Books under Review
Angela Topping • Nick Cooke • Wendy Klein
Matthew Sweeney reviewed by Angela Topping
Inquisition Lane by Matthew Sweeney. Bloodaxe Books, 2015. £9.95. 978-1780371481.
We have lost too many of our senior poets in the last few years. The first poems which jump out at me on my initial flick through Sweeney’s eleventh collection are elegies for Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll, which keep each other company on facing pages. I delight in such juxtapositions. Heaney’s elegy takes an interesting path into the funeral, where Sweeney describes it through a negative of things he wants to forget, while managing to tell the reader exactly what it was like:
I think I’ll forget the concelebrated mass
around your coffin, the way those priests
claimed you as a starry one of their own,
the high choral singing, meant to lead
you through diamond-studded gates
where you’d sign books for God.
The irreverence of this is witty, picking at the formulaic nature of funerals and the way our dead are claimed by ministers and priests and their rituals. Sweeney moves into his own memories of his friend and how he will remember him. The title ‘Into the Air’, recalls Hamlet, when asked by Polonius if he would come indoors, ‘out of the air’, Hamlet replies ‘into my grave’. Sweeney reverses it and ends the poem with sounds, which rise into the air: … the piper’s lament, and your Derry voice/ and your laugh, and yes, maybe a poem or two’.
The O’Driscoll one, ‘Cloud Communication’ is about emails from the dead. Sweeney uses the conceit to remember quirks of his friend’s character and to ask questions about the afterlife. It’s a touching poem but its warm bantering tone prevents sentimentality.
Sweeney is known for his surreal off kilter narrative poems. The opening poem, ‘The Dream House’, signals to the reader that the ones in this collection may be dreamlike and strange. They are entertaining, if undemanding. This is possibly a deliberate ploy to gently loosen up the reader.
I loved the quirky vignettes of ‘New York’, with all of its fun literary and artistic references, such as ’glimpsing Lou /Reed’s ghost’, drinking ‘red /wine with Frank O’Hara’. ‘Dylan’s old flat’, interweaved with eclectic food and drink, and people he encounters. ’San Francisco’ is given the same treatment of short numbered snippets, but this time pen-portraits of the interesting characters he observes are the focus, such as a transsexual who flirts with him, a topless marijuana smoker, a homeless religious nut and a waitress who used to be a vampire. He shifts between flights of imagining and precise details about what he enjoys eating and drinking, in a way that is altogether beguiling.
‘Elegy for the Moonman’, addressed to Neil Armstrong, retells an anecdote about sitting in a bar with Armstrong and listening to him talk about his moon-landing:
… The moon fucked me up,
it fucked up all of us who walked
on it, looking back at that blue ball.
How do you think it feels to be so
Armstrong speaks about how he longed to return and will haunt the moon when he dies. This story might or might not be factual, but it is certainly a wonderful yarn to spin, and an imaginative leap into a person’s head. Another character poem which stood out for me was ‘The First Lighthouse Keeper’ spins another great yarn, with its pet seal, and the language shining out, such as:
.. The hundredweights of coal my men carried
up those windy stairs to fuel the light that dazzled
the night would have sufficed to build a coal castle.
The stairs could be winding or windswept, depending on how the line is pronounced, which I enjoyed, and the internal rhyme is cleverly hidden so as not to make the plain-speaking character seem too poetic.
There is a strong theme of religion and the control imposed by the Church as an institution, which chimed with my own views. ‘Inquisition Lane’, the title poem, takes us to a Spain where ‘No one had tortured me for my lack of faith’ and ‘Catholicism in Germany’ (a much more light-hearted poem) has monks on motorbikes and nuns on pillions. The most telling one is ‘The Loop’, which comes towards the end of the book. This poem is confiding and honest:
Yet, people keep dying and I end up
in churches, listening to the lies put out
in the name of Christ, a good man,
who’d have been wonderful to know,
who’d have no time for the spun cant
his words have become.
