Thursday 29 February 2024

Review by Peter Raynard of "The Remaining Men" by Martin Figura

The word that kept coming to mind when reading The Remaining Men was generosity. Figura writes about many lives: his own, of course, which would make for an interesting film, not just because of the death of his mother by his father, and its impact on him and his siblings, but also the soldiers, workers, and NHS staff, who are contrasted with our leading Prime Ministers, and their many follies.

There can’t be many poets who were once soldiers, and there is a certain irony in Figura being a post-war child who joins the army; there’s always a conflict somewhere (Suez, Falklands, Iraq, etc.). Figura shows how the army is often the only avenue for working-class men and women to ‘see the world’ and are often ignored in the history books.

          After School came the coastal erosion of self
          as to what is on offer. His grandfather’s
          medal ribbons all lined up straight by the pull

          of the weight

He also writes about the impact on one’s identity of leaving a birthplace, travelling abroad, living elsewhere in the UK, but being still marked by the place you were born:

          Ask where I’m from, and I’ll say Liverpool
          in my woolly Northern accent, knowing we’d left
          for a better life when I was only two

          We were only ever visiting after that
          and I have no right to feel so proud

Personal and political history runs through the collection in a linear narrative form but is wide ranging in the characters it portrays. All of this is complemented by a series of black and white pictures. Figura is also a photographer and has a book This Man’s Army about his young life in the service.

The Remaining Men will make you cry, make you angry, and make you laugh in all the right places. ‘The Mower’ is a standout gem in this respect (think Burt Lancaster’s The Swimmer as an enraged man ripping through neighbours’ gardens on his motorised lawnmower). The generosity of this collection is most poignant in the poem ‘My Name is Mercy’ about an NHS nurse, 

          If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.
          today is the nineteenth of January, 
          it is difficult, I understand.

Figura understands the importance of these people very well, and how unvalued they are by politicians who are supposed to lead us, and for that we must thank his generosity and their service.

About the reviewer
Peter Raynard is a poet, who writes prose and edits Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working-class Lives. His latest collection is Manland (Nine Arches Press, 2022). He has a poetry pamphlet, after William Hogarth, and academic essay on the poetry of Fred Voss and Martin Hayes, forthcoming in 2024.

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