Andy Armitage’s Letters to a First Love from the Future reviewed by Clare Proctor
Letters to a First Love from the Future by Andy Armitage. Chapbook 28pp. £6. Half Moon Books. https://www.halfmoonbooks.co.uk/
As the title suggests, Letters to a First Love from the Future traverses time to recapture the poet’s memories of first love. The speaker in the poems is an omniscient presence, who knows what the future holds but is willing to deny this knowledge in order to re-experience the innocence of those events revisited.
The poems address the speaker’s ‘first love’ directly and the readers, in ‘overhearing’ the poems, find themselves able to re-enter the world of the adolescent lover, as Armitage says in the opening poem, “with all our history ahead of us”.
At first glance, the focus of this collection seems to be the first love herself. ‘Sally’ – “The name pressed here / among these pages / like a flower”. The portrayal of the poet’s first love is often idealised and there is a level of sexual objectification. In ‘Cross Gates station’, for example, the speaker recounts returning home “each school night” haunted by his lover’s “phantom limbs” and “the pressure of [her] budding breasts”. This physicality is not gratuitous but an authentic portrayal of teenage desire, when the body comes to life and is electrified through the discovery of the other. As Armitage puts it in ‘The Playing Fields’, these poems are all about the time “when everything was green and awakening”. His preoccupation with an adolescent spring awakening is evident in the opening lines of ‘Among school children’:
When the bell went
there was a scrape of chairs
and we’d shoulder our way
into that forest of green voices
not long above ground,
all reached towards the light.
As the narrative in the poems progresses, and the protagonist begins to gather experience, the narrator’s knowledge of the future begins to impose itself on the narrative and foreshadow the ending of this prelapsarian Eden. In the poem ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ we encounter the lovers “in the dark / on the swings in the Rec,” with “a plastic bag of cans at [their] feet”, while they admire “the big wheel of constellations”:
Here the moon is always waxing.
We know nothing of years or distance.
Your eyes are brimming with dead stars.
Do not let go my hand just yet.
In this poem we are made aware of the ignorance of the young lovers who have not yet encountered the dying phase of the moon, and do not yet know that many of the stars they see in the night sky have already died. In the end, all that matters to the narrator from the future is that the first love does not let go his hand “just yet” as he re-experiences that blissful moment. The title of ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ alludes to a painting by Nicholas Poutin (1594–1665) which depicts a group of Arcadian shepherds standing by a tomb that disturbs their Arcadian utopia. In Armitage’s poems, it is the voice from the future that disturbs the utopia, foreshadowing the inevitable death of the relationship which begins with the speaker’s first glimpse of Sally “on the graveyard path”.
As well as a sense of reminiscent wistfulness; a yearning for that lost time of “idiot hope” and “untouched skin”, these poems are also an occasionally self-deprecatingly confessional. In ‘A room with a double bed’ the speaker admits that his first love “could not bloom / in the stony ground of [his] petty ambitions” and talks of how he “pruned and bullied” his lover’s potential. At times these letters feel regretful and apologetic, an unflinching portrayal of the flawed self learning to love another.
The later poems in the sequence deal with the end of this young relationship. The agony of emotional loss is most effectively conveyed in the poems ‘Hoarder’ and ‘Dear John’. In ‘Hoarder’ the speaker is emotionally paralysed in his difficulty “clearing a space to live in / among the clutter of the heart”. In ‘Dear John’, a horrifyingly visceral poem, the speaker describes receiving the letter that ends his relationship and compares this experience with the slaughter of a beast for the meat market. The abattoir is a place “where that struggle with forever happens” and “the heart clenches / a defiant fist” as the animal is put to death. Having described the slaughter in detail, the speaker tells us:
…It’s best to not look.
Best to plug your ears
and think of that room as a letterbox
through which endings are posted
to land on the mat softly.
It is interesting to me that both of these poems, which are among my favourites in the sequence, use a domestic setting to undermine the associations of security and stability the settings would typically suggest.
Letters to a First Love from the Future closes with the poem ‘Eucharist’ in which the speaker tells us how he has both moved on and yet continues to treasure his early romance. Again, the poem is addressed directly to the lover, stating “Your eyes look back at me / from the faces of other women”. Despite his encounters with these “dark priestesses” whose bodies seem to act as substitutes for the body of his original goddess, he claims with some irony that he has been “faithful as a widower in [his] old religion”.
‘Eucharist’ suggests our heartbreaks involve a sacrifice that we need to make in order to learn the rites and practices that make romantic love sacred; it is a powerful final stance. I couldn’t help but wonder if the penultimate poem ‘Eurydice’ would have proved a more fitting conclusion, however. In this myth, the poet Orpheus went into the underworld to recover his lover Eurydice but in looking back he loses her forever, just as the speaker does in these poems.
