Roy Marshall’s debut collection takes its title from the linocut by Leonard Beaumont that is reproduced on the cover. Marshall imagines the 1930s bathing beauties as sisters – “let’s call them Dora / and Emily. Both warm-drowsy, both eighteen, / born on the eve of a war they’re told / their fathers fought” – and captures them in a last summer of innocence before global conflict again explodes: “none of us can say / who’ll be a WAAF or WREN, working the land / or in a factory”. Marshall concludes the poem with a grimmer prediction for the carefree lads hovering near them on the beach, their minds on romance and not the immanence of war.
‘August 31st, 1961’ similarly places a perfectly captured moment in time (the birth of his sister) against the bigger picture of the history books. “In the hospital car-park in Surrey / our Dad is watching the moon rise, / already a target for Kennedy”. Here, Marshall’s style is sparse, the maximum communicated with an economy of language. A sense of precision, of words carefully and purposefully chosen, characterises The Sun Bathers. Which is not to suggest that Marshall is a minimalist: these are poems that have depth and weight; their author’s skill in structure and lineation ensures they have room to breathe on the page.
Subjects are diverse, and Marshall certainly knows his history (pace the sequence about da Vinci that forms the collection’s centrepiece), but he’s arguably at his best when memory and autobiography infuse his work. ‘The Bow Saw’ became an immediate favourite on first reading and I’ve gone back to it several times: a simple recollection of father and son collecting fallen branches from the local woods, its half dozen quatrains are a masterclass in tactile evocation, taut use of poetics and how to achieve poignancy without succumbing to nostalgia. “I learnt the languages of wood: / dense oak coughing fine dust, jamming / the blade in the cut, asking more from / an aching arm, a racing heart and lungs”.
The Sun Bathers is accessible without sacrificing erudition, sensitive yet muscular when it needs to be. Marshall has a fine talent for elegance and clarity. His poetry exerts a very quiet, understated spell: it keeps drawing you back.