Review: Where The Road Runs Out

'He pops around in his spare time

to bring me something celestial

to put in one of my poems -

an angel's feather in a Jiffy bag,

a clutch of notes plucked from a lyre,

a zephyr in a Marmite jar'

'Reporting Back', p.49

From Where the Road Runs Out

By Gaia Holmes

Comma Press, 2018.

Buy the book: here!

We have intimate relationships with landscapes. Sometimes they are internal. We can tread the milky constellations of our own mythologies and float in our own temporal architectures. These landscapes are home and can be visited by others through the pen, page and screen. However, for others there are physical representations, lands whose curves and colours work as someone's noticeboard, their secret diary and their photograph album. A therapist’s chair molded from sand on a dark day. For me, this is Pendine Sands in South West Wales. Many generations of my family are buried in the church graveyard. The land where many of my wise ancient aunts’ tilled earth, kept cats and baked their way to spinsterhood, while my great grandfather remembered the Second World War and the sweat of Burma. The cliffs look like brittle bones weighted down by vibrant green grass and tiny yellow flowers. These are my bones. They are part of me. Every year as they are worn away little by little by the tide, every year I am worn away little by little by time.

In Holmes’ Where the Road Runs Out, we are invited into her landscape: Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands where Holmes cares for her dying father, while trying to climb the crumbling edges of her past, present and future. In her opening poem ‘And Still We Keep Singing’, Holmes illustrates the mentality needed to survive her landscape, she writes ‘Up here you have to know the language of the wind / you have to understand he manners of mist and riptides / in order to go to sleep singing’ (1). In the first half of this book, this natural harshness is often blended with the dark reality of her father’s cancer. In ‘I Belong Here’ the poet stumbles around in her father’s ‘clay-crusted fleece’ and survives alongside ‘the damp, your denial / the wild and the raw’ (3). In ‘Stone Soup’, her father is ‘landlocked’ and Holmes tries to bring the land to him in ‘old pickle jars’ and ‘pours grains of sand / into [his] cupped palms’ (10). There is suffering in being separated from the landscape we breathe through. Her father begins to hear birds in his own head, a result of the morphine but possibly also an attempt to build himself a retreat, a land, within his body (8-9).

From this theme of separation, there spawns a theme of holes and gaps where our landscapes – internal or physical – are present but not complete. In the beautifully surreal poem ‘The Audition’ (27-28), a woman performs magic and pulls herself apart on stage, only to have the judge look through the hole she has formed and deny her justification. In ‘Holes’ and ‘Kneading’, Holmes describes the gaps in our lives, the pitfalls we navigate and the absences we feel so keenly. Later on in ‘And There Was Just This Monstrous Hole’ (48), Holmes’ character tries to set traps for nothingness after witnessing a sinkhole on the news. I enjoyed these poems particularly, as they illustrate well the side-steps we all take in daily life to avoid looking at those holes; or our overwhelming need to trap them, fill them and drown them out with culture.

However, there are glimpses of hope and life even when these darker themes are at large. In ‘Preservation’, the poet writes how ‘the dull iron footbridge / over the reservoir / starts to chirrup and sing’ (19). In many of these poems there are acts of rebellion against the raw land, the harsh life. Women hide in cupboards under the stairs with spoons filled with sugar and men scrape honey in order to get a little sweetness into the world (‘Fixed’, 20). ‘Reporting Back’ (49) was my favourite of these lighter poems, when Holmes’ father visits her from the beyond the grave and tells her they have good chips in Heaven. Holmes has a subtle, clever humour that tinges the edges of her poems, provoking wry little smiles on our mouths.

This book has a way of making you sit up and pay attention, which I feel truly illustrates the power of Holmes’ language. There is a clever layout of her poems which channels the emotions she strives to evoke, so that when they strike they are all the more potent. Holmes shifts us suddenly with the poem ‘Before All This’, which comes as a sudden trumpet blast in the language of grief and raw, windswept shores. Here she raises her head defiantly against the modern editing of our lives, our obsession with photographing everything and phone stroking (24-26). As a child of the 90s, I was a daughter of transition. I saw big boxy computers turn to tiny, slim IPads and laptops, Walkmans turn into phones and photo albums melt into Instagram. Generations before me will have seen a greater chain of change, they will remember the days before we all ‘logged in’. I feel nostalgic for an unplugged world I only briefly experienced in my early years. Holmes tunes into this need for a freedom we never knew we had, back when ‘some parts of us were secret / some parts of us / were never shared. Some parts of us / were never spoken’ (26). These were by no means gaps in our self, but blank spaces where we could hide and treasure our own personal worlds. Today we are naked and exposed by our own volition.

For me, ‘Before All This’ had a sister in ‘The Angel of the Checkout’ (35). This poem is again very different from the others, as it is a series of questions about love; not a surprising theme choice as this poem is dedicated to Anne Sexton. Holmes’ frantic questioning of love resides in our human need to make love do whatever we want and pair up with our need for adaptability, flexibility and security in this modern age. The poet asks whether love ‘is cheaper than longing? / Is it cheaper than hate? If it doesn’t work / can I bring it back?’ which to me rings similar tones to online FAQs. We need reassurance on our purchases and love remains, thankfully, something we cannot buy.

There are many more themes and poems in this book to explore, but I will not exhaust them all here, as I truly want you to buy and read this book. It is certainly one of my favourite poetry books this year. Holmes’ imagery and language inspired me to look deeper into my own and rejoice in those landscapes, those gaps, hiding under the deadwood and pickle jars. There are poems here about being a middle-aged woman who isn’t a mother, there are poems about love and loss, there are poems trying to make sense of this mad world. Under 100 pages long, you could binge on this book several times over one week, just like I did.

A digital version of this book was sent to me in exchange for an honest review.