‘Sketches by Baz’ Barry Fentiman Hall
‘Sketches by Baz’ is Medway’s own Gotterdammerung. It tells of a dusk of the old Gods by drowning and purging, those men who belonged to Chatham’s faded maritime glory days, and now fall to rickety chairs in A&E, cheap lager, rage-inducing headlines, the tinny hiss of Smooth FM. And yet there is no sense that the world will be made anew. We go ‘grimming in our van against the grain…Living in the flicker, skin set against a life made of splinters.’ Nonetheless, this is a joyous, exhilarating book. There’s comfort to be found in its pessimism, its fierce knowing sympathy for those who find themselves failing in a world not of their making or comprehension. There’s always a condolence in finding oneself understood.
This is Fentiman Hall’s third poetry collection, its title a nod to Dickens and to word play, both significant to these pages and his daily walks around Medway, the ‘uncity’ whose people and streets his sketches ennoble. But whereas Dickens’ characters always seem absolutely right for their environment, physique, future, those sketched by Baz struggle to belong. The writer himself stands on the outside, displaced, alienated, like the fox who keeps reappearing throughout this book, making the best of the newly urban, desolate landscape, where he finds himself King among a tribe of lost men. ‘At times like these I do not feel I belong anywhere/on this sorry planet’ he tells us in ‘A Dark Van Confessional’, one of several poems in which he’s travelling to work alongside men whose company seems as strange and incongruous to him as the ‘thin young fox’ whose thieving begins this collection, in ‘Albert Road Incident’: thieving undetected in the face of a greater human crime. No: the fox has learned to adapt and benefit from her new circumstances, the men have not, even though they try for easy swaggering bravado. The ‘proud fox’ he watches develop, getting bolder in her crimes and presence until ‘grown full vixen’, while page by page we develop a relationship of our own with the people he captures, sometimes desperate, sometimes despised. People who live ‘can-at-side happy’ in the face of inclement cultural circumstance.
In this ‘glimpse of grief behind the veil’ Barry shows us how difficult life can be for the unprepared, those without buffers of privilege, the ordinary joes, damaged but glorious. ‘To wear a crown, you must bleed for it’ he tells us in ‘Honeylocust’ autumn, where ancient proud trees are felled, ‘Killed by many cuts.’ And bleed they do.
The rage and alienation felt by working men without meaningful work is beautifully captured in ‘Chatham High St Dreams of the Fleet’. Here, he references the long vanished maritime history of Chatham and the men it left behind, given over to drinking ‘The dark water of life/comes from a can/shined with Slavic script….It aches in their faces/this life coloured stuff/waiting for the day when/their ships come in again.’ For how do people try to fit into places where they can’t fit in? They drink. It’s a watery collection, this, certainly reminiscent of Dickens, whose novels all call to the sea. Here we cruise on a tide of cheap chain plastic pubs and crushed Strongbow cans. There are four poems about Wetherspoons: ‘it dulls us enough/enough for the wheels to turn’. The kindness he meets here reassures, a ‘breadline life coach’ despite ‘the gaffer’s avarice.’ For people to survive through a time and place for which they are patently unsuited, ‘we all get our sunshine where we can’, and often that necessitates drink. He makes no judgement, only offers us the observation, an incongruous fox in a forgotten town.
He walks us through pre-dawn days of cold cats and to crime scenes in ‘Pound Street’, where PC Broadley – there’s a fine Dickensian name – presides, ‘with a line on her face you’d be advised not to cross.’ We see people stranded ‘dreaming of the ships they could have been’; it is, as he tells us in ‘A Dream of a Jellyfish’, ‘All too easy to live without taking a breath.’
We’re not repulsed or brought down by any of this because of the empathy at work here: Barry’s obvious compassion for the lost and lonely. Instead he reserves his ire for those he feels deserves it, the newspaper headline that ‘tosses lit matches and walks away’, and the racist who reads it: ‘if I could make your thoughts tattoos I would do it, this table turned/And by your skin you would be judged.’
It made me ache for him. It emptied me, it exhausted me; it was almost too painful to read in places; it made me furious with a world where such men can feel themselves outsiders. ‘Foxes scream at the moon because they are confused about their identity’, he tells us, in ‘Watching a Spider Die in December’ while ‘Bill Lewis Reads Poetry’, a breathtaking piece that finds you feeling for and envying a spider who doesn’t understand cold, or words, whose life strands ebb away to the beat of Bill’s drum: ‘Still now, beautiful.’ The scream of the fox echoes his own a few pages earlier in ‘Workbus’, another tale of his dark motorway ride to work, among ‘the scholars and the cynics and the blaggers and the never gonna matters/ Our seat was booked at birth’. His own identity baffled, he tells us: ‘I want to scream/If I screamed I wonder if anyone would be able to hear my scream…’
His work reminds me more of Jack London than Charles Dickens, another naturalist and biological determinist for whom animal life and death is as significant as human – indeed, frequently indistinguishable. There are moments in this book where you’re unsure whether Barry is describing a man or an animal, and to try to decide is to miss the point. In ‘Intra’, he tells us of a ‘found poem’:
Vibrating bundles of synthetic fibres
pupate in doorways
Bags of nerves shaken by dreams
of what they will see when they wake
Man’s lot is determined at the moment of his birth in the same way as the fox or spider: it’s not a fashionable view, nor a comfortable one, but the greatest argument against its veracity will be when Barry Fentiman Hall’s name and work takes its rightful place in the canon.