Malcolm Carson’s The Where And When reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The Where And When by Malcolm Carson. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1912524310
Some books surprise and this one is no exception. Whether he is writing about an exchange of words in a Grimsby fish shop that trigger unexpectedly an account of the journeys of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a romantic relationship that is described in terms of a tennis match or the hushed wonder of discovering great crested newts under a lifted log, Malcolm Carson has a way of enthralling us with his delivery.
Born in Cleethorpes, Carson moved to Belfast with his family before returning to his native Lincolnshire taking jobs as an auctioneer and a farm labourer. He studied English at Nottingham University and then taught in colleges and universities. He now lives in Carlisle, Cumbria. ‘The Where And When’ is his fourth collection from Shoestring and is in memory of his brother, Timothy Joseph Carson.
The cover design is all about family and football. These concerns are mirrored in ‘Autographs’ which is ‘not so much [about] the signatures / but more the where and when’ for Carson likes to invest his poems with a sense of time and place. ‘Autographs’ is a kind of potted history of encounters through life, where descriptions of some of the signatures are quite telling: ‘my dad’s signed off like a prescription.’ This poem, with its link to the title and book cover, is placed about halfway through the collection and acts as the pivot to what has gone before and what comes after.
Taken as a whole, this collection of forty-four poems covers a wide range of subjects. With the exception of the sequence of poems that cover the four points of the compass, they are not grouped in any apparent order which means that they have the advantage of offering the reader the luxury of constantly experiencing a consistent degree of variety in terms of subject, tone and expression. Poems about the natural world are interspersed with poems about family and poems with specific literary allusions are juxtaposed with poems from places further afield. This display of eclectic interests is refreshing, especially when it is served up with Carson’s brand of wry humour which is amply demonstrated in poems such as ‘A Rural Symposium,’ ‘Deuce,’ and ‘Lincolnshire Orchids.’
The nature poems convey a sense of wonder and are atmospheric. The mere sight of butterflies, for example, can ‘trip remembrance’. Carson keeps a tight rein on his words. There are no rambling descriptions. What is said is just enough to convey the scene and this precision makes each piece all the more powerful in the telling:
How the robin sings
when day is stripped of light
and trees of leaves,
when boughs lace a sky
turned to ice.
Its clarity thrills
across an empty road,
while thrush and blackbird
hunker down, depressed.
Sing again, my beauty!
God knows we need you.
In ‘The Owl and George MacBeth’ Carson not only recalls MacBeth’s poem by quoting a line from it but also recalls the poet himself and his ‘too-soon death.’ In MacBeth’s poem, someone, perhaps a child, who is fascinated by owls creates a kind of spell to bring an owl into being. By the end of the poem he has become the owl. Carson weaves the same spell. It is almost as if he has become an owl himself when he writes ‘I stalked it / in the waking hours, ran through / an undergrowth, but off it skulked.’ His description of MacBeth giving a reading with his ‘round glasses’ also draws a parallel with the appearance of an owl’s face.
Carson’s use of wordplay comes to the fore in poems such as ‘The Importance of Elbows’ which begins in the classroom ‘in an age that seems the stuff of imagining’ but then transcends into the writer’s own imagining as he makes use of other terms that use the word ‘elbow’ to mean different things in order to demonstrate that the word itself has important connotations that go beyond a mere description of a part of the human anatomy:
Yet Belfast’s eligible elite were quite prepared
for employing elbows as they saw fit
to dispatch covetous rivals
for the match of choice, making sure
that they for one would not be out at elbow.
Others though gazed beyond the confines
of sound etiquette where careers
beckoned, giving the elbow to dependence.
‘Not That Godric’ with its reference to the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Malden’ imitates what we have left of the poem itself by opening with its suggestion of something that has gone before:
…forbeah – so Godric fled,
In the present context, this turns out to be the whole poem because Carson is here writing about the last line of the poem which is placed in its Old English original at the head of his poem. His short phrases, some alliterative, capture the flavour of Old English poetry.
Excursions into Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ – specifically, the character of Edgar – are related in several poems placed at random through the book, the last of which, ‘Edgar Revisits The Shore’ ends with a direct quote from Shakespeare’s play: ‘Ripeness is all.’ Each of the Edgar poems is written in the first person. In one of them, for example, Edgar addresses his chronicler:
Who are you who places me
in such odd circumstance,
in times incongruous to mine, allows me to speak in language
I couldn’t know?
and in another Edgar gives us his take on politicians:
I have seen them peeking out of holes, watching
if the land is clear before they utter
reckless things, draw back, and let the caterwauling
crowd take up their cry.
The sequence of poems on the four points of the compass are as pleasingly different from each other as the distance that lies between them. ‘East’ is grounded very firmly in the past tense. It is the place ‘where my life came up / slowly, uncertainly, in a seaside town.’ ‘West’, by contrast, is set in the present tense. Even though the mining villages are on ‘the wrong side of Lakeland beauty’, Carson feels at home in Cumbria and retains a special affection for the place:
Easy though to assume
that West is only where
the sun will set, or where
ambition fades. There’s something
to be said for being out
of sight, and simply getting on.
