Books Reviews

Review: Oliver Lomax ‘God Missed the Last Bus and Walked Home’ WCML May 2021

By: Josh Brown

Even before you read a single poem you know, this is something special!

There’s the intriguing, quirky title and the 69 acknowledgements listed at the end. Not a dreary collection of names that mean nothing to the reader but genuine loves and influences from Mr Potato Head to Percy Bysse Shelley by way of the likes of Jean Michel Basquait, Echo and the Bunnymen, Eric Cantona, Mark Rothko and Hilda Ogden!! The output is prodigious, this collection of 60 poems over more than 80 pages comes only a year after ‘The Dandelion Clock’ which contained 50. And then there are the endorsements on and in the book. Poets, Natalie Ann Holborow and Hugo Williams; comedian campaigner Mark Thomas; musician and broadcaster Tom Robinson (yes the Tom Robinson); Cerys Matthews (I mean, what Welshman wouldn’t covet a recommendation from Cerys!) and the inimitable Jeff Towns, the ‘Dylan Thomas Guy’, whose recommendation led me to buy the book. If Jeff Towns says this guy is good, I believe it! And he was right.

These are lovely poems by a gifted writer. The subject matter of Oliver’s work is basic, human, caring. He lays bare scenes from working class life, his life, his childhood. Many poems reference his Lancashire family, especially his nan. ‘Working Class Love Poem’ about his grandparents is deeply touching, not sentimentalised but real, raw and beautiful, referencing the troubled interior of a love affair, with heart-wrenching lines like

                              “she was perfecting his memory ever after
and once tore him from a photograph in grief and anger. I would
sometimes see her late at night, crying in the cantilevered light”

Oliver’s poems have that quality that comes from craft and talent, the simplicity and ease that is difficult to achieve. There is no pretention, no cloying ambition to his work. He writes so that his work reads comfortably, needs no contemplation or explanation to understand. It works because it is crafted and because its subject is common to us all, based in empathy and our shared experiences and humanity. These are impassioned, caring poems and God knows we need that after the year we have all shared, as we always need the love and illumination of poets. The great Russian actress and teacher Polina Klimovitskaya said to me of Dylan Thomas that she loved his work because there was no ego in it as there is with so many writers. She was right, I knew immediately what she meant about Dylan’s work. You experience it, the author does not put themselves in the way, even when writing about themselves. This is true of Oliver Lomax. We experience the subjects of his poetry, we feel them and – and this the great poetic achievement—they become a part of us.

Oliver investigates his own history and background with evident love and pride. ‘The Rucksack’ has the oblique method of the poet taking us stealthily from one simple human experience to another that is revealed to be of enormity, and we know that import because he connects the big stories with the human realities history tends to omit or mythologise.

“as he gathers up the silk of his future
and walks towards the war.”

All those sixty-nine diverse persons, real and fictional, listed in Oliver’s acknowledgements are there in these poems. He mixes them together with no thought of mordant propriety the same way Liverpool poets like Adrian Henri did half a century ago. ASDA and WW2 prison camps, Walt Whitman and pitmen (fabulous rhyme). But this is not pretention or irreverence because Oliver, like the marvellous poet Adrian Henri was, knows that this is how life is. You watch Peppa Pig with your grandchild, you glance away at portrait painted by a Spanish artist on your wall, then you hear the news of death somewhere in the world, after reading Byron and listening to an opera aria and a pop tune. Only the cramped conservative mind puts a demarcation between such things; between ‘art’ and the mundane, between culture with a capital ‘C’ and pop. So you get ‘Reading Crow by Ted Hughes On The Train To Liverpool’ (which begins with a quote from Captain Beefheart).

“I can hear my mother singing me
back to birth, as we cut deeper
into bedrock and earth, each chisel mark
blackened my page, pure verb
in its cage”

This is not just poetry. In an era over-supplied with empty verse, this is wonderful poetry. And talking of titles; how about the magnificent ‘Northangerland (for Branwell Bronte 1817-1848)’?

