Books under Review
Abegail Morley: The Skin Diary • Mairi MacInnes: Amazing Memories of Childhood Etc Mark Granier: Haunt • Wendy Klein: Mood Indigo • Hans Magnus Enzensberger: New Selected Poems • Sheila Wild: Equinox • Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith (Editors): Alice, Ekphrasis in the British Library
Jill Munro • Tom Phillips • Emma Lee • Martin Malone • David Cooke • Anita John • Jessica Mookherjee
Abegail Morley’s The Skin Diary reviewed by Jill Munro
The Skin Diary by Abegail Morley. Nine Arches Press. 2016. £9.99. 978-1911027041.
The Skin Diary, a new Nine Arches Press collection from Abegail Morley, is the work of a poet with a blistering imagination and deftness of linguistic touch. These poems explore the thinness of the layers which protect us from the outside world and proves to be a journal of both the ordinary and extraordinary; the corporeal, the physical, the human, the mortal, the tangible and the intangible. It is a collection which lays the poet’s and our own ‘inner workings bare’ (The horologist and the body clock).
Quite rightly, the poet has chosen an absolute stunner for the opening poem – the Cinnamon Single Poem Prize Winner of 2013 – Before you write off your imaginary sister; an emotionally charged work which is worth the book’s cover price alone. Morley is expert in writing the world beyond the frame, what is not in the picture – a world which can include imaginary sisters or invisible friends to console her, where a woman can be stitched into being and a photograph that was never taken becomes a reality. The use of the trope of ‘what didn’t happen’ – as in … sister – ‘Memorise how she didn’t cuddle close for those stories’, ‘she’s not at your wedding, //taking the posy from your nervous hands’ emphasizes the emotion of these lines to an extreme level and for anyone who has lost a sister this is an unbearably empathetic, heartbreaking poem. However, this opener is only one of the collection’s multitude of excellent and innovative poems and sets the bar admirably.
Morley relishes writing on the body – and the strength of her imagery tattoos the mind. These are poems of fists, hands, fingers, palms, shins, organs, necks and knees both in the everyday and imaginative versions: in Summer ‘sun scalds // our scalps, necks’ and in The Archive of Lost Lives we ‘See stained fingers of childhood, no longer // mitten-warm, map worlds on sugar paper’. Rooms and buildings are personified, have bodies ‘as if wind sucked the room’s air till its ribs collapsed’ (‘Losing Elena’) and ‘This is the house he built, not of straw, but guts, blood,//sweat’ (‘Discovery’).
The speaker in these poems is often rendered voiceless: ‘Her voice, huddled in her throat, lets out only the slightest sound’ (‘Nesting in the wardrobe’), ‘Sometimes I phone her up for a chat, but a shriek sticks // to the back of my throat as it if has nowhere else to go’ (‘Losing Elena’). The wind in ‘After the Funeral’ ‘sounds like you breathing. // It’s cluttered, deep-throated, clatters somewhere//in your trachea’. The poems themselves, however, don’t ever suffer such a fate, with their lyrical flow and ease ensuring there are never any ‘rigid hidden vowels, // consonants scratching like lichen in her throat’ (‘Wrong name’).
The Skin Diary’s title poem appears to give the key to its essence:
…This stretch of skin loses itself
to things it’s felt, traps them below
downy hairs, tangles its dream in a web
of veins it’s carried all its life, never let go.
These are often poems of heart – of loss, broken relationships and death amongst other things – and of literal hearts, as in ‘The Cabinet of Broken Hearts’. This features both bodily and metaphysical hearts which are ‘Unwrapped, laid out // they resemble withered peaches, cracked // wintered-stones’, all for the reader’s inspection.
Other themes ripple through the collection producing a sense of cohesion to its contents: often water (some of the poems being drawn from the pamphlet, The Memory of Water, which arose from the author’s residency at Scotney Castle in 2015), childhood, time, birds and eggs amongst others. There is also a varietal tone to the collection which startles and layers, preventing any sense of creeping complacency. In ‘Paddock Wood to Charing Cross’ the protagonist daydreams in a playful way about a constantly spotted male train passenger: ‘I imagine you being Gavin or Brett, bounding down // stairs for a greedy run to the gym’, layering this playfulness against a tender ending where the poet imagines themselves at the passenger’s funeral ‘wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone’ that it would be ‘rude not to go after all we’ve been through’ turning a whimsical poem into one which leaves the reader contemplating the many passing lives we touch on our way through.
Morley herself touches the reader in many ways with this vivid collection: with imagery, emotion, empathy, embodying (in every sense of the word) what it means to be alive, what touches the skin’s surface and what is below the skin; the beginning of the poem ‘Jacket ‘illustrates to a would-be reader what to expect from this striking poet:
I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows.
