Dónall Dempsey’s Crawling Out and Falling Up reviewed by Michael Farry
Crawling Out and Falling Up by Dónall Dempsey. £10. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1913329037
The title of Dónall Dempsey’s new poetry collection, his fifth, Crawling Out and Falling Up, gives the reader a flavour of what to expect within its covers – delight in the possibilities of language, a childlike way of looking at the world and a refusal to be solemn when dealing with the vital things in life. The title poem involves a child’s response to seeing a puddle, twisting language in a fresh way. In an afterword the poet tells us that Tilly, his daughter, taught him “how the world is to be approached.” With this now grown-up daughter we say “Oh Da…./ How do you ever / think of such…things?”
And these poems do deal with the vital things. In “Beyond the Clouds” he confronts the death of a brother who ran “for the sheer joy/ of being / a little boy.” “Now far far from that time/ beyond even death// I call his name/ and he takes my hand.” In remembering, there is of course nostalgia, grief, sadness and regret, but these are faced and overcome. There is so indulgence here, instead the prevailing tone is of joy and wonder and optimism for the future. In “Visitation” the sunlight challenges the poet who has been visited by the deceased brother “will we get on / with it?”
There are also poems here about love lost and won, about growing up, “I ran into / the memory of me”, about the terror of war, the importance of place. These are deal with in a lively, interesting, witty way. The playfulness of the language and the amusing and apparently off-hand attitude often takes us off guard so that enjoying the fun and the play we suddenly come face to face with the realities, tragedy and comedy, of life.
There are many examples where the poet expresses a profound insight in simple terms, as in “A bird sings / the morning into being” and “snow has fallen/ in love with the world” in both of which the line break does so much work in catching the reader off guard. His imagery is original and unexpected. “time rearing up like a wave/ that never ever breaks”, “the house was talking / to the wind/ in its creaky old voice”, “Spring had the house / surrounded.”
He delights in the subtleties and vibrancy of words and delights in using unusual terms, especially for parts of the body, “chelidon”, “popliteal fossa”. He plays with language and includes Gaelic/Irish words and phrases, including a discussion of the meaning of his own names, Dempsey meaning in Irish “the proud one.”
The poems have a wide range of references, to literature, to classical learning and to popular culture without any pedantic heavy handiness or show off. The author admits no boundaries between these areas. In “That William Carlos Williams Moment” Adam and Eve tell God “This is just to say/ we have eaten . . . ”. There are nods to Walt Whitman, Bach, Rogers and Hart, Billy Joel, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the Dalek fallen on hard times, The Last of the Mohicans, The Frog Prince. Often the original story is subverted as in “The Swan & Leda” where Zeus as the swan is plucked, cooked and eaten by Leda – “a God fit for a dish”.
A former soldier, the author includes some impressive war poems, one titled with a Wilfred Owen’s quote, “Fresher Fields than Flanders” and another titled “If Only the War Would Die” dealing with “the curse/ of survival.” “A car backfires / and I hit the ground”. The face of dead soldier friend is everywhere “He falls in the rain / again and again”.
This collection of 130 pages includes 74 poems and 34 haiku, plus some prose pieces which work as glosses on some poems and their sources. The untitled haikus, scattered through the collection, work as comments on or correctives to, the poems they share pages with as when a poem about a child teaching a puppy to read is followed by: “tears at school gate / mine not hers / she runs into her new life”.
The layout of the book is unusual, two columns on A5 landscape pages. The poems follow each other without demanding pages for themselves, cutting down on white space. The poem, “A Corporal’s Definition of Poetry”, contains a wry comment on this, when a copy of David Jones’ In Parenthesis falls from the author’s uniform during bayonet practice the corporal looks at it and yells “There isn’t enough white / space around the words for it to be a poem!”
In an age when poetry tends towards the dull repetition of common themes, the generally accepted platitudes of the comfortable, expressed in precious language, Dempsey’s exuberance and simplicity is refreshing. To some extent the author might be seen, to use his own words “like an isolated / isosceles triangle amongst / a bunch of squares”.
Michael Farry, a retired primary teacher, is a historian and poet. His poetry has been widely published in Ireland and the UK, Australia, USA, Canada and India. His first poetry collection, Asking for Directions, was published by Doghouse Books, Tralee, in 2012 and his second, The Age of Glass, by Revival Press, Limerick, in 2017. His third collection will be published in March 2020.
