Poetry Review: A Whole Day Through From Waking by Jacci Bulman

Jacci Bulman poetry collectionWritten in a bare, modest style, Jacci Bulman’s first poetry collection explores life in all its frailty and vulnerability. The language hooks you in, following the story inside each individual poem. Bulman plays with punctuation and form to reveal a raw, broken humanity. Themes include the uncertainties of youth, the agonising reality of grief and illness, and a celebration of life and hope.   

There is a vein of sadness which runs throughout this collection, which is no surprise, given that Bulman has experienced the trauma of dealing with a brain tumour, being diagnosed with skin cancer, and losing a loved one from drug abuse. There is a particularly vivid portrayal of the loneliness of grief, how it haunts us, in ‘Hanoi Cocktail’:

I sit until I can’t stand my empty glass,

get up, head back to the hotel,

feeling followed by

 

the lack of you.

In some of the poems there is a sense in which the poet’s language seems to fall apart, showing us the disconnection brought on by pain and grief. ‘visit the open unit’ contains no punctuation other than line breaks and spaces, presenting a series of tangible images, like layers of reality and unreality:

his eyes bloodshot  me looking into one

at a time  asking for the sphinx to move

 

kissing the taste of drink  of drugs tasting me

near numb remembering I feel nothing

One poem, entitled ‘My grief, now you ask’ is a courageous attempt to put this experience directly into words. I found it both cathartic and frustrating, but perhaps that is the point. Phrases such as “Miniscule / as an ant I can fold my fingers around,” and “almost big enough to fill a dandelion seed / – waiting to be blown – ” seem both alien and tame, yet also portray the dual solidity and intangibility of grief.

There are gems of beauty amidst the pain. In ‘noon in the stable’ the poet expresses the innate desire within us to grieve for the loss of something before it has gone…

I want to stop something beautiful

before something beautiful is stopped

and I go

In ‘Hands in Jacket Pockets’ there is the acknowledgement that life is fragile, “I watch your thin strip of life, / blurred edges… how small we are,” whilst also illustrating how important people are to each other, how life is to be treasured and enjoyed: “tonight we are bigger than the sky”.

I particularly liked reading the series of poems inspired by working in a Vietnamese orphanage. In ‘Meal Out’, for example, the poet meets a boy from a tribe “where newborn babies are buried / with mothers who die giving birth” and you get a sense of how people are still able to connect, despite coming from disparate worlds…

We sit at the table

eating prawns,

trying to talk about football,

like we’re a stretched out concertina,

the same air between us.

The most moving poem in the collection is ‘Khanh’, inspired by a boy from the orphanage, after whom they named The Khianh Foundation (a charity for children with disabilities). It describes how “He can’t walk or talk…” but “He has somehow forgiven / God, the world, his country, his family…” and, in doing so, “has gained something / I can’t get into focus, / but it is grace.”

In many of the poems, such as ‘Cumberland Infirmary Dermatology Unit, 1pm,’ we get an honest sense of the desperation felt by someone experiencing the reality of their own mortality, and the trauma of illness:

I prayed more,

uttered I ask, I ask, then added

I trust I trust, until I wasn’t sure

which came first…

Then, in poems such as ‘This isn’t a horror’, we see the irony of life, as the poet walks into a gallery, looking for “weird art”, only to become the art herself, when a photographer approaches her. Even then, there is an emphasis on our inability and reluctance to express things through language, as the photographer wants to “show someone can be beautiful / while also disfigured” but is unable to admit this.

Other poems explore the Christian faith in various ways. Reacting to (and agreeing with) Stevie Smith’s ‘Airy Christ’, Bulman’s poem ‘Shapeless’ questions the strange “magic” of belief in Christ:

He was out of a virgin, perhaps,

and rose from the dead – maybe.

In between this – kind healing, little miracles.

I believe it’s possible. Life is magic, after all.

