Ciaran Carson: Still Life • Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: The Mother House • Paul Muldoon: Frolic and Detour • Lavinia Greenlaw: The Built Moment • Mimi Khalvati: Afterwardness • Moya Cannon: Donegal Tarantella • Mary Noonan: Stone Girl • Helen Ivory: The Anatomical Venus • Diana Hendry: The Watching Stair • Ben Ray: What I Heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World • Dónall Dempsey: Crawling Out and Falling Up • Peter W. Keeble: Passengers and Other Poems
Jo Burns • Derek Coyle • Glen Wilson • Beth McDonough • John Wheway. • Robyn Bolam • Ruth Sharman • Neil Fulwood • James Roderick Burns • Emma Lee • Michael Farry • Carla Scanaro • Wendy Klein • David Cooke • Wendy Holborow • Jill Munro
Ciaran Carson’s Still Life reviewed by Jo Burns
Still Life by Ciaran Carson. The Gallery Press. £10.50. ISBN: 978-1-911337829
Growing up in the pre-Good Friday Agreement landscape of Northern Ireland, I didn’t encounter the poetry of Ciaran Carson as a teenager at school. Despite studying English Literature, syllabus material was ultimately filtered by segregated schools and their respective teachers. My school focussed heavily on English poets.
I discovered living, breathing, on-my-doorstep poets such as Carson only years later when Belfast Confetti took my breath away. I cursed the educational system that apparently held us at a distance from our local poets, restricting us to one side of history, literature and language.
Carson’s bilingualism and years of translating consistently set him apart as both a local safekeeper of Belfast imagery but also as an outward looking European poet. Babel is a word often found when reading about Carson but he additionally does not shy away from Babbel. His conversational style and lack of fear to use the vernacular when needed, interspersed with foreign phrases and casual remarks to the reader, make Carson’s lines a glorious, meandering adventure.
In ‘Joachim Patinir, Landscape with Saint Jerome’, Carson describes Jerome (the patron saint of translators), and perhaps himself too, as follows:
I fancy his head is full of verbal murmuration. Sometimes
Settle in his tree to sing. Sometimes they bring themselves
xxxxxxxxinto the realm
Where rock and sky collaborate, to vanish in a cloud
Carson’s own images seem to nest, like the oft-mentioned blackbird, in the branches of his tree shaped poems:
Format of the stanza radically changes shape, becoming
xxxxxxxxmore like a tree
Or a shrub with a dense central trunk – arboreal, in other
xxxxxxxxwords, like these
Which you are viewing now, which I have written only now
Still Life is a long sequence of individual poems, intricately woven with echoes of each throughout the whole. Each poem, addressed to Carson’s wife Deirdre, is taut yet delving in and out of his chosen paintings, balancing craft, density and imagery. As he drifts in and out of poems and between poems in the collection, each line pushes imagery and its own length, or life, to the limit, packed with allusions and memories. Periodically he brings us to the hospital bedside and the challenges of chemo and radiotherapy, facing the end of his own life:
An almost inaudible murmur I imagine measuring the chemo
Dozing a little I hear it entering my ear canal… cannula, cannula,
Still Life is akin to being in an art gallery full of mirrors, equipped with a magnifying lens. Each painting expands into intricate details, personal experiences to always ultimately zoom back to Carson himself, at the end of his life, contemplating the painting in front of him. We are taken on a journey through his consciousness, intermittently focussing in on one particular detail to return again to the whole.
Carson writes freely and yet the skill of his craft never leaves him. In the worlds of art, marriage, poetry, music we regularly take tours through his immediate Belfast landscape; Glandore, the Antrim Road etc. Wandering through the area and his art collection, he reveals multiple associations and meaningful repeated images throughout: Clouds and shadows, chiaroscuro, windows, lemons, anticlockwise swirls. This is a collection that rewards several readings.
Although the poems are addressed to Deirdre, Carson’s occasional reference to the act of writing itself, makes the reader feel included as part of the process. Lines often cast us in the role of observing the poems creation, such as:
The days are getting longer now, however many of them
xxxxxxxxI have left.
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily
xxxxxxxxoutlast their end.
In the current political climate, the weight of Carson’s pencil outlasting his days, is a thought that saddens but ultimately reassures. His records of Belfast outlive him, serving as necessary reminders. The importance of these records in current times cannot be overlooked.
In Still Life, images of the troubles weave in and out. In the poem ´Yves Kleins, IKB 79, 1959` expansive meditations on not only the painting but also Yves Klein’s deep reactions to Hiroshima, bring us back to Carson lying in his garden watching the clouds, visited by flashbacks of Bloody Sunday scenes. In the last lines his breathless structure changes to three double spaced lines, forcing the reader to read, breathe and digest the horror:
Grainy black-and-white, flickering dismembered shapes and shades
As mountain becomes cloud, and buildings rubble, cars and buses
xxxxxxxxscrap, some of the dead…
The people who set the bombs apologised in empty language.
Firemen shovelled into body bags the unspeakable remains of the day.
In ‘Basil Blackshaw, Windows I-V, 2001’ Carson recollects:
Sometimes thinking of the day that weeks after The Club Bar
xxxxxxxxbombing, the ceiling of my bedroom –
Ornamental rose and all – collapsed with an almighty crash of inches-
Lath and plaster, as if it only then remembered the event.