‘North’ is written in both the past and the present tense: once unknown, but now known territory. ‘South’ as in the phrase ‘down south’ is so far away, it is as remote as the south pole.
There is much to admire in this collection. Carson engages the reader with his variety and choice of subject matter and his finely crafted lines. ‘The Where And The When’ is worth returning to again and again.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
Nancy Mattson’s Vision on Platform 2 reviewed by Carla Scanaro
Vision on Platform 2 by Nancy Mattson. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1912524136
A collection of poems about memories, identity and making sense of being a woman, and an intellectual, are the compelling themes that Nancy Mattson explores in her new collection. She is Canadian with Finnish background, then moved to England for love and in love with the new environments she settled in. Her attentive observations and witty remarks develop in her verses, involving the reader in a journey through the Canadian landscape, Indigenous legends, metropolitan scenes and art. Her lines unravel in precise reasoning, sometimes ironic, other times sensual, and always captivating.
The collection is divided in three parts that are introduced by significant quotations which suggest the main thread of the poems of the section. The recollection of memories from childhood merge Indigenous mythology with voyages and life in the city:
Barefoot on a wide sandbar,
ankled in silt, flour gold,
mastodon bones puréed
by glaciers, I’m building
mudtowns with grandchildren
who capture minnows, float
canoe-leaves on the river
the Blackfoot people say
when God was a kid.
(‘Wading for Stones’)
Braids have purposes, they know
from the scalp, their source
that they will end
in flimsiness, a tail swish
as hair gives way
Life develops from a root of memories in an apparently orderly way ‘braided’ by ‘a steel/rat-tail’. But then there is an unexpected twist when the plaits dwindle and fade ‘like feather tips/ … //like the skirt of worn out/dancer, her ragged hems sodden/as she waded into the sea.’ Similar surprising angles are revealed in ‘Our House is called 5212’ where streets have numbers, which are less attractive than names like ‘Pine Lane’ or ‘Poplar Street’. The playground is a ravine where children pick up choke berries that taste sour, kauhea (awful) her mother says in Finnish. Eating them is a sort of test the children inflict on each other to be sure they will cope with the harsh environment or the dark side of life. This is revealed in the ‘black numbers’ tattooed on a neighbour’s arm and in ‘the photos of people’s bodies//piled up or stacked in rows on the ground/or in wagons.’
Reflecting on slow rivers, the poet looks for answers to the meaning of life:
Shallow and frivolous, braided rivers
spread and splay, beguiling me
flaunting uncountable channels
like floozies or boozers, long hair in tangles
silk robes floating open to negligées
gathering buttered crumbs on thighs
Lazy rivers have the leisure given them
by wide plains, the space to deposit their silt
like swept lines of sawdust in a gymnasium
Braided rivers say we have no need
to choose between water and ground
we can simply meander
(‘In Praise of Lazy Rivers’)
The rivers slow down, take their space, dwell, find their course unhurried. It is a wise conclusion that seems to be attained in a maturity that is both disillusioned and hopeful.
An alternative space, introduced by the famous lines from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s ‘Dark Pines under Water’, is investigated in the second section. It is an internal journey that speaks different voices such as characters of Finnish legends, an injured woodman, an abused woman, the poet’s Finnish grandmother and figures from Indigenous totems. Mattson shows her versatility in the use of different structures that surprise and intrigue the reader:
Meet me at the medieval bridge
where a red bull flies and grins, a violin
floats above canals and cobbled mazes
where dancers clap and horses draw carriages
full of wedding guests and flowers.
(‘Winter Anniversary in Bruges’)
You Asked God for a Dream
but He gave it to me: a baby spoke
in sentences, articulate and serious.
Only 15 months old but already a charmer
unaware of her beauty and power,
she opened her rosebud lips,
revealed the tips of her baby teeth
and delivered a disquisition to her mum.
(‘You Asked God for a Dream’)
Poetry’s all very well
but it rhymes and scans, its lines
strap you into carved Imperial chairs, tie you
to the headboard of a four-poster bed. What I need
is words that never sleep, a futuristic babble, glossolalia
ancient words that only unborn babies understand, pure sound.
(‘Drinking at the Stray Dog Cabaret’)
The lines reflect the voices of the poems in the skilful use of enjambments that unravel flawless reasoning, soaring in passion in the love poem, visionary in the dream and apparently unflinchingly rational in the Russian avant-garde discourse. This shows the well-read quality of Mattson’s poetry that combines life experience and intellectual knowledge, sophisticated words and colloquial language as in ‘Sunday Morning in Bergamo with Damon’:
My uncle told me of soldiers
picked off as they crept from trenches,
cut down as they ran in the wrong
uniforms, clotted with mud.
The poem echoes Andrew Marvell’s ‘Damon the Mower’ in a parodic way where Juliana, the bride, ‘gets to lie in bed/while I’m sweating and swearing,’ and the protagonist pointlessly tries to clean the garden and the grotto his uncle left him.
