Monday, 30 November, 2020 in Book Reviews, Books

Into Books Review: Glass Work Humans – Stories and Poems

Book: Glass Work Humans – Stories and Poems from…
Authors: Paul Cowan, Tom Gillespie and John McKenzie.
Publisher: Valley Press

Esteemed American author William Faulkner once claimed, modestly, that he was a failed poet.

Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

Thankfully, Faulkner’s misgivings on mastering those three disciplines haven’t prevented Paul Cowan, Tom Gillespie and John McDonald – the creative talent behind the latest compendium from Valley Press,  ‘Glass Work Humans’ – from taking a provocative, exciting crack at all three.

Split into the sections suggested by its title, ‘Glass Work Humans’ explodes from the get go, like a lobbed, pin-pulled grenade, with the jarringly twisted, ‘Dracula’s Hut’. Writer Cowan presents, as he does with a later offering, ‘Vinegar Stroke’, a gut-punch reminder of an ugly yet sadly still familiar world of domestic bullies, easy violence and the coping mechanisms we adopt to survive until the next ‘doing’. Universal but distinctly Scottish at the same time. However, if you think that ‘grime under the nails’ brutality is all Cowan has to offer, then two successive pieces in particular will turn that view on its head. As someone who worked on the London Underground system that awful July day in 2005, the unsteady reality of ‘Whispers in Angel’ hovers over my old manor like a lost ghost, eerie and unheimlich. The seventeen short but moving stanzas of ‘Strathcarron Hospice’ follow and as a grieving son whose wounds, decades on, are still keen, I was greatly affected by Cowan’s words and his capacity to surprise in such a masculine but tender way.

John McKenzie enters the fray with ‘Affair’; the first of nine short, but perfectly formed poems, quietly devastating with an invitation to search for clues in each visceral configuration. One turns the page hoping for, yet fearing a revelation but McKenzie’s sense of economy dares the reader to search between the lines for faint footprints. ‘Auld Polis’, ‘1977’ and my favourite, the note perfect, ‘Routine’. Miniscule vignettes, entire lifetimes in a single paragraph. One gets the feeling that McKenzie could cut Dr Zhivago down to a pamphlet and it would be the sharper for it. He knows what he has written. You need to get off your arse and join the dots.

Author Tom Gillespie is the ‘GWH’ collaborator I’m most familiar with. His brave, compelling novel, ‘The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce’ was already one of my favourite pieces of the year and his contribution to this collection does not disappoint. Like Paul Cowan’s opener, Gillespie’s entrance is no less vicious yet recognisable. His fascination with the margins between this living strand and the alternatives continue to imbue much of his work but here, in ‘Corpses’, he adds a dash of the blackly comedic to his favoured plat diabolique. I mean, who hasn’t danced or jived, or had the time of one’s life with the husk of a recently deceased relative? Watch that scene, as they say. Gillespie hovers over his cast of damaged, diminished and detached players; such as Douglas in ‘Last Ferry to Ardrossan’ and Einstein in ‘Shrapnel’, like The Hanged Man and the Hermit, totting up their scores for one final turn of the Tarot. The book ends with ‘Waltz of the Clocks’, a more conventional swing away from the macabre to the surprisingly sentimental. And that’s not a bad thing. One is left with a merest pinprick of light and a touch of hope to remind us of an inalienable truth; Because we share this feeling, these experiences, we cannot be fully lost.

Controversial post war psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argued that The Real – the authentic, unchangeable truth – was opposed to the imaginary and located beyond the symbolic. In ‘Glass Work Humans’, Paul Cowan, Tom Gillespie and John McDonald stray into the uneven selvages that run alongside Lacan’s ‘Real’ to deliver a collection of convincing short stories, poems and thoughts which tempt, seduce, subvert and threaten while brushing past the borders of categorisation and convention.

It’s been said that if the book is a marriage, then the short story is a love affair. Maybe. I reckon though that the novel is more a feast; a carefully prepared spread, enticing and filling.  If that is the case, then a collection of shorts might be a delicious, appetising starter. ‘Glass Work Humans’ is not so much a table full of continental treats as a Caledonian-flavoured, King-sized Munchie box of a book. Who needs Croquetas De Jamón and Patatas Bravas when you can have Sliced Camel and Rab’s special Scabby Tomatoes? Whit are you feart a’? Tuck in.

George Paterson

‘Glass Work Humans’, published by Valley Press and is available from and all reputable bookstores.

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