Books under Review
Helen Mort: No Maps Could Show Them • Vona Groarke: Selected Poems • Eugenio Montale (translated by Mario Petrucci): Xenia • Matthew Barton: Family Tree • Jill Munro: The Quilted Multiverse • Victoria Kennefick: White Whale
Judy Kendall • Emma Lee • Tom Phillips • Bob Horne • Susan Castillo Street • Oz Hardwick
Helen Mort’s No Maps Could Show Them reviewed by Judy Kendall
No Map Could Show Them by Helen Mort. Chatto & Windus. 2016. £10.00. ISBN 9781784740641.
As someone who loves climbing myself, and as a poet who has written extensively on climbing, I was very keen to read this collection, all the more so because I remember about five years ago, when I was airing some of my own climbing poems at a Poetry Society Cafe reading, Helen Mort jumped up to take the opportunity in the Open Mike to read her ‘climbing’ poem. She did it very well, with tenderness and power. As I remember, she said she had never performed it before – she had never thought she could write about climbing or share it publicly. It was a poem about rope, about ambiguity, relationship. It was strung as an extended image and that image said, or tried to say, more than it could quite hold, just like climbing – an almost spiritual yet intensely physical practice that leaves you with nothing, and yet wanting more…. At the time, I took down her name with the vague idea of editing a collection of climbing poems by women. I never found the time to do this, but here is that same poem, ‘Rope’, doubtless edited and polished, but recognizable all these years later, as the last poem in her own collection of climbing poems in which she does herself and climbing justice. It is very satisfying therefore now to asked to help close this loop by reviewing her work here.
The poems are driven by image, often extended, like that rope, through one or more poems. Mort does this deftly, with imagination and verve. She has a confident, powerful voice. Occasionally, in some of the poems, this skill becomes too evident, but in the better poems she resists falling into a recognizable form or image extension. In this vein is the gentle sharpness of ‘The Old Dungeon Ghyll’, which emphasises the kindness in this difficult world, scattered unrelated yet tightly connected images that unsettle as they move.
Mort tends to focus on the feminist perspective of what is traditionally a macho activity, but the edge she carves out often carries with it a softening, as in ‘Ode to Bob’, a poem that works as a celebration of self-sufficiency and immersion into the landscape of the climb. The imaginary ‘Bob’
never steals the morning
with the story of a pitch he climbed
one handed, wearing boxing gloves
the wind can never peel his body
from the crag.
She weaves into the collection a history of women climbers, often unsung, unknown. Fanny Bullock Workman is celebrated, as is Alison Hargreaves, whom Mort fiercely and warmly defends in poems such as ‘Kiss’. These are generous celebrations, arching over more than one poem as she approaches her heroines from different angles, offering clusters of poems on each, blending in and out of the collective mix. I wished for a similar treatment of the currently nameless ‘Sherpa’:
Your Sherpa is a dead man
but you wouldn’t know,
– but perhaps she is reserving this for another collection.
It is surprising that her poems have little of the adrenalin that fuels so many climbers. The tension still exists but the poems are often thoughtful, almost troubled, in their tender probing introspection – slightly disturbed or slightly disturbing, but tender, strong, gorgeous, sharp, direct:
Gold light. I wish the day
could break me like an egg
At her best, and ‘The Old Dungeon Ghyll’ is one of those, she really soars.
Judy Kendall is an award-winning writer of haiku and visual poetry. She has four collections published with Cinnamon Press, The Drier The Brighter (2007), Joy Change (2010), Climbing Postcards (2012) and insatiable carrot (2015). Her poems are informed by meditation, Japan (where she lived and worked for seven years), mountains and climbing, and, most recently, by vegetables and gardening. She also works as a full-time lecturer in English and Creative writing at Salford University.
Vona Groarke’s Selected Poems reviewed by Emma Lee
Selected Poems by Vona Groarke. The Gallery Press. 2016. £10. ISBN 9781852356675.
These selected poems span six collections from 1994 – 2014, two of which have been Poetry Book Society Recommendations and have received several awards. The contents live up to the expectation of polished, accomplished poems, albeit with poems that demonstrate a quiet, precise crafting rather than ones that noisily shout their arrival. In the title poem from her first collection,Shale:
This house has been decided by the sea.