Dawn Gorman’s Instead, Let us Say reviewed by Wendy Klein
Instead Let us Say by Dawn Gorman. £8.00. Dempsey & Windle. ISBN: 978-1-907435-86-7,
Dawn Gorman has much to say and says it more eloquently in this slender volume of 27 poems than poets in many collections I have picked up recently. I read the book through twice in one sitting: pithy, moving, tightly compacted poems with a strong build-up of suspense and a real sense of urgency. From the opening poem you know you are in the hands of a poet who is highly skilled in the use language. The ‘clout’ (p.1) of the title has three meanings, a lump, a blow, and a cloth for cleaning. All are implied in this piece about a miner’s wife: the clout that could be a lump of coal, the clout that she anticipates as
… she waits for a square
of canteen treacle tart
sneaked in his snap tin,
the weekend’s stagger,
the reek and the clout.
and in her apron pocket, a polish rag
is a light for the dark of it.
A relationship and a culture is summed up in 4 stanzas, 28 lines, setting the tone of this bijou collection where mothering, ‘a bantle of babies’ begins the 4th and last stanza. ‘Clout’ elides, swift and smooth, into the second poem, an ekphrastic piece after the sculpture ‘Interaction’ by the metal sculptor, Alex Relph. Here the poet imagines the ‘angles of gold’ as elbows and knees of a nine-month foetus:
unexpected points against softness,
nothing quite lined up,
just small gestures of touch between
xxxxxx your double helix
Motherhood reappears as the poet hears Alice Oswald read from her collection ‘Memorial’, and another recurrent theme of threat/menace creeps in:
The loss of Greece’s best loved sons,
is on the poet’s tongue,
a belated honouring,
the reading by heart from inner pages
unfaltering as the tide of death.
The poems continue to haunt Gorman:
I lie on the side of the bed you don’t sleep on
and listen to you running
from those arrows through the night,
legs twitching like they did
before you were born
kicking my motherhood
(‘On Hearing Alice Oswald Read Memorial’, p.5).
The subtle build-up of suspense is a core skill of Dawn Gorman. Almost every poem begins with a sense that the poet could take you anywhere ‘This is the blood of me;’ (Clout), p. 1. ‘Plague gulped us down that year; (‘Memorial Spoon, 1664’). ‘A sunset rip in the sky out-reds the Tesco sign’ (‘The Final Word’, p.18), and look at that crafty verb: ‘out-reds’!
That loss is hard-wired into relationship, whether between parent and child, lovers or other, is also a constant in these poems, creating a kinetic arc between love and death. The build-up of suspense edges toward a sort of petite mort in both usages of the phrase – the joy and the sadness, as it reaches each poem ending. Indeed, this poet can make a graveyard erotic where gates ‘moan when touched’ and ‘Ivied head stones / lie back, mouth their words / to the sun…’ (‘Old Baptist Graveyard, Mid-May’, p.15). In the ekphrastic poem from which the title of the collection is taken, the poet muses on the moment the painter may have captured for his subject, but she steps in, briefly holding back the inevitability of death:
Instead let us say you were happy
That you liked Tennyson,
the scent of lilies, plum jam,
that once you ran to pull a kitten,
still mewing, from the garden pond
It is impossible not to admire the way Gorman uses the kitten to rob death from that moment, underlining optimism in a subsequent three-line stanza:
Let us say the lines to come
around your eyes will be
the footprints of your laughter. (‘Portrait in the Museum’, after ‘Unknown Lady’ by Eden Upton Eddis, p.6).
Ultimately what compels this reader most is the underlying seriousness of this poet’s work. In ‘Ewe, with Julia’ (p.22), she reminds us of the losses, which humans perpetrate unthinkingly on animals;
You and your camera are in the black slit of her pupil,
but under those eyelashes she finds the far distance,
sees beyond this winter meadow
to the flock on a summer evening –
two skittish lambs whose skittish bleat she knows from the rest –
If there is any criticism here, it might be that the ewe remembering the loss of her lambs taken away by ‘the man’ verges slightly into the pathetic fallacy, but the poet makes her point with skill and a gentle poignancy and is forgiven. In ‘Westonbirt Arboretum’ (p. 26) she tackles ecological loss directly, finishing with the lines:
This Spindle’s yellow is a fragile rope
between autumn and spring.
