A Man’s House Catches Fire – Review

Tom Sastry

Tom Sastry’s debut collection thrusts the reader into a world wrapped in deadpan metaphors. The opening poem ‘A Man’s House Catches Fire’ sets the tone as self-deprecating from the outset with the lines:

“I thought the smell of smoke

was just me going off my head

which I have learned to expect.”

The poem ends on the line “and I stepped back into my house”, a fantastic image to take us into the poet’s world with an expectation of being exposed to some intimate personal revelations and thoughts.

The first section in the collection portrays the world outside the home as an unsettling, unpleasant space for the speaker. In ‘Thirty-two Lines on Loss’, the speaker’s joy at not being able to see the world properly “I liked the fog of it” speaks to the pain caused by seeing the world clearly. Using the idea of sight and blurred sight is an interesting one and it permeates many of the poems in the collection.

Birds are another motif sprinkled liberally in this first section. They represent a sort of freedom from the grind of everyday life and their absence leaves a hollowed-out world filled with grinding office work as seen in ‘The office’ and ‘The Birds are leaving’ where the sky – and, by association, we, “remain lost.”

The everyday world Sastry paints is slightly grotesque, where we find the answers to the metaphysical in the mundanity of advertising features and billboards seen from buses that tell us “Death is coming”. Many of the poems seem like a rallying cry against the consumerist world as Sastry finds joy in not being able to see them as satirises them as selling even to the dead.

The first section ends on a hopeful note, with a call to action to preserve that which we hold dear:

“Be proud of your love.

Bring it to mind. Bring it to the front

ahead of all other concerns” in ‘Simple magic for dark times.’

The underlying fear and struggle against the modern world whimpers into a sort of resignation in the second section, aptly titled ‘The Unheroic’ where the speaker explains “I had to learn to carry the feeling/like a stone in my head.” in ‘A Man Learns to Live with Fire’. Poems like ‘Normalisation’ and ‘Complicity’ begin to look outwards at the world and we see a form of acceptance where even nature has become complicit as the sea “hides plastic/ and weapons of mass destruction.” In this section, politics is scrutinised and deemed as futile as Sastry applies the brush of the deadpan to the non-speak of politicians with something to hide in poems such as ‘Complicity and ‘Jeremy Paxman interviews the old woman who lives in the woods.’

There’s a sense of exhaustion to the acceptance of the world in poems like ‘The Unheroic where the news and cricket are meshed together “I will tune in and out of a crisis that never ends”. There’s a sense of inevitability to this giving up on a world that has become too tiresome in ‘We are drowning. Everyone else is Noah’ where the use of the “we” assumes a sort of fraternity between reader and speaker “On the fortieth day we lie on our bed and/let the water erase us.”

As in the first section, the last poem in the second also leaves us with a sense of hope as ‘Sweet Biscuit Man’ reads as an exhortation that despite it all, we matter.

The third section is much more personal. There’s much more of the first person and the poems in the last section feel more intimate, more physical like in ‘November’ and I Ran’. The speaker’s tone has changed from the cynical deadpan view of the exterior world and these poems are much more tender, such as the beauty of ‘In Spring we open, like terrifying flowers,’ and the beautiful ‘Waking’.

The last section, titled ‘When the light reminds you to look’ means that we end on a sense of hope and that despite the horrors and futility of the rollercoaster of modern life, we can find beauty and peace within our interior worlds – and surely, that’s all that should matter.

Published by nicolaheaney

I'm a poet based in Bristol via Derry, St Andrews and Madrid. When I'm not writing or performing my own poetry, I'm reading or trotting about with my camera. There is sometimes drink taken.

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