Since winning the MacDiarmid poetry prize in 2003, Deborah Tyler-Bennett has been steadily carving a niche for herself in the edifice of modern British poetry. Over that time,certain themes have preoccupied her, and she has returned to them more than once,to the extent that her style, her voice, has become readily identifiable.
She is one of those poets who you can identify from a few words into the poem, even if you didn’t know it was one of hers. The spare,almost austere use of language, paring down the experience to its essentials,and the uncannily accurate portrayals of people and places, drawn with the eye of an artist as much as a writer.
This collection is split into three parts – Ways Home, La Dolce Brighton Vita, and Sporting Lives. The themes of each section interweave, however, and remain as several fine strands running through the book. The First World War, the world of variety and the music hall, louche living in London and Brighton, or at least the bits of it that are more like Soho-by-Sea, the 18thcentury, the 1940s and 50s – all of these are familiar territory to those who know and love her work.
But it’s the landscape and the memories of the East Midlands which can be found almost around every corner – not only the physical landscape, but the interior one which is made up of families and memories. The dedications of some of the individual poems in this collection give an indication that in this collection, Deborah Tyler-Bennett is not only paying her dues, but also paying her respects. In this collection, the people and places are very much her own, or at least of her own.
Many of the people and situations she describes in these lines will be immediately recognisable to those of us who lived through similar times in similar environments, but there is also a universal dimension to the work which gives it a wider appeal. In these challenging, unflinching,intimate, and sometimes painful recollections, the poetry paints a vivid picture of both people and scenes: Mansfield market in the 1970s, delineated in lines redolent of local colour, dancing, as a kid, to the Swinging Blue Jeans,family Sunday lunches with Jimmy Clitheroe on the radio; even the finely-drawn vignettes of individual subjects which make up the Sporting Lives section – of subjects as diverse as the composer Constant Lambert, TV personality Gilbert Harding, the actor who played Private Walker in Dad’s Army, and a Leicestershire World War One VC winner are rendered in the author’s own inimitable voice, firmly rooted in her own back yard.
Life is an uncertain business, and therefore we should perhaps be wary of phrases such as "best ever”. Deborah Tyler-Bennett may well produce better poems in the future, and if she does, her many fans will look forward to reading them. But on mature consideration of this collection, we might at least be allowed to say that it represents possibly some of her finest work to date.