Book review: Line Drawing, by Ross Wilson

In a video interview with fellow poet Gregor Addison, recorded last year, Ross Wilson was asked how big a part of his life boxing was. “No as big as it’s made out to be,” he replied with a grin.

Ross Wilson

He went on to point out that, of the 24 poems in his well-received 2011 pamphlet, The Heavy Bag, only six concerned themselves with the noble art. Reviewers, then, should probably try to avoid focusing too much on his boxing poems, or – worse – pigeonholing him as “a boxing poet”.

That said, given that the cover of his new collection features a stylised image of a Victorian pugilist by the artist Ian Moir; given that its title, Line Drawing, is subsequently explained in the introduction to the title poem as a reference to “lines... scored in the dirt in early boxing matches, when a knockdown, not a bell, concluded a round”; and given that a good proportion of the poems here deal either directly or indirectly with the dramas played out within the square ring, it’s clear that at least some mention of boxing will be necessary.

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Wilson, who grew up in Kelty in Fife, was a Scottish junior boxing champion (47.5 kilo division) by the age of 14, and several of the poems here are colourful, acutely observed evocations of his time as a young boxer. Particularly noteworthy is “The ABC (Amateur Boxing Club)” in which he executes vivid thumbnail sketches of his fellow boxers at a rate of one per stanza and concludes with a memorable tribute to their 60-year-old trainer, who he depicts driving home at the end of a day’s competition in “a transit van full / of bleeding noses, bruised ribs, battered egos”.

Where Line Drawing really takes flight, however, is in the two or three poems in which Wilson finds ways of relating the world inside the ring to the world outside it. Perhaps the most striking example of this is “You Don’t Hit A Man When He’s Down,” in which he contrasts the Frazier v Bugner fight of 1973, in which Frazier stopped just short of delivering a knockout punch to his opponent when he realised he was about to topple over anyway, to the no-holds-barred cage fights that have become popular this century:

You don’t hit a man when he’s down

Used to restrain us, or most of us,

like a proverb few remember

as other ideas pollute the air

whispering into the ear:

Survival of the fittest

Strong eat the weak.

No such thing as society.

In a similarly philosophical vein, “Chuvalo” is both a tribute to the boxer who stood his ground against the likes of Frazier and Ali and a reflection on how the human body can sometimes be a remarkably effective machine for turning violence into love.

Moving away from the boxing ring, Wilson also shows himself to be a keen observer of the harsh realities of modern working class life: the repetitive, dead-end jobs (“The Auld Patterns”), the barriers to social mobility, as insurmountable as any earthwork (“Antonine Wall, Croy Hill”) and the army recruitment posters across the road from the local high school with their “sweet promise of belonging” (“Sweet Promise”).

He’s particularly good on the way in which the general sense of righteous indignation that led to the miners’ strike and the poll tax riots seems somehow to have dissipated in austerity-era Britain. In “The Law” he contrasts a mother’s old certainties over the difference between right and wrong (“don’t be greedy / share all your toys”) with a new, 21st century ambivalence towards a politician refusing to answer a TV interviewer’s question about tax havens: “Well, it’s not against the law, / is it son?”

So yes – Ross Wilson writes poems about boxing, but he is very much more than a boxing poet. - Roger Cox

*Line Drawing, by Ross Wilson, Smokestack, 66pp, £7.99