‘Threading the Light’ Ross Thompson
ISBN 978 1 910251 59 1 (paperback)
ISBN 978 1 910251 58 4 (hardbound)
Ross Thompson’s collection moves from poems about childhood, through to growing up and adult life. The early poems suggest an overall happy childhood, even the dark patches have light shone in them, from ‘There is Always a Lighthouse’,
‘Again and again, the dark acquiesced
To the winking beam from a tapered tower
cut from Anglesey marble and ashlar,
and mounted with balcony and beacon.
The dark is strong, but light never weakens.’
Later, there’s a ‘Blue Lamp Disco’, where ‘police have come to talk about drugs’ here, tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, and the children (presumably young teenagers) danced,
‘Everyone, that is, except that lonely
boy whose birthday party I attended
two years before – I bought him a Batman
doll and got sugar-spangled on top hats
and Coca Cola but he retreated
to the corner and cried for his mother.
Years after, he ran away from the town’s
gladiatorial grammar, eloping
to England one summer with an online
lover, much older. The police visited
again. They delivered a strong warning
about a different danger. No dancing,
no drum machine and no synthesisers.’
So did the shy boy leave Ireland for England before or after the police visited again? I’m guessing the second police visit is about acid/LSD and raves. There doesn’t seem to be a connection between the two themes of the poem: the police visiting schoolchildren and the shy boy leaving Ireland. It’s not spelt out but the online lover probably isn’t female. This theme feels underdeveloped and comes across as more interesting then the memories of school discos.
A couple of pages later, readers meet ‘Sylvia’ who ‘hid beneath your bed when you heard your mum/ come calling you to hurry downstairs for tea’ only Sylvia stays put even when her mother calls the police to report her missing. I was thrown before I read the poem because I linked ‘Sylvia’ with the poet but it became quickly apparent this wasn’t about the poet so a surname or descriptor would have helped. The tone of the poem is storytelling, reminding the girl that she did this. It doesn’t seem to scold her for upsetting her mother or explore why she might do that. I was left wondering where my sympathy was supposed to lie.
The second section ‘The New World’ gets more interesting because the poems are more than memories. In ‘Chaplintis’, the narrator enters a competition among look-a-likes,
‘Finally, when the judges’ vote was cast,
they bestowed first prize on an imposteur,
a regular bona fide Martin Guerre,
but I, deemed unconvincing in the role
for which I was universally known,
limped in, the story goes, a dismal twelfth.
I was not deemed worthy to play myself.’
I would have cut ‘the story goes’, it momentarily reminds readers this is a story and temporarily takes them out of the poem, detracting from the main point that the judges, alleged experts, failed to recognise the real Chaplin.
‘The Happiness Matters’ subtitled ‘i.m. Elliot Smith’ captures grief,
‘watching your concert in a tinderbox
venue in Glasgow, walls damp with hot sheets
of sweat and beer, you appearing onstage
to the clamour of song requests and cheers,
smiling and joking, in no way showing
the black cloud dangling above like a sword.
It hurts my heart too much to think of it.’
I can picture the venue, even though I’ve no idea which one it is. I can picture the singer onstage commanding an audience. The last time seems to be undermined by the act of writing a poem about it.
The penultimate section explores the poet’s reactions to his mother’s death. In a sequence, ‘Grief is Great’, part 7 ‘Disremembering’
‘One arm in my raincoat, halfway through the door
when a penny clatters inside my skull:
What are you doing? She is not there anymore.
A force of habit engrained firm as a scar,
memory plays callous tricks with the senses,
taunts and teases the mind like the shore
does to the tide, like the wind does with rusted chimes
that discord on the corner of an abandoned house.’
Bereavement catches you at odd moments where you have to remind yourself that someone is no longer there.
Overall, ‘Threading the Light’ is a solid debut. It shows skill and appreciation of poetry and knowledge of craft. However, I found myself wanting a poem to lose its manners, spill its tea and show some character. Tonally, the poems sounded alike: a memory or a story told in chronological order or mused on, producing a well-written, polished poem that would stand alone in a magazine or anthology. The succession of polished poems, however, felt like observing a display of spotless, perfect ornaments with no space for a rough gem or a speck of dust.