Robert Etty: Passing the Story Down the Line • Robyn Bolam: Hyem • Denise Mcsheehy: The Plate Spinner • A.F. Moritz: The Sparrow: Selected Poems • Vindication: Six Women Poets (ed. Cherry Potts)• Sheila Hamilton:The Spirit Vaults • Richard Skinner: The Malvern Aviator
William Bedford • David Cooke • Michael Bayley • Rodney Wood • Pippa Little • Dawn Gorman • Richie McCaffrey
Robert Etty’s Passing the Story Down the Line reviewed by William Bedford
Passing the Story Down the Line by Robert Etty. £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-910323-79-3.
There is a Proustian concern with time in Robert Etty’s Passing the Story Down the Line, but a purity of diction and recording of the ‘minutiae of social life’ (1) which reminds us of eighteenth century poetic practice. I’m quoting Donald Davie, of course, and his astute observation that when Cowper wrote ‘I sing the sofa’ in The Task he saw such minutiae ‘in the light of moral truths’. Moral truths and moments of transcendence are Robert Etty’s concern.
The collection is organised into four parts, the theme announced from the start in the title of the first poem, ‘A Winter Eclipse in the Co-op Car Park’ where we see life ‘bathed in unusual light’ and ‘haloed’, ‘semi-translucent’, ‘angel’, ‘radiant’, ‘ineffably’ and ‘demystified’ bringing the unearthly into ordinary everyday life. In ‘Retford,’ such moments ‘enrich/any morning more than, for instance, Thought/for the Day’, the countryman in ‘London’ noticing ‘Hornbeam’, ‘four biggish ash’, ‘deep pink dog roses’, ‘an old wild apple’ then ‘sycamores, with hundreds of rooks’, his noticing bringing Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ straight to mind. As with all genuine poets, there is a figurative dimension to much of the detail, so that the country wisdom of ‘The thing/about hills is they always get steeper’ in ‘Upwards and Upwards’ is part of Etty’s relaxed moral insight. This is most delicately handled in ‘Mrs Godfrey Pouring Tea in Old Age and a Colour Photograph,’ where the fifteen-year-old boy glimpses ‘all the wider pictures’ of an old woman’s life that photographs conceal, ‘Not to mention what wasn’t mentioned,/and that she still had the words’. In this first part, ‘Meanwhile at Pilgrim Farm,’ brings together the hardness of farming life, the main character’s efforts to find ‘her next beginning’, the carrying on as her ‘dad and mum must have done,/except for the carrying on’.
Parts two and three explore childhood, memory and time passing. ‘A Boy up a Tree in a Wood in a Book’ has a boy returning a library book but keeping ‘the desire it gave me’ for freedom from ‘school and behaving’, a freedom enjoyed by the hero of ‘The Lone Ranger in Quicksand.’ Children hilariously learn about sex from books and spying on courting couples in ‘Office Workers in the Gateway to the Last Field on Cow Pasture Lane’; experience the cruelty of bullying in ‘Sitting Next to Barbara’ and ‘Ruth in the Last Week of Primary School’; and the sadness of seeing that a favourite hero ‘wasn’t what he said/he was’. We see how history forgets in a beautiful elegy for Percy Grainger and the folk singer Joseph Taylor (p.35) with ‘those blackbirded/places where not forgetting goes quietly on’; the longing in ‘Same City, Same Tree’ that ‘people were able to choose the memories/they wanted never to lose’. We might have ‘All the time/in the world’ in ‘The Time in the World,’ except that ‘we all have only this one moment. // Except that we all had only that moment’, the ‘have’ changing to ‘had’ throughout our lives. As Hardy reminds us in ‘This Month,’ ‘all of us have a deathday each year’, unless we are like Carmen in ‘In Part’ ‘roaming the streets/of the village she’d lived in since she was born/as if she was losing her way or her/memory’.With the same quiet purity of diction, ‘It’s Close’ also reminds us that ‘The daffodils are in no doubt/that December’s never been so warm,’ a warning we might do well to heed.
