It’s not difficult to see why this collection came first in the Purple Patch Best Small Press Collections 2009: these are poems about as unpretentious as it gets, infused with raw expression, aphorismic spontaneity, and an empirical curl into working-class Tyneside idiom, bare-faced Northern warmth and authenticity, and that DNA-hard-wired sense of community and collective belonging that Southerners (myself included) can only envy. The monologue ‘Nostalgia Kid’ is a strong and worthy example:
Twenty years ago it was milk & honey,
Garden of Eden had nothing on those days.
Beer two pence a pint, everybody smiled...
Best years of me life: Nothing like now. Shit days.
Everything’s dead, like a bloody cemetery.
You could live, not like now: go on buy me a pint.
Here Kelly has similarities with the regional mimicry of Welsh poet Gwilym Williams; but in his sparse no-frills style and allegorical, almost fabular quality of narrative tone and social snapshot that Kelly shares perhaps most in common with Wigan poet Peter Street. Both Kelly and Street are what certain circles might term ‘naifs’, conceivably ‘autodidacts’, and bearing in mind such influential voices as W.H. Davies and Stevie Smith are described in both terms, this is far from a criticism. Both Kelly and Street are versatile and can move their voices between regional and class dialects and idioms; both are very much poets of place, nostalgic for their roots, as if those roots half-define them – and both are essentially working-class poets (which is not meant in any patronising sense) in the true pith of such a term, in that they are detectably still a part of their backgrounds, even if they may have moved on geographically.
There is a casualness to Kelly’s use of language (typographically too in the lower case titles and frequent use of ampersands) but it’s not a prosaic one by any means – earthy, gritty, visceral as much working-class poetry can be, it is mostly always colourful, and effortlessly figurative and aphorismic:
It’s a slow death
taking a day at a time
and filling it
with what will eventually kill him.
Now his mouth searches for words,
his eyes glisten
and his glass is empty.
At the corner
they kill time
as time kills them.
‘Nowt’ stamped on foreheads
leaden hands and hearts.
(‘my kind of town i’)
Like Street, Kelly has an effortless knack at nailing the telling trope:
The police helicopter’s
A gigantic moth
Circling grubby lives.
Kelly’s Lowreyesque observations of post-industrial life, and historical class-memory of the bygone colliery life, frequently bleed into serendipitous profundities:
‘Learn the children to pray for me,’
Death inevitable as the failing light
That smudged forty men and boys.
And a sublime lyricism born from witness:
Today I told my daughter
That this stone was coal,
That it gave warmth,
Burning like a prayer
In the cold dark.
(‘message on a bottle – Seaham Colliery explosion 1880)
‘the river again’ could have come straight out of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:
...women clasp corners
Waiting for their men
feeling like catchers
grabbing white hot rivets of money
before their men spend wages on anything
but on what they should.
Such a perennial passage, touching on the way in which wage labour, below a living wage, is indirectly robbed after tax through the advertisement culture tempting workers into wasting their hard-earned cash on fags and drink, rather than food and clothes – though in such a limited and grinding lifestyle, such opiates can be seen as necessities.
Kelly has a sharp eye for grim poetic ironies:
He carries the bairn on his shoulders,
‘One day this will be yours’
tattooed in the sky.
Pathos is ubiquitous in these monodies of oppressed industrial lives:
The moment before waking
when you can remake everything,
turn clocks back and forward
And I’d recommend to the metropolitan elites of contemporary poetry who no doubt think poverty is confined to that limbo period between University and one’s first academic job, reading Kelly’s moving ‘getting by badly’:
It’s trying not to think about the aggravation
& damp shoes and that bar of stress across my back,
& it’s the waking up two hours before you have to
& re-runs of crap days...
Such impoverished sentiments are probably of a social class template that many contemporary metropolitan poets might assume to be in a cloth-capped past, or a purely figurative present, but their proximity is, time-wise, much closer to home. ‘all that’s left’ is a touching lyric which plaintively captures the powerlessness of the human condition:
what we have is me & you: this is the moment
saying what we feel is all that’s left.
...that, ultimately human beings have only the power to express their powerlessness, but somehow that feels comforting in itself and a true power indeed.
Some of the most powerful writing in this collection is in the second section, ‘Poems inspired by the paintings and drawings of Spennymoor artist, Norman Cornish’ (another similarity to Peter Street, who wrote a series of poems for artist Tony Bevan): ‘Colliery Road and Man’ shows us a touching symbiosis:
he knows every step
of his road
and it gets no easier.
These are again very much working-class monologues, as in the Geordie tongue of ‘the faces are ours’:
...me Granda, Tot, never knew he smoked cigarettes
it was always a pipe that he smacked and then spat on the fire.....
...uncle Tommy that would give you his last
if he had it that day. Then there’s Jackie, dyed-in-the-
no hymns at his funeral; always dapper, articulate and sad.
One wonders whether the isolation of ‘wool’ with ‘Communist’ has unconscious overtures of the historic British working-class’s instinctive sense of the Far Left as, at best, a bit daft (at worst, unpatriotic, hence the once-common snub of ‘Red’). In these social monodies there is a Lowreyesque quality, and for Southerners (myself included), a televisually empirical When the Boat Comes In point of reference:
Coal dust bags his lungs, he loses phlegm
on the way to the pub. Smoke mists his face,
waters his eyes; his cap’s stuck at a jaunty angle...
(‘still a lad’)
Perhaps the best poem in the book, and certainly my favourite, is the moving and excellently descriptive ‘man alone’, the subject of which is the ghost of a once proud working man – we are told:
disappointment anoints him,
might-have-been’s tear him to shreds.
The final stanza I quote in full:
He is outside every company, ‘He’s best ignored’,
somebody once said. He wears a muffler
and his shirt’s worn out. His ex-working hands
soft as a bairn’s as he searches for a callous
to recall who he was. All he finds is an old man’s hands.
This is working-class observation of the highest quality.
‘men at the bar’ is a witty piece, and again draws on the Geordie patois memorable from stalwart series such as When the Boat Comes In:
might as well have a bit crack.
The cemetery’s dead quiet.
‘fish and chip shop’ gifts another memorable proletarian aphorism:
...I head home with me fish and chips
keeping me warm as I’ll ever feel.
‘two women’ ends idiomatically on:
‘See ya tomorrow’. ‘If ah’m spared,’ they don’t say.
‘newcastle supporter’ ends equally strongly, in phonetic Geordie vernacular:
The world’s changed
aa haven’t. It’s different and aa’m not crying,
not that you’d ever see me in tears.
And there is the hard-bitten stoicism of Northern masculinity that has withstood so much cultural assault over the last thirty years of industrial attrition. The Wrong Jarrow is a tribute in many ways to the fading industrial culture of the North – those old Labour heartlands – and their last generation of colliers, limping on almost like emasculated museum pieces. Above all, it is a collection of highly memorable, grittily pictorial monodies, which could well go on to inspire its own responses in painting, vividly drawn as the poems are. The cover, ‘Two Men at a Bar with a Dog’ - being a couple of burley labourers leant shoulder to shoulder at a bar, bulging frames almost loaf-like in shape, cloth capped heads tucked away from view, as are the pints and fags they commune over, as what looks like a Whippet stands between their ragged-trousered legs - is a superb image in chalks and charcoals by Norman Cornish, which evokes so sinuously the hands-on labouring life of the old North – and is more than matched by the tough-loving lyricism of Tom Kelly in this brilliant slice of colloquial working-class poetry. Recommended, especially for the metropolitan elites.
Alan Morrison © 2010