Books under Review
Peter Robinson: Collected Poems • Denise Riley: Say Something Back • Philip Gross: A Bright Acoustic • Harry Clifton: Portobello Sonnets • Richard Boden: The English Disease • Charlotte Innes: Descanso Drive
Tom Phillips • Rosie Jackson • Emma Storr • Dylan Williams • Cathy McGrath • Susan Castillo Street • Joanna Ezekiel • Emma Lee
Peter Robinson’s Collected Poems reviewed by Tom Phillips
Collected Poems 1976-2016 by Peter Robinson. £19.99. Shearsman. ISBN 9781848615243
In an introductory note to this 500-page volume from Shearsman, Peter Robinson explains that it is ‘by no means a complete poetry’: as well as certain individual poems, for example, it doesn’t include the translations, the prose poems gathered in Untitled Deeds and A Draft Will or 2006’s chapbook There are Avenues. The Collected, however, does contain the majority of poems from Robinson’s preceding full-length volumes as well as a new tenth collection, For the Small Mercies, which is published here for the first time. All told, it’s a major body of work which spans a remarkable range of geographical, thematic and literary territories, from the stark realism of the post-industrial landscapes and domestic interiors of early poems like ‘In the Background’ or ‘The Benefit Forms’ through to the often richly allusive and rhythmically supple pieces that have emerged in more recent volumes like 2012’s The Returning Sky and 2015’s Buried Music. The Collected’s publication has also enabled Robinson to bring poems previously separated into different volumes back into proximity and restore – or, perhaps, repoint – some of the conversations occurring between them.
It begins with ‘Worlds Apart’ from Robinson’s first book Overdrawn Account, which refers to economic migrants like his own grandfather who ‘go/some thin dawn/from quiet, grey wharves/out through the Manchester Ship Canal’ to work in ‘far-off places’. Robinson can’t have known it at the time of writing it but, with the benefit of hindsight, this poem now seems to foreshadow a trajectory which the poet himself followed, not to North America, but to Japan where he lived and worked for close-on two decades, before returning to Britain in 2007, just as the financial crisis was looming. Themes of travel and transit recur throughout the Collected – ‘Towards Darkness’, ‘Leaving Sapporo’, ‘Enigmas of Departure’, ‘Sheffield to Reading’ are just a few of the titles indicating movement and relocation – as do the questions suggested by the final line of ‘The Interrupted Views’ (also from 1980’s Overdrawn Account): ‘Home is the view I appropriate’. What do we mean by ‘home’? How do we appropriate it, accommodate ourselves to it and, indeed, make it appropriate? Many poems here can be read as responses to the complexities arising from an abiding sense of displacement, of – as Robinson puts it in ‘A Constitutional’ – ‘feeling foreign everywhere’.
Perhaps related to this – in the sense that it offers a means of forming attachments to somewhere which might be called home – is the specific kind of attentiveness that Robinson brings to the world, its everyday objects and situations. In poems like ‘The Yellow Tank’, ‘The Happiness Plant’ and ‘Coat Hanger’, the eponymous objects appear from a variety of perspectives and acquire meaning and value through the associations which accumulate around them (the coat hanger, for example, becomes ‘Perhaps … a homage to Jasper Johns’). Likewise, in more recent psychogeographical poems like ‘From Amsterdam’, ‘Bohemian Interlude’ and ‘Bristol Voluntaries’, places aren’t definitively mapped, but encountered as both a plenitude of possibilities and – to use Charles Olson’s phrase from The Maximus Poems – ‘a complex of occasions’. The specificities of a locale are there in all their concreteness, but their significance remains fluid, open-ended, as stray details gather around lived experience and coalesce into the aesthetic experience offered by the poem. Similar processes are at work in two longer sequences, Buried Music’s ‘The Island Suite’ and For the Small Mercies’ ‘Ringstead Poems’, in which small, seemingly insignificant phenomena – ‘salt-marsh wattles’, ‘a sparrow perched/on that painted terrace chair’, ‘the overflying jets’ sudden roar’ – summon up personal, cultural and historical associations in a way that recalls W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – and not simply because of the liminality of the coastal landscapes that occasion them.
There’s an ethical dimension to this too: a desire to represent things and, more importantly, people without distorting or even hijacking them for one’s own artistic ends, without damaging what Heidegger called their ‘thingness’ or – to paraphrase the quotation from Raymond Queneau that Robinson deploys as an epigraph in Buried Music – dirtying the dwelt-in world (‘On n’écrit pas pour emmerder le monde’). Such an awareness isn’t new in Robinson’s work. It’s there in the poems from 1988’s This Other Life concerning a sexual assault – a series which ends with ‘For Lavinia’ and the admission that ‘I’ve said too much already’ – and in the careful positioning of the poet within the poems. The ‘I’ remains in the picture – unavoidably so – but not in such a way that it becomes obtrusive or blocks the view: if the occasions are autobiographical, they are not occasions for self-absorbed Lowellian confession or for the metamorphosis of experience into a micromanaged weltanschauung or mythology. These poems are generous: as readers, we are not coerced.
