Christy Ducker, Armour, 32pp, £5
Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS

Smith/Doorstop has a fine reputation for pamphlet publishing. I own twenty of them, and every one is well worth the £5 price tag. As a collection they offer a wide view of contemporary poetry: exciting first pamphlets from their competition such as Alan Payne’s personal journey, Allison McVety’s subtle social histories, River Wolton’s affecting accounts of the Israel-Palestine border to the Michael Marks shortlisted mainstream quirkiness of Simon Armitage’s The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right.

Christy Ducker’s addition to the list fits right in. Ducker mixes wisdom with weirdness, tenderness with thorns. Her  love of the words for their own sake doesn’t stop them having bite. Her  imaginative inhabitation of strange ideas does not stop them being perceptive or heartfelt. A poet who can start a poem:

I’d rather be a lobster,
in pre-op, not knowing
whether I’ll fail
on the surgeon’s table.

Ducker knows exactly what she’s doing, “knowing” both intellectually and intuitively. Having grabbed you with that opening line and that abrupt situation, she can sustain the comparison between her own vulnerability and the crustacean’s self-assured selfish protection throughout the whole poem, she can place you in the mind of the lobster, she can make sly jokes about the evolutionary position of ape

with her brain a fruit
in the treetops seeding
chatter and quips
whilst her fingers crack lice.

And yet she can use all this to get us to identify absolutely with the persona of the poem and thereby feel the core experience of being human, this human in particular:

I wake up later

stitched into myself,
embracing the nurses
embracing you
making light

All this is done with economy  and deftness. Look how that simplest of lines “I wake up later” becomes so powerful, simply because of all it implies. It needs no embellishment, so the core ideas that people are multiply vulnerable in order to love, that our vulnerability is the social, evolutionary success that enables us both to “crack lice” and “make light” is carried forward with elegance and subtlety.
This is perhaps the most striking poem in the collection, although others essay unusual subjects too. “The Talking Island” is the complaint of an island who has lost her lover (I take it to be Lindisfarne and Bede, but may be reading in my own associations). “The Working Woman’s Right Breast is Not Amused” is a poem that presents exactly what it says on the tin. “Grace Darling Learns to Count” runs through a number-scale representing Darling’s biography, doing so with wit, a concrete imagination and precisely chosen language:

5 will hook on fast to memory,
8 will moor with a rope twist
round and around the docking horns
          (Grace Darling Learns to Count)

Much is going on in these few words: exactly apt visualisation, a child’s perceptions, fragments of (supposed) biography, a sense of a persona developing, firmly grounding the experience in rocks, sea, boat, the very gentle sonics (memory/moor, round/around/docking/horn), the natural use of specialist vocabulary (“docking horns” could be made up for all I know, but I absolutely believe it’s the right term) and subtle rhythmic touches, too (for example, hearing “round and around” as exactly the right rhythm, both for the poem’s success and the childlike intent).

Ducker’s sense of rhythm also leads her to offer a slightly unusual trio of poems, which I personally found the weakest in the volume: “Three Dances”. They use lateral spacing and indentation to carry the rhythm of dance, and the dancers’ relationships. They’re perfectly capable pieces, and rhythmically compelling, but they do not seem to me to carry the many subtleties of the rest of the poems. Perhaps this is unfair, as they’re entirely successful in what they seem to aim for, and arguably a pamphlet whose 21 poems all work in similar ways might feel a little flat, might need a little lighter approach in places.

There are a couple of other poems that I wonder about, too, such as the three-line poem “Asylum Seeker” which puzzles me as no more than the start of an idea, its “before and after” story being far too abbreviated to seem more than a political statement. “Footing”, also, in the voice of stones become wall, though a strong descriptive poem in essentially list form, seems to me not to offer the scope of the other poems, despite its very assured writing. Perhaps it is to be read metaphorically or symbolically, but if so, that has passed me by.
Even so, these few poems certainly do not weaken the strong virtues of the poems at their elbows. The best poems in this volume, and there’s a long list of them, each give several  delights, the surface simplicity of most belying the many layers of subtlety within. A full collection surely is not far away.