Books under Review
Martyn Crucefix: If A Leaf Falls Press • Martyn Crucefix: O. at the Edge of the Gorge • Maria McCarthy: There are Boats on the Orchard • Hilda Sheehan: The God Baby • Martin Malone: Mr. Willet’s Summertime
William Bedford • Rosie Jackson • Carole Bromley • Neil Fulwood • Emma Lee • Jill Munro • Charlotte Wetton • Roy Marshall
Rory Waterman’s Sarajevo Roses reviewed by William Bedford
Sarajevo Roses by Rory Waterman. £9.99. Carcanet Press. ISBN: 9781784104085.
Purity of diction, in Pound and Eliot’s writings on prose, has the urgent ethical implications explored sixty years ago in Donald Davie’s Purity of Diction in English Verse. In Rory Waterman’s wonderful Sarajevo Roses, such lexical and syntactical ‘purity’ voices a deep imaginative sympathy not just for the victims of history, but for our everyday experiences of family and community. In the deceptively restrained language of the ordinary, these are poems illuminating moments of our common humanity with extraordinary force.
‘Follow the Waymarked Trail Out of the Village’ (p.9) tells us that we are being taken on a journey, but whether actual or spiritual, the journey will be ‘Mapless’, a significant metaphor for our rootless and ‘globalized’ world. Here, the poet is seeking the way ‘out of’ the Lincolnshire village of his childhood, but despite the apparently pastoral imagery of ‘air flung pompoms of mistletoe/in the apple trees’, there are hints in the ‘gap-toothed plough’ and ‘KEEP OUT PRIVATE’ signs of a life that would have been familiar to Clare. The very next poem, ‘The Avenue’ (p.10), discovers a ground ‘re-strewn with tins/and crisp bags’, the familiar blight of modern rural life, before arriving in the post-strike desolation of ‘Driving through the Pit Town’ (p.11) with its boarded up ‘Kebabland, USA Nail’s,’ and ‘Milan Fashions’ and the ferocious anger of ‘the village sign’ crying ‘DING DONG!!’ as visitors leave. In three poems, this is something of a political journey, but ‘June Morning, Erewash Canal’ (p.12) shows fathers and sons still clinging to the ancient rituals, a redundant colliery worker teaching ‘his lad to fish’, the final lines ‘May petals file across/in fuddles of sun-dried snow’ playing beautifully with the ambiguity of whether ‘May’ is adjective or verb.
Whether in Lincolnshire villages, Yorkshire mining communities or Welsh valleys, the imagery of post-industrial desolation makes its own political point, but the emotional truth of the poems comes from the way Waterman captures the lives being lived. Among the clutter of a crowded café in ‘Family’ (pp.14-15), a child ‘stubs/her stub of hand’ and goes on shrieking, ‘still hoping for all to come right’, until ‘a waitress/totters across, all baby-smiles and hair-bun’, to surprise her into quiet, a spontaneous reaching out to console. ‘It Was’ (p.21) has a mother and son spending a week together, the mother treating ‘it just like a holiday’, the son bored until the end of the visit, when the departing train sighing ‘into the dark’ works like an image of guilt. The young lovers in ‘Coming of Age’ (p.24) fear she may be pregnant, the young man going along willingly to the pregnancy clinic, ‘hand on hand’, until he learns ‘nothing was wrong/and I didn’t care for her much again – /until she found another man’. That Jamesian complication of feeling takes us away from Lincoln, and into the traumas of post-war European history.
‘Granattrichter Mit Blumen’ (p.25) immediately takes us to the brutal realities of the Somme and Otto Dix’s experiences of the Eastern Front, and then in ‘Sarajevo Roses’ (pp.26-27) to the symbolic heart of the collection, the personal life of Lincoln face-to-face with the feral dogs, steaming bin bags, Gypsies and mortar shells of Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘Krujē’ (p.28) leaves us with Hoxha’s ‘bunkerisation’ of Albania, and then in ‘Reunion’ (p.29), almost as if we cannot bear so much reality, we are following the Presidential Election of 2016 where ‘no politics’ seems to be the prevailing rule of that most ferociously personalised of elections. There is little wonder that ‘Deus absconditus offerta’ – Why does God hide himself? – echoes through ‘St Peter’s Basilica’ (p.34).
Waterman has a flawless gift for the telling detail – as in ‘no politics’ – which says more than pages of polemic. After the atrocities of history, ‘The Brides of Castell De Belver’ (p.31) has a Larkinesque scene of queues of newly married couples leaving a church that functions ‘like a wedding factory!’, and in ‘Ghost Town, Basilicata’ (p.33) a story of Mel Gibson trying – and failing – to buy an Italian town to reduce the crucifixtion to a carnival of violence in Passion of the Christ.
