Reviews: New Books from Bloodaxe

*****

Peter Bennet’s Mischief reviewed by William Bedford

Mischief by Peter Bennet. £10. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1910323793

In Peter Bennet’s Mischief, Oedipus’s ‘I can be no other man than I am’ becomes ‘It is the place I am’ (‘The Place I Am’), and that place as so often in Bennet’s work is Northumberland. But it is a place of the poet’s imagination as much as geography, and of shifting times and cultures. For here, worlds encounter worlds, and we are as likely to meet Psyche in some squalid inner-city tenement and Cupid in ‘winged black leathers’ racing his motorcycle (‘Landscape with Psyche’) as luxuriating on Mount Olympus. More than that, as Elizabeth Bishop has it in the epigraph to the powerful autobiographical sequence (‘Ladderedge and Cotislea’), ‘We thought we were living now,/but we were living then,’ the poet remembering his own childhood as being both ‘After the War Before the War’ (ibid), and again as an adult ‘That was now and This is then twisting/recall and attention out of kilter’ (‘Next Time’). Such dislocating perspectives are repeated linguistically and historically throughout Mischief. It is in these dislocations that we find ‘the soul of things’ among ‘the quick imaginary fishes’ of (‘La Morale de Joujou’).

Critics have noted a sort of Shamanism in the way Bennet goes about finding ‘the soul of things’, quite often in the form of epiphanies. ‘A trouser button in a puddle tries/to sing’, because although ‘insignificant/and even pitiful it has a soul/as we do’ (‘The Trouser Button’). Again, ‘autumn’s last leaves hop and hope/like ghosts of frogs’ in (‘Miss Hood in the Nursing Home’) and a woman in another poem continues searching throughout her life for a tree which once ‘spoke when she stood under it’, when challenged her laughter turning ‘into a whisper/of wind through leaves elsewhere where it’s still summer’ (‘Seasons’). There is something almost Animistic in this stress on the life of things, ‘as the sun/at dawn walks on the sea’ (‘After Dark at Lindisfarne Castle’) and the northern landscape is peopled ‘with engines chewing/fog and steam and smoke and fire’ in Turneresque splendour (‘Ladderedge and Cotislea’). It is all there for us to see, if we but look.

Such ideas aside, the ‘soul of things’ in all great poetry is found in the poet’s openness to human experience, bringing ‘to bear the miracle/of narrative’ (‘The Comfort Service’). Fading memory – in a volume so concerned with memory – offers some anguished moments, as with the couple who seem to be inhabiting different pasts until ‘He knows he must know someone like me somewhere./And I remember that I married him’ (‘Like Me’); more universally ‘There’s laughter here and song/exactly at the moment of its loss’ (‘Pastoral’); consoling advice from friends sounds ‘like weak whistles from a flock/of little long-tailed birds through silver birches’ (‘The Ornithologist’); asked to explain ‘who he really is’ a lover seems to evade the question by telling his partner how on ‘the long drive down he passed a lake/which had the full moon shining brightly on it/and felt that he could walk across barefooted’, one of those epiphanic moments which says more than the sum of its words (‘Barefooted’); and in an apparently straightforward description of a room which I took to be in a hotel, the final lines bring us face to face with the truth waiting for us all: ‘When you decide to go please sign the book./You’ll find the tablets in your bedside fridge’ (‘Auberge’).

As one might expect, some of the most powerful poems in Mischief come from the long autobiographical sequence ‘Ladderedge and Cotislea.’ The opening narrative section brings us a rich farming life where the young poet experiences the common rites of passage, but rare moments such as the day his father ‘lets/us have a log and hammers and a bag/of panel pins’ which they hammer into the wood ‘trying not to bend them till the log/is heavy Heaven with a thousand stars’ (‘Ladderedge and Cotislea’). Though the pronoun is ambiguous – I take it to be addressed to the reader – ‘You only need to blink to think/about me and the years between us shrink’ (ibid), showing that we do share our experiences between people and across times. So looking in a mirror to see the ‘me-that’s you’ (ibid) must be familiar to anyone who has recognised their parent’s face in their own. Here, Bennet is remembering as a boy watching his father die:

but I can watch him and I always shall
where it is almost dawn and hear him breathe
like slow strokes of the stone along
long time and loud then sudden louder stop.

(ibid)

There is another beautiful image of death in a later poem where a woman on a voyage sees:

her porthole darken as an albatross
with fiery sunlight on its wings
glides past as in a ritual
and turns to look at her in both her eyes.

(‘News of a Death’)

but for me the poem which remembers the poet’s mother ends the most powerfully:

Hold tight my arm.
We’ll wade together now and turn the sky
once more to ripples of the brown flood water.

