More Bees Bigger Bonnets: Steve Pottinger, Ignite
More Bees Bigger Bonnets is Steve Pottinger’s fourth collection of poems, and according to publisher Ignite Books, his best yet. A bold claim? We shall see.
Born and bred in the West Midlands, he has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, when he found inspiration in the language, wit, insight and irreverence of the Mersey Poets.
I’ve seen Steve Pottinger perform several of the poems in this book, and thoroughly enjoyed those performances, so I was intrigued to see how they would translate to the page. There’s an understanding in some quarters of the poetry world that “stage” and “page” poems are non-transferable, but I disagree, and it’s a pleasure to read “stage” poetry which confirms that for me.
As he says in his blog, the poems mostly deal with current affairs and politics, and provide “some small counterbalance to the way we’re asked to view the world around us”. This is what poetry does so well, in my opinion; it’s as essential to our understanding of the world as a history book.
Right from the beginning, stops are pulled out. ‘The Girl Next Door’ is a beautifully empathetic poem based around hearing the girl next door sing through their shared wall. He imagines her thoughts,
today bringing up a kid alone
is something she can do
the bills will come and she’ll have money set aside
and she can dream her boy will never be denied
a job, because there will be jobs for all
Tender moments such as
she’ll buy a packet of ten
and take five minutes out
to spark one up and watch the world go by
sit counterpoint to the ubiquitous red-top bias against single mothers, who dare to spend a little of their money on a small luxury, and yes, even one which we all know is “bad for you”. It’s about walking a mile in her shoes, about her strength, and there is a refreshing absence of high-handed moral judgement. A man writing about a woman in such a compassionate and empathetic way is a rare delight, and one I welcome.
‘Angelina’ is a cracking scenario, one we’re all familiar with, the lairy bloke in the pub trumpeting on about how he wouldn’t kick Angelina Jolie out of bed. But then, the twist. Mr Lairy points to her courage, her strength, “more balls than all of us together”, in the face of her decision to make her double mastectomy public knowledge, and questions whether any of the assembled men would tell the world if “the quacks went at your jewels with a knife”. There’s a wonderfully subtle comic moment when he refers to her as ‘Lara’, and you know, we never are quite sure whether Mr Lairy is being serious, or just trying to play down his moment of unexpected gravity.
‘The Knock’ is a particularly affecting poem. As I write this review, live transcripts of the Hillsborough Inquests are available online, and this piece touches so very lightly but effectively on such incendiary lies as the ‘drunkenness’ of fans:
Should have been your boy
back from the game
bag of fish and chips
grin as wide as the Mersey
drunk on youth and sunshine
It gains momentum, becoming angry, raising goosebumps along the way:
And it was reporters hunting headlines
papers printing tales they knew were lies
it was official cover-ups and smears
it was the start of twenty-five years
of banging on the gates of justice
One of the stand-out poems in this collection is ‘No One Likes An Angry Poet’. A great example of slow-burn momentum, it engages with the issues of tax avoidance and evasion, specifically those connected to coffee shops such as Starbucks and Caffe Nero. The poet tries to pay for his
with an extra shot
with a whirl of whipped cream
and chocolate sprinkles on top
Sixteen pence in shrapnel
three washers, one old bus ticket,
and the business card some psychic medium
keeps posting through my door
and when told by the barista that he still owes her £5.74, informs her that as Caffe Nero have paid no corporation tax, they actually owe him. This is a must-read poem for the disaffected who have governmental and multinational wheeling and dealing shoved in their faces on a daily basis, with nary a nod to legality, never mind equality. It’s also a really really funny poem, with a heart-warming utopian finish. Pottinger was so incensed by the tax issue, in fact, that he wrote them a letter, which promptly went viral, leading to the BBC covering the story on their website.
‘The Ostentatious Breast Feeder’ is a rollicking romp across the pomposity of one Nigel Farage. This cracking bit of satire takes the idea not just one step further, but all the way. Placed in a pub on a "dullday afternoon", a woman bursts in through the doors, "spinning wheeling pirouetting across the floor" - the eponymous breast feeder.
Ostentatious? By god, he wasn’t joking.
As the music swelled to a crescendo
she sprang onto the bar
stamping her heels the length of it,
one arm held aloft, defiant
head thrown back in a piercing banshee scream
a howling wail that lifted the hair on my neck
and as the child suckled, contented,
and fireworks burst along the line of optics
and confetti cannon spewed
a blizzard of paper
into the room …
You get the picture. This is a brilliantly outrageous lampooning of the worst kind of self-righteous prudery, and all the more welcome for that.
The epic ‘Birmingham to London by coach …’ has to be one of the funniest poems that I have read. Ever. Such a finely crafted piece, too. It tells the tale (fictional, apparently. Hmmm!) of a "national Express ride with the dysfunctional family from hell", and goes on to overturn all of the initial distaste felt about the family with what amounts to a massive party on a coach. We have clever little verbal switcheroos
is shouting Wayne! You little ***
at her lad who’s gobbing greenies
on the windows at the front
and verses that had me just dissolving in giggles,
then somewhere just past Bedford
she offers you some pills
by the time you pass through Watford
you’re coming up so strong
that you’re flinging off your clothing
and bursting into song
the driver barks Sit down, sir!
in response, you shout out Choon!
you’re chewing gum for England
and grinning like a loon
I’m almost tempted to get a ticket now, and I hate coaches.
‘Kate’s War’ is another fine example of male writing about female experience, executed with great compassion. Based on a true story about a young woman who, when presented with medals for her dead menfolk in the first world war, hurled them back into the face of Queen Mary, shouting "If you think so much of them, you can keep them". It documents the severe beating she received for her actions from the constabulary "because you must learn a girl must know her place" as well as celebrating her strength and beliefs
but you cared nothing for their baubles
dipped in poor men’s blood
and you told them so
As previously mentioned, poetry is as essential to our understanding and perception of the past as the history books. Some would say even more so.
The collection ends with a lengthy prose poem, by turns wistful and loving, about finding a place to live with your love, and how the perfect place will be,
with you, eating impossibilities for breakfast
growing old together
So – that bold claim? Absolutely spot on. The ‘stage’ poems read equally well on the page, I’m pleased to say. This is an intelligent and well-observed collection with keen insights, acute socio-political commentary, as well as funny verse. Pinballing between tragedy and comedy, the profound and the well-aimed potshot, ‘more bees bigger bonnets’ does exactly what it says on the tin.