The Damage Done

Tonight the Summer's Over
, Rory Waterrman (66pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

Here, Rory Waterman offers us a desperately sad poetry born, not out of 'misery memoirs' style abuse, but the damage parents can do by too much love. His parents' custody battle is tracked in detail and the resulting scars impact on his adult encounters creating a fractured world-view and pessimistic outlook  Added to this, many of the tragic events of his adult life leave one feeling also that he has just had an unfair share of bad luck. The title also prepares us both for nature's central role and its inability to provide adequate compensation ('The moon flutters a meaningless smile / and on the surface it skits everywhere.' ('The Lake') Throughout, his understated, conversational tone makes for subtlety that rewards revisiting the poems.  

He begins with a number of poems that reveal parents unable to behave for their child's sake. He sets the scene for this with his adult view of his two-year-old self that packs a punch with its plain words: 'face, trapped in cute consternation, lets me know / through widened eyes that what happens to him matters.' ('Two') From here the sequence 'Growing Pains' examines his complex confused identity due to his father's long distance attempts to instill some sense of his Irish roots: 'the Irish me that never was.' It is clear that he doesn't succeed but he is little more satisfied with his Lincolnshire:

   And mourned the loss of all these things
   I'd never had and always had;
   and grew, estranged from Lincolnshire
   and desperate to get out of there.
          (3: 'Ireland, 10)        

In 'On Derry City Walls, 1992' his father's Irish songs become 'solder between / us Mum couldn't use' but in 'Access Visit' he attempts a more fair and balanced account, where although he continues to show his playing off of his parents, he acknowledges his father's alcoholism as a contributory cause. He finally accepts that his father has made him what he has become - a realization that our adult selves are the product of these experiences, dysfunctional or not - all conveyed in a tone of telling it like it is:

   And then, at six, my taxi home; a cuddle
   before I left you waving at the corner,
   bound for my mother, our monthly weekend over.
   And she would always seem a little warmer
   then when I left, and I'd be slightly colder.

   How could I know what and alcoholic was?
   The Wig and Mitre's now Widow Cullen's Well.
   The snugs have been pulled out, the walls made bare;
   but the place still has the same sweet, musty smell
   and I'm going in for a drink again because
   I know I'll find a part of us in there.

The whole collection leaves one feeling that this childhood has left its mark on every later experience. In 'Compulsions' we see how as a teenager repressed rage comes to the surface: 'when the small foul egg of resentment gave birth to a crack'. Poems on children all seem to reflect his own fractured childhood even when they are other people's narratives. 'The Family Business' has all the qualities of a short short story and we are left wondering whether this child who clearly works in the business with her father has a childhood at all - the father is showing some form of care but something seems out of kilter:

   She glances at the ordinary man
   then shuts her eyes: she's damp and tired Éand bored.
   He drives more gently. Neither says a word.

There is a kind of anti-nostalgia childhood feel to so many of the poems. 'Visiting Grandpa' has adults who don't seem to understand children, while in 'Nettles' he gives her the grandmother digging 'for rhubarb that we never ate / for pies we never made'.This is poetry about aspirations not realized, but nevertheless he still argues the need to make the effort, as he says in 'Navigating' we must pursue and not expect to find'.    

The fracture and darkness of these poems is pretty unrelenting. Repeatedly a lack of trust or just bad luck has brought him close to many traumatic experiences  - suicde, brain damage of a sibling, we assume, death of a baby, things going wrong in a personal relationships but all conveyed from aslant without giving too much away. We have the man who dies unnoticed: 'And no one cried / at the sight of the wedding album or patches of damp, / or wondered what he'd bothered living for' ('From a Birmingham Council Flat'), or the desperately sad breakup in 'Broadlands': 'The season was ending and so were we.' One looks to no avail for Shakespeare's porter to come in with a bit of light relief.

This said, one does get the impression that Waterman wishes to draw on nature as a restorative. He does succeed in this occasionally but only as light squibs in a dark landscape. This of course all makes for great poetry, but poetry to be read with a health warning - this is poetry that often suggests both that 'hell is other people' and that life for the most part inflicts damage. In the case of Waterman, he makes no secret about where that damage has come from.

    © Belinda Cooke 2014