River Wolton, Indoor Skydiving, Smith/Doorstop, 84pp, £9.95

Wolton’s collection brims with stories. Generally they’re subtle stories, often told ‘behind’ the poem,  because presenting their literal horror or pain would be too visceral, perhaps too difficult to bear, and so perhaps seem rather over the top as poetry. So, in ‘Bright and Beautiful’, we have two young girls burned to death, probably in an arson attack against outsiders ‘whose surname not even the Head / could pronounce...and....tried not to stumble over Fire.’

The poem’s focus is on the impact this ugly event and the girls’ loss has on a school assembly. Whilst the children may be ‘bright and beautiful’, the fact of their deaths is merely a frisson of interest for their classmates. Only their mother will ‘still keep a place / for them ....waiting for the hymn.’

In essence it’s a poem about indifference. Our shrug of mild interest in the horror of other’s lives. This is typical of Wolton’s approach. Saying almost nothing by way of commentary forces the reader to fill in the gaps. Such a poem critiques our own response to it, in the same way that we might listen to something like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, saddened by the music but divorced from its object. The poem offers no social commentary, so compels us to think things through. It gives us the matter of fact acceptance of the crime, and the hatred it represents, as if this is simply the way the world is, something we have to live with. And if we then merely take the poem as it stands, we become complicit in that acceptance. Moreover, by placing the girls in the context of a hymn of quintessential Englishness, it offers too a critique of both nationalism and theism. All achieved by saying nothing. I think such a poem quietly brilliant.

Wolton often chooses conflict as a subject. Conflict, we know, makes stories. But there’s more here than a poet courting reader interest through storytelling. The poems strongly pursue humanist concerns, with a voice full of social responsibility and its correlate, compassion. The poet’s empathy leads her simply to explore the foibles and problems of human beings for no reason other than her own strong concerns with the troubles of others . 

‘Trouble’, for example, is the nostalgia of those whose teen years spanned 1970 and both the innocence and ignorance we have in those formative years, gently burying in its list of adolescent preoccupations, its key realisation or admission ‘before I knew him could be her’. Here Wolton addresses not merely sexuality, but the whole of identity, and how it is constrained by cultural convention and social pressure until the realisation of one’s own place in the world comes as a revelation which opens up the world, complicates it and probably challenges it too.

Occasional poems in this collection become a little strident in making their point, however. ‘Home’, for example, puts the reader in the position of the dispossessed, the refugee for whom no state is willing to offer home. It aims to make us face the reality of being a refugee, having lost everything, and having no prospect of a future, the poet aiming to disturb the equilibrium of the comfortable, westernised, middle class reader of poetry by placing us in the stark reality of dispossession:

What if, in the middle of your life, 

you run from your house as it burns, run from soldiers, hide, wait for dawn,

return to find your mother, father, bodies flung against the concrete.

Here’s story again, and another list, in narrative form, of bare facts. And, although presented as an apparent question for the reader, they’re pretty straightforward, desperate facts, to which our response is likely to be pretty obvious, too. So, yes, a terrifying prospect (and the rest of the poem does not relent) but I don’t find it very convincing as poetry. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask for artifice alongside hard truth and it’s certainly the case that there’s not enough contemporary poetry in the world making such a deliberate effort to change that world, so my feeling is one I’m not proud of. Even so, I think this is closer to the bones of a poem than the thing itself. Even so, other poems manage to carry similar subject matter with more success, such as ‘M’, whose softer approach to the issue of the homeless refugee and the uncertainty of home works more effectively, in my view.

Other subjects appear more personal, and Wolton also enjoys the fantastic, even exploring the status of language itself, as in ‘Speechless’, a fantasy on the universal loss of speech, and ‘Language, that not so frail widow’, where language abandons us to our own (non-linguistic) devices. This playfulness is often more satisfactory than Wolton’s intensity, probably because we can be content with a more superficial response, but the playful poems are not slight. Usually they have an edge, as in ‘I believed in Richard Dawkins’ which effectively argues that the enlightenment of atheism merely replaces old gods with new ones, in this case, the false but compelling idols of celebrity. 

Wolton enjoys playing with language, too. There are long, languid lines, there are careful experiments with form, and there are cryptically tight poems. I particularly liked the compression of ‘How to be water’ whose short, staccato lines are perfectly apt in the face of the more likely writerly ‘flowing line’ we might use for such a subject:

Insinuate yourself.

Set traps for light.

Go back to the start.

The book’s section I enjoyed most, however, was probably the section titled Geek Myth. Here Wolton’s playfulness takes familiar stories and reimagines them in contemporary guise: Hélène is ‘the face that launched Essence de Femme’; Remus is a rescued street kid, who can’t ‘tell us/of the twin’; Hercules’ labours are those of everyday oppression: ‘phone chargers to wrestle, emails to slay’; the star-crossed lovers are presented as ‘R+J 4Ever’. Each of the poems in this section is witty, sly, teasing and keenly observed, as well as very tightly written. They don’t carry much of the deep social commentary elsewhere in the book (although there are some barbed asides, e.g. on the fates of street kids and the fondness of audiences for tragic endings) but they engage the reader totally, amusingly, always with insight.