immaturity. Jarrett may at points be obtuse, but he is obtuse with aplomb, and there is a precision in his phrasing that is often more pleasing than an ability to quickly tease out meaning.
An organ player’s efforts are described as “an opening offensive/ of clatter as the innards scudded/ their soft shrapnel”; symptoms of fatal illness are alluded to as “proclamations […]/ under her silly bobble-hat,/ in her late, wren-like reduction”. There is a startling sense of authorial voice and ownership in these poems – I often (half-ashamed) admit to finding it easier to remember poems than poets; for Jarrett, I think I would make an exception. His language is remarkably well-honed, and if it becomes slightly strained in places, for the most part it is finely pitched.
This collection reminds us that danger more often occurs, not with a sudden screech of dramatic chords, but quietly – an ever present threat, a wall of black whose dust settles softly in the interstices of daily life. To “sit on your own with a drink at dusk” is to be “picking at ancient signatures of self-harm”; a fading life is signalled by ‘the phone left unanswered; a slipped roof tile/ stalled by oozing moss”/ […] the eczema of paint peeling”. The author is most noticeably alert to the quiet dangers of ageing. An early poem. ‘Time was When’, remembers when “sticklebacks mouthed protests in jars” and “granny died like your hamster/ but no-one dug a hole under the apple tree”. Elsewhere, a depiction of “My grandmother”, setting out on the train to Paddington “[w]ith her felt hat and ginger rinse” irrupts into:
We often mis-read the old,
took them for cloned emissaries
sent down the years by Osborne House
to leather-belt the ungodly
and lock them in whimpering rooms
This seems a peculiar sense in which to ‘mis-read the old’, but our (mis) perceptions of them clearly continue to fascinate Jarrett; another poem, ‘Revenants’, is striking for its sharp handling of a clichéd complaint – ‘invisibility’. Among indifferent youth, the speaker – “another ambling tenant of the past”- plays “a game”:
imagine my transparency to be an advantage –
you know, seeing the unseeing as haunted
That is, haunted by an innocence that doesn’t know what’s coming. And so, the blank-eyed shop girl is imagined, later, recalling an old boyfriend
in the highway – and the one who replaced him,
out with the lads that night and home late,
swaying in the dark at the foot of the bed, undermining
the sleep she’s learned to feign.
It’s a macabre conceit, but expressed with an accomplishment that I find eerily pleasing.
There’s plenty of necessary darkness in these poems, where the dead and the near-forgotten abound: parents in wedding photographs; children’s’ graves gathered “in a walled fold/ beneath abandoned Ty-Mawr”; a parade of “scarred survivors”, the “white zephyrs of Samothrace,’ skewed defenders of Adairsville”. There is (almost) more prosaically, the body of a badger, “its blood race forming sunset deltas”, and a full gallows-worth of desiccated moles hung like a “multitude of socks left/ out to dry”.
This might sound relentlessly ghoulish; and indeed any other morose litany would quickly pall, but these poems have an intelligence – there’s a just-perceptible slyness in places – and a penetrating technical skill (masquerading as a deft touch) that leavens the whole. ‘Another Arundel Tomb’ interrogates Larkin, suggesting “this conceit of sun blessed charm” is the “lanky” poet’s fib, “meant to hide the fact that he/ was clanking stud and she a slut”. The poet suggests instead that it is the unknown tomb, ringed by a border of carved mourners, that we should look to; that the grief is mightier in “the silent scratch and bruising of/ sweet features and a fighting name”.
Jarrett’s very acuity as a poet may, paradoxically, melt into unintelligibility for some readers, but this collection’s darkness is tempered at every turn by the brilliance, and the intrigue, of Jarrett’s language; his ability to trawl the impassive depths, and hew from them something to hold, and to begin to comprehend.