Back in rural England in ‘Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate’ (p.41), two deer graze peacefully, not knowing ‘there is no stalking today’, not knowing ‘there was stalking yesterday’. A football crowd in ‘Winter Fixture’ (p.43) bellow their joy ‘At each rare goal’, their echoes washing ‘against the city’ in its obliviousness. Young lads in ’11 O’Clock Shadow’ (p.46) smoke ‘a crumbled OXO cube’, thinking it is hash, and in ‘Love in a Life’ (p.55) the poet sees an old couple helping each other off the train and ‘out of my life’, leaving him to slide ‘through white and yellow lights,/then lights stretched down a river, then near-black’. But though bats and owls wheel through ‘St Thomas’s’ (p.50), and ‘No screech will let you know/a kill’s been made’, endurance is ‘tight-lipped’ for the survivors in ‘Beached Stars’ (p.56), and all the survivors in these humane and wonderful poems.
William Bedford is an award-winning poet, short-story writer, children’s novelist and novelist. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the London Magazine International Short Story Competition; won first prize in the Roundel Poetry Competition, and first prize in the London Magazine International Poetry Competition. His Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poetry 1960-2008 was published in 2009, The Fen Dancing in 2014, The Bread Horse in 2015.
Pippa Little’s Twist reviewed by Rosie Jackson
Twist by Pippa Little. £9.99. Arc Publications. ISBN: 978-1910345887.
I first came across Pippa Little’s poetry a year ago, in the library at Hawthornden castle, and found myself copying out several of the poems from Overwintering , such were their distinctive voice and quality. Little took me into the world I always felt poets should inhabit: curious, on the edge, filled with new ways of seeing and saying, by turns dark, light, strange and shadowy. Twist takes me back there again; it’s filled with rain and darkness, storms, crows, roads, wishbones, knots and light between worlds.
Once again the voice is consistently and conspicuously hers – edgy, lyrical, rigorous, relentlessly exact – but the subjects are delightfully and surprisingly various. Peace activist Helen Steven scratching a poem by Adrienne Rich onto the door of her police cell; Grace Poole sewing a shawl for Bertha in the unlit world of Jane Eyre; Radnoti, a Hungarian Jewish poet who was shot on a forced march in 1944 and whose notebook of poems was retrieved from his pocket when his body was exhumed from a mass grave – indeed, this poem, ‘Moleskins’, is one of several of my favourites, with its ‘inward-looking universe’, ending with a hand slipping inside Radnoti’s wet greatcoat, while ‘all things struggle/like particles, lead filings, not to fly apart.’
Little gives interesting new takes on the natural world, but what I enjoyed most was the deft use of human story. There are many artists here – Chagall, Remedios Varo, Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington; there’s Mami Wata, a West African goddess; there’s Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway writing about her father-in-law’s glove-making in the carefully crafted sonnet ‘I think of you and think of skin’; there’s Thomas Bewick and St Cuthbert; prisoners, slaves and cartographers; there are old wives’ tales, riddles, sestinas, prayers, gospels, hen parties, homelessness, suitcase babies, public laundries, weather, winter, scrap metal, birds.
But what makes Little’s work so very distinct is her inimitable use of language – a particular voice and lexicon that makes you fall in love with words, syntax, poetry, all over again. At first I started looking up the words I didn’t know, but soon I just let their delicious sounds play like strange music regardless of whether I understood or not. For though the words are sometimes unfamiliar – kenspeckle, claes, clast, eldritch, slub, orrery, trilobites, bondagers, tormentil, aludel – they are not thrown in for the sake of showing off erudition nor are they the batty neologisms of J.K. Rowling. They are part and parcel of the very particular, rich world that Little evokes – unexpected, curious, alongside, underneath – the hidden side of nature, history and human experience.
If Little were to have a credo as a poet, maybe it would be the one that appears in the wonderful poem ‘Against Hate’. Here, she describes riding alone on a tram in the early morning, when suddenly the driver stops and disappears for an unexpected break. When eventually he returns, he confesses he’s been feeding a wren he sometimes visits. This prompts Little to share the story of a train journey she took from Budapest to Moscow, when the train similarly came to an unexpected halt as the engine driver stopped to gather flowers:
armfuls of wild lilies,
orchids. He carried them back
as you would a new-born, top-heavy, gangly,
supporting the frail stems in his big, shovel hands.
These are small things, but I pass them on
because today is bloody, inexplicable
and this is my act, to write,
to feel the light against my back.
This, then, is perhaps her manifesto: to write in celebration in spite of, because of, the difficult, inexplicable human and natural world.The result is poem after poem of superb quality: mature, various, deliciously inventive and eloquent, unlike any other contemporary voice I know. Extracts and paraphrases cannot do the work justice.
Little, a Scot born in Tanzania, who now lives in Northumberland, has a growing reputation. Overwintering was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize, Twist was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Best Poetry Book 2017, and I am confident she will keep surprising us with her original and curious work – unbalancing yet held. That phrase comes from her poem ‘Cobbles’, which I quote here in full as it strikes me as a telling metaphor for how her poems work their magic.
I love walking them late rainy nights,
their slippery fish-scale sheen lit from within,
love to listen to their mutter under my boot-soles,
how they unbalance me
yet hold –
they came from reefs
languorous and murky, settling slow
in a warm mineral broth
studded with trilobites, flurried
by silver tail-to-fin-to-tail
oozing into stone
like shoulders in a crowd or
a house of cards, delicate
weight with counterweight,
each one alone yet borne along in shoals,
they roll me home.