The thing about Peter Robinson which emerges from reading Collected Poems, then, is that he is a poet whose engagement with the apparently mundane and insignificant produces work that is anything but. As the late John Ashbery noted in 1993, Robinson’s poetry is ‘curiously strong’ (in all meanings of both words) and it could certainly not be accused of aggrandizing its own sense of vocation. At the same time, however, this is a poetry that addresses political, economic and moral questions which have become increasingly demanding in a globalized and interconnected world, whether those questions relate to or are stimulated by the ‘funds like surface water … soaked away in daylight’ by irresponsible bankers (‘The Passersby’), ‘These veterans from that post-war vote/which promised us a National Health’ (‘A Burning Head’) or clouds that ‘have lined up over the lake/like restless internationalists’ (‘The Black-Necked Geese’).
The final stanza published in Collected Poems, from the sequence ‘Fourteen Postcards’, brings these complex negotiations with the world to the fore and, with its understated verbal play, it might perhaps exemplify what makes reading a Robinson poem a uniquely rewarding experience on all levels:
You tidied a palm tree’s bark-spread bed.
‘Righting the world!’ self-mockingly, you said
while I was reading signs and tokens,
writing the world, if you like,
or simply attempting to render it back
itself, the poem a forfeit for
the very idea of setting it to rights.
Again, the questions suggested here, like those prompted by that line from ‘The Interrupted Views’, are important ones – ones which cut to the quick of what words can do and what poetry might be capable of as a phenomenon in – and not separate from – the world. Few poets address such questions with the combination of seriousness and playfulness that Robinson brings to them (as he says in ‘Coincidences’, after all, poetry is a ‘serious game’), whilst at the same time articulating the pressures which come at us from all angles with an unusual empathy for the yous who also happen, of course, to be Is.
When reviewing a Collected Poems, it’s tempting to try and position its author in relation to other poets. Certainly, where poets from the UK are concerned, Robinson might justifiably be likened to Roy Fisher and Charles Tomlinson but, like theirs, his is an internationally oriented sensibility and in its scrupulous attention to the here and now – or the matter in hand, call it what you will – his work has a global reach, as the increasing number of translations appearing in Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Romanian, Bulgarian and so on attests. This elegantly produced volume from Shearsman is proof, perhaps, that Todd Swift got it slightly wrong when he described Robinson as ‘a major English poet’ in the autumn 2012 edition of Poetry Review: major, certainly – but not simply ‘English’ if that epithet suggests the version of England put about by the likes of Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes.
Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and lecturer currently based in Sofia. He is the founding editor of the annual journal Balkan Poetry Today, publishes Colourful Star, a weekly blog with the painter Marina Shiderova and was a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House in August 2016. His bilingual book of his own poems originally written in Bulgarian, Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, was published by Scalino in Sofia last year.
Denise Riley’s Say Something Back reviewed by Rosie Jackson
Say Something Back by Denise Riley. £9.99. Picador. ISBN: 9781447270379
‘She do the bereaved in different voices,’ announces one of the exquisitely crafted poems, ‘A Part Song’, in Denise Riley’s new collection. And she do indeed: invocations, pleas, sonnets, sobs, scoldings, children’s songs, hymns, lyrics, re-written myths, pastiche, self-parody, one hard-wrought form after another, each straining for words equal to the task of a mother’s grief at the sudden death of her son – Riley’s adult son, Jacob, died in 2009 from a heart condition. These many voices push language and form to their limits, but even there they are found wanting, leaving us with something more wrenching and anguished than conventional elegy. ‘Here I sit poleaxed…’ Anger, hopelessness, dark humour, a refusal to be comforted by pieties, make this a raw collection, held in such knowing, skilled, witty, ironic, self-conscious poems that emotion isn’t released into escape or catharsis, but adds another layer to the impossible burden of grief – the realisation of what cannot be said, and more importantly what cannot be heard, when it comes to a dialogue with the dead.
I first came across Riley’s poems in the 1970s, when I admired her radical and experimental collection Marxism for Infants (Street Editions, Cambridge, 1977). Since then, although she has had significant recognition (in 2012 ‘A Part Song’ won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and she was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry), her poetic output has been less prolific than her prose. She’s written theoretical studies on motherhood, identity, feminism, reflections on women and history, the philosophy of language, the history of ideas, has been Professor of Literature with Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and A. D. White Professor-at-large at Cornell University. All this scholarship inevitably shapes and colours her poems: mostly I marvelled at their cleverness, but occasionally, even though they never successfully mask, eclipse, or anaesthetise depth of feeling, their intellectualism can start to render them less accessible. They make the reader work hard and rely on a literary background for their various delightful shocks of recognition – reworking Wordsworth, for example, in ‘Composed underneath Westminster Bridge’; modelling a poem on Heine’s lyrics; an imitation of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Bantams in Pine-Woods’ in ‘Percy’s Relique’; echoes of Shakespeare; many references to classical myths and legends. Riley is a poet’s poet, ever alive to the way in which experience is created out of language, out of text. But how then to convey the wordless experience of death?
In conversation with Lisa Baraitser in 2016, Riley talks about how, following a traumatic event, time can become arrested and the ability to communicate disappear. After her son died, she experienced ‘the suspension of time’ and later wrote about this surreal sense of time stopping in a long prose essay, Time Lived without its Flow. But language only came later, trying to recollect the experience: ‘communicability vanishes when you are living in an arrested time which is resistant to being narrated… (only) when the experience itself had ebbed away, I could try to convey it, but only in retrospect.’ (1) This perhaps accounts for the way in which language and syntax strain in these poems; the words that come are unexpected, as though found on the far side of communication; thoughts and conventions are subverted, as in the wonderful opening poem ‘Maybe; maybe not’, a brilliant revision of the famous passage from Corinthians:
When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous…‘
Unsurprisingly, she identifies with the mythical grieving mother Demeter ‘ferreting around those dark sweet halls’ as she seeks her lost child in the underworld. Then she enters the Orpheus myth, where her role as Orpheus can do nothing but reproduce the tragic repetition of loss. Song cannot bring back the dead. ‘A Part Song’ begins:
You principle of song, what are you for now
Perking up under any spasmodic light
To trot out your shadowed warblings?
