Matt Merritt, The Elephant Tests,  Nine Arches Press (2013), £8.99

This third collection of Matt Merritt's poetry comprises an interesting variety of poems, ranging from fairly formal four-line iambic stanzas through prose poems to more observational studies of birds, some of which use a much freer format. The poem 'Magnetite' possibly encompasses much of the book’s purpose:

We are not so much of the earth, even,
as the most microscopic jewel-toothed chiton,
the single-minded sperm whale, the Atlantic salmon.
Even the birds. Especially the birds.

They are tethered by the same element
that silvers the backs of their eyes, lodestones that stud
their skulls, or spines, while we wander song-lines, desire-lines,
remake maps, charts, the base metal of our words.

The birds in these poems are tied to the earth, perhaps, but are not always available to the patient watcher – the black-throated diver is elusive: ‘is here somewhere/is nowhere then’ and the Capercaillie moving imperceptibly out of sight:

And already, she’s a shadow of herself, a last held breath
away from slipping out of sight. It’s easily done.
(The Capercaillie)

Merritt captures such aspects of their behaviour (and that of their observers) with a lyrical beauty. Other poems roam more freely around myths relating to birds. Ravens have a long association with humans:

They are the confidants of one-eyed gods,
or else small gods themselves.
They disappear each morning, return at night
thinking they remember everything they’ve seen.
(Ravens, Newborough Warren)

The poem is a fascinating and amusing examination of raven lore interspersed with what appears to be a current day birdwatcher – but with a surprising and effective ending (which I won’t quote – you’ll have to get the book!).

‘Six Ways to Navigate the City’ and ‘Nine Ways to Stay Lost’ concentrate more on how to ‘remake maps, charts’ – or how to avoid needing them. Each poem is split into sections that offer advice:

        Look for treetops,
combed over by south-westerlies. Acknowledge
asymmetry, the way a building’s four corners will
weather to slightly different shades.
(Six Ways to Navigate the City)

For me, 'Six Ways' works more imaginatively than 'Nine Ways', where the advice is more prosaic, as is the language:

Approach any group of locals and ask
for half a dozen versions of native expertise.
Don’t be offended if they tell you exactly where to go.
(Nine Ways to Stay Lost)

A couple of other poems disappointed slightly – as in the example above, sometimes when the poet is injecting a lighter tone. 'The Dark Ages' is a description of life during that rather obscure period of history and contains some very effective images (‘heroes slept beneath distant peaks’) but I felt ended on rather a flat note:

Facts remained in short supply
throughout, although live poetry
seems to have enjoyed a golden era.
(The Dark Ages)

There’s a great variety of tone and style here, though; much wider than is sometimes found in smaller press publications, more than I have room to discuss here – a couple of the Elephant poems, for example, which drew me to this collection, are great fun whilst also using the metaphor to discuss worth and memory. These are poems of acute observation that enjoy playing with language, both sound and meaning, and I very much enjoyed reading them.

Rosemary Badcoe



long stairs