REVIEW by Michael Nott

NWR Issue 105

Miners at the Quarry Pool

by Nigel Jarrett

Nigel Jarrett’s debut collection of poetry, Miners at the Quarry Pool (2013), follows his widely commended short story collection Funderland (2011) and should achieve similar levels of acclaim.

As Jarrett notes in his dedicatory note, Miners is modelled on ‘the memory of [his] coalminer grandfathers, who… burrowed daily into the flanks of Mynydd Maen, never certain that they would emerge unscathed or even alive.’ As a result, much of the tension in the collection centres on implicit dangers or threats, such as the ‘quiet’ whirr of the title poem, or even the threat of the ‘perv’ in ‘Picking up the Grandchildren’. Most often, however, the subterranean imagery evokes these threats, and interwoven ideas of excavation and memory permeate the volume. Jarrett explores these ideas most fluidly in ‘The Jewish Cemetery at Eberswalde’:

This place does not exist. There are no departed here,
no dead; nor does the yew send shoots
in search of rifts among the Waldens.

This is unturned soil.

None of the names Jarrett mentions in the poem are remembered, the soil of memory is unturned, yet we are reminded of the atrocity of the Holocaust. Jarrett’s poems evoke both past conflicts, such as the First World War in ‘Training Camp, 1914’, but also those in more recent memory, as in the haunting poem ‘Helmand’. As nameless casualties, the Jewish dead ‘occup[y] no plot[s]’ – there are no ‘pressed immortal[s]’ in the cemetery – and this refracts attention onto another use for stone, the carving of tombstones and monuments, which Jarrett explores in his evocation of Larkin, ‘Another Arundel Tomb’. Jarrett mocks the typically vapid and sentimental nature of memorialisation and links this to lifeless stone effigies:

What will survive of us is love,
especially if the stonemason
was told to portray them that way,
despite the complexity of
their case.

The self-denial with which we mourn and remember, Jarrett suggests, means that only names may survive us with any integrity; yet, as the ‘another’ of the title suggests, what really survives us is anonymity. Of the many gritty, uncomfortable poems here, ‘Another Arundel Tomb’, in its bleakness, is one of the most provocative.

One of the most technically interesting poems is ‘Two American Photographs’, a tautly constructed poem of four hexameter quatrains, all of which use an innovative structure of internal rhymes to act as caesurae. Jarrett uses two photographs for visual stimuli – Margaret Bourke-White’s ‘Mary Eschner’s near-drowning, Coney Island’ (1952) and Allan Grant’s ‘Yolanda and Marshall Jacobs, after being married atop a flagpole’ (1946) – and he explores the rich potential of photographs to evoke stories:

Margaret – were you grieving for those specks unleaving;
and did you want to say when you banked left to pray
that, without deceiving, the scene you snapped that day
was what gods, believing, see when they turn away?

Jarrett suggests that the ‘[d]ecisive moments’ captured by photographs ‘tell us nothing’ – it is only by dwelling in them, ‘on what was or might be’, that such images achieve meaning. In its occasional hesitancy within an otherwise strong and steady rhythm, Jarrett’s use of the unwieldy hexameter line complements the instability of meaning in the photographic image, while alluding to its formal components. The allusion to Bourke-White’s aerial photograph lends another dimension to this book, demonstrating Jarrett’s concern not only with underground spaces but those of everyday life and even the skies.

Inevitably there are weaker moments in the collection’s sixty-three poems yet Jarrett’s wit and remarkably sustained musical ear more than outweigh these occasional blips. It is tempting to see Jarrett as the eponymous shepherd figure of the collection’s opening poem – that is, in his movement from prose to poetry, possessing ‘a new heart / urging him to an old endeavour.’

Michael Nott is a contributor to New Welsh Review online and in print.

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previous review: The Hunting Gun
next review: So Many Moving Parts


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