‘John Dust’ Louise Warren
ISBN 9781916505285, 36pp, £6.50
John Dust is a journeying everyman from folklore, in the title poem he’s
‘narrow as a pipe, face like a clay bowl
chest blown open like a sunset’
In the next, ‘The Marshes’, he’s
‘My man under the motorway,
flat out in the dark fields, seeding the hedges,
scratching your chest hair, wispy as larches,
pinking like the evenings, stitchwort and abattoir, bloody as Sedgemoor,
lipped up with cider, scraggy as winter.’
He’s an elusive shadow scraping an existence on the fringes, a scapegoat who gets blamed for escaped sheep and failed crops, a bogeyman to scare children into behaving. One who lives from scraps and gets paid in kind for odd jobs. Someone who rejects the society he’s not part of yet still needs conventional people to meet personal needs. He lives hand to mouth. In ‘Swifts’ (Swift is also a type of caravan),
‘”There is always a caravan,” you say,
“always one buried in the wood,
seams broke up and rich with rust,
a dulled yellow window bulged out like a blister.”
You follow me up the road,
stuck on like a burr.
“I will be your Swift” you say,
“the rest is birdshit and singsong.”‘
John Dust is seductive when he needs to be. Although the caravan contains the notion of travel, his caravan is too rusted to move. He gives the illusion of being free, but seems to be rooted to the spot somewhere in the Somerset, UK, countryside. This contradiction is further explored in
‘Contoured Road Map of Exmoor, Popular Edition’
‘laid flat the folds are stained brown like rust
or from a distance wet bracken – blasted, thin wiry hedges –
some kind of bird is trapped here, flapping and panicking –
some kind of weather is trapped here – damping, a cloud
form the 30s, pressed onto the page – vapour thin fog expanding –
some kind of man is trapped here – his back to me smoking -‘
His back is turned because he only communicates on his own terms. He won’t be at anyone’s beck and call. The smoke another device to blur and obfuscate.
Not all the poems focus on John Dust. A series of ‘5 Riddles’ have clues and point to earlier poems. Part of Riddle 4,
Rusty Knife Throwers-
Rough Kissers- Spiteful Lovers-
Leave you with a Pearl- Leave you with a Swell-
Leave you swearing to Merry Hell-
‘Chuggers’, a recent word to describe people paid to ask pedestrians in town and shopping centres to sign up to regularly donate to charity, sounds too contemporary for the timeless feel elsewhere in the poem. It has a nursery rhyme feel to its rhythm and rhymes. The answer is a plant although I won’t give away which one.
In the final poem ‘Folklore’ attention switches back to John Dust,
‘They said he spelled the Post Office back for an hour.
Mrs Trott bought a book of stamps,
when she got home nothing but leaves in her purse.
That’s for nothing.
Squint, and up come his reedy face from the ciggy shop;
yelp and he’ll stick you in his tatty bag.
He’ll eat a church, he’ll eat a chop, he’ll make you pay.
Down in the land of Poundland, this said, oh.
He’ll push you down where the stream still splutters,
throttled in the pissy trees, cut-through, once upon a time.
Cut-through, one two, one two, that’s you sold to the man
come for the scraps. All gone.’
It ends on the image, ‘that old thing, thought they’d thrown it out./ Don’t say he didn’t warn you.’ That final line implies that John Dust has had a lot to do with his own folklore and myth.
The title character is a malleable ghost-like person others can project their feelings on. Just when someone thinks they have the measure of him, he shifts and surprises. He represents traditional folklore but can be found in Poundland. His elusiveness is delightful in individual poems, but, over a collection, some readers may find this begins to frustrate as John Dust is danced around rather the revealed. In a sense, that’s right because a shape-shifter can’t be revealed. Louise Warren has left her native Somerset for London, but, through John Dust and his off-kilter world, Somerset has not left her.