-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey–
Mytton…Dyer…Sweet Billy Gibson by Deborah Tyler-Bennett focuses on character portraits of three eccentrics from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, one of whom was Tyler-Bennett’s great-grandfather.
Tyler-Bennett is clearly attracted to larger-than-life personalities, and her poems attempt to capture the essence of these colourful characters, largely through anecdotal narratives. Her use of period language perfectly captures the era, and what I find most compelling is her use of particularly Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to occasional Latin) words: ‘wibbling’; ‘bawd’; ‘smudgery’; ‘smeary’; ‘harlotry’; ‘gawp’; ‘crofties’; – you get the picture. Overall, this creates a strange otherworldliness, due also in part to the cryptic lines and the colourful use of archaic colloquialisms: ‘penny-plains’; ‘hooch’; ‘glegs’.
Another intriguing element to her work is a resistance to using pronouns except where absolutely necessary. Instead, her lines are terse, tight, shorthand, almost as though they are notes for a longer piece:
‘No more ‘Mytton Rides a Bear’,
‘To Hounds’, ‘On Fire’
(mad cure for hiccups),
frames fit only for the byre.’ (Death of the Popular English Print)
Yet Tyler-Bennett does evoke the mood and atmosphere of the day. She often uses vernacular dialogue: ‘Thought ’e said ’e were cousin Norman, / ’e got me messages’. In the wittily titled ‘Horse and Himself’, she captures a scene where the squire turns up at a farmhouse looking for a bed for the night – for himself and his horse.
‘Him, shivered in thinned coats,
impersonating jobbing labourer.
Horse? They’d harbour doubts
but let both in. ‘Wits gone
yon nag comes too!’
Beast and Master blocking fire’s
breath, insane to-do!’
Mytton’s behaviour breaks all the bounds of social etiquette, and he casts off ‘shitten, spoiled’ clothes to hunt naked. Even with animals: ‘when dog-snapped/Mytton seldom hesitates to nip the bastards.’ In ‘Squire Onomatopoeia’, she portrays him in an ‘unconvincing stilled’ moment, ‘clearly/better at mid-gallop, spill, /or thudding lea, this full-tilt chap.’
Her poems consider calling him up during a séance, how his ghost would behave in a different century, how ‘all-in-all’ he’d lived a ‘snarling, snuffing, / yelping life.’
One of her motifs is bees. Telling the Bees refers to the necessity of informing the bees of a death in the family: ‘telling the bees / how it was, how it always is’; and fingers cupped around a bowl are ‘brawny as bee-bread’. In ‘At the Mortal Man Inn’, the snug is ‘slotted tight as bee hole’. In ‘Dale Fiddler, Downbanks’, ‘Ice bees gather’; in ‘From Frankenstein’, Mytton’s horse is ‘bee-bothered.’ In ‘Back Lane Ballad Singer’, the musicians ply ‘notes weaving / room-hives, smoking out the drones.’
While the abruptness of these poems can appear too terse or coded on the page, read them aloud and they sing with music. Imagery is often an unexpected delight, and it’s fun discovering echoes in the different poems. In one, the dead have faces ‘closed for business’, whereas Melvin the toy monkey, in another poem, has a ‘worn face, perpetually sunny’, and in Bar One, the drink-sodden Mytton has a ‘red-veined, still comely face.’
Tyler-Bennett’s attention to detail makes these more than surface portraits – she has really envisaged their lives. In Shine: ‘Billy stroked uncombed hair.’ In ‘Telling the Bees for Jimmy Dyer’, the ghost of the ballad singer plays a midnight concert:
‘Only drunken stragglers to hear…
Cabbies waiting on last night’s fare
think strings daggy hill-blown winds.
Passing strays rub though his legs’
Superstitions abound, with all the charm of bygone times:
‘ Cover mirrors when a wake begins;
keep the Skep informed and happy;
Don’t forget to greet the Magpie,
ask after his wife; don’t bring hawthorn in;
or annoy the Hobthrush;
and don’t, and don’t, and don’t…’
In these poems, Deborah Tyler-Bennett chooses to remember the almost forgotten. This includes Billy Gibson’s son, who was ‘dead within scant days of being born’ – now a ‘windfall face safe within a star.’ Here is a voice that is mindful, and careful to avoid sentimentality, while evoking in the reader a genuine affection for her characters. A natural historian, and one who respects the creative, the lived life, the curious and the wayward, her poems brings to mind Chaucer’s portraits or Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson’s End, another quintessential eccentric, as was Vivian himself. Tyler-Bennett’s work is a refreshing change from today’s usual fare, a tribute to eccentricity and a reminder that life would be vastly duller without such characters and their follies.