This is what these poems do – ‘unbalance me/yet hold,’ ‘roll me home.’ So, all in all, Twist is simply another marvellous collection from Pippa Little, agile and life-affirming.
Rosie Jackson lives near Frome, Somerset and is a Hawthornden fellow, 2017. She has taught at East Anglia, Nottingham Trent and West of England universities, Skyros Writers’ Lab and Cortijo Romero. She is widely published. What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014) was followed by The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016). 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). www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Wendy Pratt’s Gifts the Mole Gave Me reviewed by Carole Bromley
Gifts the Mole Gave Me by Wendy Pratt. £9.99. Valley Press. ISBN: 978-1908853882
With my own words on the book jacket, how could I resist a request to review this lovely collection? Trying to view it objectively like a reader coming to it fresh, the first thing that strikes you is what a pleasure the book is to look at and to hold. Valley Press are ace at covers and pay attention to the look and feel of every book they publish.
The list of places where Wendy’s poems have appeared is varied and impressive and I was so pleased to note that ‘Amazing Grace’ which won the York Literature Festival/ YorkMix prize in 2015, is included here.
As soon as I read ‘In Search of the Perfect Purse’, I was reminded of one of Wendy’s great strengths. She has a gift ( though I don’t know if she got it from a mole) for telling a massive story so economically and powerfully in a few deceptively short lines of poetry. Here, the purse stands for so much in a love poem which contains, beneath and between the lines, such a hunger for what is lost.
Wendy used to work as a microbiologist and it was fascinating to see how skilfullly she was able to use her scientific knowledge and experience to considerable effect in a poem like the chilling ‘Escherichia coli’ in which the scientist plays god with the lives of microbes grown in the lab.
In ‘Heading Home from Market Weighton’, as well as a delicious conjuring of East Riding countryside (‘the sun a hard rind/ over the tops, the fog sleeping in dips’) Wendy’s partner is ‘suddenly my son instead/of my husband’ and then this strong maternal/protective love knocks the reader sideways in the incredibly moving ‘Amazing Grace’ which is dropped in in precisely the right place for maximum impact. This is a poem about the loss of a baby (and it made me cry all over again, such is the astonishing power of its understated honesty and simplicity) which focuses on the intensely personal and precious hours the parents spent with her afterwards:
That little thing lost between pregnancy and birth
is a sinkhole beneath them,
sudden and inexplicable.
she lies on her side staring at her daughter
and wonders how she can feel so lost
and yet so found.
Though it comes fairly early on in the book, that central poem reverberates throughout the whole collection for me. It is followed by tender poems about children, about childhood, about memorial benches on Scarborough seafront, about glass (in a poem which nicely illustrates the poet’s effortless facility with rhyme), about hungry wolves in a cul de sac, about ‘the roaring and gurning of hungry bairns, / the bad ‘uns in queer streets, the bonny lasses’, about the wind ‘peeling the stones/from the skull of St Thomas’s church’ in Heptonstall, ‘the flat-backed/flat-packed dead in their wedding gowns.’ Wow, what a wonderful, disturbing poem about Sylvia Plath’s grave is Wendy Pratt’s ‘Heptonstall Graveyard’.
Right at the heart of the book comes the title poem with its ‘scraping away, day/ after day, enough soil/ to glob a mouth shut,/ shut a world in, pick treasures out.’
Terrifying lines and yet there are treasures in abundance to follow, mushrooms ‘laid out on my cool kitchen marble’, fallen sheep to be righted, any number of crows, starlings, jackdaws to unnerve us, near death experiences (‘They don’t tell you on the plastic sheet/ when to say I love you.’), poems about faith and marriage and a particularly moving piece about the grave of a much-loved dog which is beautifully written without a single sentimental note.
We step back in time with the writer in poems like ‘ Stepping into My Own Footprints’, which is convincing since that is how grief works, and we hear the ominous words:
They have sent me home and told me
all is well.
Holbeck Hall Hotel, which teetered on the cliff’s edge for some time after erosion destroyed it, is marvellously evoked and becomes a symbol of sudden, disastrous and hideously public loss while life goes on around it:
The marble fireplace cracks
in two. A dollhouse wall is removed, the intimacy
of a bedroom flashed open.
There are dog walks, more birds (a curlew, a sandpiper, a seagull), a fear of open spaces, a feeling of madness, worn like a locket, even a petty complaint from a neighbour about the hens being too noisy:
I cloaked them with a black sheet,
in a box in the shed, and made their night
twice as long.
There is humour, too, in most of the poems, even the darkest ones and also in hilariously irreverent pieces like ‘Jesus Heals the Blind Bullshitter’ in which Jesus gains a Yorkshire accent with a hint of public school. There are also anniversaries and lost birthdays to be lived through and lessons in crying quietly ‘so they don’t ask/ when we’ll be trying again.’
I was rather pleased to find the book ends with a defiant poem about getting fit, called ‘Fuck You’!
Buy this book whatever you do. Read it. Reread it. Learn from a reluctant expert, how it is possible to bring forth from the most awful pain a startling and unforgettable beauty. It is wonderful, a curiously humane and generous collection. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I loved every word.
