Rory Waterman’s debut collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over, is a volume of rich yet sombre poems that focus on the generation gap, estrangement, and the most acute of memories.
It casts a wizened – if sometimes pained – eye to the past, fuelled by the vulnerability that comes with the irreversible discovery of life’s harshest lessons.
Sometimes this discovery is premature, sometimes it’s overdue, and sometimes it’s just a stain on the memory that stubbornly refuses to let go. ‘Home will never, quite, be waiting / The way it was’ when a family’s beloved pet dies. ‘I thought of me; the you in me, in us’, says another narrator who witnesses a suicide.
Waterman’s is a voice that tells stories straightforwardly and sympathetically, adopting a range of unusual character positions to give meaning to many forgotten forms of life. Doing so recognises the complex and lasting impact of loss.
This is complemented by glimpses of hopefulness. Occasionally, the poems demonstrate that learning about life does not cease with age, and that observation is made more powerful by experience. The opener, ‘Navigating’, proves a useful example. ‘We were happy – weren’t we? – because each bend was blind.’ Phrased as both a statement and a question, we’re alerted to the importance of the other, silent accomplice. We cannot claim to speak for others, but we are drawn to those with similar fascinations and philosophies. That’s a triumph of adulthood.
Where Waterman excels is in the marriage of bold colloquialism with subtlety of form. The story always comes first, which is what makes the volume such gripping reading. But these poems are crafted with care and attention that deserves recognition. Anyone who believes that the art of rhyme is unfashionable could learn much from how it’s employed here. At the same time, it’s for this reason that these poems work more comprehensively as a written medium than a spoken one.
The settings, where presented, are scenic, moody, and immersive. The cat of West Summerdale Avenue ‘knits the air and yawns / a dislocated yawn’. The boatman of ‘Family Business’, tapping a cigarette under shelter, observes the ‘million-pock-marked waters’ as the heavy rain calls a miserable end to the season. He’s an ‘ordinary’ man, we’re told – a term made ambiguous by his accomplice who is ‘damp and tired and bored’ of his ordinariness. The tension is palpable as silence descends; a cracking piece of studied ambivalence. These unflashy poems say no more than they have to, but the language is generously loaded.
Waterman’s verse also provocatively raises the divide between engagement and detachment for its readership. We’re often invited to seek traces of autobiography, such is the uncanny familiarity of feeling which resurfaces time and time again. But the poems consciously resist it too. Despite the involvement, they remain distant and anonymous. We pity the subjects because of what they are – a peer-pressured teenager in ‘Retrospect’, the unwitting victim of adultery in ‘Seeing him off’, the unnamed witness in ‘From a Birmingham Council Flat’ – rather than who they are.
By the time we reach ‘Growing Pains’, the most ostensibly autobiographical segment of the book, we might feel that we’re challenged to keep this principle in mind. We note the grittiness here that we don’t find elsewhere, touches of sarcasm and condescension that sensitively combine the grim experience of adult understanding with the soreness of childlike experience.
Who’s the bestGrowing Pains: Distance, ll. 5-8
at cuddling you and saying never mind
each time you piss the bed? It’s like a test
And you’re the prize…
This layering of present experience over past experience becomes a common theme throughout the volume. ‘West Summerdale Avenue’ reminisces about what came before the modern residential street, with its garden sprinklers and children’s entertainers. The homes of old become sentient, with meaning paradoxically buried ‘by being turned to air’. Nothing escapes the march of progress, but it should not be at the expense of the history that forged it. Waterman represents the minorities here and throughout: forgotten places, overlooked people, damaged lives.
Tonight the Summer’s Over is a challenging blend of touching and troubling poems delivered in a direct and sorrowful way. It highlights the complexities that lie behind the straightforward, and the simplicity behind complex scenarios. ‘My note reads just: / “It’s good to have you back.” Words can fail.’ Reading this brave and candid collection, it should be impossible not to take something meaningful away from it: reminiscence, nostalgia, solidarity, even gratitude.
Words can fail – but it’s safe to say, I think, that they are largely successful here.