Long-awaited has become a tacky term, its soul ripped out by marketing bods who desperately hunt a unique selling point for a poet, only to find it’s ubiquitous and emptied of any meaning. However, there are still certain moments when it really is valid. One such is the publication of Alan Buckley’s first full collection, Touched (HappenStance Press, 2020).
Buckley’s work is riven from experience, both of poetry and life. As a consequence, his verse eschews facile certainties, setting out its stall early on in this book, in the poem Life Lessons, which assumes the format of a Q&A:
…How do I live without being touched?
Your skin will be become stainless steel.
How do I learn to survive in a vacuum?
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t feel.
Of course, this poem’s significance is also signposted by its reference to the collection’s title. Moreover, its human questions, which are met by inhuman replies, implicitly encourage the protagonist and the reader to explore far more human routes. As such, these lines represent a statement of intent, the poet setting out on his quest.
In technical terms, meanwhile, what’s left unsaid is far more important than what’s actually stated. This requires a linguistic and thematic lightness of touch that in turn demands maturity. In other words, Buckley has left behind any need to prove himself via fireworks. Instead, he’s inviting us to accompany him on a journey of self-discovery through these poems, enabling us to reflect on our own lives in the process.
As mentioned above, the disappearance of certainty is pivotal to an understanding of Touched. Nuancing is present in each and every poem in the collection, and is often represented by the invocation of two key words: maybe and might. Here are several examples…
…Maybe, with patience,
both might be altered in some small way.
Or maybe we can’t be anything better than this…
“Maybe this is like that booth —
I’m Harry Dean Stanton and
you’re Nastassja Kinski….
…Or maybe I’m Natassja…
…Later, they might dress,
walk out for coffee at some café
down the road; or maybe not.
(from All That Matters)
“…Ordinary stuff, as if the years
to come were blank pages in a journal
that we might fill however we wanted…”
(from Things Can Only Get Better)
“…We part. I cycle down Cowley Road, mindful
of the oncoming buses as they swing out
to avoid the parked cars. It’s a glorious
July afternoon. Anything might happen.”
(from Cowley Road, 3.30 p.m.)
The last quote takes on added importance, as the action of the poem in question unfurls alongside the news of terrorist attacks in London. Buckley is unflinchingly portraying the best and worst of life, showing us how closely the two counterpoints co-exist, coming to the realisation that maturity and self-acceptance require our reconciliation with this fact.
Touched is a deeply moving collection, coherent and courageous in its poetic aesthetics and its attitude to human experience. Certainties are stripped of their facile attraction, while nuance is embraced throughout. Recommended!