Carole Bromley lives in York where she is the stanza rep and runs poetry surgeries for the Poetry Society. Smith/Doorstop have published two pamphlets and three books: A Guided Tour of the Ice House, The Stonegate Devil and Blast Off! (a collection for children) www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk
Angela Topping’s The Five Petals of Elderflower reviewed by Neil Fulwood
The Five Petals of Elderflower by Angela Topping. £8.99 Red Squirrel Press. ISBN: 978-1-910437-39-1
It would be a cheap jibe to liken the title of Angela Topping’s latest collection to an episode of Iron Fist or an illustrated guide to the genus sambucus – flowering plants from the Adoxaceae family. The berries of these various types of elder are variously used medicinally, in pies, or in the production of alcohol. Ten minutes’ reading on the internet and it’s clear that sambucus is a pretty damned impressive plant.
So let’s abandon any preconceptions that Topping’s collection is flowery or delicate and embrace 50 pages of poetry that is, by turns, as salving, nourishing and intoxicating as its namesake.
Topping opens with the title poem – appropriately enough in five sections – and immediately thrusts the reader into a tactile evocation of the natural world:
Enter through its centre of five petals
past the crown of stamens like matches
slide down the green stem, landing with legs
either side of the junction between stalks.
(‘The Five Petals of Elderflower’)
There’s a scientific accuracy to the description and a robust, no-nonsense approach to use of language. But Topping’s poetic sensibility is immediate: the internal rhyme in the first line, the nice play-off of ‘stamens’ and ‘matches’ in the second, the unforced alliteration in the third. Indicative of Topping’s confidence in both her poetics and knowledge of her subject is the use, across these four opening lines, of only two words that would fall outside a botanical text on the same subject: ‘matches’ and ‘junction’, the latter suggesting an infrastructure, a branching off of choices, the necessity of a guide or a provider of directions.
Topping establishes her mission statement here, just four lines into the book’s first poem. And it’s one she makes good on. The next four poems guide us through pollination, birth, creation myth and the endurance and enigma of landscape:
Strange packets of genetic coding, humble bundles:
instructions for oaks, copper beeches, aspens …
All night the frogs purr in the pond.
Their insistent lust to procreate
has driven them into suburbia.
… The breast
was made from speckled foam,
the wings painted with colours
left over from other creations …
What is the riddle of this hill?
It tells of secret graves, of bones.
It sings of granite …
They interconnect so perfectly that the alliterative through-line of their titles can be no coincidence. These pieces are emblematic of The Five Petals of Elderflower as a whole: they are poems as seed pods, casting themselves into the reader’s imagination.
Topping continues to examine geography and the natural world through the collection; however the first thematic landmine, which certainly blasted this reviewer out of any easy assumptions he might have harboured, comes eleven pages in. ‘Welcome to Royston Vasey’ evokes the setting and characters of the anarchic BBC alternative comedy series The League of Gentlemen. If the show itself was an exercise in grotesquerie, written and performed at a pitch akin to the heart-pounding intensity of a waking nightmare, Topping takes a different approach to the material, an almost elegiac one. ‘The Local Shop will soon be an Asda’, she opines, ‘the Palace a bingo hall’. It’s as if Ruth Fainlight had made a stop-off at Twin Peaks only to regret the appearance of a MacDonald’s where Norma’s Diner used to be.
‘Welcome to Royston Vasey’ heralds a thematic shift. Thereafter, Topping’s focus drifts towards human experience, rendered either as character studies (‘Man with Fishing Rod’, ‘Agnes’) or personal responses (‘Noost’, ‘Bookbinding at The Whitworth’). Not that The Five Petals of Elderflower ever settles into a predictable or reassuring groove. Angela Topping is the kind of poet who can startle and disrupt and challenge, often achieving this by planting just one perception-shifting turn of phrase in exactly the right place.
Take these examples: ‘summer flowers punch colour on walls’ (‘June Day in Colyton’); ‘his wife’s shoulder blades became cleavers’ (‘Ichthyolatry’). Taken as isolated phrases, they’re incredibly effective: sharp, powerful, imagistic. In the wider context of the poems themselves, they are explosive.
Topping is eight collections into her career – not to mention various anthologies and a handful of pamphlets – and it’s only superficially disingenuous to describe her as a force of nature. The natural world is the centre around which The Five Petals of Elderflower revolves, but the collection builds to more than just a Hughesian response to nature. Topping is a humanitarian poet: an observer, a witness, a reporter.
