John Greening: The Silence • John Harvey: Aslant • William Bedford: Chagall’s Circus • Julia Deakin: Sleepless • Fiona Sinclair:The Time Travellers’ Picnic • Karen Dennison: The Paper House • Eddie Wainwright: Pleading at the Bar of Truth (ed. Will Gaunt)
John-Paul Burns:The Minute and the Train • Rose Cook: Sightings • Tim O’Leary: Manganese Tears • Andy Armitage: Letters to a First Love from the Future • Tom Bland:Death of a Clown • Kavita A. Jindal: Patina • Patrick Williamson: Traversi/ Crossings (bilingual)
William Bedford • Robin Thomas • Abegail Morley• Mike Di Placido • Jill Munro • Neil Fulstow • Carole Bromley• David Cooke• Wendy Klein • Clare Proctor • Anne McCauley • Chris Hardy• Luigi Cannillo
John Greening’s The Silence reviewed by William Bedford
The Silence by John Greening. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784107475
As Glyn Pursglove notes in his blurb, ‘one of Greening’s great strengths is his historical imagination’, and that strength is working powerfully in The Silence. The opening lyric, ‘Sibelius,’ tells us ’January is Janus’s month’ so we ‘should look / both ways’, a perspective that allows us to meet historical moments both before and after our own. In ‘Evensong,’ we discover ‘that the afterlife / is much like this one’, a place in ‘Kew’ where the poet might ‘Want to look up and see my father / at the glass, returning, and wave to him’. The influence of Eliot’s ‘The end is where we start from’ is felt throughout, and especially in the meditation on Sibelius which concludes the volume.
Several of the individual lyrics include historical figures: Isaac Walton, Hölderlin, Dr John Dee. What is original in this backwards-and-forwards Janus-faced view of time however is that in ’Compleat,’ we hear the ‘low roar of the M4’ in our search for Walton, in ‘After Hölderlin: Homecoming – To My Family,’ The Sound of Music and Chamberlain make an appearance, and ‘From the Peak’ introduces not only Dr Dee and possibly Gawain’s Green Church but the Methodist minister who married the poet and his wife ‘thirty years previously’.
The more immediately personal poems search for a family history and in ‘Chalk’ a ‘pattern no one else can see’. The pattern is like water filtering through chalk, the infamous Cerne Abbas ‘an icon of unabashed / Englishness, up for a laugh, to hell / with propriety, defying mere / reflection, books, words’. In such a landscape, the poet’s ‘mother’s origins are lost / / unwritten lives that might as well have been / in Roman Britain for all we know’. Similarly, in ‘Heath,’ the personal pronoun cannot be the poet and yet wants to stand for the poet:
If I had taken a deer, and seen
my eyes put out by the Conqueror’s men to pay for it,
all I would know now is the nightjar and some white noise
from a pair of doves who are longing for one single tree.
Such historical encounters are handled with superb formal control, their power coming from the combination of almost surreal imaginative coincidences with a purity of diction which reminds me of Donald Davie at his best. Perhaps the most startling of these come in the sequence ‘Five Hilliard Miniatures,’ where the seventeen-line individual poems take their form from the first six poems Dylan Thomas’s ‘Vision and Prayer,’ the form suggesting the small oval miniatures of Nicholas Hilliard. But the title does not include the painter’s first name, and the Hilliard in Greening’s sequence – born in 1547 and died 1619 – seems to coincide with the 1520 Field of Cloth of Gold; Henry V111 who died the year the painter was born; the cavaliers of the 1640s, and ‘the stars, / the stripes’. That such playfulness with time seems effortless is evidence enough of the considerable imaginative skill at work here.
In his ‘Notes’ at the end of the volume, Greening tells us that the title sequence – ‘The Silence’ – focuses on the last thirty years in the life of Sibelius (1865-1957), the years in which he ‘released virtually no music from his forest home’ at Ainola. The composer is ‘imagined late in life when past and present are less distinct’, one of the themes we have already seen explored in the earlier poems. The ‘Notes’ also refer to T.S. Eliot’s ‘compound ghost’, the figure famously encountered in the second movement of Little Gidding, explaining the sequence’s epigraph, ‘So I assumed a double part’, again from Little Gidding.
‘The Silence’ is a densely metaphorical work, using the language of the forest to show the difficulties of the creative process. Lost in a forest where every sound can be turned to music, the most significant effects are from the movement of trees and the flight of swans, ‘starting little fires’ in the composer’s ‘head that play / across high boughs, lift low cobwebs, drift’. When it comes, with ‘a kind of swooping / / glissando’ music ‘slides towards him’ and is free: ‘Ariel, it sings – as the pine / tree’s lips close – and louder sings, pure amber’.
Visitors and letters are constant interruptions, but however briefly he scowls, Sibelius ‘softens quickly enough’ because all ‘artists are willing gulls / who want to be liked’. Even the critics rarely disturb him for long, but Finland’s fight for freedom from Russia brings actual political turmoil and danger, and two world wars draw chaos ever closer. But a composer – perhaps any artist – knows ‘It’s all rhythm’ of one kind or another, and ‘what really flies’ at last ‘floats over its edge / above the plain’. ‘Stop worrying and get on with your work!’ may be sound advice, but as age weakens the composer, and domestic upheavals disturb his concentration, he begins to realise that ‘All artistic enterprise is a ride through the night towards / a sunrise that may never come’. Yet ‘Silence means what it says’, and given the range of Greening’s imagination, there remain those moments when Sibelius knows the ‘angels are singing him’, a mystical vision which permeates the whole of this magnificent sequence.
William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition. Dempsey & Windle published Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.
John Harvey’s Aslant (with photographs by E Boiling) reviewed by Robin Thomas
Aslant by John Harvey (poetry) and Molly E. Boiling (photography). £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524099
John Harvey’s poetry is spacious, unhurried, measured, taking its time to unfurl its effect but keeping its hooks in the reader by careful control of pace and by making every word count. Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:
soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes
and make their way through the quiet streets
to early morning mass
It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged. It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going. Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something.
This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.
Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’. There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:
… an angular arpeggio
which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong
down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance
meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable. The poem ends with the two threads brought together:
[a] final double handed chord, so sudden,
so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one,
catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara
is stunned into silence.
The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.
To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem. In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:
the light oscillating
on the water’s surface
patterning across the painter’s canvas
There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:
then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting
small shells like keepsakes tight
in the palm of your hand.
It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.
There are many good things in these poems: memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:
… I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand;
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.
These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).
I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style. Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.
The photos by Molly E.Boiling are abstract conceptions, many based on buildings seen from unusual angles and reflect the poet’s interest in abstract art. They certainly contribute to what is a very attractive book-object.
Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. He has had poems published in a number of journals including Agenda, Envoi, Orbis, Brittle Star, Poetry Salzburg, Poetry Scotland, Pennine Platform, The High Window, South, Stand, Rialto and The Interpreters House. His pamphlet, A Fury of Yellow, was published by Eyewear in November, 2016. His collection Momentary Turmoil was published by Cinnamon in March 2018.
William Bedford’s Chagall’s Circus reviewed by Abegail Morley
Chagall’s Circus by William Bedford. £9. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435867
Throughout his life Chagall drew inspiration from the theme of the circus. He was dazzled by it, and now, 34 years after his death, William Bedford dazzles us by documenting Chagall’s life and work in a series of 28 poems entitled, Chagall’s Circus.
Bedford divides the poems into five sections charting Chagall’s life from his birth in Russia in 1887 until his late work in the 1980s. Chagall died in France in 1985. Bedford contextualises this collection in terms of the political, geographical and social aspects of the time, as well as giving us an insight into the emotional and professional life of this painter and the artistic landscape he inhabited. His opening poem Self-Portrait with Brushes (1909), has as its epigraph the following quote by Chagall:
“My name is Chagall, my emotional life is sensitive, and my purse is empty, but they say I have talent.”
