Jazz and Upbringing: Marvin Thompson’s ‘Road Trip’ reviewed

Marvin Thompson’s debut collection from Peepal Tree Press is a PBS Recommendation and deservedly so. All too often we are informed of the arrival of a startling voice, usually a vital one, striking a new note in English poetry. Well, this is the real deal: a superbly skilled practitioner of the art whose work is driven by two seemingly opposing forces. Thompson writes with a disarming sense of autobiographical honesty, often about domestic life, as a father and a son. Yet he can also create fictional characters with detailed and convincing voices and backgrounds. What holds these divergent styles together is his demonstrated conviction that the past (as an individual or as a member of an ethnic or cultural group) interpenetrates the present.

‘Cwmcarn’ is a poem in an apparently simple autobiographical mode, the narrator out camping in Wales with his two children. He has been reading them to sleep with pages from Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s  biography but feeling a bit guilty about not finding a book about “a Mixed Race // scientist / for my // Mixed Race / children”. The thought leads him to reflect on his own childhood’s confusions about racial identity, being born in north London to Jamaican parents, but knowing he was ultimately “by ancestry, / African”. He recalls the hurt of being “branded” English, not Jamaican, and then worries about the consequences of his children identifying “as White / in a Britain // that will call them / Black”. As you can see, Thompson’s chosen form is reminiscent of what Heaney (around the time of North) called his ‘artesian’ form of skinny-thin poems and the same effect of drilling down into the past is achieved here.

joe-harriott-movementSeveral of the same components are redeployed in the sequence ‘The One in Which…’ (with a nod to Friends). The narrator is driving his kids to the cinema, playing “Joe Harriott’s abstract jazzin the car. The children not surprisingly consider the music angry, sad and crazy. The father is not unhappy with this: “my Mixed Race children are listening / to something I want them to love”. He himself wonders if it’s “upbringing // or brainwashing” but the music “sings // Africa’s diaspora and raises skin to radiance”. (Listen to Thompson read this poem here) This last phrase is a wonderful play on aspects of light and darkness and the consciousness of the power of the past is extended with the father’s memories of the 1985 disturbances on Broadwater Farm in Tottenham. What Thompson does so convincingly and without strain is to present the individual’s stream of consciousness as it streaks in and out of the past and present. The third section of this sequence opens with a simile that should come to be seen to rival the ground-breaking significance of Eliot’s Prufrockian evening spread out against the sky “Like a patient etherised upon a table”. Welsh storm clouds are the subject here and the comparisons that flood the poem are drawn from the past of Jamaican, American, Haitian and African roots:

 

Mountain clouds clench like a Maroon’s fists 

as she sleeps beyond the sugarcane and soldier’s guns with her sons

and daughters in Jamaica’s hills – fists like Jack Johnson’s,

 

an 18th Century Haitian’s or an ANC activist’s.

 

It will be objected that there are one (or two) too many similitudes here but surely that is the point: the vividness, dynamism and vitality of these images drawn from the past make up an irresistible force to the father in the poem.

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Blaen Bran Community Woodland

The astonishingly titled ‘Whilst Searching for Anansi with my Mixed Race Children in the Blaen Bran Community Woodland’ makes Thompson’s point over again: the (playful) search for an African folkloric trickster figure (in the shape of a spider) in the Welsh woodlands is not being flaunted here, it is taken to be perfectly normal. In fact, the family don’t discover Anansi at all but an apparently dead fox. But the father’s head is full of his previous night’s dream of Mark Duggan’s shooting by police in 2011 which is also mixed with memories of 1985 again, when “rage had spread / like an Arab Spring”. The delicacy of the descriptions of the fox, combined with the children’s concern for it (it is still alive), become correlatives for the father’s preoccupations with the past. These latter thoughts again streak backwards – in appropriately dream-like fashion – to finding Duggan lying now in the Gold Coast, in ancestral times, “chains ready on docked ships from London”. There is no wrench when the father suddenly resurfaces in the present, worrying, “Will Britain / learn to love my children’s melanin?” The compassion shown towards the injured fox by the family, taking it to a vet, reflects some hopefulness perhaps.

Road Trip does indeed indicate the possibilities of compassionate responses to racial and social divides, the importance of an empathetic imagination which yet does not iron out the kinds of historical differences that Thompson is clearly exploring. ‘Rochelle’ is a 6-poem sequence demonstrating this point as well as showcasing the more fiction-making aspects of Thompson’s talent. The narrative is from Rochelle’s point of view, a young black girl driving to London from Wales to support her sister who has had a miscarriage. On the way, she picks up a young black hitchhiker, Kite, and his back story is also developed in the poems. The form here – and used elsewhere in the book – is a form of loose terza rima, half rhymed mostly, with not much variation in the rhyme sounds. The effect is a kind of circling, interweaving with some sense of a slow progression – which is marvellously apt for the exploration of the past’s breaking into the present and this sequence’s sense of a tentative break-out of the established cycle. Rochelle’s mercy dash is actually undertaken pretty equivocally because she and her sister have much rivalry and bad blood from the past. This sense of distance and alienation is also reflected in the hiker who seems a silent, morose figure. But somewhere near the Hangar Lane gyratory, Rochelle pulls over because there is a horse in the road. The animal – like the fox earlier – provokes a tender response from Kite which opens up the relationship between the two people. Kite’s background has been as difficult as Rochelle’s and now he is returning home to care for his mother who has dementia. A friendship is struck up and the conversation with Kite’s mother persuades Rochelle to phone her sister with a good deal more sisterly compassion in her heart.