Few contemporary poets have so much knowledge, reading and learning at their fingertips as Riley, few can rework the poetic tradition so remarkably, yet even as these poems stun by their beauty, they draw equal attention to the futility of their project in trying to reach the dead, as in the brilliantly imperative ‘Let no air now be sung’.
Particularly moving is the final sequence ‘A Gramophone on the Subject’, which was commissioned by the Poetry Society in commemoration of the 1914-18 war, and draws on letters, diaries and memoirs from soldiers and civilians. (2) The title of this section comes from Arthur Conan Doyle, referring to his own belief in a spiritualist connection with the war dead – ‘All that I can do is be a gramophone on the subject.’ And here Riley’s own loss adds a visceral and personally heartfelt dimension to the lament for those fallen on the battle field:
What can it mean, that someone walks
out of your house then they won’t come
back ever. When you’d had them, and
they were boys; you’d think they’d make
their own way home out of that mud…
I never could grasp human absence.
It always escaped me, the real name
of this unfathomable simplest thing…
So many gone that you can’t take it in.
Whatever I say is bound to sound flat.
Riley’s pain as a bereaved mother becomes all mothers’; their pain becomes hers.
The poem and volume end:
What to do now is clear, and wordless.
You will bear what can not be borne.
But in ‘Orphic’, my favourite poem in the book, the only one that seems to be directly in her son’s imagined voice, there is a kind of answer in words. Here, her son is in the shades, has been there for years, and when he finds his mother entering the underworld, herself apparently newly dead, beaming at the prospect of being united with him again, he berates her, reproaching her for her grief in her own last days. Even in death she will find no easy answers. Yet if she wants to hear her son say something back, here it is, loud and clear. He is bidding her find her mother’s courage:
I’ve lived here dead for decades – now you
pitch up gaily among us shades, with your
freshly dead face all lit up, beaming…
(yet) you’d put the frighteners on me, ruining
the remains of your looks in bewailing me
not handling your own last days with spirit.
Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.
These magnificent poems do him proud alright. What a tragedy that it took a loss as great as this to generate them.
- Baraitser, L. & Riley, D., (2016). Lisa Baraitser in Conversation with Denise Riley. Studies in the Maternal.
- With Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial and Warsan Shire, Riley was one of four poets who contributed to The Pity (2014), a series of poems commissioned by the Poetry Society in response to the centenary of the First World War.
Rosie Jackson is a Hawthornden fellow, 2017. She has taught at the Universities of East Anglia, Nottingham Trent, West of England, Skyros Writers’ Lab and Cortijo Romero. Her pamphlet What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014) was followed by The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016). Her prose books include Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, The Eye of the Buddha, Frieda Lawrence, Mothers Who Leave and a memoir, The Glass Mother (Unthank, 2016). In 2017 she won 1st and 2nd prize in the Berkshire Arts Festival, 3rd prize in the Hippocrates Open Competition and 1st prize in the Stanley Spencer Competition. She runs the Frome Stanza group. http://www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Philip Gross’s A Bright Acoustic reviewed by Emma Storr
A Bright Acoustic by Philip Gross. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780373683
A Bright Acoustic is Philip Gross’s nineteenth book of poetry, published in June 2017, and does what the title suggests: it pleases both the eye and the ear. The shape of the poems and the use of white space mirror the elements of air and water that stream through the text. Many birds make an appearance: gulls mew like ‘curling sound-flakes’ sliced off the air; a wren is a ‘flitter-flicked’ presence and the blackbird repeats its ‘loop’ of song. There is a musical quality to the poetry and playfulness in language and form. Gross mixes the cerebral and sensual in carefully crafted lines that take us to unexpected places. This is an author who is enjoying himself and wants to share this enjoyment with us.
Some of the poems are single texts but there are several sequenced sections, a familiar format employed by Gross to explore a single theme from different angles. One of these, The Same River: thirteen variations on Heraclitus, was composed to accompany a film. The text meanders in a pattern that resembles a stream or river curling through the landscape. You can see the water glinting and hear it dripping as the writer investigates flux and flow, the evolution of the mind and, in these lines, his own creativity:
how every dip into this river leaves me
dripping slightly differently; see
xxxxxxxxxthe dribbling of words
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbehind me on the page,
Gross’s close observation of the natural world – vegetation, birds and weather – often morphs into contemplations on how things work, the transience of life, the passing of time and our inevitable death. This is not to suggest that the poetry is ponderous. Gross has a light touch even when he asks profound questions about the human condition. You get the feeling that although he takes life and himself seriously, he is quick to debunk pomposity or his own importance. The ‘I’ in the poems is a small presence, observing the forces of nature with respect and awe. He is also unsentimental. The ‘chorus’ of birdsong is:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxrather the clatter of toolkits
xxxxxxxxxxon echoing floorboards,
the measuring up of spaces in the day:
There is wit and humour in the poems and a self-deprecating view of the writer’s role, particularly when he is trying to avoid using a particular word such as ‘dingle’:
xxxxxxxxpretty, doesn’t it? Like the word,
the one I’m squirming to avoid: I’ve tried cleft
cleave coomb chine for this sudden steep slip
xxxxxxxxof a strip of stray wildwood
into this crack crease interstice slightly
unpicked seam between breezeblock railing fence
The alliteration, assonance and lack of punctuation emphasise the poet’s frustration while being very satisfying to read or to say out loud. By the fifth stanza, we are as desperate for the word ‘dingle’ to make an appearance as the writer is to avoid it.
