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Human Form
by Oliver Dixon
Penned in the Margins, £8.99

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reviewed by Judi Sutherland

Marking the things he wants to include

I heard Oliver Dixon read his work at a Penned in the Margins reading recently. He apologised for being older than the other two readers; although this is his first book of poetry, it has been collated over many years; he has been in no hurry. This long gestation is apparent in the quiet thoughtfulness of the poems. There is a strong theme of home and family; in particular the portrayal of a partner and a young child, as well as a meditation on the death of the poet’s mother from cancer. It’s also an urban book; many poems reflect London life, although we are treated to excursions to Llantwit Beach, Brighton, Cornwall and Palestine.

The strongest poems are those where the poet crouches to child’s eye level and makes sense from what the child can see.

The strongest poems are those where the poet crouches to child’s eye level and makes sense from what the child can see. In ‘A to Z’, the small boy asks whether a loose page of the London map is ‘storybook?’, a question that is left without direct answers. In ‘Three Songs in Search of a Singer II – Thing Song’, the little boy runs around a garden with a piece of chalk, marking ‘the things he includes and wants to remember’ as he is learning their names. This action seems to mirror the poet’s intention in making his poems.

The effect of parenthood on parents is wryly recounted. The title poem describes the havoc wreaked by a toddler on sleeping patterns and inevitable confusion on waking. The narrator addresses his partner, noting: ‘you’ve traded beds in a bumpy noctamble’ or the narrator himself has had to switch beds in the night:

Or a nightmare’s made him migrate
and upheave me,
and I come-to with feet exposed, arms
buckled in, Pluto and Tigger
my feral bedfellows

There’s plenty of black humour in ‘Interruptus’; a wicked little sonnet about a couple trying to have sex without waking their child, balanced by the dreamlike ‘Cityscape with Floating Lover’.

London, where Dixon has lived most of his adult life, looms large in the collection. I particularly liked the affectionate tribute to the city in ‘Rough Guide’:

                                                 Don’t go
to Upper Norwood on Tuesdays. The feral youth
of Kentish Town shoot Ritalin. Redevelopments
are underway in Bow. Neasden has a thriving
New Wave scene. Jenga is massive on Primrose Hill.

There are a couple of witty persona pieces. The educated language and philosophy in ‘The Lament of the Hackney Street Cleaner’, who listens to Gorecki and Stockhausen, is intended to surprise us; ‘They say a man’s identity / may be pilfered now from his / dustbin: is it so nearly / trash?’ Dixon offers us a historical biography in ‘The Ice River’, embodying a Thames Waterman of London’s past, mourning his dead baby daughter during one of the frost fair winters of the seventeenth century.

Two poem series deserve a special mention. ‘Three Domestic Interiors’ is a vivid trio of vignettes relating to the life and death of Dixon’s mother. Three disparate scenes are linked together deftly. ‘Last Living Speaker’ is a set of metaphysical meditations on language.

Dixon enjoys coining new words like ‘noctamble’ and ‘permaglow’ and using words idiosyncratically, as in the verb ‘upheave’ quoted above. A man smashing a guitar in the street ‘Hendrixes it / to atonal smithereens’. He also has an ear for sonic effects. Damp matches are ‘crumbly duds’ and when struck, the sound is a synaesthetic ‘cursive scribble’. Where he does this to good effect, the poems are lively and, as the title indicates, human. Some of his images are memorable too, like this one from ‘Time and Motion Studies’:

      the pollards

like buckled
      menorahs, candled
here and there
              with harsh
      crows

‘Hangdog tulips’ in a vase are immediately visible, and there’s a precise observation in ‘Proses for Hal Incandenza’:

There’s a pause between the simmer in the plane leaves and the
second you feel the first scraps of rain begin to wetten your arms.

But there are times where the originality of the images is questionable. Sometimes Dixon appears to try too hard, as here, in ‘Time and Motion Studies’:

ictus of white stick
      of the black geriatric
groping for open

and here in ‘An Old Philosopher in Brighton’;

      Of the two piers - the one
aglitter and raucous
                            with amusements,
a cut-price Byzantium
         of a future; the other
Its gutted obverse,
                                burnt out
skeleton
                  marooned offshore

These are places where Dixon is relying on lineation to supply the profundity that the language lacks.

When he tackles the natural world, some of the images are also less successful. The ‘faded hoopoe with its punkish mohawk’ in ‘The Duration’ is somewhat pedestrian and I didn’t see the same flashes of brilliance in ‘Llantwit Beach’ or ‘Myth of the Old Master’ that I enjoyed in the London poems. There are some poems in here that don’t live up to the standard Dixon has set for himself elsewhere.

At the end of the collection, Dixon returns to a poem about his young son, in ‘Book of the Giant’ and delivers a powerful denouement on fatherhood and mortality. This is the theme he tackles best; as a poet of family life, drawing philosophical truths from the quotidian. These poems are the strengths of his collection; he paints them with passion because that seems to be where his heart is.


Judi Sutherland gained a PhD in Biochemistry before embarking on a career in pharma / biotech and started writing poems in 2008. After redundancy in 2011, she obtained an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, and is now writing a novel, as well as poetry, blogs and reviews. Her poems have been published in Acumen, Interpreter’s House, Oxford Poetry and New Statesman, among others. Her writing blog is at and her Huffington Post articles are .