Spitting Distance by Mark Pajak

Reviewed by Penny Boxall –

Mark Pajak’s debut pamphlet, Spitting Distance, is somewhat like the Tardis. The assemblage of 19 poems might look slight – the spine is too slender to bear the title or author’s name – but in scope and cohesion it feels more momentous, a real collection.

In most of the poems, it is the ending which contains the ballast. See, for example, the first poem in the pamphlet, ‘After Closing Time’. The poem sees two boys reeling out of the pub and into the flat, monosyllabic language of reality: they gravitate towards the ‘black’ river and the ‘old stone’ bridge, climbing the railing ‘for a laugh’. But this simple landscape is going to facilitate the occurrence of something altogether more complex. ‘Like drops of water’, the speaker meditates, ‘we are gathering ourselves to fall’; but then they just – don’t. They stay hanging from their arms over a useless span of years: ‘We are here for a very long time. / Years in fact. I marry. Divorce. // You skip all that, become a father. / We see less and less of each other.’ But still they dangle, full of the potential for – nay, the inevitability of –dropping, but without ever getting round to letting go. And we arrived at this curious, happy-sad state of affairs almost exclusively through words of one syllable, and on page one.

Also with a sting in its tail is ‘The Lemon Game’, a quiet examination of abuse which brought bitter tears to my eyes. The repeated mantra at the end (‘It must not screw up like a fist’) not only evokes desperation, but also the doublespeak way we can interpret poems two ways: say it again and you say it different, even if the words spoken are the same. The game referred to – in which the ‘player’ must pretend that a lemon is as juicy and inviting as an apple – is a fine study in deception and talking ourselves round.

The title poem, which won the 2016 Bridport prize, is yet another which hurries us toward a zinging conclusion. Odd, unnerving, it sees the speaker picking a rifle shell from the ground:

So I load it into my mouth
and go on walking…

‘So’? There’s no ‘so’ about it, but the poet presents this as a straightforward cause-and-effect narrative. It’s perhaps this sense of the inevitability of the strange which is most arresting about this assembly of poems – we come to expect the unusual, the unsettling nestled within the familiar.

Therefore it is even more jolting when the poem-end punch is not one of desolation, but one of hope; ‘Thin’, for example, discovers (in fittingly slight lines) a dead collie in an outhouse. We have the rancid paraphernalia of abuse strewn about, the images of destruction: except again, the ending blindsides us as it becomes clear that there’s hope:

Dead. Until
I touched him
and he whined
like a knife
scraping a plate.
Rattled the rinds
of his tail.

Finally, one of the most memorable and poignant images comes at the end of ‘First time my father set a Mousetrap’: ‘And I lay there, relieved, / my pulse scurrying in the small tunnels of my wrist.’ These spring-loaded poems, like mousetraps, wait for the opportune moment – then bite.