And so begins this intimate portrait in Chagall’s voice. In Grandfather’s House (1923) he speaks of his youth:
I spent my childhood devouring horizons,
seeing angels in the pattern of a carpet,
spring rain waltzing the hessian curtains.
He speaks of “the hunger hiding in colours,/ the graveyards at the end of rainbows”, how his “father burned down like a used candle”. His family is his palette and the poet paints every bone of their bodies.
This writing is visceral and evocative; Bedford delves into Chagall’s life and gently mines his inner thoughts. In Red Nude Sitting Up (1908) he speaks of his father again, “I had a handful of roubles in my coat pockets,/ the only money my father ever gave me”. Chagall has set out into the artists’ world, penniless; he dreams of art, how “Matisse smiles in my red nude sitting”, how he forgets the model’s name but remembers “but the apples/ and the fire burn in my memory/ as the red and green of my canvas burns/ my first encounter with my own rapture”. Later in the poem he states, “I painted my red nude sitting in Vitebsk” (Chagall’s childhood home) and reference is made to it and to cheder, shtetl, and his Jewish upbringing. His faith is referenced throughout the collection.
Bedford has a keen eye for place and fills his poems with the language of the country he inhabits and early on he tells us “I spoke Russian before I spoke Yiddish” (Russian Wedding (1909)). Through his research he moves the reader with ease from Russia to America and France, from his tight-knit family who “preferred photographs” (Red Nude Sitting Up (1908)), to war and revolution in Russia. In all the turmoil he says, “… the artist can only stand at his easel./ The artist can only be concerned with blue” (Onward! (1917)). At this easel Chagall painted Bella with White Collar (1917) (Bella Rosenfeld, Chagall’s first wife) and here the voice begins with tenderness:
All I had to do was open my window
and in streamed the blueness of sky,
love and flowers for my beloved Bella.
As the subject changes from the personal to the political, so too does the tone, and
Bedford highlights the melancholy, the struggle, the suffering as time passes. When Chagall leaves Moscow his early works are lost.
’What has it got to do with Marx and Lenin?’
this painter and his girl in their seventh heaven.
(The War of the Palaces (1919))
The external world is all-consuming. Bedford crams his section War and Revolution in Russia: 1914-1923 with brutal images, Chagall speaks of the
Ten days that shook the world shook me,
and Russia thick with ice turned upside down,
Lenin’s Dervish dance of words a rhetoric
of Red! and Red! … blood’s whine.
(Cemetery Gates (1917))
Chagall takes his place at the easel once more:
Be careful what you say, or say nothing.
But I never learnt to be careful.
I am Chagall in Russian or in paint,
airborne across a sky of deepest blue,
October’s blue the blue of Russia’s soul.
In a later section of the collection Chagall arrives in America and learns of the concentration camps:
New York! New York! O my America!
my new-found land of skyscrapers and hope
as the millions walk their walk to death.
(Listening to the Cock (1944))
Here and in France, from WWII and beyond, in the midst of fear and unrest, he concentrates on his paintings, which include The Large Circus, The Grand Parade, Madonna With the Sleigh and Bridges Over the Seine. This collection made me want to revisit Chagall’s work, and having read it I am sure I will see it in a different light.
Bedford has perfectly captured Chagall’s life in this ekphrastic collection. He tugs on the painter’s sleeve for attention and documents what he hears, giving a detailed account of his heritage and artwork, and an intimate insight into his passions and struggles. Chagall’s Circus is not just an ekphrastic collection. Yes, we come face-to-face with the Cubists, with Picasso, Matisse and a host of Chagall’s paintings, but we are also engulfed by a Fascist landscape, invited into a love story and taken on an amazing journey.
“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love” Chagall.
Abegail Morley’s debut collection, How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best First Collection. Her most recent collection is The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press) and Cutting the Cord is forthcoming from Nine Arches Press. She is one of the co-editors of Against the Grain Press, an innovative small independent poetry publisher, and editor of The Poetry Shed.
Julia Deakin’s Sleepless reviewed by Mike Di Placido
Sleepless by Julia Deakin. £10. Valley Press. ISBN: 978-1912436101
Julia Deakin’s work invariably hits the mark and, in Sleepless, all fifty-seven poems do exactly that. Heartfelt and intelligent, inventive and hopeful, celebratory and compassionate, dark and comic (sometimes laugh-out-loud funny), they are, nonetheless, clear-eyed poems of engagement and witness. Deakin describes the poems as: accessible without being trivial. These are not ‘poets’ poems’, they reach a wider audience. While this is true, as such, it should not be taken to underestimate the complexity of the pieces, or the issues addressed, in work which always succeeds and rewards re-reading.
Over three sections we have autobiographical pieces, poems alluding to popular and literary culture, comic poems, historical poems, pieces on the natural world, and poems which take on current socio-political issues such as climate change, terrorism, and abuse of all types. Nonetheless, starting the journey with ‘Train’, an overarching note of celebration and wonder sets the tone that threads through the collection. ‘The Knowledge’, is in awe of ‘birds ‘up/on thermal elevators over rooftops and valleys.’ Again, in ‘Only a goldfish’, the vision of the fish is presented with unerring accuracy, using wit and humour to empathise with a creature, ‘without eyelids’, that must ‘party on nightly ten or more years’. This celebration of the natural world continues in ‘Landlocked’ and, particularly, in ‘Syzergy’: ‘the earth is jewel-bright; a swirl of blues and yellows, greens and whites.’ Where ‘clouds cling like wisps of packaging.’ The moon, by contrast, ‘looks whacked’, a ‘pasty impresario…pulling the strings/ to keep the whole goddam show on the road.’ ‘It has rained’ extols the regenerative powers of simple blackberries, as they ‘shoot through cracks, prize walls apart.’ In the lovely poem ‘Then sometimes you’ll think’, the humble greenhouse is celebrated while punning on the growing, global-warming threat. Indeed, the poem ‘In deep’ presents a ‘Day after tomorrow’ scenario with ‘London sunk, the Seine skied along, / Liberty up to her ears, her torch icicles.’ This is the loss of ‘Earth/as we knew it. Spiders. Blue sky. Stars. We never said goodbye.’
In ‘Vwoom’, Deakin trips back in time to childhood – to Andy Pandy and Popeye. In ‘1970’, a family trip to Paris is recounted. In ‘1973’, when learning of a workmate’s liking of Shakespeare, we hear of the poet’s chagrin when thinking she’d ‘done well/ preferring Leonard Cohen to the Chi-Lites’. Bravo! Very Alan Bennet. The tone changes in ‘Every June 10th’ with a poignant, although ultimately rueful, recollection of a father’s faithful (yet predictable) celebration of his wife’s birthday. This poignant note persists in the following poem, ‘Pavane’, in a beautifully captured evocation of hope, signified by a single ballet shoe and all that this means, and has meant, to an old lady at the end of her life.
The second section opens with a comedic tour de force in ‘Code’, which I both enjoyed and admired. (I was reminded of the Ed Reiss poem ‘Kaiser Cheese’.) The humour continues, more gently, in ‘Viral’, and this wit and flexibility of voice is, of course, present in the concrete pieces: ‘Ascending and descending’, ‘1970’, ‘Footnote’, and other inventive poems, like ‘Ball Game’, that are sprinkled throughout the collection.
In the third and final section we move into darker territory. Introduced by ‘Hinterland’, our dream life is set against the transience and brevity of existence ‘behind our sparrows flight/ the ages unlived and yet to come.’ ‘Inshallah’ brings us chillingly back to the present in a superb sketching of the mundane mutating into horror, ‘you could be any man just setting off for work’. The following poem, ‘News at Ten’, could be a companion piece with the connotations of the title. Think of Heaney’s poem ‘A constable calls’, though ratcheted-up in terror. With the poems ‘Cloze Procedure’, ‘I would like to forget’ and ‘Verdict’, abuse, in all its grisly manifestations, is addressed head on. In ‘Picasso’s child’ the mother and her dead infant from the artist’s work, Guernica, serve to further illustrate the previous poems’ subject matter. ‘Bradford’ and ‘Turning Sixty’– both very funny – lighten the mood, somewhat, along with the invention displayed in ‘Care of the Elderly’. After the sobering vision of ‘In Deep’, the collection closes, fittingly, with the poem ‘After Rothko’, which is not just an insightful interpretation of that painter’s art, but a reminder of the salutary fact, posed throughout the collection, that although we are ultimately responsible for ourselves and our world, we are privileged and blessed to be entrusted with the task. Everything comes from ideas, the collection seems to suggest – what we imagine and then project into being. This, of course, is also true of poetry, and these are very good poems written by a very good poet.