He imagines his own funeral, with priests officiating but is unconvinced by their ownership and confidence. ‘I Don’t Want to Get Old’ picks up the death theme again. He remembers his parents’ deaths and mocks himself sardonically, for example with the spot-on observation ‘my hearing admits me to /surrealism’. It’s natural that, in a book including several elegies, Sweeney should be reflecting on death, and often the poems surprise the reader, for instance ‘The Stomp’ is an elegy to his sister, but it’s a joyful celebratory poem. The book is dedicated to John Hartley-Williams, long time friend of Sweeney’s, who died in 2014. The final poem is a beautiful ten part reminiscence of all the things they enjoyed together. He avoids what he criticises the clergy for in ‘The Loop’, ‘transmuting the corpse/ into a holy person’, and instead gives us the real man:
Oh where can I go to hear John
Hartley Williams sit at the piano and
Pound out ragtime after we’ve argued
all day? I accused you once of being
the co-author from hell but you
turned out to be far from that.
In the end, these affectionate truths mean more than all the canonising from the priests, because they show acceptance of the man with his faults and passions, and all the sense of what made the friendship stand the test of time.
There is a vital spark about this collection which counterpoints the fascination with death. Nowhere is the spark of life more evident than in the poems which feature animals. My particular favourite is the spare and enigmatic ‘Creature Haiku’, which fizz with surreal ideas and remind me of some of Blake’s aphorisms in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:
To outwit a cobra
you need a bright yellow stick
and a pair of goggles
Sweeney gives the reader a holiday in a darkly enchanted world of his own making, but he also discomforts, prods and surprises. His style is laconic, his line breaks unconventional. A Sweeney poem is unmistakable.
Martin Malone reviewed by Angela Topping
Cur by Martin Malone. Shoestring Press, 2015. £10. 978-1910323281.
Malone will be familiar to many poets as the editor of The Interpreter’s House. This is his second collection. I had not previously been much acquainted with his work, so when asked to review Cur, I was keen to explore it. There are several different threads to this collection. Poems are not gathered by theme, so each page turn is a small surprise, and the poems weave in and out of each other, making links and sounding reverberations.
The first poem, the title poem, is terse and tight. It throws a gauntlet down to the reader to follow the trail through the poems, to discover what the opening salvo signifies in all its layers. It acts as an invitation and a simultaneous challenge:
into the fuck of it:
arse over tit,
cock, mouth and clicket.
Over the page to a poem about a seductive female; I am not a fan of explicitly sexual poems, because they make me feel voyeuristic. This is about a couple who have not met before, though there have been emails. I admire the phrase ‘naked except for clothes’ which is a brilliant way to describe sexual tension, but could have done without the details which follow. Later, there are poems of hurt about the couple’s break up, so perhaps Malone felt the need to show that the woman was the instigator of both the seduction and the ending of the relationship, and that showing the rapacious heat of their sexual exploits was necessary to that particular narrative arc. The metaphor ‘fig’ for vulva recalls D.H. Lawrence: in ‘Figs’from Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (London: Martin Secker, 1923). You can find it online here: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/html/1807/4350/poem1236.html Personally, I find the Lawrence much more erotic, but perhaps eroticism is not the point here. ‘Tugman’s Hitch’ is more to my taste, in which the immediate level of meaning is knotting rope on the canal, as part of the boatman’s craft, but comes to stand for sex. There are other love poems which may or may not be about the same person, and of course we have to be wary of thinking we are reading autobiography when reading poetry, but towards the end of the book, there are break up poems, which are highly original and accomplished. ‘On An Afternoon Like This She Takes A New Lover’ expresses sorrowful resignation, as the speaker watches the woman flirting with another man, and decides to move on, or allow her to do so:
A wag-tail threads its flight-path left to right
in the seconds his hand lingers on your leg.
