John Lawrence knows how to tell a story, sometimes using analogy, and often setting up a scene then creating a volta, like a twist in the tale, so the ending is not predictable. “The Family Chess Set” opens with “The unfolded board shows a split down the centre/ from a lifetime of opening and closing”, notes the damage done to some of the pieces and the two mislaid pawns, one from each side, and ends,
“I cannot help but think of the pain
while mourning the queen who suffered
a brutal death when mauled by pawns
in the blur of a long-ago battle.
I want to end this, to lay my fingertips
on the head of each king, treat them like crystal,
for the game without them is worthless.”
A family history within a chess set and a player still tied to both the rules of the game and family conventions.
“Retreat” starts with a widower’s domestic rituals until,
“He wears a suit to go to the shops,
the only way to do it: marching tall to town,
but on his return, he flinches at his cowardice
for not stepping into traffic on the ring road.
Too often he thinks of the war in forty-four
when he lost his hearing, his mates, his innocence
to that tanned whore with her inventive style.
During the night he clearly hears gunshots
or the growl of tanks or the shouted warning
of an incoming threat; he senses the wetness
of blood-soaked cloth pressed to his skin,”
The shock of wartime experiences turns it from a poem about domestic routines offering a buffer against a significant bereavement to the knowledge the poem’s unnamed subject is still struggling with post-traumatic stress. John Lawrence uses a list of details to guide the reader’s emotional reaction and avoids being didactic.
Domestic ritual is a theme in “The Piano Tuner” where the narrator’s mother moves the Toby jug from the top of the upright piano before the turner, who uses a white stick signalling visual impairment, works “with the attention of a fighter pilot on a mission,”
“Mother busied herself with pointless
dusting of ornaments, smiled uncertainly
when he turned his head in her direction.
And after he tapped his way out of the house,
she’d place the Toby Jug back on top,
close the lid over the keys for another year.”
It’s a visual scene with the mother pretending to dust when she’s actually keeping an eye on a stranger in her home. It leaves readers wondering why this annual ritual is maintained and why the unplayed piano is still kept.
The title poem appears near the end, when the school bullies ask the narrator, who suffers from a stutter, to say his name,
“He’s in the game of seek-and-chide,
caught up in their way of killing time;
their joke, their bond, their fix,
stop him dead in his tracks,
the hunters, the hunted, taunt him till he cries
oh, ’e can cry all right
slap him on his back as if he were an infant choking
come on, spit it out, woss yer name?”
The boy is left to reassure himself he can whisper it when the bullies have gone. Readers can be reassured the boy grew into the man who can tell stories.
A couple of poems felt as if they could have been laid out prose without losing anything. Overall “The Boy Who Couldn’t Say His Name” contains wry, keenly-observed, mostly witty stories and vignettes taking a slant look at familiar scenarios and crafted with care to engage readers.