Valerie Lynch’s So the Sky reviewed by Emma Lee
So the Sky by Valerie Lynch. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 978-7891907434
So the Sky is Valerie Lynch’s first collection. Although she’s written poems throughout her life, it’s only recently, after a lengthy career part of which was spent as an archaeologist and historian, she’s sought publication. The poems themselves are economical, offering images and aspects to build to a whole. This makes it difficult to quote from them because context is key. The title poem is conveniently short and can be quoted in whole:
My next house will have a room
without a roof, so the sky
can come inside, bats fly around
and sparrows fidget about
companionably in the eaves.
And when winter comes, my friend will bring me
an oilskin hat and say, ‘If you won’t have a roof,
at least wear this.’
Its style is fairly exemplary. It uses assonance and alliterative sound patterns. The potentially twee descriptions, e.g. ‘sparrows fidget about/ companionably’, are apt in the context of the impracticality of having a roof-less room. But it’s also possible to build an image of the poem’s narrator. The friend doesn’t try to persuade the speaker to build a roof but seeks to make the vision possible by providing a waterproof hat. One senses that the narrator enjoys being in nature but may be less mobile or anticipating a reduction in mobility – the only season named is winter so the narrator could be in the winter of her life – and seeks to bring nature to her.
‘Ancestors, West Dorset’ ends on a question: ‘You come and go as you will, / but where do you call home?’ which is partially answered in ‘It’s’:
A kingfisher’s delicate vigil
above the water’s edge by Litton Cheney,
as night-time voices flutter down
from the old White Horse.
It’s the lonely Roman road
still sieving the night
for the cohorts
limping home over Askerswell,
and the dusky blue
before the dawn falls over the hills
from Lewesdon to Eggardon,
and up to Pilsdon Pen.
The place names root the poem in Dorset, but the ‘cohorts’ making their way home is universal so even those not familiar with the Dorset landscape can still engage with the poem. Memories of growing up are interspersed with poems of landscape. In ‘Granny T.’
I cycled over to see you each day after school
to sit and not say a word, and you
not saying word to me, just leaving me be.
This companionable silence is broken by the girl’s mother arriving to take her home. The poem ends:
They robbed me of your dying,
of its smell of urine and half-washed skin;
even the grave and giving you back
to the smell of your Dorset earth.
The smells come as a surprise because they’ve not been set up in the opening stanzas, but they also signal a change. The girl has been excluded from the end of her grandmother’s life so is evoking her memories through smell. Whereas the gentler memories of familiarity are evoked through friendly silence. Not all memories are welcomed, e.g. in ‘Wedding’ which ended in amicable divorce:
I had worn a different hat,
but no-one actually laughed.
refuse to acknowledge
the face in the wedding photos.
I know it is how I look
but it is not myself.”
The ending injects hindsight and seeks to look for forewarnings of the future to come which wasn’t known at the time the wedding photos were taken. Although the poem looks back, the final comment keeps readers in the present so it doesn’t feel nostalgic or as if it only meant something to the writer. Another looking back poem is full of poignancy, ‘Barricades’, which starts with a group of girls, ‘marinated by nannies, nurseries and limousines’ in an Oxford college where snow has fallen outside:
and here in my room a huddle of girls by a half-starved
fire, eating mother’s home-baked cakes.
They listen with care, they are easy and kind.
We share coal, we fraternise till it’s dark.
A gathering’s planned at the Randolph, a taxi to town;
their eyes wander, translating me into space.
I seem to have swallowed my voice,
and it aches inside.
It illustrates that working class unease, that feeling that at any moment the poem’s narrator, despite earning her place at Oxford, will be uncovered as not one of the privileged girls and forever marked as an outsider.
Waiting for publication in this case has paid off. The poems in So the Sky are spare and focused, use poetic devices in free verse form to illustrate their point and, although most are looking back in time, they do so with historian’s forensic eye.
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.
Alexandra Davis’s Torches and Sparks, Responses to the Ppoetry of the First World War reviewed by Julie Sampson
Torches and Sparks, Responses to the Poetry of the First World War by Alexandra Davis. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 978-1907435713
It’s synchronicity I think, when I’m invited to review Alexandra Davis’s Torches and Sparks; Responses to the poetry of the First World War (Dempsey and Windle, 2018). For, although centennial commemorations of WWI had been and were culminating with the last events, I’ve only just got around to researching my own family’s links with those turbulent years and am currently stumbling upon various tales of lost ancestral history. I’m therefore already rather curious when I begin to dip in.