In the final poem ‘James Allen, The House with the Palm Trees’ Carson revisits that ceiling rose and other images that have scattered throughout the collection:
How I loved that old delapidated flat! And I its denizen at ease below
xxxxxxxxthe peeling ceiling rose….
And I loved the big windows and whatever I could see through them,
xxxxxxxxbe it cloudy or clear,
And the way they trembled and thrilled to the sound of the world
In his stunning final collection, Ciaran Carson pulls each image, and aspect of his life, together to end on a remarkable and brave final exultation of love, to life itself.
Jo Burns was born Born in Mid Ulster, Northern Ireland in 1976. She now lives in Germany. Jo’s poetry has been published in The Interpreter’s House, and Southword and is forthcoming in Acumen and Oxford Poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her debut pamphlet will be published in March by Eyewear Publishing. In 2017 she won the Irish Writers Los Gatos Festival, CA, Shirley McClure Poetry Prize. She occasionally tweets @joburnspoems
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Mother House reviewed by Derek Coyle
The Mother House by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. The Gallery Press. €11.95. ISBN: 978-91133-771-3
You are struck by a remarkable consonance of context with the personal life when you read the latest collection from one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Her maturity, an ageing body with an agile mind, the loss of parents and loved ones, teachers and mentors, family members, her husband, has been paralleled by the decline of the institutional church in Irish public life. Both factors feature in this collection. She recalls family members who were nuns, just as she recalls her deceased mother and family in touching elegiac poems like ‘Sister Marina’, ‘Hofstetter’s Serenade’, ‘To the Mother House’, and ‘Resemblances’.
As she observes in this last poem, ‘like everything that I deal with now the room/has a double, a frill of light surrounding it.’ In this poem we find her at home contemplating a portrait of her mother in the hall at the end of the night before she goes to bed. The poet finds herself searching for connections: does she look like her, and noting that she is older now than her mother was when she died. How very human is this, how we all think about parallels and dissonances between our lives and those connected to us, in that ongoing silent conversation with ourselves. We can thank the art of poetry for bringing such realities into the light. How the dead live on in objects too, the mother’s portrait, but also her aunt’s ‘complicated sideboard’ which sits on the poet’s landing. She sees her books rearranged – a doubling with its frill of light – in the sideboard’s ‘bevelled glass.’ And her books are present in the screen of her laptop, a ghostly revenant, a haunting. And so the poet manages to skilfully convey her theme, presence and absence. How lives gone can haunt our lives, and with the sure knowledge that in a not too distant time she too will join the shades.
These days, when I’m reading a new poetry collection, I mark off poems that particularly strike me, poems I find interesting formally or thematically, poems I consider worth revisiting. I see I have marked off nearly half the poems in this collection. That’s not bad going. Poems like ‘Love‘, ‘Maria Edgeworth in 1847’, and ‘The Morandi Bridge’.
I think ‘Love’ one of the finest poems in the book, humble as it is in its way. You could describe it as an observational poem. The poem is set in Clara train station in the often overlooked midlands. The poet is on her way to somewhere else. Still, in this place, ‘the view from the train is better than a dream.’ This is a killer first line. From her vantage point in the train the poet observes a man ‘gazing down his lines of beetroot’, a tractor at a level crossing, a doll ‘fallen into the gloom of the hedge,/her frilly skirt still white.’ She observes a parent waiting for ‘the noisy gang’ just about to alight onto the platform. But it is the considered local effects, deft delicate touches that lift this poem. The striking verb ‘gloom’, phrasing like the description of the cars vibrating in the car park, ‘harmonizing the hum of love’, with its delicate consonance, alliteration and assonance – a virtual hum across the line. And then, the last line, ‘the wheels are slowing and finally slide and stand’, with the rhythm of the phrase ‘slide and stand’ capturing the halting, the movement of the train’s pulling up.
There is much to enjoy about this collection. We find the poet in elegiac mode for much of it, but she is never sombre or nostalgic. The sense is like that of an afterglow, of presences flickering in and out of our line of sight. In vision, then almost disappearing; here, then gone. This is no mean conjuring trick for a poet. In the end we are left with what has been seen and felt, here and there, in this poet’s lifetime, as observed, as recalled, in well-crafted line after well-crafted line, poem after poem. We can be thankful that so many of them are resonant presences across the page.
Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.
Paul Muldoon’s Frolic and Detour reviewed by Glen Wilson
Frolic and Detour by Paul Muldoon. £14.99. Faber & Faber. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-571-35449-8
Muldoon’s thirteenth book is definitely not a book by a poet resting on his laurels following on from the excellent A Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015), Muldoon keeps up his prolific output with this new work. From the cover painting A Place for you by Diarmuid Breen, this collection invites you in, confident that there will be something or some piece that will draw you in and find you well.
‘The Great Horse of the World’ is a sparse but apt opening for this collection as the author as much as the reader, only has so much control over its subject matter, tentatively approaches the horse, it shows where power lies:
The first thing I remember is being stepped on by a horse
while it paused to stale,
paying me no more heed
than it would an upset pail…
It gives you a chance to saddle up before you are taken forward by the tour de force that is ‘Encheiresin Naturae’ (manipulating nature). Originally a creative collaboration with celebrated engraver Barry Moser, Muldoon presents us here with his crown of sonnets sans the engravings that prompted them. Thankfully the poems don’t need the engravings to shed their light, what follows is a sequence that whilst tangential maintains its narrative thrust.
