Peter Bennet: Mischief • Keith Hutson: Baldwin’s Catholic Geese • Esther Morgan: The Wound Register • Helen Dunmore: Counting Backwards, Poems 1975-2017 • Szilard Borbély: Final Matters • Myra Schneider: Lifting the Sky • Jamie McKendrick: Anomaly • Konstandinos Mahoney:Tutti FruttiTutti • Kate B Hall: The Story Is • Valerie Lynch: So the Sky • Alexandra Davis: Torches and Sparks • Alexandra Davis: Sprouts• Linda Rose Parkes: This Close
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.
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:
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
about your father)
is all it can take –
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.
Helen Dunmore’s Counting Backwards, Poems 1975-2017 reviewed by David Cooke
Counting Backwards, Poems 1975-2017 by Helen Dunmore. £14.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN:978-1780374451
Helen Dunmore, who died in 2017 at the early age of sixty-five, first attracted attention as a poet with The Apple Fall, her debut collection from Bloodaxe in 1983. Subsequently, with the publication of Zennor in Darkness, she established herself as a popular and much-admired novelist. She was, however, almost unique among writers in continuing to devote herself with equal distinction to both genres. In fact, the ambiance and impact of her novels were almost certainly enriched by her gifts as a poet, just as her work in prose may have enhanced the clarity and focus of her poetry. Take, for example, the opening lines of ‘The Marshalling Yard’, the first poem in The Apple Fall:
In the goods yard the tracks are unmarked.
Snow lies, the sky is full of it.
Its hush swells in the dark.
Grasped by black ice on black
a massive noise of breathing
fills the tracks;
cold women, ready for departure
smooth their worn skirts
and ice steals through their hands like children
from whose touch they have already been parted.
As if this were the opening of a novel or short story, the scene is presented in a few spare details that point towards a narrative of trauma and loss. In the 1980s there were others, one thinks of Andrew Motion or Tom Paulin, who wrote poems that rubbed shoulders with the short story, but none more variously or impressively than Dunmore in ‘The Polish Husband’ and ‘Annunciation off East Street’ from The Apple Fall or ‘The Brides’ Nights in a Strange Village’ from The Sea Skater (1986). However, to highlight Dunmore’s skills in the narrative mode should not lead one to underestimate her work as a poet of personal experience.
Unusually, for a collected edition, Counting Backwards is literally a retrospective volume, opening with Inside the Wave, her final collection, and then working back to her debut. Inevitably, in her final volume we find her trying to come to terms with her own mortality, as here in ‘The Underworld’:
I used to think it was a narrow road
from here to the underworld
but it’s as broad as the sun.
I say to you: I have more acquaintance
among the dead than the living
and I’m not pretending.
‘Inside the Wave’ is another poem informed by classical mythology in which we see Odysseus at the end of his life’s journey: ‘Yes, Odysseus opened his mouth / And all that was left / was the sound an old man makes / Between a laugh and a cough.’ ‘In Praise of the Piano’ is a poignant and original re-working of the carpe diem theme: ‘In praise of the unrepeatable, the original, / the one thought clinging to the one word / I dip my nib into the ink well …’ Most powerful of all, in its unquestioning acceptance of the inevitable, is ‘Hold Out your Arms’, the last poem she completed, barely a fortnight before her death:
Death, hold out your arms for me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.
As she grew older and then terminally ill, Dunmore’s poems became sadder, wiser, and more devastatingly beautiful. Nonetheless, all her poetry is of a piece as, over the decades, she returned constantly to certain key themes. Particularly notable are those poems in which she writes about her children, at all their ages and stages. Here are the opening lines of ‘The Duration’:
Here they are on the beach where the boy played
For fifteen summers, before he grew too old
For French cricket, shrimping and rock pools.
In ‘February 12th 1994’, she explores the unique bond between a mother and the child she has borne:
No one else remembers that room
With the blood pressure cuff and the plastic cot
And the bag on its stand dripping
Millilitre by millilitre
When the visitors had gone home …
Few have written more convincingly of the pleasures, pains and worry of motherhood and, occasionally, in some of the earlier poems its frustrations: ‘Now I’m desperate for solitude’ she exclaims in ‘Approaches to Winter’, lamenting also her ‘absent poems’. In ‘Ollie and Charles at St Andrew’s Park’, she is like one of the young mums in Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ who feel that ‘Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives.’ More often though, children are a source of joy, especially when in ‘Scan at 8 weeks’ she addresses her unborn daughter whose unexpectedly late conception makes her exclaim: ‘I’m much too old for this // and you’re much to young’. However, one of her most haunting poems on the theme of parenthood is ‘The Malarkey’, a worthy winner of the 2009 National Poetry Competititon, in which she explores that sense of loss one feels when the children have grown up and left home:
Why did you tell them to be quiet
and sit up straight until you came back?
