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January 20, 2011

Martin Figura: 'white light and the loose flapping sound of a film escaping its gate'

Patrin in Kerala

I’ve have a high regard for Arrowhead Press, a small but vital publishing outfit operating out of Darlington whose production values exceed those of many major commercial publishers. Arrowhead has produced a range of fabulous poetry books (very often in hardback) and their choices of poets – among them Linda Saunders, Matt Merritt, Jennifer Copley - is always astute. Their publication of the late William Scammell’s Selected Poems was notable and welcome.

Once again, Arrowhead has chosen expertly in publishing Martin Figura’s spellbinding sequence of poems, Whistle (I prefer to call Whistle a single, total poem, in the same way that Paterson or Gaudete or What the Water Gave Me are total poems). Whistle is a nightmare of domestic violence and highly recognisable reality. I think this poem is magnificent and genuinely haunting. While the story is simple, the storytelling is elliptical, spare and fearless. The real-life narrative explores the poet’s childhood, his cross-cultural parentage and upbringing, his father murdering his mother, and the consequences of the killing on the whole family.

Figura writes the story in fragments (fragments that work as independent lyric poems). What the poet chooses to scrutinize is significant but what he chooses to leave out achieves a greater resonance for the whole cycle of observations. For example, the murder is not described but only imagined - and only then in passing (in all honesty to a child’s perception and memory). The feelings of the child are realised through the recollection of perception; they are not vocalised; this poem does not scream and shout. The writing is not attention-seeking, but it is attentive - even to ‘the uncertain image’. This is the whole of ‘Vanishing Point’ which takes place shortly after the mother has died, the father arrested, and an uncle is taking the children – temporarily, we find out – under his roof:

The rear window flickers into life as we pull away,

the uncertain image of a boy on a bicycle appears,

behind him a painted backdrop of the avenue,

its sycamore trees and pebble-dashed houses:

Piggotts, Mitchells’, Mrs Donnelly’s with all

its confiscated footballs, her poodle yapping

at the fence. Children’s games are caught

in mid-air, at the height of their action.

Uncle Philip turns onto the busy road. The boy

pedals like mad to stay with us, but we stretch away

and leave him stranded, disappearing.

Then there is just white light

and the loose flapping sound

of a film escaping its gate.

This is scrupulously expressed and rewards even further re-reading as a description of how it feels to have your childhood wholly destroyed; how it feels to be aware of the finality of that obliteration; and how it feels to stare across, as through a film, to a far shore from which you’ve departed forever. Yet it is all rendered true by the image of those confiscated footballs. Of all the books of poetry I read last year, Whistle is the one that haunts me most. It touches a place within you that will never heal. You push it away like a ghost. You pull it towards you in memory.

Whistle, Martin Figura, Arrowhead Press, hb., 76 pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-1-904852-26-1

Thank you to the editors of the magazine Magma, in which this piece first appeared.

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