You don’t necessarily need to be a champion of poetry in order to appreciate this new collection by Mike Barlow. To a certain extent there are a lot of false hang-ups linked to poetry. Some readers can feel beaten before they have reached the second page. Where Mike Barlow is concerned, however, and this collection in particular, there is no “beating around the bush.” He is good at describing what he sees with minimum fuss. In his latest collection from New Walk Editions, Barlow slows everything down into basic language and everyday emotions.
A former winner of The National Poetry Competition, Barlow's poems have staying power:
Ella who finally left home at sixteen with nothing
but a pocketful of change and the rag doll of her childhood.
May she find the latchkey in her purse one day
and courage enough to use it.
Poems that are about the most honest of moments:
With my scars,
tattoos and broken teeth
I’d have been a son my mother feared for.
For some, writing poetry is a form of therapy. Not so with Barlow. With these poems, it is as though we are all family members, gathered around a death bed, only this will be a New Orleans jazz funeral, with trumpets and dancing and multi-coloured parasols and handkerchiefs twirled in the air. Barlow’s gifts are on full display here, as he cuts the body loose:
So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery.
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock
on the old plank door and hold my breath.
She’d always ignore me when she knew
I was making things up but this time she turns,
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone.
Barlow does a good job of showing us what others are thinking:
Les, fitter who didn’t fit, chucked the factory job, his mates,
the lies and moved away where he could be
Lesley. Shaven legs, coiffed hair, skirt and blouse,
the bare truth of lipstick and mascara.
A shout for her, a shout for her.
All the poems here (even the ones that shouldn’t work, like "There’s that scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy first realises the deaf and dumb Chief Bromden can hear and speak") have a deceptive ease about them. They can be at times sombre, yet they still leave you itching to read them again.
It is true that all poems should make you think. And that is something which resurfaces again and again over the nineteen poems. On a deeper level, the pamphlet could be seen as a meditation on what life is like for the people left behind after the death of a loved one, squeezed between ordinary observations like in the poem "Encounter," which opens with a quote from a plaque on a bench in Drinishader, on the east coast of Harris, in the Outer Hebrides: "On this bench 22nd October 2008 Angus Forbes proposed to Athlone Findlay in the rain." What follows is a masterful poem about sweethearts, that was fuelled by a chance encounter while walking through a park.
But what is the trick to good poetry? Barlow himself tells us the trick in one poem: "The trick? The trick’s to keep it simple." And by sticking to that rule, he has fashioned a collection that will leave any aspirant poet wishing that they too might be able to achieve similar with mere words.
About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.