These rooms are stones washed over by waves
and spray from the lighthouse
by which we undress
to kneel by the skylight.
Our hands and lips are smeared with blackberries.
Your skin, my sloe-skinned lover,
never so sweet, your hand so quiet.
The sea is breaking and unbreaking on the pier.
You and I are making love
in the lighthouse-keeper’s house,
my moon-eyed, dark eyed, fire-eyed lover.
What leaves us trembling in an empty room
is not the swell of darkness in our hands
or the necklace of shale I made for you
that has grown warm between us.
The tone is low-key, the gently rhythm echoes waves washing up on the shore and the poem warms as steadily as the shale necklace. It’s a mature poem from someone who didn’t rush into publication. In ‘Folderol’, from the second collection, Other People’s Houses, a piece of harbour graffiti triggers a memory:
Which reminds me of you, and the twenty-four
words for ‘nonsense’ I wrote on your thighs and back
with passion-fruit lipstick and mascara pens
the night you came home from her house with some cock-
and-bull story of missed connections and loose ends.
Includes, for the record: blather, drivel, trash,
prattle, palaver, waffle, balderdash, gibberish shit.
Thinking I had made a point of sorts, but not
so sure when I woke up to find my own flesh
covered with your smudged disgrace
while you, of course, had vanished without trace,
It’s a neat sonnet. However, I would have liked to have known a bit more about the relationship between the narrator and lover: how much is at stake here, is it a long term committment or a short-term fling? The title reinforces that the lover thinks the narrator is creating a bit of unnecessary fuss while the narrator feels cheated twice, first by the act of being cheated on and then the vanishing lover who cheats the narrator from her justified anger. The poem satisfies intellectually with its assured voice and carefully paced rhythm.
‘Tonight of Yesterday’ dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Eve, is from the third collection, Flight. Here is the complete poem:
The evening slips you into it, has kept a place for you
and those wildwood limbs that have already settled on
the morning. The words you have for it are flyblown now
as the dandelions you’ll whistle tomorrow into a lighter air.
But, tonight, your sleep will be as round as your mouth,
berried with the story of sunlight finally run to ground.
You are all about tomorrow. The moon has your name
memorized: the curl of your back; your face, an open book.
It’s a delicate poem for a sleeping daughter. ‘You are all about tomorrow’ is a finely judged half-line, hinting at the daughter representing the next generation but also about a very young child’s ability to let go of yesterday and live in the moment. A similar, modulated voice is apparent in ‘Juniper Street’ (from Juniper Street. 2006)
We sleep under the eaves where nights of late
have eddied in the wind’s plump, elevated arch.
We wake to only dawn’s blindsided glaze.
Just last week the icicle tree at our door
was in full bloom. The breeze made a show of it.
We picked on bud with the longest stem
to set in the freezer where it has since drooped,
given itself up to the kitchen’s heated breath.
Now March is opening and closing, like a valve.
The poem captures the mood of the year on the turn from winter to spring and the anticipation of new growth and change to come. It ends:
in the hall, I slipped your leather glove onto my hand
and felt the heat of you as something on the turn
that would carry us over the tip of all that darkness
and land us on the stoop of this whole new world.
Readers don’t find out who ‘we’ or ‘you’ are although it carries the sense of someone lost who is still alive in spirit. The poem gives space to reader to interpret, expanding from a specific point of Juniper Street to creating a mood and atmosphere to share.
Vona Groarke spent a period teaching in America and some of the poems in Spindrift reflect this, particularly ‘American Jay’:
I treat myself to Sancerre with my omelette.
It’s been a tough day and I still have a thesis on Nelly Sachs
by a student who evidently hasn’t heard of an umlaut
to get through. Bill Clinton’s on TV, playing sax.
When I come to, a biopic of Tiger or Vijay
seems like the loneliest possible alternative to sex.
I’m too old for this. I feel like some hoary, washed-up hoojah
on the edge of that funfair, waiting for the carousel
to jolt into life like a wound-up hummingbird or jay
to circulate a sincere song of desire, blaze, arousal.