And as you watch him walk into the pub
you make your decision, while measuring
his length for the cabin bed. In my head
you are nowhere as the ball arcs skyward …
The speaker is playing cricket, and the innocence of his activity is poignantly contrasted with the erotic experience his former lover is experiencing. The filmic qualities of the two scenes being cut together make it powerfully visual. The strong iambic pulse and the internal rhymes indicate the craft beneath the skin, as the form carefully controls the hurt feelings which move to acceptance: ‘This says he will fit’. ‘Small Lightnings’ is highly original. The poet imagines the relationship is an emergency case following an accident, in which the victim cannot be saved. The degree of panic when describing the actions of the paramedic captures the sense of horror when you know a relationship is over but admitting it to yourself is hard. The restrained couplets trap the emotions and open them up like a post mortem. Each couplet is run on, forcing the reader to continue with the poem, even though it feels like rubber-necking at an actual accident:
… our time
here is taking its leave on a gurney;
worked at by paramedics whose
urgency is slipping with each
The language of trauma is used brilliantly to evoke the numb emotions of the speaker. There are other love poems in the collection which feel more tender and cosy, and set up a contrast between lust and tenderness, while avoiding sentimentality:
All that week we spent in bed, ourselves
nestling into snug futures lines with feathers,
forget-me-knots, your everywhere-red hair.
This is from ‘Martins’, in which Malone juxtaposes the birds nesting with the lovers doing the same. Malone excels at juxtaposition, and his imagery is often both original and apposite. ‘Martins’ is also perhaps a play on his name.
Another thread leading the reader through the book is nature. Malone’s nature poems do not anthropomorphise. They are muscular, like Ted Hughes’ poems. Take ‘Egging’ for instance:
The hedgerow was Dad’s cashpoint; from it
he’d casually withdraw the small currencies
of wonder: my first finch egg, sheep skulls,
an old wren’s nest, the dunnock’s four way
clutch of blue.
The poem goes on to show how his father explored the ‘edge-lands’ which surrounded his new build council-housing after slum clearances. These wildernesses are where poems grow. Malone is at home there, as in ‘Eclogue’, ‘That Winter’, and ‘Red Kites at Uffington’, where he mainlines Edward Thomas to bring a bleak poem to a stunning end.
Malone gets around a lot and another theme is travel. ‘Truman on Ischia’ has a flawless first stanza:
The room chooses itself: a writer’s space
with a balcony above the harbour,
two chairs, a table and a tortured old bed.
Its provenance comes later as she pours
us Lachrimae Christi and talk turns
to the buona sera under a sky of early stars.
I almost want the poem to end there with this gorgeous lyric, but then we wouldn’t have the more relaxed central stanzas, which create a range of different moods, sense of history and time passing, and the last line, full of distilled sweetness. Artefacts from around the world feature too. ‘Hand-painted trunk from Yemen, 1989’ personifies the object, gives it an uncompromising character: ‘I like to keep my trap shut’, while providing a description of the object, whereas ‘Egyptology’ does the opposite, discussing a lack of objects, after grave-robbers leave only ‘a graved outline of absence’. To follow the poet from ‘Chicago’ to ‘Mont Sainte-Victoire’ is a journey full of delights. I do love ‘Old YHA Handbooks’ though. That brings back memories of my own YHA days.
Many of these poems reference art. Malone wears his knowledge lightly, and always allows the reader in, whether they are familiar with the particular work or not. Paul Nashe, Cezanne, Magritte, Klee, Giacometti, and others, are referenced or inspire poems. Popular culture also features for Malone is no intellectual snob.
The further I delve into this collection, the more themes and links I find. Music, people, literature provide other threads through the labyrinth, so I am going to leave readers to follow their own paths through it. Cur is a highly accomplished collection and deserves plaudits.
Patricia McCarthy reviewed by Nick Cooke
Letters to Akhmatova by Patricia McCarthy. Waterloo Press/Agenda Editions, 2015. £9. ISBN 978- 1 908527219.
