The Black Cab
September 2017. 32 pp. ISBN-13 978-3-901993-61-9
£6.00 (+ 1.50 p&p), €6.00 (+ 1.50 p&p), US$8.50 (+ 2.50 p&p)
“The poems in The Black Cab show John Challis’s increasingly confident handling of a rich seam of material in which several subjects combine, including family his-tory, work, class, and the larger social and political history by which they are all shaped and which they in turn illuminate. Challis is able to explore this terrain in ways at once lyric and dramatic, with a rich human sympathy and curiosity, and with a powerful sense of the unceasing competition between memory and mortality. His world is at once material and in a sense metaphysical: beneath its streets the underworld stands open. It’s an exciting debut.”
“John Challis’ imaginative dashcam crisscrosses the A-Z, shuttling between the haunts of Hansard and the vast penumbra of the capital’s lay-by-lands. These poems are richly inventive, assured and charged with the mysteries and excitement of the initiate. Their knowledge will work its way into your hippocampus.”
“Fittingly, The Black Cab opens with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno, at the moment of the poet’s encounter with the ferryman, Charon. With this as our trail-head marker, Challis becomes our Virgil, guiding us from his father’s black cab through the urban dystopia of our moment. The journey is well worth the fare, as we are in the hands of a young poet whose mastery of his art is already apparent, just as much as Seamus Heaney’s was when he began. Challis is gifted with an abundant capacity for meditative attention, a command of strenuous diction, an unerring ear for the deep music of place and labor. Read for cotchel, dog’s muck and cindery slag, for the slack sail of the sickbed sheet and the spade striking a seventeenth-century plague victim’s skull. You will not soon for-get these poems, nor soon encounter a début collection as impressive as this.”
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Table of Contents
Excerpts from The Black Cab
All night they have been touching meat,
thrusting trolleys stuffed with cheek,
shoulder, ear and leg, and now the day’s
come back to life they’re closing
Smithfield Market; sewing up the partly
butchered, washing off the blood.
I watch them from my office vantage
as they strip their overalls. I button up
my collar for handshake after handshake,
to present our creative for clients to dissect.
The past is lowered like a theatre set.
Axes swing for human heads, the gallows
start their jig, men sell their unwanted wives,
and horseshit is piled high beside meat labelled fresh.
The Closed Road
Hills Street closed to taxis, lorries, kids and prams
and Jewish girls in long black skirts, Magpie fans
and the EDL who fill their souls with Dog
and nuts in the Nag’s Head, now refurbished.
Haven for U-turns, drop-offs, pick-ups, the band
loading gear at the end of the gig, the morning delivery
of barrels of ale, the kerb a scum of Durex and chips:
a through becomes a cul-de-sac, frozen since spring.
No one cares that now it’s winter the bus-stop advert
still promotes Famous Grouse for Father’s Day.
No one cares for the loner outside the open-as-usual
Station Hotel, who posts the butt of his stubbed tab
in a box of overflowing ash, un-emptied since closure.
And no one cares for the haulage bridge, damaged
by wind and rain and years. Its repair makes
our journeys stiff with redirected traffic.
The tarp across its diseased mouth reflects streetlight
to light a game of two-touch that two lads play,
each too young to hold a pint, against the wall of Central Bar,
sending tremors across the drinks of knackered men
on the other side, like stones skipped on rivers.
Let them have it, this makeshift pitch of glass
winking on tarmac, with scaffolds for their goal posts,
the workman’s gangway for their crossbar,
let them glide like skaters across a frozen Tyne
and have this road, remade to leisure, for a time.
Reviews of The Black Cab
“The collection has the three dimensions of a nice, neat, narrow focus – London, black cabs, the poet’s own immediate heritage; then he, himself, growing up instead to work ‘in the light of a desk lamp’ (‘Blood’) – but it also probes deeper into the foundations of what shapes us, including before our lifetimes. In so doing, it maps out a whole recent-history of England, as poem after poem chronicles and celebrates, for instance, ‘the country’s near forgotten maze of beta roads’. […] Above all, I think I found this an affectionate collection – one born out of a passionate preoccupation with all that surrounds and passes him."
" there’s a snappy directness to Challis’ writing; a lack of circumvention that shuns excess sentimentality and unnecessary detail (“My age is unimportant.”). The style points to a precision of thought whose destination is always on the horizon. [...] Challis is cautious about creating dead-end alleyways when it comes to interpretation, even in the poems that do park themselves firmly inside the taxi theme. Like the “London’s maps in more than three dimensions” in ‘The Knowledge’, there are several dimensions to be discovered, and most readily is the social commentary. The poems are highly attuned to class disparity, winding down the windows on fast-food wastelands one minute, then ferrying the decision-makers from Canary Wharf to Porticullus House the next. The pleasure of navigating this pamphlet is found precisely here; the all-encompassing freedom of movement that flits us from one person’s life experience to another."
"In all of Challis’s poems his interest in making the words work is evident: the metaphors and similes, the careful use of formal structure in many poems, and the sheer pleasure of bundling sounds up to give impact. [...] they have a dark, laconic power when read slowly and carefully, looming into the silence, giving pause for thought. They worked in my accent and I suspect they would in any. Which I mention, particularly, as what underpins this very good first pamphlet collection is the relationship between the father and the son, their accent (in the broadest sense) and manners."
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