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A Fury of Yellow, by Robin Thomas

Vignettes of war: A Fury of Yellow by Robin Thomas
Eyewear Publishing

This pamphlet opens with Let’s go, an informal sonnet that begins with a Sunday-afternoon cycle-trip to the seaside. The mood changes abruptly in the middle of the eighth line. An ordinary summer’s day turns overnight into a scenario that will change or end the lives of the young cyclists. There’s real power in the sparse language and the use of repetition, and even the cliché black as … the Ace of Spades carries overtones of death foretold.

And these, Gentlemen, is a chilling little flight of fancy. It was deservedly Highly Commended in the Bath Café Competition.

Petticoat sent me on an enriching Google search for its subject, the spirited and quick-thinking young Marie Jalowicz, who modestly ascribed her survival in wartime Berlin to luck. Here we see her, armed with nothing more than intelligence and determination, outwitting her oppressors. The language is straightforward, unadorned, pared-down but with effective use of repetition. Thomas tells the story with compassion but without a trace of sentimentality.

The Grey Ghost and the New York Tugboat Strike cries out for some background information. A reference in the first stanza to “the local’s president” would have made sense on a first reading if I’d known that the local referred to was a local longshore-men’s union. The Grey Ghost was the nickname of the Cunard liner Queen Mary. The heart of the poem is its middle stanza, which could stand alone:

Thousands of tons of her,
grey-painted, bomber-evaded,
u-boat outrun, skyscraper
sheltered. White-gloved,
as if holding porcelain,
Captain James Gordon Partridge Bisset
edges her tugless to her berth.

I’m not sure if the third stanza, on the passengers and Sub-Lieutenant Trevelyan Thomas, adds anything to the impact.

De Aanslag (The Assault) recounts a single assault, one of many from the book of the same name by Harry Mulisch: an incident recorded with grace and economy in just nine lines. One does not need to be fluent in Dutch or German to understand this vignette with its implied lesson that in time of war we can never be sure who is friend and who is enemy.

There are two rather sloppy prose-poems. Both might have been written more tightly if they had been recast as poems. I suspect, given that Thomas has a Poetry MA, prose-poetry was on the agenda and is therefore in the pamphlet. Unopposed is a snapshot – perhaps inspired by a newspaper photo – of a scene in some theatre of modern war. The contrast is stark between the smoking, chatting, jaunty soldiers relaxing openly on their tanks and the civilians who are not mentioned at all, but their homes are being looted and burned. The first and last sentences are identical, perhaps an indication that “life goes on”. If this piece has something new to say, I’ve missed it.

Expedition is an extended metaphor that really works. The writing is polished to a glacial shine, rich in visual detail, and here again there is emotional detachment alongside compassionate attention.  It begins:

Several times a day my mother
sets out for the South Pole:
struggles layer by layer into outdoor gear …

This is a hell as laborious and futile as that of Sisyphus. The mother appears again in Froxfield Stop-off, along with Edward Thomas, who came here the year/ my mother was born, to write about time, / not knowing how little remained.  It seems her time is limited too – Bit by bit/ I am signing her away. These are two of the most effective and affecting poems in this volume.

The pamphlet’s title comes from The Tarascon Stagecoach, one of several ekphrastic pieces. The yellow in question is a passionate impasto of yellow ochre. The pamphlet’s cover assaults the eyes with a violent combination of lime-green and apricot. This is unfortunate but the poet is not responsible for the design, which includes an unexplained black-and-white photo facing the title page and an annoying logo which appears on every odd-numbered page  except page nine. Please don’t judge this book by its cover. It’s a rewarding read.

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