Or quoting Brancusi (“When we are no longer children, we are already dead”) after a childhood memory before

“And I’m older now and the world is new, and I’m lost in the places that once were the truth”

It’s inevitable that, if you are mentored by Jeff Towns, you write one poem ‘after Dylan Thomas’. Poems inspired by Dylan are plenteous, but they tend almost all to be about him or his subjects and often skirt close to the sickly. ‘Gun Turret From A Wellington Bomber’ has no reference to Dylan, his poems or their subject. It is, as its title states, about war. But the style, the evidence of internal rhyme and consonant chiming, is a fitting and rare tribute. And I say that as a lifelong disciple and angry defender of Mr Thomas!

                              “The only way to keep sane
is to find that place, in the heart of the heart
in the heart of the hearts heart”

Beautiful? That, as we say in Wales, is Tidy.

For all the lack of pretention, for all the loving and humanity in Oliver Lomax’s poetry, there is no lack of humour, of wit or commitment. This poetry is not bombastic so when he takes on the government in ‘The Siege’ it’s with a quote from Mark E. Smith and begins

“Armed to the teeth
with their own history and red tape
they arrived at the city gates
the final letter of demand
still in Thatcher’s hand
like a bad remake of Lord of the Flies”

And later

“but then, the ghost of Hilda Ogden
called heavenly over all of them
‘thou shall not pass’”

As a lad from Lancashire, there is pride in that reference! There is fabulous humour too in ‘Free Range’ where two chickens abscond from a battery farm

“And if I die today hen, I know you’d never betray me,
but if they make a film of all this
Don’t let Mel Gibson play me.”

But the poems are not froth and humour. They are, as Jeff Towns described them, “hyper-vivid”. ‘When Will It Rain In A More Democratic Way’ inspired by Albert Camus is a powerful, beautiful poem with lines like

“exchange a thousand truths
for one beautiful rumour
and let others construct sentences
capable of cluster bombing the heart”

It finishes with,

“and unconscious of your own image
carry your sleeping body back across the border
undiminished
whispering I love my country too much
to be a nationalist.”

The last five poems are commissions. ‘Peterloo’ by The Working Class Movement Library who published this and the previous collection of poems was a tribute to the people slaughtered in Petersfield Manchester in 1819 on the orders of Wellington for daring to peacefully demonstrate for equality. It was performed by the actress Maxine Peake at a bi-centenary event. It is impassioned and moving but without the polemical tub-thumping most would-be poets would sink to. Oliver connects this historical outrage to today, gently, subtlety. It is such a brilliant poem it is impossible to select a couple of exemplar lines, you need to read it all. It ends with,

“Look up two hundred years and see time like
a mirage, the ghosts of us, hold their dreams aloft
like something new-born.

And let us sit beside poverty, have a word in its ear.

Say, listen, ‘We are here’.”

I’m a slacker when it comes to reviewing poetry. I don’t bother with poems I don’t like or poets I don’t think are brilliant. I like to write with enthusiasm and direct people to poetry I think is truly worth the time and effort to read. I have the honour to lend my words to someone whose work astounds. Oliver is such a poet. The kind you want to press onto everyone you know, whose work you want to read, and re-read and can’t wait for the next one to be released. Oliver has written for film and TV and for the BBC during lockdown. He was Poet In Residence at the Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea. He works in partnership with the WCML to bring workshops to schools and will be performing at this year’s Laugharne Festival (hopefully). I urge you to buy this and his previous collection. As Cerys Matthews said, “Tidy boy. Tidy poems. Spend your filthy lucre on this book!” Hell Yes!

‘God Missed The Last Bus And Walked Home’ and ‘The Dandelion Clock’ can be purchased from Oliver’s website — oliverjameslomax.com. You can learn more about The Working Class Movement Library at wcml.org.uk

Categories: Books Reviews, Poetry

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