The Manchester poetry scene has been enriched by a number of North Americans over the past 10 years. J Fergus Evans adds to the trove with a fine collection, On Euclid Avenue, published by Salford’s Flapjack Press.
Evans’ first collection carries the reflections of a mature and discerning writer who says what he wants to say economically and without fuss or polemic. If that makes it sound a little detached, maybe it is. He is a forensic observer of people and places who occasionally forages into more intimate realms. This is not to say his work lacks passion, but it is largely a passion for small things, for the importance of everyday experience, and a compassion for the people who are players in it.
Place is a dominant theme in this collection. In a few lines the reader gets on intimate terms with Atlanta, Georgia, and its neighbourhoods. This includes afternoons spent appraising the bars and dives of Cabbagetown where it’s “hot as sin and skin is on display” and “mosquitoes suck and hum and the air thrums with sex and danger”. It leads into Peachtree Street, where summer is “hot like a hammer” while “Autumn is a cool kiss on your cheek”.
Evans shows a transparent affection for his home city. In ‘The Hurricane’ layers of detail create a visceral sense of foreboding as “we waited, watched the air turn green”. The sky is “smudged charcoal”, the clouds are “coiled, tense, black as jungle cats”, the storm “sucks the light out of the air, then everything is plunged in violet.” He treats Manchester with similar grace in ‘What I Had To Hand’, where he takes to heart “the snap and crackle of your anarchy, the lisp and whisper of your canals” and calls it home.
However, Evans respects his characters as he does his locations. There are poems that feature his family, barflies, drag queens and strippers, and lovers. He mines familiar themes of adolescence, family conflict, home town entrapment and the lure of the “other” with a lightness of touch.
In ‘My Mother, The Queer Hero’ he gives 10 reasons for the appellation, but in truth he creates a complex and sympathetic biography in a few lines. In ‘To My Father, Dearly Departed’, he writes: “When I look inside I’ve let so much of you go” but “you still own half of me”. His mother claims his father slept with a dictionary under his bed “to argue the meaning of words with me. Who else will love me like that?”, a powerful statement of reconciliation. The tensions of his adolescence may be illustrated by his grandmother who had a “face like a brown paper bag” and a tiny body “the size of a whisper” when she forces him to share her own public grief at the death of his grandfather and file his own “blood and beating heart feelings in the drawer marked less important”.
Like a Ry Cooder in Hollywood or Lou Reed in New York, Evans also throws sympathetic light on a bunch of downbeat characters from Atlanta’s demi-monde, including the stripper in ‘One Winter’ who makes “800 dollars an evening and manages to come home with 10 dollars in her pocket”. In ‘Fresh Peaches’, “Ol’ Nick from the Trackside Tavern loves Darla the bartender from Decatur”, but on a sticky night comes unstuck. When drunk he falls asleep “in the bed the train trestles make”, oblivious to his fate. Drag Queen Crow has a smile “she’s got to screw on tight at each corner”, and in ‘The One Where Crow Considers Leaving’, is a “wilted hibiscus, bruised jasmine, ….a flower bed going to seed” who just wants to fly away, while Midtown Mary, “a one man Pride parade”, teaches Atlanta to laugh and knows he’s already flying. Sailor and Lula pause at Moe’s for respite from their “cross country epic”, their skin “unspeakably pale against black cotton”, and Snow White, with the imprint of “burnt mahogany fingers pressing into the bruised vulnerable alabaster”, causes Evans to wonder at her fearlessness in ‘Maternal Feeling’.
His own relationships and sexuality are dealt with candidly, yet perhaps taking advice from Brooke in ‘Out Past The Football Fields’ he doesn’t rub any faces in it. In ‘Voodoo Sexy’ he captures timeless moments, drinking in the company of an unnamed friend who is as “cool as a copperhead snake”, “as mean as a wildcat on heat”. With Sharon who introduces him to quinoa, and tofu soaked in lime and chilli, he drives north to climb a few mountains and just revel in the whole experience, from “gas station snack foods” to “IMAX view of valley”, with “everything cool and green and brown and golden”.
Back in Manchester on an overcast day in autumn, drinking wine in Spider Park, “our lust is awkward as teenagers, spotty-faced and fumbling and I get a hard on just holding your hand”. However in ‘The Romantic’, Evans’ passions take an unexpected visceral turn, likening love to being split from chin to groin by God’s dirty fingernail. He wants to “ram grasping hands beneath the milk and putty surface of your skin … make a nest behind your solar plexus” and “swallow your heart whole”.
J Fergus Evans appears to be a poet who has come to terms with his past, values his experiences and is content at being in the present. ‘The Education’ states: “I am as naked as a blank page … I am hungry now for things I never knew existed . The world feels new. My world feels new. You’ve done this to me.” On Euclid Avenue appears to be the odyssey of a fulfilled man. ‘I Wanna Make a Home In This Moment’ sees Evans seeking to abandon the past and “leave behind the litany of mistakes”:
I want to forget for a second the ghosts
of Ferguses past and Ferguses yet to come,
listen to the drumbeat of my heart
and a voice inside me booming:
“Come inside and know me better, man.”
This man has produced a fine collection, and On Euclid Avenue deserves a wide readership.