This, the Anglo-Irish Agenda journal editor’s fifth original collection, is in essence the story of a survival against many forms of odds. The ten verse letters from McCarthy to Anna Akhmatova, all with postscripts of breathtaking tenderness and intimacy, tell the story of the Russian poet’s life from her first marriage in 1910 at the age of twenty to her death 56 years later, a period spanning arguably the most dramatic and brutal era in Russian history. By her mid-twenties, both Akhmatova’s stark and haunting poetry and the high-profile romances she wrote about – most notably with Amedeo Modigliani, the subject of several letters – had captured the country’s imagination, and ensured that her fame would outlive the tormentors who not only blighted her own life, but ended that of several people close to her, including two husbands and one of her many lovers, the poet Osip Mandelstam.
McCarthy’s National Poetry Society 2013 prize-winning poem, ‘Clothes that escaped the Great War,’ fused deeply-felt compassion and an eye for telling detail. A similar combination enriches Letters to Akhmatova: The letters themselves, in sonnet form, are mainly narratives as McCarthy writes to Akhmatova and questions her with empathy. In the postscripts McCarthy conceives Akhmatova’s emotions in situations both real and imagined from hints in her life story. By the end we have looked into every cranny of Anna’s life and every pane in the window of her soul. When McCarthy envisages a stash of “love letters carefully folded like a fan/in another woman’s playful hand”, addressed to Anna’s oft-straying, free-love-advocating first husband, the details encompass the olfactory along with the visual:
Sprinkling them with your own favourite perfume,
Molinard Violette, you overpowered
the rosewater splashed on by the mystery woman.
This ingenious revenge suggests the range and agility of Anna’s imagination, as understood by McCarthy, as well as other assets that will serve her well in future – resilience, certainly, and also the quality celebrated by the poem’s closing lines:
On his return from travels abroad,
you presented them to him, tied in a scarlet bow.
Your disdainful smile. Your dignity a queen’s.
As John F. Deane has pointed out, McCarthy’s view of her subject “rings of real personal commitment and love rather than an exercise in worship or a clinging to myth.” We learn how Akhmatova entrusted her young son Lev’s upbringing to her mother-in-law, briefly earning an implacable accusation:
Where were the lullabies
on your lips, where
the blue moses basket
of your arms,
when you gave him away?
That “when you gave him away” is repeated three more times, a relentless anti-lullaby of its own. But McCarthy is a fair appraiser, if apparently and briefly harsh, and the previous letter outlines how Anna later atoned for her implied selfishness:
penning bogus poems in praise of Stalin
for your son’s release from ten long years
in a Gulag into the ringing cedars.
That kind of direct allusion to the regime’s swingeing purges is commendably sparing in the book overall, so that the occasional image is all the more memorable. For instance, when Anna seeks refuge from World War Two in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, McCarthy pictures
drum-rolls in the deep-frozen Field of Mars,
black gangs of crows caw-cawing still
over the lines of those led out for execution.
Following Stalin’s death Akhmatova was largely if gradually rehabilitated, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize, but she is nonetheless seen towards the end of the sequence as a lonely and broken figure, with music and alcohol as her only comforts, reflecting on her youth:
Vivaldi and vodka –
who cared, Anna?
In the facelift
of twilight, you hid
from harsh revelations
of noon, the fumes
off kerosene lamps,
your figure an hourglass
again in cracked mirrors
that remembered you.
But if she feared she would only be remembered, if at all, as a symbol of brilliant youth, Akhmatova was wrong. A wonderfully moving epilogue conjures “the nightingales over your tomb in Komarovo” singing on for Anna,
nesting on your word-prompts in white nights
that usher them out of their shy darknesses,
in and out of time, eternal in the instant.
The nightingales naturally evoke memories of Keats. Truly Akhmatova was an immortal bird, not born for death; and neither is this exquisite testimony to her life and work, for which the literary world owes McCarthy a grateful debt.
William Bedford reviewed by Wendy Klein
The Bread Horse by William Bedford. Red Squirrel Press, 2015. £8.99. 978 1910437230.
William Bedford, academic, novelist and poet, was born and brought up in the north of England. In The Bread Horse, he reminisces about his own Yorkshire boyhood and that of his forebears in what is a personal and political family biography. Moving backward in time in a sequence of immaculately controlled fifteen-line poems, he introduces the dramatis personae and their landscape. The effect is of short bursts of narrative, populated with flesh and blood Yorkshire characters as they go about the business of leading tough lives, mainly in penury.