Mike Di Placido has had three poetry collections published: Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop,2009), A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press, 2013) and Crow Flight across the Sun (Calder Valley Poetry, 2017). An ex-professional footballer and England Youth International, he was a winner in The Yorkshire Poetry Prize and shortlisted for The Bridport Prize.
Fiona Sinclair’s The Time Travellers’ Picnic reviewed by Jill Munro
The Time Travellers’ Picnic by Fiona Sinclair. £10. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435836
The landscape format and glossy cover of ‘The Time Travellers’ Picnic’ immediately intrigue with a ‘not your normal poetry collection anti-matt A5 portrait approach’, with a striking image of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ sandwiched between the Eiffel Tower and a Salvador Dali time-bending clock in the cover’s wicker picnic basket. Simpson’s approach to language is just as eclectic – with her use of LOL, IRL–scattered text-speak and almost-product-placement liberal use of Ted Bakers, Chanels, Tescos and Matalans, juxtaposed with a more traditional poetic language, using both simile and metaphor to strong effect. I am aware that one should never try to find the poet in the poem) and she does not flinch from difficult subject matter, such as an alcoholic mother, the early death of her father and their moral failings, both as humans and as parents (although at no point does the poetry feel finger-pointily ‘They f**k you up, your mum and dad’). Indeed, the poems often feel coolly detached, resembling reportage on the life the poet has lived, without any undue judgment of those involved in her life. However, this is a self-aware collection; the death of the poet’s mother appears to release her to a new life of education, teaching and later marriage which carries with it a joyous feeling of redemption (although marred by illness), of succeeding against the odds of the early backdrop of difficulties she has faced. The reader recognizes immediately a very distinctive and entertaining voice and, as more and more poems are encountered, begins to feel an intimate bond with their writer – a very much ‘getting to know her’ experience, as though listening to a close friend speaking.
The language employed by Sinclair is very condensed – obviously not generally a bad thing in poetry but sometimes I was left longing for the use of an indefinite or definite article when these had been omitted. This particular quirk did begin to grate after a while, and I was left recalling a critique of one of my own poems by poet and tutor Neil Rollinson – ‘It is not cool to leave out articles!’ – and wishing Fiona Sinclair would use regular syntax to create a more lyrical and rounded read. There is a breathless and natural-speech feel to this poetry which is fast-paced and accessible, but an occasional respite from over-compression would have been welcomed. For example, in ‘Free Wheeling’, a small, cycling child encountered whilst out shopping evokes – ‘Envy’s scratch, as I am damned to haul myself up/never ending ladder of wants whilst he passes’ which would lose nothing, as far as I’m concerned, with an ‘a’ insert before ‘never ending’. In fact, such omissions do occasionally necessitate double-reading to ensure the correct meaning is extracted but this is probably my failing rather that the poet’s and is obviously a subjective response – another reviewer may love this reduction of language, a boiling down of words to the absolute minimum.
Having said this, there are some spectacularly good turns of phrase and inventive approaches to language which shake the reader from complacency and are to be applauded, as in ‘Words’:
Never took your name since after several predecessors
felt I was taking on a cliché.
Found too lifetime chopping off horror’s many hydra heads
its good fortune gives me PTS.
Although I admire Dempsey & Windle’s cover production and formatting (which enables the poet’s often long and interesting line-lengths to sit comfortably unsquashed or unaltered on the wide pages; normally a publishers’ nightmare when trying to fit onto a narrower page size), if I were Fiona Sinclair, I would be a little disappointed with the editing and proof-reading of the collection. There appears to be quite a large number of obvious errors such as ill-placed capitalization and punctuation, separation into two of words such as ‘in doors’ which should be one. Maybe these aren’t errors and are intended to shake things up, but they did snag, such as in ‘An Old-Fashioned Stunner’ when:
Your words graze; no prospect in middle aged
of an ugly duckling transformation,
only the last resort of surgeon’s knife or aesthetician’s needle.
This should surely read ‘in middle age’. This is obviously not the fault of the poet, but a more careful eye would have helped, as these errors are distracting and disruptive (for a pedant, anyway).
These are interesting poems looking at life from the clear gaze of unusual angles; the re-fashioning via a new wardrobe of a boyfriend who has let himself go, a friend who has a penchant for shop-lifting and riffs on mental health, drug abuse, childlessness and the late-blossoming of an internet romance. This last subject is particularly sharply and acutely observed, as in ‘Chartwell’:
Six years ago, when you finally arrived like a parcel lost in the post,
I basked in friends’ your blooming testament to feeling loved,
Only after marriage, when best behaviours are relaxed,
did I realise that I had textbook married my father.
(again, an example of a proof-reader’s error where, for me, the comma after ‘loved’ should potentially have been a full stop based on the capitalization of ‘Only’).
This is a captivating and stimulating read (only diminished in a very minor way by the irritations outlined) which I thoroughly enjoyed and, in the process, felt I began to know Fiona, her life-story and her honest and open character.
Karen Dennison’s The Paper House reviewed by Jill Munro
The Paper House by Karen Dennison, Hedgehog Press ISBN: 978-1916480698
Hiraeth is a Welsh word that doesn’t seem to have a wholly satisfactory English equivalent. ‘A longing for home’ is definitely not adequate – the Welsh word is more descriptive of a longing for a certain moment in time, the emotions attached to that moment or a particular person, place or era and the fact all factors making up that specific moment can never be fully recaptured, however much we may try to return.
Karen Dennison’s poems in this collection are packed with hiraeth (apologies to Welsh speakers if that’s a misuse) – with bittersweet memories of missing something or someone, but over-arched with an air of being grateful for the existence of the object of this sentiment. Dennison creates a papier-mâché collage of memories within her various ‘Paper Houses’. With these snippets she sure-footedly evokes empathy in her reader, even if their own memories differ vastly. There will always be a fragment waiting in these pages to jolt some form of recognition – be it of a time, a place, an emotion, a personal connection, via strong sensory detailing and metaphor. Many readers will have been that child inside a garden shed, aware of its ‘…jumble of danger’ and ‘face-height webs’ ready to ensnare (‘Shed’).
The word stanza is Italian for room and the poet is adept at walking us through the various rooms of her poem-houses by clear and concise description. The reader feels they are the one who ‘…searches the rooms opens/cupboards, lifts floorboards …’ in Dennison’s ‘Empty House’.
It is not just buildings that feature in this collection of memories, people are equally vividly wrought, such as in ‘Threading a Memory’:
‘her shoeless foot pumping treadle,
skin-tone stocking, hem
of a rib-knitted skirt; the clot
muscling its way to her brain.’
The words ‘memory’ and ‘remember’ weave their way as a unifying mantra in these simple but not simplistic poems – ‘Remember the winter of ‘99’ (‘Waterloo Bridge’), ‘You remembered how rain tried to steal our words’ (‘Where Memory Begins), as do natural images, such as skies, moons and clouds. I felt it slightly unnecessary to split the collection into four distinct sections as this approach disrupted the whole for me, but this is a minor point as the natural flow moves from childhood to what feels like more recent memories in a cohesive way.
A poem in the final section, ‘The Pull of Home’ returns whole-heartedly to hiraeth, likening people to bees which ‘come and go, strung by elastic/to the dark cavities of home’. This is a sensitive and thoughtful collection of physical and emotional memories, of place and inheritance, of family and loss which is eminently re-readable – pulling readers back strongly to discover feelings of hiraeth of their own.