The malarkey would have led you to them.
You go from one parked car to another
and peer through the misted windows
before checking the registration …
You looked away just once
as you leaned on the chip-shop counter
and forty years were gone.
Allied perhaps to the satisfactions of parenthood is Dunmore’s celebration of domesticity and the unremarkable lives that most of us live. In ‘The Place of Ordinary Souls’ she moves from Homeric fields of asphodels in which the ‘unheroic’ spend their afterlives to the bus that ‘shuttles all day long / With its cargo of ordinary souls.’ Of all the numerous birds that feature in Dunmore’s poetry, she praises the dunnock for being ‘mouse-coloured, unglamorous’; while in ‘Nightfall in the IKEA Kitchen’, she finds an unusual objective correlative for an unalloyed sense of contentment: ‘A life so sweetly cupboarded / / I barely believe it’s mine.’
Counting Backwards is an extraordinarily wide-ranging and rich body of work. Beyond its more personal ambit, mention should be made of Dunmore’s poems about nature and her environmental concerns, most fully explored in her 1988 collection, The Raw Garden. In ‘Mortgage on a Pear tree’ we see how man crudely exploits nature for financial gain: ‘ The owner grew wasteland and waited for values to rise.’ Nature was, moreover, an endless source of inspiration for her: its landscapes, flowers, insects, birds, all of which provided her with a rich trove of metaphor and some of her loveliest images. In ‘Bewick’s Swans’, we have ‘the soft dawn chill on a feather’. Elsewhere, yellow butterflies are seen as ‘the sun’s fingerprints on grey pebbles’.
In her late poem ‘Odysseus to Elpenor’, Dunmore evokes the elusive figure of Elpenor who, as a shade in Hades, makes a brief appearance in the Odyssey merely to ask that back on earth a burial mound be erected for him so that his name will not be forgotten. Helen Dunmore died at the height of her powers and far too young. Fortunately, for us at least, she has left a body of work that is distinguished by its affirmation of life and its celebration of language. She is unlikely to be forgotten for as long as there remains a discerning readership for poetry.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His latest collection, Reel to Reel, was recently published by Dempsey and Windle.
Szilard Borbély ’s Counting Backwards, Poems 1975-2017 reviewed by Tony Flynn
Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010 by Szilard Borbely, translated by Ottilie Mulzet. £14.99. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0691182438
At the heart of this selection from Szilard Borbely’s last two collections of poetry (Final Matters, and To the Body) is the brutal murder of the poet’s mother during a burglary on Christmas Eve, 2000. His father was left unconscious and never fully recovered from his injuries ; the perpetrators escaped trial. This tragic event, however, occupies its centrality obliquely and is never referred to directly by Borbely. Where it is alluded to, the poet deploys a language which bears the classic hallmarks of trauma – a register at once stunned and stunted, drained of any emotional content.
In an interview conducted not long before his own death (Borbely committed suicide in 2014 at the age of 51) the poet reflected on his experiences of this and other periods of suffering in his life, ‘’I do not like to make a show of my wounds. And the only way to effectively avoid revealing your real wounds is by following the example of the beggars, and display ‘painted bleeding’ to passers-by.’’ Final Matters is Borbely’s ‘painted bleeding’ ; the poetic craft and rhetorical strategies employed in the collection allow him to keep hidden the unspeakable personal trauma whilst at the same time revealing the questions this and other such acts of extreme violence ask of us all. Throughout the collection, by way of a remarkable economy of means simultaneously rich in its condensed powers, he looks to address the scourge of suffering and death that afflicts the individual (especially through the suffering and death of the crucified Christ) and whole populations (as most often represented here by the Holocaust).
Commonly in the poems, time is collapsed, contracted, compressed and condensed to startling effect : ‘On Golgotha, by the crucifix,/our eyes are trained on sweet Jesus…/crowned with thorns is the infant head/ the manger’s straw is slick with blood/tiny tiny Jesus brother/plays with the wounds in his tiny palms/turns them round, peering through:/ the infant’s face, dead, smiling.’
The excellent Afterword by Ottilie Mulzet (which for me with this difficult and demanding poet, was a required Foreword in fact) sheds light on the enormously varied sources which Borbely draws on throughout Final Matters : Hungarian folk songs, classical myths, Baroque hymns and Jewish and Christain liturgy and theology. The collection as a whole is, she writes ‘’ … a blasphemous and fragmentary prayer book … which challenges us to rethink the boundaries of victimhood, culpability and our own religious and cultural definitions.’’