The ‘unpicked seam’ is an image that Gross has used before in different contexts (Sea Surge in Love Songs of Carbon 2016). Perhaps it is part of his desire to find edges, gaps and interfaces where his poetry can roam. He likes to unpeel and deconstruct the obvious to give us a different perspective, often in descriptions where different media encounter each other: urban and rural landscapes; the earth and the sky. Sometimes agency is given to natural phenomena. In one poem we hear the thoughts of the wetland and in Broadleaf Torch Song, the plant itself voices its grandiose intentions:
consuming. I would carpet the earth
I would gulp the sun whole
and want more.
Not all the sequenced poems fill the page. Specific Instances of Silence provides twenty-six offerings, some only two lines long that capture the poignancy of the unsaid, the pause before the spoken, or the impact of silence:
xxxxxxxxxxxxfrom the front arrived, the censor’s blanks
black pits, and she stood on the edge. She must not look.
It is in the Silence series that we meet the title of the collection. Before light and the word, there was ‘a more than silence’:
the bright acoustic – to receive us
and return us clearer,
all our jangled wavelengths
us, the sun, the other stars.
You can almost hear the music of the Harmony of the Spheres playing in the background. I imagine ‘almost’ is important to Gross. He changes lenses frequently to give us the wide-angle view, then a close-up, then one filtered by rain (particularly in Time in the Dingle) to try and capture the abstract, the passing thought, the flicker of recognition that disappears in an instant.
One of my favourite poems suggests death as an aural absence:
The sound of it.
Air’s harp unstrung.
I relished reading A Bright Acoustic because it surprised and delighted me, even when I had to look up the definition of a ‘dingle’ and educate myself about Heraclitus. The different formats of the poems and Gross’s experimentation with sound, shape and texture show his versatility and skill. He explores the self and the natural world from multiple standpoints: physical, psychological and intellectual in ways that inspire wonder and curiosity as well as admiration for his gift as a poet. A Bright Acoustic is lyrical and celebratory, a rich seam of language and image to enjoy, crafted by an exceptional writer.
Emma Storr lives in Leeds and has a background in medicine but is now turning her attention to poetry. She recently completed an MPhil in Writing at the University of South Wales. Publications include a commended poem in The Hippocrates Prize Anthology in 2016 and a recent contribution to Strix magazine. She was Highly Commended in the Walter Swan Trust Poetry competition at the Ilkley Literature Festival in 2016.
Harry Clifton’s Portobello Sonnets reviewed by Dylan Williams
Portobello Sonnets by Harry Clifton. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 9781930630796
More than anything else, Harry Clifton’s new collection, Portobello Sonnets, is a treatise on the vicissitudes of time and its flow and unflow in the blindspot of home. Returned to his native district of Portobello, Dublin, after many years abroad, Clifton writes an investigation of place, certainly, but one prismed through the language of time, not space – place ambitously recalibrated as temporal experience. Entropy and liquidity become the demiurges of Clifton’s sonnets, permitting urban structure to dissolve itself in the flow of their Dublin-currents.
Take the 33rd sonnet in the sequence: ‘Water is there to be looked at, not looked into […] And no one gazes through a shattered window / into the depths,’ and, later, ‘You can go too deep / And never come back from the realm of archetype’. Clifton’s vocabulary generates not from Portobello’s buildings or people, but from its water. Its rain, its mists, its puddles, its glassy Grand Canal. Water expresses the multivalency, the soft surfaces and fluidity of time that Clifton feels in his Portobello. Below the surface runs the slipstream of the past with all its ‘old news / And drowned ephemera’ – reachable here, certainly, but dangerous.
The philosopher Michel de Certeau has talked about Rome as a city whose physical and psychological surface is populated with the ruins of the past. Clifton’s Portobello, or perhaps just Clifton himself, has a more complex relationship with passed time. The different histories of Portobello – personal, social, linguistic, histories yet to come – expand and shrink constantly through the collection. This makes reading Portobello Sonnets a disorientating process, constantly evading the security of a static milieu. Amidst the twisting flows of Clifton’s temporally-loaded Portobello, the poet even risks running into himself:
[…] Are you not scared, young man, of your Daddy’s ghost
And his before him, waiting here to greet you,
Latest of blow-ins, ready to try again?
Is this where you get off, where the heart still melts
For the millionth time, old snow becoming rain
Off the Irish Sea – a flat in the Jewish quarter?
Immerse yourself, disturb the human silt,
An anchor feeling for bottom, in home waters.