Jill Munro has been published in various magazines including Orbis, Prole, Ink Sweat and Tears, South Magazine, Poetry News, And Other Poems and The Frogmore Papers. She has been anthologised in The Chronicles of Eve, Paper Swans and Long-listed three times for the National Poetry Competition, Jill’s first collection Man from La Paz was published in 2015 by Green Bottle Press. She won the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition 2015 with The Quilted Multiverse, published April 2016.
Eddie Wainwright‘s Pleading at the Bar of Truth reviewed by Neil Fulstow.
Pleading at the Bar of Truth by Eddie Wainwright (ed. Will Gaunt). £15.00. Lapwing. ISBN 978-1910855-87-4
Pleading at the Bar of Truth is simultaneously a Selected, an Uncollected, a festschrift, an introduction to the poet, and a coda to a criminally under-appreciated career. In part, it’s what a “greatest hits” package would look like if the selection were left to the artist’s mates rather than being assembled with a quick financial return uppermost in mind. In part, it’s a sometimes conversational and sometimes scholarly overview of the geographical, social and political elements that formed Wainwright’s character and shaped his writing. It’s a curious volume, ambitious and loveably earnest in concept but somewhat ramshackle and flawed in execution.
I’ll get my biggest complaint out of the way right now: the typesetting. Or rather one aspect of the typesetting. The poems are fine, rendered in a clear and aesthetically pleasing font (although the decision to present the three contents pages entirely in capitals is odd). It’s the prose sections that needed more attention. Pleading at the Bar of Truth starts with a five page introduction by Will Daunt and ends with an eight page essay by R.V. Bailey on Wainwright’s prose writings (another odd decision, since none of his prose works are represented here); in between are reminiscences by his wife Diana Wainwright, his daughter Sonja Wainwright, and friends, collaborators and fellow poets including Roger Elkin, Diana Hendry and William Greenslade, while Lapwing founder Dennis Greig contributes a lovely piece near the end of the book.
Including notes on sources and contributors’ notes, the prose sections account for a good 40 of the volume’s 132 pages. There are two basic ways to present prose in a printed text: block paragraphs with a double space between them, or indented paragraphs single spaced. The prose sections in Pleading at the Bar of Truth vacillate between the two, sometimes within a single page. This is particularly notable during Bailey’s piece on the prose works, where the inconsistency becomes offputting. There is inconsistency, too, when Bailey quotes Wainwright: sometimes these excerpts are fully indented, other times presented as normal paragraphs so that it’s not always clear as to where the quotes material concludes and Bailey’s commentary recommences.
Am I being pedantic or petty by harping on about this? Surely it’s about Wainwright’s poetry? Surely the other stuff counts as added extras? And isn’t the book as a whole representative of Lapwing’s unique presentation, sturdily hand-bound and graced by Edgar Wainwright’s evocative cover art? Well, yes. But a £15 cover price is still a £15 cover price and having gone back to the collection several times whilst drafting out this review, I can’t help but grimace at the thought of how much more professional the book would appear if a little more attention had been paid to the design and typesetting.
Enough of the carping, I hear you cry: what about the content? Well, that’s where I can start to break out the superlatives. The reminiscences by Diana and Sonja Wainwright are poignant and informative. The wealth of biographical detail is invaluable and the poems gain context from being the personal selections of the contributors. As noted earlier, Bailey’s piece on Wainwright’s prose is a strange inclusion particularly as it immediately follows Greig’s short piece ‘Eddie Wainwright: the Man I Knew’ which seems to provide the book with a logical end-point. Elsewhere, two paragraphs by John Hepworth seem to treat the fusion between landscape and mindscape In Wainwright’s poems of boyhood, but they’re a syntactical nightmare and one is left with the sense of thoughts unformed and a conclusion ungrasped at.
I’m still carping, aren’t I? Let’s turn to the poems and maybe this time the superlatives can remain foregrounded. Eddie Wainwright was many poets during his intensely prolific career: a love poet, a war poet, a protest poet, a satirist, a chronicler of nature and landscape, a poet for whom home and hearth and family were sacrosanct, and a poet of travel and experience and culture. But most of all, the foundation-persona that anchors his work in all its variety, he was a working class poet. Although each of the contributors err in their selections towards a specific aspect of his work – foreign travel features heavily in his daughter’s choices, home soil and nature in his wife’s – unpretentiousness and plain speech are the constant hallmarks.
Take these opening lines from ‘Profit and Loss’:
Friday night. He’s carefully tipped onto the table
his little brown wage packet. His own father by now
would have drunk the half of it …
Or these from ‘In Transit’:
A country station drab as a barrack block
On a sultry day, and me saying goodbye,
Waiting for a train to come and be gone
On its rusty rails.
Or the brass-tacks opening salvo of ‘Miners’ Strike 1984’:
Those horses – more enormous every time you see them –
charging at the scattered groups of miners was what we now
have learned to term a defining moment: defined, for me,
the mindless brutality of the naked power of the State when it is
hell-bent on having its way.
This is poetry that doesn’t fumble around trying to find a way to express itself (unlike much of the half-formed noodling issued by some fairly well respected not to mention well funded presses); that doesn’t fall back on ellipsis, allusion or ambiguity; that doesn’t play it safe or expect its readers to go haring off for safe spaces or cosy middle class enclaves; and it is poetry that definitely doesn’t have any truck with cliques, movements, trends or populism.
I have noted a recent tendency on social media – I don’t know whether Wainwright himself utilised Facebook, Twitter and the like; I rather think he would have given them short shrift – for poets to discourse on the ways in which their class/social status works against them when it comes to commissions, fellowships, grants, festival appearances, and the likelihood of being published by certain presses; and of how unwelcome or unaccepted they feel in the wider terms of the so-called “poetry establishment”. There’s certainly a case to be made that a poet who doesn’t consider themself an outsider is either missing the point or is so comfortable in what they do that they pretty much prove it.
Wainwright was well-travelled, cultured (his poems that reference classical music are a case in point) and fiercely intellectual. He was the best kind of academic: one who wasn’t subsumed by the ivory towers, whose critical faculties and disinclination to pretentiousness were a product of the roots he never forget. Wainwright’s output was immense and consistent, as both poet and critic. The spirit of Yorkshire – plain speech, pragmatism, earthy humour and indomitability – sings through it all.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, ‘No Avoiding It’ and ‘Can’t Take Me Anywhere’. He lives and works in Nottingham.
John-Paul Burns’s The Minute and the Train reviewed by Carole Bromley
The Minute and the Train by John-Paul Burns. £6. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN: 13 978-3901993701
Having watched the development of John-Paul Burns’ poetry at Poetry Business Writing Days and been so impressed that I invited him to read in York, where his quiet delivery took the room by storm, I was eager to read his first collection and I was not disappointed.
Kim Moore observes on the cover that ‘each poem is driven by this restless, searching gaze, leaving the reader with the realisation that looking out can also be a way of looking in’ and I couldn’t agree more.
Burns is an observer with a gift for capturing landscapes, objects and people. A pear ‘waits for the hand/that will hold it, give it/its pear shape, bite into/its sweet and dripping self’, a tangerine ‘will be torn without violence/ Your oils will mist a fresh sweat into the air/ You will disappear and you will remain’, at a cricket club ‘The track curves in the grass/ with no-one running. They play/ just out of earshot, a deep yellow hour.’
I’m a sucker for a poem about Whitby and ‘Two Views of Whitby Harbour’ is wonderful. Here’s a taster;
line the Eastern Pier
crooked, athletic and shy.
The sea is a flat sky blue.
I very much like the confident way the poet uses the white space on the page in this poem and elsewhere, but only where its effect is important. In other poems the lines are left justified in the conventional way.
As far as subject matter goes, Burns is particularly good at capturing the world of bedsits, shared flats and houses. I get the feeling that the poet in him longs for solitude, while the young man with a sense of humour can enjoy company, parties, drunkenness.
