Isabelle Thompson reviews I Hate to Be the One to Tell You This by Zoë Walkington (Smith|Doorstop, 2023) and Past Tense Future Imperfect by Jon Miller (Smith|Doorstop, 2023)
These two pamphlets are both winners of the 2022 Poetry Business pamphlet competition, judged by Jonathan Edwards and Romalyn Ante. The third pamphlet winner is Didicoy by Karen Downs-Barton, and the fourth winner is the full collection Dynamo, by Luke Samuel Yeats (reviews of both to come). It is easy to see why the judges chose these two collections. They both burst with colourful characters, both are preoccupied with transformations and both bear more than a hint of the surreal and absurd.
In Past Tense Future Imperfect, room is made for a host of different characters, allowing varied stories to be told and a range of ideas to be explored. The opening poem, ‘Eyes’, tells the story of a fictional “first man / to swim around the world”. The man has become a kind of sea creature, “having re-grown gills and webbed feet, / barnacles, anemones and bladderwrack / hanging from his back”. The tragedy of his plight is revealed when he tries to return to dry land, only to be rejected and driven back to sea: “you will have to imagine his sadness / because like all sea creatures he cannot weep.”
These two collections … both burst with colourful characters, both are preoccupied with transformations and both bear more than a hint of the surreal and absurd
‘Sound Barrier’, meanwhile, creates the character of “my cousin with the sensitive ears”, another somewhat tragic figure who is plagued by noise. This man “hears the aftermath of bats / the pining of snails”. He even hears “that noise like cellophane crinkling – / his soul wandering the hippocampus”. ‘Figures in a Landscape’ reveals the vulnerability of Catgirl, Biker Boy and Hard-Faced Friend, all in a “cage of sunlight”. The poem ends as
Catgirl balances on her heels on the stone rim
of the empty flower bed as if she might fall to her death
three inches below.
Walkington’s poems, too, are populated with vibrant portraits. The characters are sometimes cruel or sinister, at other times comic. ‘At Large’ strikes a balance between these two qualities, telling the reader “about bad people”, how
mostly they are still at large, going about their business
Shopping at the big Tesco, grabbing a bag of Walkers Ready Salted.
Waiting in line at the petrol station.
‘I am not worth a farthing’ tells the story of a woman two-timing two boyfriends. The woman is the narrator of the poem, and her cruelty becomes ever-more apparent as the poem progresses. At a party with one boyfriend, the narrator is texting the other. “Who are you texting?” asks the boyfriend at the party. “Oh piss off you insecure little prick”, replies the woman. ‘Imagine’ creates an uncomfortable situation when someone brings their “mistress home to meet the family”, the “kids not daring / to whisper to each other / What’s a mistress?“
Both pamphlets are preoccupied with transformation and in particular the transformative nature of loss. In Past Tense Future Imperfect, ‘Retail Park’ ends on an unsettling note as the “you” of the poem steps inside a shop:
But watch, as you approach those glass doors,
how they slide apart, steal your reflection
the moment you step inside.
Other poems, such as ‘Marseille, it was winter’, deal with the radical alterations brought about by loss in more overt ways. This poem describes a young couple breaking up in a restaurant. At the end, the speaker tells the reader, “I ran with him as he poured himself // into the emptiness of her chair”. ‘The Moon is Moving Away from the Earth at 3.78 Centimetres a Year’ reads like a metaphor for the changes loss brings about:
Tides will cease, seaweed shrink, the earth stagger,
and in the motionless seas sharks will halt,
sink headfirst to the ocean floor.
In I Hate to Be the One to Tell You This, ‘Hatton Garden’ seems to describe a doomed wedding proposal. “This is the last time we will wake up here,” says the speaker.
The small black hinged box will haunt
your drawer for weeks, maybe months,
and I know, but you don’t,
that taking it back to Hatton Garden
would be best. They must get this all the time.
Both pamphlets nod playfully towards surrealism and the absurd. In Wilkington’s work, this makes for some very funny poems about the speaker’s dog. In ‘Lies the dog has told me’, the dog tells its owner that “it isn’t true that he is ‘catist’, in fact some of his best friends are cats”, and that “he is allergic to my new boyfriend’s dander”. In ‘Parklife’, the same dog offers “unsolicited advice” about how to meet a man:
I should judge these men
not on trivial matters –
postcode, profession, attire, –
but concentrate on the
carriage of their tail,
and most of all their musk.
In ‘“Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety”’, the speaker sets out the bizarre idea that one is more likely to fall in love in perilous conditions: “which, of course, is why I built my house on stilts […] over a ravine, a raging torrent far below”.
Both pamphlets are preoccupied with transformation and in particular the transformative nature of loss
In ‘A Greek Chorus at the Close of the Tourist Season’, Miller uses the polyphonic voice of a chorus to describe how tourists are packed away at the end of the summer each year “in ticking rooms of murderous tidiness”. The poems ends by telling us that:
Next year we will take their heads
from the shelf, dust them down
rouse them with trumpets, bacon, eggs.
These are two worthy winners of the competition, and they stand hand-in-hand. In their styles and their preoccupations, these two pamphlets complement each other. Taken together, they sing.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.