This opening poem reads as an invective to Clifton from himself, but it is a self hailed as other. The ‘latest of blow-ins, ready to try again’, is Clifton, on the brink of re-immersion. However, at 65 Clifton tests the conventional definition of a ‘young man’. Rather, this is Clifton hailing his younger self, the Portobello youth, as if time has not progressed in his absence. As if the Portobello of his youth stalks the contemporary moment, out of time and complicating everything. The past engenders fear and courage in equal measure, and these responses are never fully reconciled through the collection. Ultimately, however, it is a chronicler’s ethics that inspires Clifton to take the plunge, the need to ‘disturb the human silt’. Clifton’s tapping of Portobello‘s histories serves a higher purpose than mere reminiscence (a real danger for poets writing a return to home) – it is a reanimation and re-humanisation of the repressed. It is this ethics that marks Portobello Sonnets as an important work of art, both in Clifton’s oeuvre and the already rich field of Dublin literature.
Clifton’s success is difficult to measure, as the artistic objectives behind Portobello Sonnets seem intangible and non-finite. The final sonnet is populated by ghosts as much as is the first, so exorcism of Portobello’s haunting past seems neither sought nor brought about. Likewise, the collection fails as a record of histories – it is too impressionistic, and Clifton struggles to assume the voices of Portobello’s newest populations, its Eastern Europeans and Muslims. Indeed, he is wise not to try. The choice of the sonnet as the collection’s core unit brings us closer to understanding the true shape and intention of Clifton’s project.
For all the concern with flows and currents of time, the sonnet form applies a staccato rhythm to the experience of reading. Gaps in time and space deposit themselves between poems, almost as if forbidding expansion of thought and consciousness to a grand scale. The tight, compacted sonnets feel like closed moments, encounters with the subterranean reality of the city that fizzle out and ebb away as quickly as they arrive. There is something undoubtedly Joycean in this, an epiphanic tendency, as we see with sonnet 15. Here the poetic subject is introduced ‘interrogating silence […] Glad enough that someone, through the wall, / Is doing the opposite.’ They end enervated, uplifted: ‘And the sky clears, and the human animal / Caged in both of us relaxes, yawns, feels free?’ The question mark, hanging over the blank space of the page, signifies the insecurity of epiphany. Vision that recedes almost the moment it is maximised. So, too, Clifton’s connection with his home. Exiled, changed, now returned, he is a man out of kilter with his home – a man out of time. These sonnets mark his momentary reconnections with the fluid histories of home. In this, Portobello Sonnets shows us the shifting alignment between self and place, between outer and inner flow, between the now and other times. Clifton’s lesson is important because it is a lesson in behaviour – a lesson in how to receive time, ‘the daily door that cannot be forced’.
Dylan Williams is a poet and writer based between Seville, South Wales and London.
He recently completed an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London, with a dissertation on the poetry of Maggie O’Sullivan.
He is currently interested in modes of refusal in contemporary poetry and political aesthetics. He has written for 3am Magazine, Guttural and Greyscale.
Richard Boden’s The English Disease reviewed by Cathy McGrath
The English Disease by Richard Boden. £9. Red Hand Books. [ ISBN: NEEDED]
The depth and breadth of Richard Boden’s vision in his first poetry anthology, The English Disease, is extensive. Whilst we might expect more typical associations with the title: rickets or football hooliganism perhaps, the ‘tertiary syphylis’ of ‘A Minor French Romantic’ is the closest we get to the former, the ‘hurling encouragement’ of the fathers in ‘The Touchline Dads’ the nearest reference to the latter. Boden’s title poem, however, seems to confirm that it is the powerful pull of sex that is infectious.
Boden is not one to be confined, however, and as the poems branch and spread throughout the collection towards the climax in Part 2, set in the Vauxhall Gardens of the 18th Century, we are struck time and again by a stinging nostalgia.
Who is unable to remember similar bittersweet teenage memories, first evoked by Boden in ‘Fighting off the Girls’? The embarrassing ‘sex education’ is starkly juxtaposed with the disgusted ‘imaginings’ of parents ‘wiggling the seedlings into the earth’. We identify with his discomfort. He revisits the confusion of adolescence in ‘September’, the tone here petulant, pure teen, decrying an absence of useful female advice at a formative moment. The ‘impossible to talk to’ parents, sulkily observed, are a far cry from the joyous relationship Boden appears to have with his own children, as evidenced in poems such as ‘Sneak’ where the thrill of watching his daughter:
the little mis-
chief- in chief, the loper,
the all-manner- of- ling
produces spontaneous affectionate kennings.
Indeed the ‘secret’ that children are, the mystery, is boundlessly evident in Boden’s ‘My Son, The…’ series threaded throughout Part One. ‘My Son the First Dog in Space’ is reminiscent of Simon Armitage’s, ‘Mother any distance…’ with it’s fear of growing up and letting go and also has echoes of Gilian Clarke’s umbilical ‘red rope of love’ that ties her to her daughter in ‘Catrin’.
‘My Son the Prince of Bohemia’ is one of Boden’s many nods to Shakespeare, imagining his son as royalty, warning us that there, ‘May be tantrums’ and the wonderful nautical imagery of ‘My Son, The Pearl Diver’ has Boden as ‘captain’ overseeing his child’s ‘first proper illness’. Managing to magically convey the spun power that our children have over us and their endless possibilities is one of his strengths. ‘My son, The Bollywood Star’ is my personal favourite in this quartet. Just as the movie spectacle requires us to absorb vibrant colours, music and dance routines, so too do young children provide ‘musical’ interludes for the ‘drawn/dawn face’ of parents who have experienced sleepless nights, the disjointed form of the verse mimicking a lively dance routine or mocking the jumbled exhaustion of the sleep-deprived.
