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The Ghostly Effect: Paul Surman, Dempsey & Windle

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Oxford-based poet Paul Surman’s first collection, Places (Oversteps Books) was published in 2018. A further collection, Seasons of Damage and Beauty (Dempsey & Windle) followed in 2021. He is a member of Back Room Poets, a group of poets who organise readings and workshops in Oxford.

The theme of his latest volume is summed up neatly in the opening stanza of the title poem:


     I want to believe in the reality

     that hangs as a backdrop

     to ecstasy or despair.


The opening of the second stanza reflects the photograph on the front cover: “Wavering images of humans / float in puddles” and the sentence in the fourth stanza “We are only the history of ourselves” echoes closely the quotation from Jean Paul Sartre that precedes the whole collection.

Many of these poems achieve their effects through the juxtaposition of opposites: dream and reality, night and day, afternoon and evening, lava-flow and ice, light and shade and birth and death. Surman’s poems inhabit the borderland between these two polar opposites; they are like shadows that play themselves off each other in order to exist. His images are conjured out of thin air. People mysteriously appear and disappear, walk in and out of his poems as he pronounces that life is but a working hypothesis with nothing certain or proven during our passage here on earth.

 In ‘Ordinary Beauty’ Surman captures the stillness of a late afternoon, making the ordinary almost extraordinary with its reference to concrete things in an otherwise elusive scene:


     The day rests in its afterthoughts.

     A Tesco delivery van parked opposite,

     indicator light winking aimlessly,

     has an abandoned feel to its ungainly presence.


                                     How full of potential

     the empty road feels, set free from its burden

     of traffic …


In a closely related poem, ‘The Owl Incident’, in which the present moment of the previous poem is now recast into the past from many years ago, the road becomes a lane one summer afternoon:


     The village’s day was, I imagine, as ordinary as any other.

     A mechanic in the garage finishing off a car, rubbing

     greasy hands on grimy overalls. Someone in the post office

     buying stamps…


For a few moments, these precise details bring to mind the poetry of Philip Larkin before returning to a more elusive narrative. Often Surman writes about subjects we never even think about, such as a road listening quietly to itself, Lady’s Mantle growing out of a crack in a wall or a gate that hangs lopsided “as a bird’s broken wing”. He challenges us to take a fresh look at everything that surrounds us and to see it, to really see it, as if for the first time.

Crows and owls fly through several poems. Both birds are seen in mythology as being harbingers of transformation and change and are a good fit for Surman’s take on the ambivalence of things.

Some of the poems are enhanced by the use of striking imagery: sanity is described as “a tidy precision. Like standing in clean clothes…. [It] sometimes likes / to feel like well-polished shoes.” In ‘Sadness in Infinity’ beauty is described as


     …. a familiar landscape repeated

     somewhere else, the same green slopes,

     the tree almost correctly positioned,

     everything so nearly right it hurts.


This collection succinctly documents the border between keenly observed reality and the shadowy world of the subconscious with poetic precision. If there is any conclusion to be reached at all, it is surely that “being alive is meaning enough”.


Paul Surman, The Ghostly Effect, Dempsey & Windle, £10





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