Neil Fulwood lives and works in Nottingham. He is the author of media studies book The Films of Sam Peckinpah and co-editor, with David Sillitoe, of the anthology More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe. Last year saw the appearance of his collection No Avoiding It (Shoestring Press) and a pamphlet, Numbers Stations (Black Light Engine Room Press). Poems from Numbers Stations first appeared in The High Window #3
Jodie Hollander’s My Dark Horses reviewed by Charlotte Wetton
My Dark Horses by Jodie Hollander. £9.99 Liverpool University Press. ISBN: 978-1-78694-004-9
My Dark Horses starts with a bang: a rollicking, Bukowskian poem playing with the sounds of the title ‘Splitting and Fucking’; it works perfectly. These very short lines aren’t representative of the rest of the book – but the straight-forward vernacular is unlike the stilted language of some British poetry that clenches itself into barely intelligible shapes. The language of this book is clear, almost workaday. There’s a joy in everyday phrases like ‘the Chicken Lady’, and there’s a lot of reported speech – the Milwaukeean ‘rains comin’ harrd’ and the mother character’s barbed pronouncement ‘Your Father’s scared of life’.
The poems are technically competent without any self-indulgent flurries. A poem like ‘The Metronome’ demonstrates real technical skill, but it is always for the benefit of communicating to the reader. The tone and the metre are always perfectly pitched. Each poem is a functional little machine, the workings barely apparent to the reader. In ‘The Storm Horse’ the controlled stanzas contrast with the wild subject matter, ending with the beautifully metred: ‘she threw back her head and opened her mouth/ and I watched how she drank in the storm’. The poems are so simple they require a second reading to admire how capably they’re pitched and put together.
This clarity of language adds to the bare, brutal honesty of the poems. Some of these poems —‘My Brother’s Violin’, ‘Little Serenade’, ‘My Mother’s Will Emailed in pdf’ — are truly painful to read in their description of how families dysfunction. And this family is fascinating: classical musicians who adopt strays, argue, take lovers, clip newspaper cuttings; by the end you feel you’ve read a condensed novel. It is a generous book to publish and one you feel was important for the poet to write. These poems could comfort and strengthen anyone with a less than perfect family.
Hollander is good at first lines, effective but not gimmicky: ‘Thank God for the Chicken Lady’ or ‘This is the order in which she loved’. Some of the last lines are even better, several poems deliver visceral punches, like the violence at the end of ‘The Humane Society’ or the tender poem ‘He’s’ with the killer lines: ‘he must promise me to always stay small -/ so that I know I can love him’.
Not every poem has this impact, some fall short for me; ‘Lake Park’ and ‘Hawthornden Cemetery’ are perhaps over-personalised so that they are more important to the poet than the reader. Likewise, some of the memories captured here aren’t of sufficient interest, ‘Kathmandu’ and ‘Talking in Lamu’, didn’t have enough drive to hold me. But these poems are a small minority and amply compensated for by powerful, memorable poems like ‘The Last Breakfast’, ‘A Box’, ‘Horse Bones’, ‘ The Family Freezer’ and many more. And there are entertaining ones too, which paint enjoyably vivid pictures like ‘The Red Tricycle’ and ‘The Ferret’. This book is a privileged window into someone else’s life and family.
There is also a series of poems inspired by Rimbaud. These poems are very different: dream-like, symbolist, lyrical, full of folklore, ‘a cathedral by a lake’, a witch in a ‘frozen pond’. They are a different way of processing the subject matter, a different way for the reader to know and feel. They provide an effective release and counterpoint to the more prosaic poems, which are full of steak, music-stands and carpets, and have lines like ‘all our fruit trees were losing their fruit’. I have to confess I enjoyed the Rimbaud poems less. They feel less original and less important, but the collection is strengthened by their inclusion.
The symbolist technique bleeds out into other poems. Horses are a Hughesian totem-animal for Hollander, expressive of acceptance, peace, wisdom and freedom, and some of these poems are really beautiful. Fire and water are also repeated motifs, used effectively in dream sequence poems with strong imagery. The epigraph of the book is a quote from Rimbaud ‘a thousand dreams within me softly burn’; it’s a fitting opening.
There is a narrative arc to this book – again that novel-like quality. The last few poems are inspiring in their growing acceptance of the past and their hope of equilibrium. In particular, ‘Feeding the Horses’ and ‘My Dark Horses’ are very moving poems, made stronger by their placing.
This is a technically competent, enjoyable collection which will bear repeated re-readings. At its heart, it is a book about processing and recovering. You will feel your humanity strengthened by reading it.
Charlotte Wetton is based in West Yorkshire. Her first pamphlet, I Refuse to Turn into a Hat-Stand won the Michael Marks Awards 2017, following a spoken word album, Body Politic. She has published in Poetry Wales, Staple, Stand and elsewhere. She regularly performs across the North and will run workshops if the opportunity sounds fun. For further information: www.charlottewettonpoetry.wordpress.com
A Convoy by Martyn Crucefix. If A Leaf Falls Press. Available from http://samriviere.com/index.php?/together/if-a-leaf-falls-press/). £5.
Subtitled ‘abecedary’ although it’s incomplete – x and z missing – with some letters given several lines and others only one. The convoy is one of ‘horses and soldiers’ in Romania marching on Moldavia, with a new captain, Stroja, “an ‘amoreză’ as we Romanians say. What a pity/ anybody left behind would not escape the enemy. That thought, together with our uneasiness/ as he was our commander now,” who doesn’t have the support of his men. The setting feels deliberately timeless.