With much of this collection it is the sidelong glances that I found the most rewarding for example:
…No scythesman was a match
for its mobility any more than a woman who gleaned
the field was fit to parley
with the blue tit, the bullfinch, or the nuthatch.
I particularly enjoyed the call and response structure of ‘Corncrake and Curlew’ where Muldoon gives these two analogised birds fresh purpose and heft:
The corncrake marvels at the land being green
although the hays been saved.
The curlew knows the lands so green
because it’s a mass grave.
‘Belfast Hymn’ gives Muldoon a chance to showcase his prosody and lyrical wit, using local idiom in novel ways as he charts a way through the city and its turbulent history.
Although we have much on our plate
we take it as a badge
of honour to eat twice our weight
in wheaten farls and fadge
‘At Tuam’ divines a familial connection to the babies buried, managing to convey their absence in the world but give them some sort of eulogy, to reclaim some sort of connection.
Muldoon weaves these poems not only through his native country but through various locations, adeptly tackling the Easter Rising and the Somme, taking in Reykjavik, Mongolia before returning to his home since the late eighties in America.
Here Muldoon tips his hat to both Springsteen (‘At the River’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Superior Aloeswood’) but for me ‘Wave’ written in memory of C.K. Williams is the most striking:
…You were so tall I could no more reach you
for a farewell hug than scale the Heights of Machu Picchu.
Muldoon also has time to weigh in on Trump and the President’s continued mangling of language and all things decent in ‘Position Paper’.
Loose lips tie knots.
Don’t put the cart before the storm.
Don’t wash your dirty linen in a watched pot.
The leopard can’t change horses in midstream.
Frolic and Detour delivers not only for its many technical exploits, we get the full gamut of Muldoon’s abilities in this collection, but as a tactile piece of work that left vivid images in my mind long after the reading with enough intriguing lines that will keep drawing me back.
Glen Wilson lives in Portadown with his wife and children. He is a civil servant and Worship Leader at St Mark’s Church of Ireland Portadown. He studied English/Politics at Queens University Belfast and has a Post-Grad Diploma in Journalism from the University of Ulster. He has been widely published having work in The Honest Ulsterman, Iota, The Paperclip amongst others. He won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2017, the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award in 2018 and The Trim Poetry competition in 2019. His first collection of poetry An Experience on the Tongue with Doire Press is out now.
Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Built Moment reviewed by Beth McDonough
The Built Moment by Lavinia Greenlaw. £14.99. Faber & Faber. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0571347100
Famously and brilliantly, Elizabeth Bishop subverted the opening line of her poem ‘One Art’: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ Arguably, the diagnosis of dementia heralds the ultimate ‘art of losing’ for both the sufferer and attendant family. Lavinia Greenlaw’s remarkable collection, The Built Moment, examines how she, as a daughter, tried to understand, or more accurately contemplate the times of her father’s loss, including, and beyond the resultant bereavement. More unusually perhaps, her poems work hard to uncover and meditate upon her father’s experience in tandem with her own, as he is forced to descend into ‘his disappearance into the present tense’.
Divided in two parts, the collection’s first sequence of poems, entitled ‘The Sea is an Edge and an Ending’, deals with that time of illness. A short film based on the work shares the title. From the Contents page onwards, the litany of loss is established in the titles alone, and it is a journey that will be familiar to many. ‘My father’s weakness’, ‘He scares me’, ‘I have put my father in another room’, ‘If I cannot find him then he must be lost’, ‘My father’s loss of feeling’, ‘My father leaving’ and more.
These poems are almost all fragmentary in scale, which is not to say that they are insignificant. On the page, these compact, contained stanzas are almost overwhelmed, and immediately, those shapes signal the pattern of suffering. These are deceptively accessible poems, written in the uncomplicated language which delivers depth without artifice; the kind of packed and precise phrasing that every poet knows is very hard to achieve.
my father is freeing himself of any obligation to the past.
And so he keeps arriving
in loose parcels he wraps as a gift:
Is this the easiest way to let go?
Not to do it yourself but to pass the act on?
Throughout the collection, there is an understated way with rhyme, a quiet pulse of assonance, and an ability to tell this pain with clarity, which can imply without reliance on the needlessly graphic.
He is doing things that are just frightening enough.
(He scares me)
Greenlaw recounts those early false reassurances. There are the unanswerable questions, and undercurrents of justifiable anger, as well as waves of sadness and fear. Two well-placed prose poems punctuate the section: in the first, ‘His diagnosis’, the lines flicker through the device of cinema, splicing the real and the reeling to find ‘the message had been cut from another film—the one he lived in.’ The second prose poem makes an equally convincing use of the form to evoke ‘The finishing line’:
If I weren’t here, my brother said on the third of the four
days we sat by our father, I’d be running a race dressed as
Right to the ending, where the strangeness of that fancy dress suit finds its metaphorical parallel, there is that loaded, seemingly never-ending, claustrophobic, bleakly strange, and sometimes funny truth of these vigils. That bizarre time is seldom drawn as succinctly as it is here, including the irreverent slip of gallows’ humour. These times, after all, are odd indeed as dying and living overlap. There is something of the unflinching, but also dignified, sharing of privacy in these poems, offered with a grace akin to that in Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap.
