Overall, Tom Kelly’s collection titled I Know Their Footsteps is a difficult read – not because the poet uses highly allusive imagery or inflated language but because the poetry is intrinsically emotionally trying. In this seventh collection of Kelly’s (and the sixth of which to be published by Red Squirrel Press), there are poems concerned with the poet’s family and his hometown, Jarrow. Themes of loss and death permeate, even infecting the collection’s somewhat comedic moments that arise.
I Know Their Footsteps is an autobiographical work, however difficult that may be. Kelly expresses his family’s problems as he traces particular moments in their past. Using a variety of unnamed speakers, offering the differing perspectives of family members at significant moments of their lives. For example, in “Today: 1936”:
I am seventeen, standing by your door, squinting at sky,
War on the horizon and streets make hate you can taste
like nothing you are living on.
Kelly seems to have noted in these poems particular memories of stories told by relatives, as well as his own recollections. The poems do not seem to be in any particular order, chronological or otherwise, apart from being split under two headings – “Family” and “Voices from a Small Town”. This patchwork effect, sewing together different pieces of Kelly’s family history just as he remembers them, adds to the collection’s realism. The poems seem to be assembled without narrative logic, thus rendering the whole more significant than the sum of the parts: the poet’s actual memory of the past is what we read. This is, after all, how most of us remember – we sometimes cannot recall the exact date and time of certain events; sometimes our sensory experience, as well as what was said or how we felt, stays more strongly with us. “Glory in the Fire” is a particularly good example of this. Here, the poet is a young boy, sitting with his grandfather in front of the fire whilst he chews tobacco, Kelly is “watch[ing] him and search[ing] for reasons.” He recalls the sound of his grandmother’s shoes as she “clumps down the stairs” and enters the room wearing her “iron-stiff” pinny. The focus is not primarily on the narrative – these little vignettes are independently significant, containing the colour of the very personal memories Kelly has of his grandparents. This is highly typical of the collection.
Kelly’s grandparents feature particularly often even though, as he states repeatedly, “they’re forty years dead”. There is a strong sense of regret, as if the poet wishes he had had more time with them. This is particularly poignant in “Granda: The Final Tale”. This presence of loss and death extends through the continual references to bad weather, and in particular, the cold and rain, a form of pathetic fallacy that acts as an extension of the poet’s own grief.
This review cannot encompass all of the notable aspects of the collection and there are many poems in it that lend themselves well to further discussion. I mentioned in the opening lines I Know Their Footsteps is a difficult read, but this is not to say that I found it unpleasant, nor that I did not enjoy it – far from it, for it reminds us poignantly that the past is never past.