The narrative is spit into nine parts and circles around itself as someone recalling an event would as a remembered detail triggers a digression before returning to the force of narrative again. There are no references to ground this sequence in a period of history and it seems to be a familiar set-up of petty man promoted beyond his competence and drawing on his new rank to bolster himself instead of turning to the skills and competencies of his men.
deluded. He was ignorant; he bewildered us
during the battle of the last days in the valleys of Buzău, our Captain had been
xxxxxxkilled in action and Stroja, as senior rank, took over
engineers, I think, confirmed the deviousness
Exhausted soldiers arrive in a village hoping for food and sleep in shelter offered by civilians. However, the convoy aren’t the only troops to arrive and there is no room left. Instead of bunking down with his troops, Stroja deserts,
Wailing now coming from within the house
wandering, slipping and stumbling in the deadly mud
we did not imagine the worst
what I did see straight away was a reluctance to reveal himself entirely because he
xxxxxxxxxxstopped, precisely at that moment
willful in him, some preoccupation
with infinite kindness
with sympathy, almost a pious deference. His tale was pitiful”
wretch, I too was drafted, I too had to go to this war with my squadron
yet we refrained from spurring our horses, deliberately, we rode on at a leisurely
xxxxxxxpace, we bent to listen
Sympathy is kept with the soldiers lumbered with an ignorant, incompetent Stroja. However, other than being put-upon, there’s no sense of who the soldiers are. They feel like devices, not quite complete characters, so it’s hard to feel much more than that sympathy, although there are hints throughout that the soldiers aren’t there willingly and try to be kind to their horses. Technically though, there’s much to admire.
O. at the Edge of the Gorge by Martyn Crucefix. Guillemot Press. £8. Available https://guillemotpress.wordpress.com/
O. at the Edge of the Gorge is a crown of loose sonnets, each starting either with or with a variant on the line of the preceding sonnet, except for the first sonnet which starts with the line of the last sonnet. The first sonnet follows a cloud of bees from a domestic garden to the gorge:
across the clover and the camomile lawn
across yellow broom swerving past lilac
drinking surely from roots thrust deep
into stores of royal Tyrian liquor
impossible now to recover—each lone speck
vanishing into the gorge as if headed home
‘He’ is not named but is perfectly at ease in the natural world. The day progresses as his watch over the gorge lengthens, in sonnet 6:
by midday—he watches a flock
of white doves perching on the apron wall
one two together three then four five six
turning to where they will roost in the gorge
a dozen averted oil-drop eyes
he wonders why they look to lead him on
to lure him over the edge
each shaking out her white feathers
for cowardice—he counts them over
yet he knows white is the absence of colour
white is the presence of them all
as if this was his last flock of white doves
he knows how soon they will be gone
Although the word ‘lure’ is used, the gentle long vowels suggest gentleness rather than violence. It feels more like a seduction than a trick. The slow rhythm encourages readers to stop and contemplate as he muses on the meanings of the colour white. He also traces a hawk hovering over the gorge as thoughts turn to night in sonnet 14:
All creatures die sooner blind to the hawk—
left clutching no more than this
as if the hammock he occupies each night
and all night too as if strung out
across the gorge from one limestone outcrop
to a distant second its stand of trees
its shivering of poplars for once he sways there
not falling yet not ever at ease
with these thinnest of airs beneath him
these shapes of loose-knotted mesh
these whisperings that cradle him on a whim
he wants to call it but more steady perhaps
this whim—this wish—this risky flight
in the fleet black wake of the carpenter bees.
The focus of the sonnets seems based in Rilke’s ideas of celebrating the observation of the moment and recording attention paid to nature using suggestion. The poems revel in the landscape. They are also a delight to read aloud and have clearly been written with craft and sensitivity to sound patternings. The craft and seamlessness of these sonnets, and lack of sensationalism, makes them easy to overlook but they reward reading. They don’t set the page alight, but warm up and draw readers in.
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 https://emmalee1.wordpress.com/
There are Boats on the Orchard by Maria C. McCarthy (illus. S. Fletcher). Cultured Llama Press. £7. Available at http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/there-are-boats-on-the-orchard
This pamphlet is a very personal account of seven years’ residence alongside orchards in Kent, made all the more poignant by their gradual disappearance, the poet writing in ‘her shed,//a voyeur with a window on the wildlife’ (‘Prologue’).
McCarthy recounts, with a whimsical nostalgia, her time in Teynham in this slim illustrated volume. My own personal lack of affinity with illustrated poems lends this pamphlet (for this reviewer) more than a whiff of the school magazine, both from its shape and the naïve nature of the line drawings it contains. My personal view is that the poems would stand alone and be better served by the reader’s imagination providing the mind’s eye picture: Boy on a ladder is one such poem – the narrative description is detailed and effective, yet I was distracted by the illustration on the facing page, my enjoyment actually diminished by the physical representation of the boy. He is vividly wrought by McCarthy’s words, the photograph of him ‘torn, a crease threatens to rip, arcing like a scythe at your shins’ and the epigram regarding his loss in the Second World War sufficient.