In building these considered moments, endings meet beginnings and vice versa. The final poem, ‘My father leaving’ moves to the time just beyond his death, and asks the questions which the second section ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’ develops, and probes. These questions elicit other questions, and there are not always answers. Fittingly, that colour-intense image opens with the titular poem, haiku-like in its clarity and intensity.
That second section is reflective indeed, and in one of its most important questions it wonders at a universal inability to drop suffering even when the opportunity to do so arrives. A very painful realisation in terms of the human condition. There is that post-bereavement need to revisit, to try to understand the incomprehensible, and again, the form of the poems shapes these problems, long before they are read closely:
and let me be good as I am good in my heart
and let it not hurt to remember
and let it stop and let me leave behind
all that has built itself into my heart
and let me find the words and let there be time
(Men I have heard in the night)
There is a significant kind of unanswerable prayerfulness threaded through this sequence, a pondering of the universality of grief. In an examination of the natural word there is a sense growing that the poet is clinging on to the living, and taking nature’s signs close.
We try to accommodate our dead
and make space in ourselves which they do not enter
(Slowly and from within)
The collection’s final poem is a challenge to both her reader and presumably to Greenlaw herself. Recently, Nick Cave responded to a query, about whether AI ‘will ever be able to write a good song’. The musician gave a measured answer. He sounded out ‘human imagination, the last piece of wilderness’ and concluded that the good was possible, but not the great. ‘It lacks the nerve.’ Assuming that must hold true for any art form, in The Built Moment, the poet’s nerve holds, to wire the entirety in a way which is both visceral, and graceful. This is a significant collection, and yes, a great one.
Beth McDonough studied Silversmithing at Glasgow School of Art. After an M.litt at Dundee University, she was Writer in Residence at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Her work connects strongly with place, and particularly to the Tay, where she swims year round. Her poetry is published in Gutter, Stand, Magma and elsewhere. In Handfast (with Ruth Aylett) she explored experiences of autism, as Aylett examined dementia. McDonough’s solo pamphlet, Lamping for pickled fish, is published by 4Word.
Mimi Khalvati’s Afterwardness reviewed by John Wheway
Afterwardness by Mimi Khalvati. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784107994
Mimi Khalvati’s new book is a sustained series of meditations on the theme of exile. For its eloquent use of form and the yield of its emotional excavation, I consider it poetry of the highest order.
Though autobiographical, the book never gives us personal history for its own sake, but always in the service of its theme: life in the perennial ‘afterwardness’ of exile.
The fifty-six sonnets ¬¬– the Italian form invokes Petrarch’s ‘Rime Sparse’, his great document of unappeasable longing ¬– begin with ‘Questions’. A child, in flight on a plane, discovers itself to be ‘smaller than you were…Something has made you shrink/or else something has made the seatback grow’, travelling ‘away from all you know’ as the sky darkens. The child, with its unknown companion are ‘the only ones not gone or disappearing’, and it struggles ‘to push the feelings down, the questions/the stillborn questions never to be answered’. This literal flight from home is disorienting, hallucinatory – to be up in the air with no familiar ground, nothing to rely on but a ‘seat-belt’ of trust.
The autobiographical poems here, rich in themselves, establish a perspective from which to view other lives in exile – those of the ‘Dreamers’, under threat in Trump’s USA, in the poem of that title, who arrived as children with ‘two hundred words in their vocabulary’, their ‘first languages, half-formed, dropped at a border’; or the eleven-year old boy from Aleppo in the heartbreaking title poem, ‘Afterwardness’, ‘ whose eyes hold only things no longer there/– a citadel, a moat, safe rooms of shadow/‘afterwardness’ in his thousand yard stare’, his mother tongue, and the memories inscribed in it, ‘lost like me in air’; or the girl in ‘Hide and Seek’, ‘backed to a wall/shrinking on a dirt floor, hugging her knees’, unsure which is worst – to find, to be found, or be ‘never found at all’.
Four poems capture the struggle to recreate the world in another language. In ‘Translation’, exiled children swap collections of words: ‘I’ll give you parandeh, you give me bird’. But what’s lost is a shaping milieu, a cultural home: ‘…what if, whistling in some foreign treetop, //parandeh has long since flown out of mind/back to its own kind, never to return?’. In ‘Handwriting’, the painstaking practice of ‘joined-up writing’ allows the self and its articulation to become more joined up. Letters are ‘the scaffolding and ark of spoken speech’. The child might encounter ‘strange idioms that make the mind grow numb/but knowing how to write them helps you hear’. Still, not quite knowing how to play a language game, in ‘Dictation’, leads the young writer into confusion ‘Like a bumblebee on a wild rampage,/stumbling against the sense that otherwise/ran as smooth as honey across my page’. ‘Elocution’ produces an adolescent crush so ecstatic that the elocution teacher, though ‘squat as a toad/in twinset and tweeds’, becomes ‘my oracle’.
In so many of these poems, the images frame and enunciate the character of an exile’s life with tremendous resonance. The recurrent, deeply traditional formal design of the Petrarchan sonnet grounds the collection and provides a containing experience of consistency and reliability that contrasts with all the disorientation, the displacement, the endless efforts to make a new home that never quite yield a secure sense of belonging.