It’s one of the few poems that use a formal rhyme scheme and some of the lines feel prosaic as if what the poet wants to say has been forced to expand into the form instead of letting the poem settle into its own form. This poem is one of the few exceptions, generally the poet sticks to free verse. It does share the sense of a general idea being drawn from a specific point. This sense of universal themes drawn from a specific experience continues in the final selection, for example in ‘Going Out (for Eve)’ from X (2014):
Do me a favour, daughter: sometime, in time, wear for me
a sweetheart neckline, slingback sandals, my good ring
and howsoever many of your necklaces and bracelets.
Walk your walk through ten thousand doorways
so the music of you is one and the same as the music
of starlings and new moons and traffic lights and weirs,
only in a new arrangement arranged by, and for, you.
The balance of two natural sounds – starlings and new moons – and two man-made sounds – traffic lights and weirs – reflects the sense of balance throughout Vona Groarke’s poems. At their strongest they combine a natural, often conversational, rhythm with a precise selection of words that underline the sense without shutting out the reader. The body of work shows a poet with a consistent approach who wants to engage readers to look again at the familiar with a sharper sense of observation.
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.”
Eugenio Montale’s Xenia reviewed by Tom Philips
Xenia by Eugenio Montale, translated by Mario Petrucci. Arc. £9.99 2016. 9781910345535
Eugenio Montale is one of the major figures of twentieth-century modernism and the influence of his skilfully wrought work, of his attentiveness to the fragmentary and the provisional, can be detected in a broad swathe of poetry produced by subsequent generations. Indeed, if labels are your thing and this doesn’t sound too much like a paradox, Montale might be termed an early late modernist – one of those who, having engaged with the likes of Eliot and Pound, eventually stepped away from their ‘high’ variant. As Montale himself wrote in the lines adopted as the epigraph to this new translation of Xenia, ‘poetry has always died/and is ever revived from the ashes.’ A haunting sense of belatedness is perhaps a defining characteristic.
Montale’s Xenia dates from 1966. A slim volume of 28 poems, it was published three times before being incorporated in 1971’s Satura and its publishing history raises the first problem for any putative translator: which of its slightly differing manifestations to translate? Mario Petrucci’s solution is the one often adopted by editors of Shakespeare – comparing the various extant editions, establishing the extensive common ground and ironing out any discrepancies and “the more obvious errors”. Such discrepancies, however, tend only to be in the surface details and so the Italian text published here is not strikingly different from that used in William Arrowsmith’s 1998 bilingual edition of Satura, for example.
Where Petrucci’s translations are different is in the register of the English versions themselves. As he indicates in his preface, one of his reasons for making a new translation has been to emphasise Xenia’s ‘music’, which, he suggests, has been lost in other, more prosaic renderings. Petrucci, in other words, is concerned with countering the suggestion that Xenia can be read as a series of prose fragments and consequently adopts a strategy of – as he puts it – ‘turning up the contrast’ and aiming for ‘fastidious imitation’ rather than painstaking literal accuracy.
Certainly, at times, this strategy takes him some distance from Montale’s original. In ‘La morte non ti riguardava’, for example, ‘trionfo meneghino’ becomes ‘that flash in the pan from Milan’ – a metaphor ostensibly well-suited to the description of a culinary speciality, except that it derives from the language of the armoury rather than the kitchen and doesn’t have quite the same tonal effect as the more literal ‘Milanese triumph’. Similarly, in ‘I falchi’, Petrucci’s ‘You liked life through a shredder’ for ‘Ti piaceva la vita fatta e pezzi’ sacrifices the visceral quality of the original and – in a poem referring to birds of prey which also tear life to pieces – distracts from rather than clarifies Montale’s conceit.
Such moments when the fastidiousness of Petrucci’s imitative approach falters, however, are relatively few and far between and they are more than compensated for by the felicities he discovers in Montale’s texts – ‘your gunshot laugh’, ‘their switchboard hutch’, ‘that croaksome mire of modernists’ – and by his maintenance of a tone which is simultaneously intimate and detached, conversational and epigrammatic.
