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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guest Review: Jindal on Bartholomew-Biggs

Tradesman's Exit

Tradesman’s Exit is a collection imbued with personal memories and nostalgia for the past, and these base notes which flavour almost every poet’s work are harnessed here to motivate the strongest poems in this book. Published by Shoestring Press, this is the second full collection by Bartholomew-Biggs. His accessible style and easy humour are evident from the early poems, such as ‘Say It With...’ which starts out “What you done wrong then, mate?”, a question addressed to the narrator holding a bunch of flowers.

Bartholomew-Biggs has an undoubted gift for inventive similes too, as in ‘Gas Station’:

...place him in that rosary
 whose beads are wayside accidents and graces
strung on a time-lapse image of your tail-lights

Or, as here, “...coarse-grinding dreams made extra dark / by roasting in my skull too long” from the poem ‘Broken Rhythm’. Occasionally this talent for metaphor is stretched and over-used so they jar the reader out of appreciating the essence of the poem.  As an example there are two good similes for words in the poem ‘A Chat with Dylan Thomas’, but they come one after another followed by yet more descriptive images:

“Words rolled from him like syrup off a knife, / or as water drops / released with perfect surface tension / from frozen house-tops fondled by a winter sun.   A chuckle like dark chocolate runs through...”

Does he mean syrup or water and why both when one will do? Barely do we imagine the sun’s ‘fondling’ before we have a dark chocolate chuckle.  

Each reader of each poem sees something different, it is true, and during my close perusal of this collection I discovered my own previously-hidden preferences. I found I was drawn to the poems where the first line, however subtle, captured the reader and led her on to the next; and where the momentum of the poem matched its beginning and styling. One such poem was Over’. A veteran cricketer prepares to bowl. In the second verse he reflects on his life:

His contract not renewed; no offers
from another quarter: which, he thought,
pretty well described his love life.

Narrative gives this poem its lift and the unexpected ending demands the poem be read a second time and that the reader pause to ponder the life of this older bowler.

This match of beginning, styling and momentum, is, of course, difficult to pull off in poem after poem. But other pithy poems that did fulfil this harmony were ‘Cold Snap 1963’, ‘Miles’ ‘Reduced’ and ‘Surface Reaction’. They flowed naturally with no sign of strain or force, and to my mind, were among the outstanding poems in this collection. ‘Miles’ begins:

There is frost on the verges
And he is playing Summertime.

It ends with this stanza:

To accept I’m an extra
is getting easier each time
directors keep the take the star ad-libbed
and then, to match, they cut and splice the seasons.

The last two poems in the book worked very well without recourse to similes: ‘Joseph of Arimathea’ and ‘Thomas’. Both poems are simple first person re-tellings of two Biblical stories: of the man who buried Jesus in the grave he had prepared for himself; and of the apostle Thomas who doubted the resurrection when first told of it. The first line of the latter poem is one I greatly admired. “I’d not collude with anyone’s delusions.”

Notoriously, collections are meant to have a single theme that binds the work together. For poets who write sporadically or else widely on any number of topics, bringing together the disparate elements in a collection while retaining a sense of cohesion is difficult. In collections that cover several themes, the best are those where the voice of the poet carries across the discrete styles and subjects and provides the connecting context between them. Bartholomew-Biggs’s voice is one of empathy, compassion and wry humour, and he engages with universal emotions; yet there seems to have been an attempt to find a greater raison d’etre for the poems in this collection.  

According to the blurb on the back (and book jackets are one of my perverse pleasures): ‘Tradesman’s Exit tests the links between who we are, what we do and why we are remembered.’  To test the links is an ambitious aim for a set of poems. The blurb continues: ‘It mixes personal recollection with tributes to an array of master craftsmen in fields such as sport, music, film and literature. Along the way it looks affectionately at some of the 21st century’s endangered trades – and at what might supersede them.’

Certainly I encountered affectionate portrayals of butchers and coalmen, but I must have missed the poems that detail the trades that will supersede these. We are in the 21st century, and blurb writers should perhaps be more careful about extolling predictions for the future, unless some are actually contained in the text. It would have been completely accurate to stop at the first sentence about the tributes to master craftsmen. But call this is a pedant’s nitpicking.

Bartholomew-Biggs does a fine job of addressing the fashions of the contemporary with wittily phrased observations, such as the “quasi-Esperanto names” for automobiles and the fact that “national panache is obsolete”, both excerpts from ‘Generic Engineering’.

In ‘A Capital Christmas’, in the stanza subtitled Deck the malls, he asks:

Was the sponsored dove in Regent Street
the freeze-dried Holy Spirit? Were the angels
and the shepherds praising Pure New Wool?
Did cattle round a crib by Matroncare
sport logos with good news of British beef?

The past (mainly the 20th century) and people the poet has known in the past are evoked with attention and love. Several poems are dedicated to particular people, some well-known, others not. ‘Someone Had To’ is a tribute to Samuel Plimsoll, MP, “the seaman’s friend”, who campaigned for safe loading limits for ships. This knowledge is imparted in a low-key yet interesting manner. Poems such as ‘Leaving the Veterans’ Home’ and ‘Going Gently’ strike a chord because they are so personal and heartfelt. The writer’s light touch with  explanation and his nostalgic focus are highlighted again in ‘The British Aircraft Industry, Circa 1966’ of which here is the ending stanza: “And outside the bombers are lined up and rusting / These small British cousins of B-52s / relied on their pilots: now governments favour / anonymous bombing – cruise missiles, not crews”.

The Art of Memory serves Bartholomew-Biggs well; and what holds this collection together is the strong sense of loss permeating the poems, whether the loss be personal or of a way of life.

Kavita Jindal is a London-based poet.
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