Poetry Review: Martin Grey – The Pretty Boys of Gangster Town (Fly on the Wall Press)

Martin is an experienced and active Nottingham based poet and event organiser who performs extensively across the Midlands, the Edinburgh Fringe and Berlin, winning the 2018 Southwell Folk Festival Slam.

He has supported several nationally renowned poets, including Jess Green and Dominic Berry.

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In Bones, Grey writes, ‘Held hushed by her helplessness and the fear on her breath’. This is an evocative image that transports me, without hesitation, to a world I remember well from a previous life. This is truth. A tale of desperation, modern Britain one might say – ‘I don’t know how to be alone with her in the street-lit stillness’. Indeed, this poem makes me think about the shame of charity, ‘protect me from/ her pain and protect her from the cracks we let her fall/ through’.

Reading on then, Fish, Chips, Bread and Butter and a Cigarette – the first thing to note is the shape of the poem on the page and I cannot help but ask, what does it add? I hold that it endows the poem with something of a metronome, in that the text synchronises with breathing, in then out. With, ‘In my still-warm fish I’d taste his story’, Grey conjures up the everyday, and by extension, the everyman. This is deceptively simple. So many readers will be familiar with the bus-rides, the cinema visits. This could perhaps be described as an example of blue-collar poetry.

I Should Have Said Something makes for particularly painful reading. Questions are asked of us all, are we merely passive observers, or actors? It is said that the ‘only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ and this is encapsulated with the resigned eyes of the poet-speaker. What can we do? Rather, how can I make a difference now? Readers are vociferously compelled to step up to the plate and act – perhaps owing to the guilt that I carry personally, the final line, ‘I said nothing’ stings like hell.

If I can segue into the poem Focus, I will draw your attention to the line, ‘I’ll make a cup of tea first. Then I’ll focus.’ This is another intelligent poem, and the poet employs a more prosaic form, which expands on the theme at the centre, the meandering mind, ‘Does anyone like their kneecaps?’ – ‘I bet my housemate forgot to wash up again.’ Underlying this, is a darkness – fuelled by guilt and self-doubt and it bubbles to the surface intermittently throughout. This guilt is less concerned with the non-actions of the passive observer and more a sexual encounter, ‘I probably shouldn’t have kissed her […] she must have felt like she was trapped’.

Dancefloor stands out to me, for it speaks directly to men of a certain age, for whom music was everything. There is a nostalgia to be found in, ‘we’d always remember/ how to hit every note/ when we strum the air’, and this is advanced by the repeated wish that ‘Dave was here’. A poem about the unattainable then, that takes me to a simpler place and time, that brings forward the ghosts of lost friends. In short, this poem is incredibly powerful and evocative for a man like me.

In Museum, the ‘talk in depth about yesterdays’ continues and I am struck by the lines ‘in my bright rooms of empty displays/ I build your legacies on sorrow’. Time is important throughout this collection, but never more so than here where the text is concerned with, ‘yesterdays’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘future plans’ and ‘eternal spin’. I think it is particularly interesting how the poet uses the idea of the museum and all those connotations, ideas of preservation and our relationship with history and historiography. This is in no way accidental.

While Grey’s poetry is often lacking in lyricism, it retains a sense of character. This poetry, I feel, draws us closer to the poet, through memory and meagre flourishes – much like when a television detective shines a high-powered torch on a dark crime scene – Grey ensures that we only ever see what we need to, he gives us the focus he bemoans that he is lacking. In doing this, the poet’s words carry much more weight. This is poetry without frill, rather an enormous amount of skill.  

The collection is available here.

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