Irony is displayed in the poem that gives the title to the collection, in which the ‘vision’ of seven nuns in black attire on platform 2 under the sign ‘Seven Sisters’, an over ground railway station in London, inspires witty verses:
Above their heads the sign ‘Seven Sisters’
in ordinary railway font, sans serif upper case,
a photo-opportunity from heaven, a miracle
for all commuters save the nuns, their eyes
on bibles or fingers on beads. They didn’t know
that a Hackney cousin of Robert Doisneau
had captured them forever on his smartphone,
(‘Vision on Platform 2’)
A sense of celebration is in the poems connected to food: ‘Canadian Apple Elegy, or Looking back to Adanac’ and ‘Feast’. The Adanac apples (the name is Canada spelled backwards) are grown in Ontario and Saskatchewan ‘shipped around the world/in wooden crates adorned with painted/Rockies, grizzlies, Mounties, moose.’ Remembering them, the poet humorously and nostalgically goes back to her land rooted in the names of the apples: ‘Adanac, Cabashea, Fallawater, Grimes/Pomme Grise, Qinte, Northern Spy …’. Thus, language evokes, connects and shapes identities.
‘Feast’, the final poem of the collection, celebrates the blessing of the harvest in a real and in a symbolic way. It is a range of products from the earth and from nature as well as a ‘harvest’ of memories acknowledged and accepted in their richness and diversity:
For the Christmas feast: spice and bite
(grace fat gold leaf)
For sweetness on tooth and tongue
(breathe in breathe out)
For the soothness of Amen
Mattson concludes her collection opening up to life that comprehends some sure referents as well as unpredictable shifting sides. She describes her views in impeccable lines that always surprise the reader with witty language and engaging themes.
Carla Scarano obtained her Degree of Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She self-published a poetry pamphlet, A Winding Road, and is working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood at the University of Reading. She and Keith Lander won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 with translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/
Carol Coates’s The Stories They Told Her reviewed by Robin Thomas
The Stories They Told Her by Carol Coates. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524365
Carole Coates’s The Stories They Told Her is one of three recent fictions – Robin Robertson’s The Long Take and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic – on the subject of violence and war from the perspective of ordinary folk (Robertson’s Walker is an ordinary soldier). Each is vigorous and visceral (perhaps reflecting the fact that while war and violence have always been with us, only in recent times have they become readily visible to all of us). What is different about The Stories They Told Her is that the events are seen through the eyes of a child.
For the child, and as adults tell her, troops are ‘giants’, propaganda leaflets dropped by aircraft are ‘letters’ saying ‘they want to be friends with us’. Shells and bombs are ‘noisy neighbours, the crash-bang boys’. Soldiers don’t steal, rather they ‘[eat] all the soap’.
This kind of language serves several functions: it’s pitched at a level a child can understand; it attempts to protect the child from reality; it serves to realistically render to the reader the mind of a child and at the same time point up the relentless horror of war by drawing attention to one of its most vulnerable and innocent potential victims; it puts the reader into the child’s state of unknowing so that the reader is left baffled just as any of us might be in the middle of the swirling torrents of war. Here is the child trying to make sense of it:
The giant’s gone south … which is like a story but not really one. She’s heard his steps and shouts in the air. All that noise, and look at the mess he’s made.
and imposing her own understanding on events, ‘they’ll be so dirty’ she thinks of the occupants of a car being used to evacuate them ‘moving very slowly full of babies and a coal cart’.
In addition to the unnamed child, the other main character, in the uncommented upon absence of the parents, is the grandmother, who willingly stands in loco parentis and is the final barrier between the child and disaster . The grandmother represents humanity at its best amongst it at its worst. She does her best to feed, protect, keep clean and reassure the child: nothing to worry about she says of an air raid siren; she takes the child to church even though the roof has been destroyed by bombing and the seats are covered in dust and glass; she bathes the child though there is no soap. One thinks of Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate ‘Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness’.
The story is told in a series of compact tableaux and brief narratives (titles are frequently used to supply key information which is not repeated elsewhere in the text). The present tense is used throughout, imparting a sense of immediacy. The story is set in an unnamed country, bounded only by ‘the north’ and ‘the south’, an ‘everycountry’.
This is a harrowing book: the ever encroaching violence, the uncomprehending witness of the child, the destruction of civil society, the way some take advantage of concomitant opportunities; in particular the ultimate disappearance of the grandmother and her replacement by her paedophile brother, all told in matter of fact, simplified and euphemistic language. The reader might hope for a happy outcome, but in Grossman’s terms, it’s the ‘great evil’ which is victorious.
Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. He has had poems published in a number of journals including Agenda, Envoi, Orbis,
Brittle Star, Poetry Salzburg, Poetry Scotland, Pennine Platform, Stand, Rialto and The Interpreters House. His pamphlet A Fury of Yellow was published by Eyewear in November 2016. His collection Momentary Turmoil was published by Cinnamon Press in 2018.