Julie Mellor, Out of the Weather (Smith Doorstep, £5.00); Nigel Pantling, Kingdom Power Glory (Smith Doorstop, £9.95); Nicki Heinen, Itch (Eyewear Lorgnette Series, £6.00).
In Julie Mellor’s poem ‘Propolis’, she writes ‘In truth, it’s not propolis I’m talking about,/ but those unwanted spaces where words land and rest’. There’s an interesting mixing of metaphor here. Previously, Mellor has written about ‘the bees, busy with their work of sealing the gaps,’ and it is perhaps the bees that the words resemble. But what Mellor actually seems to be doing is playing poetry at its own game, using the ability of the poem to slip and slide around meaning, seemingly under the writer’s control, but not. Therefore propolis with its known healing properties is aligned with work of the bees and the work of words, each of these entities shape-shifting slightly to become both more alike and more unlike each other. One could take this too far, of course, and allow the poet’s shape-shifting to become slip-shod. But in Mellor’s case, there’s a lovely deftness in her writing, which is often pulled into hard-hitting perspectives; as in the image which occurs later in the poem, ‘What I’m really saying is, here is my heart,/ raw as lamb’s liver, leaking on a white plate.’ What the narrator of the poem is asking for is healing and comfort, but the world isn’t providing it.
And Mellor is particularly good at this movement from the outer to the inner; resulting in an adroit and empathetic engagement with ‘the casual undressings of the heart’. Because Mellor knows that these undressings are never really ‘casual’. As she writes in ‘Architecture’, ‘A torch will give you all the facts,/ how the curls in my hair crumble to dust// and love has become a word so underused/ it settles on my chest like the weight of books.’ So there is a movement from the bland and disingenuous ‘all the facts’ through to the notion of love settling on the chest. Mellor sees that the torch reveals one thing, but that the heart contains another; a well-worn trope, perhaps, but Mellor’s engagement with that trope results in achieved and poignant poetry.
Nicki Heinen’s Itch is a first volume and she will have to forgive me for saying that it feels like a first volume, too. It is a first volume in that, though it is a short pamphlet of some twenty poems, each of the poems is very different. And the poems are different in that way that a first volume is often various, as different strategies, different subjects are tackled and worked through, such that sometimes the voice will vary from poem to poem. This is not to suggest that Heinen has no voice. In fact, the voice is often very strong and clearly felt. There is often a lapidary, incised feel to many of these poems. The best of these poems circle round their subject matter, carving, if you like, the space around the central conceit without quite revealing what that thing might be. ‘The Abandoned’, for example, begins, ‘I imagine you in a glass box,/ which I have kept secret and hidden./ It is rectangular and sits in the living room like a blood stain.’ The ‘you’ here remains concealed throughout the poem, and Heinen is skilled enough to both hold that ‘you’ at one remove, but also to maintain interest in it.
Elsewhere the subject matter is more conventional, as in ‘Lebowski’, a poem about the narrator’s cat. Clearly, there are cat poems and cat poems, and not all of them end up on the West End stage. Heinen’s cat poem is in four prose sections, each a small love letter to the animal, and so far so normal, but, here again, Heinen’s nicely observed details etch the animal’s individuality into the reader, finishing with ‘His tail is sometimes curled under his body for safekeeping, like a pearl earring in a trinket box.’
Nigel Pantling’s Kingdom Power Glory is a first volume from a much older writer. And it is a book with a consistent theme: the absurdity and inanity of much that passes for governance in this country. Pantling, an ex-soldier, and ex ministerial private secretary, writes with a light, but fastidious, touch about some of the inner workings of government, in a way which is fascinating and deft. In the early section of the book, Pantling writes with considerable sympathy about the ways in which soldiers go to war. ‘Church Parade’ describes the exhortations of the brigade chaplain on the night before B Troop, the day before they fly to Belfast. The poem finishes with the couplet, ‘As my soldiers fall out to earthy pleasures, I ask the Chaplain/ by which side of the religious divide God prefers us to be shot.’ In contrast to Heinen’s lapidary style, Pantling’s is direct and unadorned. His is a gift for satire and that gift contains a considerable way with timing and the kind of sardonic humour those two lines contain.
On the opposite page to ‘Church Parade’ is ‘In the Interrogation Centre’ in which he walks in an interrogation beating of ‘a boy in jeans and Wolfe Tone T shirt’. The middle verse notes, ‘My sergeant, arm still raised,/ turns his head. His eyes say/ “Mind your own fucking business, Sir./ I know these people better than you.” The poem ends ‘Sweat glitters on our faces. The only noise, our breathing.’ What’s interesting in these, to this outsider anyway, is the use of ‘my soldiers’ and ‘my sergeant’. This use of the first person has the wonderful effect of not only placing the poem squarely in the consciousness of the poet, Pantling, but of drawing the reader into a kind of complicity. These poems are exceptionally emotionally skilled.
But not all these fine poems are quite so ‘serious’ in the later sections of the book, Pantling’s fine skill as a satirist comes to the fore. One such is ‘Head-hunting’ in which a head-hunter is head-hunted by a ‘head-hunter’s head-hunter’, ‘who wants to recruit an experienced head-hunter’. The convolutions of this relationship are teased in both senses in the rest of the poem to reach a neatly laugh-out-loud conclusion. Pantling’s fine book from Smith Doorstop is yet another of those books which is likely to slip rather unnoticed beneath the average poetry buyer’s gaze. That is a great pity, because as a kind of ‘state-of-the-nation’ volume it is exemplary. And even that undersells Pantling’s rich, adroit, poetic skills.