In 2015 Jill Munro had two poems long-listed for the National Poetry competition, was short-listed for Canterbury Poet of the Year, highly commended in the Sussex Poets’ Competition & the US Princemere Poetry Prize and had her first collection, Man from La Paz published by Green Bottle Press, London. So far in 2016, she has been short-listed for the Charles Causley International Poetry Prize and won the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition.
Mairi MacInnes’ Amazing Memories of Childhood Etc reviewed by Tom Phillips
Amazing Memories of Childhood Etc by Mairi MacInnes. Two Rivers Press. 2016. £9.99. 978-1909747159.
Mairi MacInnes’ latest book is as much a retrospective as a new collection, combining a selection of work from across her seven-decade career with a group of more recent poems, including the eponymous twelve-part sequence. As such, ‘Amazing Memories of Childhood Etc’ serves as both a reminder to those who’ve previously encountered MacInnes’ poetry of its versatility and attentiveness and as an introduction for those who’ve yet to do so. MacInnes, after all, is one of those poets who, despite having begun publishing her work in the early 1950s, has remained under the radar for much of that time, simply carrying on regardless of trends, fads and supposedly generation-defining anthologies.
As the poems gathered into ‘Amazing Memories of Childhood Etc’ make clear, however, MacInnes is very much – as Richard Wilbur has described her – ‘the real thing’. Whether writing about the Californian tourist traps of Mendocino (MacInnes lived in the USA for many years), a sparrowhawk descending on her garden, or her childhood ‘memory of bombs’, she interrogates circumstance with what might be described as both rigorous invention and inventive rigour.
Things in themselves – cars, hills, horses, hawks and, perhaps above all, the sea – endure in their absolute and enigmatic otherness without being, as it were, swept up into an easily recognised symbolic or metaphoric scheme and yet nevertheless become the occasions for incremental reappraisal, for re-examination from often multiple perspectives. In sequences like ‘Horses’ and poems like ‘I Look for You Everywhere’, the connections between these occasions are hinted at rather than articulated, while in poems like ‘Otherness’ – a pivotal piece which MacInnes herself revisits and reappraises in ‘The Colour of Soldiers’ – the neural and emotional pathways leading from association to association, from a pre-dawn newspaper delivery to ‘the roofless crumbling shells/about the trafficking sea/in the path of the Norway wind’ to ‘the ghost of a onetime door’ and ‘a wrist tattooed with numbers from some diabolical camp’, emerge more readily and that process of association becomes in itself an energising principle of the work.
As she makes explicit in ‘Voicing the Air We Breathe’, MacInnes inhabits a world in which ‘Not a day goes by / without traces, traces / of something indefinable’ and it is the moments when this indefinable something intrudes into and disrupts the apparent orderliness of the ordinary, which often reveal themselves to be the core of a poem. The title sequence is, in fact, a catalogue of such moments – a wide-ranging catalogue which ends, appropriately enough, with the words ‘anything could happen’ – while MacInnes’ somewhat world-weary assertions that ‘Hardly anything bears watching’ and that ‘Bricks and stone / Have lost their intense surprise’ in the aphoristic and Elizabeth Bishop-recalling poem which opens this collection are subsequently – and frequently – disproved by the intense surprise of her own observations of, amongst other things, factories, churches and that boarded-up doorway in ‘Otherness’.
Given this openness to the indefinable, MacInnes is well-equipped to write about place, whether it’s America or the Hebrides, Yorkshire or Bloomsbury. There’s no pretence that poetry can somehow unlock the spirit of place or, indeed, the heart of the matter (a near-impossible task at the best of times), just an acknowledgement of specificities, partiality of perception and encounter with the ‘indifferent element’ and ‘absolute circumstance’, which will forever elude ‘the lords of language with their nets’.
If this makes it sound as if MacInnes purveys little more than vagaries, then it’s only necessary to mention poems like ‘November Digging’, where ‘Sweet light tents me as I fork’, and the ‘Adlestrop’-recalling simplicity of ‘At Five The Train’, in which ‘the little fires/Carried up under the stars’, or the poems about cats and birds and fish to counter that. Close observation gives MacInnes as firm a grip on reality as her contemporaries – if not firmer – and that shows, not only in her close observation of figures and objects in a landscape, but also in her deployment of language, rhyme and all the other myriad techniques.
Whatever else she might have gained from her time in the States, MacInnes is – I would guess – a perfectionist of the line as a rhythmical unit, something which aligns her work more closely with that of Bishop, Olson, Dorn than it does with the poetry of many of the UK poets who have published far more prolifically during ‘her’ time. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why she has slipped under the radar here: that and her refusal – inability, call it what you will – to unearth and leave unquestioned ‘big truths’ in the documentation of the ephemeral. That and her uncanny knack of nailing it with a few words dragged out of the stuff that’s ‘never spoken of’.