(‘My Mother at Erbistock’)

Bennet may see himself as ‘an upstart in the poetry of fields’ (‘Pastoral’), but in the craft of poetry he is a master. Mischief is now my favourite of all his volumes, but I feel that after every new arrival.

William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, 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. Dempsey & Windle  publishing Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.

*****

Keith Hutson’s Baldwin’s Catholic Geese reviewed by Carole Bromley

Baldwin’s Catholic Geese by Keith Hutson.  £12. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780374550

Two things struck me about Keith Hutson’s eagerly awaited debut first full collection: the intriguing title and the length of the book! I should also mention the great cover design.

Although I had read and enjoyed Keith’s two pamphlets, Routines (Poetry Salzburg, 2016) and Troupers (Smith/Doorstop Laureate’s Choice, 2018) from which many of the poems in Baldwin’s Catholic Geese are taken,  I had to search for the Bloodaxe title and found it was one of the extraordinary and long lost acts in the Music Hall repertoire about which the poet is so knowledgeable and which he brings magically back to life in so many of these poems.

The sheer length of the collection and the range of subject matter is testament to Keith’s research and enthusiasm about his subject. I notice that Bloodaxe have filmed him sitting in his kitchen performing some of the music-hall poems to great effect. Keith is a wonderfully entertaining performer of his work and once you have witnessed his imitation of Billy Bennett in ‘The Fish Fryer’ dodging spatters of boiling hot fat:

The secret is to get the audience
to flinch with you: imaginary hot fat
should surprise them too…

or taking off Freddy Parrot-face Davies in ‘Eleven Plus’:

In retrospect, to wear a bowler hat
so low his ears bent double, then displace
each S by blowing raspberries…

you’ll want to stay with him to ‘That’s Your Lot’ in which:

Tubby Turner’s trick was to fail to put
a deckchair up, then, in a temper, chuck
the bloody thing away.

Hutson shows enviable facility with poetic form, especially the sonnet which turns out to be a surprisingly versatile form in these often comic poems which are at the same time sometimes filled with pathos. The reader’s eyes are opened to the sad lives, or at least the sad endings to the lives of these great and sometimes forgotten entertainers of yesteryear. Some end in poverty, others in dementia or alcoholism and Hutson’s gift is to show the sadness behind the laughter.

One example of this is the poem about Gilbert Harding, who I am old enough to remember watching as a small child in the late fifties on What’s my Line? Harding, ‘the Rudest Man in Britain’, gets a sympathetic hearing in the poem ‘Go Gentle’ where Hutson tells us:

Few knew this unforgiving Cambridge man
came from an unforgiving children’s home,
sent there – dad dead – his mum’s unwanted son.

and the poem ends as many in the sequence do, on a note of sadness:

he died outside Broadcasting House, soon
after he’d confessed on air, I’m so alone.

 We learn in ‘Hylda’ that Hylda Baker, the popular working class comedienne:

 died, demented

utterly alone – unmourned
by impresarios and sisterhoods alike.
Nine was the number at her funeral.

I felt that Keith Hutson’s own background in television (he has written for Coronation Street as well as for many well-known comedians) gave him a remarkable insight into the lives of these once great but now neglected characters and that his skilfully written poems pay tribute to them all, as well as being rollicking fun to read or watch performed, an experience which succeeds in capturing the essence of the original acts while also telling the story of what show business did to them.

Of course, there are also many poems here which are not directly about particular stars and some of my favourites in the book are actually those which give us a glimpse of the poet’s own past. While I loved being invited to cavort with the likes of Frankie Howerd, Little Tich, Macauley’s Leaping Infants and George Gorin and his Pedalling Princesses and Le Petomane who could ‘fart a candle out’, I was also touched by more personal poems such as the wonderful ‘Mary Poppins’. The speaker was taken to the cinema by his mother as a treat the night before an operation he was dreading:

But as the lights dimmed in the Odeon
to usher flying nannies, broken kites,
tea parties on the ceiling, Dick Van Dyke’s
disguises, fear of the finale grew
inside me frame by frame: because I knew
the end would come, it’s all I focused on,

kept asking Is it nearly over yet?

 Hutson’s skill as a raconteur is evident in poems like ‘Town Crier’ in which he encounters the school bully in later life:

Boisterous. Listen, most violence never bothers me:
a blow, if well-received, can border on enjoyable.
But when Frank struck, you wouldn’t be on solids

for a fortnight.

Frank too, interestingly, is pathetic:

approaching pension age and run to fat,
he’s in the Civic Centre wringing the neck
of a bell.

