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Turning Over In A Strange Bed & It Was And It Wasn’t

James McGonigal (Mariscat) 2017 & Gina Wilson (Mariscat) 2017

A Review by Chris Powici

Poetry is a wonderfully mobile and adaptable form of literature. It can make itself at home in a YouTube video or a prayer book, in a dusty anthology or the poster on a tube train, but, if these two collections are anything go by, the pamphlet remains an especially fertile habitat. Publishers (Mariscat), designer (Gerry Cambridge) and the poets themselves have forged collections that are both modest and, in their different ways, rather precious.

The back page note to James McGonigal’s Turning Over In a Strange Bed explains that many of the poems in this collection were ‘written for translation into an abandoned language’ and that their tone derives from ‘translatorese’ – the marginalia one finds in anthologies of Scottish and Irish Gaelic poetry. It’s and enlightening description. These poems explore themes of translation and transformation, of moving between worlds, between modes of thinking and expression, as if language is not just a vehicle for communication but also for transportation.

The poems themselves have a winning clarity of image and expression. In ‘Amateurs’ travel is not so much a physical activity but an inescapable fact of life: ‘I sit still – life casts off from the shore/and I’m still watching it grow smaller like any other/amateur painter of the time of day.’ A sense of loss – of indeed abandonment – suffuses other poems but this is often accompanied by a welcome touch of humour. The poet even addresses his shirt: ‘Old friend who knows my body more intimately than most/I will add no codicil asking to be buried or burnt in you.’ (‘Shirt’). But it’s a sense of adventure that lingers, whether this involves a journey through the Gobi – ‘Cart-wheels revolve with constellations/all night through.’ (‘The Desert Mothers) – or a more intimate journey into the heart and into language itself:

I’m told I have a tendency
to avoid expressing my emotions
except in this abandoned language

to me it is like entering
someone else’s cottage
to shelter from rain

There’s also a deep sense of intimacy about Gina Wilson’s It Was And It Wasn’t, not just because of the subject matter – houses, holidays, music practice, family life in general (and in particular) – but also because Gina Wilson understands the power of ‘ordinary’ language to talk about extraordinary things. Her phrasing caches the ear, feels at the same time familiar and striking. She trusts us to understand what goes on under the skin of life and we trust her to tell us well. In ‘Treasure’ she talks about necessity and the impossibility of ever really letting go: ‘Funny how people/can’t quite bury a treasure. My brother/dug up our dead rabbit by torchlight/to see if it was safe./It was and it wasn’t.’

It’s a collection brimming with these small moments of revelation but the voice is always attentive, patient and nuanced; never hectoring or didactic. Again and again, I had the privileged sense of stumbling across a truth with the poet. In ‘I Haven’t Seen This Boy Before’ Gina Wilson describes saying goodbye to a loved one being wheelchaired into hospital: ‘He turns at the end and waves./He looks like somebody being wheeled/up the gangway of a cruise-ship./I hope he has a nice time.’ It takes insight and skill to talk so delicately, so truly, about loss and hope and the way some goodbyes taste so unmistakeably of death.  It also takes a really sure feel for how the ‘small stuff’ of life – somebody waving –  can, if we look and listen well enough, teach us about the ‘big stuff’. It Was And It Wasn’t is fine poetry – articulate, generous and open-hearted.

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