Tom Phillips’ writing spans poetry, theatre, fiction, non-fiction and journalism. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines, anthologies, pamphlets and the full-length collection Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012). He also runs the online Anglo-Bulgarian project Colourful Star with the artist Marina Shiderova and has translated the work of a number of Bulgarian poets including Iliyan Lyubomirov and Alexander Shurbanov. His own poetry has been translated into Albanian and Bulgarian.
Mark Granier’s Haunt Reviewed by Emma Lee
Haunt by Mark Granier. Salmon Poetry: http://www.salmonpoetry.com. 2015. €12. 978-910669013.
The title poem of Mark Granier’s new collection is about the poet’s late grandfather:
Is a ghost any less ghost if it’s a dream?
You’re tired, slightly stooped in your wine-red jumper,
grey sides of your bald head slick with Brylcreem.
Our eyes don’t meet. I know why we are here:
for you to begin again, retell each story
and me to finally listen, and remember.
The poem ends with the poet scrabbling to find something to write on and with. It sums up that regret of being too busy to spend time with someone who has passed on and the fear of missing some crucial detail in family history. It also plays on both meanings of ‘haunt’, the (dreamed) ghost haunting his grandson but also both players being in a familiar place. The rhyme scheme points to a rather conventional grandfather, although perhaps a hint of rebelliousness in the red jumper rather than a traditional beige or non-descript colour. It’s not clear if the grandfather from ‘Haunt’ is the same grandfather in ‘Keys’:
the cardboard and leather suitcase I inherited
from grandfather who’d kept it
under his bed, perhaps so he could sleep
on old letters, tinted postcards,
a big brass paddle and key
to a hotel room high in The Windy City.
It raises questions: who did the travelling, the grandfather or someone close enough to bother to send letters and postcards? Was the key a souvenier for the grandfather or did the grandfather actually stay in the hotel? It a way, it doesn’t matter. The point seems to be about the exploration of an unknown, unshared life. These were stories that were kept boxed away from the narrator which, if read in sequence with the title poem, adds a poignancy and extra urgency to those tales the ghost now needs to share with the narrator.
Haunt is dedicated to the poet’s mother so, unsurprisingly, many of the poems look back, assessing and exploring memories often without sentiment. The one weak point is a sequence ‘Academic’ which looks back to schooldays. One poem within this sequence is ‘Latin’ (complete poem):
Mr Banks’ drone could not be drier
as he conjugates: amo, amas, amat…
till a terrible drought rolls in along the Tiber,
the flagons empty, love itself gone flat.
How many monotone teachers have sentenced pupils to boredom? It’s the one place where Granier doesn’t stretch beyond the surface. Elsewhere he picks up on generational contrasts, in ‘New York Stopover, 1966’, his mother at the age of 93 can remember an incident where a jewellery store was burgled although New Yorkers didn’t let it disrupt the flow of their day:
passers by passing, sirens again, the incident
gathering itself and rolling off
to curve round a different bend on the same circuit)
– the same steam
I woke to a decade laterimmersed
in Taxi Driver‘s neon-and-brimstone.”
This contrasts with a contemporary teenager in ‘Thigh Gap’
Nah, take a selfie
of your fuck-off grin, that selkie
you can never quite shed,
who’ll tell you when you’re being bled
of what you know – the truth:
Beauty is a brute.
This isn’t the only poem where the poet explores something outside his immediate experience. ‘Cochlear Implant’ ends:
shoes creaking into the fresh snow’s crust
in the library of small sounds where satsumas
get peeled very slowly and Basho’s frog goes plop!
cupped in that haiku, along with its pond
and summer’s trembling meniscus.”
The ‘meniscus’ could just as easily refer to the cochlear implant which picks up sound waves, converting them to electrical pulses to stimulate the ear drum which then ‘hears’ the sound as if it weren’t impaired. It’s not perfect but it does open or re-open a world of sound, particularly the small sounds such as the crunch of snow or crinkle of a plastic bag.
Haunt has an elegiac feel to it but the poems are infused with craft and, in places, wit and sharp observations. They share vulnerability and regret, showing what it is to be human. Although personal, the poems are not insular, the poet wants to share his experiences so readers can learn from them too.
Emma Lee‘s most recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (Indigo Dreams, 2015). She was a co-editor for the poetry anthology Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves, 2015). She reviews for The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage and The High Window and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.”
Wendy Klein’s Mood Indigo reviewed by Martin Malone
Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein. Oversteps Books. 2015. £8. 978-1-90685662 5.
