Frances Spurrier reviews Hey Bert (Parthian), the debut collection from Roberto Pastore.
Pastore has previously published a chapbook of poetry. Hey Bert is his debut collection, and a most impressive debut it is from this Cardiff based poet. One of the most striking things about Pastore’s poems is how he builds startling imagery through repeating words and phrases, sometimes along consecutive lines of poetry. But repeated words are not there to bulk the poem out or for effect but to move the meaning forward which they do in surprising ways.
Take this moment
Take this moment that is being
Take this moment that has been
Take this moment and run it through a loop
In ‘This is how the Day Starts’ there are three uses of the word ‘transmitting’ – quite startling given how few connotations attach to this word away from disease and military communications. But the narrator tells us ‘everything is transmitting everything’ which I found rather apt. There are also nine uses of the word ‘hand’ in ‘A Carefully Placed Hand’.
Overuse of repetition might be frowned upon in poetry workshops – certainly for poetry on the page rather than in performance, and page poetry and performance work don’t always speak to each other that well; but Pastore makes this technique work. In fact, he more than makes it work; he makes these pieces shout and sing right where they are on the page.
Then again, some of the poems sound like a chant or a prayer if voiced out loud. Repeated lines naturally form part of a logical progression, rather like a man building a brick wall might choose to repeat some colours in certain patterns.
‘maybe this is how we get through
This is how we get through
Maybe this is how we get through.’
(And no Generation Won)
The work is laid out very simply. There is punctuation but very little. So little in fact that the occasional full stop or exclamation mark becomes noticeable. But fear not. This is no breathless gallop along endless comma and stop free lines waiting for a semblance of meaning to emerge. It is Pastore’s great skill that each line is its own unit, almost its own story. Individual lines carry great responsibility since individual lines are to a great extent their own stanza. Although a few of the pieces take a more traditional stanzaic form, most don’t. The poems gain cohesion from repetition, eye-rhyme and assonance and thematic connections, the work divided into three sections entitled, Throat, Belly, Heart.
Despite the mostly confessional nature of the work, the narrative voice never makes a ploy for pity. None of the lines use devices to grab attention; they simply are.
Much of this poetry feels like it contains within its heart a struggle to outrun the past. In ‘Past Extends’ the poet writes about being locked out of the house as a child and trudging into the hills. Sometimes it’s hard to look back, the narrator tells us, and if you succeed in looking back then what is there to see and how bearable is it?
The past’s a tightrope
Are you with me?
The past’s a tightrope
Don’t look down don’t look back
Some of the quietest lines bear the weight of great responsibility. In ‘The Contents of a Human Body’, the line my father taught me silence is worryingly ambiguous on themes of abuse:
Papa’s death is a mountain I keep looking up at
Papa’s death is a bear I keep feeding
My only quibble – if it can even be called a quibble – is that the subject matter of the book relies too heavily on the personal and confessional. The poet must follow his/her muse, but as the planet faces a deepening crisis is purely confessional work any longer enough?
Only the very last poem in Pastore’s book ‘This One Thing’ faces up to environmental catastrophe, but then the tenor of the poetry seems to collapse into a form of nihilism:
‘let the old men rant until they choke
let them castrate the forests the oceans the bright magnificent sky’
let us all be defeated in the end’
A sort of poetic throwing in the towel rather than not going gentle. We all bear responsibility for climate breakdown, it is not age or gender related, not really ‘them’ at all but ‘us’. But these are minor complaints. This is profound poetry, spiritual and wise and while engaging with difficult themes (life often being a difficult business) it does so with grace and some humour.
Hey Bert by Roberto Pastore is available now from Parthian Books.