Mancunian Ways edited by Isabelle Kenyon

-Reviewed by Grace Atkinson-

‘If we can’t meet in person, we must put pen to paper to be heard’ writes Isabelle Kenyon in her introduction. It’s true that her anthology Mancunian Ways triumphs in its ability to connect people even when, at a glance, they seem a thousand miles apart. Manchester is scanned in its full scale, from the alleyways of the Northern Quarter, to the cranes that tower over Oxford Road.  

Whether you have been to the city or not, you likely know of Lemn Sissay, but you need to have taken the trip from the Whitworth art gallery back into town to have seen his concrete poem, ‘Rain’, in its true form, cascading gloriously down one side of the Gemini café. These close-up-shots, such as the ‘bubble gum pavements’ of Mark Andrew Hathcote’s poem, or the image of Leo’s fish bar beneath a sky that is ‘pinpricked with slate-grey Manchester rain’ in Reshma Ruia’s ‘A Manchester Love Story’, are what captures the spirit of Manchester between the pages. 

Perspectives feel particularly poignant when they are placed in opposition with each other. ‘On this hot May afternoon’ Elizabeth Gibson fails to convince someone to stay, of the ‘squirrels and magpies, curry and doughnuts… [to] see cherry blossom and a possible future’. While in ‘Long Distance’, Abbie Day seems unable to convince herself of her return, as ‘using Northern phrases has begun to feel like stealing’ while she lives amongst ‘an unfamiliar Piccadilly, a different O2’ in London.

In ‘Manchester’ by Olivia Walwyn, the city is shrunk down to a model-size, and the sun becomes ‘like a giant / sorting through his rows of books […] he’s got his torch out, late at night to read, and stumbles on you…’ This is a beautiful analogy for how the pink sky glows through the tower blocks on a summer evening. Walwyn’s reference to Lowry – ‘you’re a person in a painting; matchstick, part of the scene’ turns Piccadilly Gardens in to an oily masterpiece. 

Manchester’s surge of redevelopment over the past decade has meant that cranes have become a permanent feature across the skyline. Sarah Pritchard’s poem, ‘City of  Cranes’, gives a stunning portrayal of those who work these elegant monsters, who ‘commune in slow motion with another 64 lonely crane tower drivers …can see into private lives from up here, the parties, the alone, the scared and the happy’. Pritchard weaves each line with descriptions of a crane bird – making it delicate and songlike – ‘this collective construction, this dance above the city, this sedge, this siege, this swoop of cranes/ Red-eyed in the night sky, keeping watch over the city’. 

The middle of the book features photos of people, buildings and related artworks. A boy plays in the fountains of Piccadilly Gardens in Beverley O’Donoghue’s photograph, a sight you can always expect to see in summer. While people on the streets of the Northern Quarter are captured in black and white by Nikki Culley as if set in history (and as iconic as the David Bowie mural on Stevenson Square). Like much of the poetry in this anthology, Penny Sharman contrasts old with the new, as scaffolding and cranes reach, Manchester Cathedral is seen behind ominous railings. While the selection of poems in this anthology illustrate the city’s intricacies, sometimes it’s nice to be able to see them for yourself. 

What’s important about this anthology is that it works to represent Manchester as a whole, even when it’s too bleak to bear. The title of Charlotte Murray’s ‘Rough Sleeping in the Second Richest City’ is powerful enough on its own, but the poem continues it’s account of what it means to be invisible in a city full of faces – ‘Shopping bags swing by / eye contact racing to get away … a foot in the face in haste / for the next train’. Later, a found poem made up of fragmented reports from the Manchester bombing of 1996 – ‘The wedding car lifted off the floor / orange glass powder / it was quite beautiful, it glittered’. In Estelle Price’s poem, there is thankfulness – ‘I’m alive, we all are.’ 

Some days aren’t possible to approach face-on, David Keyworth’s haunting poem ‘23_05_2017’, for example, can only focus on the silence – ‘the birds on Oak Street/ could hear themselves singing – / as if someone had decided to start the day again’. In ‘The Ladies, Manchester Victoria’ the ‘mighty girls’ are depicted tenderly and triumphantly, ‘rising up in a glimmer of hairspray – / a momentary halo’. Victoria Gatehouse’s poem is both heart wrenching and hopeful – ‘clattering/in and out of this place, / raising arms, holding each other up.’

There is a defiance that fuels this anthology, one that consistently cuts through the grey. ‘Let tears evaporate to form clouds, cleanse themselves/ And fall in to reservoirs of drinking water’ writes Lemn Sissay in ‘Let There Be Peace’, a wonderful inventory of things that are broken yet still rise again. This strength is clearest within the people that populate Mancunian Ways, and in Jan Berry’s ‘My Tribe’ it is the sense of community that gives the poem its needed faith – ‘The music plays. / A school choir sings. / A policeman dances. / A young girl soars over the rainbow. / Hope rises’. There is an unwavering pride felt in Mancunians and non-Mancunians alike for this fierce city, one that this anthology celebrates from start to finish.