Luke Wright, The Toll (Penned in the Margins, £9.99).
I don’t usually laugh when I read poetry. This is probably because I’m miserable and like to read morose poems. However, I genuinely laughed out loud on the bus when I was reading the ‘Essex Lion’ in Luke Wright’s poetry collection The Toll. This is a poem that retells one of the pivotal moments in Essex history in all its splendour. The reader comes into a summery day with bar-be-ques and antiquated gender roles, and all is fine and dandy until:
and all and sundry turned to see
a cat-like beast. By Christ, said Brian,
Is that… it is… a fucking LION
With the regular rhyme throughout, I wasn’t expecting such a shocking exclamation from potty mouth Barbara. I don’t think I’ve ever read a comedy poem before, or read a poet who leans into comedic elements anyway, and it was really enjoyable in its originality. I also didn’t expect a poem about the infamous Essex lion to be funny, but here we are, laughing along together on the bus. I think part of what makes this poem, and some others in the collection like ‘One Trick Bishop’ and ‘Hungover in Town, Sunday Morning’, funny, is the contrast between the traditional rhyming and rhythmic elements and the thoroughly modern subject matter.
Luke Wright’s awareness and use of rhyme is skilful, and his position as a spoken word performance artist, obvious. Each poem in The Toll has some form of strong sound throughout, either in its regular rhyme or in the series of univocal lipograms that go through every vowel in the alphabet and are placed sporadically throughout the collection,
this piss-dripping fright-witch
with whitish skin wig,
this jiggling tit hitting skint Brits in mining districts,
this grim Christ victimising sick kids with dwindling tidbits.
found in ‘IDS’ a ‘univocal lipogram in I’ in an ode to the one and only, Iain Duncan Smith.
After reading through The Toll a couple of times, the sounds weren’t as prominent which meant I could get to the meat of the poem a bit easier. It’s been a while since I’ve read contemporary poetry that utilises a traditional rhyme and sound structure, so on those first few reads the rhyme was the most prevalent thing, and not the words themselves. However, once you get into the rhythm of his work, it’s something that feels contentedly familiar and allows the words to do the work they were intended for.
And those words really do some work. Personally, I found the most profound poems to be the personal, reflective ones where Wright references his family, and more specifically, his position as a father. In ‘Watch’, a short 3 stanza poem made up of couplets, the narrator comments on the ephemerality of time:
is balling wrapping paper into bags.
You tear through plastic junk you’ll soon forget
until one more, held back to last: a watch.
We sit together, watching seconds tick.
Wow, Dad, you say. It’s going really fast.
This beautiful sphere of an image is so strong and powerful, and captures the essence of a loving father-son relationship. This potent image and sense of a strong relationship comes through in the sonnet ‘Dad Reins’. The closing couplet is so lovely and heart grabbingly sweet it really does read as a declaration of love for his son:
I’ll be your tether, Sam, because you’re mine.
And in the final in this little trilogy of personal selections, is ‘Swimming with Aidan, aged 4’. An observational poem that is exactly what the title says, the reader is invited to watch Aidan with his ‘picked scabs, pulled threads and left feet’ try his hand at swimming. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go very well and he ends up ‘half-drowned in rage’. Thankfully, the reader now invested, he picks himself up and:
too scared to dunk their heads of leave their depth
you swagger: grace, grit, guts, and get-me gusto.
You gulp existence down with each gasped breath.
The father in the last line can sense that his son’s energy is almost gone however, and so ‘a hug to keep the victory in’ is necessary. This is definitely a prideful poem, the father proud of his son and his creation of a son who will always try.
Luke Wright’s The Toll is a rich collection that is diversely peppered with the comedic and the moving. A master of sound, he invokes the traditional poetry canon and places it with the decidedly modern reflections of the state of England in 2017.