Monday, 6 February 2012

Martin Figura: Whistle

I’ve often been disappointed by poetry cabaret performances at literature festivals - so often over-acted, precious, amateurish, with a lack of balance between poetry and cyber-technology - it’s rare to see something really good. So I approached ‘Whistle’ with a degree of scepticism. And was unprepared to be blown away by it.

It’s very low-tech - a video projector unobtrusively parked, a stage with low lighting, a screen for the black and white images. Martin Figura came on-stage and stood, equally unobtrusively, behind the microphone in the shadows at the side of the screen, dressed in black and white. He began to speak and the images began to flicker across the screen and I was immediately lost in the story.

My mother and I pose in Sunday best
in front of a cottage with roses
around the door. She dreams .....

The performance is a blend of poems, letters read by a female voice (his wife, the poet Helen Ivory), and his own narrative links. There are no pyrotechnics, no special effects, no emotions except those generated by the words themselves and their relationships with the images. I was moved, delighted, saddened, and moved again by the story that unfolded.

When Martin was 9 his father, a polish refugee who came to Britain during the war, murdered Martin’s mother.

‘Through the wall, it causes no more than a ripple
on the surface of milk....’

His father - diagnosed with mental health problems - was placed in Broadmoor, and Martin and his two sisters were consigned to boarding schools and orphanages after an uncle and aunt decided they couldn’t give them a home. Salvation came in the shape of the Piggotts - a large catholic family who had been neighbours and who rescued Martin from school to bring him up as one of their own brood.

‘Taken prisoner by this bashing, clouting clan. Jammed between
Danny and John, the second and third boys with their shock
white hair and flying fists. Dragged through lanes and hedges
into ponds and up trees for birds’ eggs. ......
Flying over fields on the Honda fifty, being chased
by the mad dog. The mad dog burying bones in your bed;
hurling itself downstairs.......
Family parties at the drop of a hat: party cans and egg-
rolls, trifles and crisps, hokey-cokeys and terrible dancing
to Status Quo.....'

The poems try to claim fragments of memory to bring his mother June to life. There are a few black and white photographs of her as a young woman, a young wife, quotes from her letters, a glimpse of her daily life.

Her own face appears in the furniture.
She shines small brass animals back to life.
A tiny kitchen disappears into the mist

of an afternoon. A sponge cake rises
behind the oven door. He watches
the last slow hour on the factory clock.

... we can nurse baby for half an hour and then you must put him to bed. I insist on this as I want him to know his Daddy as much as me. He must grow up to love us equally. We must give him a good life so he will be proud of us.

Poems reconstruct a family history, trace the rehabilitation of Martin’s father, and the awkward attempts at a relationship after his release.

The girl I’m going to marry
sits with a cup of tea on her lap
while Dad fusses over the gravy,
peels the potatoes under the tap.....

It’s a stunning show because it’s so honest and doesn’t try to push any buttons. There are just the words and the images. Martin is also a photographer, so he knows how to use visual imagery.

I bought the collection, published by Arrowhead Press, so that I could read the poems again. And as I read, I can see the images floating through my head. What it would be like to read the poems without those images, I don’t know, but I have a feeling that they still stand up. Poetry as narrative autobiography is rare - and even rarer when it works as this does. Whistle has won awards, notably at the Edinburgh Festival, and it deserves them.

Martin Figura 'Strange Boy' is my Tuesday Poem over at

Clips from the show

Martin’s website

Buy the book here:   

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