In the interview previously mentioned, Borbely articulates his own complex understanding of what it is to have faith: ‘’ God is not real, he does not exist independently of man, because the unfolding of human history is the journey of God through the world… God remains silent… God is powerless and frail on earth, just like his angels .. I say this not as an atheist, but as a believer..’’ This complex, apparently paradoxical theology is for Borbely ‘’ … one of the greatest secrets of our human existence.’’. This ‘’absent’’ God bears a remarkable resemblance to Simone Weil’s understanding of a God who has removed himself from creation, has withdrawn, in order to make room for the created (‘Waiting on God’)The poems render this theology in sparse and potent imagery: ‘’The first Adam replenished the Universe,/and that’s why God had to flee/ from Eden. He withdrew/into a crevice far away. Left an empty/space between himself and Adam,/ from which History was born…’’ In another poem, Otto Moll, an SS Officer at Auschwitz indulges in abstract theological reflection as to whether God is present in Auschwitz ‘’ as he watched the rows/of people filing before him, sent to the right/or to the left…’’ whilst in the background ‘‘… ‘a little goat’// mumbled a small child, ‘a little goat’,/and squeezed the hand of his Mammele/as they walked to the ovens.’
At times, Borbely devastates, but the material is never gratuitous, however heartbreaking: and there is always, somewhere, a shred of faith, of hope, hard won – he is a poet who writes against oblivion. The language of poetry he believes…’’is meant to deal precisely with a realm of knowledge that is not of this world – to place a gospel-like landmine into this sentence.’’ He has little time for any kind of Enlightenment optimism or for a world founded on easy assumptions in relation to the innate goodness of humankind. The Holocaust dispelled all such dangerous phantasies. Yet, despite this, the poetry and the moral integrity underpinning it, are never overwhelmed. Even in Hell, where the speaker asks ‘’ ‘Where am I’,,./but expected no answer./As with all the other questions, he hardly/ believed there could be answers…’’ That ‘hardly’ is held to by the poet in defiance of any kind of surrender. In these poems, faith often hangs by a very thin thread, and in the harsh light of suffering and affliction, there are times when it can hardly be seen at all, when it is almost invisible… But it is there. Final Matters is, without doubt, deeply provocative, but it is so in order to shift the debate , to challenge, to ask the difficult questions of any complacent theology or moral philosophy.
Borbely, reflecting on the years immediately following the murder of his mother, speaks of them as a time when the ‘’grimness’’ was unexpectedly mixed with ‘’the wondrous’’ – the birth of his daughters. Nowhere is the breaking through of ‘’the wondrous’’ more in evidence than in the final section of this Selected – Borbely’s re-workings of women’s first-person narrative accounts of birth, abortion, and other life experiences from World War II in Hungary. It has been described as ecriture feminine written by a man, which the poet manages to accomplish, against the odds, without appropriating the women’s pain in any way. Even in the midst of enormous suffering, moments of luminous epiphany are perfectly captured and recorded with a tenderness that somehow is almost redemptive. A mother nursing a disabled baby, soon to die, speaks: ‘These were beautiful,/fulfilling days for me. I was deeply/enriched, as I slowly lowered him/from the cross of life.’
It is hard to ‘’locate’’ Borbely for English readers; he really does not sound like anyone else (perhaps John Donne at a pinch, or the very best of Geoffrey Hill garnished with a smattering of Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’) and certainly not like anything else in contemporary English or American poetry that I can think of. Perhaps, that in itself is sufficient recommendation.
Tony Flynn has published three acclaimed volumes of poetry; A Strange Routine (Bloodaxe, 1980); Body Politic (Bloodaxe, 1992); and The Mermaid Chair: New and Selected Poems (Dreamcatcher Books, 2008).He is the recipient of a number of awards for his work, including an Eric Gregory Award; an Arts Council of England Writer’s Award; and an award from the Royal Literary Fund.
Myra Schneider’s Lifting the Sky reviewed by Pippa Little
Lifting the Sky by Myra Schneider. £9.99. Ward Wood Publishing. ISBN:978-1-908742-68-1
Reading these poems on a dark winter’s day is to plunge into colour. Myra Schneider’s world is richly textured and layered, peopled with composers and artists for whom, like herself, colour is a necessity. Each poem is painterly, evoking a mood, a tone, along with shades and luminosity. But while her work delights in the natural world, the immediacy of life, it remains acutely aware of the vulnerability of our surroundings in this Anthropocene Age: in ‘Returning’ the poet’s delight in May’s ‘sweet extravagance’ is tempered by the knowledge that one season the ‘fescue, flowers, leaves’ may not grow back.