Longing for the lost world of home is visceral. In ‘The Introvert House’ (p16), the speaker wonders if her habitual way of arranging furniture results from ‘workings in the bloodstream, some residue/in subliminal memory of windows/that look forever inward, galaxies/that spin on carpets, geometric rows// of turquoise tiles ablaze with symmetries/inherent in physics; eyvans, porticos/of gardens brought indoors; a Sufi’s verses.’
A key poem, for me is ‘Scripto Inferior’, which tells us that to know your story allows you ‘to understand not only who you are and where you come from’, but the very ‘nature/ of story, how to prime a palimpsest/for all successive stories’. I think of the whole collection as a palimpsest founded on ‘the underwriting’ of the poet’s ‘own life story’. The palimpsest image brings out the importance of storytelling in constituting the life of the self, perhaps more important in the lives of those for whom ‘some imaginary homeland/ is all you know, shall ever know of home’.
Thus, one re-working of the theme of forgotten past re-appearing in the present gives us ‘Background Music’ and a companion poem, ‘Background Music (ii)’. Here are not ‘workings in the bloodstream’ but the ‘background music’ of abandonment trauma that disrupts the peaceful act of reading in a café and you are ‘torn away…to fall as Tosca falls, defences fall’, and ‘your heart breaks open a dungeon door//and griefs like prisoners…bestir themselves’. In ‘My Mother’s Lighter’, the poet ‘Half-sentimental, half-dispassionate/and with no true attachment to or knowledge/of my own history’ plays idly with the lighter, and sees ‘the same flame, its root invisible…that she’d have seen’. It ‘flares in the sunlight’ until it becomes too hot to handle.
Though there are many ‘stories’ here (and so many poems I wish I had space to quote), the ‘afterwardness’ that gives the book its title remains its unifying subject. This is a collection in which I have been grateful to immerse myself. It can be dipped into, but gains from repeated reading as a formally satisfying sequence. In the final poem, ‘Vapour Trails’, we come full circle from the dramatic opening flight of ‘Questions’. In this concluding sonnet, an observer – now ‘down on earth’, watches ‘silver bullet-nosed’ jets and their contrails ‘like spinal x-rays’ – images that suggest a magical treatment for a life-changing injury. A valedictory sestet gives us a gloss on the poet’s story, and at the same time describes her moving and brilliant series of poems:
It only takes a trigger, a single flight
in childhood, for example, early trauma,
to stretch the bare bones of the aftermath
into a lyric void beyond the finite
and knowable, a via negativa
cruising at altitude on plumes of breath.
John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October will be be published by V Press in May 2020.
Moya Cannon’s Donegal Tarantella reviewed by Robyn Bolam
Donegal Tarantella by Moya Cannon. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 78410 787 1
The title poem of Moya Cannon’s sixth collection deftly combines several of the book’s themes: Ireland, music, history, family, sea and identity. The opening, ‘Tunes wash up, ocean-polished pebbles, /in the kitchens of south Donegal’, sweeps us into a whirl of dance tunes from all over Europe, now ‘gone native’. These tunes, like the tarantella of the title are, for the poet and those she writes about, simultaneously their inheritance and part of daily life. Through music, she evokes a whole society.
In ‘Bread’, even the oven hums as loaves are ‘tapped/ from their tins’ and nature has its own music: ‘bee-hum, the high meheh of hill-lambs/ the lifted songs of larks in warm grass’ (‘Glencolmcille Soundtrack’). The poet’s own childhood is charted through its songs in ‘A Sentimental Education’ and there are some intriguing titles, such as ‘The Boy Who Swopped a Bog for a Gramophone’. Even the river ‘opens out to the Atlantic/like possibility itself, or a very old song’ (‘Corrib’).
This is also a collection about the languages of song. In ‘Songs Last the Longest’, it is ‘scraps of songs’ that survive after all else has gone, including the words’ meaning – though, in the ‘rhythms and syllables/ love pours still…’. Here, she writes of the lost African language, Kulkhassi; elsewhere, Cannon creates a world where roses ‘whisper…in an old Esperanto’ (‘Flowers Know Nothing of Our Grief’). Yet she also revives vocabularies. I hadn’t come across ‘schist’ before (a metamorphic rock) or ‘rickle’ (a loosely piled heap).
Although Ireland is at the heart of this book, some of its most striking and, often, very moving poems are set further afield – in St Petersburg (‘Mal’ta Boy, 22,000 BC’ and ‘Exile’); in Hiroshima (‘October 1945’), at the Taj Mahal (‘All the Living’), or in Italy (‘St Patrick’s Well, Orvieto’).
Reading these poems is often akin to travelling through time – or being made aware of layers of time before our own. ‘Four Herds of Deer’ expresses the animals’ essence and grace, while its sixth and final line also captures their timelessness: ‘light, light as deer on cave walls’. Cannon is equally adept at vividly evoking more recent history as she imagines her grandparents’ younger lives in ‘The Countermanding Order, 1916’, and not without humour as she follows the flights of small bats between centuries of literature in ‘The Coimbra Librarians’.
What I love most is her narrative skill and the way she spans time and distance. It’s not just that she can make mountains I’ve never seen, seem familiar ‘in their shawls of rain’ (‘The Twelve Bens…’), but also that, in ‘One of the Most Foolish Questions’, she can make you catch your breath mid-way by quoting a young Floridian/Senegalese historian’s answer to being asked where she was from: ‘It is difficult – / you can tell a certain amount from/ auction sales records and cargo lists’. The hideous realisation that she means people, not things, is tempered by the resilience of those people, who carried a song from that time to the present. Moya Cannon is also a carrier of songs and a celebrator of significant stories.
