“best displayed through a gauze of cloth”

Frieze, John Whale, Carcanet Press, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

frieze john whale

What this frieze’s sculptors learned
was how the body’s flowing life
is best displayed through a gauze of cloth


John Whale’s Frieze deals with a whole range of historical tableaux, friezes, vignettes and frescos and here in the title poem, we see marble taking on the effect of a death-shroud. However, Frieze is perhaps a misleading title, as it suggests things that are static, set in stone and petrified and yet, in Whale’s hands, the past becomes a fluid and moving entity. We are not only shown a host of memorable figures from the past such as Salvador Dali and Cortez, but also characters from the speaker’s youth such as the gun-slinging kid from down the road and a school boy who eats privet leaves and licks cinders, pencil-lead and matches:

                                           (…) ran his tongue
along the standing row of crimson match-heads,
their chalky lipstick bleeding on his teeth,
their little flames lit deep inside him


The structure of the book is worth noting in this light. It begins by imagining vast battles of the past, from ancient Romans to a tank in World War Two rumbling over the Tiber “into Rome,/ revving over the ancient stones/ and nothing at all behind it” (‘Trooper’). Then the collection moves into the territory of public knowledge and we encounter well-known historical figures. However it is the final third of the book where the historical sweep of the collection is cast in a more Lukacsian light – that while history is being made and recorded in grand friezes, there is a more intimate, personal and domestic history taking place that casts ordinary people in times of great upheaval and change. This can be seen in the poem ‘One o’clock’, about the gun at Waterloo Dock:

the phantom ball travels
through our smallest bones
with a cast-iron approximation
of the purity of the stars.
On the memory of my anvil,
hammer and stirrup,
I find myself chained to the past.

[‘One o’clock’]

One of the more successful poems from this final segment of the book is an elegy for the poet’s father, ‘Legerdemain’, where the poet’s imagination acts as necromancer conjuring up images of his dead father’s hands. It is only in the final stanza that we discover the real meaning of the ‘frieze’:

These are my father’s hands
conjuring themselves from the past
by way of trick and treat,
capable now of any legerdemain
save that of touching me.


Other poems of note show Whale has an eye for oddities and curiosa. In ‘Bird, Bird’ we see the prey of an owl, a swallow, nesting in the dead and dried body of an owl hanging in a barn. In ‘Bird Book’ we see how a poem can be raised above ordinary observation with only one phrase or sentence: “my favourite birdsong/ heard only in books”. Certain poems convince the reader less and seem to try too hard, such as ‘Tattoo’ where the ashes of the dead are tattooed into the arms of the living and the poem ends on the half-jokey, half-creepy lines from The Carpenter’s “Just like me/ They long to be / Close to you”. In a poem such as this, I felt Whale was straying too far from one of the “to-dos” on ‘The Great Artist’s To-Do List’ – “get the exact measurement of the dead”.

Richie McCaffery


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