Small Nuclear Family: Mel Pryor, Eyewear Publishing
Small Nuclear Family is a debut collection. This, too, is the first time that a collection from the excellent Eyewear Publishing has been reviewed on this site. A wrong hereby righted. I love the appearance of the covers of Eyewear books with their use of bold colours and striking images.
Many of the individual poems in Pryor’s collection have won prizes including the Myslexia poetry competition (2013), and the 2015 Philip Larkin poetry prize. The use of bold and surprising connections and images features throughout these poems, so Frost would be satisfied too. For example, in ‘St. Bride’s’, the length of a church aisle becomes symbolic of the distance between a couple who don’t really know each other, or if they do, how much is there to base a lifetime on?
... She’s trying,
down fifteen centuries of aisle, to bridge
the acreage between them.
I admired the deft way the poet changes our perception of the age of the church aisle into an idea of a vast distance between two people.
Pryor seems to find subjects of interest and causality in every movement and rhythm of our blue planet, from the humble and supremely irritating mosquito or buzzing fly, to cats - Egyptian or otherwise, to simple domestic routines like clearing out a loft or stacking a dishwasher. How can emptying a dishwasher be the subject of a poem? In Pryor’s hands it turns into a tender reprise of the better side of a relationship, after a row.
When it was clear to them both it was pointless
to continue, they bent down together and emptied together
the dishwasher. Out came the glasses, the egg cups.
Out came the mugs: chipped, hairline cracked …
These are thoughtful poems, honed with care and probably over a considerable length of time. There is nothing simple about them or the language encountered in some of the work, which repays many readings.
There are two aspects of Pryor’s work that particularly strike me. The first is the poet’s unsentimental but compassionate eye that is cast far and wide. Many poets deal with life’s moments, ordinary or less ordinary. But there is nothing ordinary about the way in which language and syntax are used to elevate these themes to immediate relevance. This is not easy and certainly not something every poet is able to do, or do well. Reading through the book I came across more and more examples of eye rhymes, half rhymes, clever similes and metaphors that gave much cause for admiration, and some for poetic envy.
A collection like this reminds us that the poet’s task is not simply to give us verbal pyrotechnics, nor even to offer up images or metaphors here or there, but to find the sounds and connections in the language that turn a serious of lines into a joyful whole - and then to have something to say at the end of it. There is little strictly formal work, but there is a strong adherence to connecting sounds and intonations and some of the poems are of a single breath. In ‘Because I will be more American’
America I’m journeying towards you;
Soon I will unspool my new drawl
Down the loops and splashes of the Sacramento River
Lay it in loping lines on the gold roads of Rodeo Drive.
Who would have though to use “unspool” in that context? This poet does and it works brilliantly, connecting with “loops”, “splashes” and “loping” and drawing us along on the journey too.
One or two words I had to look up, such as “girandole” – branched support for candles or lights. What a fantastic word. It tucks in perfectly with the next line which is “a box of essays under a fur stole”. Photographs and letters of past loves discovered during the loft turnout: “‘where are they now those boy-men/ who said they’d love until death”. (‘Loft’).
One of my favourite poems in this book is a poem about a missing cat, ‘Maurice, Gone’. No, do not sigh, do not stand at my grave and weep. I attended the TS Eliot prize readings in January and counted two dog poems read on the night, including one from Don Paterson,and therefore I can say with confidence that cats and dogs are shaking off their mantle of sentimentality and entering mainstream acceptability. This poem certainly does not come within a whisker of sentiment.
… Where did the road beyond our drive take you?
The house’s threads contrive to bring you
Home again : your presence reencountered …
In another poem, ‘Mr Rice’, a banker is caught at the moment he is clearing his desk when the bank has collapsed. Think you could never feel sorry for a banker in a million years? Read this and think again.
This poet’s gaze is sharp. In fact, this poet’s gaze is surgical and it is turned upon both the pain and joy of our lives. I can only stand, admiring.