“The Glassblower Dances” Rachel McCrum (Stewed Rhubarb Press) – poetry review

The Glassblower Dances Rachel McCrum book cover

The title poem is about an unusual piece of graffiti and its suggestion of urban grit seems at odds with the elegantly presented cover featuring a (torn) red umbrella, but the poems within show that grit and elegance can be complementary. Darker emotions, such as anger, can be expressed with grace. An insulting comment, “Jaysus. You’re a hefty one” that might have been meant as a compliment has Rachel McCrum musing about her heritage from her mother,

“From her, I learned
that self indulgence is a dirty word,
that is important to get the potatoes on the table for your brothers
before you write that application for the university.

She did both.
The first in the family to
live by words rather than by her hands.
And she suffered, uncharacteristically quiet, I think, for this.
It can be hard to explain the weight of paper.

In the church hall, after my great grandmother’s funeral,
they turn over my palms
as they clasp my forearms
to see if I have yet managed an honest day’s work.
I have only one callous to show them.
The indentation between the knuckles of the middle finger of my right hand.
The last
best thing my mother gave to me.”

Rachel McCrum’s poetry is rooted in oral tradition but gives equal weight to the way a poem is shaped on the page too. The important lines are the shortest ones and the line break on the last two lines quoted allows an equal emphasis to fall on “last” and “best”. This is leads to an ambiguity: was writing both the last and best thing or the last in a line of best things? The tenderness in other parental poems, such as “On Lapicide Street” a musing on the name’s etymology and the history of the street takes in the observance of chess game and memories of a parent teaching a child to play, suggest the latter reading of “last/ best” is valid. There’s more urban grit than graffiti too, in “Are the Kids Alright?” which starts

“When it all kicked off this summer
at home
our hearts sank.
We thought we knew how this story unfurled.
Knew how the streets would be littered with the detritus of violence
the burnt out cars, the shattered glass, the hard arms raised.
But this was not the old angers restoked.
This had a new swagger.”

It ends:

“The city is broken
and we hide behind the hot frustrated tears
of a child whose toys
have been snatched without warning.

The city is broken
and we do not know what to do.
We do not speak your language.
And we have not heard your story.”

It captures the frustration of those who thought they knew how the disenfranchised felt, who only discovered during the riots that they didn’t know at all. Not all the poems in “The Glassblower Dances” are written in free flowing lines. There are successful pantoums and disciplined short poems, such as “Fuel” (complete)

“Football colours overspill,
clash faithsanctified apparel.
Warm forgotten glistening beers
refract tempers like petrol.”

“The Glassblower Dances” shows that the poet makes no distinction between page and stage: poems should reward re-reading as well as being accessible when read aloud. Accessibility here isn’t a way of suggesting the poems are easy but rather that they have been written with a reader or listener firmly in mind. They have a rehearsed, edited polish which looks easy but is difficult to achieve.

“The Glassblower Dances” is available from Stewed Rhubarb.

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