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Review: John Whale's Waterloo Teeth

The opening poem in John Whale’s debut collection concerns a species of chameleon-like octopus: a flexible and capable creature, we are told, “at the invertebrate zenith”. With “three pumping hearts” and “no rigid form”, its appeal to Whale is clear enough: his poetic voice revels in its own adaptability, switching between scientific jargon, emotional verve, and subtler, insinuating tones. This allows for a smorgasbord of subjects, and lends Waterloo Teeth an intellectual range that is beyond most slim volumes: moving from the eerie yet touching quatrains of “Mary Toft”, who amusingly ruined the reputations of several eminent eighteenth-century physicians by fooling them into thinking she had given birth to rabbits, to the tumbling rhythms and blunt close of “Mimicries”, which catalogues birds imitating modern technological sounds.

Beneath the book’s surface variety, however, a handful of recurrent themes emerge. Whale is a professor of Romantic literature, so it is not surprising to find his work haunted by the presence of Wordsworth & Co, as well as the celebrities, politics and attitudes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries more broadly. Titles such as “Lines on the Death of Mary Wollstonecraft” and “Brioche” jump out; a long poem, “Sugar”, harbours a Romantic sensibility in its associative reflections; and the grim title poem examines the mercenary practice, common to the age, of pulling sets of teeth from fallen soldiers. Even the lone apple core that garnishes the collection’s jacket stems from a vignette which reworks an entry from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal. But the book is not without cohesive focus, as each poem attempts to bridge the gap between our refined sensibilities – sentimentalized bite marks in an apple – and the blunt, clinical facts of our corporeal lives: “a jet of arterial blood” bursting from Jean-Paul Marat’s chest; Lady Hamilton’s recurring dream of “Freddy drenched in Flanders”.

That said, Whale’s protean interests can get the better of him. Cwm Idwal, a hanging valley in Snowdonia is surely a spectacular landscape and a natural wonder, but Whale’s paean to it lacks any real consequence. A shame, then, that his book’s latter half is padded out with these dull landscapes, when his more natural milieu is the drama and diversity of life as it was, and is, variously lived. For as much of Waterloo Teeth reveals, it is here that Whale excels; revivifying the “phantom life / which lies beneath our feet.”


first published in the Times Literary Supplement

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
His debut full collection of poems, Way More Than Luck, appeared from Seren Books in February 2018.
He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

You can follow Ben on Twitter - @BenWilko85 - and on Facebook.

You can find B…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …