Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Poetry review: Jonathan Bay (House of Three)

Poetry review
By Jonathan Bay
Published by House of Three

Straight off the proverbial bat, I feel I ought to announce my bias for Jonathan Bay’s work. We’re good friends, and we meet up almost weekly to discuss poetry and drink expensive beer. That said, I don’t think this is an over-exaggeration: Jonathan Bay is one of the finest poets writing in Scotland today.

Let me unpack that a little before I get into the review of this pamphlet. I have spend several years reading Jonathan’s poetry, and in one sense it has a fatal flaw in terms of gaining public attention: it’s probably not immediately going to smack your head against the concrete. It may not instantly appeal to poetry competition judges, for that reason, too. Bay’s work is subtle and deceptively gentle, but once you actually sit down and start to think it over, you realise you’ve unearthed some truly outstanding, impactful and excellently-crafted poetry.

It’s bad science to start with the conclusion and then follow up with the evidence, but that’s what I’m going to do. Bay’s work can easily be overlooked, but that’s a big mistake, so I want you onboard before we get going. Ready? Okay.

For me, this pamphlet is about re-examination and transformation. Whether it’s through poems about travel, surgery, emotion or family, Bay doesn’t shy away from the complexities of challenging topics. Nothing is easy here, there are few “answers”, but there are explorations and questions. It doesn’t ask you directly, it plants seeds in your head and waits for them to grow. In that sense, this collection is outward looking but through an inward lens. It’s overtly personal, but never to the degree that it feels unapproachable. It’s alien without being alienating.

Jonathan is a Californian transman living in Scotland, so links between travel and the body are particularly relevant to this collection. In the opening poem, “Riding America”, we follow the narrator on a bike-rider across the US:

Remember the feeling of straining metal
between your legs

Hopeless miles in sticky heat
my mind has forgotten who we were then

The body and mind, like the bike, has migrated. Taken as a literal reading, we envisage a sweaty bike ride in the sun, but through another view of mind and body transformation, the poem takes on new potential: “straining metal / between your legs” evokes surgical connotations. “Straining” and “hopeless miles” also infer mental struggle and a feeling of futility, with the near-pleasure (or perhaps the partial alleviation of psychological pressure) brought about by a mind “[forgetting] who we were then”. Whilst the speaker suggests the mind “has forgotten”, however, this truth is complicated by the plural address of “we” – perhaps more than one rider, but perhaps more than one self. Is the old self ever truly forgotten, even if we will the mind to forget them? This concept doesn’t only apply to people who have undergone physical change, but to anyone who feels they have changed (which is to say, everyone).

I could go on. In this briefest of sections, there are so many layers to peel away. At times the poems are much more obviously visceral and cause a near-physical reaction when reading them. In that way, Bay keeps us on our toes. We predict a gentle complexity, only to be hit by something much sharper; it cuts. In “Pap Smear” for example:

she couldn’t put the speculum
in and hold it

my degenerated vagina only
wanted to spit it out

We both felt badly
about the way my hole hurt
but I didn’t say a thing

how could you

To someone uninitiated to this world (and I expect to others) this felt intrusive in many ways. I felt as though I was intruding on a private procedure and reflection, and yet there are people (the nurse) present, and the poem itself is a public document. The real kicker, however, is that final line, isolated (which to me also implies something of the speaker). It simultaneously evokes several questions, none of which is necessarily obvious or absolute:

  1) “how could you” say anything about the practical problems faced by nurse and patient? That’s just how things are. There’s a sense of acceptance here.
  2) “how could you” do that to me? The patient might ask of the nurse, or vice-versa.
  3) “how could you” – a question potentially uttered by those on the outside: how could you change your body? How could you go through that? And so on, and so on…

There’s a sense of discomfort, intrusion, accusation, acceptance, struggle, all in three short words. I bow to the master.

That’s not to say the pamphlet is always serious or always so intense. There’s lightness, too, and though we might be swayed into reading through a single lens, that shouldn’t be the case. The more you read these poems, the more you take from them. They’re physical, emotionally poignant, asking questions and forcing the reader to ask questions.

Poems such as “Support”, for example, in which the narrator realises family support isn’t always the “big things” but also helping fill out forms or helping to “do math / at the kitchen table / with the light dimming” can, and perhaps should, be taken at face value.

This review could go on forever, so let’s draw to a close.

If you agree that poetry should challenge and affect us, I suggest you check out Jonathan Bay’s work post-haste. His poetry is approachable but complex and impactful, with layers which reveal themselves with time and patience. Whilst the publication itself is a bit strange (three poets in one collection, but none of the collections are titled) I whole-heartedly recommend the poems therein. 

Russell Jones

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