This sense of foreboding, and the difficult questions it engenders, adds a darker, more conflicted dynamic to the collection and sets up an interesting conversation between the poems. The opening poem draws us in immediately, balancing the inner and outer realms, the dark and light, and ‘Windows’ exults in the ‘luminous scarlet’ moment when upper windows are transformed by sunset after a November day of grey, hopeless ‘deep despond’, wanting to conserve this incandescence for the future, though knowing it to be impossible. Colour becomes a means of survival in both a spiritual and an artistic sense, a metaphor for being in the world. The joie de vivre of the voice is achievable only because of the struggle it has gone through, and continues to go through, against the colourless states of doubt, loss, grief, self-loathing, fear and depression. ‘To make sure every day is a finding’ (from ‘Losing’) is a hard and bravely won triumph. There is no flinching: the poet asks, twice, on facing pages: ‘Is this death then?’(‘Daggers of Light’), ‘is this death?’ (‘The Thing’). Humans appear as vulnerable in terms of survival as the natural world to which they have done such harm, particularly female humans who carry the historical weight of parents’ and children’s expectations and demands.
The long narrative sequence ‘Edge’ explores the situation of a woman for whom making art and fulfilling her domestic role become incompatible, a dilemma which makes her ill – though through her family’s support and her own rediscovered strength she finds her way again. ‘Love was it? Kindness?’ (‘Survival’) – these are the watchwords for Schneider, along with hope: the book ends with the line ‘rooms where hope is coming into blossom’. Hope lies in the so-called ‘small’ pleasures of a life: preparing food in a kitchen, dancing a tango, practising the slow, graceful movements of quigong, enjoying close ties of friendship. There are many lovely and important poems in this important collection. More than ever we need to listen to poets with Schneider’s long gaze and wisdom.
Pippa Little‘s collection Twist (2017), from Arc, was shortlisted for The Saltire Society’s Poetry Book of the Year prize. She is working on a third full collection and works at Newcastle University School of English as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
Jamie McKendrick’s Anomaly reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
Anomaly by Jamie McKendrick. £14.99 (hardback). Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571349210
Most lovers of poetry on the page will enjoy Jamie McKendrick’s sharp eye, irreverent intelligence and linguistic flair, but the urbane, sophisticated poems of Anomaly will have a more particular appeal for those who enjoy a play of thought too mobile and finely poised to lock itself down into conclusions. In this way Anomaly marks a change from McKendrick’s previous collections. None of the new poems have the emotional intensity of some of his earlier ones but this is not through loss of poetic power. In many of those earlier poems we saw the romantic, emotionally out-going side of his temperament straining against the sceptical, ironic side, sometimes achieving an explosive release, as it does in the stunning last line of “Obit.”, from Crocodiles and Obelisks, or soaring free of doubt more quietly, as in poems like “The Carved Buddha” or “The Meeting House” in Out There. Anomaly is suffused by a cooler, more playfully detached, Marvellian kind of irony in which different ways of looking at the same subject coexist in a calm suspension rather than fighting against each other.
I’ll try to put flesh on these generalities by looking at “Earscape”:
Milton lost his sight in libertyes defence
and I my hearing in oyles pursuit employed
by factors who failed to plug our ears with down
I was the fuse-and-dynamite boy who blew
up bits of Derbyshire with blasts that lunged
through the earths crust barrelling out below
to stun the blind mole in its burrow and
bend the funicles of beetles antennae
so now alone or in a crowd I hear
the tinny thrum of protest from the earth
a stridulating bug-eyed orchestra
in the cellar of the battered dandelion
and out in the air beyond our telescopes
the admonition of a blackened star
The speaker seems to be someone who worked with dynamite in the oil wells of Derbyshire in his youth, presumably during the First World War, when drilling was undertaken there under the Defence of the Realm act. Now he suffers from tinnitus. The poem’s sheer linguistic energy sparks lively responses that branch off in different directions, so that it seems to hold a remarkable amount within itself, jumping between the mid seventeenth century, the early twentieth and our own time, taking in different kinds of war and changing industrial relations, human and beetle perspectives, and moving through very different linguistic registers.
I’ll come to contents and perspectives in a moment. First I want to say what holds the poem together, making different lines of thought dance round and through each other without either spinning apart or settling into a static conclusion.
One thing is shapeliness of form. “Earscape” is a sonnet not merely in being fourteen lines long but more crucially in following the fundamental distinguishing feature of the classic Italian sonnet, its division into eight lines and six, with a turn of thought between them. Eight lines describe the violent impact of the speaker’s work on Derbyshire and its smaller creatures, then six describe the long-term impact on him, or, to put it slightly differently, eight describe his action, six his punishment. His thought unfolds in logical stages that clearly fit and emphasise the contours of the verse, its phases being clearly signalled at the beginning of lines one, two, four and nine by the phrases “Milton”, “and I”, “I was” and finally “so now”.
The speaker’s line of thought is clear and single but those suggested to the reader are multiple and open-ended. Sharp changes of register bring complementary forces into play, giving impact, suppleness of tone and imaginative range. Allusions to earlier literature open wide imaginative vistas. Recognising these allusions isn’t vital but they do enhance the poem’s impact and meaning so I’ll look at a few.