Torches is cleverly constructed within a book-ended frame, a device effecting integration between the book’s two parts, Part One, titled Torches; A brief critical appreciation of the poetry of the First World War, contains a selection of poems by war’s soldier-poets, with introductory contextual commentary by the author; Part Two, titled Torches and Sparks, presents original poems sparked by the earlier ones, by Davis. The collection’s opening poem, Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ (which includes WWI’s most iconic and famous quatrain, beginning ‘They shall grow not old’), set at the conclusion of the conflict, transports the communal mother ‘England’ in spirit across the Channel bridge ‘dead across the sea’ to mourn for her lost sons. The penultimate poem, by Davis, ‘to dover’, figuring a cyclical movement of closure in ‘evening mist’, returns the personal mother/persona – along with a class of teenagers who have been visiting war-graves – back home over the channel ‘to dover’, to ‘surrender to the power of the land’.
In the second section of the collection Davis has taken up the torch offered by John McCrae in In Flanders Field, the final poem of Part One – which, in her commentary she has interpreted as ‘torch of poetic expression of fundamental questions to run with into our futures’ – and added her own fine-tuned poetic responses to the poem and poets included in this section. The poem ‘Over Owen’ presented as a disagreement between poet and her husband, sets down Davis’ own scruples: ‘To speak or not?’ … ‘To whisper, whimper/shout’… ‘No right way/to talk of horrors’. Poems in the first group evoke war’s landscape: ‘Great toadstools mark their spots in dirty white/as sueded monuments in nature’s junkyard’ (‘Disarmed’), then, summon ghosts in homage to earlier poems/poets Owen and Thomas (‘Owing’: ‘The landscape of a looted youth, made vivid/by war-doomed youth’ and ‘In Remembrance’: ‘Sitting in the Adlestrop bus shelter/the sky is cloudless’).
For me highlight of Part Two, the short sequence Finding Ypres, subtitled A sequence of poems written in response to accompanying a Year 9 school trip, is a brilliantly conceived poetic rendition about a school-trip to the visit war graves by a crowd of teenagers, whose techno-obsessions, pre-occupations and general high-spirits mean that they are initially oblivious to the riches of the experiential possibilities presented by the outing. ‘The Road’ prefaces the sequence describing the journey out from England, whilst marking a figurative sweep back into the historical contexts of the trip:
The road up which the merry monarch skipped,
returning to restore this country’s kings
past Dover Castle, looming like Elsinore,
his father’s ghost singing him back from the wings. –
This poem’s movement from dark to light adumbrates the learning curve of the life-lessons learnt by the children by the time of their return: ‘our guide lights/the dark in which we sit, our cosy coach’ … ‘Blinds begin to open’. In ‘Life is Sweet’, whose subtext is Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, the reader is plunged into the self and selfie obsessed ‘paper snowflakes’ generation, who though ‘folded easily … into seats’ are ‘knock-kneed, squawking like parrots’ … ‘whipping out glinting iPhones just in time’. Ignorance is to the fore; war’s battlefields and graves are simply an excuse for teenage revelry. With their ‘What’s App and Snapchat inane mumbling’, in a wry nod to Stevie Smith, the children are ‘waving, not drowning’. In the last stanza, smashing past into present, poet addresses the soldier-poets directly, as poem points up the extreme contrasts between their world and that of the children: ‘If you’d been born just one small century later/You’d tap out beat of washy tunes with mates’. ‘Life is Sweet’s’ closing lines speak with a twist of irony to Owen himself, the choice diction emulating ferry’s movements and poem’s turmoil:
Wilfred you’d be pleased to know the Old Lie
is dead and buried; these kids will never die;
Free wifi brings a cheer to swell the ferry.
one trip to Ypres won’t stop them making merry.
‘Hill 60’, referencing the battlefield memorial site south of Ypres, pictures the youngsters ‘all along the bridge between the lines … swinging their legs in sunshine/over No Man’s Land’. Perhaps mirroring Owen’s own allusive tactic in ‘Exposure’ (whose first line in her earlier commentary Davis notes as ‘a terrifying version of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale’), here, poet echoes and reconfigures Wordsworth’s iconic daffodils:
We wander together, like a crowd
of tourists over craters and hills
greened over by nature
In this version daffodils are chillingly rewritten as ‘four thousand men [who] were never found’.