‘Sharehouse’ is especially good with its wry observations of the habits of the stranger he lives with:
I don’t know where he goes though sometimes
I hear him whistling by the front door
I can imagine the postcards he would send me
knowing my tastes so well
He’s like me in some ways but mute
He tidies up the kitchen as if no one were to use it again.
In fact the poem is so intimate I felt it was partly about different aspects of the writer himself. I was also very interested in the way he uses initial capitals here to emphasise the asides which start in lower case. This is someone who has thought about form carefully and is experimenting.
So many of these poems are set outdoors, or at least in public places like pubs and cafes. A particular favourite is ‘Monday (in Saturday Café)’ which really takes off into the surreal , the edgy, the unsettling. Here’s the ending:
Shabby faces going by like carriages
the absolute nonsense in the air
there is some laughter
brittle as a pint glass
This is a good example of his effective use of non-punctuated lines. The lack of that full stop, for example, speaks volumes. The whole poem is a masterful evocation of place and atmosphere.
And I absolutely loved ‘That’s Beautiful, Thelonius’ with its brilliant imitation of jazz-like rhythm in the form, language and half rhymes. It is one of the best poems about music I have come across:
could there be a way to jangle through the graves
in a crooked solo, sleeping on the roofs till the brassy morns,
could we keep those corners peeled, our eyes like moons,
the world a silken glove full of sad fingers straight as staves
it sounds like a piano melting on a bus, but then one step
in a waking direction and the song stops, the idea stops and I stop.
This stunning debut deserved to be widely read. Here is a new voice and one to watch.
Carole Bromley lives in York where she is the Stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries. Winner of many prizes, including the Bridport, she has two pamphlets and three collections with Smith/ Doorstop, the most recent being a collection for children, Blast Off! Carole is currently working on a pamphlet of poems about her recent experience of brain surgery as well as a new children’s collection.
Rose Cook’s Sightings reviewed by David Cooke
Sightings by Rose Cook. £4. Hen Run (Grey Hen Press). ISBN: 978-1999690304
The title of Rose Cook’s new chapbook, Sightings, reminds one of Seamus Heaney’s 1991 masterpiece, Seeing Things, and, in particular, its long visionary sequence, ‘Squarings’. Moreover, the fact that Cook’s collection concludes with ‘Brigid’s Day’, a brief elegy for the Irish poet, suggests that any similarity may not be unintended. On closer inspection, one does detect an affinity between the work of these two poets and perhaps also that of Charles Tomlinson, whose first great collection was Seeing is Believing. However, to draw such comparisons is in no way to suggest that there is anything derivative about the poetry of Rose Cook or to diminish the brilliance of her epiphanies. Far from it, for Cook is a poet who can hold her own in the best of company and one whose unique way with words enables the reader to see the world in a new light.
In this regard, her title poem is exemplary and might be taken as a kind of poetic manifesto. It consists of seven irregular stanzas, each of which has the numinous clarity of a haiku:
Saw the whale flex its muscular back against blue water,
not far out, the shiver of a god.
Beyond the almost scientific precision of these lines I particularly relish her use of the word ‘shiver’ which, although attached grammatically to the whale, seems nonetheless to take on a subjective resonance. Each of the subsequent stanzas encapsulates perfectly, and with minimum fuss, a precise moment in time, culminating in the final couplet which has an imagistic clarity:
Saw a line of washing tied high above a street,
several white sheets and a single red shirt.
In ‘While the Sun Shone Down’, which is brief enough to be quoted in its entirety, she shows how much can be achieved in a few lines with such seemingly effortless ease:
The black dog with a good-natured expression
ran the whole length of the strand. She had seen
a group of students arrive with measuring equipment
and wanted to check them out.
After receiving greetings and warm strokes
the black dog ran the length of the beach back to her owner,
running along the edge of the sea and smiling all the way.
What is delightful here is not merely the poem’s matter-of-fact anthropomorphism but the way in which the dog’s loping gait is captured by the leisurely syntax of the poem’s final line. In ‘Days of the Whale’ the poet focuses, with a hint of unease, on a less quotidian event, for the whale is a ‘big, blue, endangered creature / wild and deep as a dream.’ In ‘A Whale in My Window’ she hints at an underlying unity beneath the surface of things: ‘When you speed up the song / of a humpback whale / it sounds like birdsong.’ Elsewhere, as in ‘Moorhen’, her gaze is not drawn toward unwonted events but to those we might so easily miss:
Now they are in the nest together, adding material.
Once the reeds grow,
no one will notice their nest.
Cook’s tone is frequently, and commendably, understated. The opening line of ‘Watching them Dive’ could hardly be more casual: ‘The first thing that attracts me is the glide’. However, its concluding couplet has an epic simplicity that takes us back to the Anglo-Saxons:
At dusk, a cormorant flies home,
black, heavy outline against dark sea.
Moreover, where Cook does indulge in metaphor it is always to the point and memorable. In the same poem terns are compared to ‘a cotillion of tumbling snowflakes’. In ‘A Hover of Crows, A Muster, A Parcel’, light bouncing off the backs of crows makes them ‘bright as Lord Krishna’s hair.’
Like Jane Kenyon or Kerry Hardie , Cook has that rare ability to get to the heart things in a few lines, but she also writes poems in which she allows herself more scope. ‘The Language of Birds’ opens with a visionary stanza:
I dream I can talk with birds.
The conversation of birds is the green language
of angels, language of light, of Wing Makers,
Star people, who talk in whistle language to reach through.
Let me learn the nightingale speech.
A few stanzas later it comes home to roost in childhood memories: ‘Baby’s first word was bird. She said burb, / pointing at the sparrows outside.’ ‘How to Build a Wall’, appropriately enough, is composed in six quatrains. It’s a poem which, like Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’, has a metaphorical potential that it is more than the sum of its parts. It also has a Heaneyesque relish in the technical vocabulary associated with a traditional craft:
Begin again, forage for second lift.
Build then with company and a good heart,
place in more heartings with tumble and lustre,
brought for stability to friendship or wall.
Finally, in case one is left with the impression that Cook is merely a dispassionate observer of the natural world, there are poems here informed by more obviously human concerns. ‘Passiegata’ was written after the death of a friend. ‘Bloodlines’ is an affectionate portrayal of a grandmother which hints nonetheless at family tensions: ‘She brought iced buns, endured my mother’s / lukewarm welcome … ‘Conversation’ is a cunningly constructed poem in which an awkward conversation is set against the backdrop of some badly played music. These days there are many voices clamouring for our attention. It is to be hoped, however, that Rose Cook’s quietly elegant and beautifully observed poems will gain the discerning readership they so clearly deserve.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His collection, Staring at a Hoopoe, will be published by Dempsey and Windle in spring 2020.
Tim O’Leary’s Manganese Tears reviewed by ‘s The Silence reviewed by Wendy Klein
Manganese Tears by Tim O’Leary. £6. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN: 987-3-901993-68-8
Tim O’ Leary has had a career as an archaeologist before becoming a photographer and both influences are evident in his writing: the historical knowledge of the former and the eye for angle of the latter. The poet Robert Etty comments on the back cover of this 2018 pamphlet that ’These fine poems address the surfaces and depths of life and love with originality, care and insight.’ This praise is echoed by the eminent William Bedford who mentions the ‘…wonderful elegies for the village community of the poet’s childhood…’
Indeed, from the apt and clever title signalling the chemical benefits of crying, this pamphlet, only 34 pages long, is suffused with elegy from the opening poem which broods poignantly on his mother’s failing health and mental faculties:
Her thank yous mean as much as
amens muttered during mass –
religiously bare. (Walking to the Bridge)
In the third poem, Home Visit, the poet notes how ‘Her life has moved downstairs’ —
on the side by the sink where
expectorated cornflakes harden
next to Colgate smears, Camay lumps
and blue, disintegrating Wonderloaf.
