-Reviewed by Strat Mastoris–
If they gave awards for books with misleading titles, Bernadette Cremin’s Loose Ends would be up there with the winners. These twenty four poems all have endings of one sort or another, but they’re anything but ‘loose’… Her endings are like the barbed hook at the end of a fishing line – you run your hands along the monofilament, everything’s smooth and running freely then suddenly there’s a sharp pain, blood on your hand, and you’re caught and can’t get away.
‘Black’, for example, opens with a woman who’s anything but competent –
‘Fumbling for keys in a black patent bag-
the only one I have with matching heels.
I bought them in the sales, a size too small,
a little too high, half price.’
which gets us a little bit exasperated at what’s obviously going to be a woman with no dress sense, but then six lines on she tells us about
‘the bouquets and wreaths
now left to death at the head of your grave.’
Ah!, so she’s newly widowed. Obviously things are all a bit much at the moment. So did she buy the black shoes for the funeral? Little domestic details are starting to concern us now, and we are given more of them as the woman clings to her dead husband’s memory in the intimate physical forms of
‘the pewter kidney-shaped lighter
that I had engraved for you with love’
and others, even more intimate, like
‘Your tobacco stained dentures,
an incisor chipped on a humbug’
This is starting to get just a tiny bit mawkish, as she finishes with
‘your stopped watch, wedding band
and the St Christopher that you drove
onto black ice.’
Damn. I didn’t see that coming. (but then neither did he …)
That last line gives us the whole story of this woman’s tragedy, jumps us back to the first lines, and completely alters our interpretation of the poem’s title. All in three words.
This is about much more than just last lines, though. The endings are often surprising, and Cremin has a confident mastery of setting and springing a trap, but the poems themselves are elegantly structured, beautifully realised portraits of people that we would like to know better. I probably mean ‘more about’ rather than ‘better’, because most of her subjects have pretty messed-up lives – they struggle against abuse, disease, even death itself – and usually they lose the battle. But the minimalist in the poet drip-feeds us details, line by line, so that we construct our own fully realised portrait of each one, and we feel that we know them well enough to be moved by their plight and to rejoice in their (occasional) victories.
All this is not to say that the collection is perfect – there are poems that don’t leave much of an impression. ‘The Morning After’ probably wasn’t the best choice for the first one. It’s full of these sort of comparisons:
‘Letterboxes twitch like expectant fathers’
‘gangs of windswept blossoms lurk
in gutters like pretty terrorists.’
that don’t really work, or take us very far. She seems to be trying too hard to look for links. The redeeming feature of ‘The Morning After’ is that it’s set in Brighton, and so it locates the poet in the city where she lives. It also gives us our first glimpse of the bus stops that seem to be one of Cremin’s obsessions
But then turn the page and you hit ‘Dead End’, and she’s on top form, with the sad musings of a middle aged man in a dull job in a dull office. Week after week
‘of feigned interest, anonymous mistakes’
‘My fat wife is fucking the butcher’
His constant, nagging memory is of a woman he met years before; presumably a holiday romance, because
‘I think of surfboards, the futility of regret but
I miss her too much on days like this.
I wonder where she lives, if she ever had kids?’
‘Futility’ is the perfect word here. A choice was made, an opportunity wasn’t taken, and the whole track of this man’s life took a different route. That was years ago, though – years in which he’s had to
‘pay off the mortgage, put my fat daughter
through college, afford a red car.’
while his wife has been constantly unfaithful with the butcher.
Interesting that the car is red. Red cars and sex – what every advertiser knows. He still feels himself to be ‘a player’, and he preens himself a little for a pretty sandwich assistant at Forfars the bakers.
He and his wife still have sex occasionally, it seems. Though
‘When I fuck her
I think of the butcher,
The pretty girl at Forfars
A two word ending this time, that takes us back almost to where we came in, with beautiful symmetry. But also, those last four lines together are a little gem of compression, summing up all we have learned about his unhappy marriage, his current fantasies, but mostly his long term (futile) regret.
For we care about this man. We feel for his hopeless regrets. Just as we were moved by the husband’s crash in ‘Black’. Cremin creates believable subjects in her poems, and breathes enough life into them to make them worthy of our concern.
I was first introduced to Bernadette Cremin’s work with ‘Altered Egos’, a one-woman performance piece where she played six individual (and very different) women – women whose lives had been damaged in one way or another. She has a sure feel for the sadness that underlies a lot of lives, and she’s demonstrated that empathy again with these poems.
She has a sure feel for language too, both alliterative and forebodingly symbolic. Who else could end (another) poem by defining a woman’s wrist with the words? –
‘the soft inch
made for a bracelet,
a button or a blade -‘