Line 1 quotes Milton’s “Sonnet xxii: To Cyriack Skinner” in which Milton consoles himself for his blindness as the price of his pamphleteering battles “in libertyes defence”. There are elements both of cheeky humour and pathos in juxtaposing the Great Man’s consciousness of having sacrificed to a noble cause and the harm casually imposed on a dynamiting nobody by his bosses. There’s an element of social criticism that ties in with Tony Harrison’s work, particularly the Meredithian sonnets of Continuous. Spelling “oil” as “oyle” humorously mimics Miltonic English and the syntactical structure of line 2 pastiches Miltonic poetic inversion. This both strengthens the sense of travelling a distance in time and smoothes the transition between seventeenth century and modern spelling. However, particularly in the absence of punctuation, it also calls to mind Harrison’s “On Not Being Milton”, making the speaker seem like Tibb the Cato Street conspirator when he says, as quoted in that poem, “Sir I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”. We catch a distant detonation from the battlefields of the class war but where Harrison passionately drives a single message home in his poem, McKendrick skimmingly touches this idea as one among many.
Line 7 seems to remember Shakespeare’s Pericles, when Pericles cries “The blind mole casts / Copped hills towards heaven to tell the earth is thronged / By man’s oppression”. Whether that be a conscious allusion or not, the poem powerfully evokes man’s violation of nature and suggests nature’s punitive reaction. We touch on contemporary concerns with ecological damage. Again, the tone is complex, blending the vivid drama of “stun the blind mole in its burrow” with something almost cartoon-like in “bend the funicles of beetles antennae. We seem to relive the excitement the lad felt as he did his dynamiting. But line 9, describing the consequences, has a gravity perhaps enhanced by a faint echo of the last stanza of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.
Broad vistas are opened by allusions but the play of light down them is particularly achieved by shimmerings of tone and changes of register, as when archaic English is followed by the graphic modern colloquialism of lines 4 – 7, especially the vigorous American “barrelling”. This in turn modulates through the learned vocabulary of “funicles” and “stridulating” to the linguistically heightened poeticism of “the admonition of a blackened star”. Such mixing of registers keeps us off balance and imaginatively alert. So does the way formal satisfaction is complemented by formal surprise. For example, the sparsity of obvious rhyming heightens the impact of the powerful slant rhyme sequence, “blew”, “below” and “burrow”. Artistic boldness gives the poem imaginative freedom and suggestive range. At the same time, clarity of overall form, logical development of argument and subtlety of modulation hold its diverse impulses and suggestions together in a seamless flow, like a well-conceived mobile sculpture.
The way this poem invokes other works of literature is like the way many other poems in the volume more explicitly allude to or draw on films, painting or other people’s writing. All minds are consciously and unconsciously shaped by the works of other people’s hands and brains. What’s unusual about McKendrick is how deliberately, explicitly and continually he engages with the fact in his own writing. In “Arboreal” he borrows Machado’s celebration of a poetry of echoes and allusions, saying
a tree full of birds was your emblem
of the poet – home for wandering voices
He tells us that Machado valued Virgil above all for being
host and haven to
a ghost-guesthood, a close-packed company
of singers, without botching or mangling their notes
and he asks us to
think of the bird whose head is full of tree,
who sits on the bare branch, guardian of green,
hearing the dim hum of buds in the xylem,
wind rattling her cage of wet, black boughs.
Tradition and the Individual Talent indeed. The punning allusion to Hopkins’ “Margaret” – “what heart heard of, ghost guessed” – warns us not to be po-faced about this, but what an enchanting emblem that one of a tree full of birds is, and how cleverly McKendrick develops and exemplifies it by incorporating Ezra Pound’s famous image of faces in the underground as “petals on a wet black bough” into his conclusion.
Film and music are sources of inspiration too. “Back to Black” is titled after an album by Amy Whitehouse. The outstanding “La colonna sonora”, meditating on the Italian phrase for “soundtrack”, takes us to the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone. Humorously reflecting on how “colonna sonora” has a better ring than “sound track”, McKendrick produces a series of vivid images that seem to me both admiring and tinged with humour at the expense of Italians’ concern with dignity, grace, making a good impression, all the aspirations summed up in the phrase “bella figura”, and the gimcrack ways in which it’s sometimes achieved.
like a pillar of water sustaining a cloud,
a fluted column on a celluloid plinth
that turns our voices into architecture
What’s really devastating, though, is the turn in line eight that gives us the sestet’s evocation of the harshness of the Sardinian shepherd boy’s life in Padre Padrone:
When I think of these sonorous columns
the one that wakes in my ear is the wind loud
in the holm oak at the edge of his world
the peasant boy hears in Padre Padrone,
the belling sheep, the cantu a tenòre,
all the drone and clamour of creation
crushing each creature with the force of nature.