I suppose it is now fair to describe Wendy Klein as ‘multi-garlanded’ after two previous collections with Cinammon and a slew of competition wins in recent years. Certainly, her name comes with some guarantee of quality and her third collection doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, having read both Cuba in the Blood (2009) and played some small part in its follow-up Anything in Turquoise (2013) I feel well placed to pronounce this her best work yet. To be blunt, I’m not a fan of the book’s cover. All the greater triumph then that the poetry within reveals Klein to be a poet in ever greater command of her craft and constituency. Structurally and thematically, Mood Indigo is divided into four sequences – ‘Legacy’, ‘Seen from Below’, ‘What Paradise Means’ and ‘The Missed Chance of Salvation’ – which exponentially open out from the tight, almost claustrophobic, female domesticity of the grandmother-dominated first part, through some wonderful childhood explorations of the poet’s father as ‘Seen from Below’ then out into the wider vistas of ‘What Paradise Means’ and ‘The Missed Chance of Salvation’. Klein’s poetry achieves remarkable things simply by holding its nerve. There is a certain sniffiness in contemporary poetry – of which I’ve been guilty myself – about such a domestic and unfussy approach evident here in the earlier phases in particular, especially when the overall mood tends towards the sentimental. But when the valedictory sentiment is as unapologetic and sustained as this, and when the effects are created so artfully, then poetry like this is a bold reminder of what can yet be produced from such familiar and traditional ingredients. Perhaps this is one of the book’s great achievements: an authentic renewal of the poetic powers of sentimentality on a scene awash with inferior versions of it.
The first half of the book sustains a genuinely affecting momentum of skilfully constructed early memories vivid with detail and poignant vignettes of family life. Everywhere are linguistically and emotionally precise portrayals of an early childhood spent within the predominantly female world of two omnipresent and strong grandmothers. The second poem ‘Pairings’ is a sensuous and knowing sonnet that skilfully carries the weight of its own suggestion, as a grandmother ingenuously lays down her blueprint for a perfect marriage in terms here ‘reported’ by her grand-daughter with a knowing sexuality: ‘Now roll the gold-melt crumble inside your mouth; / your eyes close slowly as the earth moves.’ At this stage, grandfathers and other male figures exist very much in the background, distanced by the denotative pronouns that mark off the male from this semi-private world of mothers, grandmothers, aunts and female cousins. The signifiers are overwhelmingly female and domestic: household items, the preparation of food, mothering of the very young and favourite recipes. However, the verse unapologetically celebrates the power of this environment, is totally at ease with its domesticity and, reminds us, in ‘Original Recipe’, that ‘Women fly when me aren’t looking’. In some respects, I was put in mind of the late and much-lamented Linda Chase, with whom Klein shares a not altogether dissimilar background and culture.
The Sequence ‘Seen from Below’ is an utterly compelling, sharp-eyed and tender celebration of the poet’s developing relationship with her father and, in a sense, his agency for her growth into young adulthood. ‘Mood Indigo’, Klein’s wonderful title poem, mimics the reader’s own sense of being granted privileged access to a compelling family and their equally fascinating socio-cultural moment: a world boasting of 1950’s New York, Broadway chorus lines, Greenwich Village, Harlem dance halls and the company of figures like Ivy Anderson, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billie Holliday. Here are its opening lines:
When I am too old to tickle, your fathering falters,
and at a loss for what to do next, you tell me tales
about your dancing days …
and soon the reader is also carried along in a sequence of poems ringing with lived experience, as opposed to the merely researched period set-piece. I found myself being surprised as well as impressed by the manner in which Klein manages to re-invest a somewhat tired compositional staple like looking at a family photograph with new vibrancy and worth; there are five here and none of them ring false, such is the authenticity of rendition and sympathy of vision. Her American origins and peripatetic lifestyle bring a touch of the exotic to an English reader: at times, for example, the poems have an almost Steinbeckian quality, particularly in the father sequence. I am particularly fond of ‘Who-am-I Blues which is a beautifully empathetic rendition – by a female poet – of her father’s mid-life crisis of male identity:
‘My father turns his face to the California sun
as if waiting for grace to drop from the sky onto
the paper plate she hands him…
There is such an emotionally supple and generous reading of one’s own father, offered here as elsewhere, with a true poet’s eye for telling detail. And this sequence gradually opens out into a retrospective understanding of her father in true situ with the poet’s mother: ‘Counterpoint’ picks up the tune from ‘Pairings’ in candidly sketching out how imperfect couples grow to accommodate one another within a flawed relationship and the constraints of domesticity.