Robyn Bolam is a freelance poet, editor and reviewer. She was born in Newcastle, grew up in Northumberland and now lives in Hampshire. She is Emeritus Professor at St Mary’s University. She has published four books of poems with Bloodaxe, The Peepshow Girl (1989), Raiding the Borders (1996), New Wings: Poems 1977-2007 (2007), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Hyem (2017). She is the editor of the anthology, Eliza’s Babes: Four Centuries of Women’s Poetry in English (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), and of five seventeenth-century plays.
Mary Noonan’s Stone Girl reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Stone Girl by Mary Noonan. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251485
The landscape of Mary Noonan’s Stone Girl is constantly shifting, and not just in geographic terms. This is a world of blurred boundaries, veering between water and stone, between past and present, rootedness in reality and the strangeness of dream. The poet’s father, as a young man, waits with his mates for the arrival of the Evening Echo and the day’s racing results, and is pictured after his death, “on arrival / and then nightly”, eating apfelstrudel in the best coffee house in Vienna. Her dead mother is back in present-day Kensington, her new court heels ringing out on the pavement as she makes her way to the tube, while Cork City is conjured up as a flooded Elysian Fields, a post-apocalyptic expanse of watery green.
Intimations of death are everywhere – in the black piranha fish and invading moths that inhabit the opening poem, in the mortuary bees of the intriguing “Bee Salon” and the perch dished up in a fancy restaurant but once swimming free, his whole body attuned to the honking of Canada geese overhead. In a setting worthy of De Chirico, the poet’s own dead are seen processing through the empty spaces of a silent bullring, accompanied by “the dead / yet to come, their names refusing / to be written in the sand”. Things move relentlessly towards disintegration, only too ready to disappear down the rabbit-hole; the “reckless” globe keeps spinning, threatening to suck us into its waters or hurl us into the ether, marking the fragility of our tenure on this earth.
In an online resource (“Writing Better Poetry”), Noonan comments on the potential tedium, for both reader and writer, of “writing endlessly about yourself and your life”. The fact, however, is that the closer Noonan focuses on the personal in her poetry, the stronger that poetry becomes. The poems about her father’s dementia and death, and those anticipating the loss of her long-time partner (the poet Matthew Sweeney, who died of motor neuron disease in 2018), are the beating heart of this collection and have an urgency which the cooler, more leisurely ekphrastic poems – her homages, for example, to the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker and the sculptor Camille Claudel – cannot perhaps by their very nature hope to acquire. A poet as emotionally deft as Noonan, and as confident in her choice of language, knows how to achieve just the right distance from her material to give the personal a universal resonance, and homes in unerringly on the most heart-breaking detail.
It is hard to imagine anyone writing a better poem about dementia – her father’s determination to “corral” the letters of the newsprint he reads and rereads, the notes he writes to himself on endless scraps of paper that litter the house, and the sorrow of failing to say goodbye to that earlier long-lost father who would come “bounding” up the stairs to see her when she was sick as a child. How much emotional weight that one word carries, in its position at the line break, how much energy and consequent loss, and how poignant the contrast with the old man who “spends hours swaying on his wasted hip”. Many of us will remember our own father comforting us in similar ways, the cool hand on our forehead – before we are swept from this reassuringly familiar image into the chillingly surreal “I wish I’d said goodbye, / before the ancient shape-shifter came to build / his nests of lint, his hillocks of gristle.”
“Vanishing Act” conjures up the complex and terrifying world of her father’s memory loss, his mind like a labyrinth of interconnecting rooms “where the dead move freely / in the antechambers” and where “long-dead fathers / are always just a staircase away” – a place where the visitor is as lost as the father who can make little sense of these visitations. “Into the Night” introduces, so casually, that poignant detail of her father shaving off his eyebrows along with his cheek bristle – an oblique reference to his failing mind – while a litany of strong, precise verbs – “fling… row… shuttle … rattle… tilt … keel… propel yourself on, / slashing the wind, and the dark” – denotes his apparent sense of purpose and the stubbornness of a man whose answer to death is a “wild refusal” (“Like an Orange”). All the more powerful, then, the poem’s final lines: “You don’t know / where you are going, or why.”
Equally moving are the poems relating to, or directly addressing, Noonan’s partner of seven years, Matthew Sweeney. Poets are often encouraged to believe that a poem is never really finished, always in process; but it is hard to imagine “Gare du Nord” as anything other than the poem we see in front of us, or to imagine that a different ending could have had more impact than the unabashed simplicity and directness of these crushing final lines:
Do you really think I could look again
at these end-of-the-line pillars and porticoes,
these blind granite women, remembering you,
and not myself be turned to stone?
Stone is one of the materials Noonan revisits over and over. It is the oppressive substance of the Caryatids’ burden; it is Paris, “city of stone”; it is the gravestone against which her ailing father rests his cheek – life and death potently juxtaposed. And in “The House That Will Never Be” it is the “rock carved in terraces rising from the sea” upon which this impossible home is built – the home the poet imagines sharing one day with her dying partner, perched high above the world, in an impossible future. Stone here has no more substance than air, and the fragility of the vision is brought sharply into focus through tiny brilliant details, like the lamplight perceived as “a shepherd’s fire / at the far end of a dark field”, the rail of wooden pegs to hold their “battered straw hats / and baskets”… “battered” of course – wearing out, but lived in, used.
