Short, free verse poems on the psychological and sociological complexities of life in London.
Wendell Berry once suggested, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” In this tightly focused collection, Newton (Tales out of School, 2009, etc.) seeks to demonstrate the difficulty of knowing either half of that conditional. With a nod to Dickens’ famous opening, Newton launches his tour of self and city with dichotomous uncertainty: “London is old and new, good/bad, / great and small…/ It is rich and poor, work/play, dull and / vivid.” Later, he suggests that “LA is the city of angels, Paris the city of light; / London is toy town, with puppet rulers/ raggedy / dolls/tin soldiers / upon painted sets…set in / motion by clockwork make-believe; it is magical / and comical, silly and daring.” Like Bukowski, whose influence is unmistakable, Newton is most interested in the social divides and tensions that define the city, with a clear sympathy for the ordinary, workaday resident. London is a place where the “Princess waved/smiled/gestured” at a narrator taking a walk and is the place “where cats and / such can look upon a queen,” but it’s also the place where narrators stumble across absurdly petulant and oblivious royal correspondence, where the social pressures weigh so heavily that those who fail are apt to fall “thru the modern world to a stone- / age period in full view of everyone” and where death is “shocking, raw and / untold.” Despite London’s many charms and majesties, Newton resists the allure of topographical verse. London is too perilous: “The taxis— / a heavy black mass running / across my paths, across all / the ways of my days. / Quiet and ugly, ugly and / dangerous; tearing past my / shins as I slip past.” It’s also confusing, as the traveler looking for Talbot Gardens finds when a local points him to Talbot Court, Talbot Road, Talbot Avenue and Talbot Crescent before admitting, “Sorry, can’t help anymore.” At least for those readers confused by all the specific references, Newton provides an arbitrary, but helpful, set of notes.
Perceptive and honest, Newton manages to be profound without being abstruse. Though stylistically unremarkable, this is clear-voiced and self-aware poetry that any city dweller will appreciate.