Cantu a tenòre is a form of Sardinian folk singing in a group of four, one voice apparently traditionally imitating the wind, another sheep bleating, another a cow lowing. After the playfulness with which the octave evokes the dignity, luxury and frivolity of civilisation enriched by art, the almost Hardyan vision of ruthless nature falls as a crushing shock.
It’s only quite briefly that McKendrick allows his tone to harden as much that but I think when he does we see more fully why some of his poems are translations and why so many of his best original pieces are responses to art: however ironically he may interrogate his responses to it, I get the impression that art and the creativity it embodies are close to the centre of what seems to him to civilise and give value to life. But lest this seem too solemn or unequivocal, I should say that one of the poems that gave me most pleasure in the book was “Very Fine Fake”, which describes how his father bought two fake ancient coins in Athens. After his father’s death, it seems, he tried to sell them. After their exposure and return by the auction house, McKendrick says
I’m glad they’re back and that
the stater fooled one sharp-eyed, in-house expert.
On the Paul Menard principle
they’re finer than originals could be
– how much more art and subtle plotting it cost
to forge them more than two millennia later
than just hammer out run-of-the-mill
coinage for mere commodities,
for goats and cabbages and olive oil.
Up in my loft, walled in with worthless paper,
I shall turn them in the light,
with their two blinking owls,
and savour the wisdom of the counterfeit.
Serious? Tongue in cheek? Not one or the other but both, spinning between the two. It’s as impossible to settle for one or the other as it is in Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress”. Who could deny that it took more art and subtle plotting to make these fakes than to hammer out the originals? But “On the Paul Menard principle” prepares us to see the idea as paradoxical before it’s presented.
Many pleasures come together in these poems – urbanity, wit, sharp intelligence, formal inventiveness, linguistic flair and a constant, impish sense of fun animating serious reflection. It’s a book I’d highly recommend, though it may disappoint those who look above all for unequivocal positions and intense emotion in their poetry.
Edmund Prestwich is a retired English teacher. He organises poetry discussion groups, tutors for the Poetry School, works on the committee of Poets & Players to promote performances of poetry and music in Manchester, writes reviews and writes poetry. His two collections are Through the Window and Their Mountain Mother. He blogs at http://edmundprestwich.co.uk/
Konstandinos Mahoney’s Tutti FruttiTutti reviewed by Colin Pink
Tutti Frutti by Konstandinos Mahoney. £8. SPM Publications. ISBN 978-0993503580
There is something beautifully life-affirming about Konstandinos Mahoney’s first collection, Tutti Frutti. It is not in any way a facile positivism, a kind of Pollyannaism, it is positive despite confronting us with the complexities and difficulties of a life fully lived.
Like many first collections, Tutti Frutti is, at its core, an autobiographical journey through significant moments in the poet’s life. Through this immersion in the singular we begin to recognise many universal themes around family life, desire, and a sense of belonging or not. It is a life rich in variety in terms of culture, place and sexuality. There is no simple identity but a palimpsest of co-existing national, cultural and loving relationships. The poems dance with these themes and build up to a composite and multi-layered identity, replete with wit, that provides a welcome counterpoint to the simplistic sloganeering of today’s politicians.
Mahoney’s mother was Greek and his father was Irish/English; Mahoney lived for many years in Hong Kong and his civil partner is Chinese. We sense the convergence of these cosmopolitan roots and experiences in these intensely rendered visions of life.
The collection kicks off with a sequence of vivid snapshots from childhood. Mahoney’s larger than life mother comes across as a dominating presence. In the poem ‘Tutti Frutti’ the young Konstandinos comes home to discover his mother having an afternoon tryst with a female colleague from work. In ‘Riri’ she observes her son showing a more than sporting interest in the male tennis players in the park and in ‘Geometry’ Mahoney remembers feelings of nascent desire for a fellow schoolboy.
The blackboard is abstracted with equations.
On the desk – protractors, dividers.
I glance sideways at him,
try to measure the angle between us
In break time, beyond the playing fields,
We build a fire; twigs and branches spit and cackle.
He shimmers behind a veil of heat.
In double Biology, we sit together in the lab,
smelling of smoke and desire.
The dominant personality of his mother is wittily sketched in ‘Vampire Madonna’:
At nine I gave you a Valentine – plump red silk heart …
Later I killed you off in a dream, your bier drawn
by glossy black horses with purple plumes – I spared no expense.
When I fled north to university, you bombarded me with
food parcels, home baked cakes heavy as guilt.
We sense the hard to resolve conflict between familial and societal expectations and the hopes and desires of the individual. Mahoney doesn’t flinch from conveying the conflicts and pain that result from grappling with a shifting identity. Despite having feelings for other men Mahoney married and had a child but subsequently came out as gay. Some of the most moving poems in the collection (‘Handover’ and ‘Hotel Claire de Lune’) are those documenting snatched moments with his young daughter before having to return her to his estranged wife who is, one infers, incandescently angry at being betrayed by her husband’s sexuality.