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Broadwater Farm, north London

Thompson is good at sketching in such characters and developing relationships, investing moments and scenes with a mysterious intensity, but the tone is not usually so optimistic. ‘The Weight of the Night’ is a pair of prose pieces in which the past – of sexual guilt, male presumption and final reckoning – proves to be an immoveable obstacle to a marriage. And though there is something comic in the germ of the idea in ‘The Many Reincarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson’ (a father’s ghost returns to his son, telling of his many previous lives), the reincarnations are all in the form of British military figures from Peterloo, the Boer War, Aden, the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Falklands campaign. The theme is imperialism and social injustice and the father’s chuckling about his actions creates an uncrossable divide between him and his son. I don’t know that I fully understand Thompson’s intentions in this sequence which again uses the ‘artesian’ form, and the surreal quality of some of the fictionalising here makes things harder to interpret. But the past – and perhaps the older generations’ complicity in the many injustices adumbrated – falls as a dead weight onto the present, even in the son’s recalling his father’s recent death from cancer.

Marvin Thompson High resolutionI’m impressed at the editorial control shown in this collection. I suspect there are many false starts or even other successes lying in Thompson’s files. There is a generosity of creative energy here which one suspects could display itself at much greater length (a novel perhaps?). The concluding sequence of 3 monologues, ‘The Baboon Chronicles’, is a case in point. Thompson creates a dystopian world (not far from our own – or at least Pontnewynydd) in which Black and White live uneasily beside each other but the streets are also occupied by baboons. These creatures are treated with disgust and abuse by the humans. The White characters also seem to abuse the Black people on a reflex with insults like “’boon”. In monologues by Stephen, Sally and Suzi, Thompson does make points about racism, the othering of those perceived as different, injustice and (latterly) police violence but what is more impressive is the empathetic imagination on show in the creation of these characters’ voices. Thompson possesses in abundance Keats’ negative capability and, as much as he shows how the past, racial and cultural upbringing and memories of injustice lays so heavily on individual identity, Road Trip also shows the possibility of imagining into the Other (of listening as all the great jazzers do) which, rather than a retreat behind the Pale, must be the way towards a more just and equitable world.

The Cool Clean Shirt of Herself – review of Bryony Littlefair’s ‘Giraffe’ (Seren Books, 2017)

It was a great pleasure recently to read for Poetry in Palmer’s Green with several other poets who have various sorts of north London connections: Kaye Lee, Briony Littlefair, Jeremy Page and Marvin Thompson. Kaye is planning her much-anticipated first collection; Jeremy edits The Frogmore Papers and his most recent book is Closing Time from Pindrop Press; Marvin has recently appeared to great acclaim in the Poetry School/Nine Arches book Primers II. Bryony’s first book publication is the 25 page chapbook, Giraffe, recently published by Seren Books, the contents of which formed the winning submission to the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2017. I’ve not seen it noticed enough in the reviews, so I thought I might try to say something about its considerable strengths. Littlefair also blogs here.

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Giraffe, despite its weird title – which becomes clear only at the end of the collection – opens in familiar territory with a speedy, no-nonsense contemporary feel, using the title as part of the opening line: “‘Tara Miller’ // doesn’t have Facebook”. Her neglect of social media is one of Tara’s admired, unconventional aspects as the narrator recounts her (not so long past) school-days encounters with this girl. The narrator’s mother clearly feels Tara is not quite ‘our sort’ and in free verse lines of short, breathless colloquial phrases, the narrator paints a picture of the girl as a bit of a bully, as well as a little bit Byronic, being unpredictable and darkly “interesting”. Without really being aware of what her feelings are, the narrator is drawn to Tara, her “wavy, almost black” hair, her defiance in the face of boys, “her warm, / Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit breath on my neck”. This is a great double-portrait poem and sets up one of Littlefair’s recurrent themes, the tension between venture and routine.

wrigley-s-juicy-fruit-chewing-gumAnother young female narrator deliberately stays at home while her parents (conventionally) go to church on Sundays. She’s a teenage rebel without a cause as “The truth is I’m not sure what I did / those mornings”. The poem is built from a list (one of Littlefair’s favourite forms) of what she did and did not do. Littlefair is almost always good with her figurative language and here the girl is variously an undone shoelace, an open rucksack, a blunt knife. The urge to non-conformity outruns her imagination as to how she might spend her growing independence and there is an interesting tension at the last as her parents return, “whole” having “sung their hallelujahs” while the young girl is till restlessly revising her choice of nail polish, as yet unable to find what she’s after.

