Review – D. M. Black, The Arrow Maker

88pp, £9.99, Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden OL14 6DA

The idea of love is at the core of The Arrow Maker. Different poems present examples of it in very different senses – love of community or children, kindness to strangers, care for the environment, concern for the suffering. Diverse as these takes on love may seem, we’re encouraged to think about the relationship between them by others that express the idea in more general terms: “St Francis in Winter”, “The Buddha Amit?bha”, and three translations from Dante. Black’s tone is far from didactic, though. His whole approach is humane and open-minded, pragmatic as well as tentatively visionary, and suffused by gentle humour.

Subtle thinking in poetry demands subtlety of syntax and metre. A remarkable triumph in this way is “Self-Reliance”, in which a single arc of thought evolves through a complex, 21 line sentence. This is beautifully paced to suggest meditative deliberation while maintaining a steady momentum. In the end it gathers to a quietly startling climax that changes your perspective on everything that’s gone before. Throughout the whole book, Black shows himself a master of the self-questioning cadence and rhythms suggesting the pursuit of an elusive idea.

Such sensitivity of construction allows the poems to present thought through constantly shifting angles. They’re also enriched by intertextual reference. Admittedly, few people will be familiar with all the cultural contexts informing this book. “Classical”, a compassionate reflection on Ezra Pound’s treasonable support for Mussolini, shows how skilfully Black serves both those who do pick up the relevant allusions and those who don’t. There are poignant gains in resonance for those who know Pound’s life and recognize references to the Cantos. However, by refiguring Mussolini as a cottaging seducer and Pound as his silly victim Black both makes the poem meaningful for those who’re vague about Pound and – blasting things into a wider perspective – makes his fall one tragic instance of general human frailty:

You with an ear and eye
as sharp as any in poetry, fell for that pumped-up
fraudster’s bombast and forgot
that courage lay in mastering vanity
and not in swooning when some manly jawbone
beckoned you to the latrines…

The three-parter, “Ages of Man: Breaking the News” is particularly rich and enjoyable. Inspired, we’re told, by an exhibition of Ice Age art, it imagines the changing relations between the sexes over time. The first two sections brilliantly present the jagged, swerving, fearful ambivalence of early men’s feelings about women, the world, and themselves. I say men’s but it’s all expressed in terms of a generic he so these historical stages are also stages in the life of a single man. In the third section forest floor and Ice Age hut give way to a modern kitchen, he becomes a senior citizen about to be a grandfather, and the storm of conflicting emotions is replaced by joy lifted on a surge of thrillingly fluid, multi-layered wonder:

Now on a different floor he stands at ease
by the sink in a sunlit kitchen, coming events
casting their radiance before. His daughter
brightens the sunlight as she talks, her smiling
eyes on his, and he is smiling too,
though serious. He jokes – what will they call
the as-yet-ungendered infant? – and their agenda
is practical: prenatal yoga, breast-feeding,
and the years that are taken for granted. He
is calm, delighted, and restrains
as best he can the astonishment within…


I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review originally published in The North 60. I’ve made some slight changes of wording for the sake of clarity but without adding to or modifying the substance of the original piece.


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