As any serious reader of poetry knows, `light' doesn't have to mean `slight'; `minor' doesn't have to mean `insignificant'. John Mole has perhaps never been that most ephemeral of things, a `fashionable' poet. He's honourably practised the craft, quietly honing his very considerable skills, throughout a long career on the margins of the poetry world, rightly respected by many of his peers. Like the air raid wardens in a poem from his previous collection, he celebrates `small / residual habits, tender domesticity': and if this seems a little bland and unexciting to younger readers, then this is because they commit the error of underestimating the power of the merely quotidian.
Make no mistake about it: most of the poems in his latest collection (arguably one of his very best) pack a surprisingly powerful punch---and they improve with re-reading.
As one of his two chief poetic mentors once wrote, dismissively, in a sinister poem about death `It was all very tidy . . .': and Mole's work has at times in the past appeared like that: just too finicky and formal. Some might have said it was all gaiters and no gas. For so passionate a lover of jazz, he has rarely allowed himself to improvise in `free' verse. But this is perhaps because he's always known that formality too can generate considerable energy precisely when it uses the chosen form to surprise and delight the reader, and when the form really doesn't just echo the sense but in some mysterious way embodies it.
Time and time again, this is what Mole triumphantly achieves. `. . . Each phrase / able-bodied, getting the metre right.' We are not just touched: he moves us. Yes, his poems are deft, graceful, shapely, tonally sure. Behind many of them there does lie that undeniably charming upper middle class tone of wistful self-mockery that is diametrically opposed to so much of the edgy, confrontational, streetwise verse that younger practitioners of the art prefer today. His language is in no way tricksy, knowing, or hermetic. `Never call it poetic licence / When a line is arcane or obscure' advises the speaker in one poem (though at the end of the same poem we're typically told to feel free to ignore the wise advice just proffered, and to do our own thing instead).
But underneath the easy couplets (Distant Horizons, Castles, Cluedo), quatrains (Apple Orchard, The Distinguished Thing, The Water's Edge), and the carefully fashioned sonnet-forms (Snowman, To a Blackbird, The Island, Good for Business, Death's Gift) there pulses just a few feet underground a strong dark river of feeling. These poems are haunted by those grand old themes of late middle age: death and loss. The clue's in the collection's title.) Two fine examples contain the ghost theme in their very titles.
And what a fabulous knack he has for endings: `. . . whatever rises / from the sullen river'; `You know that's how it has to be, she said, / vanishing even as he called her back'; `. . . but a hand at that window has drawn down the blind'; `. . . which then dissolves / to credits, silence, and our solitary selves'; `observe this silent / speckled pair / and the music they print / on a sheet of air'; `. . . an English garden / where his stones lie / as he left them, and his wife / is burdened by the quiet'.
Only one poem (The Transformation) feels as if it was willed rather than felt. With all the rest, the reader senses that they came to Mole demanding to be shaped just as he has shaped them. There are many far worse ways to spend £9.99: this is a collection that, once bought, will not gather dust on your poetry shelf---you'll find yourself taking it down again and again.