Several of the most powerful poems in Passing the Story Down the Line appear in the fourth part. ‘Four Bridges Road’ is quoted on the dustjacket for its obvious thematic significance, the point being that ‘There are three bridges on Four Bridges Road,’ a fourth sometimes being looked for ‘by drivers who think names need explanations’, when the poem is actually warning us ‘you shouldn’t be certain’. In ‘Holes in the Ground’ even ‘a walk in the fields is risky’ where ‘paths lead to/badger holes’, and on the remote country roads of ‘Passing Places’ you will need ‘places/for passing the places’ where it ‘feels as if everything’s passing’, another example of the densely figurative language of Etty’s poems. Two fine memorial poems set the tone for the whole collection, ‘And at His Comieng’ (sic) and especially ‘The Kings and the Spectres (A Church Wall Painting c1350),’ with its keynote opening:
As you are, so were we:
and as we are, so you will be.
The figures in this lovely poem ‘stared long enough to get the drift/and left by the door they came in at.’ Perhaps the best that any of us can hope for passing down the line. With a purity of diction which is rare these days, Etty gives us the familiarity of the ordinary made strange to allow us to look again.
1/ Donald Davie, The Purity of Diction in English Verse (Carcanet, 2006) p. 49.
William Bedford‘s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The Interpreter’s House, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The Malahat Review, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition.
Robyn Bolam’s Hyem reviewed by David Cooke
Hyem by Robyn Bolam. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780373942
Hyem is a new collection of poems by the Newcastle-born poet Robyn Bolam whose first two collections: Peepshow Girl (Bloodaxe Books, 1989) and Raiding the Borders (Bloodaxe Books,1996) were published under her maiden name of Marion Lomax. It is perhaps as a result of this name change and the fact that her collections have been widely spaced that her work is not as well known as it might be, and it is now already a decade since the appearance of her last collection, New Wings: Poems 1997-2007. However, one senses with Bolam, as with all true poets , that the poems are written as and when they need to be, and Hyem, with its defiantly dialectal title, is an intensely personal evocation of the poet’s North Eastern roots and a wide-ranging meditation upon what the word ‘home’ means to her.
The collection is divided into four almost equal sections, the first of which is named after its opening poem: ‘Where home started’. From the outset one gains a clear insight into Bolam’s strengths as a poet: the economy and precision of her language, its truth to experience:
I used to cross the Tyne to school. Days raced
on a rattling crowded bus, hands gripping
fingered chrome, knees braced against straining seats.
The poem then goes on to describe a near fatal accident, as a result of which the bus slipped off the road to the water’s edge, an incident which now, in memory, has acquired a new significance:
I could smell the river tang,
sense submerged lives and deaths, feel a current
pull, inside me, as it does whenever
I think of home.
Early memories are also evoked in ‘Changing Sequence’, but here it is not merely the memories that are significant, but the way that the mind processes them: ‘Perhaps / I’ll keep on doing it – juggling memories to bury those / I can’t change or lose, but would rather not keep … ‘ In ‘World-stretching’, ‘home’ is the place where memories begin, the parameters of which stretch out beyond a child’s cot with its ‘borders of blankets’, and then past the bedroom door to the wider world beyond it, where it swells to ‘an ocean of voices.’ In ‘Twice Removed’ she explores her family roots in Orkney and Shetland, a less familiar world with its own strange vocabulary of words like ‘haar’ and ‘haaf’. Subsequently, in ‘Where are you from’, the poet’s unusual blood group lets her imagine ancestral inks to distant, more exotic parts of the globe, and then to consider the ideas of home and homelessness against the backdrop of the current migration crisis: ‘Where are you from? It’s the question at every border they reach / after walking miles in the rain, the heat’.
In her second section, ‘Elusive neightbours’, the poet looks beyond her more obviously autobiographical context to focus upon the shadowy interface between the human domain and that of the creatures who exist alongside us. This section’s title poem is about squirrels and their wariness of humans: ‘Tufted ears twitch, rotate to our footfall’. However, it suggests also that there is another darker side to the meaning of ‘home’ beyond its more sentimental connotations. In the UK there are two species of squirrels contending for the same terrain: one native and one an intruder. This presents humans with an opportunity to intervene in favour of one side or the other. It is not a great imaginative leap to interpret this situation as a political paradigm.