Although the poems in the pamphlet work individually, the loose narrative arc of the sequence elevates the poems to a memorial to all our lost loves, our mishaps and mistakes, in the cringeworthy awkwardness of youth. Letters to a First Love from the Future is a reminder of what love was when we first found it. Through these poems we remember what is was to love in the rawness of our growing, burning bodies. And with that remembrance comes hope. And joy. And forgiveness.
Clare Proctor has had poetry published in various journals including French Literary Review, Shooter, The North, Poetry Shed and in the Handstand Press anthology – This Place I Know. She lives in Cumbria where she teaches and is a member of the Brewery Poets.
Tom Bland’s Death of a Clown reviewed by Anne Macaulay
Death of a Clown by Tom Bland. £6. Bad Betty Press. ISBN: 978-1-9997147-5-8
Bad Betty Press is run by poets, Amy Acre and Jake Wild Hall. It is a relatively young press with a focus on fresh, exciting work with an eye to contemporary preoccupations, culture and politics. Tom Bland’s pamphlet, The Death of a Clown, is a clear fit for this press.
I share Tom Bland’s love for the song by Dave Davies of The Kinks and so was drawn to read this pamphlet for the title alone, but there is so much more here. The red nose of a clown provides the smallest of masks making a clown so very vulnerable in their role and yet the overall persona, perhaps, is the ultimate human mask. Tom Bland takes us behind the red nose to uncover and discover what is the essence of human. And it’s a heady mix – birth, death, sex, sexuality, death, psychology, life, sex, death, life, death. This book is not for the faint-hearted but for those who recognise life and death has many forms and many heights and depths.
It isn’t a surprise that death is woven throughout when we learn the poet’s birth was nearly simultaneously his death. The blue baby born with his cord around his neck is recalled in the episode of solitary coke- induced blue near-heart attack in the poem opening, ‘Once a year’ and again in the bluish purple of erotic asphyxiation in the poem beginning ‘Michelle called pain’ .
Although death pervades, we are never far from humour as the poet swings us back to reality – for example before we learn about the sex play which nearly ends in death we have already learned they were using a belt bought from the Heart Foundation Shop which ends up broken. Such intentional bathos intensifies the power of the writing. The tragi-comic nature of the clown is exploited fully and these poems catch how life so often brings sadness and tragedy but that comedy is not just a coping mechanism but a way of creating happiness.
The poems give the air of wandering – through dreams, memory, psychoanalysis, fictional and/or real – yet Tom Bland’s writing is very controlled and we are continually given touchstones of reality which provide clear structure. In the poem starting ‘Once a year’, one of the poems I found most affecting, there is a brief conversation with a woman outside a nightclub in Dalston and this simple everyday conversation provides the frame, and the point, for the poet’s roaming words. Within it, too, there are great examples of Tom’s ability to make connections and describe what is happening with precisely drawn language:
‘That self-aware speck
jittering or jumping between the two,
being dead/born once again.
Ranting so fast all my words blurred into rapid
hand gestures, the very
shapes of my early tongue-tied jabbering.’
A clown is a performer and many poets are performers and Tom Bland is both a clown and a poet – I have had the pleasure of watching him perform and know how these words would flow aloud but if you haven’t had that experience they are just as strong on the page. Much of the poetry is deceptively simple and prose-like but there is always a flow, poetry that works on the rhythms of speech catching the eye and ear with rich images. Between serial killers and near-death experiences, Tom Bland would have you believe he is fixated with death but I am sure that behind the mask once the clown is dead, Tom has a real smile not just a painted one and that life truly triumphs.
Anne Macaulay was born in rural, northern Scotland but, since meeting her husband, has embraced urban life in East London. In recent years poetry has become her passion and she enjoys writing, reading, performing and translating poetry. She has had poems published in several anthologies including, in 2018, a poem in The Emma Press Love anthology and ten poems in Arachne Press 6 women poets anthology, Vindication.
Kavita A. Jindal’s Patina reviewed by Chris Hardy
Patina by Kavita A. Jindal. £6. the wind in the trees. ISBN: 978 0 9935135 4 1
It was just lying here
the poem, the dream
by the window sill
The opposite of elation
blew it away’
These verses, from ‘After The Recital; The Lost Page’, illustrate something of ‘Patina’s’ atmosphere: life is contingent, magical, sad, amusing. Poetry tries to catch that, but is itself strange and hard to find. The poet must wait, ready to catch it:
just living is an act of faith.’ (‘Act of Faith’)
if we don’t write it this minute
we will never write it (‘Ellipsing, Elapsing’)
Kavita is a widely published writer of poetry and fiction (www.kavitajindal.com). In this latest collection there are a core of principal concerns, expressed in concise, accurate language, using what we can see and feel, to imply and suggest what can be impossible to state. In the excellent poem, ‘It was in May. The sky poured’, about a parting on a railway station in India, a whole narrative of departure, loss, sorrow is contained in the opening stanza:
The day the gutters overflowed
I left Kotapuram Port.