Boden is, however, just as comfortable with his wry observations of the very Englishness of making much ado about nothing. Not typically a fan of the exclamation mark, in ‘Neap Fever’ Boden slyly observes that ‘Nothing is actually happening!’ as a whole community watch the water level during a neap tide. The feeling that Boden wants us to acknowledge the absurdity of humankind is invoked by the synaesthesia of ‘not a dry eye can be heard.’ The whole poem drips with bathos. It is a masterful study of pointlessness.
Within many of the poems there is a finely threaded wit sewn into the verse seams. There is a wonderful amusing irony in ‘Reading ‘Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight in Italian’. Boden presents himself as ‘ a real grail hero’ although his quest is to try to read Calvino’s short story in its original Italian. Just as Calvino’s knight has no substance, no reality, neither it seems, in direct parallel, does Boden’s linguistic ability. We don’t quite believe he ‘dunno’ what the translation is but this is typical of Boden’s self-deprecating humour. He offers us his inadequacies. We smile but are aware that this is theatre; he is excellent at playing the Shakespearean Fool.
One poem in the collection that does not amuse us is ‘A Repossession’. Notable for its sombre tone, ‘the ‘sullenness of rooms’ personifies the ‘hurriedly abandoned’ building and in Boden’s penultimate verse the allusion to whale hunting, the place ‘beached, gutted, boned’ likens the event to a blood sport – just as the ‘stunted’ height chart implies irreversible damage at a formative age. Paired alongside the poem charting the ‘launch’ and ‘safety checks’ of his own child it appears that Boden is inviting us to weigh up the inequalities of birth.
What makes the whole collection rich is Boden’s love (or perhaps critique) of heroes and villains: whether he is casting himself in that role, playing at dressing up as a main character (in clothes, in roles, in identity) as in ‘Costumes’ or giving fairy tale characters a backstory in the Queen’s and the Woodcutter’s dramatic monologues about Rumplestiltskin, Boden excels at reimagining the already imagined. Even Byron, an endlessly documented figure, in many ways fictional, the stuff of legends, is observed through the filter of Hobhouse’s lens. Whilst Boden draws on actual events, relationships and excursions, he manages to bring a fresh sympathy for ‘the boy who blackened everything he touched’.
Loners and those on the fringes of acceptance hold a fascination for Boden, which is why the second part of his collection is so apt. The Vauxhall gardens ‘in their heyday,’ the fabled open air pleasure gardens provide plentiful material as Boden juxtaposes the seedier aspects of the 18th Century walks and promenades with the startling modernity of balloon flights, and other curiosities such as mermen, fortune-tellers and ‘our Great Wheel’. This backdrop allows Boden to observe all ranks, but ultimately ‘the gates are locked’ and we are reminded that we are all time-limited. Perhaps Boden in his final analysis sums up what the English disease really is:
how we missed our chance of
lasting pleasure far too easily …
This is a fine first collection. Boden leads us augustly through the gardens of his imagination. Art! Literature! Music! A modest entry fee. You can wander at your leisure.
Charlotte Innes’s Descanso Drive reviewed by Susan Castillo Street
Descanso Drive by Charlotte Innes. £13.60. Kelsay Books. Red Hand Books. ISBN: 978-1945752650
As Heraclitus well knew, all is change. The cells of our body in later years are completely different from those we are born with; the historical contexts in which we live are in a constant state of flux. The one thread that provides a semblance of continuity in our lives is memory, and even that is a tantalizingly ephemeral and subjective phenomenon.
Freud, in his 1917 essay ‘Trauer und Melancolie’ (‘Mourning and Melancholy’) describes the different ways in which we respond to loss.  Mourning, for Freud, is a reaction to the death or permanent loss of someone of something we hold dear, while in melancholy the lost object does not qualify as irretrievably lost. Often the boundaries between these categories are tenuous, particularly in the case of intergenerational memory and intergenerational haunting. The elegantly crafted and evocative poems in Charlotte Innes’s Descanso Drive evoke memory, mourning and loss in three apparently very different sections: ‘Tare and Poppy’, ‘Silt’, and ‘Denser Reds.’
In Section I, Tare and Poppy, Innes offers us a cluster of poems dealing with the most difficult of themes: the Holocaust. ‘The Moon in Theresienstadt’ evokes the image of the poet’s grandfather, Bernhard Einzig, who died there on 8 May 1945, Liberation Day. In skillfully crafted quatrains, Innes weaves links between her present and her own wisps of memory and conjecture about what may have taken place in the concentration camp where her grandfather was imprisoned:
The moon in Theresienstadt was no different
from this one. Children painted (there’s a book about it),
women discussed recipes, and fine musicians played
and composed music later heard in U.S. cities.
But then we are confronted with stark historical fact, swiftly followed by the poet’s attempt to assemble a narrative of what may have happened:
On May 8, nineteen forty-five, Liberation Day,
Bernhard Einzig, my grandfather, died in that damned place.
Was it morning or night? Was the moon out? Did he know?
Was he feverish with typhus? Did he say, “Today,
Englishmen, whom I admire, have come to this Hades,
my spirit can soar freely. (It was the Red Army).
This week, sixty-one years later, in a feverish
rush, I’ve written seven poems. Where do they come from?
