Mat Riches reviews Spider Time by William Gilson (Wayleave Press, 2022)
There’s a line towards the end of Spider Time in a poem called ‘Old Man With A Pencil’ where Gilson writes:
He writes notes to himself, against the possibility
that something important won’t stick in memory.
This seems to me like a neat and tidy way of encapsulating the book as a whole. Each poem is in its own way filled with memories, reminders of people (real or fictional, we don’t know, but I’m going for the former), and, perhaps more importantly, of times when the protagonist was stronger, younger and more able. Let me give you an example. In the opening and titular poem, ‘Spider Time’, we’re told from the off:
It was back when I could take my mandolin
out of its case and play The Devil’s Dream,
causing Beth’s two little girls to dance.
That summer cottage by the lake,
where late at night a single loon called.
Or do I have that right? …
Instantly, the poem is setting things up as being from a time in the past, when something could be done, as if to suggest that taking out the mandolin is perhaps no longer possible. However, more importantly, that third sentence calls into question the layers of detail that have been piled on. “Or do I have that right? … ” The poem goes on to recall seeing a spider’s web and a spider on the web, “tiny but with a fat abdomen, / not moving, the tip of each leg touching / where the radial lines converged.” Like that web, the poem seems to suggest memory is strong, with detail upon detail being recalled, but that there are holes in our recall.
Where the first poem of the pamphlet starts with a mandolin, recalled memories and spiders, the last poem ends with a fiddle, memories of sorts being made and, er, spiders. ‘The Friday That Made No Difference’, records the mundane details of washing being hung on a line, fiddle scales being practiced, fighting the weather as the rain comes to soak the washing (“the clothes / had darkened”), house cleaning and the protagonists recognition of their own ageing. These thoughts and actions are set against the TV news reporting “explosions, demolished houses, / bodies in the streets. But they were thousands of miles away.” All that death and destruction as a world turns, and the large and the small events continue to happen regardless of one man’s actions.
Each poem is in its own way filled with memories, reminders of people, and, perhaps more importantly, of times when the protagonist was stronger, younger and more able
You have to wonder if there’s a sense of the small actions cancelling out the bigger ones. In the final lines, we’re told “He hoovered all three rooms, it took most of the afternoon, / and as he did, he carefully spared the spiders and their webs”. It’s a poem that has the ability to make life feel big and infinitesimally small at the same time.
In between these two poems we meet a cast of characters that weave in and out of the pamphlet. For example, we meet “Frank Salcito, neighbor” in ‘Blue Cloud-Marble Eyes’. Frank is a man who carried an old dying dog off “for the needle of sleep”. And Frank pops up again two poems later, still the “neighbor”, in ‘What Some Of Them Did’, and he’s still helping out by mixing “mortar / with a hoe, pulling and pushing, then // with a trowel he slopped it just right / between red bricks, trimming what squished out”. (Despite having lived in the UK since at least 1995, Gilson the New Englander uses the American spelling of neighbour in both poems to invoke a past when that’s how he would have spelled the word.) As well as Frank there’s “Rocco Ferruci”, a mechanic who “stood in a pit under vehicles, / replacing brake lines, exhaust pips, gear boxes”. And it shouldn’t be too much of a leap to suggest that Rocco Ferruci is the person referred to in ‘The Mechanic’, which describes someone “on his back on a flat board with rollers” who “wheels himself under the car”. The poem itself blurs the lines between memory and daydream. The first stanza is all practicalities and descriptions of oil, grease and blood. In the next the mechanics and their dirt are contrasted with the romance of nature.
The greenest grass is his dreams,
he naked in the afternoon and she
above him, the sky far
behind her, hair lit from the side by sun.
As well as family and friends from the past, we also meet other poets, perhaps those admired by Gilson. We meet John Clare in ‘Corvus’, and Clare pops up again in ‘Alison’s Dream’ alongside Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau. However, as much of a presence as people in these poems are tools for creativity and construction, from the mandolin of the first poem to the fiddle of the last, and also including the typewriters, hoes and factory machines in ‘What Some Of Them Did’ and the “tiny / twentieth-century cooker” in ‘Next Time’.
A key presence throughout these pages are tools for creativity and construction, from the mandolin of the first poem to the fiddle of the last, but also including typewriters, hoes and factory machines …
To go back to ‘Old Man With A Pencil’, we opened with the first few lines, and we will leave with the last few lines.
And the firewood getting damper.
It will hiss before it catches.
He decides not to mention this –
he sits on a weathered chair by the woodpile.
It’s a chair he remembers, clearly. Why is he sad?
He writes: It will hold me up as long as it can.
That third line suggests that recall and memory can be as much about what we choose to leave in, and leave out, as much as what we recall at various times in our lives. That last line suggests that, like the “weathered chair”, it is memory that supports us for as long as it holds up. Gather those rosebuds, folks …
Everything in these poems is there to help build memory – both the construction of new ones or the recollection of the past. Whether these memories are being captured as part of a memoir, an aide memoire or just as a way of not forgetting is slightly irrelevant, but they are there and they stick in the memory as reminders of a time when things were better. And there are spiders.
Mat Riches is ITV’s unofficial poet-in-residence. His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for Sphinx Review, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Mat Riches’ blog Wear the Fox Hat is here.