The poem lays out further indications of what might have happened, using concrete images to express emotion, (‘The long brown train awaited the flutter/ of the guard’s green flag’) and ends with a few words that accept our needs and desires will not be taken into account by time and change:
It was in May. The sky poured. The gutters overflowed.
I left Kotapuram behind. The trains ran on time.
This poem shows why Kavita is a successful writer of stories in short fiction as well as a poet. Its reflections on leaving and departure are also the subject of a few other poems: in ‘Kabariwala’ a young man who makes a living collecting paper and glass for recycling tells the narrator’s mother that he is ‘Going foreign’, where there is ‘free love .. probably England’, where they don’t ‘re-process old things’.
He is happy about breaking away, but in ‘Where Home Was’ another aspect of emigration is considered. A ceiling fan becomes an metaphor for how leaving one’s home and community is an irrevocable and painful separation, that ‘nomads have freedom, if no home .. because the voyage is endless’:
In the whirring blades of this fan
My future was glimpsed; sliced
Revolving on the damp ceiling
Were suitcases packed with dreams
It’s where I saw clearly that I would leave
The past would be segmented; diced
This poem, like many others, resembles a painting in the use of precise imagery to suggest emotion, beautiful and poignant. Elsewhere it is not only the émigré who has no home: humanity itself, and all of us as individuals, are only here briefly, it is something we must accept, defy, and embrace:
Such a thing as our world will drown you
burn you, bury you …
But when you bow your head the earth
won’t grant you forgiveness …
All this has been before; and it is yet to come.
The nomads of the desert remember
and they kiss the ground in homage
before stamping hard on it to dance.
(‘Such a thing as a cloud would sully your tongue’)
And the powerful poem ‘Capilano Bridge’ describes the terrifying, but exciting experience of crossing a swaying suspension bridge as a way of considering how we must face life, with the huge drop of death ever present beneath us, ‘The wintry canyon below waited for us to fall’ .
Several poems consider women’s lives and experiences. The poet uses humour and wry observation in ‘Beach Apparel’, and in ‘Piccadilly Line Salon’ three women do their make-up on the tube. ‘They peer, pout, slick, flick/ they are good; they are quick’, leading the narrator to consider if she needs to inspect her own post-breakfast appearance. ‘Faucet’ also starts in a light-hearted manner with, ‘A woman/ may buy a tool-kit and know how to use it’ but then gets much more annoyed when considering how women are regarded in Saudi Arabia and the Punjab. (See also ‘For You Who Wave ‘Women For Trump’ Placards!)
The tone in ‘Faucet’ remains ironic and cynical but becomes angry and vengeful in ‘Katra’, about two sisters murdered by being hung ‘from the mango tree’:
bequeath your souls to the breeze
so the perpetrators hear you
carrying with them always
There is something of Shelley and Plath in this poem – an unashamed, vengeful, righteous fury.
Kavita takes great care over the structures she employs: a variety of stanza forms, using blank space, rhyme and half-rhyme and as few, and precise, words as possible, make a fine collection of elegant, attractive, forceful lyrics.
I will write it, and if you like
I will sing it (‘Anything But’)
Perhaps one of the most moving poems in ‘Patina’ is ‘My Birth Telegram’ which ends with the telegram the writer’s father received on an ocean liner, announcing the arrival of his daughter in a code agreed with his wife:
If it’s a girl she’ll be a poem, a white bloom ..
At sea, he received the news on board.
THE WHITE ROSE ARRIVES STOP
POETRY THRIVES STOP
At the bottom of the page a note explains, ‘Kavita’ means ‘Poem’ in several Indian languages’. And poetry does arrive in the world with ‘Patina’.
