Tim Murphy reviews A to Z of Superstitions by Ian Harker (Yaffle Press, 2023)
The poet’s relatives dominate the opening poems of this engaging pamphlet. The first poem is the title poem and begins with the declaration that “Auntie Vera is coming back from bingo / at the Majestic”; the second poem refers to the trees “you planted the first Spring after your father died” (‘Resolution’); and one of the poet’s grandfathers is the subject of the third (‘Aortic stenosis (operated)’). The poet’s mother and grandmother and cousins are soon mentioned in other poems, including ‘30:1’, a poem that is prefaced by a quote from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts…”) and in which one of the poet’s thirty ghosts says “you won’t believe // how like being alive it is.”
A to Z of Superstitions is also replete with references to places in and around the city of Leeds, and the intimacy of the familial is made to dovetail with the familiarity of place. Auntie Vera of the title poem, for example, is introduced as an attractively colourful character in the following way:
Vera grew up on Beeston Hill.
She says I don’t see things
the way they really are.
She says there’s a fish in the river Aire
with her wedding ring in its mouth.
She says when she moved here
the wallpaper was covered in knights
in armour and their eyes followed her
around the room. Once, a week after she died,
her mam was standing on the landing
watching her. Weren’t you scared I asked
and she laughed and said Why
would I be scared of my own mother?
Several other references to Leeds are in poem titles – Swaledale (‘Lovesong of a Swaledale man’); East End Park (‘Red kite, East End Park’); the Merrion Centre (‘I am the Merrion Centre’); Meanwood Park (‘The Leeds Mummy visits Meanwood Park’); and Wortley (‘Wortley Heights’) – while many more are included in these and other poems. In keeping with the collection’s guide-like title, the mentions of place names correlates with Harker’s lyrical treatment of specifically North English speech patterns. ‘Jewel carriageway’, for example, opens thus:
He told me he loved me
and I believed him—three
in the morning and you could see
Emley Moor. He was drunk
and my heart was a flock of birds
asleep. We were arm in arm
over the M62 and I said what’s that.
Superstitions are also specifically located. The narrator of ‘Last wish’ requests burial with sky, birdsong, rain, “the Dales in my arms / and a dog at my feet”, the sound of traffic (“if it’ll fit”) – and “some light”, if not from Blackpool Tower, “then the lighthouse from Flamborough / or the lamps from Emley Moor or the kind / from Elland Road with the long roar.’
A to Z of Superstitions is a rich and coherent selection of poems that successfully presents common poetic speech and tones in lyrical terms to achieve an overall sense of verse drama
The focus shifts sharply into the purely imaginative realm in other poems. The voice in ‘Respectful photography permitted’, for example, is that of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest whose coffin lies in Leeds City Museum:
Is this forever?
People file past, children press their faces
against the glass and stare at my hands,
my fingernails, teeth still white
between snarling lips. They know as much
about eternity as I do.
Nesyamun again features as the main character in ‘The Leeds Mummy visits Meanwood Park’, in which a third-person narration begins with this dramatic and well-executed metaphor:
The Leeds Mummy abandons his chariot
in the fumes and tailbacks of Meanwood Road
and yomps it to the park accompanied
by goldfinches and red kites, the beck
like a handrail taking him from the monks’ bridge
to the tannery where Meanwood’s skin is pulled
inside-out; where we are drowned in warm vats
under the healthy smell of horses and under
the Iron Age grace of the heron. Nesyamun ducks
into ancient woodland.
Harker has a special talent for arresting opening lines. For example, “Your granddad is the slates on the roof now” is the opening line of ‘Aortic stenosis (operated)’. ‘Proceed to survivors’ begins “That afternoon my mouth was a pebble” and ‘Census’ opens “All the people who ever lived in our house / have started changing shape.” Some of these changes occur when a newlywed “becomes the beck / and his wife becomes the black labrador / jumping into the beck, lab slathered / in water and mud, hot red mouth barking / into cold.”
The pamphlet closes on the chastening note of ‘Wortley Heights’:
The rent was a pittance but you were still so hard up
you walked five miles, did a day’s work,
then walked back, bought five tins of stewing steak,
one for each night of the week. It used to sway
in the wind, the city a marble rolling off the sideboard
and everyone you ever loved falling past the window.
A to Z of Superstitions is a rich and coherent selection of poems that successfully presents common poetic speech and tones in lyrical terms to achieve an overall sense of verse drama. The effect that Harker creates of a particular totemic environs is reminiscent of Under Milk Wood. Highly recommended.
Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Spain. He is the author of four pamphlets, including There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021) and Young in the Night Grass (Beir Bua Press, 2022). His first full-length collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022), reviewed by Richie McCaffery here.