Review of The Bends by Ali Thurm

Eyewear Publishing aims to produce beautifully-designed, brilliantly-written, affordable books and has a great track record of publishing new and interesting poets. Matt Barnard’s debut pamphlet is an excellent collection of eclectic and wide-ranging poems that combine musicality with precise language; often surprising and entertaining, and always thoughtful and reflective.

It’s clear why the first poem, Eel, was highly commended in the 2015 Bridport Prize – its narrative of horror and empathy, as well as wonder, is particularly moving: in spite of the ‘oily body slick/ with power and potential’ someone takes pity on the eel and ‘with tender fingers/ sluiced the water through his gills…’ Matt Barnard has a steady eye when it comes to the natural world, and his language reflects this precision. In the wonderful Fallen Angels God has punished the angels by turning them into gannets: ‘perfect/from their stencilled beaks/to their rimless blue eyes’.

In several poems Bible stories are re-imagined: in The Old Whaler, Jonah the ‘retired prophet’ lives with the remains of the great whale ‘bones like words without the freight of meaning.’ In Noah to God we feel Noah’s fear and bewilderment – his ‘grief moves like the sea’ and, breathing in the smell of the animals, he can still hear the screams of his neighbours and their drowning children.

In the title poem, The Bends ‘those who return too fast from a foreign element’ are warned to ‘Listen/ to your breathing’ and be thankful for your own life, your own limits; the earthworm ‘eats his element’ and ‘knows the vengeance of birds, their iron beaks.’ There are also poems about neighbours, parenthood, old age and the brevity of life, with a leavening of humorous poems in Dogdom and the final playful poem, A Gibbous Moon.

This is a strong debut  with well-wrought, enjoyable and moving poems that look at life in all its strange variations. I’m looking forward to Matt Barnard’s first full collection published by The Onslaught Press in early 2018.

Follow Ali’s blog here. Back to The Bends.

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