The poems in Xenia, after all, constitute an elegy for Montale’s wife Drusilla Tanzi, albeit one which offers few of the conventional consolations associated with the form. Seemingly incidental personal memories and everyday objects are retrieved, but only to become the occasions for loss expressed through its double paradox: the absent presence and the present absence figured in Montale’s response to the question ‘Isn’t she there any more?’ – ‘Perhaps more so, but …’. As he says elsewhere: ‘I’ll have to/accustom myself: hear, decipher,/you in the telex ticking over,/in this fickle smoulder of Brissago cigar.’
Xenia, in other words, emerges from and into a struggle with the reticence, the silence of grief and Petrucci successfully navigates their shifting terrains as Montale engages in and withdraws from his attempted colloquies with the dead. Above all, perhaps, what this translation’s contrast-enhancing strategy enables is a reminder that Xenia is also a fractured dramatic monologue – much like, for example, Donne’s Songs and Sonnets or, perhaps more relevantly, Hardy’s poems of mourning – in which the ellipses, lacunae and abrupt changes of direction articulate the complexities of Montale’s varying responses as he moves through a troubled post-mortem space. At his best, Petrucci clinches that with a keen sense – and ear – for Montale’s tonalities, as here, in the translation of the penultimate poem in the collection:
In my room I’ve put up the daguerreotype
of your father as a child: over a hundred years old.
Lacking any pedigree of my own (so addled)
I vainly attempt to reconstruct yours.
We haven’t been horses; the data for our forbears
aren’t in the breed registry. Those who’ve presumed
to know them weren’t in existence themselves,
nor were we for them. What then? Yet it remains
that something befell us – perhaps a nothing
that is all there is.
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.
Matthew Barton’s Family Tree reviewed by Bob Horne
Family Tree by Matthew Barton. Shoestring Press, 2016. £10.00. ISBN 978-1-910323-52-6.
The notion of a family tree, a great inverted triangle of accumulated identity, should bring with it a sense of solidity, of tangible dignity and shared characteristics. Matthew Barton’s poem ‘The Strange Idea’ begins with an echo of the opening of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Heredity’: ‘I am the family face; / Flesh perishes, I live on’. Barton writes, ‘The strange idea of family / travels through the flesh …’. However, as the poem develops, there is the suggestion that slight physical resemblance down the generations is ‘not worth stopping for’, leading to the conclusion that ‘this strange experiment / of me won’t leave much trace’.
Is the collection’s title ironic, then? The title poem itself should give a clue. ‘Family Tree’ is one of three poems for young Oscar. The child climbs a tree, literal or symbolic, as the father/poet/narrator lies on the ground beneath, seeing his progeny ‘lifted into / a future growing from yet free / of me’. As the child descends, there is the instinct to ‘grasp, or catch you’, but this is resisted through a respect for separateness, of recognising ‘the sense / of belonging in your limbs that my / letting go lets you possess.’
The penultimate poem, ‘Robin’, presents us with the familiar scenario of the small bird in close attendance in the garden. The narrator would like to think his feelings of tenderness are reciprocated, but knows the robin is interested only in ‘the sweetmeats / of ant or earwig’. There is a wistful realism in the poem’s conclusion:
next winter will finish him
but now so alive I would like him
to light on my palm – not likely!
At the quick of all, needs
no further affinity.
It’s that final word, ‘affinity’, that resonates throughout these poems. Usually by its absence. The search for the reassurance of affinity is like a quest. In ‘Two Trees’ a ‘thick-girthed beech’ grows next to an ‘old, dead oak’; thrusts ‘one vigorous grey arm / into the socket of a lost / oak branch’, and so supports the dying tree. But, in giving this support to the weak and dependent, the beech ‘is twisted, stunted by the strain / of trying to shape itself through other grain.’ Again, there is the implication that dependence diminishes us. If we flourish, we flourish separately, for a time.
‘Two Trees’ is one of several poems about the narrator’s father. In ‘Getting Out’ the father walks out on his young family. There is no recollection of the actual departure; instead it is represented by the violent image of the father’s failed attempt to perform the tablecloth/crockery trick, when with a ‘quick flick’, he deposits a ‘slew of wreckage to the floor.’ No affinity there. Ruination and finality. The following poem, ‘Eolian Harp’, is narrated through the voice of Sara Coleridge as she berates her poet husband for abandoning his struggling family. The analogy seems clear, yet the fact of desertion is not all that Coleridge left to posterity.