Moreover, in the natural world daily existence is always a fight for survival: for the wrens huddling together in one nest or the roosting starlings whose dazzling murmuration keeps them ‘warm and safe from predatrors’. In ‘Elusive neighbours’ the New Forest cicadas are yielding terrain, even where ‘bracken seems homeliest’. In ‘Foxing’ the poet is startled when an urban fox crashes against her window pane as she is going to bed. She then remembers her ‘first fox’, a terrified creature tangled up in a cricket net at school. Migration is also the subtext of In ‘Between an Old Ash Tree and the sea’, the profusion and confusion of fish in our native waters consisting of ‘natives, escapees, invaders’ who co-exist in an environment where’old-timers meet newcomers’.
The poems in ‘Looking Back’, Bolam’s third section, range across various contexts in time and place: a shipping disaster in Stocklholm, or Dickens’ London, but it is most memorable for its evocation of marital breakdown. ‘Roses from Home’ is set in the early days of a marriage. It’s a poem about moving away from home and finding a new one, about not losing one’s roots:
I wonder whether they worried I’d forget them and where
I grew up, being newly married and so far away,
but I think they knew how much I missed home
and carried the scent of it with love.
The poet’s parents are concerned about the Spartan conditions their daughter now has to live with. However, in ‘Dodds Cottage’ we see how pride, love and affection can transcend material circumstances:
What made it home wasn’t
repairs, a new roof,
more rooms, painted walls.
It was affection inspired
in rough-handed men who cared
for what wood and brick became …
However, in ‘Snowfall’ it is the fragility of home that is emphasised: ‘It’s strange how little it takes to dismantle a home The moment / you begin packing – it’s gone’; while in ‘The Choice’ the inevitability of change is accepted philosophically: ‘Life rarely lerts / pause, to choose / to be still … ’
Finally, in ‘Hyem’, the opening poem of the fourth section we return to the poet’s roots in Newcastle and the strong feelings she still has for it:
When a place puts its hands round your heart
You feel the gentle grip, experience
An inner life of spirit, a smile
That claims your face, even when alone.
It’s a place where rootedness is emphasised by patterns of speech that are reassuringly familiar and remind her of her father. However, the nostalgia is undercut by a sense that the place you leave is not the place you return to. It has changed and you have also: the shipyards have gone and the way of life they sustained. Established now on a different coastline in the south of England, there is a poignant ambiguity in the way the poet expresses herself in this poems concluding lines:
Yet now, in this southernmost county,
cranes draw me to the water as I drive
down Teboura way, hoist my heart high enough
to swing me over the estuary, as if I’m travelling home.
Robyn Bolam’s Hyem is a carefully constructed collection of poems that are scrupulously crafted and rooted in authentic experience. The images are well observed and to the point, yet frequently resonate beyond the circumstances that have inspired them. It’s a collection that allows you to feel and makes you think. It is one also to which you can return with renewed pleasure.
David Cooke has published five collections of his work. He co-edits The High Window.
Denise McSheehy’s The Plate Spinner reviewed by Michael Bayley
The Plate Spinner by Denise McSheehy. £8. Oversteps Books. ISBN 978 –906856755.
A common perversity in our natures – the tension between willing the plates tocollapse while simultaneously urging them not to – is revealed on first reading the title poem of ‘The Plate Spinner’, Denise McSheehy’s wonderful second collection. Subsequent readings and the poem deepens into a metaphor for the precariousness of our lives, while giving a spin to the idea we are on the verge of disaster, by having us realise this edge-of-our-seats existence is what gives it vitality – the essence of what makes our lives worth living.
Life, the poem is saying, is an act of faith, a sentiment underlined in the tender, supplicatory phrase: ‘have, hold, cherish’, towards the end of the piece. Three words which appear almost suspended in air due to the way its form – thelines so sensitively balanced – closely mirrors the poem’s contents.
‘Alchemists’, the opening poem, while honouring the performances of the vocal group – Ladysmith Black Mambazo – also reveals McSheehy’s own methods in exploring the world through her poetry:
Trawlers in sound
erudite in the language
of inflexion, they explore meaning
with a sweet
adjustment of mouth and tongue.
Their narrative – the human heart.
It’s a poem about transformation and belief, almost a religious poem, tapping our emotions from body to mind. This is how the sensual is converted into the way we might lead our lives – in the manner we reflect on it; in how we chart our journey through the world. Constructing a life far from the competitive affairs of market traders and high finance – closer to the poet who makes his way by ‘sensing a rhythm and following it’.