The uncanny presence of the poet’s grandfather erupts into the present, in her poems. In a stunningly eloquent final stanza, the poet anchors this nightmarish memory in everyday reality:
And now it’s May 8. I read the papers, feed my cats,
See in the bathroom mirror that my hair needs trimming.
After dinner I walk past three cherry trees in bloom.
The moon lies hidden by clouds, yellowish, grey as ash.
In the second section of the volume, we encounter a different sort of loss, this time of a remember lover. ‘Blue with White Curve’ begins with the painterly memory of a man standing by the sea:
He disembarked, his shirt a distant splash
Of blue on curving sea-walls white with heat.
Greeting local men, he aped their ease,
then looked at you, that shifting look of love
and need, and hesitance, the usual freight.
In this tautly constructed 5-line stanza, the poet paints in iambic pentameter a picture of sexual longing shot through with fragility and tentativeness. The reader is then cast forward into the present:
Tonight, those days of heat that started years
of cooling-off come back—his skin, the salt
you licked from it, the pleasure always threaded
through with doubt—and then the roar of jets,
his stranger’s face, the air grown thin between you.
Often it is ephemeral things that go deepest. The sensual evocation of licking salt from a lover’s skin is juxtaposed to the sound of jets and images of distance (‘his stranger’s face’, ‘the air grown thin between you.’ The poem concludes with a stunning final stanza:
Tonight, you drink your coffee from the mug
with harbor scenes—the one you bought with him.
Who is he now? And you? A bit like trying
To see the island through its summer haze—
As you lick the sugar from the white ceramic lip.
The images of circularity that permeate the poem evoke the paradox that memory is both circular and tentative, something that returns to haunt us, but that can only be discerned through the haze of time.
In the third and final section of the book, Innes offers us a poem that is reminiscent of lines from Blake’s poem ‘Eternity’: (He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy/ He who kisses the joy as it flies/) Lives in eternity’s sunrise).
She begins by describing ‘flame-colored flowers’ given by a lover, in a room full of familiar objects and creatures (‘a turtle lamp with stubby feet’, a beloved cat). The poem closes with the following memorable lines:
I think—and this is what I really think
why worry over little things like love
and why we ask each other, will it last?
Let’s find the essential music in it—the bulb
that gives the turtle lamp its yellow glow,
the eager throats of flowers, or in that finch,
chirping the same essential song for seconds,
then flying off and chirping somewhere else.
The visual and auditory images here remind us of the beauty and perdurability of ephemeral things, preserved in the ‘essential beauty’ of the poet’s craft and artistry. In the elegance and tautness of her poetry, Charlotte Innes has created patterns of sound and visual images that will last in all our memories.
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.
Susan Castillo Street is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College London. She has published two poetry collections and a pamphlet, as well as several scholarly monographs, edited essay collections and anthologies. Edit both
Pilgrim Station by Dominic James. SPM Publications £7.50. ISBN 978-0-9935035-3-5
Dominic James’s work has appeared in a range of publications including Ink Sweat & Tears and The Kudzu Review. His poems have been placed highly in the 2015 Sentinel Literary Quarterly Competition and the Wirral ‘Festival of Firsts’ poetry competition. Sentinel Publishing have subsequently brought out his debut collection.
The quotes on the back of Pilgrim Station say ‘James is indeed a traveller in an ancient and modern land’ (Peter Pegnall: ‘Bar Modele’, an affectionate poem in this collection, is dedicated to Peter) ‘…warm, luxurious observations of distant and exotic locations’ (Greg Freeman). This gives us a theme straight away, always a good sign in a debut collection. The first poem ‘Deserter’ opens strongly in the middle of a hard-won journey:
… he crossed the border,
the great river bed
with cold water whispering on the pebbles
The theme of travel also encompasses many poems on the theme of fathers and sons, especially Dedalus and Icarus. These poems explore generational distance, fatherly love (‘Surge and distance’) (‘To Oscar’), and the cycle of life. The poems involving Icarus are also included in the wider theme of flying, with some great perspectives on what it’s like to be up in the sky, closer to the sun:
Smooth flies the pallid sea
and undercarriage wheels
reaching for the tarmac spit:
At times I felt that I was travelling with the poet over ancient lands and seas.
Other poems contrast ancient landscapes and the modern world with a sense of uncertainty (‘The vaults of Babel’). The theme of environmental exploitation and decay is also repeated throughout the book. This gives the effect of a sense of urgency. Myths, religious festivals, classical literature, animals and plants are deployed imaginatively to reveal the perils of our planet’s existence. ‘Chalford Railway Cutting’ evokes William Blake’s poems with the descriptions of the destruction of the pastoral, while ‘Heartsease in winter’ imagines ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the suburbs:
My eyes are burning. I’d choose
two drops of Oberon’s
Odysseus/Ulysses, the traveller’s traveller, is also given a fresh voice in this collection.
With several themes woven throughout the collection, there is a sense of an emotional journey taking place. The range of tones include the romantic and playful (‘Matching the occasion’ ‘A kiss’) the excitement of settling in (Helen’s ghost) and being overwhelmed (‘Seven Chakras’) (‘Istanbul’) All of this contrasts well with other poems on loss, grief, dashed hopes ‘Madame Fortuna’, stagnation (‘Quince Zone’) and even revenge (‘Apollo’).