The final – perfectly placed – poem in the collection offers a vision of water as potential transcendence. And the poems themselves are also of course a form of transcendence of time and loss, a gift to the living and a tribute to the dead. Martina Evans remarks that “Every Noonan poem is a true performer which begs to be read aloud” and repeatedly, as I read this collection, I did indeed find myself wishing I could hear the poems read aloud in Noonan’s own voice. An Irish lilt can seem something of an unfair advantage when poetry is read aloud, but we could readily forgive Noonan that small advantage when her raw material is so very good.
Ruth Sharman was born in south India and came to live in England when she was six. She read Modern Languages at Cambridge and now lives in Bath, where she works as a French translator. Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador and her second, Scarlet Tiger, won Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016. She is currently working on a third focusing on two recent trips to India in search of her roots.
Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus reviewed by Neil Fulwood
The Anatomical Venus by Helen Ivory. £9.95. Bloodaxe. ISBN 978-1-78017-469-7 #6
There has always been a cinematic quality to Helen Ivory’s work. Her 2010 collection The Breakfast Machine was identified by publishers Bloodaxe as sitting “more comfortably alongside the animations of Jan Svankmajer than any English poetic tradition”, while the dark drama of Waiting for Bluebeard (2013) achieved a Lynchian intensity anchored by a Mike Leigh sense of social realism. Within the space of its first four poems, her latest Bloodaxe collection, The Anatomical Venus, put me in mind of Robert Eggers’ haunting and hallucinatory film The Witch:
For her womb is a wandering beast;
for she is husbandless, and at candle time
brazenly trades with the Devil.
(‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Sorceress to Live’)
A scabrous dog
kiss cold as clay
springs from the lap
of its fostering bedlam
to dance and dance
the black dance of itself
(‘All the Suckling Imps’)
He had witnessed Sarah transmute
from flesh to fire, heard the spirits
scream out of her …
(‘The Kept House’)
The goddess bled into the earth
and babies formed
congealed and glorious
like fleshy fruit.
Sparking with poems as succinct, imagistic and effortlessly creepy as anything in Ivory’s canon, there’s a lot going on in The Anatomical Venus. The title is probably a good place to start unpacking it all. The anatomical venus was conceived by the Italian sculptor Clemente Susini in the 1780s as a means of teaching anatomy without having to resort to grave-robbing. It (she? I’m not sure how pronouns work with wax sculptures) was modelled as a woman – lifesize, nubile, generally attractive – with the sternum peeled back, in a sort of 3D equivalent of a cut-away diagram, to reveal the internal organs. Why Susini didn’t sculpt this teaching aid as a man (an anatomical Mars?) is a question for a different article. Still, the title is apposite: these poems are a revealing of things, if not necessarily in a logical or scientific manner. Susini’s venuses may have been born of medical study, but they are still the stuff of nightmare; and Ivory’s poems likewise offer up their revelations as spectral, unanswerable, even demonic.
In keeping with the scientific impetus, however, several poems present themselves as case studies of female archetypes (or rather archetypes of women treated as chattel): for instance, the labourer’s wife, the farmer’s wife, the boatman’s wife. The former’s hearth is spoiled by her husband’s muddy boots; as she sweeps and sweeps “at this dark dispensation”, she sings “a back-slider’s hymn”:
The devils waiting me around,
xxxxxxxxxTo make my soul a prey;
xxxxxxI wait to hear the dreadful sound,
xxxxxxxxxTake, take the wretch away.
Ivory crafts a short story here in five quatrains, the sting of its pay-off as brutal as anything a horror novelist could have fashioned. The farmer’s wife’s tale is distilled into just twelve lines and echoes in the mind like a funereal chord on an old piano. The boatman’s wife is driven to a chilling finale by a wind “prying / into her barest rooms / and her shadow-self / with the insinuating voice / of a glass armonica”. Ivory’s gift here, as in so much of her work, is to load short and ostensibly terse lines with weighty images and subject matter, without ever sacrificing lyricism.
Other characters emerge in these ‘case study’ pieces: Hannah Ward, Anne Newham, Alice Utting, Harriet Blyth (all ‘residents’ of St Andrews Asylum); and Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan, the last person to be imprisoned, in 1944, under the British Witchcraft Act 1735 (albeit for only two of the seven charges on which she was arraigned and with the supreme irony that her trial was for false witchcraft). Ivory’s poem ‘Hellish Nell’ is four stanzas long and ends with its anti-heroine promising her accusers: “Stand back! I might regurgitate all hell / into your choking auditorium.” It prompted me to spend almost an entire evening on the internet, reading up on the fascinating story of Duncan’s life and incarceration. This is what successful art does: it shows you something you didn’t know before, or were only dimly aware of, or adjusts the lenses of your perception so that your understanding is realigned and things come into a different focus.
And if these ‘case study’ poems, raw in their visceral power and capable of depth-charging the imagination, were all that The Anatomical Venus had to offer, they would vouchsafe a collection of the highest order. But Ivory takes things to a higher level. Two other loosely structured sequences run through the book, intertwining with each other and with the case studies, striking sparks as they engender an on-going dialogue. One set is the ‘wunderkammer’ poems. The word translates as ‘cabinet of curiosities’, and anyone familiar with Ivory’s work as a visual artist will understand immediately the appeal to her of this subject. Here’s one of them in full:
It must have whispered itself through a snick in her attention,
the moth, for now it hovers like a visitant near her crown.