The penultimate poem of the sequence, ‘At Tyne Cot’, replicates the students’ change of heart as their egotistical immersion in social media is gradually loosened; they are shocked into emotional tuning in with the plight of those who once fought and died: ‘Feeling the weight/of the obligation to remember/in silence./ Afterwards they stroll/altered …’. Here, the carefully placed caesura is telling, and the last line’s ‘red petal [which] lands on this page’, a fitting image merging war’s quintessential emblem with the emotional pain of children’s newly found empathic resonance.
Following ‘Finding Ypres’, Sparks’ final poem, ‘Boots’, written in the present tense, marks the progression, the passage of time delineated by this sequence, from the nostalgia of poems written by those past poet participants of the war, to the ever-present realities of conflict, here marked by a prospective new C21 recruit, a young cadet son, who as ‘He lays out four pots, three cloths, two brushes, one spoon’, is described methodically cleaning his boots: ‘Replace, repeat, replace and pause’. The poem matches the ritual of the cadet’s meticulous and mindful actions as the polishing procedure ‘waiting for the toughened skin to yield, receive, absorb’, becomes metaphor for his own transition to manhood: ‘he will emerge sloughed, new-buffed’. ‘Conjuring imagery of soldiery ritual, marching, movement, momentum, through ‘marching clock’, ‘Boots stand to attention’, ‘parade next Friday’, this is a fine and moving ending to the collection. The only slight quibble I have about Torches is the lack of a contents list. As I write this there is an ongoing advertising campaign to recruit new soldiers from the snowflake tech-obsessed millennial generation and I can’t help but think of the excellent potential for this collection to be used for school-study on the subject of the First World War, or indeed, war per se. And beyond that, Torches and Sparks; Responses to the poetry of the First World War is welcome food for thought for people like me, whose journey into the WWI archives is just beginning.
Alexandra Davis’s Sprouts reviewed by Julie Sampson
Sprouts by Alexandra Davis. £6. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 978-1907435461
Butt of jokes, love or hate vegetable, you have to be brave to collate a collection of poems with the title Sprouts, surely the most ungiving, unpoetic title for a poetry collection. Or, so I thought, before opening Alexandra Davis’s collection of this name (published in 2918, by Dempsey and Windle) and reading the first and title poem’s first line, ‘Whenever I peel them, I channel her’. Very quickly I changed my mind. ‘Sprouts’ is a brilliant vegetable metaphor for the poetic process inherent through this short collection. Countering sprouts’ intrinsic humdrum associations, the title poem is replete with promise, as its ‘quicksilver’ alchemical transformation initiates both literary and psychic changes: ‘each mouldering lump/through some quicksilver handicraft, became a jewel/in her hands’; and ‘a tiny cabbage, no matter how mud clad/will end as green as paradise’. With felicitous pin-pointed detail, such as ‘ready brain, glossy and new veined’, or ‘painted with a single rat’s whisker, delicate as an eyelid’, poet entices us in. The reader is drawn into a daily domestic task of vegetable peeling, where as she pares away peelings, the persona/speaker dwells on her physical and emotional bond with her subject, Nell (presumably mother or grandmother), whose ‘vast lap spread, like a proving bloomer/over each side of the wheelback chair’. By the time of the opening poem’s last lines, speaker and subject have merged to become one, thus (though ‘I didn’t inherit those nails’), reconciling and reinstating the closeness and intensity of their primal bond: ‘My lap now roomy, holds dusty curls and bright green pearls’. The blooming lap is an extended metaphor, a womb, which opens out during the remaining lines to cosset the bringing forth not only of this poem but of all the others, nascent, still to come.