My own first inkling that Wendy Klein’s poetry has undergone an impressive step change came with her Havant Prize-winning poem ‘The people of Sahel consider rain’. This poem, and others in the book’s second half, reveal a poet truly hitting her stride across a range of subject matters and form, reaping the harvest of her many years’ striving to hone her craft. ‘The Way They Danced at Zalango’ is an utterly chilling depiction of the mass suicide of the Greek women of Soulis fleeing in the face of a Turkish army in 1803. ‘Friar Mendel’s Children’ is equally masterful and archly sexy. Everywhere great lines are to be found: the sort of stuff that sets a poetry collection ringing in the memory. I sensed a new found confidence bordering upon chutzpah (surely a Klein family word) that allows her to leap into poems with some cracking first lines like:
A woman who’s painting her toenails red in April
is not resigned to the moment; she’s thinking ahead
(‘Red Toenails in April’)
or ‘My dead mother is writing to your dead mother’ from the earlier ‘In Black and White’. The long poem ‘Below the Bancal’ is a genuine tour de force sketching out, as it does, the tenuous immortalities of poor people momentarily captured on film shortly before occupational tragedy strikes to see off another peasant Icarus. And the book’s closing sequence elegantly models how a poet can gracefully face the sense of looming mortality that accompanies ageing and those significant moments in the body’s inexorable decline from the youth portrayed so vividly in the earlier poems. This is no insignificant gift for a book of poetry to bestow. There is, then, a valedictory air to this collection which serves it well, thanks mainly to the poet’s great skill, but which troubles the reader with the uneasy notion that a poet at the height of her powers is saying goodbye at some level. This would be a huge shame. In the words of the song, then, Wendy: don’t go, stick around and laugh a while, yeah?
Martin Malone was born in County Durham, but now lives in Scotland. He has published two poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011) and Cur (Shoestring, 2015). An Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he is currently studying for a PhD in poetry at Sheffield University. He edits The Interpreter’s House poetry journal. A new pamphlet, Prodigals was published by The Black Light Engine Room in January.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s New Selected Poems Reviewed by David Cooke
New Selected Poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Bloodaxe Books. 2015. £15. 978-1780372501.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s New Selected Poems supersedes an earlier selection which was first published by Bloodaxe in 1994. It is one hundred and fifty pages longer and incorporates work drawn from two subsequent collections: Kiosk (1993) and Lighter than Air (1999). It concludes with A History of Clouds (2003), a long poem divided into twelve sections. Apart from the latter, which is translated by Esther Kinsky, the bulk of the work gathered here has been translated by Michael Hamburger, David Constantine and, most strikingly, by Enzensberger himself, which leads Hamburger in his Introduction to assert the German’s claim to being an English-language poet. When, in 1989, Paladin Poetry published The Sinking of the Titanic, Enzensberger’s own version of his masterpiece, Der Untergang der Titanic, Peter Porter said much the same and suggested that ‘Enzensberger’s command of idiom is complete’. For the reader new to the work of this poet or unfamiliar with the landscape of modern German poetry Hamburger’s introduction will prove invaluable. However, without wishing to play down Enzensberger’s allusiveness or his intellectual playfulness, he is a poet who, by and large, makes a strong initial impact. Like Brecht, his great predecessor, Enzensberger has little time for the Orphic tradition in poetry, so that when the first English-language selection of his work was published in 1968 he came up with the title poems for people who don’t read poems. Moreover, in his poem ‘for the sixth form reader’, which, like much of his earliest work, has not been included here, he advises, ‘don’t read odes, my son, read timetables: / they’re more exact.’
An iconoclast and enfant terrible, whose first poems were faddishly lower case, Enzensberger’s work divided the literary establishment from the start. Seen in some quarters as ‘an unintentional parody of poetry’ elsewhere his work was viewed as ‘the first great political poetry since Brecht’. The current selection of his work opens with ‘The Language of the Country’, the title poem of his 1960 collection, in which he dissects Germany’s postwar ‘economic miracle’ and the neuroses that lie beneath the surface of such affluence and which may, perhaps, be the price that has to be paid for it. The poem’s great power as literature, however, is that it transcends the circumstances that produced it and seems, if anything, even more relevant today:
What do I have here? What businesss
in this bean feast, this never-never-land
where things are looking up but getting nowhere,
where surfeited hunger chews the embroidered napkin,
where in delicatessen shops poverty, white as chalk,
with strifled voice gasps through whipped cream, and calls out
things are looking up!
