My father’s watch clasps my wrist now. Big shoes to fill, his shoes. The removal of three links slimmed it for my scrawny wrist yet, standing by my chair, my five year old son, puzzling its butterfly catch, lets it slip down his arm to nestle in the crook of his elbow. A single golden dot punctuates its face. The absence of a second hand means that, when watched, time stands still but the bronze company logo mounted on the strap marks the jolt of retirement. Telling the time is an act of remembrance – every time.
The filth and the fury of Luke Wright’s The Toll may catch the eye but the collection’s intimate observations steal the heart. ‘Watch’ brings three generations together at Christmas. The speaker, now a father, finds his fraternal role supplanted and gravitates towards his father: ‘Like my dad, my Christmas job, it seems, / is balling wrapping paper into bags’. The speaker’s aside, ‘it seems’, points to paternal redundancy and Wright’s observation has a Larkinesque quality. In Afternoons, Larkin observes the young mothers ‘pushed to the side of their own lives’. Wright’s final couplet is poignant, restrained and true: ‘We sit together, watching seconds tick. / Wow, Dad, you say. It’s going really fast.’
The Shakespearian sonnet ‘Dad Reins’ also feels the beat of time’s wingèd chariot as Wright explores fatherhood with honesty as the speaker’s ‘nightly monologue / of measured, risqué quips’ is ‘switched for a set / of weary nags and faux amazement’. Identity is not a performance as amazement is ‘faux’ and the public persona: gigging ‘back-combed jobbing fop’ is also a confection. The sonnet concludes that fatherhood is a place, not a surface. It’s the core, not the crust: ‘Roam now, my boy, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. / I’ll be you tether, Sam, because you’re mine’. Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning‘, presents husband and wife as a pair of compasses – the central point supports the free roaming of the outer arm and Wright’s baby reins are a moving reimagining of this conceit. Wright’s couplet is a pair of statements, a pair of sentences and his end-stopping drives home his fatherly confidence.
Yet The Toll is a game of two halves and ballads like ‘Lullaby’ remind us that depressingly little has changed since Charles Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters‘: ‘Then here again: the half-bought couch, / the supermarket wine, / the drip-drip of these Netflix nights, / the whittling of our brittle time.’ Wright’s Britain is a divided nation and, in ‘The Toll’, ‘Dartford’s distant toll’ serves as a metaphor for a divided society in which a good day is ‘a trip to KFC for tea, / a DVD, some sweets’. Wright’s a balladeer for our time and this collection is loaded with social comment and observation. He doffs his cap to John Betjeman in ‘Sick Children’ and the collection reads like a tour of England as Wright visits Saffron Walden, Much Harpington and even Bungay as his thermometer measures the sickness of the nation. However, at his angriest, Wright’s an f-bombing William Blake but mitigating this with moments of pure tenderness gives this collection breath-taking range and power.