Jigsaw – a review

David Underdown. All photo credits: D Underdown.

A review of David Underdown’s new poetry collection, Jigsaw, by Cicely Gill.

To get a sense of David Underdown’s poems, imagine you are listening to a good friend describing something they love or telling an amusing story. His poems are not just close observation, each builds to an aliveness which is passed to you the reader with a frankness of voice that makes you believe in it.

Take ‘Night falls in the Forest’: clouds are ‘strewn with distant windows’, the moon is ‘a flawed face swimming/smirched by light lost to shadow.’ Where – not on earth – will this poem end? In sounds: suddenly ‘they crawl and cling and prowl blind/ but stealthy’. What is going to happen now? ‘Wait for the snap of a twig… we call this fear’. And with four plain monosyllables he leaves us, suspended but satisfied: we believe in his forest.

Many of the poems have this sense of ‘saying it like it is’ but not breaking the wholeness of the egg to find out what’s inside.

Furrow’ is the story of digging and finding a horseshoe and as the poet leans on his spade together we see the history of the shoe: the ploughman and his share:/ the single blade that broke the ground, the soil that rose and fell to a new straight furrow,/ the hooves that drew the coulter on… With these images in mind we are glad to hear that the poet takes the horseshoe home into the continuity of the present: ‘And [I] clean the holes where nails slipped that day/And hang it on my door, to keep my living straight’.

‘My Heart’ is an honest look at the poet’s heart. It is both brave and amusing. Much is packed into twenty-four lines. We learn that it was ‘not left behind in San Francisco’ and ‘is sometimes in my day sack for a walk’. Then we find that the heart has arguments with the head about ‘whether to become a vegan/or at least a proper vegetarian’ and that the cure is for the heart ‘to take the head for a brisk tramp over the moors… and between them… sort things out/and come back home for that’s/where it belongs, my heart.

Have you ever gone into an art gallery for one exhibition and at the end found another room devoted to something entirely different such as Blenkinsop’s collection of Victorian door hinges and this turns out to be a lovely surprise? The last third of ‘Jigsaw’ is a photo album. The poet gives us images from forty years of family pictures and imagines the stories behind them. I feel I really know grandfather Billy Goold. This is him in ‘Last Summer 1933’: ‘It’s a hot August day on the coast/and he has stripped down to his braces… ‘His mood is as expansive as his waistline./ He is eyeing Ida. You can’t tell what’s been said/but perhaps it was to find his hat’. We go from this relaxed picture to the last couplet: ‘In just four months that tooth will flare up/and the infection will sweep him away.’ Minimal but sufficient – and we know he was only forty-seven.

Scarlet Fever’ 1925. The poet’s mum must have told him this story about herself because there is ironically no photo, we are asked to imagine one – the sister in bed, mum looking at her excluded child through the front door. The pathos: ‘She is on the other side of the glass door,/and I don’t know how many times you’ve been told/she can’t come out, but it’s still not fair. From the other side of the door she is waving/and you, you are weeping.’

Don’t just read these poems once. As with your own photo albums, you can find something here, hitherto unnoticed, with each new look.

The launch of David’s collection will be at the McLellan Poetry Fringe Festival launch event at the Brodick Bar on Thursday 28th April. For more details of this event and the Festival weekend, see the information in this issue. David will be signing copies of Jigsaw which will be on sale on the night. They will also be for sale online and in bookshops from April.