Madeira Mountain Ash and Sapphire Dragon Tree
are on the Red list, losing ground. Panic is rising.
Put your hands on the bark. Feel it.
It is the poem ‘Maiden Stakes’ (p.23), where the primary threads of Gorman’s skills and themes, and the climax, horrific in this case, are brought together for me most powerfully. The ‘maiden(s)’ of the title are horses who have never won a race, and the opening line gives away little. The impending tragedy lies in the dropped second line, the single word so doom-laden:
From the grandstand, you see the horse drop away,
watch how it still heads for the post – five furlongs, four –
a front leg held off the ground at an angle.
The reader will know that a racehorse with a broken leg, is a dead horse, so the story will unfold with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy as the bloodthirsty spectators, ‘a pack thirsty for a win’ shout ‘Come on! Come on! Come On’, and in the heat of it, the horse’s ‘stable lass’ is ‘running so fast, / wild-eyed, hair a dark panic behind her.’ The scene becomes gladiatorial: the obscene crowd, the screens hastily erected so there’s ‘nothing to offend’ as the animal is destroyed, but the offence is all there in the way humans find ways of shielding themselves from horror.
This theme is reinforced in the penultimate poem when the poet broods over bright objects left over, one guesses, from a holiday. She spots a detail she had not noticed: a smudge on the belly of a small bear (a toy?) showing where a little head once nestled in. Things break, die, disappear, and we sorry humans do not take notice until it is too late. The poem concludes with her own deep sorrow for this inevitability.
Sometimes I wake, not able to say
how long I’ve been crying.
The poet, Martin Malone, notes on the back-cover that throughout this collection, ‘There is an intensely felt oneness with the natural world.’ This factor, coupled with Gorman’s palpable tenderness, compassion and immense technical skill, sums up what is a priceless collection for me.
Wendy Kleinwas born in New York, but left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, and on from there to France, Germany and England where she has lived most of her adult life. A retired psychotherapist, she is published in many magazines and anthologies. Her retrospective collection, Out of the Blue, was recently published by The High Window Press.
Peter W. Keeble’s Passengers and Other Poems reviewed by Carla Scanaro
Passengers and other poems Peter W. Keeble. £9. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 9781907435959
Peter Keeble’s poems express a world of fantasy rooted in Science Fiction and vivid imagination triggered by everyday life. Dreams, brilliant descriptions, ironic disenchantments and curiosity are developed in his flawless lines, sometimes expressed in narrative kind of poems, other times in fragmented broken lines.
In the poem ‘My Sister’s Cider Syllabub’, the marvellous drink is an ‘alchemist’s mix’ that can transform your Sunday:
Each Sunday after a lunchtime of squabbles
my spry sister would make
her superlight cider syllabub,
a whisked confection
as miraculously slight
as a whispered syllable of love.
Like a warrior skilled in the stealth of conceit
she whipped and whisked,
folded and frothed, and then spooned
a portion into each of six brittle glasses
to contain her alchemist’s mix.
It is ‘nirvana to taste’ communicating a sense of indulgence and pleasure in life, a joy that is deeply enjoyed in apparently ordinary things.
The world, characters and effects of Science Fiction are explored in poems such as ‘Halfway to the Moon’, ‘Neutrino Men’ and ‘London 1945’. They combine well with the poems inspired by dreams, such as ‘Coming of Age in the War of Independence’ or ‘An Irish Christmas’. They create a world of imagination that engages the reader in its sometimes complex visions and arguments:
I used up all my fuel
to reach escape velocity,
but I’m halfway to the moon
in my airtight capsule.
The shields are up,
no particle can get through
and I have my helmet on
in case they do.
(‘Halfway to the Moon’)
The final goal is not reached; this is emphasised by the repetition ‘I was only halfway to the moon’, maybe a metaphor for the ordinary life most of us live, lost in an outer void space, isolated and never reaching a final definite goal. The rhyme scheme and line break reinforce the sense of isolation, the anxiety that is ironically contradicted by his claimed self-sufficiency ‘until the air runs out’ and by the vanity of his final performance: a ‘short and final flight’ to ‘shock the world in a flash of light’. The space capsule is, at the same time, his cocoon and tomb, an inevitable doom.
