Review: Learning to be Very Soft by Callan Waldron-Hall

Callon Waldron-Hall was one of the recipients of last year’s New Poet’s Prize, an annual competition organised by The Poetry Business. His debut pamphlet, Learning to be Very Soft, was published in June and is a worthy prize-winner.    Written in clear, unadorned language with gentle, fluid rhythms, the poems use everyday experiences – a car journey, a visit to the doctor, winding in the lane ropes at a swimming pool – as windows into the inner world of boyhood with all its vulnerability, awkwardness and shame. 

The opening poem, ‘Chest Compressions’, is set at the side of a swimming pool, where one boy is applying resuscitation techniques on another, simulating

‘a steady heartbeat / but not so much
as to crack the ribs / imagines his friend
coughing out water / the way he’d shudder’.

The precisely placed caesurae suggest the rhythm of chest compressions and also serve to slow down our reading of the poem, the way time slows in a carefully held memory. This finely judged balance of rhythm, form and language is characteristic of Waldron-Hall’s writing, as though the poem is asking to be read aloud, to be savoured on the tongue.

Water, drowning and resuscitation are recurrent tropes throughout the collection. The scene described in ‘The Most Kissed Face of All Time’ is one that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has done a First Aid course: a group of trainees gathered around the CPR training manikin Resusci Annie, listening to an instructor who ‘circled us, arms behind her back’.

But this seemingly mundane situation becomes layered with meaning, with questions about life and death and a sense of guilt that is all the more powerful for being unvoiced. The paradox of learning how to save lives by trying to breathe ‘life’ into the manikin  (whose features are modelled on the death mask of a drowned woman) is handled with subtle adroitness: ‘The instructor …. told me to kiss the dead girl and I did, forced air in, felt her chest rise.’ 

Other poems have a surreal, at times even dream-like quality. In ‘Kitty’ the boundaries between physical states become blurred:

‘she slips past   reduces   becomes air
in the state where she is less than solid
Kitty falls straight through her bed   lands
an entire floor below in her sister’s old room’.

The notion of falling occurs again in ‘Plateau-Rayleigh Instability’, where the poem’s increasingly fragmented layout gives visual expression to the behaviour of fluids defined in the title.

All the poems are infused with tenderness and care, like a sensitive exploration around the edges of a wound. What that wound might be is never fully revealed, although there are hints in the frequent allusions to water, to drowning or falling and to the ambiguous and elusive sister who features in a number of the poems. The poignant ‘Canary Song’ imagines ‘my sweet forgotten / sister’ as a caged bird:

it is hard to tell / the difference between crying and singing / I will
never sing like my sister / my sister was a canary / oh how she sang’.

In the final poem ‘Practice’ we return to the swimming pool, this time role-playing as part of lifeguard training.

‘I am playing Victim again

                waiting to be rolled over and dragged

to safety       it is difficult to fake drowning

                when you can swim’.

The spacing of the layout and the slow, pulsing rhythm connote waves and the rocking movement of ‘Rescuer’s kicking’. Here, as throughout in this fine debut collection, the poet trusts us with his vulnerability, so that we in turn as readers trust the poem’s truth.

Callan Waldron-Hall (2020), Learning to be Very Soft. Sheffield, The Poetry Business (27 pages)

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Posted on 30th June, 2020.

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