The detail here is chosen with care and heart-rending in its precision, a particular skill of O’Leary. This gift for finding the best wording to fit the image occurs again when he reflects, following her death, on her mothering:
She comes to me now
on a phosphorescent raft
laughing with a message
from another time
and pledges in new accents
to wake me as she used to do
on mornings cold with air
and warm with kin. (Beachcomber Blues)
See how the very sparseness of the layout: short couplets, primarily simple words, lends this image a particular poignancy.
It would be unjust to dwell on the elegiac quality of Tim O’Leary’s poetry when there is so much more to admire about it. This poet has a range of skills and techniques at his disposal, which he uses to good effect. The way he turns observation neatly into fresh imagery is a real delight, dropping in original verbs: ‘droplets from night’s icicles / stud the dank vweranda // and rime on the iron roof cracks’. In Morning Appraisal, the protagonist is ‘A kind of man in stocks // feigning couldn’t-care-less / while practising disappointment.’ I had to grin in admiration. Or take ‘…an alcove chilly as sin / dank limbo for the Bible class,’ (Funeral in a Dark Wood). You can smell it.
There is lavish layering of language defining a relationship in earth and moon pull different ways, where ‘we are given ‘the heckling of rain on a rusty roof’
and you losing yourself in dreams
of weather forming warmer fronts
as you feed the story that’s undoing your life
to men who write down storms
This quality is even more evident in The Birthplace, a poem about breaking free of home/old ties:
I stare till the glaze on my eyes is broken
by the glint of a splinter dislodged in the wind
and your stick’s no more stout than a withy
from the pollarded willow on the lawn.
Again, in Breakfast in Puglia O’Leary demonstrates this skill. You can smell this wild breakfast, taste it.
Wind of wolves. Dog-pack rain.
We were lost in the dead of night just past
till candles in a once abandoned farm
drew you on singing pizzica
through maverick chills, returning
with offerings of white mulberries and herbs.
It would be possible, I believe, for a poet to over-use this brilliant, but ornate layering, though it would difficult to fault O’Leary’s use of it here.
The poet also offers an intense distillation and what I can only describe as a breathless compression in shorter poems. In eleven lines Job’s Equinox presents an almost cosmological picture of the turning of the of the year, the seasons, its effect upon the heart and mind.
remember the berries
that grow in the dark
until the vernal urges stir
until the sky’s corona
throws light on the gravity
of your journey’s tears.
He achieves a similar feat in Sacro Monte where
Wedding bells from San Nicolao
marry church to bird to cirrus to sky,
tie wild mountain to municipal hill
and in the second stanza:
Then, no bells, only echoes in the wood:
squirrels in the hornbeam, sparrows in the lime,
beach nuts cracking on a chapel roof
The way he encapsulates the human activity church going, within the natural world, the community is both deft and satisfying; almost like magic.
It would be a shame not to mention O’Leary’s entertaining use of extended metaphor here
In Leave of Absence, the poem-portrait of a childless couple on sick leave together, he uses the anvil and related industrial accoutrements as metaphor for their drear existence:
Feathering an anvil.
And as they hammer vainly on,
they cannot live without themselves,
so riveted inside a world
that is too much with them…
and in the final stanza:
They claim iron constitutions
but the steel is in their gazes
and the gazes at the abyss.
Hammering down an extended metaphor is a calculated risk, which may irritate a reader, but this poet handles it with aplomb: skilfully, even playfully.
The variety of styles and forms in this short pamphlet is also impressive: an exquisite sonnet, Caveat, is another snapshot of a relationship, perfectly rhymed and metred and witty as well:
You dare fall for her, that’ll be the end!’
She said ‘I’ll kill you if you marry her’
as if passion should be a barrier
to everlasting love, invoking clown
suitors whose bloom had perished, pounded down.
A delicious love poem jumps out to delight the reader close to the end of the book:
I’m watching gulls make landfall in the olive
groves on turbines that usurp the ancient saints,
lording the plateau, hoarding the wind,
condensing the scent I remember of you… (Careless Rapture)
To add to his other strengths, Tim O’Leary displays real craft in laying out poems on the page: astute line and stanza breaks that never seem forced. How Sea is Seen is set in a pattern of short lines off-set:
You, at the cliff-edge, screwed up
xxxxxand wet, expecting the lot…
I dare you to drink from palmsx
xxxxxof my imploring hands:
The final poem in long loose stanzas synthesizes all the strengths which make this pamphlet unique, along with the layering of language and image mentioned earlier. The Rituals pulls together themes of life, death, fantastical afterlife, through a real or imagined clearing out/cleansing/moving on through the main actions, large and small, which hold us together in our respective worlds until we are no longer. The poem opens:
What is it we do when they’re gone?
To sounds of scaffolding and maintenance
the starry-eyed collect themselves –
But ostracism this is not – the tokens vote
for convocation and illustrate the way
we might better use the heft of us, connoting how,
before family history turns to myth,
the children are undoing complicatedness at will.
On Homer Row, a siren charms the rain, softly falling.
With material this rich and multi-textured, the trick is to stop before the mixture becomes too rich. Tim O’Leary does just that, apparently mindful of the risk. And oh, I do want to hear a siren that charms the rain, softly falling …
Wendy Klein was born in New York and brought up in California. She leftt the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, France, Germany and England in 1971, where she has lived ever since. A retired psychotherapist, she began writing poetry seriously in 2002. She has published two collections with Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood, (2009) and Anything in Turquoise, (2013), and a third Mood Indigo with Oversteps Books. She is now working on a selected for The High Window.
Andy Armitage’s Letters to a First Love from the Future reviewed by Clare Proctor
Letters to a First Love from the Future by Andy Armitage. Chapbook 28pp. £6. Half Moon Books. https://www.halfmoonbooks.co.uk/
As the title suggests, Letters to a First Love from the Future traverses time to recapture the poet’s memories of first love. The speaker in the poems is an omniscient presence, who knows what the future holds but is willing to deny this knowledge in order to re-experience the innocence of those events revisited.
The poems address the speaker’s ‘first love’ directly and the readers, in ‘overhearing’ the poems, find themselves able to re-enter the world of the adolescent lover, as Armitage says in the opening poem, “with all our history ahead of us”.
At first glance, the focus of this collection seems to be the first love herself. ‘Sally’ – “The name pressed here / among these pages / like a flower”. The portrayal of the poet’s first love is often idealised and there is a level of sexual objectification. In ‘Cross Gates station’, for example, the speaker recounts returning home “each school night” haunted by his lover’s “phantom limbs” and “the pressure of [her] budding breasts”. This physicality is not gratuitous but an authentic portrayal of teenage desire, when the body comes to life and is electrified through the discovery of the other. As Armitage puts it in ‘The Playing Fields’, these poems are all about the time “when everything was green and awakening”. His preoccupation with an adolescent spring awakening is evident in the opening lines of ‘Among school children’:
When the bell went
there was a scrape of chairs
and we’d shoulder our way
into that forest of green voices
not long above ground,
all reached towards the light.
As the narrative in the poems progresses, and the protagonist begins to gather experience, the narrator’s knowledge of the future begins to impose itself on the narrative and foreshadow the ending of this prelapsarian Eden. In the poem ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ we encounter the lovers “in the dark / on the swings in the Rec,” with “a plastic bag of cans at [their] feet”, while they admire “the big wheel of constellations”:
Here the moon is always waxing.
We know nothing of years or distance.
Your eyes are brimming with dead stars.
Do not let go my hand just yet.
In this poem we are made aware of the ignorance of the young lovers who have not yet encountered the dying phase of the moon, and do not yet know that many of the stars they see in the night sky have already died. In the end, all that matters to the narrator from the future is that the first love does not let go his hand “just yet” as he re-experiences that blissful moment. The title of ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ alludes to a painting by Nicholas Poutin (1594–1665) which depicts a group of Arcadian shepherds standing by a tomb that disturbs their Arcadian utopia. In Armitage’s poems, it is the voice from the future that disturbs the utopia, foreshadowing the inevitable death of the relationship which begins with the speaker’s first glimpse of Sally “on the graveyard path”.
