There are two things I don’t like about “When We Were Slugs”, the new poetry collection from James Manlow, the erstwhile Poet Laureate for Bournemouth. The first dislike is the cover, which to me seems a mess, a splodge. My second objection is the title, which is one of the poems, but which, whilst it may invite curiosity, has bathetic qualities. (That said, however, ‘When We Were Slugs’ is itself a fine poem). And now, having got my two objections out of the way, I’d like to record what a brilliant collection of poems this volume represents.
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What I especially like about it is the combination of technical mastery and genuine insight; add to this that the poems are written in – to use Wordsworth’s hackneyed expression – the ‘language of men’, then we have a highly readable and relevant book. The book contains 24 poems, which are all good, but many are excellent: “Sea Poem”, which kicks off the collection, “Marilyn”, “The Dressing”, “Delilah”, “Entertaining the Dictator” (which is the outstanding poem of the whole collection), “Roots” and “The Year Gone”.
“Sea Poem” seems innocuous enough, but on examination one detects a subtle sonnet structure, but with many lines pared down to seven or so syllables; and there is a flexible use of pararhymes: for example: ‘interpret/limit’. But the waves of the poem build; it seems to be about something – the detritus that the waves throw up – but then in the final and Shakespearean couplet everything expands, including the poet’s consciousness: we get ‘The sea can’t control what’s found; / only go on making that tender, restless sound’. Notice the sudden, perfect rhyme, as if the true theme has suddenly locked into place; notice how the seven syllables of the penultimate line abruptly whoosh out into a full alexandrine of 12 syllables like something from a Spenser poem. And notice, too, how the last line shifts our attention from the rubbish of the sea to the emotion that it metaphorically represents, which speaks to us in tenderness as it lulls us, but at the same time is still restless in its movement, as we are. In short, the poem brilliantly communicates the ambivalent human condition. What is so good about this achievement is the very metaphor of the sea – that it has often been used in this way as a metaphor is undeniable, but Manlow here has made the metaphor his own. That is impressive.
If “Sea Poem” is impressive, then “Marilyn” is more so. It typically too represents a theme that Manlow is interested in and explores extremely well in several of the other poems: a seething sexuality that packs a punch! See “Delilah” too! Again, in “Marilyn”, the concluding couplet is superb, drawing together all the threads of the poem and her shattered life (this of course is Marilyn Monroe) and then suggesting even deeper, even darker, thoughts: “Towards the bright lights she brings her sorrow,/Thinking, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” Wow – this truncated reference to Shakespeare and specifically Macbeth reflecting in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide is writing of the highest order. Nothing here is laboured, all is compact, and telling: the end is inevitable. Wonderful poetry.
Space prohibits further analysis, but I must just comment on “Entertaining the Dictator” before I end this review. This poem is the greatest poem of the collection. First, it’s a villanelle, a notoriously difficult form to master; second, all that I have talked about before (the oblique rhymes, the seething sexuality, the powerful ending) is here in abundance. But also too we have disgust and revulsion, and what might be termed political poetry. Manlow isn’t preaching; rather, he is observing and describing, and doing so, via the repetitive villanelle form, in a somewhat mechanical way. Yet the cumulative effect of doing this adds up to a complete indictment of fascism (or dictatorships more generally) and also in the final line a complete indictment of us: “Yet we’d done nothing, and no one had said a word”. This takes us right back to Hitler and the collective failure of anybody to oppose him till it was too late, and he had complete control.
Thus, I strongly recommend this collection to all poetry lovers: people who love form, structure, clarity and ideas. For those who love ‘free’ verse, self-indulgent waffle, anything-goes-but-it’s-my-poetry, then I suggest you avoid this collection, for it’s real poetry and likely to upset you, especially the rhyme bits!