Waterman offers us a desperately sad poetry born, not out of 'misery memoirs'
style abuse, but the damage parents can do by too much love. His parents' custody
battle is tracked in detail and the resulting scars impact on his adult
encounters creating a fractured world-view and pessimistic outlook Added to this, many of the tragic
events of his adult life leave one feeling also that he has just had an unfair
share of bad luck. The title also prepares us both for nature's central role
and its inability to provide adequate compensation ('The moon flutters a
meaningless smile / and on the surface it skits everywhere.' ('The Lake')
Throughout, his understated, conversational tone makes for subtlety that
rewards revisiting the poems.
He begins with a number of poems that reveal parents unable to behave for
their child's sake. He sets the scene for this with his adult view of his
two-year-old self that packs a punch with its plain words: 'face, trapped in
cute consternation, lets me know / through widened eyes that what happens to
him matters.' ('Two') From here the sequence 'Growing Pains' examines his
complex confused identity due to his father's long distance attempts to
instill some sense of his Irish roots: 'the Irish me that never was.' It is
clear that he doesn't succeed but he is little more satisfied with his
And mourned the loss of
all these things
I'd never had and always
and grew, estranged from
and desperate to get out
In 'On Derry City Walls, 1992' his father's Irish songs become 'solder
between / us Mum couldn't use' but in 'Access Visit' he attempts a more fair
and balanced account, where although he continues to show his playing off of
his parents, he acknowledges his father's alcoholism as a contributory
cause. He finally accepts that
his father has made him what he has become - a realization that our adult
selves are the product of these experiences, dysfunctional or not - all
conveyed in a tone of telling it like it is:
And then, at six, my taxi
home; a cuddle
before I left you waving
at the corner,
bound for my mother, our
monthly weekend over.
And she would always seem
a little warmer
then when I left, and I'd
be slightly colder.
How could I know what and
The Wig and Mitre's now
Widow Cullen's Well.
The snugs have been
pulled out, the walls made bare;
but the place still has
the same sweet, musty smell
and I'm going in for a
drink again because
I know I'll find a part
of us in there.
The whole collection leaves one feeling that this childhood has left its mark
on every later experience. In 'Compulsions' we see how as a teenager
repressed rage comes to the surface: 'when the small foul egg of resentment
gave birth to a crack'. Poems on children all seem to reflect his own
fractured childhood even when they are other people's narratives. 'The Family
Business' has all the qualities of a short short story and we are left
wondering whether this child who clearly works in the business with her
father has a childhood at all - the father is showing some form of care but
something seems out of kilter:
She glances at the
then shuts her eyes:
she's damp and tired Éand bored.
He drives more gently.
Neither says a word.
There is a kind of anti-nostalgia childhood feel to so many of the poems.
'Visiting Grandpa' has adults who don't seem to understand children, while
in 'Nettles' he gives her the grandmother digging 'for rhubarb that we never
/ for pies we never made'.This is poetry about aspirations not realized, but
nevertheless he still argues the need to make the effort, as he says in 'Navigating'
we must pursue and not expect to find'.
The fracture and darkness of these poems is pretty unrelenting. Repeatedly a
lack of trust or just bad luck has brought him close to many traumatic
experiences - suicde, brain
damage of a sibling, we assume, death of a baby, things going wrong in a
personal relationships but all conveyed from aslant without giving too much
away. We have the man who dies unnoticed: 'And no one cried / at the sight of
the wedding album or patches of damp, / or wondered what he'd bothered living
for' ('From a Birmingham Council Flat'), or the desperately sad breakup in
'Broadlands': 'The season was ending and so were we.' One looks to no avail for
Shakespeare's porter to come in with a bit of light relief.
This said, one does get the impression that Waterman wishes to draw on nature
as a restorative. He does
succeed in this occasionally but only as light squibs in a dark landscape.
This of course all makes for great poetry, but poetry to be read with a
health warning - this is poetry that often suggests both that 'hell is other
people' and that life for the most part inflicts damage. In the case of
Waterman, he makes no secret about where that damage has come from.
© Belinda Cooke