“Beginning with Your Last Breath” Roy McFarlane (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Roy McFarlane Beginning with your last breath book coverRoy McFarlane explores growing up in the West Midlands (he is British born with Jamaican origins), discovering that he was adopted and the mix of emotions that triggered even though his adoptive parents were supportive and loving. This is particularly effective through the repetition in the villanelle “The weight of knowing” when he looks at a photograph of his birth mother,

“The woman in the photograph

sent me letters to leave me in a spell
but I was conjured by memories that
this was the woman who gave me away.

And those eyes telling their tales
and untold stories couldn’t change the fact of
the woman in the photograph;
this was the woman who gave me away.”

The title poem explores his compulsion to write,

“If poetry could take the pain away
I’d swap places and it would be me
struggling to breathe
that five-year-old child you held close
to your bosom like a small bagpipe
limped limbs, lungs bulging,
inflating and deflating;
to capture,
to write,

to verse my life
to begin with the first breath
with you watching over me
until the break of dawn.”

The death of his (adoptive) mother acted as a trigger for McFarlane to write about his life, loves, sorrows, racism and coming to terms with his adoption. He does meet his birth mother later and a compassionate poem explores her reasons for giving him up which allows him to accept her motives and appreciate that family isn’t always linked by blood. His growing up is complicated by racial prejudice at a time when politician Norman Tebbit suggested testing the patriotism of ethnic minorities living in England by establishing which cricket team they supported at international level. McFarlane’s poem, “The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)” responds by pointing out that for a black man, supporting the English team isn’t straightforward. John Barnes played for Liverpool and England and suffered taunting and so-called fans throwing bananas on the pitch when he played. McFarlane lives,

“the engulfing experience of John Barnes,
the genius, the wizard that scored against Brazil,
cutting through their defence with pure beauty.
Only to be reminded a few days later on a plane
returning home, filled with the England team and supporters,
that goal don’t count, the one scored by the nigger.”

The aim here is to record the poet’s life journey, to document the prejudice, but also to widen his subject matter beyond racism. It doesn’t avoid the topic but it isn’t purely about racial prejudice. McFarlane also writes with tenderness, here about his wife putting on a pair of tights

“caressing and smoothing out
folds or ripples that you find
as I did the night before
when we had reached our pinnacle
I held you tenderly and lovingly
eased out the swell and tide
that still lingered in the bodies
of two lovers overwhelmed in love.”

“Beginning with your last breath” allow lost love, friendships, boxing love of family, music, race, acceptance of adoption to interweave with personal narratives. McFarlane tells his story with compassion and a desire to share, needing to tell not just the story but about the transformative ability of love. These are poems that anyone can relate to, written with a respect of craft and attention to detail.

“Beginning with your last breath” is available from Nine Arches Press

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2 Responses to ““Beginning with Your Last Breath” Roy McFarlane (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review”

  1. danielpaulmarshall Says:

    this gives me hope: i am from the West Midlands & it is not a place teeming with poets, a gloomy place that inspires only a desire to get the hell out of there. to see a poet of this talent from there gives me a lot of hope for my own chances of being taken seriously, which becomes an important factor when you decide to leave but still find some value in where you came from.
    John Barnes was a bloody good footballer too.
    great choice this Emma. i’ll be sure to seek out more of his work.

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Thank you!


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