Poetry Review: Beginning With Your Last Breath by Roy McFarlane

poetry book Roy McFarlaneBeginning With Your Last Breath is a rich, powerful and moving debut from Roy McFarlane, a poet based in the West Midlands. It is split into five distinct sections, each one exploring a different aspect of the poet’s experience. But the book holds together through the shared themes of identity, family, love and loss, in the context of racial tension and cultural change. The cover image reflects the story of the poems within; it shows a painting by Sonia Boyce – She ain’t holding them up, She’s holding on (Some English Rose), 1986 – the image of the mother figure holding onto her family amidst the struggles of life and racial identity.   

The first poem opens with the momentous line: “The day I was called into my mother’s bedroom”, presenting us with the surreal experience of the poet being told that he was adopted as a baby. The rest of this section follows the same theme, examining the process of growing up and confronting your roots.

I particularly like ‘The weight of knowing’, a villanelle which emphasises the distancing of the poet from his birth mother, using the repeated lines “the woman in the photograph” and “the woman who gave me away”. It is written in the simple language of a child, who must decide whether to respond to her invitation to meet, despite misgivings and the evocative “weight of knowing”.

Another emotive piece is ‘Fragments of a mother and son story’ which narrates the experience of meeting his birth mother for the first time. The first line sets the tone: “I surrendered into the unknown” as he describes travelling through a foreign landscape, which seems to echo the absurdity of the situation: “where streets are wider than football pitches / where drivers are polite to one another”.

The second section explores the experience of growing up as a Black British teenager in Wolverhampton. The carefully constructed poem ‘In memory of boxing’ slips between past and present, as the young poet imagines his father’s early life, working “under the bruising heat of a Caribbean sun” and “hurting / because the chance to go to America has gone”, and then eventually “labouring in the ring of the steel industry / caught up in the cold of the British Isles”. The boxing match is a medium for memory and a metaphor for life – his father has been “fighting” his way through, and is, even now, “fighting the tiredness” as he relaxes in front of the TV.

This fighting motif comes through in other poems too – as the poet’s friend, Bevan, explains “I’m sick and tired / of all this – pointing to the colour of his skin –  / I’m tired of fighting and fitting in” in ‘Saturday Soup’. Then there is ‘The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)’ which illustrates the contradicting emotions of someone who identifies with two places at once. McFarlane uses repetition and rhyme for emphasis:

“Long before the Tebbit test, we – Young Black
British – had been plunged in the cauldron
of brutishness and found no black in the Union Jack”

I like the way he plays with words: “brutishness” echoing ‘Britishness’, the image of a black “cauldron”, and the decisive line break between “Black” and “British”.

The collection is full of symbolism, and paints a vivid picture of life in the West Midlands during the 1980s. You get a strong sense of the place and the people in poems such as ‘Burning with a rage that Babylon would never understand…’ which shows us “Blacks, Asians and Whites caught up / in the Winter of Maggie’s policies” alongside “the lies, the daily abuse, / state sanctioned terror”.

This second section ends with ‘Finding X/Self’, in which the poet feels that he has at last unearthed his true identity, when he finds a book of poetry by the West Indian poet, Edward Kamau Brathwaite:

“Something sings a litany to me
fills my angry African self with belief
weighs heavy on my birthright

spins my triangle back to its beginning
gives me back my obelisk”

The third section begins with ‘A Love Supreme’, a collaboration which McFarlane worked on with the musician Steve Tromans, full of religious imagery and a love of music. The poems in this section focus on love and relationships.

You can tell that many of McFarlane’s poems were written not just to be read but also to be performed. There is a strong focus on the sound of words, with repetition and rhyme, such as the refrain “there’s bikes, bikes everywhere” in ‘A Poet in Amsterdam’. In ‘Tipton’ you can hear the poet’s sheer enjoyment of language: “Tipton, this tongue-tipping / double-syllable of a word”, and the internal rhyme and off-beat rhythm of lines such as “This lost city, quintessentially / Black Country, God’s belly button / of the Universe has got me” would certainly gain power and magnetism when read aloud.

The beautiful, heart-warming poem ‘Nearly There (I)’ ends this section with a spotlight on the father-daughter relationship, and the emotional pull of being the responsible adult, yet knowing that you will one day have to let your offspring go:

“I won’t always be there
when it pours – and it will pour –
to drag you through the rain,”

This leads into the final section, which reflects on the pain of bereavement as the poet describes his mother’s final days. ‘I cried’ is a prose poem which uses the form to its advantage, presenting us with a relentless outpouring of emotion – a string of moments of ecstasy, glorying in the beauty of life, and finishing with grief. Other poems focus on precious moments: rubbing cream into his mother’s leg in hospital, reading Psalms to her, or wishing that “poetry could take the pain away”.

The final poem ‘Nearly There (II)’, echoes the final poem of the previous section – in which the poet appears to remember a childhood experience of beating through a snowstorm, reaching home and comfort at last, with the words of his mother driving him onward in the refrain “I could hear you telling me to keep going on”. But it can also be read as a metaphor for those last moments, bearing the weight of grief as he watches his mother pass away, experiencing the “bombardment” of emotions and the “numbing coldness” of loss. The final repetition of the line: “But I hear you telling me to keep going on” is the only way in which he is able to continue, to cope, to look forward and move on.

I look forward to hearing Roy McFarlane reading at the Verve Poetry Festival this weekend, alongside other poets from Nine Arches Press – Isobel Dixon, Abegail Morley and Robert Peake.

Beginning With Your Last Breath by Roy McFarlane is published by Nine Arches Press.

Declaration: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher.

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