Derek Adams reviews
Designs for Living
by Estill Pollock
Estill Pollock is a mature poet, secure in his abilities, assured enough to play the long game (witness this volume concludes the Relic Environments Trilogy), and like an angler with a lure he spins ideas through sequences of poems, confident his readers will follow.
The opening poem “Face” explores identity, wearing the faces of the dead, of others ‘These others as we, dreamers in their comas’, it concludes ‘The man you were, the face in the mirror: there you are. // Here I am’.
These others whose lives and memory affect our identity, who we wear on our faces, are at the heart of this collection, they are ‘the past, its ghosts/ devolved to son and daughter, these/ others of the blood.’ In “A Space in Time” these others inhabit a dream. ‘…faint energies/ (some I saw right through)/ to share a space in time, its senses recollected.’
Pollock is precise with his descriptive images - in “Everything Else” when lovers walk through rain, it’s not romantic rain, it’s hard: ‘the rain is nails,/ a rusty thunderhead of cut-wire sharps unloading’, they reach a cliff that is ‘old continents scrummed vertical’.
There is a move away from personal histories in “Ex Cathedra”, a river ‘with no memory of itself…’ flows past a cathedral with reliquary and holy manuscripts ‘the preserve of white-gloved keepers’, in its library ‘The saved dead/ thread the margins, anchored in inks’.
Memories preserved in ink is also the subject of “Japanese Tattoos in the Edo Period” where we find ‘characters/ for Stay, Remain.// I am everything you made me.’
“The Journeyman’s Tale”, has an epigraph from Chaucer and Victorian style intros to four Bukowski-ish vignettes. ‘Part the Fourth, wherein Heavenly Music is heard, and a Wise Woman reveals the Resting Place of Heroes’, the construction worker is shown a bed ‘ … Andrew Jackson slept in that bed/ No fuckin way I said/ Yep, she says, big as life and ugly with it/ She says it come down to her though her great granny/ And was worth a little something.’ Here again the passing on of the memories of others.
The book is carefully constructed; poems interacting to produce a sum greater than its parts, however near the centre are four poems that feel awkward: “Tribe”, “Field Notes”, “Tribe” and “Revolution”; each has political overtones and while these are fine poems on their own they seemed out of step with the rest of the collection.
The second half of the book is a sequence entitled “Animus” (a feeling of enmity, or the Jungian term for the masculine principle residing in the female psyche, perhaps both, the poems exhibit traits of each) - three long poems retelling five Grimm’s fairy tales in an adult way, these are highlight of the collection for me, exhibiting evocative storytelling and deft use of language.
“Tales of Wood and Iron” (The three feathers, Rapunzel) begins ‘Night and day, for all God’s children, the same star/ dawn to dreaming, a little breath between/ light’s constancy/ and the cold dark’. In the second half of this poem ‘far from festivals or trade’ kidnapped Rapunzel, grows ‘… and the girl’s hips/ widened womanly’ until one day the witch ‘caught the man-scent,/ buckskin sweat and the spilled seed’. T rue to all good fairy tales Rapunzel is rescued by her prince, but each night in her dreams ‘…she stood, anchored in oak shade/ deeper than the world’s dark heart, older/ than the cold, blind blink of heaven.’; an obsidian reflection of the poems opening lines.
In “The Child Eaters” (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel) a pubescent girl climbs into bed with the man/wolf ‘and pulling the knife/ still further, filleted the howl/ hissing for air in the Wolf’s throat’. In a famine struck land ‘bellies bloated, guts pinched and heaved with hunger’ we have Gretel pushing the witch into an oven, for a moment ‘considering her next square meal…’, cannibalistic overtones that reappear as the poem ends, ominously reiterating ‘It was a time of famine.’
In “A Mask of Mirrors” (Snow White) the step-mother Queen is abetted in her murderous plans by a servant she could trust ‘not to talk and not to go squeamish/ when fine talk turned to sweaty jelly’. Snow White exacts revenge ‘ordered iron shoes, stoked and stoked red as a witch’s eye’.
‘…there was always Death and Judgement’ Pollock reminds us in the book’s final poem “Afterward: into the forest”, where we find storytelling, oral history, time, memory, the ‘others’ that are the preoccupation of this collection, who draw the blueprints we live our lives by, perhaps designs for living, a plan, a map for the path ahead. ‘Everything remembered// Into the forest, the path we took to meet ourselves// These others.
At 80 pages this is a dense ‘slim volume’, with multi-layered intelligent poems that bear more than one reading. It is a book whose paths I shall revisit and I recommend it to you.
Derek Adams is a British poet and photographic artist.