“Poems in the Case” Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Shoestring Press) – book review

Poems in the Case Michael Bartholomew-Biggs“Poems in the Case” contains poems in the framework of a detective story, threaded throughout a prose narrative. The narrative starts with a prologue then breaks into 15 episodes which look at the death of poet Eric Jessop whose body is found by partner George Hamblin. Hamblin provides evidence of Eric’s depression, which, with injuries consistent with a fall from the cliffs where his body was found, leads to the verdict of suicide. “Sharp Objects” is part of that evidence with its final stanza,

“Once a skewer of alarm goes in
the flesh beneath your shirt gets seasoned
with salt and pepper specks of sweat.
Imagined rows of razor gazes
shave away the blushing layers
of your nerve-rich epidermis
into ragged flakes like Parmesan.”

Publisher and poet Stephen Prince announces a posthumous collection of Eric Jessop’s unseen poems, which George Hamblin, a poetic rival, knows nothing about. “Arrangement for Strings” by Stephen Prince opens,

“Jazz and puppetry, she says
are twins. She’s right: harmonic lines
allow as little freedom
as a finger up the spine
or wires through wrists that push or pull you
into false positions.”

The two rivals are booked to run a workshop with sessions taking place over a week at a literary festival. The attendees include a minor actor, a mathematician, a beginner poet with a crush on one of the tutors and a rejected poet in search of answers amongst others. Hamblin rounds off the meet-and-greet session with a poem, “Extra Passenger” where the poet finds himself sitting on a bus next to a passenger carrying a box with air holes, which ends

“I’d shudder if I saw a scorpion’s black scuttle
or striped coils of a snake, an Orwell sewer rat – or worse

a mouse-sized tufted thing suspended
under far too many jointed legs. He smiled
It isn’t in the box he said, holding out his hand towards me…”

Prince, noted as being six inches shorter than his rival and a less convincing performer, counters with his poems, the first of which, “Nothing Outward,” starts with the line, “There was unease sulking in the bass line.” Neither tutor aiming to put the attendees at ease, who are left with the impression they’ve just witnessed “some sort of verbal arm-wrestling”. The workshop sessions proceed with attendees making the most of them although there are some grumblings about the tutors’ feedback. Hamblin, in particular, seems to be dropping into a darker mood; underlined when he makes disparaging comments about the guest reader on Wednesday night. The mood is interrupted when Prince offers a preview of the collection of Eric Jessop’s unseen poems. It turns out they are a collection Jessop had submitted but the submission had slipped, unopened, behind a filing cabinet. He reads one only for Hamblin to declare it’s not Jessop’s work. There’s a covering letter in Jessop’s hand that clarifies he’d been working on the manuscript in secret. Awkward silence follows.

The following morning, neither tutor makes it down to the first workshop and the attendees discover they have to stay a further day whilst police take statements after gathering evidence. Neither tutor survived the night and both deaths could be self-inflicted.

One attendee turns to Jessop’s “Collected Poems” to search for clues.  Was it a double suicide, a murder and suicide or a double murder?

There’s a final twist in the surfacing of Jessop’s unseen manuscript, naturally. From the manuscript, “An Image on the Retina” ends,

“Accumulated hindsight stacks up accusations—
not about our latest wrongs so much
as what we could have been and weren’t. Reflected truth
might show us we were always beautiful
and lovable. And that we’ve wasted both.”

This is no cosy murder-mystery with the workshop attendees invited into the library so the solution can be revealed. It’s very much left to the reader to deduce their own conclusion or turn to consider whether the loss of life was more important and could such a tragedy have been avoided? Was it a love triangle? A poetic rivalry? Jealousy from a lesser poet? Depression plus an excess of alcohol leading to a suicide? A misinterpretation of clues in a discovered manuscript?

The poems are integral to the story, not some bolted-on gimmick to jazz up an idea or to focus the reader’s attention on how the story is told to draw attention away from the plot. The poems are in different voices – fairly easily done for the workshop attendees, but still successfully done for the three main poets – Jessop, Prince and Hamblin – which is harder to pull off because they need to have consistent voices over several poems and the results have to merit the character’s reputations. “Poems in the Case” is successful on two levels: one as an entertaining story and two as a story told through poems that reward re-reading.

“Poems in the Case” by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs is available from Shoestring Press.

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