Book Review: Rory Waterman's 'Come Here To This Gate'

Words: Colin Tucker
Thursday 20 June 2024
reading time: min, words

This bravura collection from Rory Waterman will give credence to those who consider him Nottingham’s foremost working poet.

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Earlier this year LeftLion interviewed poet and critic Rory Waterman, whose three previous collections of poetry have won him a growing chorus of admiration, as he prepared to launch the fourth - Come Here To This Gate, which, we were told, combines a personal story of family dementia, a diorama of international scenes including the Korean DMZ, and a final dive into Lincolnshire folklore. Ambitious topics to attempt to weave together - but could he pull it off?

The opening section of the collection focuses on the final year of the life of fellow poet Andrew Waterman - Rory’s father - who is in a care home, slipping into dementia. Rory handles these circumstances delicately, stopping short of sentimentality as he mines the complex relationship between father and son. One poem is a verbatim dialogue; another draws parallels between visits to a deteriorating father and the arranged visits Andrew made to the young Rory in the offices of social services.

In one instance Waterman makes use of a formal sonnet structure to help corral and structure the emotion. Allusions to other works are interknitted elsewhere - a poem from AE Housman, Samuel Beckett’s End Game, the folk song The Parting Glass - these are clearly works with which Rory’s father had been familiar, and through their reference we begin to see the senior poet in sharper focus.

Much of the emotional heft here comes from the honesty to be found in this opening, bolstered with an extract from Andrew Waterman’s journal from 1984. The section concludes at a point just after Andrew’s death, when Rory visits the body (Private Ceremony) and muses on identity - his father’s, his own and theirs collectively - with simple use of the pronouns: you, I, us

If the name Come Here To This Gate rings a distant bell, we’ll remind you that it derives from Ronald Reagan’s famous speech addressing Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate. The opening poem of the second section, which bears the same title, isn’t centred as we might then expect on international relations, but on individuals - apparently real - who face conflict around the world. Each stanza is linked simply by the repeated words “Across…/the border”. 

 

Like a gate with rusty bolts - once you have opened this book you will do well to shut it again.

The poems here are connected via their settings, where a gate is either opened or acts to restrain. These take us through lockdown, personal relationships, house-hunting, descriptions of simple actions. And at this point Waterman broadens the poetic styles and techniques he uses, ranging through semi-prose to humorous rhymed couplets to delicately rhymed quatrains, all with precisely chosen words and descriptors. Several of these vignettes concern the Korean border, clearly originating from his year as ‘writer in residence’ in Bucheon - like Nottingham, a UNESCO City of Literature.

We take a hand-brake turn into the final section, moving from these comparatively minute pictures to Waterman’s modern retellings of Lincolnshire folk tales. After the intensity of the first section and the close-focus of the second, there is a kind of relief to be found in the lighter aspect of these narratives. Yet as in many folk stories, a sense of darkness remains at the margins; otherworldliness and the supernatural. The story is propelled here by regular rhyme and metre but these never become stale, as Waterman skilfully manipulates his end-stopping and running-on, setting up a tension between the expectations of the poetic form and the grammar of his sentences. 

It’s perhaps unusual to sit and read a collection of poems from start to finish, although there is an overall shape to this book that rewarded us for approaching it this way. Later we found ourselves dipping back into Come Here To This Gate - and we expect that we will do so again. As his admirers will know already, Waterman is highly-accomplished in his technicality, but he demonstrates here that he is a sensitive and honest poet too, with a firm grasp on the narrative of his own feelings - and those of others - as well as forming descriptions that will live in the memory.

This is a collection that will suit many moods. It is both engrossing and a statement of real talent. Like a gate with rusty bolts - once you have opened this book you will do well to shut it again.

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