Where a profit margin away from the poor rich the rich poor
smash their cinema seats for sheer joy
because things are looking up, more so every day …
It’s a mordantly sustained piece in which the poet subverts clichés and economic jargon with an epigrammatic incisiveness, portraying a world ‘where things are looking up backwards’. At one point, he even subverts Rilke, at his most mystically abstruse, with an ironic quote from The Duino Elegies: ‘To be here is glorious’. The same theme is explored, albeit more astringently, in ‘Middle Class Blues’: ‘We can’t complain / We’re not out of work / We don’t go hungry / We eat.’ In ‘Song for Those Who Know’ it is suggested that affluence leads to inertia in the face of evil: ‘we know all about oppression / and that we are very much against it’. Unfortunately, the time never seems quite right to do anything about it: ‘but of course it’s too soon to act / but of course it’s too late in the day.’ This is not far removed from the words ascribed to Burke: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’, an idea which is further explored in ‘The Force of Habit’: ’Ordinary people ordinarily do not care / for ordinary people. / And vice versa.’ Another aspect of such complacency is our impact on the environment and our own possible extinction as a species, which may have seemed a not too distant prospect in1960 at the height of the Cold War. Here is Enzensberger in ‘The End of Owls’:
Shining on radar screens
for the last time, recorded,
checked out on consoles, fingered
by aerials fatally Florida’s marshes
and the Siberian Ice …
… I speak of that without speech,
of the unspeaking witnesses,
of otters and seals,
of the ancient owls of the earth.
Unsurprisingly, in the light of Enzensberger’s experience of growing up under the rise of the Nazis and, subsequently, Germany’s pivotal position during the Cold War, much of his work is informed by history. In ‘Historical Process’ the value of an individual life seems almost irrelevant:
The bay is frozen up.
The trawlers are ice-bound.
You are free.
You can lie down.
You can get up again.
It doesn’t matter about your name.
In ‘Portrait of a House Detective’ it is suggested that even the life of a monster responsible for untold deaths can seem as banal as anyone else’s: ‘That one / will never get anywhere. / Wittler, I think he’s called, / Wittler, Hittler, or something like that.’ In ‘Karl Marx’ we are given a warts and all portrayal of a hugely influential thinker: ‘’I see your house / in rue d’Alliance / Dean Street Grafton Terrace / gigantic bourgeois / domestic tyrant / in worn-out slippers …’
It was no doubt the seeming banality and matter-of-factness of some of Enzensberger’s first poems, along with their savage ironies, that gained for him his reputation as an ‘anti-poet’. In other poems such as ‘Lachesis Lapponica’ and ‘Summer Poem’, where he writes at greater length, the work seems now rather self-consciously ‘experimental’ and of its time, larded with quotes and references to Lenin, Trotski and Mao that jostle with others from Wieland and Petrarch. However , it is hard to see how anyone could question the poetic credentials of ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’, a book length collection of interrelated poems in which Enzensberger revisits many of his earlier themes but in poems where the writing is more detailed and circumstantial. In a series of poems based on paintings he explores with particular brilliance what Stephen Dedalus called ‘the nightmare of history’. Here he is in his own ‘re-invented’ English version of ‘Apopcalypse. Umbrian Master, about 1490’:
early one morning he dips his brush in burnt umber
and starts painting. This will be a gloomy picture.
How do you go about painting Doom? The conflagrations,
the vanishing islands, the lightning, the walls
and towers and pinnacles crumbling ever so slowly:
nice points of technique, problems of composition.
Destroying the world is a difficult exercise.
In ‘Last Supper. Venetian. Sixteenth Century’ one senses that art can seem self-indulgent when set against the backdrop human suffering: ‘I have told you again and again: / There is no art without pleasure. / This is true even of the endless Crucifixions, / Deluges and Massacres of the Innocent / which you ask me to execute.’ Nevertheless, if art is to have any meaning at all the artist must be true to his vision and it is the artist who knows the true meaning of his art: ‘Saint Anne is not my most famous work, / but perhaps my best. / No one except me knows why.’ Strangely enough, the English poet that Enzensberger most resembles in these poems is Robert Browning, not perhaps the first name you’d think of, given the German poet’s controversial reputation..
Elsewhere in the same volume, Enzensberger returns to what might be called his paradigmatic mode, where the poem is driven by a single image until all its possibilities are exhausted. ‘Security Considerations’ explores the possibility of self-liberation: ‘I am trying to lift the lid / logically, the lid / on my private crate.’ ‘Model Towards a Theory of Cognition’ is another superbly rendered poem about a box, in which Enzensberger dissects a philosophical conundrum; and yet, like Auden, he wears his learning lightly. In ‘Department of Philosophy’, if one might be allowed to tweak one of the English poet’s most famous pronouncements, he suggests that ‘philosophy makes nothing happen’: ‘No doubt we are intelligent. But far / from changing the face of the world, on stage / we keep producing rabbits from our brains / and snow-white pigeons.’ In The Fury of Disappearances (1980) the social satire focuses on a series of contemporary portraits that are more fully drawn and detailed than in his earlier books, while still highlighting the dangers of unthinking materialism. ’At Thirty Three’ is a portrayal of lost ideals. ‘The Divorce’ is a convincing exegesis of personal trauma. Credit cards, cheap flights, casual sex: it seems that everything is subject to this poet’s scrutiny. Hans Magnus Enzensberger is a major European voice who will broaden the horizons of those familiar only with home-grown poetry. He is wise, acerbic and profound. He is also very entertaining. His New Selected Poems is a substantial volume of work to which one will return with increasing profit and enjoyment.
