Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
Route Choice by Malcolm Carson. Shoestring Press. £10
The Route Choice was made by Bill Smith the fellrunner who died on Bowland Fell in 2011. The fell was "your solitary walk where/ bog runs dark and seeps/ that closed on your days". MalcolmCarson identified with Bill even though he only half knew him from the start of runs "quiet amid the nervous thrall / that palpitates toward / the starting tape until / runners play out on open fell/ their dreams, aspirations,/strength and cunning".
The route choice is made by everyone. Malcolm Carson's route through life began in Cleethorpes and took him to Belfast and then spending time as an auctioneer and farm labourer before studying English in Nottingham and then working in colleges and universities and finally in Carlisle where he now lives.
He recalls his early years when a photo fell from a book used by his mother: "out slips /a photo of myself, my sister / long since lost . . . she with plaits, me in knitted / costume and happiness". The past seems caught in the make-believe of the novel.
He remembers a moment when his father, a skilled fly-fisher, had been ashamed of him: "late for lunch I turned up silvered / bloody from the netting / at the river's mouth ". Or he recalls a moment in the classroom when "I didn't know - at least forgotten -/ a thousand steps make a mile". The Dublin master "Gown drawn back . . . relished his role before that Belfast class / showing them that despite the border's strictures - / they all were one faced by my English ignorance."
He remembers a time sleeping rough in Paris in a builder's yard: "Sloughing off our sleeping bags . . . we pushed aside the boards / and blinked into another time / where swastikas hung . . . and marching columns passed across the square". It seemed like a nightmare until they saw "the cameras, directors /and sundry crew in a time we knew / as ours." It was their generation's luck that they had "not been assigned different roles".
He meets an old friend selling the tickets at the gatehouse of Thornton Abbey: "and then the chat. / Too simple or / too difficult to uncover all those years / since last we met, and what's the point?" Everything, the archaeological dig at the Abbey, their conversation, "just hint at what's / beneath, stories left unfilled."
Later he met the poet Iain Chrichton Smith: "Soon / the talk, polite as china at first, / warmed and grew, a settled confidence, /while he told of Lewis and home, of Calvin's / shadow, a flapping crow's. whose fingering / wings shut out the sun." Smith's is a voice he still hears, "his words like the growing tide on wrack".
There is time to see the world about him, how the "Slugs have laced the hostas, and its / time to lop perennials" before the coming winter. And then an Indian summer prompts "the unexpected bud" and he sees "splendid on the listless ice plant, / Red Admiral filching what it can."
These are deft, observant reticent poems about the muted memories of everyday life. The detail is exact, the language sparse but the moment and its significance are precisely evoked. Only in certain poems where Malcolm sees himself as Edgar who becomes the wise mad man on the moor in King Lear is there something far darker, more disturbed. "The clothes I have / show stains of murderous events / conspiracies and blind jealousy's child".
Route Choice, Malcolm's third book of poems, reveals a finely honed poetic voice reflecting thoughtfully on the events of his own life. It is an intriguing collection.