I have found myself returning, again and again, to many of the poems in ‘The Plate Spinner’. One of them is ‘Hair’, a poem which relives the day a mother steals into the deserted bedroom of her daughters: ‘After the house was empty/she would spot them, little/whorls, black and tensile/plucking at her heart’. A poem that brings home to us the things which inhabit our solitude – rain on a kitchen window, say, or the ticking of a cooling radiator. In McSheehy’s poem, loose hairs are everywhere:
sinuous and elastic
snagged on the spines of a brush
coiled on rugs, the edge of a pillow.
She picks one up
letting it curl round one finger
wonders how long it has grown –
and how dark.
‘Hair’ perfectly demonstrates how McSheehy’s feelings are dictated by what she so accurately observes and this is apparent the more deeply one reads into the collection, especially in the word-perfect ‘The Opening Of The Veranda Was The Beginning Of Summer’ which begins:
All summer it lay dormant
dump for mud-caked boots and bikes
the summer things, garden forks, deckchairs
bucket and spades inert and clammy
the rest of the house withdrawn
into the sealed red dark of the back room.
A richly diverse book, the poems in ‘The Plate Spinner’ range from the birth of a grandson (‘He is still/such a little breath,/a little flutter/a little spring of the arms./Head like an Easter egg/the one blue eye that opens and shuts once/to take me in) to a father suffering from dementia (‘Inside an island lake/where nothing shifts/the surface skinned with weedy growths). The two poems, separated by only three pages, allow the newborn child’s Easter egg head, symbol of new life, to contrast dramatically with the dying cells inside a brain.
McSheehy writes like an artist, as is evident from some of the descriptions I’ve already noted, and it comes as no surprise her poems concerning painters appear so eye-catching. Take ‘An Occasion For Being Human’, a poem about Francis Bacon’s Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion, which ends with a breathtaking tenderness: ‘How they weigh – maimed/lumpish/the loop of a sweet line reeling you in/to your own heart./The pattern of ribs printing skin’. Or the landscape poem ‘Flat Water, Held Sky’, where the mining of kaolin in areas of Cornwall has changed the topography into a moonscape: ‘the land left cratered and strange’.
Life and art are not separated in these poems. When reading ‘Beach’: (‘women cream children’s skins/on the smooth surface of the stones’) the work of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth popped into my head, making me realise the appropriateness of a stunning artwork by Caitlin Heffernan, Denise McSheehy’s daughter, on the front cover of this absorbing and beautiful book.
Michael Bayley lives in Cambridgeshire. His poetry has appeared in Stand, Ambit, The Spectator, New Statesman and Faber and Faber’s Poetry Introduction 7. From the Colony Room was published by the Jones Press in 1998 and The Art of the Handkerchief, his first full collection, by Oversteps Books in 2014.
A.F. Moritz’s The Sparrow: Selected Poems reviewed by Rodney Wood
The Sparrow: Selected Poems by A.F. Moritz, £20. Anansi Poetry. ISBN 978-1-4870-30302-9
The name of the Canadian poet A.F. Moritz is not one that is likely to be familiar to the majority of UK poetry readers, although in his native land and in the United States, he has a considerable repution. Moreover, regular readers of The High Window will recall that the journal has published several batches of his work. So, to put it in context, Canadian culture is a curious hybrid of its British influences and those of it’s often overwhelming neighbour the U.S.A., which may explain why Canada has always been keen for a separate, more nationalist identity. They have succeeded so well that, by and large, Canadian poets who have a substantial reputaion at home tend not to be known internationally, Anne Carson and Leonard Cohen are the closest.
Albert Frank Moritz was born in 1947 in Ohio. In 1975 he moved to Toronto where he worked as an advertising copywriter, editor, publisher, poet (he’s published over 16 books of poetry), translator (from the French and Spanish), non-fiction (with his wife Theresa, to whom The Sparrow is dedicated) and has been a professor at the University since the 80s. He’s received many awards and honours including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His English equivalent might be someone of the stature and skill of the Hungarian born George Szirtes.
Frequently, volumes of ‘selected poems’ are quite slim but The Sparrow consists of 358 pages. This is because Moritz writes whole books bringing individual poems ‘into a closer more intense relationship’, so The Sparrow is really a new book of poems where the books themselves talk to each other in the drama and splendour of life that is ‘always lightening, darkening’.
