On poetry, friendship, memory and loss

A review of Landslide, a collection of poems by Andrew Jarvis

When I announced on my personal Facebook page that I was starting a blog, my most immediately supportive friend was Andrew Jarvis. He was one of a close-knit group of friends I had in high school, from whom I’ve been parted geographically but never in terms of my affection for them. When we were kids, Andy (a nickname he used then but no longer) and I bonded through a love of music, dancing, silliness and not giving a damn what anybody thought of us. To me, Andy was honest and free and ready to barrel headlong into life.

Recently, I saw him again for the first time in 15 years. I have to admit I barely recognised the boy who’d been such a big part of my life. I saw this calm, careful, articulate man named Andrew. He was all grown up and a published poet.

Andrew Jarvis with The Mum Reviews
A picture of me and Andrew when we saw each other recently, for the first time in 15 years.

When he asked me to review his new book on my new blog, I was very flattered. But I have to say I feel a bit overwhelmed with the responsibility. Despite having a PhD in English, I don’t see myself as much of a poetry critic. So I’m approaching this review as a normal person who might want to read a bit of poetry. Thus forward, in my review I will call the poet Jarvis, as if we never drove together to the bowling alley singing Michael Jackson songs at the top of our lungs.

Poetry is perhaps not as popular in modern times as it once was. Friends recommend books and movies to each other, but rarely say, ‘hey, I read this great poem the other day’. Which is a shame actually, because a good poem carefully constructed can say as much in one page as an entire novel. Don’t think you have the time and energy to read much? You have time to spend 2 minutes reading a poem. Jarvis’s latest book, Landslide, is a good place to start. It is full of these perfect micro-stories that whisk you away to another world, draw you in and then spit you out with a changed perspective.Landslide by Andrew Jarvis book cover

I feel like, knowing the author, I should have an insight into his poems and what they’re all about. But I don’t. In any case it doesn’t matter – my English degree whispers to me that the author is dead. So these are the themes that I see in this collection:

  • The brutality of nature and the brutality of man upon the natural world.
  • The inevitable decay of all earthly things, including those things that we love the most.
  • The way in which we love to erase the old with the new, but that memories are not so easily consigned to oblivion.

It sounds a little depressing, but actually it is uplifting . There is beauty in the recognition that these things come to pass and yet we all carry on. But most of all, the beauty is in the words themselves, conjuring images that carry you away from your sofa to a place where “sea lions adore / the abandoned, the thawed / freezers of heads and tails / as if they found Eden”.

Jarvis’s turn of phrase is so evocative and succinct, it’s like encountering each single drop of dew on a spider’s web as captured in a photographer’s lens. Here are a few excerpts from my favourite poems in this collection.

From “The Boxes”

She refilled the candy
when the grandchildren came,
peppermint mints and kisses
made of milk chocolate.

And we always found it,
in her special hiding place,
just below the pictures
and her little children things.

From “Rail Man”

The ballast, anchor, and roadbed,
the torn unfastened fastenings,
they severed his whole to his parts.

From “Old Growth”

Grandfather grew forests for us,
pierced the clouds and summoned their falls,
feeding the roots of his children.

From “Memory Bird”

And like an architect drafting the air,
she wants to remodel her memories,
piece together the wings, and fly back home.

Landslide is available to pre-order from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. If you are truly awesome, you could also try ordering it from your local bookshop, old-school style, for my old school friend.

What we’re reading: A horrible boy and a slightly annoying elephant

A round-up review of our current children’s library books

I am a complete bookworm (in my “spare time” I work in publishing), and my favourite part of the day is reading to my children and definitely not when I drink wine after bedtime. However, there are so many children’s books out there that it’s hard to know which to buy, or even to decide which to grab at the library. So I decided to start sharing short reviews of all the library books we check out, in case you, dear reader, may find it useful. And also because I just want to.

This crop is what I’m reading to my 4-year-old now. Other times I might include the ones I read to the 1-year-old, but tonight I can’t because the books are in his room and I will NOT risk waking him up.

The Slightly Annoying Elephant (David Walliams)

I was really excited when we checked this out as I’m a big fan of David Walliams. I’d heard good things about his longer books for older children but I wasn’t sure if he did any for younger children. We came across this one entirely by accident. The story stars an unrealistically polite little boy who receives an unwanted “slightly annoying elephant” as a houseguest. I think the elephant is more “extremely rude” than “slightly annoying”. It’s sort of a modern elephant version of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. But unlike the girl in the Tiger book, this poor boy is just home alone, wondering when his mother will return from the shops.

The verdict: Besides the fact that someone is probably going to call social services on the boy’s mum, it’s a pretty funny book. The “punchline” at the end of the book – which I won’t give away so that you have something to live for – doesn’t really hit the mark for me, but my son seemed to enjoy it.

Topsy and Tim go for Gold (Jean and Gareth Adamson)

I have to admit to being a fan of Topsy and Tim books. They keep it simple but it’s not all flowers and rainbows. And they address matter of fact things in a matter of fact way. I rather love the classic Topsy and Tim have Itchy Heads which taught me things I never knew about head lice. This one teaches the reader about what to expect on a sports day, with the usual moral about how it’s the taking part, not the winning, that’s important.

The verdict: I recommend it. Especially if your child is feeling apprehensive about a forthcoming sports day, as it will show them what to expect.

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World

I really rather like this one. It almost seems like it’s more for the parents than for the kids. Edwardo does standard things that children do which are somewhat naughty, and various people tell him he’s absolutely horrible for doing them. Under the lens of such criticism, he gets more and more horrible. But when people start giving him more positive feedback, he starts to clean up his act. It’s a reminder about how if you put someone down enough, they will start to believe it, but if you build them up, they will try to live up to the praise.

The verdict: My son seemed sort of confused by this book, like he didn’t really understand the point. I would say that’s because it seems to be more for the parents. But worth getting for your own sake.

Not Now, Bernard (David McKee)

This is officially a family favourite now as we’ve checked it out several times. It tells the story of a boy who tries to tell his parents that a monster is about to eat him. The monster eventually does eat him and then takes Bernard’s place in the house, eating his dinner and sleeping in his bed, but his parents never notice.

The verdict: My son thinks this story is hilarious, probably because he relates to it (Not Now, Honey, Mummy has a new Twitter follower). And I like it because it reminds me not to ignore my kids. Also, it’s nice and short so I can get back to my smartphone. Definitely recommended.

Jack and Nancy (Quentin Blake)

I have to admit that I had previously thought Quentin Blake was only an illustrator and not a children’s writer in his own right. It appears that he’s actually written quite a few books of his own. This story is about a brother and sister who long for adventure and eventually get it when they are blown out to sea whilst holding onto a large umbrella, Mary Poppins-style. They end up chillin’ on a desert island until some sailors rescue them and bring them home. I personally have trouble suspending my disbelief that the umbrella landed them on a tiny island instead of the middle of the ocean.

The verdict: My son has asked to read this several times over so he must like it. If I’m honest, I find the story to be a bit dull. But, of course, the illustrations are fantastic.

Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure (Thomas & Friends)

This is a long one (32pp split into 4 chapters) so it’s not for those short of attention span (or patience). My son loves Thomas and seems to enjoy the story, and the writing isn’t as cringeworthy as most children’s books that are based on a film. From what I remember when I paid attention (rather than daydreaming about something else while reading on autopilot), it’s about Thomas finding some lost treasure. Then some other dude tries to steal it but it all turns out all right in the end. And Thomas crashes a lot. I bet he’s still on time more often than Southern Trains though.

The verdict: I’d say the book is not a bad choice if your little one is a big Thomas fan, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick it up.