‘Das Caterpillar’ analyses the voracious appetite of caterpillars before their cocooning phase and transformation into butterflies:
Like a living locomotive he consumes everything around him
tears it up,
carries it on board for fuel
so he can get to more
and like those dangerous trains of toxic slurry
he’s got black and yellow warning signs
stencilled down the sides of carriages
that concertina up against each other in their hurry.
No need for him to suck luxuriously on fat cigars
and justify the good to others that he does
for right now it’s greed that is hid definition
and he will eat until the last small segment
of his ballooning body pops out to bursting point;
then part of him will know it’s time to stop.
These creatures are the personification of greed in their early life. Their ‘barbaric hunger’, which looks ‘innocuous’ and is apparently dictated by the inevitable laws of nature, sounds sinister, a warning, referring to similar inexplicable attitudes in the human world.
Gender and Sexuality are ironically and lightly explored in ‘When his Sister’s Out’, imagining a boy dressing up in his sister’s clothes:
I stood straight from the chair
and felt a new skin melt up my thighs
to hook over hips.
Everything else was neatly to hand
so I put them on one by one:
slit skirt, black bra and blouse,
blue high heel shoes,
then twin purple slicks for the lips,
a touch of blusher
and a sprinkle of glitter.
The list creates tension, builds up the character and opens up to new possibilities and desires. The result is intriguing, exciting and potentially boundless.
Some of the poems investigate historical events that are reinvented in the poet’s vision giving a version that is unexpected and engaging:
The wigged King of France out of doors at Versailles
takes an orange from the orange-heaped table
while the Sun hangs low in the sky.
His Queen in new diadem and necklace quietly smiles
as his knife peels through the skin,
under the cotton wool pith,
and into the flesh deep inside.
He selects to devour a fully ripe crescent,
shakes up the pale Moon in a silver water salver,
claps for the trick to begin.
(‘The Oranges of Revolution’)
The poem sets the scene in an appealing narrative; the details delineate the characters and the atmosphere. The electricity demonstration at the court of Louis XVI is actually a sort of electroshock for the priests who undergo it, a show that the king enjoys watching again and again while savouring the orange. In the meantime, the queen fiddles with ‘the diamonds at her neck’, adding to the sense of indifference and aloofness of the two monarchs that will lead to the French Revolution suggested in the title.
Keeble’s poems introduce a personal different vision that implies questioning history and philosophy creating new perspectives that are linked to his passion for Science Fiction. The poet’s storytelling is speculative yet interesting and believable, made ‘real’ for the reader’s pleasure and entertainment. ‘Passengers’ and ‘The Materialist’, two poems that obtained recognition in the ‘world of poetry’ (the former in Stokestown 2018, the latter longlisted in 2016 NPC), are examples of this effective storytelling technique that relies on cleverly chosen details and the involving flowing of the enjambments:
We work very hard to learning your language,
but we are still in the early stage
and finding words mostly for time.
On this long journey by steady train,
the arid plains judder past.
It is still too difficult to imagine
what we will fill all the time we have left with
and in which order and with what aim,
or even what it will be like when we arrive.
For now we must be content and fitfully sleep,
carried along in this queuing carriage
sometimes so fast the world is a blur
but more often as slow as the slow hand of a watch.
The displacement and separation of the refuges, who are moved from one place to the other, is highlighted in lines like ‘chewing dark chocolate you never share’ as well as in their constant state of confusion about time and place. The language they are trying to learn slips from their grasp in the endless journeying.
‘The Materialist’ creates a character based on a man the poet saw walking past his house. The backstory hints to possible wealth and exploitation based on his elegant, extravagant and impeccable attire that triggers suspects in the poet:
How should I describe this man
on this his spring term call,
sun sparking the last shower’s droplets?
Of course by his clothes.
Crisp creased linen trousers,
ironed raspberry jacket
picked out with white piping;
gloves to match in which he held
the ivory duck head of his derby cane.
Raffia boating hat, striped band bright
on his head and, afoot, new spats,
precise stitched curves
dividing rich tan from gloss black shine.
Once again, the character is deftly depicted conveying a personality that seems ruthless and is attractive at the same time. The poem constructs a story that is believable and entertaining, it generates opinions and opens to an imaginary world.
This collection stands out for its original vision ranging from Science Fiction to Philosophy, memories and historical or everyday stories reinvented by the poet’s imagination. The quality of prosody involves the reader in the narratives of a personal fictional world that is realistic, entertaining and enchanting.
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/