Penniless Press Publications
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Named after a former town-centre street, Thunder Alley is a remarkable account of contemporary Blackburn and its people. This is a place where, in the author’s hands, even the mundane seems extraordinary, from the disabled veteran Mr Brown who escapes into a jigsaw; the Polish Barber unable to forget, to the genial tramp who simply vanished. The language is fresh and immediate; the poems are lucid and by turns, harrowing, stark, playful and wise. It is Blackburn, but you could be anywhere.
Buy Mark Ward’s Thunder Alley and you won’t be disappointed.
These drawn-from-life poems are sharply written, deftly observed and shot with humour. What more could you possibly want?
John Hartley Williams
This is the world as we know it, or think we know it: the focus is intense and compelling, but always eloquent and lyrical. The narratives are full of unsettling detail, edgy and profound, but compassion underpins everything. This is a moving collection, full of wisdom and insight, beautifully crafted, it holds a mirror up to the world and says: look, this is what we are.
These poems are stubbornly human in the face of inhumanity, and infused with that hint of the Romantic, where even as despair and emptiness is faced unflinchingly they rage utterly against the dying of the light.
Unprompted, he can casually dispense
a razor to the cheek of innocence,
carving his problems in his victim’s face:
a white-bone pelmet; a sagging crimson drape.
Whenever he gets troubled, bored or stressed,
a gasbag brings him temporary oblivion.
The girl he meets is suitably impressed,
and he fucks her in the park by the pavilion.
At fifteen, she’s pregnant with his child.
He gifts her a bracelet and some trainers:
ignores her when his hooded mates are round,
and kicks her for the slightest misdemeanour.
‘Things will improve when the baby arrives,’
she tells herself, tasting his boot in her mouth.
It is important when passing through this life
to leave some record of ones journey.
Fairly straightforward, this martyrdom thing.
Blind faith: semtex and a ticket one-way.
Where to? Well that’s entirely down to physics.
This elegy records his earthly stay.
He could have been a doctor or lawyer.
A teacher; someone held in high esteem.
He never realized his full potential.
Full many a flower was born to blush unseen.
His life was brief and unremarkable.
He died abroad with malice in his heart:
dispatched among the scorched and carbonised,
the guiltless amputees with shattered lives.
Formless; reduced to ounces, blood and fat
slather on the walls of a Tel-Aviv bar.
Remember the 70s; the Skinheads,
the Sex Pistols, Carlos the Jackal,
mayhem on the terraces: the three-day week.
Picketing gravediggers, blackouts and bombs.
The I.R.A was toasting its success
while some poor bastard was getting his head
kicked in, for his simply being Irish;
and not for anything he’d done or said!
And spare a thought for Jimmy McGuerter.
On his way home with a fish supper in
the aftermath of Mountbatten’s murder . . .
They punched and kicked him so hard that his head
burst open on the pavement like a ripe fruit.
His subsequent meals, ingested through tubes.
The fat kid with the jam-jars always copped
or those too clever, beautiful or black;
or gay, or just plain different – their riposte;
to learn self-ridicule, or join the pack.
Those too shy or lacking self-esteem,
and often friends with whom they might confide,
could find each day a harrowing ordeal:
tormented to the verge of suicide.
And racism itself is non-exclusive.
The fat kid with the jam-jars understands.
As one we are generous and inclusive.
As tribes we seem by nature, partisan.
When our streets form galleries of commonwealth.
Through every painted frame you see yourself.
Mark Ward works in Grasmere, tending to the grounds of Dove Cottage. He was born in Blackburn but is widely travelled and has done interesting jobs in far-flung places. This collection is principally located in his home town and takes its title from one of its streets. There is nothing of the professional northerner about Ward, nor does he play to any northern stereotype. The angle of his poems is always straight. He doesn’t do anything tricksy or clever-clever. He doesn’t play the poetic chameleon. I’m reminded of Einstein comparing Beethoven with Bach and saying the latter was almost pure music while the former was dramatic, almost personal. You could say Ward writes a Bach-like poem: it seeks for purity of expression. Its leathery language wants to force out the personal, the dramatic so that a near purity of expression allows them their place outside the poem. There’s a poem called The Mansion of Aching Hearts which exemplifies this:
At the former Union Workhouse on the hill,
they’d sit in soporific bliss and stare
The lines are attractively rhythmical and the sibilants of the second carefully chosen but unobtrusive. Ward has that capacity to weave in clever poetic uses without drawing attention to them. You can read the poem without noticing them, just as its meaning is subtle as a gentle smile. It’s typical of Ward’s capacity to suck significance into a poem and to hold it within the solid bricks and mortar of a robustly built piece. The workhouse is a metaphor for a set of social relations long since surpassed but whose legacy we still endure. But this is a former workhouse it’s poor inmates replaced by the mad and mentally defective till its closure. The tact of the poem is to withhold the flood of questions and doubts it engenders. The ghosts of the Victorian poor and the shades of the distressed minds no-one knew how to deal with or wanted to acknowledge haunt this beautiful poem. Not all the poems are as memorable as this. There are some almost throwaway pieces; Regret vi for example. The collection might have been better without them but they don’t mar in any real way. My guess is they were included for change of tone and to introduce humour. He can be effectively funny, as the Regret poems (there are ten of them) show. Spanish Lament for example nicely spikes how things that seem to change often remain the same, a good lesson in our spectacular (in the Debordian sense) society; but a piece like Cycles shows his real talent. I would say a social historian of the future wanting to understand what happened to the British sensibility in the years after 1979 might well be advised to start with this poem. In fourteen lines he sums up all that is meant by dumbing down, the broken society, feral youth, cultural coarsening and many more fairly impotent clichés of our time. We are, of course, in denial about what Ward is exploring here. We are supposed to believe it is a marginal phenomenon; but the poem gets it right: we all know this viciousness is now central to how we relate to one another, however various its forms. Shadows too is an excellent poem about danger, abuse and the perilousness of innocence. It exemplifies Ward’s quiet, reserved, concentrated style. When he lapses from this he becomes less individual but it is a high achievement that, though his work is not radically different in means from that of many contemporary poets, he has succeeded in finding a territory, which though not extensive is recognisably his own.
Alan Dent. ‘Mistress Quickly’s Bed’