Title: Gap Year
Authors: Andy Blackford. John Foggin
Publisher: SPM Publications
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
Gap Year won a well-deserved first prize in the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition 2016. It is the outcome of a remarkable collaboration between two poets, John Foggin and Andy Blackford, who discovered that the poetic bond between the two of them, which had begun forty- five years previously, was still as strong as ever – probably more so as they had the experiences of all the intervening years to build upon. Over the course of a year they each wrote, shared and responded to a poem a week. This beautifully presented book is the creative result.
The order of the poems in Gap Year is not necessarily the order in which they were written although many of them may have been. Instead, the sequence is based on connections between the poems – wide ranging connections of theme, imagery, attitude and tone. The authors chose not to name themselves individually in the pieces so I have followed their chosen approach with this review and shall only identify poems by their titles.
The poems in Gap Year, the preface says, are intended to convey the sense of a narrative and should be seen as a journey – not necessarily a direct, straightforward one, but a journey nevertheless. It begins with the image and terminology of a camera which suggests a certain way of looking at things, of focusing on a particular aspect. Here it is the long shot which is also the title of the first poem. There is a need for steadiness, for stillness and, above all, for the patience to wait and to be attentive ‘for something coming/something quiet and small.’ There is a sense that this ‘something’ will not be obvious but is to be found in the space between things, ‘in the space between/the cold of the water/and the skin of the sky’. The mood and atmosphere of The Long Shot are reflected in a later poem Hole of Horcum, December where the setting is the North York Moors, a Devil’s Punchball type of huge hollow which is an ancient place of folklore and legend. Here, again, there is no sound, no hint of breath, only ‘light slowly draining/and dark seeping, quietly,/quietly flowing like mist/and filling the bowl to its brim’.
A recurrent theme, this idea of the long shot, the warning not to ‘zero in’ on one thing only but to allow the whole scene to work its magic. ‘Love is the long shot’ says the poem Love isn’t … Love, in this instance, is simply looking, ‘looking at the tree/… the green tree in the green field.’
Linnaeus echoes this idea of not being too specific, not zeroing in too closely. Here the poem considers the disadvantages of ‘distinctions’ which may detract from the essence, the special identity of each natural thing by blundering through the landscape armed, the poet says, with ‘my hammer and my labels… ‘nailing flowers with names/wrought from a dead tongue.’ The poem As If later continues this theme with the description of the popularity and rapid sales of pocket information books about ‘Toadstools, butterflies and seabirds,/Fishes of the North Atlantic, reptiles, British rodents,/fossils, galaxies and seashells, gemstones …’ Do we think, asks the author of this poem, that ‘by labelling a thing we could possess it.’
The collection of poems continues the theme of connections. In the surreal, humorous poem How the Universe Works the image of the mirror links a variety of disparate things from clouds to pandas to ‘jellied diatoms’. The next poem, Particle Physics, draws, light-heartedly, on the scientific terminology of the atom, nucleus and molecule. I particularly enjoy the image of ‘bits of atoms’ as energetic ‘Jack Russells of the sub-atomic world.’
In the next set of poems, we move from the idea of connections between all things to the theme of disconnection and isolation. In the atmospheric Still Life a train has stopped, possibly between stations, but this is no Addlestrop with distant singing birds. The train itself coughs and spits, the moon is bitter, beyond the tracks a house is occupied by two people who are like strangers to each other and who move ‘in different orbits.’ In Sic Transit the images are even more impersonal and give an impression of distancing and menace. Here there is no sense of history, community or location – ‘everywhere/is somewhere in the Midlands’. Even the radio behind the counter ‘makes no sense’ of its phone-ins ‘from the sleepless and obsessed’.
In an apparent change of theme there are later poems about the seaside but even here there is loneliness and threat. The title Beside the Seaside entices us with echoes of the old song where everything is jolly but the very first line belies this. ‘Oh, the sadnesses of seaside,’ it says, ‘the pointlessness of roads/with blown sand in the gutters,/the pointlessness of wind,/of secretive bungalows.’ The corresponding poem Where Were You continues the mood of sadness but moves from the general to the personal and specific. Here the author, ‘mired/in clarity, in stillness’ endures his own ‘private winter’.
One of my favourite ‘sections’ of Gap Year uses the full musicality of language to induce a feeling of ancient enchantment, myth, magic, ritual, litany and a sense of other worlds. I particularly love The Charm but the reader will find pleasure in pieces with a similar tone: The Deer Hunter, Flitwing the Bat, The Story of the Careless Hare and the poem Thicket which, with its theme of memories, living and lost, sums up the whole mood of Gap Year for me.
There are many pieces in this collection about heritage, family anecdotes, the joy to be found in small things, but I find myself affected most by the sadder and more disillusioned poems of modern life. In Tuesday Nights in Autumn the image of light recurs but here ‘It’s a different light,’ affected by ‘a night just like this’ that occurred ‘years ago’ over Lockerbie. Domestic touches on the theme of violence behind closed doors with an onlooker who doesn’t know what, if any, action to take and so goes ‘back in’. Don’t Count Your Chickens is shocking in its depiction of a one-day-old chick sexing factory where the ‘girls’, who will be of use, are ‘safely tucked in cardboard trays’ while the boys are dropped ‘dexterously’ in a huge ‘blue plastic drum’ which, at the end of the shift is full. ‘And quiet. And still.’ Equally grim and matching its title Expect the Worst we have the scenario of ‘a truck with slatted sides’ that winds ‘its relentless way’ on a journey in which
‘all of us – the cox, the bullock
and the witless pigeon,
poet, jogger, damselfly –
must one day climb its dust-encrusted ramp.’
Gap Year as envisioned by John Foggin and Andy Blackford is a journey and the collection ends, fittingly, with a poem called At Last the Road. Here is no stereotypical happy conclusion, there is still ‘a chainlink fence in a quarry of dust’ and although ‘The book says there should be/goats, and the smell of herbs/a stream and a chestnut tree’ we are still confronted by the ‘orange scum’ of ‘cable, plastic bags, sheet iron, rust’ and a scene where everything that ‘can be smashed/has been smashed.’ The last lines of this extraordinary collection leave us with beautiful images of ‘the white of scoured stone’ and ‘eagles with pale narrow wings’. Possibly, though, the final ‘message’ of Gap Year, if there is one, is the simple, stoical instruction to ‘Push through./Take your chance with thorns.’ Or maybe it is the statement already quoted from earlier in the book about ‘buried half-forgotten treasure’ which isn’t actual treasure but is the whole field seen with the long shot and which is Love itself: ‘the green tree in the green field.’ SLQ
Gap Year is available at www.spmpublicatons.com, amazon and other online bookstores.