Breakers' Yard, Lyn Moir.
£7.00 UK post free. (ISBN 978-0-9540913-9-2) Arrowhead Press, 70 Clifton Road, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL1 5DX
'The mainstay of this collection', the publisher's blurb on the back cover of Breakers' Yard tells us, is the poems from her travels in Eastern Europe'. The heart sinks. Other peoples' travels, like other peoples' dreams, have strictly limited interest for the reader - at least, for this reviewer: reading travel poems is like a sustained session of someone else's holiday slides.
But Moir is not at all that sort of poet. For one thing, the poems aren't in the least solipsistic or sentimental. There's no name-dropping, no showing-off here. What you get is directness, precision, imaginative intensity - so that the poems create the instant necessary bones of the landscapes. Instead of the wearying sense of a verse travel guide, you're there, at once - as if you'd been scooped up by some magic carpet. For another thing, it's not just landscapes that you find; a whole culture is suggested, a whole atmosphere, strange, insistent, disturbing.
Much of the time, Moir sets the grey world of Cold War times against the garish tourist world of now. But this is not an easy parallel text to read: there are no complacencies, no slick conclusions. And never any neat moralising. Moir never tells her readers what to think. 'Geopolitics' deals with an earlier stage in the twentieth century. In it, the detail of the WW2 German directives (the lines 'unvarying in width') lies behind the teacher's blacking-out of 'certain headings' (Czechoslovakia, Moravia, Poland etc.) in the indexes of the 1937 atlases on his desk. The laconic last line deals with what we are to make of this innocent description of the teacher, at his significant work 'some time in the spring of 1939' -
I am assuming his reluctance. I trust that's how it was.
Not easy to write about Auschwitz-Birkenau, either, in 1992, but Moir can do it. One of the most powerful poems in the collection is 'Last Train to Marienbad' , where the horror so very delicately informs the dream-like description - the steam that 'billows and hides the destination boards', the 'glue-green glow' of the gas-lamps, the silent clock whose hands 'clap midnight' as it ticks back into the past. There are no cheap effects here.
None of it is a re-telling of old stories, though. There's a lively imaginative originality in the way she deals with all her subjects, from the twenty-first century tourist experience to the lookers-on from the distant past. 'Tourists Trapped' is a tightly-controlled bleak analysis of the tourist experience, the tourists themselves herded by the careful rhymes and the piling-up of participles
with no concern
for where a country is, or what it means
into a poem of claustrophobic intensity . 'Old Town Square Revisited' is a then-and-now poem about Prague, precise in its evocations, with a brilliant final verse, and in 'Sunday on the Danube Bend' she sets the elderly, 'talking of old loves, old wars' in coffee-houses by the Danube, knit together by 'old loyalties', by,
years of coffee laced
with alcohol and passion, smoky, poured
with secrets into painted porcelain
against the tee-shirted holiday-makers staggering down the street; and, in 'Tourist Trap', those left over from the Cold War days, now in nostalgic flight from the tourists, 'hide like spies' from their 'invasive lenses'. And Illyria, in 'Dreaming Albania' and 'Et In Illyria Ego' is not by any means all it's cracked up to be.
There's plenty of variety in this collection. There's an imaginative projection into the world of the pickpocket on a tram (in 'Pickpocket'), whose secret longings are never satisfied -
The pleasure's not complete.
It never is. It would be good just once
to watch them when they get that
sinking in the belly, know
that they've been had. It's quite an art
to know exactly when to leave the tram
There's pity, even, for the cones on motorways: 'penitents', 'heretics in their flame-patterned cloaks', fugitives from the 'Inquisition' of motorists 'venting their spleen'. And the chestnut tree wonders why the man who hanged himself from her branches chose the tree, why he never introduced himself, or asked permission ('Hanged Man, Red Chestnut Tree'). She has many moods, too. There's crisp comedy in 'Leonardo's Man', and in 'Trilby Rhymes With Philby' -
In a hat like that
I could be a spy
a seductive vamp
or a camp little tramp
on the cafe scene...
But in Moir's poems, the sinister generally lies behind the innocent, and the future does not escape the past. In the interaction between the tourist and the unreconstructed Soviet guide, as they view an old sentry-post ('Crossroads, Latvia') there's the usual balance: the first line makes it clear that safety can't be relied on: 'It's boarded up and empty. Probably'. Even in safe 'St Andrew's Harbour', 'all is clear but nothing what it seems'.
Moir is a writer of wide experience, sharp intelligence, generous sympathy. Breakers' Yard is a big, satisfying collection, to be read and re-read with increasing respect.
R.V.Bailey - Second Light Newsletter