The third poem in this very impressive opening to Giraffe is ‘Hallway’. Despite declaring at the outset “I can’t imagine how it must have been”, the young female narrator on this occasion does manage to achieve an insight into something ‘other’ than herself. What she can’t imagine at first is the impact of herself as a new-born on her young mother: “The constant interruptions, / the mess, the uncontrollable outpour of love / like a reflex, a weeping wound”. There follows a curious moment and a great simile. Imagining the years fast-forwarding, the world is compared to “scenery in a video game, pulling itself together / in front of me as I moved through it”. There’s an odd shift here, like a crashed synchromesh, in the switch from the mother’s point of view to the daughter’s but it does prepare for the second half of the poem which indeed is from the daughter’s perspective. The centrifugal, self-absorption of the child is broken at last on returning home from school early and finding her mother at the piano, “small / in her cardigan, eyes closed, somewhere else”. I’m not sure Littlefair’s image – comparing the child at this moment to a “just-plucked violin string” –is original enough for the circumstance, but the poem survives and the child’s expanded imaginative life is signalled as she stands “washed up in the hallway, wondering at her [mother’s] life”.

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Another poem similarly explores a girl’s view of her Grandmother, wondering, in yet another list form, whether the older woman has had any sort of a life beyond the routines of socks and carrots and not gazing into mirrors. The solipsism of the young is a good subject and one Littlefair does well, but she’s as much interested in the other side of the coin: trying to imagine the lives of others. ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’ does this, though the imaginative grain is a bit coarse perhaps. The Assistant’s life – beyond the present moment – is imagined as a mix of poor pay, weary commuting, casual racism and cheese and lettuce sandwiches. This is contrasted to her attention to her patients where she is steady, fierce, calls people sweetheart and is “magnificent”. The sentiment or feeling is right (not something anyone might disagree with) but the poem is sailing very close to caricature.

ClutteredDesk_OfficeI think I find this with some other poems too, though it’s partly because Littlefair is admirably intent on presenting the working world, the world of labour, as routine in contrast to the allure of a more adventurous life. ‘Assignment brief’ presents itself as an old familiar’s introduction to a new girl’s routine office job; the lists and proffered options are funny but they slowly run out of steam. Likewise, the promisingly titled ‘Usually, I’m a different person at this party’ flags latterly. I’m imagining this as narrated by an older version of the girl who half fell in love with Tara Miller. Here, she shadow-boxes the risks  of conventionality by over-insisting on her own sweeping and glamorous life, in the process claiming all sorts of ‘interesting’ aspects of herself: “I only ever have large and sweeping illnesses. / My lymph nodes swell glamorously. I never snuffle”. But the contrasts here are again rather roughly hewn and, in the end, close to cartoonish.

A far more original poem is ‘Maybe this is why women get to live longer’ in which a man-splaining man dominates a watched conversation, the woman “holding her face in different positions / to signify reaction: empathy, humour, gentle and agreeable surprise”. This is acutely observed and the point is well made in the serious-surreal twist of the rhetorical question, “Is there a place / the time goes that women have been / listening to men?” Even better is the imaginative act of the details of the woman now left alone, returned to the “cool clean shirt / of herself”. A really effective line break there, followed by the naturalistic details of her leaving the bathroom door open “as she wees”, then the more disturbing one of her pinching “the skin on her forearm – lightly, / and then harder”. I guess she’s pinching herself awake after the soporific conversational style of the man, but more disturbingly she may be harming herself as a symptom of deeper psychological troubles.

Sylvia Plat_The Bell Jar cover 003.jpegThe latter view is more than a possibility given that Littlefair’s poems also boldly explore the self’s relation with itself. The encounter between self and future self is plainly and humorously told in ‘Visitations from future self’ and it finds the present self in trouble, pleading “I can’t go on / like this, my life a tap that won’t / switch on”. Here, the present self’s cliched and optimistic hopes for a “rain-before-the-rainbow thing” are denigrated and stared down by the future self. ‘Sertraline’ echoes Plath’s The Bell Jar in its evocation of a summer spent on an anti-depressive drug. And ‘Giraffe’ itself is a prose poem (there are 3 prose pieces in the whole book) in which a voice is offering reassurances to someone hoping to “feel better”. In a final list, images of a return to ‘health’ are offered. Particularly good is the idea that suffering will remain a fact but “your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars”. And lastly, “When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.”

15998895The designation ‘a young poet to watch’ is over-used but on this occasion it needs to be said loudly. Giraffe contains a number of fresh, intriguing and fully-achieved poems. It’s well worth seeking out. I well remember reading and being very impressed by Liz Berry’s 2010 Tall Lighthouse debut chapbook, the patron saint of schoolgirls, and this selection from Bryony Littlefair’s early work runs it close. My review of Liz Berry’s subsequent, prize-winning full collection, Black Country, can be read here.