David Cooke is co-editor of The High Window. His latest collection of poetry is A Murmuration published by Two Rivers Press in 2015.
Sheila Wild’s Equinox reviewed by Anita John
Equinox by Sheila Wild. Cinnamon Press . 2016. £8. 99. 978-1910836231
Sheila Wild is a freelance writer and equality consultant and is actively involved in the poetry world through her work as Chair of the Elmet Trust in Yorkshire and as Chair of the Book Committee at Manchester’s Portico Library. I first came across her work in 2010 and have long-awaited her debut poetry collection. Equinox is a fascinating and diverse collection with the central theme of transience running throughout. This is captured beautifully in the opening poem, where ‘the swallows are lining up to leave,’ and the man who works at baling the hay, has felt all day, like the swallows, ‘a cold wind on the back of his neck.’ This cold, transient wind can be traced through many of the poems but is delicately balanced by the presence of both hope and faith in ‘the way things are turning out.’
Wild’s poems are strongly influenced by the landscapes and places of North-West England, the Pennines, Yorkshire and Cumbria and she is a keen observer of the natural world. Plants, fish, mammals and over 30 species of birds find their way into her poems and the presence of these creatures is often symbolic of our own life experiences. In ‘Canada Geese,’ for example, a flock of migrating geese are heard but not seen, and we sense the narrator’s longing for something unattainable as she hears:
their wings dip to
the canal’s thin ebony, or the icy glitter
of fields under frost. I sense them
yield to the bare gleam of lake
and reservoir, splashing down
in a rainbow of black and silver.
Often Wild’s exquisite imagery takes possession of the reader, just as the geese in this poem take ‘possession of the night.’ Her precise observations and ability to capture fleeting encounters from the natural world – whether heard or seen – encourage us to look more closely at our surroundings so we too might see the ‘stain / of palest green / on the white nape / of the eider.’ Reading through this collection, I had the impression that nature itself is a form of salvation for Wild. In ‘Pilgrims’ Way,’ for example, we are shown how:
sometimes you need only
to stand on the shore
to be blessed.
Indeed, religious belief is a secondary theme within the collection, best illustrated by the poem ‘Barabbas’ which won the Manchester Cathedral Prize 2012. This poem is written in the third person and explores Barabbas’ emotional struggle after being pardoned by Pontius Pilate. As he watches the crucifixion of Jesus, Barabbas’ sense of shame is overwhelming, and Wild uses the goldfinch (with its red-splashed cheek) as a powerful symbol of salvation. The goldfinch is said to have acquired its blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the thorns from Jesus’ crown during the crucifixion. For Barabbas, ‘their twittering calls fly loose from God,’ and they:
keep after him like mother love,
their soft flutterings, their touchings, a soothe, a hope,
until he’s free of shame.”
As well as exploring different types of faith, memories past and present, and nature, Wild is brave enough to tackle the more difficult and gritty aspects of life as in the poems, ‘Railway Navvy’, ‘Shiant Wife,’ and ‘No Spoken Dialogue.’ The latter poem stayed with me and replays a physical assault and attempted rape as if we were watching a black and white movie reel where:
you’d be waiting for the girl
to take the wrong turning, you’d be willing her
to go instead along the main road where buses
and cars drive by, and women walk their dogs.
The filmic images are accompanied by the requisite piano music and as the poem progresses, the language, like the accompanying pianist, ratchets up the tension so that the event happens before you are able to stop reading until:
she hears a cat gearing up for a fight –
the pianist now at fever pitch –
doesn’t recognise the sound of her own screams.
The combination of image, narration and music in this poem is a clever technique, used to powerful effect. Wild’s poems are mostly free verse and many, though not all, are tight and minimalist in nature. Her use of language is precise and delicate as ‘the hind so silent / that when she startles, you hear/the cold sound of frost.’ In particular, I loved the poet’s awareness of man’s place in nature and the desire to accept things as they are, captured succinctly in the poem ‘Red-throated Diver’, where, when ‘the loon cries / leave me, / leave me –’ the poet responds:
I am only
Sheila Wild is a poet to take note of and I look forward to reading more of her work.
