This book was suggested by Helen Mort, and frankly if you’re not going to pay attention to her tips on poetry to read, then you’re a fool. With that in mind I saw John Mills read on a zoom launch a few weeks ago after which I bought his pamphlet from Fair Acre Press.
The cover shows a much younger Mills doing one of those things that absolutely has never made any sense to me: caving. The image serves two purposes: it shows the energy, the physicality of the younger writer and it brings to mind questions of things unseen, insinuating, undermining ‘our world’ as we experience it. Mills has Parkinson’s disease. This book is not asking for our pity, but it does not shy away from the fact of his condition and what it is doing to this formerly energetic man.
28 poems over 35 pages; it is a spare volume. Most of the poems take up less than a page, and even where there are 15-20 lines, the lines are usually short. There is no flab here, it is effective and affecting. The opening poem, Conjugation, uses his former working life as an English teacher, to set out the stall on his condition: stanzas two and three reading,
I shake / You shake / He spills his food.
I stare / You stare / He shakes
Not all the poems tell the reader what happened directly some do it gently, obliquely and most wonderfully, as in Autumn Leaves or in Brief Encounter, in which the writer has a coffee with an unnamed woman in the bus-station:
She was worn, like her cardigan / and her cardigan was the colour / and flavour of her cigarettes
We know everything we could possibly want to know about that cardigan.
The woman is apparently waiting on the release of “him” tomorrow, “he looks after me“… “he runs me“, and she shows the writer the scars he leaves.
Other poems, such as Nothing on my mind are simple enough to be complex; or vice-versa. They are a joy to spend time with and they take much more time to think about than to read. The meditative poem, The persistence of water, is a wonderful accumulation of truths.
Two of the longer poems, Darkness and Total Immersion, take the reader into that horror of horrors, the cave or tunnel, filling with water, where:
There are no guiding stars, / no landmarks / just blackness and a tunnel / you wear like a straitjacket.
and where, “fuelled” by nothing but a lack of options, “you snatch a breath / and slip your head beneath the water.” Until with no answer to your prayers you wonder, “how dark the dark?”
Another dread moment, standing on the terrace at Leppings Lane, Hillsborough – an experience Mills and I shared at different times – is eloquently spoken of in Dress rehearsal:
The unconscious were passed over our heads / our hands on their bodies, / like navvies footing narrowboats,
He was there in 1971. I was there 1987. Nothing changed by 1989.
The last poem I’ll mention, in order that I don’t tell all about all of them and so you will have to go and buy your own copy, is the delightful Pies. Tells a story of his “practical” mother’s baking frenzy when they got their first freezer. How she forget to label them…and her solution “Surprise pie.”
It is an excellent collection, eloquent on aspects of the human condition that are often not spoken of: it is short but not thin, not heavy but importantly, not lightweight. At £7.50, it is a good buy. (https://fairacrepress.co.uk )