Keith Hutson has a way with words and can make them do pretty much whatever he wants. He makes us laugh, he makes us cry and, like Tubby Turner, ‘he leaves ’em wanting more’. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

Carole Bromley is a York-based poet and writer. Her pamphlets (Unscheduled Halt and Skylight) and her three books (A Guided Tour of the Ice House, The Stonegate Devil and Blast Off!) are available from Smith/Doorstop Books

*****

Esther Morgan’s The Wound Register reviewed by Emma Lee

The Wound Register by Esther Morgan. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780374109

The Wound Register is split into three sections, ‘Latch’, ‘Field’ and ‘Restoration’ with two individual poems acting as a prologue and epilogue. The prologue, ‘Outbreak’ starts with the narrator, a new mother, thinking of her grandmother’s grief:

I can still feel the weight of your whole body
as I watch the lights going out house by hour
marking something none of us can remember
but which, like darkness, is being passed on.

The first section focuses unsentimentally on motherhood. The section’s title poem a play on the word ‘latch’:

the fear revolving in the darkened kitchen
that I would one day fail again
to give you what you needed,
so preoccupied I almost didn’t notice

how, ounce by ounce, you put on life
fingers gripping the bottle tightly
while something – rusted shut inside me –
clicked and lifted.

There shouldn’t be any guilt in feeding a baby and the poem strives to shift the focus onto what is important – the baby is thriving – rather than methodology. There’s no judgement here. Framing the narrative around the intergenerational link, a mother is a daughter’s latch, widens a personal perspective to a universal one where the writer is sharing and communicating rather than pretending to be the first person to ever write about motherhood and some of its negative aspects.

The theme of inherited knowledge is picked up later in ‘Observer’s Book’:

I know one morning you’ll be gone

each year discarded lightly as a dress
that only lasts a summer.

But for now I want us to belong somewhere,
this place being just as good as any other

and isn’t this how it begins –
by naming what is rooted in the earth

as if it’s something that you’ve always known
like my goodnight kiss or the words to Bobby Shafto?

The second section’s focus is on Esther Morgan’s great-grandfather, Frederick George Cooper, who died in July 1916. No birthdate is given, but he was a father (who triggered the poet’s grandmother’s grief), and is introduced in ‘Private 2663’:

They say some men
walked towards the enemy lines
in a slow-motion trance,
their minds half-shot,
turning the collars of their great coats up
as if the bullets were a kind of rain.

Since then you’ve walked the length of a century
the way a newborn mother,
otherworldly after a sleepless night,
takes each creaking stair –
barefoot and lightly
through the rice-paper quiet.

In ‘No Man’s’ the poet acknowledges: ‘Who knows, really, what sort of a man you were?’. Except that a family story survives of a man rushing home to a daughter suffering concussion after a head injury. The poem ends:

Still I’m touched it’s love which raises you up
which sends you running each time out of the mist

your face the one I keep coming round to
swimming towards me through the blood and stars.

‘The Register’ compares a village school register with the names in the graveyard, a subtle way of capturing the scale of loss and youth of some of those men.

The third section is dedicated to Esther Morgan’s late grandmother, born ten years before her father’s death. The first poem in the section, ‘Smithereens’ begins:

a bowl, a plate
the blue, glass bauble
I told her not to touch

how the slightest tap
(an egg at the edge
of a mixing bowl

someone breaking
the news
about your father)

is all it can take –
the world
splintering outwards

The section’s title poem references the Japanese tradition of kintsugi where ceramics are repaired by gold dusted lacquer so the break is not invisible but made beautiful. One part of the poem considers the acts of retrieving the remains of soldiers hastily buried in France and identifying them so their names can be recorded and then turns back to family:

A bowl of thin air –
the guessed curve of a life:

your father cupping
the peach-fuzz weight

of his daughter’s head
as he lowers you – slowly now –

into your dreams
like a gloved curator

angling a piece of rare dynasty
into a case: fluted, translucent,

the soft plates
not yet knitted together.

The epilogue poem, ‘In the Night Garden’ deliberately shares a title with a children’s TV programme and starts with a mother watching a daughter:

trying to retrieve from these scattered moments
the facet and shine of our lives together

and you are still busy with your latest ritual
crouched in the day’s extra minute of lightt
heir pale heads nodding as you sing to them.

Again the reference to ‘ritual’ and singing is a reminder of the theme threaded through The Wound Register, the inherited traditions and memories of family, lullabies and stories we remember as children and pass on to our own. The Wound Register is a book of compassionate, carefully crafted, skilled poems that reward re-reading. The poems within touch on family relationships with a specific focus that widens to a universal understanding, which makes the poems relatable and engaging.

Emma Lee’s most recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, UK 2015), she co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge, (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window, The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews. She blogs  at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.

*****

 

 

 

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