Poems such as ‘Magic Roundabout’ continue this theme, with a portrayal of life as a merry-go-round, where “you are not in charge of the carousel” and there is a realisation that the rider is afraid of death: “…to go into that alone / would be too shattering / if it stopped.”

Bulman’s collection illustrates the reality of human suffering, but also celebrates the way in which we relate to each other, and highlights the importance of connecting and communicating. There are poems which contemplate faith, the mysterious connection between people and God, and others which acknowledge our brokenness and pain. Throughout the book, there is a sense of love, as the glue which holds everything together, alongside a sense of something else, just beyond reach, “something / we cannot put in a shape, / no matter how we wish we could.”

Visit the Cinnamon Press website for more details, or to buy the book.

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

4 thoughts on “Poetry Review: A Whole Day Through From Waking by Jacci Bulman

  1. I’m so uplifted by Rachel’s review of my collection that I’d like to respond to Dave Sissons’ questions about my line-endings, and this form in ‘contemporary poetry’. Like many poets, when I craft a poem I read it out loud many times, and line or stanza breaks need to match with my own pauses, my need to bring ‘space’ to the poem. Even if a line has no comma or punctuation at the end, it still has a ‘half-pause’ which you can perhaps only feel, more than hear. The line-end alternatives which Dave offers do not go with how I would read out the poem. And, as Rachel suggests, sometimes a space on the page causes a slowing, or emphasises something. Funnily enough I probably worked on the ‘shape’ of this poem more than any other in the collection, because the scene I wanted to create was like a scene in a movie, small things representing how weird/broken up/displaced I felt right then…I had actually just left the children at the orphanage to head back to England, and this was another big part of my grief, or ‘lacking’…a grief that clarified itself in me, just as I hope the grief in the poem gradually becomes clear…I hope that helps?!

    • Thanks for your response Jacci, and it’s fascinating to hear your explanation about the line breaks. I’m glad you appreciated the review.

  2. ‘I sit until I can’t stand my empty glass,

    get up, head back to the hotel,

    feeling followed by

    the lack of you.’

    I’ve picked this extract as an example of what I think is wrong with contemporary poetry. Suppose I wrote it out like this:

    ‘I sit until I can’t stand my empty glass, get up, head back to the hotel, feeling followed by the lack of you’.

    Or what about this:

    ‘I sit
    until I can’t stand my empty glass,

    get up,
    head back to the hotel,

    feeling followed
    by the lack of you’.

    Or this:

    ‘I sit until I can’t stand my empty glass,
    get up, head back to the hotel,
    feeling followed by the lack of you’.

    If this extract is read aloud at a poetry reading it makes no difference how the words are arranged on the page. The arrangement then must be meant to work on the page. So tell me, someone – why is it arranged the way it is arranged? And why are my variations not as good?

    • Every reading of a poem will be different, but here’s my interpretation…

      The first three lines each signify a progression in movement and thought. The first line describes the frustration of sitting in a bar by oneself, the second shows the person getting up to go, the third shows them realising that they cannot leave their loneliness and grief behind, because it “follows” them.

      The fact that they are split up like this, rather than all in one line, acts to slow down the pace and affect the mood (like a slow sad song, rather than an upbeat one), making it more significant when we reach the stanza break, between the third and fourth lines. This gap visually (and audibly, if you read it aloud) illustrates the absence of the person who is no longer there, and the sense of loneliness you feel when constantly haunted by memories of someone.
      (NB. The comments section of my blog site won’t display this gap – see the quote in the post above)

      At a reading, if the poet reads their work well, they will convey all this without you needing to see the page. But I always enjoy seeing the poem itself. I write my own poetry both visually and for the ear. And I expect a lot of poets do that. Often a poem will have a kind of rhythm of its own, not necessarily something that can be analysed, but that’s part of the magic of the craft.

      Also, just to point out, this was just 4 lines taken out of a longer poem to illustrate something in particular. The poem should really be read as a whole, but I don’t have permission to print the entire piece.

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