However, towards the end of the sequence, the moving ‘Last Comfort’ presents us with the narrator’s dying father revealing that ‘as a baby … / they let him [the father] cry and never held him close.’ We might be judged as individuals but we are fashioned by our environments at least as much as by genetics. This poem concludes with a kind of affinity, although it is qualified, when the father offers sympathy for a childhood wound suffered by the narrator:
it’s late in the day,
I let myself – the only comfort
I can give – be comforted.
The collection begins and ends in bleakness. In the opening poem, ‘Mother’, the narrator is being driven, by his mother, ‘to the hospital where they’ve taken him’. She is ‘broken open’, revealing ‘the pulse of pain that from now on / … you’ll always / know is there’. The identity of ‘him’ is unclear; one assumes, in the absence of other signs, it is the husband/father. However, ‘Mother’ surely connects with the final poem, ‘Brother’. This begins with an explicit statement that the brother ‘seemed to know things I didn’t: / that nothing lasts’, and concludes, both the poem and the collection, with an image of violent destruction. The brother has found a whole sea urchin shell, on ‘That last / holiday’, where there have previously only been fragments. His response to this precious discovery:
A day or two later hurled it
down the stairs as if
that’s what it was for
In ‘Raindrops’, the antepenultimate poem (this is significant in a collection where the sequence is carefully organised), the narrator observes the drops along the edge of a caravan roof – ‘they form and ripen, / and when they’re ready, fall.’ They are replaced by others, which fall in their turn ‘as if they’re practising / but what they’re practising for /
is now, they only realise as they fall.’ ‘Now’. Cherish the moment, before the shell is shattered, the raindrop falls to earth.
There’s much more in Matthew Barton’s excellent collection than I am able to convey in this short review. There are a number of poems about creativity, about writing something into existence ‘to stop the silence hurting’. Edward Thomas is invoked in ‘January Walk’, and there is more than a hint of Thomas’s endearing melancholy in Barton’s language and imagery. There is humour, too. In ‘Mr Smith’, a former, reviled teacher is spotted amongst a crowd. Resisting the inclination to ‘tell him / fear was all he taught’, the narrator wryly observes that this now aged man is ‘just ahead of me in the queue / for the underground.’
These are sensitive, thoughtful and crafted poems. Read them for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
Bob Horne’s first collection of poems, Knowing My Place, was published by Caterpillar Poetry in 2016. He is the originator and sole operative of the small press Calder Valley Poetry, and joint organiser of Puzzle Poets, Sowerby Bridge.
Jill Munro’s The Quilted Multiverse reviewed by Susan Castillo Street
The Quilted Multiverse by Jill Munro. Fair Acre Press. 2016. £4.99. ISBN: 978-1911048176.
In recent years, traditional notions of the universe as ‘All There Is’ – vast and old beyond comprehension – have been challenged by theoretical physicists such as Brian Greene. In his book The Hidden Reality, published in 2011, Greene describes the concept of the ‘quilted multiverse,’ arising from the fact that the energy and the matter we are able to observe through our telescopes has a certain density, and that they are dense enough to allow a ‘flat’ universe that extends indefinitely. He concludes that space contains infinite repetitions of the volume of space, matter and energy that is observable from earth. In these multiple universes, specific arrangements of basic particles can occur not once but an infinite number of times.
Jill Munro, in her pamphlet The Quilted Multiverse, explores the links and disjunctions of these parallel alternative worlds which underlie the everyday reality that surrounds us. The title poem in the collection, ‘The Quilted Multiverse of Gardens,’ is written from the perspective of a train journey, in which the poetic subject glances into the suburban gardens whizzing by.
When the train stalls into a slow graunch
along the track, the patchwork quilt
of urban Edens comes into view,
sewn and framed in creosote, barbed
wire, laurel bush or red stock bricks.
In the following stanzas, Munro evokes images of orange Sainsbury’s bags filled with old magazines, and stiffening towels on a whirligig absorbing the smell of bonfire smoke. In the final stanza, we encounter the following brilliantly surreal image:
And then it comes—a glimpse of backyard
heaven—a huge brilliant blue trampoline
stretching to square boundaries, where
a floral-aproned grandma is bouncing high,
higher, dreaming of another universe.