The opening line of the first poem is an invitation to pay attention to what this poet has to say, that it’s important, that it’s authentic: ‘The redlit boys explode (italics mine) in your dreams, / steam-hammering the snakes of fiery iron’. (The Redlit Boys). This image of iron and steel foundry workers, adapted from George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, is an apt introduction to poems that are vivid, if unromanticised, yet lyrical, emotional and personal.
Characters are introduced in turn, beginning with a red-headed boy, probably the poet, who is up at 4AM to collect the morning papers, distributed by his mother at ‘Firth Brown,’ probably the news agent/convenience store of that period. Here the poet looks back on his school-boy self:
following the lamplighter’s flint and hook,
breathing sulphur off the River Don,
your fiery eyes enough to break my heart. (The Redlit Boys)
Bleak as the foundry is red hot, is the childhood of the poet’s grandmother, who lost her eye serving in a pub brawl. With stark brush strokes Bedford charts a life where “Her hymns and sermons filled the sour air, “and courtship was conducted in her husband-to-be’s old van. Later in life he remembers:
I knew their warmer, kinder, final years.
You felt the slap of hands too tired to love. (Standing)
There is plenty of violence in the world described, and the poet does not shirk from this. In a poem in three parts (Schooling), ‘The new chalk is like a violin on a wet slate’; the very words evoke the shiver of that sound, and herald the punishment that was an inevitable part of education during that period:
Horses won’t set you free’, the teacher intones,
Only work does that’, his hands red-knuckled
from caning truth into boys already dead. (i Writing Lessons)
The grimness is broken with examples of gentleness that shine through for their rarity. A history teacher, bothered by the persistent buzzing of a fly throughout his first lesson is:
Too kind to commit murder at the beginning
of history, you ignore the fly and lose
the lesson to the mockers and fools. (The History Teacher)
Despite the difficult, often painful, subject matter. there is music in all of these poems. There are subtle rhyme-schemes, moody reflections on landscapes, and a deep perception of the emotional life of a population struggling so hard that individuals can be as cruel as they are almost devoid of aspiration. The title poem illustrates a community where boys yell ‘for the chance to kick // the only bread horse left in Dunlop Place’. (The Bread Horse). There are lost souls of huge poignancy; a homeless man whose wife’s long left him: “Cold soup’s no relief for a man of his build, / though it’s all he’ll get at the relief station’. (On the Corner)
Despite privation the poet remembers his own love for the home that was:
Scrubbed like a cube of yellow sunlight,
the kitchen walls and the kitchen floor
sparkled with the shine of my first childhood,
deepening like an October morning. (Sunlight).
There is a powerful sense of empathy where Bedford muses on his resemblance in photographs to his paternal great-grandfather, William Henry Sarjeant, ‘His ghost walks in my Sheffield dreams / born on the edge of moors, chapel and poetry’. (Bread of Heaven, i. Post Mortem). The opening line of the second section of this three-part poem: “Depression’s like a wild kingfisher, / flashing a blue you hadn’t reckoned,” (Bread of Heaven, ii. Kingfisher), seems to strike a deep chord between the poet and his subject. There is such suffering connected with this great grandfather whom Bedford describes as ‘the image of me in his photographs”’ and who is ‘written out ‘with the cold medical note: ‘Supposed cause of insanity, unknown’.
Haunting and haunted, this is a collection to be savoured on so many levels, to be re-visited for the characters that leap from the pages demanding attention; or hover in the margins waiting to be discovered anew. They are all there and all unforgettable.
Sue Boyle reviewed by Wendy Klein
Safe Passage by Sue Boyle. Oversteps Books Ltd, 2015. £9.80. 978-1906856564
Former teacher of literature and drama, social worker, and market trader in bric-a-brac, Sue Boyle uses all her skills organising Bath Poetry Café with its programme of public performances and Writing Days. In this debut collection the poems are infused with the drama of history, travel and life experience. In contrast to William Bedford’s, which make their impact simply and directly, the writing in Safe Passage is more flamboyant: wit and irony combined with a restrained elegance. Her many voices are created both freestyle and form.
