Under Smoky Light
by Michael W. Thomas
22 poems, 35 pages
Publisher: Offa’s Press
To order: www.offaspress.co.uk
reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Poet, novelist, dramatist and musician, Michael Wyndham Thomas, is an Irish-British writer. He lived in Canada for a number of years but now lives in Worcestershire, England. From 2004 to 2009 he was poet-in-residence at the annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival, Key West, Florida. He has published on the poetry of Robert Frost and W. S. Merwin, the fiction of Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor and the drama of Joe Orton. He is a regular contributor to The London Magazine and a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement.
Time is a constant thread that runs through this collection. The clues lie in the titles on the contents page where words and phrases such as ‘the gust of time,’ ‘now,’ ‘the spirit of the hour,’ ‘summer,’ ‘your’s ever,’ ‘later life,’ ‘at last,’ ‘postscriptum’ and ‘coda’ all hint at the passage of time, its endurance in the memory and its transience in our lives. No less than seven of the twenty-two poems in this collection have a date alongside their titles and many include the month as well as the year.
His poems draw their inspiration from local history, art, family, places and ‘the living-rooms of people in later life’. They are poems that have to be worked at. Some of them do not yield easily on a first reading. Often, their approach is oblique but they are richly rewarding.
His use of vocabulary is inventive and refreshingly original. Expressive American terms that have fallen out of usage such as ‘honeyfuggle’ (to deceive by flattery or sweet talk), ‘doofus’ (a stupid person), ‘boondoggling’ (a government project that wastes time and resources) and ‘lallygag’ (to dawdle, to idle, to fool around) are used to great effect, as are some lesser known English words such as ‘dottle’ (a silly person) and ‘whupped’ (beaten up).
In ‘All Lowrie’s now’, a Covid 19 poem dated May 2020, Thomas writes powerfully about the sense of isolation and fear that the virus has had, and still has, on the population at large. His opening lines are stark:
At any one time,
the number of people out of their hides
is roughly the same
as the headcount of medieval England.
The double meaning of ‘hides’ is particularly powerful here. In the local park, individuals are reduced to the anonymity of ‘figures / whom fearfulness has robbed of dimension: / living sticks pretending to be / a child’s rushed drawing on an end page.’ A reference to Lowry’s stick-like figures and a reminder that sticks are brittle and break easily under pressure.
One of the many poems that caught my attention in this collection was ‘En pointe,’ a French term from the world of ballet that refers to dancers moving gracefully on the tips of their toes. The poem is certainly about movement and spectacle: someone who is watching a child who, in turn, is watching others. It is theatrical in its visual description long before we return to the original person doing the watching whose eyes alight on the neighbour’s cat ‘en pointe on a gate-lath’ before it ‘spills to the ground’. There is also an urban usage for the term ‘en pointe’ which has recently come to mean ‘right on,’ ‘perfect,’ or ‘awesome’. The adults who disappear over the horizon are an awesome sight to the child, and the cat who balances its body on the gate lath and then slips so effortlessly to the ground (‘spill’ conveys this action so well), is ‘right on’ in terms of its movement.
Several poets have been inspired by the works of Edward Hopper. Thomas’s poem ‘A buck and two bits’ is based on Hopper’s painting ‘Gas’ which depicts a gas station and its lone attendant at dusk setting the nozzles on the pumps in an underlying sense of drama.While Hopper’s intention was to convey the loneliness of an American country road, Thomas writes more about the loneliness of the attendant who fills the poem with his garrulous chatter about the few people he has served over the last day or so and the problems he is experiencing with one of the pumps because of ‘blockage or air in the feed’ and his contact with ‘the Company’ which seems to be remote even though ‘Gene from Global’ phones him every day.
There is an autumnal atmosphere to this collection, an elegiac tone. One of Thomas’s several strengths is the way he writes so lyrically about his past. In ‘The Willenhall Road’ he writes about how the A454 has ridden roughshod over his childhood home: ‘All I was / is now an island / on a late, over-budget expressway’ and in ‘Fullwoods End,’ a sonnet which describes the area as ‘a no-place, linking Bilston’s pointless grime / to tailbacks on the Birmingham New Road’ he writes of the time when ‘schoolyears found me sprinting through / its dogleg ways at five.’ Some of the poems in the final section are lyrical meditations in later life describing how time slips through our fingers quicker than before. In ‘Somehow a picture’ Thomas ends with the lines ‘perhaps….a wall will remember my shadow / leaning like a broom that someone puts aside / while they roll back a carpet / while they deal with a straggle of hair.’
This is a collection from a poet who is at the top of his game. Fully recommended.