The reader is struck by the sensual wealth of this poem, with its sounds and textures and scents, along with the explosion of revolutionary grandmotherly glee and dreams of alternative realities. The juxtaposition of everyday objects and images with the exuberant bouncing granny is arresting, and reminds us that metaphors like the ones here can carry us to different but simultaneous alternative universes of the imagination.
The title of another poem, ‘She Sells Seashells’, is taken from a tongue-twister we all remember from childhood. Here, we encounter a man called Ray buying shells from a voluptuous woman at the seaside:
Ray visits the busty blonde
daily on the shore to buy
a bucket of wet-glazed whorls—
seashells like sugar-varnished
Chelsea buns—and drops loose
change in to her till of half-a-clam.
This description of a mundane encounter is transformed into a celebration of the senses and an exploration of erotic possibility. Ray returns home, sniffing the briny scent, and thinking of what may happen the next day:
He’ll be back tomorrow,
but tonight will dream
of a parting kiss from briny
lips, a coat’s hem glimpse
of a flash from her shiny tail.
As in ‘The Quilted Multiverse,’ the poem concludes with a fleeing glimpse into a different dimension, with this vision of an elusive, seductive mermaid.
Several poems explore the haunted universe(s) of family, friends and lovers. In ‘The Worst Poetry Workshop in the World,’ Munro describes the appearance of her dead father, who states his views on poetry:
Can’t see the point of it—it’s just like
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlistening to other people’s dreams
before realising he’s appearing in one.
‘Linda’s Bedroom, i.m. Linda Cameron, 1954-1986’ walks a similar tightrope between mourning and wry humour, from the very first line: ‘Pulmonary Emboli, in case you’re wondering.’ Munro’s description of the objects in the Seventies’ teenage bedroom of her older sister (Jim Morrison album covers, Simplicity patterns for hot-pants, an old diary), evoke her dead sister’s presence with extraordinary immediacy and depth. The last lines, once again, are poignant and vivid:
Photo-me fours of you laughing with a blue-eyed
boy fall from scribbled pages. I spot a secret—
the day –marked silver foil of The Pill—
and all the bedroom’s eyes widen.
Yet another standout poem in this volume of poems of exceptional quality is ‘Woolf Wrote in Purple Ink.’ In it, Munro adopts a breathless adolescent voice:
And I do too but did that before
I knew and I know it’s kind of childish
but I do just like the colour, the way
it makes a signature look—bold,
glamorous and cursive, even when it isn’t—
and did you know she had a book
printed all in purple for her friend Violet?
But then the tone very subtly begins to darken:
And also that stream of consciousness
way she wrote was really natty
and sort of left its purple modernist
mark, even if she wasn’t left-handed
like me, though Nicole Kidman is
and had to learn to write right
handed for The Hours before loading
her pocket with stones, oozing
into that river to become a different
kind of water-carrier
The poem concludes with a piercingly adult observation:
But another thing
she wrote is that for centuries
or so those who signed themselves
as Anonymous were, in all likelihood,
women which is probably the reason
she signed Virginia Woolf in purple ink.
Without exception, the poems in The Quilted Multiverse are intelligent, subtle, and brilliantly crafted. This is one of the most thoughtful and accomplished pamphlets that I have read in recent years, and Munro’s vivid surreal images, her original turns of phrase and disconcerting insights will stay with me and with other readers for a very long time.
Susan Castillo Street is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College, University of London. She has published three collections of poems, The Candlewoman’s Trade (Diehard Press, 2003), Abiding Chemistry, (Aldrich Press, 2015), and Constellations (Three Drops Press, 2016), as well as several scholarly monographs and edited anthologies. Her poems have appeared in Southern Quarterly, Ink Sweat & Tears, Messages in a Bottle, The Missing Slate, Clear Poetry, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Foliate Oak, The Yellow Chair Review, and other journals and anthologies.