Wild creatures: pike, hawk, otter and fox, speak in the opening poem, offering. ‘a few words from the wedding guests’: Hawk says: “Let him look through the lens of my unforgiving eye; / let solace of surface be denied to him. / Warn them how weak they are, says Otter, and Fox concludes with: ‘Teach them to fillet sweetness from the years before love locks deathtight on their tardy heels.’
This ability to ‘fillet sweetness’ is gifted to women in relationships who are seen.to survive by finding ways to ‘slice ‘sweetness from the unpromising. A Magician’s wife attempts to deal with her husband’s trickery and eventual disappearance, concluding that, though he disappears, she can’t complain: ‘It was a wonderful marriage / I have had an enchanted life’. (the magician’s wife). ‘Sweetness’ is not always achieved. In an arranged marriage, Father, priest and husband are portrayed as ‘back as cormorants’, and the bride is offered ‘the cold knife to cut the offered cake’, and a future where she will ‘find the dark midwinter of her married life’. (preserving the dynasty).
Ageing and the proximity of life to death are threaded through this collection. In a dressing room 12 older women observe a much younger woman at her toilette, advising her in the final four lines, spaced separately for emphasis:’ She should look around. / We twelve are the chorus: / we know what happens next’. (a leisure centre is also a temple of learning).
Boyle takes a page from history and enables Dido, queen of fabled Carthage to tell her story:
fierce in my widowhood and chastity,
ambushed by sudden love and then betrayed.
Without my song, who would remember me?
The delight is a villanelle where the repetition is not intrusive. The story unfolds with elegant pathos: No man in Carthage would have dared to speak / to me of love. A handsome stranger came’. and the poignant refrain, the repeated question: ‘Without my song, who would remember me?’ (dido’s lament).
An underplayed elegance is also found in one of my particular favourites. ‘Colour is a lesser thing than light’ is the opening line of the meditative ‘thinking about swans’. Perfectly, if unobtrusively rhymed, it finishes:
like white swans flying into falling snow
our dead will abandon us; their wingbeats grow
fainter, then vanish. They will become
part of the sky’s thick silence and be gone.
Boyle creates a lively drama through dialogue between the artist, Hogarth and the Harlot’s mother based on his series of drawings, ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. The mother relates her daughter’s story from birth to career in a delicious prose poem: ‘She was a greedy suckling, sir, not the timid thing as you’ve painted her at all’, revealing her daughter’s ‘true’ character:
A hawk, sir – his claws are as sharp as rapiers, but when he picks the leveret from the field, it can seem at first he means no harm. There won’t be a mark on the poor creature at the first,
nor a puncture in the tender skin. It’s only later he rips her, at the throat. (the harlot’s progress).
Boyle is equally at home with Kursk, the Russian submarine which sank in the Barents Sea in 2,000 (candles for the Kursk), as she is with a Roman general explaining war and death to his son: ‘The dead make their own way to immortality. / Return to earth is the way you should think of this’. She populates city streets, ancient and modern, like a master painter: handbag sellers, bravado boys, and ‘a tiny Genghis Khan with his violin’ — an immigrant child in a crowded scene in Rome. (safe passage).
The penultimate piece, another prose poem, re-tells the story of Emperor Maximillian in Mexico who ordered 2,000 nightingales to assuage his homesickness. (my lover tells me about the emperor’s nightingales). The ‘lover’ describes the freeing of the birds at Miramare: the keeper carrying the cage, lifting the latch, easing the door, while the recipient of the news concludes: ‘The release of the nightingales at Miramare, that’s what love is’. I so wanted to believe this, this ending, that the final poem, there’s a story in everything, seemed anti-climactic. Nonetheless, this a fine and satisfying collection, varied, colourful and crafted beautifully from start to finish.