MacNaughton, Tina Cathleen, On the Shoulders of Lions (Gloucester: The Choir Press, 2021), pp. 102.

Tina Cathleen MacNaughton’s On the Shoulders of Lions unapologetically roars with authenticity. It is neatly divided into themed sections, meaning readers can navigate the poems in whatever order they wish. This liberating reading experience reflects the assured narrative voice that accompanies each poem. For this review, I will share a poem from each section to give a flavour of what it has to offer.

Fearless Female (On Being a Woman)

The opening poem ‘Shades of Woman’ is our introduction to the straight-talking narrative voice. After a triumphant declaration of what women can wear, the voice concludes in a punchy end stanza: 

And the good thing is 

no one 

bats an eye. 

So there. 

The playfulness lies in the cunning layout. The off-set stanzas promote the voice’s central message of how they comparatively perceive men as being constrained through their upbringing to be ‘manly’, whereas being ‘female’ is a more fluid state of existence. 

Therefore, the form itself stretches beyond society’s rigid gender boundaries. It kicks the collection off with an empowering feel.

Nature Heals (On Nature and the Elements)

The nature poems in this collection exude resilience and hopefulness. They serve to remind us of the remedial powers of wildlife, the night sky, forests and seas. MacNaughton’s natural settings provide a frame for the narrative voice’s introspection. This process is central in ‘Falling Leaves, Broken Dreams’. An encounter with a tree on an autumnal stroll leads to the following observation:

You shed leaves like soft, golden tears

Fluttering gently to the ground,

Letting go, just letting go.

This beautiful personification projects the voice’s sense of awe at the ease of the tree’s metaphorical ability to release its inner turmoil. Life is stressful, but if a tree can learn to release its worries, then why not us? Following the tree’s progression of losing leaves, which represents ‘past regrets’ to leave it seemingly naked and vulnerable, the voice takes away this lesson:

Understanding that you had to lose and let go

To grow stronger and more beautiful. 

These organic poems reassure the reader that metamorphosis is possible for all. In the complex contexts surrounding Covid-19, there is no better time to deliver this message.

Strained Love (On Love, Broken Hearts and Relationships)

As is richly evident throughout this collection, MacNaughton slips in humour throughout her poems. In this section, there are many cracking poems featuring thinly hidden innuendos that provide a hearty chuckle. ‘Burger Flippin’ Joe’ springs to mind. However, I will save those for prospective readers to discover and instead focus on ‘First Date’. 

It is the first poem to represent a conversation. The colloquial tone and rhyming couplets produce a comical atmosphere as readers are privy to Sue’s actual feelings about her date. These are in complete discord to her date’s perceptions:

Never forget when I first met her, the very stylish Sue

Fantastic girl, lovely face, her eyes were sky blue 

He chatted me up, but I preferred his mate

He was still in work clothes and looked a bit of a state

For me, this simple yet effective poem is reminiscent of the witty Pam Ayres. Ayres also uses everyday language to connect with her readers and uses rhyme for humour. The back and forth couplets in MacNaughton’s ‘First Date’ provide a lively pace and some much-needed comic relief after the more sombre poems of the previous section. 

Home (On Places)

With three poems, this is the shortest section of the collection. Being Portsmouth born and bred, you will forgive me for focusing on its titular twin. This is where the title of the collection took on personal significance. MacNaughton’s biography details Portsmouth as her home city. Guarded by two stone lions is our multi-purpose Guildhall. As ‘Stone’ reveals, childhood memories of this place inspired the collection’s title.

There is something magical about seeing your birthplace depicted through poetry. Growing up, I always heard my peers bad-mouth Portsmouth and express astronomical levels of animosity towards it. They could not wait to escape its clutches. However, never have I known it described as MacNaughton does in ‘Portsmouth’

Portsmouth’s got it all. 

Posh cocktails by the Wharf

living it up like a millionaire 

or 2-for-1 at Spoons. 

Portsmouth,

you encompass everything

and everyone.

These contrasts show that Portsmouth is a place for anyone. Regardless of your background, who would not want to indulge in a ‘colonic busting burger’? It is precious to see Portsmouth portrayed in a more down-to-earth way. This poem solidifies all my past thoughts that Portsmouth does have a unique appeal. It is especially true once you minus its ‘crowded terrace streets / with no parking’. 

