Issue Four

Summer 2012


James Caruth, Marking the Lambs, 32pp, £5
Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS

Jim Caruth’s poems are infused with melancholy. They note beauty, but often only in its passing. Whilst they’re not nostalgic or sentimental, they are full of backwards glances, and a wistful acknowledgement that we must deal with life as it is, irrespective of how it was or how we would like it to be.

The language is everywhere sparse and subtle, almost, but not quite, conversational, and often urged on by a sense of real people’s histories, perhaps the poet’s own, perhaps imagined. At times there’s an almost mythic simplicity in the work, simple words that resound. This, for example, from ‘Into the West’ could stand as the poet’s review of himself:

Wind in these parts
tastes of ice, makes a man
weigh everything he has to say
so language tightens
to a few words –
home, death, rain, love.
The loss of love.

In these poems the proper response to ice in the wind is not fear or flight, not even to bow the head, but acceptance of what is and the preservation of what signifies. The poet faces into the wind, searching for the exact word that will cleave it. Each word of his does have weight. Each poem has a heft, like the balance of a well-crafted tool, offering pleasure in the holding of it, irrespective of what it might be for.

There’s beauty and delight stolen from the icy wind. True feeling, it seems, can’t be articulated, not even by a poet so skilled, but it can be suggested, and that’s what Caruth does again and again. He notes with wry irony the collisions between what we want and what we are, between what we were versus what we become. The annotations themselves, the noticing, are where poetry lies.

An anonymous woman asks for a dance. It could be an adventure. It could be the start of something. But the poet is preoccupied.

Ah, my dancing days are over
and I can't hear myself think
       ('On Being Asked to Dance’)

The poet calls for another round while:

around the city’s edge
black hills stand like guests
at a wake

The refrain, ‘Let’s dance’, is a refused call to action, a reminder of the dances with lost women of the past, a disturbance of the man listening for hidden sounds:

while the names and faces of people I knew
go up in smoke from the dying fire

The mourning here expresses the secret undercurrent of the middle-aged. They

....may pause
to watch the sun come up over the city,
seeing as if the for the first time
      (‘On Days Like These’)

but if they do it’s because

Your mouth will feel the edges of words,
stenosis, haematoma, infarction,
the bitterness of carcinoma.
     ('On Days Like These’)

Yet these poems are not depressing. Rather the opposite – they’re life affirming. They remind of the beauty in the world, in nature, in human connection, in art, in simply being. The poems themselves are beautifully crafted, delicately spun. The subjects return repeatedly to loss, broken relationships, the fallen, the decay of past joys (‘I’m a stranger in my own town’ – ‘Marriages and Funerals’) and the desire to recover more meaningful times:

Take me back again,
not to that place
but to that moment.
      (‘Take Me Back’)

Yet every poem is itself a moment to relish, with its carefully honed lines and perfect images softly crafted:

the sky lies open like a book (‘Take Me Back’)
She smiles, bows low / in a cape the colour of oceans and night skies. (‘Conjuror’)

suggesting that, whatever losses we face, there will be the small beauties and daily gratifications which help us bear what we have to bear, the everyday comprised of protective ritual

Each day is filled with small observances (‘Bruce Ismay Speaks’)

where the barman is also a priest, and the quotidian, prayer:

so the priest will turn, tap-off
the waiting pint, set it pristine before me.
And I will take it to my lips and pray –
every day should begin like this.
     ('The Priest')