The ‘Leaves within leaves, furled, waiting for my peeling hands’ of the closing stanza of ‘Sprouts’ launch the remaining pages/poems of book, ‘each with its cross’ (sigil, or figure of inner meaning for each poem) preparing to be opened, read, written on. For the most part its subjects immersed in ostensibly domestic and familial routine (including child’s first lost tooth; stain-soaked football shorts; snowstorm viewed through glass; and incidents at school), after the opening one, the following poems ‘unfurl’ through the sequence, frequently exemplifying the special significance of that apparently inconsequential moment. Thus, in this collection far from being emblem of the mundane, sprouts represent those quotidian moments of being in which the everyday turns out to be of special meaning. Transformation instigates a shedding of layers, which recede into a layering of past selves, revelations of new real and poetic ‘offspring’, ‘ribs from off the spine’, as single sprouts multiply into the ‘Brussels Tree’ (an annual seasonal ‘gift’ from poet’s significant ‘other’).
The decaying ‘yellowed’ sprouts of the first poem’s last line propel the reader into the traumatic scenario of ‘C-Section’, where, as anguish following an apparently botched procedure is skilfully marked via a trio of emphatic line-ending plosives – ‘fragmented’, ‘removed’, ‘prized’ (and distress is driven to its knife-point home with twisted half-rhymes, ‘bites’, and ‘expertise’), the poet’s technical skill comes to the fore.
This is a finely wrought collection full of exquisite and scrupulous imagistic detail, in which again and again a poem’s impact far surpasses its subject’s seeming triviality. In ‘First Cut’, for example, prosaic becomes precious as the ‘tiny trophy’ of child’s first lost (not ‘tombstone’) tooth segues to ‘Enamelled trinket/nestled on a velvet cushion/like Cinderella’s glass slipper’. We picture ‘the glint only a mother can see’; tooth becomes emblem, ‘love-token’ of maternal love.
Avoiding platitude or superficial description poet strips away layers of feeling to home in on the central heart of an experience or encounter. In ‘Stains’, in which, after ‘he knelt on a dark berry’, the son, who ‘usually explores the world alone’, has embedded a ‘stain [whose] purple dye spread like a spider vein’, on his football shorts, a richly-layered central image, ‘a tattooed blue explosion’ erupts with the universality of its ‘Big Bang’ last-line message: ‘If only all stains were so simply washed away’. This poem’s pathos and power will resonate with many parents who have a child on the autistic, or similar, spectrum. Similarly, after reading ‘Snow From The Window’, another metamorphosis, the sparkling image of the lone little boy ‘like a star’ gazing through the window at the falling snow, will stay with me for a long time:
While upstairs on the landing, invincible, naked and dry,
he has climbed on the sill and stands in the frame like a star;
a single, slim pane between him and the world. He is elsewhere,
pure snowflake, beyond this window and words, out there.
The striking thematic resonances of the poems in Sprouts achieve their effect via the poet’s deft touch with poetic paraphernalia, such as the occasional use of pitch-perfect rhyme (in ‘sprouts’ – ‘curls’/’pearls) and the clever weaving in and out of recurring motifs sparked by the original sprouts metaphor (green/vegetables/layering/skins).
On those days when nothing in the world seems to spark with joy or poetry, I’ll remember this collection and peer more deeply into those seemingly everyday encounters and experiences, hoping to find their inspirational potential. I’ll certainly look forward to hearing that Davis has another collection out.
Julie Sampson‘s work has appeared recently in Shearsman, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Journal, Dawntreader, Noon, Pulsar, The Amethyust Review and The Algebra of Owls. She edited Mary Lady Chudleigh; Selected Poems (Shearsman Books, 2009). A full collection, Tessitura, was published by Shearsman, in 2014 and a non-fiction manuscript about Devon’s women writers was short-listed for The Impress Prize, in 2015. A pamphlet, It Was When It Was When It Was was published by Dempsey and Windle, in 2018.
Linda Rose Parkes’s This Close reviewed by Fiona Sinclair
This Close by Linda Rose Parkes. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 978-1907435683
This is a collection whose narrator is at times part-visionary. Many poems hint at liminal states of being, that nebulous part of life that is just out of sight Indeed, the poet often uses the technique of white space between words to suggest that which cannot fully be explained. In a sense the reader is invited to fill in the gaps. As such, on first reading we are invited to reread and work for meaning, which is no chore, given Parkes’ gorgeous use of imagery. This is not to say that the poems are abstract. They are rooted in worldly concerns such as childhood, parents – specifically a father figure – and an appreciation of nature. Indeed, in many poems the protagonist does not merely gain comfort from the elements but is energised by them.