Timeless (On Memory and Death)

Poetry shall eternally be an open embrace to those who have experienced bereavement. There are many touching personal poems in this section, but the one that resonates most is ‘Hawk’, which captures the chaotic stillness and oxymoronic activeness in the wake of receiving life-altering news. After a voice message, the speaker spies a hawk on returning to their childhood home, presumably to pack a parent’s personal effects. The following lines gave me chills:

More weeping, wailing 

carpet picnic, curtains drawn

undrawn. 

Bright sunlight blindly

inappropriate, 

darkness worse.

Grief alters your senses. The sun that usually gives you joy is suddenly a mocking presence. The devastating news has shaped the speaker’s behaviours. This is apparent through the imagery of a ‘carpet picnic’. It signals a return to childhood, a longing for innocence and shows vulnerability through their lowered body posture. On their journey home, their moon guide has also negatively morphed, becoming ‘big, white, ominous’. I also experienced this altering of the world through the loss of my dad to Frontotemporal Dementia. The colour drained from the world—everything felt distorted and grey. You exist, but you cannot comprehend how:

Somehow managed everyday routines

washing, cleaning teeth, dressing

After recalling the hawk, they leave readers with a muted but deeply moving ending:

You loved birds.

I commend MacNaughton for grappling masterfully with an immensely challenging experience. It is never easy to write about grief in a way that feels like you are doing justice as a poet to the emotions you are experiencing. ‘Hawk’ is a poem I shall treasure, and I feel privileged for having had the chance to read it.

Another poem (featured on the Portsmouth Literary Map) that deserves recognition in this section is ‘Just Seventeen’. Through prose and a single stanza, this simple poem leaves a haunting impression on the reader by representing the structure of a wartime telegram. The repetition of ‘STOP’ makes the reader drink in every minute detail:

Sidney Rex STOP just another name STOP

A very personal MacNaughton family history is parcelled into a few short lines, reflecting the indiscriminate brutality of wartime:

leaving eight more sons

and a daughter,

Violet Doris,

my nan

just seventeen also

STOP 

Uplifting (A Little Bit of Whimsy)

After this poignant section, MacNaughton offers reassurance through a series of comforting poems. One of these soothing tonics is ‘Silvergrey’. The balanced view it provides on life gives the courage to proceed despite facing adversity. It opens thus:

I like to think 

my life is not Golden 

but mainly Silver 

sprinkled with 

occasional stardust

This poem encourages readers to find solace in remembering that life’s unpredictability is part of what makes it special. We will not always be content, but we will not always be melancholy. There are ever-evolving changes that we have no choice but to experience. The speaker also acknowledges that the grey times will pass:

as they always do.

And they emphasise that:

I know I need

both Golden 

and Greyness 

to appreciate

the mainly 

Silver times.

This poem reads like a spell. Tonally, it buoys the reader. By utilising the classical adage that we need the bad times to appreciate the good in a non-sentimental way, the final message is well-founded optimism. There is always the danger that poetry can present insincere or melodramatic truisms, but MacNaughton achieves an equilibrium that leaves readers feeling restored. 

Unexpected Discovery (Pic ‘n’ Mix)

Typically, I would focus on the last poem of a collection. However, even though I find ‘Poetry Therapy’ massively relatable as I too believe the act of creation is cathartic, I want to share an unexpected gem. ‘Ultra-cautious Yoga Teacher’ is a prose poem breaching the previous sea of stanzas containing sprays of rhyme. This humorous poem depicts a yoga teacher fearing for the welfare of their gracefully aged clients: 

Time to de-stress. Not to worry about anything. Could you just take your socks off please, my lovely? Don’t want you to slip over there.

As the poem unravels, the yoga teacher keeps interrupting their instructions as they become more paranoid at the thought of client injury. The repetition of the names makes the insistent tone comically clear. You can picture the yoga teacher gesturing and imploring at the front of the class:

Don’t want that disc going again, do we?

It leaves the reader on a much lighter note. The sprinkles of comedy are essential and give much-needed relief from the ever-present pandemic. 

Final Thoughts

Overall, MacNaughton’s wonderful collection provides something for everyone. Admittedly, not all of the poems were my cup of tea, but her ability to utilise her observations in poetry is admirable. I recommend giving On the Shoulders of Lions a chance based on its accessibility, and you may discover a new favourite poem.

Olivia Todd completed a BA Hons in English and Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. To date, she has various poems published on the Young Poets Network, as well as ‘The Mermaid of Feejee’ in the London Magazine (Feb/March issue 2021), while another of her poems has been selected as third prize winner in the Poetry Society’s August Challenge #3 about Inanimate Objects. Olivia has also recently self-published a sci-fi novella, A Human’s Touch (paperback and Ebook formats are available).

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