Review of The Magpie Almanack by Simon Williams, pub. Dempsey & Windle 2020

This is a long collection (99 pages) divided into sections by, roughly, theme, eg “People & Animals”, and style, as in “Surreal and Dada”. Needless to say, several could fit into more than one.

I can see why one would want to subdivide such a large collection but wonder if this particular way of doing it was wise. It means beginning with a whole tranche of personal poems (“About the Author”), which might be some readers’ cup of tea but to me felt a bit too anecdotal. Scattered throughout a collection, they probably wouldn’t have had this effect.

Things perked up with the next section, “People & Animals”, where the observation and language both sharpen:

   The little gulls, in a set of surprises,
  lift their wings like midget angels’ (“Little Gulls”)

He does a good job, too, in “Black Bear Dreams”, of getting inside the head of a female bear just going into hibernation:

  The taste of pink outstrips all others:
 fish, flesh, my aching teats.

There is a lot of humour in this collection, which for me works best when the voice isn’t being too aware of the fact that it is writing poems. When, in “A T-Rex Explains”, he has his dinosaur narrator, which has just mentioned a transformer coil, add in brackets

  (no, I don’t know what a transformer coil is,
  it’s just a simile)

there’s an archness about it that jars somewhat, and this knowing authorial intervention happens elsewhere too. I’m not sure I want to be constantly reminded that I’m reading poems. By contrast, the child’s inventive notion of the purpose of a “Water Gate” would raise a smile with most:

  it’s a troll-stop,
 so even small goats can trip across
 from Hawes to Sedburgh unimpeded.

Mostly, these poems are pretty accessible – even in the “Surreal and Dada” section it’s clear enough what is going on, namely following random associations between words and things and seeing where they lead. One exception is an oddly haunting poem, from the “Places & Space” section, called “Small Dean” (the title seems to be a place-name). There’s a lot I find mysterious about this one. It falls very much into three verses. In the first, a man identified only as “he” takes his own life in a car in or near some woods. In the second, the narrator and a woman identified only as “she” make love near the same spot, from which the narrator can see his own garden and his mother working in it (the “she” of the verse sees only him). This is the last verse.

  By the end, I’d moved away, visited
 occasional week-ends, while my mum
 and dad got ready. Don’t remember
 who left first, don’t know if he or she
 went downhill to the railway halt or
 up the hill, past the lay-by, across the fallen leaves.

It is quite impossible, and I’m sure deliberately so, to know for sure who this “he” and “she” are – the narrator’s mother and father? The man of the first verse and the woman of the second? Or, as seems perhaps likeliest, the woman of the second stanza and the narrator himself, seen from a time-distance not as “I” but “he”? My friend the poet and novelist Christopher Meredith once said that in writing there is “ambiguity boo” and “ambiguity hurrah”. For me, this poem is very much “ambiguity hurrah”, in that it centres the poem on the place which has connected all these people and telescopes the different times in which they came there.

This is a very varied collection, in which different readers will prefer different sections. My own favourites were “People & Animals” and “Places & Space”. But there should be something to please most readers.


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