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Sunday, 6 July 2008

Guest Review: Robinson on Barnes

L.K. Robinson reviews
A Thaw Foretold
by Mike Barnes

This is a second collection from a Canadian poet whose first collection Calm Jazz Sea (Brick, 1996) was shortlisted for a Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. The poems in this collection were written over a calendar year "from one January to the next" and are ordered in two sections – January to May and August to January (presumably the poet went on holiday in June & July).

The book itself is well presented by the publishers, it feels good to hold given its mottled/embossed cover, unfortunately the copy I had has too much glue hanging from the binding but it does not devalue the overall quality of this publication. Does it feel as good once read?

The back-cover could be a little daunting in its explanation of the poems: exploration, desolation, consolation, suspension, tension. However once inside the poems are rewarding. Particular favourites are "Moleskine", "The Purple Finch", "Garbage Day", "Seconds", "Birthday". There are a number of oddities, particularly "Cameo", a two line rhyme, or maybe a thought waiting to be stretched into a more challenging poem…

Iron Age features – courage, strength, grace –
rounded, not softened, by irony’s trace.

And a poem which teases as much as it pleases is "Bloomsbury" (maybe because of its referenced Englishness) but the ending is memorable:

……..to return – too soon –
to the usual diet of prudence and strangers.

There are also a good number of well crafted and intriguing poems – "Picking Up Steaks", But what of the stronger poems?

In "Moleskine" the set up is superb –

Let me help you with your tunnelling, she said.
There is a store. An art store packed with stuff.

This leads into an absorbing poem, reminiscent of Paul Auster’s regular writings on the physicality of his own notebooks, but here the poet analogises a relationship not only with Moleskin notebooks but the dear old mole himself:

………..I might explain
how snout and scrabbling feet do not bump up against,
much less push through, the friable grains of days,
but go, somehow, right past them. Past.

"The Purple Finch" is a poem of brevity and beauty:

Parlous to seek signs
in doggerel times.

This raspberry head
flicking side-eyed

gleams into this room
may just have come

to warm its face
near a flash of glass

(though along the sill
there is still ice)

"Garbage Day" hooks the reader immediately. Despite its strength of both description and emotion the last lines are a tad disappointing, mainly I think in the use of tocking which jars for me

A metronome will pace this day,
its lone tocking that of clarity

"Birthday" delicately captures moments of being around the prop of a yellow tennis ball, evocative of its setting an August afternoon expertly brought to a conclusion of beautiful simplicity

Only take one step
to clear the willow;

toss it to him,
underhand.

And finally "Seconds". Somewhat a masculine poem perhaps, based on the poet and his brothers trying on their father’s shirts when younger and now older and possibly with their father deceased the poet tries his fathers shirt again.

And now this last blue model I’m given to try
fits perfectly, squeezing across the chest.

The poems in the collection don’t all fit perfectly but most do, engaging and challenging in equal measure, many of the poems demanding a second and further readings, bringing the reader back time and again to flick through the pages and join the poet on his journey through shared emotional seasons.

Robinson is a London-based poet, and Director of tall-lighhouse publishing.
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