Two Pamphlets: The Fire Station by Sarah Barnsley & Father by Mary Noonan

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

By chance, I opened Sarah Barnsley’s The Fire Station at its centrefold and central poem, ‘Big Hands’:

When you put my budgie
under the grill
and apologised for not being

able to afford a microwave
to resuscitate him
I didn’t think you were mad.

The image is so arresting, contains such a quiet violence, that it stopped me dead. Through the poem’s 13 terse stanzas there’s a sense of ratcheting tension; an offkilter depiction of an ex-firefighter father who does a ‘caveman / dance to stop / [himself] hitting [his] children’ and the cosy comedy of words like ‘ginormous’ place the poem on a knife-edge between the familiar and the very, very strange. The interlocutor’s discomfort and danger increases throughout the poem: he can’t feel his hands, he can’t relieve the itching, ‘there was nothing [he] could / do for the budgie’, so that he resembles that other accidentally-lethal buffoon, Lennie from Of Mice and Men, transported from a Depression Dust-Bowl to a Morrison’s carpark. It is an excellent, sad, brave poem; and, in this collection, it is not alone.

‘The Fire Station’ is both the opening and the title poem of the collection, so it has rather a lot riding on it. Bold and strange, it sees the potential for a blaze, or other disaster in pretty much everything, but most potently in ‘a box of matches, / its eggshell-pink / scratchy walls / a strikepad for / engines to spark / to market town / emergencies’. The language is tight-packed like a box of eggs; the internal rhyme skips lightly along ‘scratchy’ to ‘strikepad’ to ‘spark’ to ‘market’. Again, these clever shifts and resettlings jostle into darker territory, the sky casting over, until what the fire station really means is

Dad whacking
Terry Marshall,
teeth fizzing blue,
us being rehoused,
no one laughing now.

I have tried to stop quoting Barnsley’s last lines – it seems a bit of a spoiler for the story of the poems – but they are consistently good at displacing the reader, ‘rehousing’ us in a peculiar landscape; like the perfect quip, they are difficult to resist repeating. Again, from ‘Dad’s Cars’:

Like a trifle, it wobbled, out of the driveway,
and conked out in the street. You kicked it
like it was us. Like you, it never worked again.

It’s not all hard-nosed, though. ‘Les Rapides Faciles’ is full of circumstantial joy, the protagonists of this mini-story taking kayaks to the supermarket. Flinging free from the shackles of the ‘inconvenient bus timetables’, they paddle exultingly through the residential streets with a sense of being comfortably between elements. ‘It’s the gliding I like best’, the speaker announces, ‘the effortless, continuous flow / of being with you…’

I am beginning to feel the same – of Barnsley. Her voice is wry, considered and convincing – I will take this collection to heart.

Mary Noonan’s Father also deals with father-figures; perhaps in a more balanced, but in a no less moving, way. Her pamphlet is a beautiful, bespoke-looking thing; very slight and elegant, it calls to mind a rococo exercise book, or a secret treatise circulated in the more select of the eighteenth-century coffeehouses. Printed in a run of seventy-five, it contains just six poems: this is a lot of pressure to place on individual pieces. Thankfully, they are impressive, tightly-turned. It seems best, in this review, to visit each of them.

‘Lone Patrol’, the first poem in the collection, deals with the intricate mechanism of childhood memory; a horse which

…burned himself on your inner eye
in the 40s and never left, galloping round
the inside track of broken recall…

Noonan handles sound with a delicate touch; internal rhyme and assonance are fleet presences. Phrases like ‘a Raparee / ranging over the rough courses of the South / in the days when horses were bought / and sold for a song’ have a real internal music. This poem’s quietness befits the mistiness of second-hand recollection; experience is nested, from the child’s initial impression of his father, retold by the poet, and transmitted to the reader. This distance, however, does not dull the experience of recognition, even if the experience is not quite our own: after all, what is related here is one of the interlocutor’s ‘few remaining’ memories, so we’re dealing here, too, with loss and the trick of memory. This horse is dead and decades-gone, but ‘still patrols your lonesome fens / and borderlands’. It is into these borderlands that we are invited – the liminal, unclaimed spaces between others’ experience and our own.

Themes of repetition and looping are expanded in the following poem, ‘In the House’:

I am back in the house, with my father reading
the same paragraph of newsprint, over and over,
as the light faces and the letters break up and slide
over the page and he tries to corral them…

Loss, here, is a more robust presence. The house is full of little tufts of paper, dropped in trails through the rooms like forgotten facts. It is a painful poem, and uncomfortably ethereal:

…I wish I’d said goodbye,
before the ancient shape-shifter came to build
his nests of lint, his hillocks of gristle.

‘In God’s House’ moves us out of the domestic and into that most personal of public spaces, the church: the power and subjection it presents. Describing his breathing, Noonan describes the father’s ‘taking in huge bowls of air’ – a generous, life-affirming image – only to puncture our sense of safety in the next line:

or like a boy among rows of boys
doing chest expansion drill in a Hitler youth camp…

Such a U-turn of images wrongfoots me wonderfully.

‘Into the Night’ details an everyday journey turned ordeal: the ‘clickety-clack’ of the stick, the frequent pauses. Can this be the same person who, in an earlier poem, is remembered as ‘the man whose step I waited to hear, bounding / up the stairs, whose cool hand I loved to feel / on my forehead’? It morphs into the elegiac ‘No More Goodbyes’, a world in which the dead move freely / in the antechambers, where to go / through a door is to be erased / forever…’

But the pamphlet ends with a kind of sad hope: a scene in which the speaker takes her father for apfelstrudel, rejoicing in the very fact of being present and rooted to one spot. Physically light as ephemera, this is a manual on how, finally, to say goodbye.