Sarah Barnsley’s pamphlet, The Fire Station (Telltale Press, 2015), is firmly anchored in time and place. The collection is littered with mentions of a Lada, a Commodore 64, Mr Sheen and The Kenny Everett Show, all alongside Sunday joints of meat from Bejam’s.
This last reference is especially telling. How many readers of this piece know what Bejam’s was? If you didn’t live in the U.K. in the 1980s, you wouldn’t be aware that it was a chain of frozen food shops with connotations of a lower-class clientele. In fact, it was taken over by Iceland in 1989 and disappeared from town-centre landscapes forever. I can still remember its shiny-blue livery, so exciting and modern in the drab surroundings of the Woolmead in Farnham just along from Wimpy!
So a key question immediately comes to mind: is Barnsley’s verse limited in poetic scope by its concrete settings? Far from it. Her portrayal of specific incidents within a class-ridden society opens up beyond such details but also thanks to them.
One such instance is the way Barnsley starts poems off by playing with the caricature of a happy-go-lucky working class childhood before whipping its legs away in the final stanza. Here are two examples, firstly from the collection’s title poem:
teeth fizzing blue,
us being rehoused,
no one laughing now.”
And secondly from the ending to “Dad’s Cars”
“…Like a trifle, it wobbled, out of the driveway,
and conked out in the street. You kicked it
like it was us. Like you, it never worked again.”:
The tension between upbringing and education fizzes throughout this pamphlet. It’s implicit in the poems that draw on childhood from an adult’s perspective, but it becomes explicit at certain pivotal moments such as the following stanzas from “The domestic white-throated Lincoln imp lizard (familia albigularis)”:
“They have seen it all,
and they have seen you,
coming up the path with
your London ways
like untied shoelaces,
your university education
splatted in your hair
like pigeon shit.”
In the above example, Barnsley juxtaposes different linguistic registers so as to highlight the social clash that is being described, syntax and semantics working together for poetic effect.
The Fire Station is an intriguing pamphlet that knows exactly what it’s doing and executes its aims with clarity and skill. It works on the margins of poetic trends and engages with readers even if they’ve never savoured the delights of a joint from Bejam’s! I very much look forward to seeing where Sarah Barnsley takes her verse from here.