The title, Lessons in Mallemaroking by Angela France, sent me to Google, as ‘mallemaroking’ is a new word for me. The definition, according to the Chambers dictionary, is ‘the carousing of drunken seamen on icebound Greenland whaling ships,’ a word as arresting in its specificity as the collection is.
The opening poem, ‘First Person’, is a kind of manifesto, giving us an indication of what to expect in this chapbook. Interestingly laid out in four sections, the last stanza is as follows:
‘I as I
don’t cage my own stories
I have woven them
into wattle walls entwined
with tangled braids of others’ myths
threaded with magpie pebbles
I speak in my own voice
through gaps left in the weave’
This is something all natural poets, writers and creative artists do – connect their threads to the universal story.
In spite of the first person voice of this poem, most of the poems here, as with Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s, avoid the personal, focusing instead on random individuals in an unsettled landscape.
There is a strong elemental pulse through these poems. ‘Mallemaroking’ and ‘Littoral’ focus on our connection with the sea-world: its salt, ice, risk to life. ‘Mallemaroking’ is stark and simple, the words mainly mono-syllabic: sing, salt, crack, groan, ice, brace, moans, creaks, grip, tide, pitch, roll, screech, fear, throat – the men carouse in ice-bound waters, to blur ‘the fear of being still.’ The poet invites us to empathise, by including us in their fear: ‘as they shift and screech, /drown the shriek in your throat’. There is a lot of music in these poems, the soundscape of this one evoking the ship creaking through ice.
Apprehensiveness is what drives many of these poems – uncertainties, absences, fear of the repercussions of our lack of husbandry. We have not taken care of our earth, and now are faced with the consequences. In ‘A Letter Home’, ‘The well is full of dead rabbits, Mother.’ The animals begin to disappear: in ‘Bad Tidings’, ‘Nights were empty of the vixen’s / yip and screech’.
In other poems, a lack of awareness is noted: ‘People stop looking, drivers / keep eyes ahead, windows /on trains and buses blinded by newspapers, coats, bags.’ Even horses ‘stay in line…don’t whicker or whinny’ at changing weather.
The elements are present but strange: in ‘Dry Dock’: ‘wind/lashes her scarlet-tipped toes with grit’. Even in the urban landscape of ‘Voyager’, ‘skinny trees’ could be found ‘sprouting through cracked concrete.’ Its absence is noted: ‘a rock has been moved/from my path; its shape marked/by the flat of worm-pocked soil,/edges of clustered moss.’
In ‘Hide and Seek Champ found Dead in Cupboard’, a boy who has perfected the art of hiding, ‘waits for someone who’ll seek’. As an adult, he ‘hides from taxes and utility bills, paternity suits/and parking tickets.’
Like Deborah Tyler-Bennett, France is attracted to the eccentric and the strange. In ‘Voyager’, a man ‘collects paper from the pavement; stoops slowly for receipts, bus tickets, lottery slips’, from which he makes tiny boats. These he places in any crevices and cracks he finds on his way home. In ‘Matryoshka’, ‘below the morning’s clatter/of gym-kit loss, late homework/office-politic moans’ she crushes the ‘smile, the aproned belly’ of the wooden dolls.
There is the sense that our focus is on the wrong things, that we are missing the bigger picture: in ‘Salt’, a woman walks inexorably into a doom-laden future, as she and her friends ‘taste sherbet/and jangle bracelets.’ Yet: ‘I can see my years/laid out on the grey hillside,/and know my mouth will forget/the shape of my own name.’ In another poem, ‘Dry Dock’, a woman ‘with improbable breasts’ opens her fur coat for a photographer, while ‘clenched/calf muscles drive her feet down/onto stilettos’ and ‘her pink and white smile shivers’. Angela France creates disconcerting scenes and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.
While Deborah Tyler-Bennett looks back at a vanished world, Angela France warns of a future vanishing – the world as she portrays it is unsettled, on the verge of fracturing, and yet we are not paying attention, in spite of our awareness. Instead,
‘We watch the river, the barrier,
the water rising. We read tide-tables,
discuss depressions and surges
as if knowledge were sand-bags.’
Like Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Angela France has a command of her craft, and her language has a compelling force and lyricism. In these diverse ‘magpie pebbles’ of poems, there is a universal narrative, a sense of our place in the ‘weave’. And food for thought.