Line Drawings, and Other Diagrams: Miriam Gamble’s ‘Pirate Music’

Miriam Gamble, Pirate Music (Bloodaxe, 2015)

by Matt Macdonald

The surest sign of a cohesive collection is that something of it lingers in the mind after the reading, and even more telling is that this lingering taste is still strong months after. A collection should sit in your mind like a fine wine, a good cheese or an exceptional chocolate. Miriam Gamble’s second collection, Pirate Music, does just that. The feelings it conjures in a few very simple words stay with you, continual reverberations of emotion roiling like a storm in the heart.

It is not immediately obvious but this is a collection about lines. Not in a physical sense of drawings, or pencilled edges, but in the sense of divisions; about comparison by way of contrasting. On one hand, these poems are full of people and animals, and much of their content and conclusion comes from the contrasting of life as humans would process it, and life as animals might. On the other hand, people are painted in impressionist styles, broad strokes, big movements, indistinct edges. These people are every-people. Much of the lives shown anyone could and will have lived. The animals live in excruciating exactness, realism that is jarring when seen alongside the apathetic excavated lives of the people.

In ‘The Mare Spikes a Glassy Loch’, we read that

she crashes
headlong
into it
hot-blooded and

entirely live,
the crack of thunder
in her ears

This is experience so vivid we feel it, the thump of solid water on our body. Compare this to the opening of ‘Hotel Rooms’

It’s their simplicity we love –
their tendency to clean up
after themselves

This is experience entirely passive, there is no direct action here, no sense of movement of purpose of passion, there only is a grudging acceptance that there ‘is’, with no intent to delve any deeper into what exactly.

There are divisions of other sorts in abundance in the collection, past versus present (‘Films about Ghosts’), home versus elsewhere (‘Home’), expectation versus reality, counterpoised beautifully between opening and closing poems ‘Always Autumn’ and ‘Separation Creek’. Each of these poems stands isolated from those standing to either side of it, there are very few repeated images, and lexically there are few tethers that stretch from beginning to end. This is a collection of poems explaining a single flash of action or, on the part of the people in this collection, inaction caught out of time and frozen for our examination. It is only when the collection as a whole has been considered and understood that the pattern Gamble is drawing for us becomes clear to the reader. This is not the anthropomorphised life of animals; this is the depersonalised life of people.  

This is a collection full of people, of life, yet it is a life we are not always aware of. It is a life of minutiae, of the inherent vagueness of vast tracts of modern living. There is a domesticity to these scenes, a continual reminder that no matter the dreams, life is a series of very simplistic chores that need to be completed. This does not mean though that these are enjoyable tasks, only that they are tasks. As Gamble herself states:

predictable patterns hurt no less
for being so

What is very telling, in terms of the overall understanding of Gamble’s attitude to life in this collection, is that the poems featuring people dress all of these in vague, near opaque abstractions. There are two named characters in the collection, and the naming of them does not open to the reader a new side of them. Their names are more clearly disorientating, becoming shibboleths for the initiated. Life, Gamble tells us, is bland and undifferentiated for people.

‘Macken’s Van’ paints the story of a van, purveying goods of an unspecified nature (yet more of Gamble’s deliberate abstracting of the human condition and experience), administered by a gentleman of perhaps less than gentle persuasion, who will sell you candies for tu’ppence. But, as the poem makes clear, “Don’t tell him you’re a Protestant.” This is another of the divisions Gamble draws our attention to, a social division she will be much more in tune with the complex dancing of than those who grew up far from the Troubles. . But, this is not a collection about religion or the troubled history of a specific land, so there is no preaching, no rallying cry to this –ism or that, just another observation of the many divisions we fill our life with. Gamble’s challenge to us, woven across the entire collection, is whether this is actually a necessity, this constant line drawing we do.

Her animals (and there are many, some drawn clearly like in ‘Horses’, ‘Bower Bird’, ‘The Brutality of Koala Song’, and ‘Meditations on a Dead Pigeon’, some hinted at more obliquely as in ‘Darwinian’, ‘Perfect’, ‘The Others’, and ‘The Animal Room’) are given a life more direct and engaging than her people, who live in a space that is neither natural nor contented. The animals have fewer lines, and this makes for a calmer existence.

Take ‘Bower Bird’, a poem focused on a bird building a bower for a prospective mate, who constantly fails to meet the expectations of the wooed birds. This continual cycle of perfecting home is implicitly mocking the constant re-branding of ourselves for the purposes of winning hearts. Though we leave the bird without a flame to cradle, it is clear from the framing that being true to itself will net it far more than

toying with the heavenly
and unanswerable question
of
what a feathered female wants

The artistry of Gamble’s human/animal contradictions is in what it tells us about ourselves, about how we approach our own lives. We acknowledge that this an unanswerable question for the bird, yet declaim that it is not for ourselves. How much we may still learn from them.

‘Pirate Music’ is a telling choice for title poem, placing the two key elements of the collection into clear and very sharp competition. Pirate music (for those not overly familiar with Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked) is music broadcast from installations of questionable legality, either just in, or just outside territorial waters. They are a throwback to a generation before internet radio and internet everything else. From the title, we are already in a world of clear human interest (music, avoiding taxation and other censorial issues), a world of lines; no one calls themselves a pirate without full understanding that you have stepped outside the law. Gamble then, inventively, poses a new source of pirate music:

For ten years plus
they monitor the call,
deepening and desperate,
off range,
of a whale
believed to be
the only one
of its kind

This is not the music we are thinking of, and we are thrown by the new connotation. But whales are the original musical pirates, singing away to each other across the earth without care for the tedious lines of territory.  Such lines, such borders are unnecessary for these singers.

It would be unfair to focus only on the broad stroke, the conceptual elements of Gamble’s work. As within her first collection the excellently tuned The Squirrels Are Dead (Bloodaxe, 2010), Gamble delights in the creativity of language. In the poem ‘Wipe’, we meet a character having to face the realisation that a past of teenage debauch may not gel well with the future of adult profession, and Gamble catches us in a web of hard assonance, to hold our attention to her meaning.

Cursing, and cursing again your midway tack
Between tradition and innovation, the lack
Of memory stick and bookings book
That brought you to this unforeseen pass

The collection is led along on a stream of similarly well executed lyrical forms, despite the overall free verse format the poems take. Again, Gamble avoids living on one side of another arbitrary divide in holding neither form, nor absence of form as the main presentation method.

In ‘Personification’, Gamble demonstrates in a clear and unfailing funny manner, exactly what personification actually is – the granting of emotions to inanimate objects. The undertone here is that animals are already personified, even if we are not paying attention to this. The opening line—“On the ferry to Larne, someone shouts ‘That cunt of a curtain’”—paints this lesson in stark terms, but in terms we are all used to: who hasn’t insulted the desk that, with clear malicious intent, allowed us to stub our toe on it?

Epigraphs are useful ways of condensing an entire collection into a few choice words, linking yourself into the vast tapestry of human creativity. I feel that Gamble chose well in her selection of the epigraph from Janet Frame’s autobiography An Angel at My Table which expresses the epicentre of this collection.

When autumn is over…we see that we have never been alone in the forest

The greatest achievement of Gamble’s Pirate Music is the lingering sensation that we are always in the forest, and that we are never alone. There is much of living under the leaves of this world, and we do not see it clearly enough. We no longer see the world like we should, and perhaps we are always missing autumn,

The season of the death of bumbles…the death of miniatures with wings.


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