Review: Weighing the Present
Peter Carpenter, Under the Radar
Care over ‘the sound of sense’ as Frost has it […] permeates Michael Laskey’s latest collection Weighing the Present. This commences with the play of words in the title itself, with its evocative chain of associations ( pondering, mulling over, assessing, holding down for ‘weighing’ and then the metaphysical and temporal associations of ‘present’, as in the here and now, a gift, for example. The title poem is the last one in the collection and reveals the title’s source to be a trip to the post office ‘with the present that needed weighing’. So a quotidian occurrence at the root of it, sharpened though again in pathos and power by the poem’s contexts, for the narrator in the poem thinks that he has seen a dead friend alive again, and is led to ponder the reality or unreality of all that is around him. This is a finely achieved balancing act in diction and rhythms, with the double-take registered in the ghostly presences that flicker across the seemingly-everyday. This is very much the territory of the collection, and at its end Laskey voices the chance of a transcendence or spiritual afterlife:
For an instant he was alive
or I had died, though I knew
neither could be true and pressed on
to the post office past my friend
with the present that needed weighing,
more or less knowing nothing
was impossible, even heaven.
The tenderness of the poem is registered in the restraint: all the technical elements of the writing allowing choices or seeming certainties that are then qualified or denied, especially so in the enjambment ( as in ‘he was alive / or I had died’ and ‘knowing nothing / was impossible’) that slows the reader and lures us into the shocked consciousness of the narrator. The poem is a dazzling example of the plain style that Laskey had favoured over previous collections……
The poems explore ‘home’ in all its forms (see ‘House’, for example and its opening play on ‘there are times it’s a hearse’) ….And actual things and processes. A stapler, a chopping-board, curtains, back-rubbing, lemons, riding a bike (as in ‘Going the Extra Mile’, a poem that takes off from the ‘routine ride / for bread and milk’ into an extraordinary internal debate), flowers in a verge, a bundle of bamboos, sifting through the post, (very funny this: do read ‘Resolutions’ if you want to understand the realities of editing), birdlife. And words themselves ( from the hidden ‘r’ in ‘February’, the knockabout horror of ‘Bayonet’, the hilarious ‘Callipygian’ to the terrifying ‘Unheard of’). Laskey is at home with short sharp poems, T.E. Hulme without the earnestness, longer pieces and sequences (as in ‘Living with Lemons’) and then more overtly experimental poems in terms of form such as the mimetic spreading lines of ‘Scots Pine’ ending on the expansive pun (‘the impossible / limbs it will keep / going out on’) and ‘Footpath’, a Robert McFarlane-style focus on path-following maintained in a mesmeric, fittingly unpunctuated three syllable line:
like a tune
an old song
who wrote or
quite how it
ought to go
…A small miracle, as many of the poems here are….. I hope and trust that present and future generations of readers will give them the attention they deserve. We are indeed lucky to have Laskey still out there doing the business:
Before bed a breath of air
outside the back door.
A new moon
sails between clouds
and you murmur
Must cut my nails.