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Blog Review 41: Katherine Stansfield Reviews ‘The Midlands’ by Tony Williams

Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars
        of buildings that used to be bookshops.
They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.
        They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

The poem tells us that ‘Here is neither one thing nor the other’; the Midlands is presented as a place of loss and ennui. Yet the speaker knows their terrain – geographical and psychological – and shows wry love for the ‘suburb-like towns and town-like suburbs’ with names like ‘Dirgeville, and Grieflington, and Sad-at-Heart’. There’s knowingness at work in this opening poem that suggests taking it a face value would be reductive.

More poems of urban places follow and then the collection moves into nature poems in a Wordsworthian mode. The man himself makes an appearance in two epigraphs. But before such a mode becomes too heavy-handed, impassioned poems of protest appear. ‘The Rural Citizen’ links historic enclosure acts with contemporary lack of access to footpaths. The speaker scorns ‘the honey-pot mountain with car park and centre / where local crafts are displayed’ for the ‘commonplace hill’. In doing so they meet ‘the ghosts of the drovers and the driven’ as well as the more modern shades of those who are ‘interred’ by the price of petrol and their heated homes. The poem collapses different time periods, digging down through layers of history and land-use and making them contemporaneous in the ‘now’ of the poem’s present, a technique which runs right through the collection. In the opening poem, ‘an unfound grave of a Mercian king’ is shown to us despite its hidden location ‘under wurzels, new housing, and out-of-town Asdas’.

Such ‘excavating’ of the past is often accompanied by a sense of longing for what has gone before. Poems reach deep in to the ground, or deep in to a place’s history, to find knowledge or understanding that might ultimately be intangible. Some poems manage to be arresting whilst digging, such as ‘Under Masson’, in which the speaker slips under the titular hill and finds an enslaved workforce building a statue of some kind of overlord. In contrast, ‘Welsh Dresser in the Old House’, uses the well-worn image of furniture holding personal history:

It’s a lifetime’s work,
how the dresser takes
the rooms of all its years
to heart and locks
its dancing dumb,

This kind of non-finding becomes a little wearing. Some of the poems concerned with the countryside, often featuring a ‘self moving through landscape’ theme, share this flatness. In ‘Just a Late Visit’, for example, a man returns to a place and remembers his previous experience of walking there which is largely uneventful:

[…] he walks across
the empty car park
carrying a net
cars beside the river
someone going up
gruff and nodding greeting
more than enough

The poem rather underwhelms in content and language. Elsewhere, poems are flush with strong sound, often achieved through half rhyme and short lines, such as ‘The Snail of Masson’:

Help me look for it –
straight into the night,
pulling on your coat.

Rhyming couplets are a regular feature, used with half and true rhymes. I found the couplets that use true rhyme less successful due to their creation of flippancy in poems that seemed to be reaching for a serious tone, but that may well come down to a question of personal taste.

Williams’ work is at its best when his humour and imagination are allowed free rein. There are poems in this collection that astonish with their originality. I’ll end on lines from my favourite, ‘Laura, a Seamstress’, in which Laura falls in love with a mole:

          A purse in my hand.
          Podgy. Slumbersome.
He can keep his waistcoat on when he enters me.

Katherine Stansfield
Katherine Stansfield’s first collection of poems, Playing House, was published by Seren in 2014. @k_stansfield

The Midlands Tony Williams

The Midlands by Tony Williams is published by Nine Arches Press, 2014, £8.99

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

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