Chris Hardy lives in London and has lived and travelled in Africa, Asia and Europe. His poems have been published in many magazines, anthologies and websites. He is also a musician and a member of the trio LiTTLe MACHiNe who performsettings of well known poems: www.little-machine.com
Patrick Williamson’s Traversi/ Crossings reviewed by Luigi Cannillo
Traversi/ Crossings by Patrick Williamson. (Bilingual with Italian versions by Guido Cupani). €12. Samuele Editore. ISBN 978-8894944075
Elements of a visionary nature and the dynamics of poetic language can clearly be applied to writing about conflict. The common thread in this collection is the passage and transit, as in the original title, Crossings, which Guido Cupani renders well with Traversi. The latter not only reflects the idea of intersections in the narrower sense of the term but amplifies effect and function, transverse movement, diagonality, and depth. This is about moving into a state of conflict, which drives people to flee, crossing obligatory spaces in the chaos. Conflict manifests itself during the escape itself and is considered not so much an extreme condition as an inherent part of existence. It is understood as a collective condition and existential state, not only as war, struggle, and violence:
It crunches as it enters, cooling,
its shrapnel wraps around legs
its dust smoke palls, quietens
coughing, destroys the sense of
days hammered into days
barber shop that reopens
whose wall is still standing
whose living room is open air[…]”.
This state is reflected in taut expression at the outset, as in Outhouse, where elements of the four quatrains produce an impetus and build-up made effective by use of the pithy imperative:
Open, the air chills my neck,
pare the gloom, take down
the old scythe. Papers damp.
This is the burden. Burn them. […],
In the subsequent poems, the verses are progressively extended into longer measures, grouped in couplets or more full-bodied verses, or even splintered. But even here the use of repetitions, anaphors, and unexpected ‘flash’ words marks out a tight rhythm. Moreover, the endings conclude effectively in a peremptory manner:
One got out to Witness
The others were held by the scruff
they are trying to dig out the boy
scrape your hands raw, or scrub them.
This expressionist vitality underpins the agitated insistent tone, as does the whirling lexicon, and evocation of extremes linked to forms of oneiric perception: “dead babies in ice cream cabinets”, “smashing of windows”, “a bloodied hell”: a staccato series of apocalyptic landscapes and figures.
The collection hinges fundamentally around the poem Quad, not placed by chance at the center of the book, at the heart of the sequence. The reference to Samuel Beckett, author of the homonymous work originally written for German television in 1981, is based on geometric figures that form a quadrilateral in which the actors shift in different directions: a closed, theatrical form that allows limited movement and contact.
[…]He got the shuffling off
The orange clockwork ritual that
Fascinates – watch for the new post
That tiny hole, sought
But escape unable – he did not see
The horror, as orange turns to black
Leaving that sanctuary, nor hear
Humans talk, hear their souls
Inviolable, they cannot destroy that
The reference to Beckett is exemplary for this allusion to compulsive or guided ritual movement, to that kind of passage that is also present in the title of the collection. In Traversi the reader also crosses, through characters and situations in flux, in flight, above all these journeys by sea, and people trudging and “sludging past”, or embedded in the objective correlative of the paths in the final poem, All roads lead here.
However, the collection also contains more rarefied and introspective verses that, in the second half in particular, express an implosive atmosphere in which conflict, nightmare and anguish coexist with moments of reflection, in which time is suspended, as in the remarkable Night of the rafts:
[…] lips praying, cursing
the folly, regret and hope
exhaled by the anxious
dwindles until the next
accentuates the silence […]
Or the notion of a journey as mission and necessity. The experience of our fragility and the tragedy that surrounds us makes us question the essence of poetry. as in the conclusion of Handiwork:
“Being in earshot of poetic speech that dwells in us deeply,
That dares suggest there is a still more excellent way;
Ingest, chew on it a while, take it in your selves
in full measure,
Be heralds and harbingers, poems even,
Else what are we doing here?”
This is the trace we leave behind, in which the writing is not tasked with hiding or suturing wounds but rendering them in all their trauma, like the log of the desperate journey, like a war diary.
In Traversi Williamson stands at the intersection of passages, but as a fellow traveller not a detached observer. Throughout the collection, allegorical references to travel and conflict, and more specifically to natural and ambient elements, are linked to literary and mythological allusions: from the Talmud to the Commedia, from Beckett to Adad, a Mesopotamian god of storms. Together they create both a territory and a complex essential path: that of violence and the precariousness of human existence, the open wounds of conflict that can only become a source of poetry through our awareness. Williamson does not shrink from what contemporary history says to us in daily events unfolding – under our eyes – with war, migration or terrorism, nor deadened by the barrage of news or facile rhetoric. Instead, he focuses his gaze and vision on the manifestations of such events, in which the human condition is so crudely embodied.
Luigi Cannillo, poet, essayist, translator, and editorial consultant, was born and lives in Milan. Recent poetry collections include Cielo Privato, Ed. Joker, 2005; and Galleria del Vento, Ed. La Vita Felice, 2014. His work, as a poet, curator or critic, has appeared in anthologies and collections of essays. He is editor of the Sguardi series at Editore La Vita Felice, and collaborates with international magazine Gradiva, New York/Florence.