Books a hotel, somewhere to go
for the six hours they have together
But down the corridor a crocodile creeps,
a loud legal clock ticking through its grinning teeth.
They hurry through the lobby to the hired car,
he fumbles with the child seat’s puzzle lock,
goggles at his watch grown dartboard size,
they stare at each other with saucer eyes.
He drives back bawling nursery rhymes,
windscreen-wipers beating frantic time.
On the dot, pull up outside the mother’s door
that slams shut on her tiny baffled face.
Even in our relatively liberal society the pressure to conform to long-established norms is still a powerful, albeit mostly unspoken, force. In ‘Pride’ a poem about attending the gay pride march in London, after the march is over and he and his partner merge back into the crowds around Oxford Street the poet notices: ‘… we’re no longer holding hands.
’We live in a world where newsfeeds of one form or another make it impossible to escape atrocities that ring the horizon. In ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, one of the most powerful poems in the book, Mahoney recounts an encounter with his TV after a tiring day:
flop down on sofa,
turn on TV.
Line of men kneeling,
bright orange jumpsuits,
soldiers behind them,
each with a curved blade,
a personal butcher for every man.
Grab the remote,
hop to a new channel,
land in a kitchen
all shiny and new,
showing you how
to butterfly lamb,
‘Run your knife slowly
,like this, down the centre,
then cut through the flesh
to reveal the bone.’
Chilling and true it is the kind of poem that requires one to put down the book and take a moment or two to recover. Quickly switching channels, Mahoney provides us with many wryly observed poems about the places he has visited: Athens, Prague, Hong Kong. In ‘Praha’ someone steals his passport and wallet:
You can’t recall the exact moment
you were singled out,
but it’s close to the time the Staré Město
with its bohemian charm, stole your heart.
Now, unencumbered, you are more truly
a stranger, free to discover
who you want to be.
In a beautiful love poem called ‘The One’ he recalls how he met and fell in love with his partner in a noisy bar:
and in that teeming aviary of tipsy men
shrieking above the boom and thump
of dance anthems, we are drawn into a
stillness so singular that when the lights
go up on a shabby, shrunken dive,
we are still in wonderland, my heart
spinning like a glitter ball and I know
this is the moment, you are the one.
It is not surprising that a cosmopolitan poet, who celebrates the power and beauty of hybridity, should have written the powerful anti-Brexit poem ‘Dr Mirabilis and the Brass Wall That Will Save England’ which won the Poetry Society Stanza prize in 2018. He unleashes a joyous skill in satire, in a mock heroic style, as he depicts the principal players in the Brexit cause as characters in an Elizabethan farce, who hire an alchemist (Mirabilis) to protect England by magically constructing a brass wall around it.
‘How,’ she muses, ‘do we keep them out?’
‘Mirabilis will know,’ pipes up the fool,
a mop-head jokester swamped in crumpled clothes,
‘he’s as wizardly in truth as in trickery.’
‘Go fetch,’ she charges, crossing leathered legs.
Forth he bumbles, north to distant shires,
home to freckled Vikings
and offspring of the Commonwealth,
finds the alchemist hard at work
transforming foaming pottles into piss.
The magician duly promises he can:
…circle England round with brass,
a shining wall sprung from your mouth,
command and it shall ring the English strand,
bolder than the slabs that sliced Berlin,
the barricade that stays the Latin tide,
encircling like the mighty ring of Jove
from Dover to the market-place of Rye.
In the poem England is saved (from Brexit) by the unlikely figure of the ghost of Margaret Thatcher:
A flash of lightning, Big Ben wakes and booms,
a witch swoops in with a frozen leg of lamb,
‘This meat is not for turning,’ she declares,
and brings it down hard upon The Head – the wall is dead.
Alas, at time of writing, we are still waiting for that leg of lamb to save the day, while the daily news constantly swings between farce and tragedy. As I hope I have shown, this collection has a great variety, held together by the author’s personal story and a strong sense of human empathy.
Mahoney’s warm-hearted, thoughtful and timely poems invite us to live a life without constructing barriers around ourselves, without fearing the other and giving way to ignorance and prejudice.
Colin Pink Review of Kate B Hall’sThe Story Is
The Story Is Kate B Hall, Bad Betty Press, 2018 £10 ISBN 978-1-9997147-3-4
When and how do we decide who we are? And is it something that we can, in any meaningful way, ‘decide’ on at all? It seems to me that these difficult questions are at the heart of Kate B Hall’s fascinating collection of poems.