Victoria Kennefick’s White Whale reviewed by Oz Hardwick
White Whale by Victoria Kennefick. Southword Editions (Cork). 2015. ISBN: 978-1905002405. (Available at http://www.munsterlit.ie/Southword%20Editions.html. €7 inc p & p).
‘Beached Whale,’ the opening poem of this slim chapbook, finds the narrator perched precariously on the back of the titular creature ‘Grasping, desperate to hold onto something real, / not knowing what that was.’ It’s a sentiment that permeates the collection, as details of the domestic and the everyday are snatched with a ferocity that turns them strange, or even dangerous. Take, for example, ‘Iron Dragon,’ in which a mother’s ironing in front of the television becomes first elemental, then mythical, as ‘It licks all the wrinkles out, / wraps its long, thin tail around us.’
In memory of the poet’s father, this collection could – as often happens – sink too far into the personal to allow the reader to fully engage, and it is testament to Kennefick’s skill that this never happens. The recurrent symbol of the whale gains resonance with each iteration, yet never quite becomes fixed, as memory and loss negotiate their shifting relationship, allowing the reader into the sharp spaces between them. The seemingly prosaic act, in ‘Moby-Dick,’ of encountering an engraving from the book hung above an old friend’s fireplace and recalling its purchase some six years earlier, tells a story that spreads beyond the page, of the regret of lives lived separately; the narrator’s coat ‘beached’ on the bed taking on – and adding to – the whale’s complex metaphorical identity. Consequently, in ‘Lighthouse,’ for example, although there is no mention of the whale, it inevitably asserts its presence:
They say that when they laid his bloated body
in her open arms she tried to dry him
with her long red hair.
The poem recalls Ovid’s tale of Ceyx and Alcyone, but although the subject is clearly human, in death he has taken on the aura of the whale and all the messy, inexpressible resonance that entails. By the time the whale is explicitly associated with the poet’s father towards the end of the collection in the title poem, the reader has already invested much into constructing the image in the form of their own experiences.
Lest this should sound all too emotionally daunting, the pervading sense of loss is balanced by a sensual joy in language. This is a book of bodies, with a tactile corporeality texturing each poem. ‘On Reflection’ offers the perfect example, the narrator standing on the beach, describing how ‘Goose-fleshed toes burrow /down to where worms squirm.’ Yes, there is darkness here, the threat of the unheimlich in the squirming beneath the sand’s surface, but the sensation is conveyed with visceral immediacy. Elsewhere, in ‘Haruspex,’ observing a drowned calf and imagining an oracular ritual in which ‘Its guts would plop out,’ the everyday onomatopoeia provides a palpable shock to the reader.
There are many very fine poems in this collection, but while I know I shall be dipping back into favourites from time to time, it is also a sequence over which to take some time and read it as a whole now and again. As I’ve already noted of the whale itself, there are images and symbols that reappear in different guises, each in dialogue with the others, so that their patterns are subtly different each time they are encountered. This is indicative of Kennefick’s controlled art throughout, in which she builds tightly conceived, carefully crafted structures upon which she builds outwards – or inwards – into the liminal spaces of human experience and emotion.
My reading tastes remaining resolutely digital, I have but one criticism of this collection, and this concerns the production. I’m all for variety, but unless there’s a very strong counter-argument, I like my books more or less book-sized, so they sit alongside my other books; I know where to find them, and I can carry them about without them getting too battered. I have reread this a few times on my morning commute and, bibliofetishist that I am, it’s still starting to resemble a dog-eared publisher’s catalogue. Though maybe I’m getting this all wrong. Maybe what I actually have now is a much-used script. Because, although I am often the first to wade in when large – and, frankly, specious – claims are made about poetry’s primary orality, in her debut chapbook, Victoria Kennefick offers a collection of poems that, as well as being savoured on the page, demand tasting in the mouth and feeling buzzing in the air.
Oz Hardwick is a York-based poet, photographer, music journalist, and occasional musician. His latest collections are The Ringmaster’s Apprentice (Valley Press, 2014) and the Saboteur-shortlisted collaboration Close as Second Skins (IDP, 2015), with Amina Alyal. To avoid a life of poverty, he is Professor of English and Programme Leader for Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University. In an ideal world, he would be bassist in a Belgian space-rock band.