“in everyday vocabulary”

The Waving Gallery, Mervyn Taylor, Shearsman Books, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

mervyn taylorThe Waving Gallery is split into three sections: “Leaving”, “Overstayed” and “In Transit” with poems appropriate to the section’s theme. In the title poem, which is in the first section, various relatives are seeing the poet off,

…Across the tarmac the line
of travellers moved slowly, and the hills seemed
closer. I think I made out people in houses,

children in yards who could see me from that
distance, going away to study English, as if
it were not the language spoken here.

Like a lot of poems in this section, it seems to take a while to ‘warm-up’ and dashes off the most interesting concept in a one or two line conclusion. That the whole island seems to be waving the poet off isn’t as interesting as the idea of him going to a foreign country to do something seemingly foreign: study a common language and literature at university.

The more successful poems are when Mervyn Taylor turns his attention to others. ‘Shorty’ is from the “Overstayed” section:

The Spanish guy who lives downstairs
recently lost his wife. I used to see them
out front, her wheelchair angled against
the steps, his eyes tired from being up.

In my bad Spanish, I’d offer, ‘Como estás?’
Her ‘mucho dolor’ turning the evening
purple, her hands on her knees. Since
her death he sits alone, announcing

he has a washing machine and dryer to sell.
And a freezer, he adds, arms extended
to show the dimensions, a gesture that
seems an offer to hug, the size of the pain.

The final image extends the poem beyond the page, inviting readers in. It’s a finely-judged note of compassion. As with every poem in the collect it sticks to a conversational, easy to read tone in everyday vocabulary. The poet’s intention seems to be to reduce as many potential barriers to reading his poems as possible, ensuring a large, inclusive audience. This risks losing readers who want poetry to challenge or provoke them or to be more difficult to read than a newspaper article.

From the “In Transit” section, ‘Embassy’ focuses on unsuccessful visa applicants and draws in contemporary references,

I sit among them in the bar and watch
the news from Libya and Cairo,
how they burn flags and lob
grenades, while here the locals

finish their petit-quarts and ask
when will they fix the bridge
up the road, and how long did
it take me to get mine.

The reference to Libya and Cairo is unusual because most of the poems have a timeless quality and focus on personal interactions and connections with neighbours, commuters or passers-by. ‘Embassy’ captures a strong note of resignation. His counterparts won’t go and fix the bridge or lob grenades but instead accept this is how things are.

That reflects these poems too: they are eloquent and welcoming but won’t say anything world-shattering. That’s not the poet’s intention. It’s as though he wants to reassess how things are and ask if readers are comfortable with that.

Emma Lee

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