In his opening poem, ‘We Decided This Was All’, Moritz reflects on whether his poems should have taken a different turning and followed the modern trend on writing from personal history and using Whitman’s egotistical ‘I’:
Sometimes I think of starting again, of slowly building
a small monument out of the things of my own life.
Then you start reading his early poems (the books are arranged chronologically) and think about:
about what is …
You read on. For me, it was not until I reached a poem called ‘The Boy’ that I realised that each poem is an elaborate metaphor for Moritz’s own feelings.
Sometimes a man feels a boy walk out of him
and close the door. Then, turning to a window,
the man can watch him, always growing smaller
and watching is something he does particularly well. Each of the sixteen books is self-contained, its poems could not belong elsewhere. The sustained metaphor can be exemplified by twenty one poems in ‘The Sentinel’, published in 2008, where he evokes the anxieties of a man who has to keep guard over an armed camp and report back to commanders who do not wholly trust him. What Moritz is really talking about here is the role of the poet in society ‘it was a joy to know / myself as a poet’. Reporting in language that is simple, passionate and perceptive, Moritz mirrors Wordsworth in his search for permanence in poems that are like massive boulders or altars. Moritz is a poet of contemplation who explors the varieties of human experience:
I really did love you in a sense, colleagues,
friends and fellow citizens and passerby
of my day here, who stormed the smoking world.
The reports he send back are concerned with the split between the urban and the rural: ‘crumbled docks and piers / the sea was spiked flowers’, and the nature of narrative itself: ’someone had to make up / a history of you, even if it was a lie’; while some memories ‘never comes back to mind’ and others are ‘what comes unsummoned now’.
Where is the poet in all this? ‘And you saw only / the obvious and trivial and drew the worst conclusions’. Is it any wonder that no one ever listens to the warning of the poet and his ‘allegory of our dying’. They think that his/her reports are just a ‘record your evil dreams’. In the end they didn’t listen to his song and the ‘whole race … died the end of that summer’. Other reports address love, arrogance, the sun, the unborn, being bewildered in a dangerous world.
We can listen to this poet also asumming the voices of others: Ulysses, Orpheus, an Explorer; or referencing other writers: Lucretius, Catullus, Vallejo, the Metaphysicals, the Romantics, Tennyson, Whitman … But the scholarly learning is always carried lightly unlike, say, in the poems of Peter Porter.
Perhaps the richness of this poet’s work, in which suggestiveness is allied with simplicity can best be appreciated in the title. The sparrow is an ordinary, non-mythic bird that flitters through many of the poems. One in particular, ‘Death of a Sparrow’ is beautifully observed poem. It should be noted also that Moritz’s titles are frequently memorable in their precision. They are short, simple and direct, while the poems home in and explore the essential dichotomies of human existence: life/death, light/dark, tradition/ renewal, reality/dreams:
The distant sounds
are remembered suddenly for the voices
of the disembodied, which they were
in the days before this incarnating sleep.
And so we go on, always lightening, darkening,
in a secure and wild drama that once
in another life was reserved for the sky.
The Sparrow is the summation of of 45 years of writing and in a brief review one can do little more than skim the surface and give some indication of the high seriousness and dazzling technique of A.F. Moritz’s work. It is no surprise to me that John Hollander called Moritz ‘one of the best poets of his generation’.
Rodney Wood lives in Farnborough, runs a poetry event in Aldershot, and published Dante Called You Beatrice last year with The Red Ceiling Press. His poems have appeared in Magma, Envoi, Morphrog and other magazines and anthologies.
Vindication: Poems by Six Women reviewed by Pippa Little
Vindication: Poems by Six Women (ed. Cherry Potts). Arachne Press. £8.99. ISBN: 978-1909208650
Anne Macaulay’s ‘found’ poem, using words from Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous text, forms this anthology’s rousing title, a call to arms in the timely context of #MeToo answered by the six contributors in their own individual and particular ways. These six poets, mostly older women, white European or American, have all featured in an earlier Arachne Press anthology, The Other Side of Sleep. Here they are given a wider range – between five and ten poems each – to display their various voices and themes. The thread woven throughout is one of women’s experience: it travels among and between rich and diverse fabrics – from bees, Cornish tin miners to Ancient Greece by way of dream, fable, fantasy, observation and wit. I felt the poems that most lit up the book though were the ones which explored writing from Emily Dickinson’s ‘slant’ perspective rather than more well-tried feminist tropes.
