Dark Islands by Tom Chivers

Reviewed by Bethany W Pope

Tom Chivers’ Dark Islands is a long sequence of poems taking the reader on a voyage through modern, mythic urban life. The landscapes presented here are dark indeed, although a numinous glow leaks out at the margins. The book is beautifully designed: a black cover, with tactically-pleasing raised-fabric zigzag patterns rising from the gloss. The pages, too, are black and the poems are printed in white, so that the whole book resembles a negative of itself. This aesthetic does not detract from the reading experience. Beauty comes at a cost, though, and I must say that had I not been provided with a free copy for review, I would have been unlikely to be able to afford it, and would have been sad to miss out.

‘V. Everyman’ is a stream-of-consciousness flash-fiction piece about a grotesquely transcendent encounter with a stranger, composed in one long, carefully punctuated sentence. In it, Chivers reveals that, by accurately describing something or someone that seems, superficially, unpleasant, the beauty hidden beneath the skin can be made to glimmer through:

Your shaven pate has the hue of a whole economy
chicken in the freezer cabinet though not corn-fed with
the yellow almost foreign tinge and you are not kettled
because you do not care

I must admit that the comparison of human skin to chicken skin reminded me of the sandwich-making chapter in Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards, but that may have been the point. It is a very human thing, to be revealed as being as vulnerable, as naked, as a cheap cut of meat.

‘X. Ecosystem’ reveals the ways in which the natural world cracks through the scrim of concrete that we have used to overlay the body of the world, reclaiming everything that we (in our hubris) attempt to bury:

There will always be weeds thrusting up between concrete.
It’s so easy to muddle up junk for geology.
There is science, there is fact, and then there is life.
You’ll find me, head down, in a mulberry bush.

‘X. Ecosystem’ also contains an absolutely lovely description of a fox, which I have to mention because although foxes often appear in poems (even poems with an urban focus) they are rarely this wonderful:

The urban fox darts from beneath the Telford Homes hoarding,
pauses, then turns toward me in the middle of Old Castle Street,
his yellow eyes glowing in the darkness like the eyes of Iain Sinclair.

There are a few variations of the sonnet in this book, all of them well done, but my favourite is unquestionably ‘xxviii. Gladiator’. This poem takes an archaeological approach, a dead man speaking of becoming detritus from behind museum glass. The speakers description of his own remains is beautiful, and haunting:

You may know me by the things they left me with.
Bone pins, a pair of tiny dice, this flame-red votive;
amphora – also tiny, like a doll’s – into which they poured
the black reduction of my flesh, sticky as balsamic.

This collection leaves me with the sense (the truth) that transcendence most often emerges from the heart of decay. Dark Islands is indeed dark, and sometimes awful, in the old sense: full-of-awe. I worry that some of the more overtly political poems will not hold up so well as the others, but eternity isn’t the point of a political poem: these are designed to make change, now, and they are effective. That is terribly important. As for the others, the poems that grasp at something beautiful and human, I think they will linger on.