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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love and memory in the hidden places of the heart, 24 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: The Crumb Road (Paperback)
There are several initial surprises in this remarkable book of poems. The first is very welcome: almost every poem is, to my mind, interesting and accessible, not obscured by abstraction or conscious difficulty, and yields its images and meanings and emotion with generosity. How often can one make such a claim for a comparable modern poetry collection? The second surprise is less welcome: the Buddhist name of the poet (aka Ian Johnson from Warwickshire) and the oriental cover art - as well as the blurb and cover quotes which talk about mystical and spiritual worlds - mislead us into thinking that this book is likely to be a collection of Far Eastern spiritual poetry. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in fact an evocation of a rural childhood in Southern England thirty to forty years ago, where landscape is remembered for itself alone, not to prove a point or be allegorical. An English tree on the cover rather than a Japanese flower would have been more appropriate.

The poems come in three sections. The first are mainly about the poet's pre-pubescent life in and around a village, about his family, his roots, his exploration of a landscape that shaped his childhood. The second ranges wider, dealing with nature and art and people in the landscape. It includes four fine prose poems. And then in the middle of this section is another surprise (though a few poems previous to this hint at the new theme). We come across what for me is the most beautiful poem in the book, 'At the Station'. In this poem the poet observes a young male couple at Euston Station; he imagines a tender scene of love-making when they return home. It is so unexpected, so different to what has gone before, its effect is nothing less than a detonation in the middle of the book. Although it is a vision of idealised love, it says so much about the 'I' of the poems; and as we arrive at the third section we see it is the pivot on which the book revolves.

The final section then, of 21 poems, tells the fragmented story of the poet's erotic love for his friend Stephen when they were adolescent boys. It was a one-sided love that was expressed tentatively in secret places and ended in tragedy. It's beautifully done; I know of no comparable sequence of poems which deal with such a nascent, forbidden love, nor with the honesty, fidelity and tenderness displayed here. Grief, of course, especially the grief of the young, can freeze memory in time; the scenes here are so sharp you feel that each poem relives the journey the boys' love took as if it had happened yesterday. It has the emotion that comes with a love that remains unresolved, but there is nothing sentimental here, no heartstrings are consciously pulled; the restraint is finely judged. We now understand why 'At the Station' is so pivotal - it is a vision of what the poet and Stephen might have been like in adulthood if things had been different, which makes it poignant.

The collection reads like a fragmented autobiography, each poem a snapshot - though of course I can't be sure whether this is in fact memory or a clever literary mask; which leads one to wonder about the huge autobiographical gaps in the story. There is little here about the poet's adult life, except that scene at Euston Station (which is another reason why that poem is so startling), nothing about his adult human experience, except perhaps indirectly. It's as if the landscape of the poet's mind is frozen in childhood, forever playing out scenes that grief for a lost love has made mythical. Of course, this is only an impression, not a reality, but it is crucial to the success of the enterprise.

It was a happy moment when I came across this book - recommended by a friend - and I hope this review will steer others into its pages.
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Initial post: 13 Dec 2013 11:17:04 GMT
Thank you for this very kind and insightful review of The Crumb Road - delighted to read it! I'm especially pleased about what you said about the 'Stephen' poems. Thank you again
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