Assembly Lines by Jane Commane: Reviewed

There is a very strong sense of place in this collection – almost enough to term it psychogeographical. The post-industrial landscape of the Midlands lingers on the fringes of most poems, taking centre stage for many.
Commane sets out her stall strongly from the very start. The opening poem presents a gritty world with lines such as “In a reel of suburban dogs barking” – it’s vivid and realistic and uncomfortable. There are also overt political statements in “long with Thatcherite shadows” which will echo through the collection.
The first few poems are linked by their focus on education – almost as if Commane has gone back to the root of a community – the sense of self constructed in local schools. Usually seen as a means to escape or better the world, here education is presented as a tool to ensnare. The poem ‘Sand’ is filled with striking imagery and examines the idea that education is difficult to get right, that it can be difficult to keep hold of and that it can damage. There’s a real sense of anger in the longer poem ‘National Curriculum’, which at times can seem a little simplistic and more in keeping with teenage angst – this is a one-sided anger. However, there are pepperings of adult resentment which lift it
from being merely a ‘rant’ and the poem opens with an engaging image:
“At the revisionist’s tea-party
we are treated to the crumbs from the tablecloth
of industrial-empire-death-by-numbers.”
This sense of class warfare is a thread woven through many of the poems, particularly those that focus on the notion of landscape and borders, like ‘On Discovery’ with its line “a layer-cake of manners, snobbery and new ideas.”
In many of the poems, the Midlands looms large. ‘On Coventry’ is beautifully elegiac yet simplistic in language while ‘Our Old Lady of the Rain’ is an interesting examination of the relationship between poet and place. There’s a real bitterness in these poems as Commane shines the light on the extent of the dilapidation in the area. As the collection develops, Commane’s relationship with her home town changes. There’s hope in ‘How the Town lost its song” which sings back to the earlier poems.
‘Landmarks’ is similar – the landscape is urban in its realism. “Only slow decades will reform the city’s whorled thumbprint” in ‘Dresden Papers’ is hopeful, examining the idea that everywhere is different and unique. There’s a sense of inevitability in ‘Shrapnel’ that the city changes are cyclical with references to ancient tribes and the beautiful phrase “Yet, waking each morning to a town
which has reassembled its skyline, reordered
the scenery…”
Another thing that characterises this collection is the structure. Most of the poems can be grouped together with one or two others, although not all can be lined together. For example, the poem ‘Odds On’ stands out, starting as it does a section of poems about dogs and horses.
The later third of the collection becomes less structured, but some poems really stand out. I absolutely love the examination of language and mother tongue in ‘Unweather’, especially the third part which details the chronology of language – in keeping with the theme of the past.
I also adored the simplicity of ‘How we fell in love with big data’, particularly the hymn-like opening “The data spoke and we knelt/ to hear its message” how it’s sacred – almost hymnal.
The opening stanza of ‘Circa’ presents possibly my favourite ever description of the night.
“Night as rag-soaked petroleum,
the whisper of moon creaks
through the cloud’s machinery.”

It is the way in which Commane combines industry and the natural world that makes this such an enjoyable collection – little glimpses of industry permeate the poems, such as in the first stanza of ‘The hearts of everyone in this room’ where physiology is combined with engineering. All of this brings it back to the idea that the city is in her blood.
Possibly my favourite lines in the whole collection are the closing ones. ‘Poem in which a small dog looks into the sun’ ends with a statement that exemplifies the philosophy woven through the poems in this collection:
“There is so much that could be said about
the commonplace miracle of being here in this moment.”

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