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Guest Review: Parker On Locke

Ben Parker reviews
By Christopher Locke

In 1995 Christopher Locke published his debut pamphlet How to Burn, which was followed by three more through various publishers, and from which a number of poems included in this first full collection have been taken. The long gestation of End of American Magic means that the writing is mature and consistent, with a relaxed style, and unlike many first collections there is no attempt to showcase a wide range of forms and voices. Most of the poems are stanza-less, averaging around 20 lines, while their rhythm, though far from strictly counted, does oscillate around a trimeter line, with the line endings coming like slight pauses in the laconic delivery, as if a particularly eloquent bar-fly is regaling you with tales from his life. Locke has obviously found a mode in which he is confident working, and sticks with it.

‘Telling Stories’, the opening poem, explores the thin line between lies and inventions, as well as the necessary falsehoods required for both survival and art. His English teacher, interred in a concentration camp, “told stories to stay alive”, while of the author’s youthful falsehood we hear that “the invention felt good / on my tongue.” Despite this seeming defence of taking liberties with the truth, the poems in End of American Magic seem for the most part to come down on the side of veracity, concerned as they so often are with what feels like personal experience. The importance of maintaining a link to the past which is touched upon in ‘Telling Stories’ recurs throughout the collection: ‘Family History at Sea’ delves into his ancestors’ crossing from Ireland to Boston, while in ‘How to Burn’ he recognises in his factory colleagues the “starched collar pride” his grandfather had. He also returns to his own, slightly delinquent, youth:  “we were seasick / with vodka as we dug a crowbar / into a driver’s side door” (‘Slow Gravity’), “We smoked / crack in a 7-Up can.” (‘Filing the Gaps’)

Locke celebrates the actual in all its beauty and strangeness, in the quotidian rather than the mystical:

“I don’t want to dress
my afternoons in the visions
of Thoreau, I just want a few hours
to rest my hangover and stare
between the branches”
                                (‘Margin Walker’)
Like Larkin his poems often end with the camera pulling back for a wide, metaphysical shot. A poem that opens with the selling to a junkyard of his old car ends with the Locke wondering if his brazen disposal of the vehicle is how we would all like to end:

                                                “some struggle to prove our choices
                                                were worth it, instead of arms
                                                flung wide to embrace
                                                what cannot be loved?”
                                                                                (‘Returning What Was Given’

This method is used to particular effect in ‘Evolution’ which draws an unspoken comparison between the pilot of a broken-down plane in which the poet and his wife wait at the beginning of the poem, with a wooden bird the two of them had previously examined in a gift shop. It ends: “All I knew was that it was male - / the swollen proud chest; its vivid and arrogant plumage.” Yet, despite being rooted in the real, Locke  provides an element of surprise in his use of arresting metaphors: “clouds / flickered like a dying brain.” (‘Surfacing’), “stacked bowls rise / from the sink like vertebrae” (‘Rush’).

Given that poetry should play closer attention to language than any other art form it is unfortunate that there are a number of typographical mistakes in the book. Of course, small errors are inevitable in any publication, but in poetry it can sometimes be hard to distinguish an error from an author’s unconventional or idiosyncratic use of language. “When thy told your aunt” should presumably read “Whey they told your aunt”, while “are you tromp / through the woods” is more likely to be “as you tromp / through the woods”, and these were not the only ones. While it may seem pedantic to raise the issue of typos, it does unsettle the reader. However, these niggles aside, this is a very enjoyable collection and it will certainly be interesting to see whether future collections maintain the approach established here, or move in a new direction.

Ben Parker was born in Worcester in 1982. In 2008 he completed a creative writing MA at UEA.

He now lives and works in Oxford. His poems have been published in a number of places, including Ink Sweat & Tears, Staple, Iota and Neon.

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