by John Wright
Though my experience with poetry collections is not expansive, I do wonder if a memoir-in-poetry is a more unusual form. I suppose by "memoir," I mean something closer to autobiography in that the bulk of a life is represented, rather than a single or handful of formative events. John Wright's Cheshire Born follows the trajectory of a childhood spent in England and Ireland, and his adulthood and medical career in Australia, the poems acting as snapshots. Wright is thoughtful and quietly exuberant with his memories, and he's created a rather satisfying book of poetry. Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
I found the back cover copy a little overdone in that it read more like a press release than a summary, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. Wright spent his summers in County Mayo, Ireland, on his granddad's farm, and I knew of the place from interviews with Liam and Noel Gallagher, whose mother's family comes from there. Wright's age puts him about twenty years older than the Gallaghers, so his experiences probably overlap more with their mother, Peggy. Cheshire and Manchester are of course different places, but my interest also stems from trying to get a sense of the English experience during that time. Americans, it seems, have a habit of only (barely) learning their own history, and I'm a fool for being contrary.
Down our road, the Maloneys
were the only ones who had a phone.
They took messages if it wasn't too often.
One came for Mum one day of miserable
drizzle and their Michael brought it over.
He didn't like knocking on doors, so danced
on the pavement behind the privet hedge
all wet and waving, until someone noticed.
When Mum saw him, she opened the window
and leaned out to ask: "What's up, Michael?"
He took a deep asthmatic breath to announce
to all the peeping curtains along the street
the important message he held in his head
yelling as loud as he could: "Yer Dad's dead!"
At 16, Wright takes a trip to Holland, "launched into another world beyond childhood, on a whim for two weeks on my own." He takes the train all around the country, unsure what he wants to do or where to go, though like many, he ends up in Amsterdam:
I stopped on the brink of a dark canal
and dived into a froth of fireworks
that ignited the sky below. It was a bad trip.
The bursting rainbows all turned black.
- from "Brewery"
A few years later, he moves to Australia and works with elderly patients, most of whom are mentally deficient in some way. While previous poems in the book have a carefree air — an easy, normal childhood, basically — it is here where Wright grows up, and the poems are sad and full of truth:
At dawn I found him in the bathroom sobbing
unable to contain the shock, the embarrassing
nightmare of a tidy man realizing an awful event.
For him, this beginning of the end could not be
- from "Admission"
The poems continue as he gets older, and there are tributes to friends and family, and while his writing style is very simple and straightforward, it's very effective. We experience (or remember) these events right along with him. I appreciate that Wright is a person with a full on other career, yet he still makes time to create his particular form of art. His bio says he's had poems published since the 1980s, and to constantly keep at his writing is something I wish more people with other jobs would realize they can do. One is not "only" a nurse, "only" a parent, or whatever else it is they do. Our complex nature should allow for so much more.
I don't know how much attention Cheshire Born or John Wright himself have received in the US, though the book is from an American publisher. I also don't know how known he is in Australia, despite his publication history. I do hope that Cheshire Born finds an audience though because Wright has a talent for prose poetry. If nothing else, he offers another way to consider writing about our lives. His book proves that a collection of small moments can make for a fulfilling whole.
Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by a PR rep. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year. Yes, I'm just going to keep soldiering on.