Anita John has an MSc in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and is a Live Literature Scotland poet and short story writer. She runs creative writing courses for Edinburgh University, the RSPB Loch Leven and Abbotsford House. Her work is widely published, and in 2013 she was selected as a Borders Showcase Poet by the Scottish Poetry Library and CABN. Her book Child’s Eye is available from Amazon and more of her work can be found here: http://anitajohn.co.uk/
Alice: Ekphrasis in the British Library (Editors:, Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith) reviewed by Jessica Mookherjee
Alice: Ekphrasis in the British Library (Editors:, Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morely Catherine Smith) Joy Lane Publishing. 2015. £9.99. 978-1526200846.
Alice is an anthology for the 150th anniversary exhibition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland at the British Library. A true heroine, Alice has woven herself into our cultural fabric and it is fitting the editorial team of Morely, Gillespie and Smith have enabled some of the most exciting voices in current poetry to re-imagine her. Carroll, a logician, gave Alice a world of seemingly insurmountable, perplexing and frightening problems. Carroll, the mathematician – knew solutions were available if the lens was right. Inside this book’s muted, unassuming cover are thirty-six poems answering Alice’s conundrums in poetry.The Anthology settles its gaze on Alice’s tears, how we are all Alice in our changes through space and time. There are notable poems that also ‘go meta’ to Alice, describing our mythologising of Alice Liddell as well as wonderful expositions into some of the minor characters in Alice’s adventures.
It is Mona Arshi that takes us straight down the rabbit hole, into India and beyond. She sets the pace for Alice: ‘She is one step ahead’ in our global and political landscape, it is more then apt Alice’s tears provide such a rich seam in this collection as Claire Best’s deceptively wry lament shows:
you’ll taste the salt, the fearful tears –
you’re bound to add your own to hers
We are ‘bound’ to Sharon Black’s shape-shifting Alice as nature goddess. Graham Birchell’s “Those Tears” helps us zoom into the visceral, overwhelmed by what we see on hearing the news. Robert Peake gives us Machiavellian tears of the Walrus politician, which sends a shiver: ‘I like the way they slide between my whiskers and down the throat, / born to be eaten.’ Claire Pollard’s “The Pool of Tears” is a Tour de force:
Explain yourself, the Caterpillar demands,
Explain the cargo of children sinking off Africa
In a boat crude and leaky
As a child’s drawing of a boat.
Pollard’s Alice, finds explanations beyond words: ‘is she seriously tweeting this?‘ Alice contains poems that stretch – space, shape and time, offer rich pickings that bend both the personal and political. Miriam Gamble’s prose poem ‘Wonderland’ tells of alienation, suspicion and misinformation and has a wonderful sweeping conclusion. She has a great line we might all relate to:
I dream sometimes that my neighbour is a nut
in a cluster of nuts hanging on a tree
Vanessa Gebbie’s “After Alice: Being Sensible” is a triumph of editorial selection. Written in mirror language, it is a perfect and subversive observation of: ‘Britain getting it’s mojo back’ – well according to George Osborne anyway. Helen Ivory uses the fragmentation theme psychedelically, where Alice embodies her house and the Cheshire Cat. Telescoping crops up in various poems, as an object, a verb and a metaphore. Alice’s ability to stretch and contract is carried with great effect by Chris McCabe’s ‘Alice’s Body Turns to Stars.’ His intriguing form almost tricks the reader in thinking there is a ‘reversal’ in the second stanza. His first line is brilliant: ‘If Alice’s body was not a telescope it would stay outside a cat flap.’
The ‘Alice is everyone’ theme is popular in the Anthology and displays our shared preoccupation’s with disintegration, coping and not coping, notably E.E Nobbs use of the word ‘Shrink’ in her poem. Holly McNish’s “Shrinking” shows a waitress forced into a sexy ‘Alice’ costume and how shame is literally ‘belittling’. Everyone relates to Alice and she makes feminists of every poet. Various references to ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ are given air as expressions of objectification and relationship to what the body can take in. No wonder that puberty and adolescence are consistent themes such as Sarah Salway’s ‘Drink Me’ and Abegail Morely’s fragile, fragmented and sexually curious Alice lost in suburbia with the magnificent line: ‘you can date me by my bone density.’ Time and space also converge in Grace Nichols’s ‘Parallel World’ where Alice is mother:
On the verge of waking
you find your clubbing late night daughter
has shrunk into a miniature
Mad hatters and march hares may be few, Flamingoes, Dodos and ‘several other curious characters” to quote Claire Best are well served. In the intriguing “Ballad of Mabel”, Alice wonders if a more boring life would have been better. There are many poems where the arc could have ended but the choice of Luke Wright’s “Alice” seems appropriate. The tragedy of his poem echoes the pace and personification of Mona Arshi’s beginning, reminding us that Alice is everywhere. The skill of the editors has been to select themes, tones, howls and halleluiahs to good effect. The poet’s skills are evident in turning Alice into a cypher for working out all our intractable problems.