Spitting Distance is a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet from 2016 that I bought after hearing the poet read at an event in Bristol last year. From the moment he finished reading the first stanza of his first poem, I knew it would be special due to the concision of the language and the way in which he pairs the ordinary, everyday moments with surprising images, like “Two boys full of vodka,/ tipping side to side like flames.” in the opening poem ‘After Closing Time’ (which incidentally was the first poem he read).
Many of the poems in this pamphlet have an ominous, menacing undertone where death and danger hover just beneath the surface, rippling through the collection in poems such as ‘Spitting Distance’ about the ingestion of a bullet, ‘Thin’ about the ravaged remains of a starving dog and ‘Sweet’ about the death of a young drug user through the sting of a wasp. These poems are visceral in their content, made even more so by the lyricism of their delivery
“A yellow grape
fresh-picked and still warm from the sun,
its stalk pinning the boy’s breath
to the throat, the raw strawberry muscle.”
There’s a tenderness here, in the use of “boy” and in the softness of imagery such as the sun-warmed grape that only adds to the brutality of the reality in these poems. ‘Into the Mudflats’ is a sublime example of this, a longer poem that conjures the devastating image of a drowning girl: “She just stood there / a stencil on the wet shine”
This use of the unexpected to create imagery is evident throughout the pamphlet, from the tender “we lay like hands held in one pocket” in ‘Camping on Arran, 1992’ to “the air I drank/ cold as if from a night-chilled glass” in ‘Known in Passing’, a sublime poem that finishes with the beautiful
“…And when my biting
teeth released the red leaf of my tongue,
my mouth filled with autumn.”
There’s an immediacy in the personal elements of this collection of poems, with many references to family members and childhood memories, all interlaced with the same imaginative language and voice which keeps them open and lingering in the mind after reading.