Richard Hawtree’s The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey
The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey by Richard Hawtree. £8. Dempsey and Windle. 9-781907435751
Richard Hawtree, who has worked as a university teacher of Old and Middle English, is a poet and scholar who also knows his way around Greek and Latin, the Renaissance, and the Welsh and Irish poets of the Dark Ages. With such a recondite range of allusions, he might easily run the risk of quoting himself into a corner and becoming, in the words of Hamlet, ‘caviar to the general’. However, on closer acquaintance, the reader soon discovers that Hawtree is a witty and quietly elegiac poet, who has a Heaneyesque relish in the sound, sense and connotations of words. In ‘Hatchment’, he explores the possibilities of a fairly obscure term from heraldry:
The word itself will drop one day –
fade out losing its diamond edge,
retreating like the gauntlet that once lay
beside this hatchment on the window ledge.
From here on in we have references to ‘tallow in a pricket’, ‘hassocks’, a playful rhyming of ‘laconic’ with ‘Old Church Slavonic’ and, for good measure, an allusion to Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ and that poet’s now iconic cycle-clips. It is all good fun but does actually make an important point: language is constantly changing and each generation is defined by it.
In ‘April Leaps’, the reader is impressed by Hawtree’s rhythmical adroitness and his finely attuned ear and not merely the fact that he is updating a medieval trope:
April leaps from the city’s lap,
all bird song and blossom on footpaths –
toddlers and trad musicians swerve,
rattle and bodhrán are swept
from Quayside to castle
and back with a clack
as tides curl and diverge.
The poem’s conclusion shows that he is also adept at coming up with a memorable phrase: ‘let spring sway / in both your wintry hips’, an image that one returns to with relish. Another piece, ‘O Poem’, might be considered his ars poetica. It’s a playful celebration, a paean:
O Poem, I want you to mend
the broken glass in the fanlight
of each morning, to have duende,
to send groggy parents tumbling
back from school runs to catch you
burgling their maisonettes. I want
lovers to forget each other’s names
in the manic flush of reading you,
and I want rush-hour zombies to
rest their heads on your bare shoulders.
In ‘Space Walk’ he takes us from a 13th century pavement to the Space Age via some terse, lapidary language: ‘Sheer porphyry spheres / orbit Egyptian onyx, / freeze across comets.’ Elsewhere, he makes a connection between the Roman poet, Catullus, and a 20th century Irish one, Mícheál Ó hAirtnide. Even if the significance of the link is not entirely clear to this reader, he does produce a fine reworking of ‘odi et amo’, that briefest of Latin love poems:
I love and hate –
clear causes why
I cannot yet articulate.
And even as you gently slide
into my mixed-up state –
Inspired by his familiarity with classical epigrams, haiku and the early Irish glosses, many of Hawtree’s poems are, it has to be admitted, pretty exiguous. When successful, they achieve the memorability and burnished focus of ‘Balance’: ‘As balance tumbles back / after satire’s sting, / so silver risks a smile / after burnishing.’ Sometimes, though, there are pieces like ‘Three Cork Haiku’ which, for me at least, don’t quite achieve poetic lift off.
However, beyond all the linguistic high jinks and learned allusions, there is something else at play. One fragment, based on the Aeneid, introduces a theme informing several other poems: the pursuit of the good life set against the forces that militate against it:
Aeneas did things us schoolboys could not:
stripping an oak of branches to pin up
the shields of mangled enemies before
turning his steps towards the pyre-red camp.
But what unnerved us most was his clear knack
for shedding tears, not blood: and when he wept
our freshly scanned hexameters grew hot
and, later, brittle with the sting of war.
In ‘At the Burning of Sappho’s Poems, A.D. 1073’, the Catholic Church cannot countenance the poet’s frank avowals of passion: ‘Charred strophes settle / on amice and dalmatic.’ ‘Independence’, set in a Cork garden, is a quiet celebration of companionship, where the poet is nonetheless mindful of the snipers who lurked there in a more turbulent age. In ‘Digital Detox’, Michel de Montaigne, who wrote during one of the bloodiest and most bigoted periods in French history, is seen as a touchstone of wisdom and humanity when set against our own increasingly technological age. There is warmth and wisdom, too, in ‘Peccadillo’, a poem adapted from ‘The Golden Verses of Pythagoras’:
Settle your kindness on parents and siblings.
Now draw to yourself friendship founded on virtue,
outrunning all others in honour’s sprint heats.
Weigh his words with her works:
Finally, I can’t resist commending Hawtree’s splendid title poem, although first of all I should ‘declare an interest’. I have myself spent many desultory years trying to get on nodding terms with my ancestral tongue. I can only presume that ‘The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey’ is Hawtree’s take on his own attempt:
My vocabulary was wider than the Bay of Biscay,
my syntax as crafted as a Galway hooker.
I used the vocative in all the right places
and the dative with archaic precision.
In these days of instagram poets or those who espouse causes with so many urgent things to say, it may be difficult for a poet like Richard Hawtree to compete. It is to be hoped, nonetheless, that there will still be an audience for these wry, sane and finely crafted poems.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window.
Jasmine Simms’s Like Horses reviewed by Wendy Holborow
Like Horses by Jasmine Simms. £5. Smith Doorstop. 978-1912196265
Published as part of the NewPoetsList from the Poetry Business, Jasmine Simms’ collection of 15 poems (make that 16, the poem Kingdom has been omitted from the contents page ) is a coming of age collection, beginning with a horse-filled childhood, so I looked forward to reading these poems as the subject matter resonates with me as my own daughter was brought up riding ponies from an early age. Interestingly, the dedication is for her English teachers, and I too, was once an English teacher who hopefully inspired my pupils to love literature and poetry in particular.