As well as a sense of reminiscent wistfulness; a yearning for that lost time of “idiot hope” and “untouched skin”, these poems are also an occasionally self-deprecatingly confessional. In ‘A room with a double bed’ the speaker admits that his first love “could not bloom / in the stony ground of [his] petty ambitions” and talks of how he “pruned and bullied” his lover’s potential. At times these letters feel regretful and apologetic, an unflinching portrayal of the flawed self learning to love another.
The later poems in the sequence deal with the end of this young relationship. The agony of emotional loss is most effectively conveyed in the poems ‘Hoarder’ and ‘Dear John’. In ‘Hoarder’ the speaker is emotionally paralysed in his difficulty “clearing a space to live in / among the clutter of the heart”. In ‘Dear John’, a horrifyingly visceral poem, the speaker describes receiving the letter that ends his relationship and compares this experience with the slaughter of a beast for the meat market. The abattoir is a place “where that struggle with forever happens” and “the heart clenches / a defiant fist” as the animal is put to death. Having described the slaughter in detail, the speaker tells us:
…It’s best to not look.
Best to plug your ears
and think of that room as a letterbox
through which endings are posted
to land on the mat softly.
It is interesting to me that both of these poems, which are among my favourites in the sequence, use a domestic setting to undermine the associations of security and stability the settings would typically suggest.
Letters to a First Love from the Future closes with the poem ‘Eucharist’ in which the speaker tells us how he has both moved on and yet continues to treasure his early romance. Again, the poem is addressed directly to the lover, stating “Your eyes look back at me / from the faces of other women”. Despite his encounters with these “dark priestesses” whose bodies seem to act as substitutes for the body of his original goddess, he claims with some irony that he has been “faithful as a widower in [his] old religion”.
‘Eucharist’ suggests our heartbreaks involve a sacrifice that we need to make in order to learn the rites and practices that make romantic love sacred; it is a powerful final stance. I couldn’t help but wonder if the penultimate poem ‘Eurydice’ would have proved a more fitting conclusion, however. In this myth, the poet Orpheus went into the underworld to recover his lover Eurydice but in looking back he loses her forever, just as the speaker does in these poems.
Although the poems in the pamphlet work individually, the loose narrative arc of the sequence elevates the poems to a memorial to all our lost loves, our mishaps and mistakes, in the cringeworthy awkwardness of youth. Letters to a First Love from the Future is a reminder of what love was when we first found it. Through these poems we remember what is was to love in the rawness of our growing, burning bodies. And with that remembrance comes hope. And joy. And forgiveness.
Clare Proctor has had poetry published in various journals including French Literary Review, Shooter, The North, Poetry Shed and in the Handstand Press anthology – This Place I Know. She lives in Cumbria where she teaches and is a member of the Brewery Poets.
Tom Bland’s Death of a Clown reviewed by Anne Macaulay
Death of a Clown by Tom Bland. £6. Bad Betty Press. ISBN: 978-1-9997147-5-8
Bad Betty Press is run by poets, Amy Acre and Jake Wild Hall. It is a relatively young press with a focus on fresh, exciting work with an eye to contemporary preoccupations, culture and politics. Tom Bland’s pamphlet, The Death of a Clown, is a clear fit for this press.
I share Tom Bland’s love for the song by Dave Davies of The Kinks and so was drawn to read this pamphlet for the title alone, but there is so much more here. The red nose of a clown provides the smallest of masks making a clown so very vulnerable in their role and yet the overall persona, perhaps, is the ultimate human mask. Tom Bland takes us behind the red nose to uncover and discover what is the essence of human. And it’s a heady mix – birth, death, sex, sexuality, death, psychology, life, sex, death, life, death. This book is not for the faint-hearted but for those who recognise life and death has many forms and many heights and depths.
It isn’t a surprise that death is woven throughout when we learn the poet’s birth was nearly simultaneously his death. The blue baby born with his cord around his neck is recalled in the episode of solitary coke- induced blue near-heart attack in the poem opening, ‘Once a year’ and again in the bluish purple of erotic asphyxiation in the poem beginning ‘Michelle called pain’ .
Although death pervades, we are never far from humour as the poet swings us back to reality – for example before we learn about the sex play which nearly ends in death we have already learned they were using a belt bought from the Heart Foundation Shop which ends up broken. Such intentional bathos intensifies the power of the writing. The tragi-comic nature of the clown is exploited fully and these poems catch how life so often brings sadness and tragedy but that comedy is not just a coping mechanism but a way of creating happiness.
The poems give the air of wandering – through dreams, memory, psychoanalysis, fictional and/or real – yet Tom Bland’s writing is very controlled and we are continually given touchstones of reality which provide clear structure. In the poem starting ‘Once a year’, one of the poems I found most affecting, there is a brief conversation with a woman outside a nightclub in Dalston and this simple everyday conversation provides the frame, and the point, for the poet’s roaming words. Within it, too, there are great examples of Tom’s ability to make connections and describe what is happening with precisely drawn language:
‘That self-aware speck
jittering or jumping between the two,
being dead/born once again.
Ranting so fast all my words blurred into rapid
hand gestures, the very
shapes of my early tongue-tied jabbering.’
A clown is a performer and many poets are performers and Tom Bland is both a clown and a poet – I have had the pleasure of watching him perform and know how these words would flow aloud but if you haven’t had that experience they are just as strong on the page. Much of the poetry is deceptively simple and prose-like but there is always a flow, poetry that works on the rhythms of speech catching the eye and ear with rich images. Between serial killers and near-death experiences, Tom Bland would have you believe he is fixated with death but I am sure that behind the mask once the clown is dead, Tom has a real smile not just a painted one and that life truly triumphs.
Anne Macaulay was born in rural, northern Scotland but, since meeting her husband, has embraced urban life in East London. In recent years poetry has become her passion and she enjoys writing, reading, performing and translating poetry. She has had poems published in several anthologies including, in 2018, a poem in The Emma Press Love anthology and ten poems in Arachne Press 6 women poets anthology, Vindication.
Kavita A. Jindal’s Patina reviewed by Chris Hardy
Patina by Kavita A. Jindal. £6. the wind in the trees. ISBN: 978 0 9935135 4 1
It was just lying here
the poem, the dream
by the window sill
The opposite of elation
blew it away’
These verses, from ‘After The Recital; The Lost Page’, illustrate something of ‘Patina’s’ atmosphere: life is contingent, magical, sad, amusing. Poetry tries to catch that, but is itself strange and hard to find. The poet must wait, ready to catch it:
just living is an act of faith.’ (‘Act of Faith’)
if we don’t write it this minute
we will never write it (‘Ellipsing, Elapsing’)
Kavita is a widely published writer of poetry and fiction (www.kavitajindal.com). In this latest collection there are a core of principal concerns, expressed in concise, accurate language, using what we can see and feel, to imply and suggest what can be impossible to state. In the excellent poem, ‘It was in May. The sky poured’, about a parting on a railway station in India, a whole narrative of departure, loss, sorrow is contained in the opening stanza:
The day the gutters overflowed
I left Kotapuram Port.
The poem lays out further indications of what might have happened, using concrete images to express emotion, (‘The long brown train awaited the flutter/ of the guard’s green flag’) and ends with a few words that accept our needs and desires will not be taken into account by time and change:
It was in May. The sky poured. The gutters overflowed.
I left Kotapuram behind. The trains ran on time.
This poem shows why Kavita is a successful writer of stories in short fiction as well as a poet. Its reflections on leaving and departure are also the subject of a few other poems: in ‘Kabariwala’ a young man who makes a living collecting paper and glass for recycling tells the narrator’s mother that he is ‘Going foreign’, where there is ‘free love .. probably England’, where they don’t ‘re-process old things’.
