Monday, 20 January 2014

Belonging and estrangement, Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over

Right, cards on the table from the off: Rory Waterman’s Tonight the Summer’s Over (Carcanet, 2013) is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. This review will do its best to explain just why.

Certain critics have referred to a supposed limiting “restraint” when discussing Waterman’s work. I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more with their use of the term. In this case, it’s misused critical shorthand to highlight the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being splashed and daubed all over the page. In my book, that’s the opposite of so-called “restraint”. It’s the ambitious, highly charged and passionate search for the verbal expression of intense feeling.

Let’s look at an example of Waterman’s use of the above-mentioned technique in his poem “An Email from Your Mother”:

...Home will never, quite, be waiting
the way it was; your childhood is receding
too far. Is growing older, then, forced unclenching?
Does my arm curl round you like weed?”

In the space of four lines Waterman arrows in on the specifics of “your” childhood, before moving out to a broader question and then swooping back in again. The universality of the question demonstrates an ambition that reaches far beyond mere anecdote. This compression, perhaps best represented by the poetic power of the term “forced unclenching”, is packed with emotional intensity. Waterman thus achieves empathy on the part of the reader, enabling us to draw parallels with our own lives.

The above extract, meanwhile, also leads us on to the key theme of the collection: “Home”, that massively charged word. At this stage I’d like to drop in an important caveat. Back in my university days, lecturers would bang on about intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to criticism. In other words, they would ask whether we should view a piece with or without reference to the writer’s life and other work. I’ve always thought that was a ridiculously arbitrary division. Obsession with outside influences can lead us to focus more on them than the work itself. However, it would be absurd to ignore such influences. In Waterman’s case, there are two crucial external factors to bear in mind when discussing his treatment of “Home” in Tonight the Summer’s Over.

First of all, there’s Waterman’s own critical writing, especially his recent book, titled Belonging and Estrangement in the Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley. In terms of influences, all three poets lurk in Tonight the Summer’s Over. For example, Larkin is present in the use of a viewpoint zooming in, out and in, as in the extract above, while another poem is titled “For R.S. Thomas.” As for thematic concerns, Waterman’s focus on “Home” clearly resonates with the title of his critical volume.

Now for the second external point that informs this collection: the poetry of Andrew Waterman, Rory’s father. Rather than a question of literary influence, a dialogue is struck up between Rory’s verse and that of his father. Rory's Tonight the Summer’s Over casts fresh light on Andrew's A Father's Tale, just as the latter provides a fascinating counterpoint to the former. Andrew writes a poem “To my son”. Rory replies “To my father”.

The story of their separation after Rory moved with his mother from Ireland to Lincolnshire is personal, specific and universal. It’s also extremely moving.

Here’s Andrew:

“…I walk again this curve of strand,
a shine of wet on firm gold sand
blanked by 500 tides since you
knelt watching Daddy as I drew
a little boy, inscribed your name:
RORY WAS HERE. Here looks the same:
dunes, headlands, ocean charged with light
as then, rippling to its long white
ribbon of foam, where bubbles break
in millions for each breath I take...”

Here’s Rory:

“…At two I’d not grown used to anywhere.
By five the squat stone houses, leafy streets
of Dunston, rural Lincolnshire was where

My life was, if for better or worse.
The court heard our recording and agreed.
And Lincoln was a blessing and a curse,
Where Daddy lived each month, and lived with me.”

Andrew desperately want Rory to feel Irish, to feel he belongs in Ireland. Rory tries and fails. In another poem, “On Derry City Walls”, the father teaches Irish songs, but the son sings them in “pure Lincoln”.

At the same time, however, Rory doesn’t feel that he fully belongs in his adopted land. Just where is “Home”? Where does he belong? In these times of so much demographic movement and changing family structures, many people suffer similarly. Via the beautiful, condensed telling of his own story, Rory Waterman manages to touch such readers. His poem, “Growing Pains”, ends as follows:

“…I’d brag about that “other home”

and “other me” – not here, like them
the Irish me that never was,
the bronze-haired friends I never made,
the mansion where Dad never lived.
And mourned the loss of all these things
I’d never had and always had;
and grew, estranged from Lincolnshire
and desperate to get out of there.

A blessing and a curse, never and always, here and there, Lincolnshire and Ireland: each couple is juxtaposed and coexists throughout Tonight the Summer’s Over. They mirror each other, just like belonging and estrangement, probing at the meaning of “Home”

And now I’ll take the liberty of ending my review as I began. Tonight the Summer’s Over is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. I just hope I’ve done enough to convince you to buy it.

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