64 pp., Smith/Doorstop, £9.95
The Anglo-French littérateur, Denis Saurat, once wrote that ‘life is that which leaps’, and it was this phrase one that recurred in my mind throughout reading River Wolton’s spirited first collection Leap. Wolton’s is a poetry deeply attuned to social awareness and vigilantly aware of injustice wherever it might manifest itself, making her work both inclusive and incisive – words always teeming on the page, as if the poem has a sentience all its own.
There seem to be two major strands weaving these poems into a journey not only of selfhood, but also of nationhood set against and disrupted by global conflict. Here we see poems of grief for the poet’s parents, such as ‘Ashes’, which conjures up other poems of mourning such as Thom Gunn’s ‘Ash’ and Andrew Young’s ‘Passing the Graveyard’. Its stanzas are elegiac:
We launched him in a cardboard boat, without permission,
headlong into choppy waves. March gusts whirled
the fine grit under my collar, up my nose. I sneezed
and brushed my coat. Too close, as when, adrift and frail
he thought I was my mother, pulling back the sheet
aren’t you coming to bed now? Aren’t you getting in?
Such tender poems are set against poems with a broader focus, from those dealing with the plight of refugees from war-torn countries (‘Everything I Know about War’ and ‘Witness’), to a sequence set in Israel and the West Bank. This sequence is fraught with racial tension. Beyond the horror of still-born babies at Israeli army checkpoints (in ‘Statistics’) and the hopelessness of ambulances trying to save the dying (in ‘Etiquette’), we see the whole rancour of the situation reduced to a subtle but profoundly resonant final image of a West Bank donkey ‘tied to a fence’ (in ‘The Visit’), reducing years of war and bloodshed to the sight of something stubborn in fetters.
The late, great Adrian Mitchell has praised Wolton’s work for its twin love of people and the English language. For Wolton, these two concerns are meshed together in her poetry, and are a fact of life for a percipient ‘witness’ – or poet – living in the UK. These poems seem to be expounding a different, newer sense of Englishness set against a time when the Union Jack has made an awkward return and when the local MP urges asylum-seekers (who are soon to be deported) to ‘Go quietly’ in ‘Witness’. ‘Sabir’ brings to our attention a young refugee who has risked his life to get to the UK and in the process seen his identity in flames – only to be turned away:
As I walk up the path, into the English
autumn light and the warning glare
of a search-vessel out on the water.
Wolton re-defines the role and purpose of the poet in the UK in this last sequence of poems, especially when she becomes the immigrant in the West Bank, giving us a palpable sense of what people like Sabir are trying desperately to escape from. In ‘Departures 4:30 A.M.’ Wolton becomes the alien, under scrutiny and endless questioning as she must justify her reason for visiting:
What was the purpose of your visit to Israel?
Where did you stay? Did you stay there all the time?
Do you have any friends or family here? Did you come alone?
Did you visit any private houses? What is your profession?
As a poet, Wolton has asked herself similar questions all her life, albeit in a different and less draconian way. The first half of the collection is centred on personal loss of family, but it is also an exploration of her own belonging within the UK. Many of these poems show a keen interest in how exact map co-ordinates and the precise names of roads can show both geographical and ontological movement. In ‘You Are Here’, the speaker states that:
Despite my well-worn maps
we’re here, wherever that may be
and here is moving with us as we go.
Wolton’s sense of place and belonging is a fluid one, but these early poems follow her growing up: from school memories and the travails of adolescence to moving vignettes of relationships and domestic life, as in ‘Summer ‘76’ and ‘Architecture’, where the speaker remembers how her mother rubbed ‘my back in small firm circles like a child’. These first poems carry with them a poignant sense of ease and erstwhile happiness, and the sun seems to drench some of these passages – before shifting key into the more dirge-like centre of the book where, in ‘The Underground Orchestra’, the speaker must select CDs to be played at the funeral of a parent, concluding that ‘we’re parentless, empty of reference points’. In the title poem ‘Leap’, the poet evokes the image of her father in old age watching squirrels in his garden and here we see the slow rise of the red squirrel against its adversary, the grey. A key poem is the neologistically titled ‘Misanthrophile’ which juggles a sense of frustration with humans and their habits against a deep-seated love for people, because ‘their bottom-line / is wanting light and fuel’.
The life-blood of this collection is a love of life in all forms, and of people and their movements within time, space and place – from the territorial war-fare of red and grey squirrels to the life-threatening journeys refugees are forced to take. Wolton begins with the springboard of her own life and background and shows us – as the book unfolds like a spiritual and physical quest – her own sense of belonging, history and ultimately bereavement. In the final poems of the book, she highlights the plight of those who have all of these things, even their identities, denied, destroyed or oppressed. She begins as a traditional elegist and a voice of home, and becomes a celebrant of life, a campaigner for those to whom loss, bereavement, displacement and going unheard are daily realities. Moniza Alvi is entirely right to say these are ‘necessary’ poems, to which should be added that they are also finely crafted and controlled, as well as deftly and memorably written.
Richie McCaffery, born in Newcastle in 1986, is a Carnegie scholar at the University of Glasgow researching the Scottish poets of World War Two towards a PhD in Scottish Literature. His first collection of poetry was recently published by HappenStance Press, entitled Spinning Plates. He has been both a recipient of an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary and a Hawthornden Fellowship, and in August 2012 will take up a writer's retreat at Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar. His poems have appeared in magazines such as The Rialto, Stand and The Reader as well as the anthologies Lung Jazz and The Best British Poetry 2012. He has reviewed for The Edinburgh Review.