The cover of The Story Is shows a photograph of the author as a little girl looking up (being consciously engaging) at her father as she walks down the street with him and her older sister. Many of the poems in the collection have that veristic snapshot quality of the cover image, able in a flash to reveal a great deal about the subject, in a very economical way.
Hall’s collection of poems constitutes a subtle social history of Britain, from the end of the Second World War to the present day, as reflected in the experiences of the author. The poems form an autobiographical sequence beginning with childhood in the late 1940s; for instance ‘Our War’:
This was our war even though we couldn’t remember it.
Our city was in ruins, punctuated by bombsites
In 1949 we still had gas masks and gas mask drill at nursery.
Mine had ears; it was supposed to look like Mickey Mouse
It was only when we had to give the gas mask
and the box back that I understood the war was over.
The poems trace the poet’s sense of identity, as it evolves through childhood, youth, motherhood and finally mature contentment in a lesbian relationship. Different poems address different previous selves, unearthing memories and feelings of guilt, as in ‘Epitaph for a Younger Kate’: ‘Her hand slips into my memories, / prises them open, an oyster’s cringe / just before swallowing.’
Hill grew up with a German mother in an atmosphere of anti-German feeling in post-war Britain. ‘Knackwurst’ (the standout poem in the collection for me) is about prejudice, feeling different, and trying to fit in:
The K pronounced, the A more like a U,
onomatopoeic the sound of a knife
through the skin of my favourite
German sausage. Saturday treat
sometimes accompanied by sauerkraut
and mashed potatoes …
Not the right era for cultural celebration.
I had been called Kraut at school
and any sort of foreign equalled bad
What did you have for your dinner?
Sausages and mash.
This poem wittily and perceptively expresses how socially enforced norms put pressure on people to ‘pass’ as something they are not and keep their true identity undercover. All of us have experienced the uncomfortable sensation of not fitting in and Hall provides us with a cathartic expression of these anxieties. In ‘Tribute’ she highlights how it is often the most maligned people who are actually the kindest and most fun: ‘my aunt was a tart / I remember her / she was beautiful’.
The significance for ordinary peoples’ lives of the post-war Labour government’s establishment of the NHS is beautifully expressed in ‘Thank you Mr Bevan’:
Always, according to my mother, a difficult child,
at three I contracted double pneumonia and sank
into a coma. My sister remembers sitting
with our parents round the bed, like something
out of a Victorian melodrama.
They were waiting for the doctor,
in his grey Morris Minor to fetch
Penicillin, the new wonder drug,
from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, courtesy
of the even newer National Health Service.
The alarms imposed by the threats of ill-health to the self and others runs like a leitmotif through several of the poems, as in ‘Watch and Wait’, where punctuation takes on increasingly sinister overtones:
Life punctuated by scans and results, four months apart,
general anxiety roots itself, grows to terror;
life not simply interrupted or punctuated,
nothing so clear as a full stop, though that may come later.
As one turns the pages multiple layers of the author’s self seem to peel away, revealing joys, sorrows, and remorse: ‘Those things that I have said / cannot be unsaid, no magic / can undo the saying.’
Even though, as Henry de Montherlant said: ‘Happiness writes in white ink on a white page’, still one might wish that there were more moments of joy and excitement expressed in the book, especially since, when she does write about passion (for instance in ‘Lick Spit Shiny Coming of Age’) the results are highly evocative:
My skin thinned
to your touch
and an electric shock
from my tongue
to my stomach
and back again.
Often there is a sense of nostalgia, of something lost, slipping away or out of reach, such as ‘My Mother’s Autograph Book’:
… ‘Begun in Germany when she was 11,
mostly written by her school friends;
neither of us understands these entries.
We wrote rather formally
… except that one time
when I was three and did a drawing;
I was in big trouble but my artwork remains.
My sister is beginning to forget
the most recent babies in the family
and what happened yesterday.
So as our shared history is forgotten,
I covet this book, left to her
and, to my shame,
think often of stealing it.
Life is full of possibilities and choices, and Hall skilfully evokes, in a clear and poignant style, those feelings of looking back on life and weighing all the multiple threads that bind us to others and our own sense of identity. I highly recommend this book, which succeeds in being both deeply personal and universal at the same time. Here is ‘Parallel Universe’:
I imagine another life
where I am childless, an academic,
for a moment my heart
is brimming with pride
but then I see my not-born children
floating up into the clouds.
I pull them back,
like lost balloons
and tie them round my wrist.
Colin Pink lives in London, England. He studied Philosophy at the University of Southampton and Art History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He works as a freelance writer and art historian. His plays have been produced in London (Defining Dawn), New York City (The Inner Circle, Minotaur), and Berlin (Minotaur, Bitter). He wrote Touch which won numerous awards for best short film at international film festivals. His poem “Games the Dead Play” was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize. Acrobats of Sound is his first collection of poems.
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 Poetry 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.