In poems such as ‘Half the length and half the width of her arm’, the narrator uses the metaphor of a garden. Throughout the collection, it’s a place for where the imagination is given free rein, being often the first point of contact with nature. This poem’s strength is its seeming simplicity, achieved by its precise choice of words. It begins simply enough: ‘the garden always scuttling with ants ‘, but then we have the beautiful image that the place is ‘ heady with bird song’. The second stanza then develops a sense of danger: ’no one else saw the dragon-horned serpent watching from the bough of the oak’. The serpent and tree, like the garden itself, have biblical echoes, Indeed, it should be noted that the poet is well-versed in not only the bible but also classical mythology, which she frequently exploits in her poems.
In many, there is an almost casual acceptance of ghosts. They are used to explore the possibility of an afterlife. House ghosts, it is suggested co-exist alongside us, but whom, in the course of our own pedestrian lives, we are unable to see. They are frequently represented as skittish, as in ‘A sonnet of tea’: ‘the dead aren’t expecting you, they scatter the sill fog the glass’. In a ‘A glass of water’ set again in the quiet hours, the narrator contemplates the nature of death and the afterlife. It is suggested that the dead may well miss earthly life: ‘they still crave seed bread, touch and weather and radio songs …’’ It is Parkes’ skill here is to mix the everyday with the nebulous, thus the poem is not merely fanciful but rooted in mundane reality.
The poems concerning childhood are notable for their honesty. A particularly striking poem is ‘A little crime that lives’, where she recalls a childhood relationship in which one child is envious of the other. She craves everything from her prettiness to her possessions, particularly ‘her polished wooden pencil- case’. We root for the narrator who manipulates us with the initial opening description of the other girl as ‘Fair, small boned Goldilocks’, the use of a fairy tale figure suggesting a child who not only will not share her ‘hoarded treasure’ of possessions but is small and blonde and cute. The inevitable result is that ‘you snuck in and thieved her good girl crown’. The theft, then, is not just one of greed but something deeper that so often motivates us subconsciously in childhood.
The latter half of the collection deals with love in older life. In this sequence an understanding husband both anchors yet abets the narrator’s free spirit. This seems to coincide with settling in a coastal region where the sea and elements help her to still further her imagination. One particularly charming poem, ‘The Old Still Doing It’ refers to trhe disbelief of younger peoples that older people still have sex. The poem begins on a note of domestic authenticity: ‘Even as you watch me rummaging through undies, hoist my breasts into cups’. The mention of ‘undies’ is casual, as is the hoisting up of breasts against the downward drag of time, and the partner watching suggests true intimacy. However, the poem then takes an unexpected turn into the mythical: ‘’the gods are wondering when we’ll next have sex – ‘. The Gods are described with a gentle humour, as if they are voyeurs who have grown bored with the young and their ‘crashing, slamming pistons.’ Instead they prefer to observe older lovers whose sex is a richer experience:
before we lift
into the dark
Many of these poems, then, invite us to be vigilant to the silences and spaces within our noisy lives. Additionally, some poems invite us to view afresh ordinary or overlooked objects we take for granted. By focusing on unusual details, we are encouraged to see the wonder of the world around us. This is perfectly exemplified in the poem intriguingly entitled ‘You never know what it is you kill’’. The poem uses the casual killing of an irritating blue bottle fly to evoke reverie. Here Parkes’ idiosyncratic use of white spaces between certain words encourages us to pause and take in the action. The poem again mixes the pedestrian: ‘I grab a weapon aim at the pitch-‘ but then switches to the detailed contemplation in of the stunned fly: ‘the chitinous notched body, a blue bodice bottle- green gauze gathered neat about the waste’. Again the description elevates the ordinary into something extraordinary.
Here, as elsewhere, in this collection, exquisite imagery and a strategic use of white spaces invites us to see the world anew and to understand that life is mysterious, if we pause long enough to catch sight of it. This is a collection whose poems gently challenge us. It is rooted in the everyday, but often these roots give way, allowing the poems, their narrator and hopefully the reader to take flight.
Fiona Sinclair lives in a village in Kent with her husband Kim and an imaginary dog. She was for many years the editor of the on-line poetry magazine Message in Bottle. Her work has been published in numerous magazines. A Talent for Hats is her sixth collection was published in 2017. Her latest collection, The Time Travellers Picnic, has just been published. Fiona reviews poetry and also art exhibitions, specifically at Turner Contemporary, Margate.