Friday, 17 February 2017

Understated and underrated, Stuart Pickford's Swimming with Jellyfish

Rather than throwing all sorts of fireworks and overt technical virtuosity at his poems, Stuart Pickford specialises in the tightrope-walking art of simplicity. 

Throughout Swimming with Jellyfish (Smith-Doorstep, 2016), his second full collection, Pickford demonstrates over and over again that straightforward language can actually heighten the dramatic tension of a poem when in the hands of a special talent. It’s often forgotten that such simplicity can be more laden with danger than supposedly riskier poetic techniques, as failure tends to be starker when undecorated.  

Pickford’s main thematic concern is the cycles of life. In this respect, he’s especially strong on fathers and sons. Individual poems provide delicious portrayals of such relationships, as in “Cocker”:

“My dad called me Cocker
when I was young, not son.
I didn’t want my friends
to hear him say it.
Then, for years, nothing.
But recently, kneeling
to pick up his legs
to swing them into the footwell,
the word’s come back”

Within this piece, there’s a gorgeous, painful evocation of the son’s shifting perspective and changing role as time goes by. Layers of dramatic riches and tension are imperceptibly peeled back.

Moreover, thematic complexity is heightened further once individual poems are compared and contrasted within the context of the collection as a whole. For example, the above-mentioned “Cocker” connects beautifully with “The End of George’s Last Football Season”, in which the speaker is now a father instead of a son, before one specific father is united with umpteen others:

“…as I drive out of town, every rec
Is haunted by a dad watching his son…”

Pickford reaches beyond the incident in question, using it as a point of departure for an imaginative journey. However, his generalising statement would be far less powerful without its preceding anecdote. Both add to each other.

Swimming with Jellyfish doesn’t yet seem to have attracted the critical acclaim that it merits. Understated and underrated, Stuart Pickford’s poetry deserves a wide readership. Here’s hoping this collection becomes a slow-burning success. 

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