Angela France’s Lessons in Mallemaroking
Lessons In Mallemaroking
Nine Arches Press Price: £5.00
What, you may ask, is mallemaroking? I’ll lay odds you look it up, even though Angela France tells you honestly in the title poem. “The drunken carousing of sailors on ice-bound whaling ships in Greenland”. OK — but why would one need lessons in it? After spending time with this gem of a collection, you will have no further need to ask.
Angela France is ill at ease with straightforward confessional narration. She expresses that awkwardness in the opening poem, ‘First Person’.
I’ve never been one much impressed by concrete poetry but by this “I”, I was well and truly Rorschached. It is a human figure. It has a head made of centred lines (a conventional no-no in poetry these days) and in it are all the echoes — I, aye, eye — a string of possibilities that end in a promise — I won’t lie.
Then comes an upper body with two sides. The right and left sides, right and left aligned on the page, are two separate poems, one the I of a woman in the wisdom of her middle years, real and made of memory and experience, the other a series of bold extrapolations from observation and imagination. It took me a while to see that the two sides can be read as one, straight across the page, over the spine of the figure and through the heart of it.
In the final stanza, the belly of my imagined figure, the two come together and I could literally see what the poet is saying. The craftsmanship delights me.
The figure has no legs. My fellow-readers and I are its legs. They take us into the rest of the collection.
The title poem illustrates one of the poet’s ways of working. She speaks drunkenly from an icebound whaling ship in Greenland in words we all recognise. We can join her aboard ship because we know what ice is, what powerlessness is, what fear is. We don’t need lessons because we already know, she only shows us.
Sing to salt,
the crack and groan of ice,
to brace the ship’s back
as it moans and creaks
in the grip of frozen tide.
Drink for the pitch and roll,
to pretend the deck moves,
the bilge-water doesn’t tilt,
that lines still slide in the hold …
A great many of these poems are manifestations of abstract nouns, giving us leave to use our own experience to understand them.
When Maggie Dances
in the bus shelter
only a soft-shoe jig will fit
the space; arms by her side,
chin up, her eyes fixed high
above the heads of watchers …
there is no physical description beyond that of her feet rolling over the sides of the wide brown shoes, so who showed me the odd-angled kirby grips above the ears, the skirt-hem dipping below the clean but shapeless raincoat? I did. Because the poem gave me permission. We all know Maggie.
‘Bad Tidings’ awakes the sense of waiting for something bad to happen. A flood-threatened community waiting for the next high tide. Will it, won’t it? We can go anywhere from here — to the supposed experience of Katrina or to some flood of our own.
What do your reader-guts feel about those blandfaced Russian dolls, each within another? Read ‘Matryoshka’ to be put in touch with it.
It’s all in the words, the wonderful words; the clues, the keys, the sheer communication of the thing. Maybe none of these poems will change your mind, but all of them will open it.
Having mastered the skills of mallemaroking, we can use them to indulge in its English equivalent, a shrill command on the bosun’s pipe after a long time at sea: “Hands to Dance and Skylark”. The collection is a box of mysterious toys, dripping with possibilities. Pick them up and play with them. It will be time well spent.