One of this summer’s poetry treats was CBe’s pop-up bookshop in the Portobello Road. I browsed for a while and thought about one of my first poetry experiences a block further up the road, where a childhood friend had lived. Occasionally I’d stay the night which we’d spend reading from a book of ballads she had – large enough to seem inexhaustible to us, from Sohrab and Rustum to Sir Patrick Spens – and scaring each other with our own stories. She usually outscared me.
Flipped Eye had a stand in the shop, and I got Jacob Sam-La Rose’s pamphlet, Communion. I wanted it the moment I opened it and started reading… some poetry decisions are easy.
I don’t know
the smell of his sweat, or if our fingers
look alike. I didn’t learn to drink
by draining whatever wine he might have left
or sharing an ice cold can. He never
wrestled me down, so I never grew up
to return the favour.
That’s from ‘Never’: one of the best poems (it ends beautifully), but they all share the same intense, personal tone, lyrical ease and seemingly effortless lineation. Although I knew that Sam-La Rose has since had a first collection from Bloodaxe, Breaking Silence, I was taken aback to find that Communion was published in 2006. It’s taken me this long to catch up with such a good poet, and then only with his first pamphlet. This is from ‘My Mother’s Guitar’:
I wish I’d learned to play, to hold
the chords she held, catch something of her
voice. The keys turn easily,
tightening the strings back into life
but my fingers don’t know how to make
her music. Instead, I write it all down.
Growing up in south-east London is the background to many poems. The city is there as an atmosphere, a setting for the experiences of youth, rather than for itself. There’s also an undercurrent, as in that last quote, of themes of origin and belonging; Sam-La Rose is of Guyanan ancestry.
Some of the poems mix dream and reality, and several take place at night. Most have relationships, close or fleeting, real or imagined, at their heart, and plunge the reader into their moment – on a crammed dance-floor, in church (making the light reflect from a watch onto the arched ceiling), right next to a massive speaker on a carnival float, or playing basketball. Five basketball-themed poems take up the middle of the book; this is from the last one, ‘The Brothers of Ladywell Fields’:
My feet stutter
on the tarmac. Maybe the brothers
can read my steps, smell a fall
rising from my skin like sweat.
I know too well the raucous clang
of a near miss on the rim, the way
a smooth arc can turn ugly at the end,
and all that air still remains.
There are several prose poems, including the church one; prose poems in a pamphlet tend (I think) not to be up to standard, but these are good. I could go on… about the poem that starts “The girl on front desk in reception will probably keep the baby”, the one that contains a dream about an algebra lesson, or the one about a sleepwalking cousin who now “serves a time defined by walls”. This is a book where each poem enhances every other.
Of course I now want to read the full collection, which came out after a 5-year gap. Judging from Sam-La Rose’s poems at the Poetry Archive and the ones he reads on Bloodaxe’s website, it won’t disappoint, and will fill out some of the themes of identity begun in Communion. (It was also shortlisted for the Forward and Aldeburgh first collection prizes last year.)
‘Won’t disappoint’ may sound rather grudging, in the circumstances. Here I confess to a fear that I sometimes have after much enjoying a pamphlet: that the full collection that follows might disappoint; might be less concentrated and more diffuse, harder to take in and digest. Not that these things are bad in themselves, but they may make for a less intense and immediately satisfying experience. And the full collection will certainly be two to three times the price, and harder to slip in a pocket.