By John Freeman

Worple Press. 136 pages. £10. ISBN 978-1-905208-36-4

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

The thing that immediately strikes me about John Freeman’s poems is their consistency – of tone, of rhythm, of clarity. There is a sure voice in evidence at all times, and it’s a confident one that, to me, has sprung from years of writing and of perfecting his skills. If the list of his previous publications is a guide, Freeman has been publishing in magazines and with small presses since the early 1970s. And from what I know of his work, it occurs to me that recent years have seen the “apprenticeship” come to fruition. A collection of his poems doesn’t read like so many books of poetry, as an assemblage of loosely-related pieces, but instead offers a rolling account of a life, with its interests, experiences, and involvements.

What is particularly affecting is the way in which a poem, and I’m conscious of this whole book being, in a sense, really one poem, can be triggered by a small incident or observation:

I didn’t think about the light until you                                                                                           
told me this path along the river Lea                                                                                        
was where you used to run with your friend Jan.                                                                                  
It was one of your centres of the world.                                                                                                  
My hand closed over the camera I’d slipped                                                                                      
into my jacket and forgotten about,                                                                                                   
and I took photographs of you, smiling,                                                                                             
with the houseboats and the lock behind you.

I could have easily selected half-a-dozen or more other openings to individual poems to illustrate what I find attractive in the writing. It’s the relaxed, and friendly way, in which the reader is invited into the poet’s world. I was also made to think of something that the American poet, Thomas McGrath, said when talking about writing long and short poems. He thought that the best poets essentially construct a long poem, even when they’re writing short ones. His view can, perhaps, be challenged, but if I wanted to support it I’d be inclined to point to John Freeman as someone whose work does add up to what is essentially one long poem.

It’s true that individual poems can be read for their own sake. They don’t necessarily need to be seen in relation to other poems. But they can take on extra meaning if they are. As in life, where we partake in a series of activities which might not appear, on the surface, to be directly related, they form a pattern that defines us:

I sit surrounded by people who all seem                                                                                        
iller than I think I am, older, or both.                                                                                       
A man passes us slowly with a stick,                                                                                            
his face expressionless with resignation,                                                                                            
and no one else is much more animated.

No fireworks, no attempt to startle, and what is referred to seems ordinary, but it places both poet and reader in a position where the ordinary takes on significance. Freeman has a poem which pays tribute to Jack Gilbert, someone who writes “about his life, and poetry’s what he lives for.” It’s a phrase that could sum up what John Freeman does so well.