For example I loved Sarah James’ ‘Ye Olde Tavern’ in which the ample-breasted bar staff are really mermaids and the understated yet powerful evocation of loss in ‘Driving Up To Renfrew’ by Sarah Lawson. Memorable lines echo in other of her poems, such as ‘scraps of the past fall out like hairpins’ from ‘Coming Home in the Fog’. I also enjoyed Elinor Brooks’ distinctive, musical voice:
The lode in the trench cracks. The cap-
stone at the entrance slips and tilts.
They will not hear if I knock back.
‘The Tinners, the Knocker and the Fuggy Hole’
Creatures also feature widely. My personal favourites include Jill Sharp’s ‘The Dogs of Delhi’, who are:
not like the dogs back home.
Replete, tucked up like turbans, they snooze
on the streets, rolling over to sun their ghoolies,
soft-pouched gulab jamuns, tendered
knowing no-one will proffer a foot
and the sharp-eyed discourse on language which is ‘Animal Liberation’ by Sarah Lawson. There’s also Adrienne Silcock’s poem ‘Offering’ which deals with the ‘unpacking’ and ‘unpicking’ of a cat-killed rabbit by first magpies then a fox, who ‘leaves the grass clean’.
There is much wit in this anthology: Sarah Lawson’s ‘Installation’ is a lovely, playful swipe at written and visual ‘Art’ and there are several memorable things I underlined, such as ‘She preferred the…book to the chopping board’ (AM, ‘Identification’) I should say though that this poem is at the same time evokes the injuries and survivals of a woman’s body in a lifetime most movingly. Then there is ‘Mother says you should take the plunge./I don’t wish to die by drowning’ (AS, ‘Recluse’).
Yet grave historical/political issues are dealt with unflinchingly: ‘Tying Laces’ by Adrienne Silcock swerves from the poet’s remembering childhood attempts managing this skill to those told to unlace their (valuable) shoes before being shot by fascists in 1944. And Anne Macaulay connects young displaced Syrian refugees with the WW2-lost Jews, Roma, Sinti, gay, disabled in ‘Here Lived’: ‘One stone, one name, one person’.
The six voices complement one another well: reading Vindication feels rather like being in a women’s writing group, sitting around the table with wise, clever, funny, confident poets.
Pippa Little BIO
Sheila Hamilton’s The Spirit Vaults reviewed by Dawn Gorman
The Spirit Vaults by Sheila Hamilton. £7. Green Bottle Press ISBN 9 781910 804087. Available at https://greenbottlepress.com
‘I don’t forget’. The final three words of Sheila Hamilton’s poem ‘How the Dead Can Carry on Living’ are not only a response to its title – those no longer alive can remain with us if we remember them – but might also serve as an epigraph for the whole collection, for The Spirit Vaults assembles for us the vapour trails of an eclectic range of the departed, that we might not forget.
The title poem plays with this idea, alluding both to literal vaults for alcohol ‘in the streets of Liverpool/in 1848’ with its lists of taverns and public houses, and to all those other places where the city’s inhabitants met, worked, lived and died – places that store echoes of those long-gone folk. As befits a search for the forgotten in a city the size of Liverpool, this is a long, scrapbook of a poem, tracking ‘The armies of the poor’ to places such as ‘the Home of Epileptics’, ‘the Catholic Blind Asylum’ and ‘the Mission for Friendless Girls’, and intercutting those powerful lists with gear-change items such as a report on a tragedy of human loss involving the collapse of a church steeple. Other lists capture the hubbub of the port – items imported, names of men who ‘got rich here’, a glorious catalogue of things stolen, including ‘guano;/9 geese;/gas fittings;/silk handkerchieves;’, and details of those who came to claim ‘The drowned’ in ‘the Dead House’. That latter is ‘a daily show,/and never cancelled’ – and the vulnerable barrier separating life from death is bluntly stated in the final lines: ‘Between us,/membrane.’
That vulnerability is repeatedly explored in these poems, Hamilton casting her net wide through time and place. I like in particular her other long poem, ‘All Flesh is Grass: A Poem for Eyam’, which uses the alphabet to draw together disparate, found elements – lists, a letter, the inscription on a tomb – and to emphasise the inevitability our demise: we all know how this one ends. The poem begins, as did the plague in that Derbyshire village, with ‘A Box of Cloth’, and ends with ‘Zero: the survivors burn all the furniture,/all the bedding and clothes they can.’ Particularly poignant here is a list of names and burial dates – six members of the Hancock family interred within one week – though I also like the poem-within-poem about herbal healer Mr Humphrey Merrill, who ‘prefers to gather plants’, his innocent, hopeful simmering and steeping a poignant stand ‘against death’.