McCarthy is an excellent recorder of nature; from the haiku of ‘The orchard in November’ to the shape poem of ‘The orchard ladder’ and her passion for the subject is well conveyed, albeit gently. A representative example of her wildlife poetry is ‘Pioneer’ with its vivid description of a woodpecker knocking ‘ten bells out a dead tree in the orchard,//stark green and red in a virgin world’ and fruits and their trees equally well-invoked ‘bletted plums usurped by ripening pears’ in Strange fruits and other poems in the pamphlet. The poet makes great use of the names of traditional Kentish cherries in ‘Know your cherries’ with delights such as ‘Merton Bigarreau, Bradbourne Black’ forming a repeating, if altering, refrain.
Although the reader may understand the poet’s sorrow at the decline and fall of these specific orchards, the ‘stumps//when we first lived here,//now towering giants’ (‘Last’), unless one is a fellow Teynham resident, it is hard to be deeply touched or have complete empathy with her feelings on the subject and this is possibly something that has been overlooked. Is it enough to record the demise without larger themes strongly apparent in the poems? Is the reader concerned enough that cats and pheasants roamed here, replaced now by ‘a vacuum cleaner; bones; a shipping container; a swing’? (‘Orchard Inventory’) and there is a very real danger the reader is left untouched by the ordinariness of the once green lands turning to scrub (an admittedly sad but all too familiar occurrence). We are all concerned with our own backyards but there is an air of ‘nimby-ism’ here which could fail to interest the dispassionate or distant observer with its lack of universality. Sometimes these poems require a greater spark of imagination or differentiation in order to build this pamphlet into something other than an, albeit well-crafted and well-intentioned, ‘Orchard Inventory’.
In ‘An Exhibition at the village hall’ the strike of the ‘wrecking ball’ looms over ‘The dusk chorus, a pink sundown//the orchard thrown into shadows.//I capture this picture.’ In this poem’s final line, Maria McCarthy sums up my own case for her future avoidance of the use of illustrations (albeit charming though they are) and possibly capturing readers’ imaginations more strongly with her own skills in her next publication and having the confidence to carry the imagery above and beyond the ordinary through her writing.
Jill Munro’s first collection Man from La Paz was published in 2015 by Green Bottle Press. She won the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition 2015 with The Quilted Multiverse, has been short-listed for the Bridport Prize and long-listed three times for the National Poetry Competition. Jill has been awarded a Hawthorden Fellowship for 2018.
The God Baby by Hilda Sheehan and Jill Carter. dancing girl press & studio. $7. Available from https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/the-god-baby-hilda-sheehan-jill-carter
Since the publication of The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood, Hilda Sheehan has published two pamphlets with the Chicago based dancing girl press – Frances and Martine and now The God Baby – which continue her exploration of surrealism to offer a powerful political vision, the illustrations of Jill Carter adding visual force to Sheehan’s startling imagination.
In all her work, Sheehan animates the material world with a kind of totemism and grammatical playfulness which work to deconstruct our taken-for-grantedness of our culture. The ‘sea’ of ‘How do you sea creature’ might be a verb if a homonym, or a vocative if we assume a comma after ‘you’ and capital letters for ‘sea creature’. Similarly, in ‘Something sad and funny at the same time’ the ‘Enthusiastic Police’ could be a Proper Noun, or a noun with its adjective.
The material world has had a life of its own since Sheehan’s first poems. Here, ‘Daughters Out of Stones’ offers an origins myth in which a stone gives birth to a daughter who herself produces ‘more daughters than flowers’, all of this going on in a sort of Eden, while next door we see sons ‘shining out of sunflowers’ and ‘a great big son of a shed’, a threatening dystopia which reminded me of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In ‘Brutalist’ the imagery of a recent school of architecture suggests darker political and feminist themes with the startling ‘We drove a motorway through the centre/of my mother: a bleak slab, constructed/and designed for the 1970s/in frocks of the new ideal.’ ‘Father Carrot’ not only takes us back to the Martine of Frances and Martine but closes the sequence with a good-humoured nod to Freud’s ‘penis envy’ theory, with Frances picking up a knife and chopping ‘the father carrot/in two’. It takes considerable skill to play games like this without losing the force of the satire.
As one might expect from a sequence titled The God Baby, several of the most powerful poems offer a somewhat disturbing vision of both a deity and babies. The eponymous title poem has a woman giving birth to a god who looks ‘nothing like his father’ but takes ‘over her house’, emerging from a ‘secret cave where light beamed/through at certain times’, like the light of truth in Plato’s great myth. In ‘Suddenly, a story’ the story being told ‘was a baby made by a man/and a woman in love’, moving on optimistically to the birth of more babies, but ending where there are ‘only a few babies left’ and ‘no love left either’. In ‘Sister,’ an unwanted baby is given ‘to a religious couple who might do some good,/give it a God to play with’, leaving the teenager mother to cry ‘for those lost years/on only photographs and sentences/that fizzled away before baby got / / to school’. Despite the good humour, The God Baby creates a bleak dystopia where love has little chance of triumphing, but shows that Sheehan’s future work will be interesting to follow.