He is happy about breaking away, but in ‘Where Home Was’ another aspect of emigration is considered. A ceiling fan becomes an metaphor for how leaving one’s home and community is an irrevocable and painful separation, that ‘nomads have freedom, if no home .. because the voyage is endless’:
In the whirring blades of this fan
My future was glimpsed; sliced
Revolving on the damp ceiling
Were suitcases packed with dreams
It’s where I saw clearly that I would leave
The past would be segmented; diced
This poem, like many others, resembles a painting in the use of precise imagery to suggest emotion, beautiful and poignant. Elsewhere it is not only the émigré who has no home: humanity itself, and all of us as individuals, are only here briefly, it is something we must accept, defy, and embrace:
Such a thing as our world will drown you
burn you, bury you …
But when you bow your head the earth
won’t grant you forgiveness …
All this has been before; and it is yet to come.
The nomads of the desert remember
and they kiss the ground in homage
before stamping hard on it to dance.
(‘Such a thing as a cloud would sully your tongue’)
And the powerful poem ‘Capilano Bridge’ describes the terrifying, but exciting experience of crossing a swaying suspension bridge as a way of considering how we must face life, with the huge drop of death ever present beneath us, ‘The wintry canyon below waited for us to fall’ .
Several poems consider women’s lives and experiences. The poet uses humour and wry observation in ‘Beach Apparel’, and in ‘Piccadilly Line Salon’ three women do their make-up on the tube. ‘They peer, pout, slick, flick/ they are good; they are quick’, leading the narrator to consider if she needs to inspect her own post-breakfast appearance. ‘Faucet’ also starts in a light-hearted manner with, ‘A woman/ may buy a tool-kit and know how to use it’ but then gets much more annoyed when considering how women are regarded in Saudi Arabia and the Punjab. (See also ‘For You Who Wave ‘Women For Trump’ Placards!)
The tone in ‘Faucet’ remains ironic and cynical but becomes angry and vengeful in ‘Katra’, about two sisters murdered by being hung ‘from the mango tree’:
bequeath your souls to the breeze
so the perpetrators hear you
carrying with them always
There is something of Shelley and Plath in this poem – an unashamed, vengeful, righteous fury.
Kavita takes great care over the structures she employs: a variety of stanza forms, using blank space, rhyme and half-rhyme and as few, and precise, words as possible, make a fine collection of elegant, attractive, forceful lyrics.
I will write it, and if you like
I will sing it (‘Anything But’)
Perhaps one of the most moving poems in ‘Patina’ is ‘My Birth Telegram’ which ends with the telegram the writer’s father received on an ocean liner, announcing the arrival of his daughter in a code agreed with his wife:
If it’s a girl she’ll be a poem, a white bloom ..
At sea, he received the news on board.
THE WHITE ROSE ARRIVES STOP
POETRY THRIVES STOP
At the bottom of the page a note explains, ‘Kavita’ means ‘Poem’ in several Indian languages’. And poetry does arrive in the world with ‘Patina’.
Chris Hardy lives in London and has lived and travelled in Africa, Asia and Europe. His poems have been published in many magazines, anthologies and websites. He is also a musician and a member of the trio LiTTLe MACHiNe who performsettings of well known poems: www.little-machine.com
Know. She lives in Cumbria where she teaches and is a member of the Brewery Poets.
Patrick Williamson’s Traversi/ Crossings reviewed by Luigi Cannillo
Traversi/ Crossings by Patrick Williamson. (Bilingual with Italian versions by Guido Cupani). €12. Samuele Editore. ISBN 978-8894944075
Elements of a visionary nature and the dynamics of poetic language can clearly be applied to writing about conflict. The common thread in this collection is the passage and transit, as in the original title, Crossings, which Guido Cupani renders well with Traversi. The latter not only reflects the idea of intersections in the narrower sense of the term but amplifies effect and function, transverse movement, diagonality, and depth. This is about moving into a state of conflict, which drives people to flee, crossing obligatory spaces in the chaos. Conflict manifests itself during the escape itself and is considered not so much an extreme condition as an inherent part of existence. It is understood as a collective condition and existential state, not only as war, struggle, and violence:
It crunches as it enters, cooling,
its shrapnel wraps around legs
its dust smoke palls, quietens
coughing, destroys the sense of
days hammered into days
barber shop that reopens
whose wall is still standing
whose living room is open air[…]”.
This state is reflected in taut expression at the outset, as in Outhouse, where elements of the four quatrains produce an impetus and build-up made effective by use of the pithy imperative:
Open, the air chills my neck,
pare the gloom, take down
the old scythe. Papers damp.
This is the burden. Burn them. […],
In the subsequent poems, the verses are progressively extended into longer measures, grouped in couplets or more full-bodied verses, or even splintered. But even here the use of repetitions, anaphors, and unexpected ‘flash’ words marks out a tight rhythm. Moreover, the endings conclude effectively in a peremptory manner:
One got out to Witness
The others were held by the scruff
they are trying to dig out the boy
scrape your hands raw, or scrub them.
This expressionist vitality underpins the agitated insistent tone, as does the whirling lexicon, and evocation of extremes linked to forms of oneiric perception: “dead babies in ice cream cabinets”, “smashing of windows”, “a bloodied hell”: a staccato series of apocalyptic landscapes and figures.
The collection hinges fundamentally around the poem Quad, not placed by chance at the center of the book, at the heart of the sequence. The reference to Samuel Beckett, author of the homonymous work originally written for German television in 1981, is based on geometric figures that form a quadrilateral in which the actors shift in different directions: a closed, theatrical form that allows limited movement and contact.
[…]He got the shuffling off
The orange clockwork ritual that
Fascinates – watch for the new post
That tiny hole, sought
But escape unable – he did not see
The horror, as orange turns to black
Leaving that sanctuary, nor hear
Humans talk, hear their souls
Inviolable, they cannot destroy that
The reference to Beckett is exemplary for this allusion to compulsive or guided ritual movement, to that kind of passage that is also present in the title of the collection. In Traversi the reader also crosses, through characters and situations in flux, in flight, above all these journeys by sea, and people trudging and “sludging past”, or embedded in the objective correlative of the paths in the final poem, All roads lead here.
However, the collection also contains more rarefied and introspective verses that, in the second half in particular, express an implosive atmosphere in which conflict, nightmare and anguish coexist with moments of reflection, in which time is suspended, as in the remarkable Night of the rafts:
[…] lips praying, cursing
the folly, regret and hope
exhaled by the anxious
dwindles until the next
accentuates the silence […]
Or the notion of a journey as mission and necessity. The experience of our fragility and the tragedy that surrounds us makes us question the essence of poetry. as in the conclusion of Handiwork:
“Being in earshot of poetic speech that dwells in us deeply,
That dares suggest there is a still more excellent way;
Ingest, chew on it a while, take it in your selves
in full measure,
Be heralds and harbingers, poems even,
Else what are we doing here?”
This is the trace we leave behind, in which the writing is not tasked with hiding or suturing wounds but rendering them in all their trauma, like the log of the desperate journey, like a war diary.
In Traversi Williamson stands at the intersection of passages, but as a fellow traveller not a detached observer. Throughout the collection, allegorical references to travel and conflict, and more specifically to natural and ambient elements, are linked to literary and mythological allusions: from the Talmud to the Commedia, from Beckett to Adad, a Mesopotamian god of storms. Together they create both a territory and a complex essential path: that of violence and the precariousness of human existence, the open wounds of conflict that can only become a source of poetry through our awareness. Williamson does not shrink from what contemporary history says to us in daily events unfolding – under our eyes – with war, migration or terrorism, nor deadened by the barrage of news or facile rhetoric. Instead, he focuses his gaze and vision on the manifestations of such events, in which the human condition is so crudely embodied.
Luigi Cannillo, poet, essayist, translator, and editorial consultant, was born and lives in Milan. Recent poetry collections include Cielo Privato, Ed. Joker, 2005; and Galleria del Vento, Ed. La Vita Felice, 2014. His work, as a poet, curator or critic, has appeared in anthologies and collections of essays. He is editor of the Sguardi series at Editore La Vita Felice, and collaborates with international magazine Gradiva, New York/Florence.