In the title poem, ‘Pilgrim station’, the title sums up the collection. The poem’s theme is of seizing the moment. This theme is present in many other poems, for example, ‘Geneva Rain’, where the narrator’s perhaps jaded mood is changed after a downpour:
…hugged by a pedestrian who sticks a paw
deep in my pocket, caught red-handed: laughs.
I hold him close and arm in arm we muddle past…
The playful and confident tone is also present in other poems about creative influences, such as ‘El Bobo’ and ‘Beethoven SOB’ and especially in ‘On R S Thomas, Collected Poems’
Thomas knew Him and no doubt
The cup of love passed back
And forth between those two…’
James knows exactly what he is doing here.
I enjoyed reading a variety of poetic forms that also helped to link the ancient and the modern. As well as free verse, James uses sonnets and sonnet variations, Anglo-Saxon verse forms, and thoughtful use of dialect and variety of cultural references (‘Sidi Kirki’). This is a poet who has travelled through a range of poetic eras and understands the value of sound within a poem.
This collection keeps up its varied pace throughout. Towards the end of the book, ‘Easter Night’ explores the changing landscape and the resurrection of the day at dawn, while in a complete change of tone, ‘Googling/Soylent Green/eating scene’ is wonderfully subversive. The beautiful final poem ‘Star’ ends with a reckoning and a realisation about one’s existence:
Talk of worship’s histrionic,
but of the planets in the field,
to me the earth is perfect.’
James’s poems pay attention, are timeless and elemental, and travel boldly through contemporary concerns. There was a sense throughout of a hopeful traveller soaking up a variety of experiences whatever the outcome.
Joanna Ezekiel was born in Essex and now lives in York. Her first poetry collection Centuries of Skin was published by Ragged Raven in 2010, and her second, Homecoming, was published by Valley Press in 2016. In 2014 her young adult novel The Inside-Out House was published by Indigo Dreams. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sussex University and currently teaches creative writing for the Open University. Her blog page is http://mydelayedreactions.blogspot.co.uk/
Camouflaged Beasts by Charles G Lauder Jr. £5. Available from Black Light Engine Room, email@example.com
Things aren’t what they seem, but camouflage has a variety of shades in Charles G Lauder Jr’s collection. Sometimes it is the disguise that allows someone to hide in plain sight, sometimes it’s the veneer of civility that allows humans to get on with each other. In the title poem, a leaf-covered kitten is
camouflaged from predators like an owl
feathered in a sunflower yellow and burnt-sienna,
wing tips like petals, her head swivelling to face
you or the sun rising over your shoulders,
her nip as sharp as an electric shock
when you dare touch her young in bloom.
Owls are opportunistic hunters and will take out a baby predator, especially with young to protect. The rising sun suggests a note of optimism: soon the kitten will be safe, but readers are reminded that the owl is dangerous with the last word in the poem echoing the earlier flower imagery. In ‘Late in the Evening’ rain camouflages natural sounds drowned out by the noise of heavy drops on a tin roof,
Lost amidst slap-dash
dots and splashes,
nothing to be seen
but still a sense
of something relayed
in the rhythm,
like code passed
between a tree falling
and an ear waiting,
an old know,
that we are never alone.
The ‘dots and splashes’ has a sound echo with dots and dashes’ used in Morse code, underlined by the later reference to ‘code’. The use of the present continuous softens the verbs and gives a sense of passivity which is appropriate to the intent of the poem as newer observations give way to the ‘old know’. Humans are social animals and connections sustain us even when we choose to be alone. ‘At the End of a Day’ looks at routines where someone is tidying away ready to go to bed,
bubble gum wrapper
paperclip smells of server
and freshly baked bread
the dust hair breadcrumbs
of anciens régimes
collected on T-shirt and jeans
brushed into his palm
and into the last drawer.
The harder stains
will never come out.
Charles G Lauder Jr uses minimal punctuation with spaces between words used to indicate a pause. The specific detail given to the smaller items, the accumulated particles, in contrast with the ‘harder stains’ suggests the person is focused on the small, mundane, everyday things to the detriment of the larger issues which can’t be neatly packed away but aren’t being dealt with either. What those issues might be is left to the reader’s imagination but they are marks from earlier experiences that have permanently shaped who the man is.
‘How to Move a River’ is both literally about digging a channel to divert a river’s natural flow and a metaphor for setting up in a new community or taking a new direction. It ends,
There will be sleepless nights, fears of a stranger from out
of the desert, lust-filled eyes and pockets full of seed,
polluting the river with whispered words. Fingers skate
along its length, send out ripples, turn it against you.
Heavy drinking will bring deep sleep and dreams of the devil
kicking a hilltop church down into the inanimate rubble.
The sense of being haunted by the question of whether the action taken was correct or not is strong. There’s the additional worry of sabotage and the fear of keeping up appearances; the church suggests the poem’s ‘you’ worries about convention and being guided to do the right thing with the rubble implying concerns about whether support from the community will be forthcoming. The instruction-giving narrator seems keen to ensure the addressee is fully aware of the disadvantages of the suggested course of action.
Camouflaged Beasts is designed to be re-read, each reading can reveal another layer or aspect to these poems. They are not showy, decorative pieces that a reader only needs to see once, but rather crafted, honed poems that not only invite a reader back but reward repeated readings.
Emma Lee’s most recent collection is ‘Ghosts in the Desert’ (IDP, 2015). She was co-editor for ‘Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge’ (Five Leaves, 2015) and ‘Welcome to Leicester’ (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com