Also curiously moving is ‘Ceremony for Lindow Man’, whose preserved body was found in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984. The poem’s lines repeatedly begin ‘And we’ as Hamilton lists the historians’ procedures – extracting, carbon dating, freeze drying – deftly emphasising the focus on ourselves, our science, rather than the dignity of the deceased. Even when ‘we lay him to rest among flints, bracelets, pots’, there is a theatricality about the gesture, so that we, ‘the not-quite mourners’, simply ‘file past’.
‘Ekaterinburg’ offers another digging-up-the-dead contemplation, referencing how a man unearthed by chance the remains of Tsar Nicholas II’s family and those of three servants – ‘I dug them up one summer,/An accident. I hadn’t wanted my spade/to hit bone’ – and is one of many poems here with an overtly political sensibility. Another, ‘The Tea in China Comes to Bloomsbury’ is an exquisite honouring of the thirteen people killed in the ‘Bloomsbury of the bombed bus’: ‘people/who were sitting or standing too close, that Thursday,/to the person wired up’. The list this time catalogues the names of the dead, carrying with it a sense of homage reminiscent of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, while the intrinsic sense of internationality within the names finds moving parallels with the local language students, the migrant workers, even the food – ‘Portuguese pastries,/spaghetti,/falafel’.
This latter poem sits in Part Four, ‘Migrants, Travellers’, of the book’s five sections, and includes an erudite parade of the sometime persecuted or reviled – Derek Jarman, Pablo Neruda, Jan Palach and John Clare, among others. These less anonymous dead are given sanctuary here, the light that Hamilton shines on them extending out, by implication, to all those who have been crushed or torn. This is keenly felt in three poems about Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet and diplomat who was allegedly assassinated on Augusto Pinochet’s orders. In ‘Elegy for Pablo Neruda’, Hamilton says:
I think of all people whose books, shells,
maps have been trampled, people whose clay pots,
ornaments have been smashed
in front of them, trodden on.
Where Hamilton triumphs in this, her second collection, is in her poems’ convincing sense of lives lived. History is a place she visits: she packs her bag and goes there, looks, listens, notes down the smallest details, returning with authenticity and grace. There are some less effective poems – those in the section ‘Still Lifes’, a detour into ekphrasis, feel, somewhat fittingly, rather two-dimensional – but her exploration of the vulnerability of the individual in deadly situations beyond their control is startling, convincing and, importantly, overwhelmingly kindly. Those lists – used confidently to capitalise on their own intrinsic poetry, as well as on the impact of their weight – her scrapbook style, and her elegiac handling of her darkly unpromising subject of death, have produced a collection of enormous strength and, in her honouring of the lost ones, a book of hope.
Dawn Gorman’s pamphlet This Meeting of Tracks was published in the Pushcart Prize-nominated four-poet Mend & Hone (2013). She collaborates widely: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment based a symphony on her poem ‘Replenishment’ (2015), and the poem-film overture appeared at Cannes Short Film Festival. Widely published in journals and anthologies, she runs the reading series Words & Ears. www.dawngorman.co.uk
Richard Skinner’s The Malvern Aviator reviewed by Richie McCaffrey
The Malvern Aviator by Richard Skinner. £4.99. 28 pp. Smokestack Books. ISBN: 978-0995767584
The Malvern Aviator is Richard Skinner’s third collection and is the work of someone who, as a novelist and teacher of creative writing, keeps a foot firmly planted in both worlds of prose and poetry. As a professor of English literature once put it to me: prose is the heavy industrial lifting, poetry is lacework and it’s better to do both if you can. Skinner has managed to balance the two well and his gift for narrative is clear throughout to which he also adds a fastidious, painterly eye for colour and detail in poems like ‘The Iris Gallery’ and ‘Fabiola’. ‘The Astorians’, a vividly evoked poem about Skinner’s grandmother’s early courtship with a man called ‘Art’, shows how Skinner is able to put his own self to the side as a writer and possess bodies and stories of people who existed long before him:
In the home, she told me she fought every night
with the devil in her dreams.
