Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Guardian Poem of the week: Showing Me by Sam Gardiner

From The Guardian, another poem and explication in honor of National Poetry Month.

Poem of the week: Showing Me by Sam Gardiner

This week's poem blazes up in celebration of a wonderful moment – but remains on its guard against unguarded delight

Grimsby housing estate
Set on a housing estate in Grimsby, Showing Me 'depends on its location in an un-ideal spot'. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

This week's poem, Showing Me, is from Sam Gardiner's third collection, The Morning After, published last year by Belfast's Lagan Press. Gardiner, originally from Portadown, first attracted the literary establishment's attention when he won the National Poetry Competition in 1993 with a poem called Protestant Windows.

One of those rare writers who is profound and entertaining simultaneously, Gardiner has a comic sense completely embedded in his view of the world. It frequently emerges without the help of rhyme, through a mastery of quick-moving tonal subtleties. He is too spry and questioning a thinker to produce the sort of poem that wholly relies on an epiphany, the celebration of the wonderful moment. That moment is present, and blazes up memorably, in Showing Me, but the narrative that encircles the incident seems on its guard against unguarded delight, if ultimately distrusting its own distrust.

Gardiner has lived for a number of years in Grimsby, and the poem is set on a local housing estate, Nunsthorpe. The force of the poem depends on its location in an un-ideal spot. Our little glimpses of the place are like shots from different angles. It's the poet's eye that sees the trees, made strange and interesting in the first two lines by minor acts of vandalism. In the last stanza, and elsewhere, the register is chillier, the tone a parody of the official, short-hand dismissal: "high crime, low income…"

Another distancing device, a favourite in Gardiner's poetry, shows the speaker awkwardly engaged in manual work. He is self-deprecating and meticulous as he outlines the process. The precision of his description, here, grounds the poem so effectively that it would seem an act of pretentiousness on the part of the reader to load the activities described with metaphor. But of course you can't help noticing how the laborious adult task of car maintenance contrasts with the joyful and effortless-seeming display of the child. The poem is not perhaps about growing up disadvantaged, but about the disadvantage inherent in growing up.

Transformation begins with a voice, one that the hearer distrusts. When he sees the child, he remains distrustful. But the image is gradually made to blossom out of the desert, and the child's request ("Can I show you something?") is pulled free of corrupt associations. The poem makes us wait, and makes us tremble on the brink of "the perils of accepting favours from strange children" – wittily though this is expressed. That clever line-break "angel-/like" is a miniature story in itself. Gardiner is not the kind of poet who flinches from the unpleasant or un-poetic, and it's perfectly possible that the poem could take an alarming turn.

Instead, what happens disarms the cynic. The child's skipping performance is magical. It turns the gloomy planet Saturn into "the dancing planet". Stanza four captures that joy in accomplishment which is the best part of childhood, the best part of learning. But the poem doesn't allow us to forget that things are not altogether right: the child's clothes, the fact that she talks to strangers, the poverty of the setting. The beautiful achievement is despite, not because of, her surroundings.

The poem returns to its framing device with a vengeance. The speaker has managed to unscrew the air-filter, but his victory serves to bring in that angry gesture of "one last wrenching twist" and the sardonic observation about "the dust/ and grime from better, more desirable places." It's tempting to read in the conclusion a suggestion that the air around this child and the others on the estate is clogged by the very existence of these more privileged places elsewhere – places which are richer, but no less a source of pollution.

Showing Me

Both bicycle tyre tree and variegated
plastic bag tree are native to Nunsthorpe.
'Hello? Can I show you something?'
Can't be for me. A clear young voice
for someone else. I carry on wringing
the thread of the bolt that holds the filter
in place. Gothick vandalism, stray dogs,
drugs, 2,000 watt halogen security lights.
'Hello? Can I show you something?'

Easing my head from the bonnet I am
accosted by a girl aged 7 or 8
wearing a white calf-length T-shirt hemmed
with purple flowers, eager to show me
something. Conscious of the perils of accepting
favours from strange children, however angel-
like, I make a sort of non-committal sound.

Smartly she places a ball on the ground,
not quite football size, ringed with
a protruding rim in rainbow plastic. One foot
either side of this miniature Saturn
she begins to bounce. Careful, that's right.

And then, with a rope uncoiled from nowhere,
to skip, the rope slapping the footpath mid-
bounce. Sweet and supple inside
her too big, too white t-shirt she bounces
high, leaps higher with delight, hair flying,
arms turning, legs springing, showing me.

Happy that I've been shown, she winds down
cautiously to finish with a little hop.
'Lovely,' I tell her. 'You are clever.'
Suddenly shy, she smiles, hastily coils
her skipping rope and runs off with Saturn,
the dancing planet, tucked under her arm.

The air filter is no freer than before,
but the bolt is painfully de-threading itself.
High crime, low income Nunsthorpe,
the home of the five-lever lock and a fearless
innocence. With one last wrenching twist
the filter comes away, clogged with dust
and grime from better, more desirable places.

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