In the first poem, the title poem, Like Horses, Simms is very much in touch with the horse’s feelings which transpose into her own. This disguise enables a truth to be told about the self and explores with sensitivity:
I too have stared like a horse over a fence
into the next field. I’m tired of knowing
that the wind up my nostrils is a sign of things
coming and going;
whereas the next poem School, where she talks about wanting boyfriends who are good at science, reminds us of her youth, but with a warning as she ends the poem with: ‘And then I stopped holding it together.’ And in Hitching: ‘Become good at small talk, so small / you could disappear in it, …’ She asserts in Testimony that she is: ‘Always ten degrees weirder / than anyone could possibly expect.’
In the poem At Hogwarts there is a further reminder of the modern age with:
No electric bells, blue light
from smart phones keeping us up.
No phones at all in the castle…..’
One of my favourite poems, New Life on the Internet, reveals her uneasiness at friend requests on social media:
But the pictures come and go.
Like the herd last summer
(we kept our distance) I secretly felt
were not horses but unicorns.
They had flight instincts.
The earlier poems circle around her problematic coming to terms with who she is, but it is not until the end of the collection in the poem Weatherspoons that we understand that she is gay, although the mention of the ‘Eve of Brexit’ will date the collection. I particularly like the repetition ‘nursing a pint (a soft drink)’.
As with most first collections there are a few throw-away poems, but the excellence of the majority of these poems makes up for that. There is a sincerity and frankness in the poems which appeal.
James Baldwin asserted in the Paris Review (1984) ‘you want to write a sentence as clean as a bone – that is the goal.’ Simms has certainly attained that goal, but I disagree with Rilke when he says ‘only at the end of one’s life should one consider writing poems, as it is not feelings but experiences that matter.’ Simms’ youthful experiences are a poetic testimony to her life thus far and hopefully there are a lot more poems and experiences to come.
Wendy Holborow‘s most recent collection is Janky Tuk Tuks published by the High Window Press.
Gareth Writer-Davies’s The End reviewed by Jill Munro
The End by Gareth Writer-Davies. £5.99. Arenig Press. 978-1999849146
In choosing what could be the spectacularly ill-advised collection title of ‘The End’ (‘God was I glad to reach …..’), Writer-Davies has set out his stool in terms of bravery before the reader has even opened the first page. There is, from the title, the worrying implication this could be yet another ‘misery read’, a simple dissection of a crushing diagnosis and its aftermath. However, the sun’s rays and blue skies illuminating an otherwise gloomy front cover (Cwmyoy church and graveyard, photographed by the author) reflect the contents extremely well – there is hope, despite the knowledge of the fate which will befall us all. Yes, there are poems of the diagnosis of serious illness and premature death, but there is also humour (albeit sometimes black) and levity to ensure the reader doesn’t get pulled into an existential fit of depression. Writer-Davies manages the perennial juxtaposition of the two faces of drama – comedy and tragedy – with a deft hand throughout.
The opening poem ‘Christmas Lights’ sets the scene for much of the style of later poems – spare, brutal yet with a softening humour to offset bleak reality. It is a well selected opener with the final lines of ‘please don’t send death/in his fat red suit’ – a bon mot that typifies The End. The tragic timing of the poet’s diagnosis when all around are enjoying ‘… the white/explosion of light’ at Christmastime is heart-wrenching but understated in the ‘less is more’ style Writer-Davies employs.
The poet’s relationship with religion is tested to the full by his diagnosis. Request for Prayers and Fixed Price Service illustrate both the desperation but sly humour of someone seeking God’s (any God’s) assistance with saving him from his morbid fate. A congregation are called upon to act ‘as arbitrator/pray/to save me from the incinerator’.
Poems follow on the boredom of dealing with illness (Torpor) and the need to be alone to reconcile oneself with dark thoughts (Bones and Thought Alone Can Make Monsters) which throw light on the experience negotiated by the poet. Writer-Davies removes himself, becoming an almost Audenesque dispassionate observer, when under the surgeon’s knife, which renders him like a Bird in the poem of the same name ‘to scavenge from gore and guts/enough/decay/to turn tears into sanguine flights of hope’ and also in The Anatomical Man – ‘upon the sloppy viscera/I look down’. The poet often utilises the one-word line – placing weight in just the right positioning, on many occasions, of such lines.
Trees and the natural world provide solace to many facing their own exit. Writer-Davies uses trees as a leitmotif, bringing an expression of his own desire for a greater longevity (with two poems in the collection bearing the same title – Tree). In Ash the likely reduction of his body to ‘…five pounds and three ounces’ (which is the average weight of cremated bodily ashes) is contrasted with the place he wishes to be buried ‘in the roots of the ash tree/that each year grows new/a prodigious canopy of three hundredweight’. He portrays almost a jealousy of longevity in arboriculture.
The penultimate poem in the collection brings hope and the turning of a corner as summer comes (That Summer) when ‘there were vitamins and sin; the sun was a furnace’. This, and the final poem which really couldn’t have been called anything else but The End, show a man touched by the threat of death who, having taken time to adjust to what has happened to him, intends to ‘take/a breath and press play’. Writer-Davies has sucked us into the reality of his situation in The End, using his death-brush to reflect a light for the living, without sentimentality but with a healthy dose of humour which prevents blackness descending. This reviewer, for one, is glad Writer-Davies has survived to fight another day, potentially write many more poems and, that this is not, The End.
Jill Munro’s first collection Man from La Paz was published in 2015 by Green Bottle Press. She won the Fair Acre Press Pamphlet Competition 2015 with The Quilted Multiverse, has been short-listed for the Bridport Prize and long-listed three times for the National Poetry Competition. Jill has been awarded a Hawthorden Fellowship for 2018.