William Bedford is an award-winning poet, short-story writer, children’s novelist and novelist. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the London Magazine International Short Story Competition; won first prize in the Roundel Poetry Competition, and first prize in the London Magazine International Poetry Competition. His Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poetry 1960-2008 was published in 2009, The Fen Dancing in 2014, The Bread Horse in 2015.
Mr. Willet’s Summertime by Martin Malone. £6. Poetry Salzburg ISBN 978-3-901993-65-7. Available at http://www.poetrysalzburg.com
How can a contemporary poet deal sensitively with the enormity of the horrors of the First world war from the distance of a hundred years? How might they avoid pale imitation, a recycling of the tropes and imagery utilised by the great poets who recorded their first-hand experience? Is it possible to add anything, to create work that not only speaks of its own time, but that also manages to be vital, complex, immediate, and relevant to our own?
From the outset, Malone acknowledges the difficulty of his task.
What they said of it
became what it is,
though the terms to describe it
do not exist.
The wealth of historical detail and reference in these poems indicates that Malone has immersed himself in a wide range of material to give himself the best chance of reanimating long silenced voices. However, dedicated research and study of historic sources alone will not guarantee a readable reworking of the material. Through careful selection and subtle handling of his material, Malone brings his subjects to life in this set of powerful, nuanced, and often beautiful poems.
There is an impressive range of perspectives and experiences given voice here, from the German wife and mother in ‘The Turnip Winter’, to the Belarusian author in ‘Ansky’s Lament’ who speaks of the Jewish experience of displacement and non-belonging.
we are where we have always been,
which is everywhere
To state that war ignores complexities of politics, class, gender, nationality, or religion, is one thing. To illustrate this while inhabiting individual voices is another matter. The reader, listening to these disparate voices and experiences, is struck by the commonality of suffering, and led to ruminate on how humanistic, internationalist and pacifistic responses would seem to be the only sane courses to follow in the wake of such devastation. Where the work might be platitudinous or simplistic, it is carefully judged and complex.
In ‘Let Us Sleep Now’ the speaker of the poem, dated 2014, observes a young Austrian boy on a station platform in Vienna ‘heading west again’. The poem captures a poignant moment in which both the observed and the observer are ghosts of their forbears. Traveling back a century in the ‘Never-Endians’ a young officer speaks of men who ‘know in our bones it’s the war that wins wars/ that blood alone moves the wheels of history’
‘Mallory’ is addressed to the famous mountaineer, who stands beside a howitzer in Picardy, chillingly awakened from dreams of heroic climbs where ‘time is other’. Irvine, Mallory’s companion on what will be his final, fatal attempt on Everest, is ‘still abed at Shrewsbury,/dreaming of the Second Step’ and ‘all’s fair/in Godalming’ before ‘A tug on the rope, the screaming glissade/ and wire-cutting begins on the Somme.’
In ‘Ripon Work’ Wilfred Owen, on leave before returning for what will be his final action in France, strolls a lane where
Spring is pushing back through the hedgerow
with lesser celandines
and along the banks of the Skell,
a kingfisher’s lyddite triggers that
ghost of a twitch.
Here, the language casts its own shadow; spring is ‘pushing back’, an echo of the phrase ‘spring push’, and even something as magnificent as a kingfisher triggers a nervous response from the irrevocably altered young poet.
The last poem, ‘Dear Revisionist’ is a meticulous articulation of anger at the attitudes of those historians and politicians who would express ‘neo-concern/ that we grasp the full facts/ of this complicated matter.’ The ‘we’ here is the multitude of ‘ordinary’ people who might be patronised and preached to by those that would attempt to claim a superior or definitive knowledge and understanding of the complexity of the First war; to draw political conclusions, to manipulate history, to legitimise and ‘make sense of the losses,’ as if such a thing were possible.
Malone channels his anger at such attitudes in succinct fashion;
‘Saxe-Coburg, be advised, your poppy/ is not mine.’ This is either a conscious or unconscious companion to Heaney’s unreserved statement in ‘An Open Letter’;
‘Be advised my passport’s green. / No glass of ours was ever raised / to toast the Queen.’
‘Mr Willett’s Summertime’ rewards repeated readings. As well the content, which covers many disparate experiences and historical references, there is an interesting variation in form and style. Malone is a skilful poet and invariably unifies subject and form successfully.
There is also an interesting and recurring preoccupation with the nature of time and the way memory and environment alter our perceptions of it. The title poem telescopes time across fourteen lines that, like many of the pieces here, evoke the stark contrast between pre-war civilian preoccupations and wartime experience.
Malone’s research has undoubtedly yielded a wealth of fascinating insights. The success of this pamphlet is that he has managed to bring colour and heat to this material; to take, in places, what might be regarded as the archaic language of ancestors and make it speak to our time. As a response, or series of responses, to events of a century ago and to their continuing relevance, this is an affecting collection that stands as testament to one poet’s commitment to, as far as possible, bring the past vividly to the present.
Roy Marshall lives in Leicestershire where he works in adult education and writes poems, poetry reviews and the occasional story. His collection The Sun Bathers (Shoestring, 2013) was short-listed for the Michael Murphy award. His latest collection, also from Shoestring, is The Great Animator.