Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? by Ian McMillan – reviewed by Rennie Halstead

ianYes But What Is This? What Exactly?                   Ian McMillan

Smith|Doorstop £6.00

ISBN: 978-1-912196-37-1

This delicious pamphlet from Ian McMillan, brings a smile in the dark days of Covid lockdown with wry humour and ironic observations of everyday life.

“Seeing a Goal Scored from a Passing Train” (p20) examines those split second moments when a train is slowed for a signal, and the observer can watch a slice of some-one else’s life passing in front of them like the audience in the cinema.

The train slows, almost stops. Drizzle’s stories
Are stale and repetitious and the traveller
Wipes a hole in the window steam with his sleeve;

Here the action caught is a football match – or rather several football matches. McMillan captures the scene outside the carriage window, and the significance of the scoring of a goal is celebrated by the unseen observer. Sometimes the ‘goal is a point of sudden change; / A new route found on an old map.’ At other times ‘a memory you always knew you’d have / Even before the goal was scored.’

The game itself is well observed. One player is  a ‘bloke who looks like he’s made of mud’  whilst the unfortunate goalkeeper:

[…]     flaps like a scarf in the breeze,
Wafts nothing except the ball’s ghost
And the striker runs away, mouth open in joy.

McMillan points up the reactions of the rather staid passengers on his train when he celebrates the goal with the players he is watching:

I stand and whoop and the train’s dullards
Stare at me like I’m a cave painting come to life.
I don’t care. It’s a goal. The train creaks, moves.

The humour of “Tone Found in Sonnet: a Murder Mystery” (p7) takes us on a manhunt through a combination of anagram and wordplay:

Body found in suit.
Horse found in shore.
Hope found in hoopoe.
Man found in woman.

The opening line of each stanza breaks the anagram mould, building to the sadness of the  ending:

Ache found in heart.
Man found in Manitoba.

“Adult Audio” (p12) tells the story of mother-in-law’s confused attempts to use the television’s remote control to entertain two of her grandchildren. The children sit round her ‘Like she is gathering peas that have been shelled’ as she looks for CBBC . Instead she finds AUDIO and then ADULT! as ‘the grandchildren / Sit like chess pieces’ before finding the Shipping Forecast which:

[…]     calms its way out of the screen
On Radio 4. The ADULT shipping forecast,
Obviously. All those wet places.

“Between Junction 35a and Junction 36” (p9) captures the moment a group of immigrants jump from a lorry parked on the hard shoulder of a motorway. The curtain at the back of the truck:

[…]                opened theatrically
And they tumbled out, running
Into the evening-scribbled bushes

McMillan describes them, as ‘Scattered chess pieces’,  and ‘Pepper ground onto cold soup’ as they flee the motorway for the cover of darkness.

Even the bushes were frightening
In a language nobody knew.

There is no judgement here. McMillan is presenting a scene, full of random haste, an apparently uncoordinated rush into darkness in a bid for the last stage in a search for freedom.

“Three Flat Caps”  (p15)  is my favourite poem in the pamphlet. The poem opens with aggressive / dismissive humour:

The mining industry, eh? What a bastard.
Men dropped at the speed of dropped kecks
Down a hole in the ground  […]

before focusing on the three flat caps at the bottom of the stairs that are full of memories of the dead miner:

[…]                                                     Take one

Of the flat caps and listen carefully: his breathing,
Like fingernails across wire mesh, like rain
On the bratish roof of the shed, still there
In that space behind the neb.

and we are there, hearing the miner struggling for breath as the coal dust accumulates in his lungs over a lifetime of work. The caps are a testament, a memoir of a lost husband and father taken by pneumoconiosis and the admonition is:

[…]                                         Don’t ever
Put it on. Don’t let the grandkids put it on.

The caps are more than items of clothing. In this setting they have become ‘cultural artefacts’ as important as memorial statues of Churchill or the picture of the Queen that appears on stamps:

You lick the back of every time
You send a card to a grieving widow.

The pamphlet is as lucid and well written as one would expect from such an accomplished poet. The humour, and the throwaway last lines catch the reader, makes them think twice and pick out a more serious meaning behind the apparently simple language.

Thoroughly recommended.

Rennie Halstead

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