Often, she would stare at me and demand to know
if she were standing in a stream.
But this is all still to come. Right now,
my grandmother looks at Art (‘How handsome!’),
notices the shine of his bow tie and single button,
the big A on the kick drum.
Similarly, in the moving ‘Chinese Apples’ we hear about Skinner’s mother and how even a brief exposure to a traumatic experience can dictate the course of a person’s life, even shape their personality:
Years later in Glasgow, my mother confessed.
She could never again eat oranges
without smelling gladioli or falling ill,
could never again sit still in churches.
This collection of twenty poems can perhaps be best described as a pamphlet with aspirations both intellectual and aesthetic – it has the one book feature all poets secretly long for, a spine with writing on it, so it’s not forgotten on the shelf. Not that I think Skinner’s latest collection runs any such risk of being overlooked or forgotten about, the poems are much too arresting and ambitious for such a fate.
It’s de rigueur nowadays to make some sort of disclaimer in a book review about any potential bias or conflict of interest. Well, the title poem that closes this collection just so happens to be dedicated to me. Other poems here are written for such titans as John Berger, so I’m profoundly flattered to be in such company and to be mentioned in a book where creative solidarity is so important. A quick glance at the acknowledgements page shows that for Skinner poetry really is a community, and this infuses the poems with a sense of goodwill. But I need to look beyond my own egoistic frisson of excitement to judge the poem itself in the cold light of day. ‘The Malvern Aviator’ contains all the major themes and ideas of the collection, namely that the human mind is always wanting to ascend and slip the surly bonds of earth but it is also anchored to a mortal, suffering body and this can’t be neglected. Poems such as ‘The Summer of Red Mercedes’ revel in the corporeal rather than cerebral realm: ‘our bodies systems of pulleys and levers’ but the ending is ultimately bathetic: ‘we / cleaved apart like slate’. For Skinner, there’s a mistrust about human-made equipment used for measuring the world and things within it such as time. Skinner’s point is that it’s better to try and calibrate and explore human experience in words but he also reluctantly accepts that we all need some form of talisman or tether to the concrete world, such as his father’s watch:
But if I were to take it off and abandon it
by my large granite basin,
its hands would fail with the iron
and I would end up out in the world,
ending up as a heap of ashes.
Recurrently the reader comes up against images of greatness that have been brought crashing down to earth, such as the ‘Flashes of cornices in puddles’ in Milan in ‘Via Fiori Oscuri’. Perhaps the tools for understanding the great mysteries of the universe in fact lie in the smallest, earthly things – that the route to a cosmic, macro vision of the world, is through something familiar and micro such as a ram’s skull:
Whirls of starburst nebulae deep
in the cochlear. Hairline cracks
run like river deltas across the blanched bone.
from ‘Corsican Ram’s Skull’
It’s the collection’s ongoing tussle with faith and interest in the numinous, or rather the desire to let the mind soar while also keeping one foot on the ground that wins over the reader. In ‘Ardennes’ it’s the image of leaves falling to earth:
[…] We are incapable of a lie,
yet there is no belief here, yet more leaves fall
blocking the way for those to come.
One of the most startling images in the collection, is in the opening poem ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, where we hear of the ideology of the Lollards, ‘a Protestant sect’ from the reign of Richard II. Here, the reader does ascend to a supernal realm only to be shocked by the revelation that things are still out of reach, that even after death there are mysteries that will baffle and things we cannot touch. It reminds me of Edwin Muir’s last reported words ‘There are no absolutes’, and the fact that that phrase is paradoxically an absolutist one, highlights the absurdity of human thought that the poet, like Skinner, must try and illuminate:
Its great lesson is that,
when we are slain,
we walk through a door
and enter the jardin.
A wren and a hawk will
sit there in a wish tree,
and when you cry,
there will be no reply.
And the wren, not the hawk,
will fly to where none can climb
and will perch among the high rocks.
And a bell will sound.
Richie McCaffery hails from Warkworth, Northumberland. He was a Carnegie Trust Caledonian scholar at the University of Glasgow where he earned his PhD in 2016. In 2014 his published his first full collection of poems, Cairn from Nine Arches Press. His second collection, entitled Passport is due out from Nine Arches Press in July 2018.