Review of The Bends by Malcolm Bradley in Acumen 90

Matt Barnard is haunted, I somehow suspect, by the sea and its fathomless mysteries, for the wide-ranging, beautifully crafted poems in his pamphlet The Bends have a lingering smell of seaweed and brine about them. They are also steeped an a highly charged ocean of influences, even though they are not always easy to capture and name. The fine opening poem ‘Eel’, however, carries a decidedly strong flavour of Ted Hughes, particularly the opening stanza:

Dark river of itself, curled in the bottom of the creel,
the small myth was an absence, a light taker,
pulsing with malevolence, its oily body slick
with power and potential, head, tail, middle
an single unremitting story told to the end.

He is also able to forge hauntingly bizarre conceits out of deeply conventional subject-matter. This is nowhere more in evidence than in the first stanza of ‘Fallen Angels’:

When God in his wrath
decided to punish the angels
he turned them into gannets
and let them spend their lives
falling from the sky.

There is a gargoyle-like quality to this image: a stark directness and terse simplicity that recalls the poetry of Melvyn Peake. But perhaps the finest poem in the pamphlet is ‘The Old Whaler, Jonah’, a strangely compelling dramatic monologue spoken by an anonymous visitor to the dwelling of an old prophet living in a “white house stubbornly facing the sea”. All we learn of the visitor’s purpose is that he wishes to ask a blessing and a favour of the old man. We learn even less of the whaler, apart from his “famous mass of hair / crowned now by a fist of pale skin above a squint”. The poem is filled with a concentrated awe and urgency that springs from a confrontation with the legendary, the mythic, and it is this elemental quality, together with its form and style and subtle use of repetition – “I was afraid” and some lines later “But I was still afraid” – that makes it deeply evocative of that great poem by Edwin Muir, ‘The Horses’, a post-apocalyptic poem that grimly recalls “That bad old world that swallowed its children quick / A one great gulp”. This is not to suggest necessarily any deliberate allusion, but the experience of reading a moving poem through the lens, so to speak, of another, can be an extraordinarily rich experience. Although this is a superb pamphlet in its own right, it will almost certainly lead its readers well beyond the confines of a single voice and of a single poet, and for this I would recommend it without reservation.

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