Coffee is the drug of the watchful and she must allow no further lapses –
there is a regiment of living things out there, vying for her time.
To the watchers in the street, this is just another insomniac
another lit window cutting neat little squares in the black.
(‘Wunderkammer with Black Coffee and Ghost Moth’)
Few of the ‘wunderkammer’ poems are any longer than this, and most use shorter, starker lines. Most carry a little jolt of pain or provocation. Take the seamstress in ‘Wunderkammer with Needle Girl and Tool Kit’:
When she has exhausted the bolt of cotton
and the whole room is draped
with the story she’s been stitching,
she pushes the crewel deep into her fingertip.
The vulnerability of the body is emphasised in the third interconnected set of poems: those which take us back to the collection’s title and demonstrate that the male gaze is no less creepy for having graduated from med school. To utilise again the approach to textual reference taken at the start of this review – a group of juxtaposed excerpts unencumbered by any analytical witterings from yours truly – consider these:
When they laced me tight this morning
my body split asunder.
Clouds heaved themselves across my eyes.
Nobody heard the crack of rib
or witnessed the small moth of my soul
slip from my mouth.
(‘The Fainting Room’)
The heart was her undoing – observe the walls:
too slight to sustain her through her twentieth year.
Yet how charming the rope of pearls at the throat –
the throat itself a repository for kisses.
(‘The Little Venus’)
The dead girl holds up a copper mirror
to this tableau, and with her left hand
pulls back the drapery of her flesh
till the blinding light of heaven
falls to his grubby little room.
If Waiting for Bluebeard was the collection that not only delivered on the promise of Ivory’s earlier titles but announced itself as a defiant treatise on what it means to be a survivor, then The Anatomical Venus – populated by women who refuse to be tamed, instructed or fit neatly into categories – is a clarion call for the fight back.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.
Diana Hendry’s The Watching Stair revied by James Roderick Burns
The Watching Stair by Diana Hendry. £10.00. Worple Press. ISBN: 978-1-905208-41-8
While ‘The Watching Stair’ starts quietly, with a number of low-key poems in and around childhood, adolescence and early adulthood – perhaps signalling a chronological progression through the book – it soon shrugs off this traditional approach to move into unexpected, and subtly thrilling, territory. Soon we encounter ‘The Greenhouse’. Hendry specialises in small, unobtrusive titles which explode with meaning, and this poem typifies that style. It is short and extraordinary and bears quoting in full:
Before my father gave her away,
On cold sunny days
My sister shut herself in there
With a bag of apples
And her library book –
An historical romance wrapped
In cellophane sticky as semen.
It was a sun trap in winter.
On the slatted bench
Big terracotta pots of tomatoes
Gave off their particular musty stink,
Fattened and turned from green to red.
Save for semen, there is nothing overt in the whole poem, but it is redolent of sex, possibility (albeit unrealised) and the ineluctable fecundity of life. The poet’s sister, wrapping herself up in published romance, away from her father’s possession, ripens like the tomatoes; the poet, allowing one small but startling image to burst through, enrobes all this sensuality in the calmness of print. The poem essentially performs its own meaning, underscoring the theme without need for drama. This note of understated skill marks the rest of the book.
A couple of pages later, we learn of an early job “in a seedy solicitor’s office”, dealing with “even seedier divorces, the details of which/I touch type on a clangy old Remington, suffering/a mix of horror and awful pornographic fascination/at the terrible endings of love” (‘Cousins I’). The writing itself is the opposite of pornographic. In ‘The Winter Pilgrim’, we feel Chekhov’s tender, lonely devotion in conducting “a census of every convict, hearing them/clanking the streets in their fetters”; in ‘Absent Friends’, the echoing sadness of persisting in the face of absence: “Every day/I feed you gold-fish flakes/of memory”. Hendry’s work is controlled, its surface calm and measured, but its depths turbulent, disturbing, dogged in probing what goes on beneath. “The thin monotonous knife/of persistence” (‘Gwen Boyt’) is its keynote.
This is not to say that ‘The Watching Stair’ is po-faced, or overly concerned with matters of gravity. There are moments of great fun and humour. ‘Leonard’, for instance, a sort of cat-sitting/allergy epic, winds up in both pathos and affectionate laughter:
He’s out to woo. I shut my bedroom door, barricade
The stairs. Unoffended he leaps the makeshift moat,
Is there waiting, top of the stairs, top of the morning
All purr and hope. Oh Leonard, oh fat ginger moggy,
Oh asthma attack on four legs. I’d love you if I could.
There are also moments of challenge, puzzlement and delight, making the collection overall both consistent and diverse. A poem such as ‘Abduction’ is hard to categorise, as are ‘Treasure’ and ‘Beyond’ (though none is difficult to read, and all rewarding). The first is an intricate piece of work comprising seven tercets and a final couplet, with an intricate rhyme scheme – another signal note: the poet can work in formal ways, as well as crystalline free verse – which belies its exploration of the mad impulses we all have, from time to time, in a range of situations. Here it’s an abduction-that-never-was, from the point of view of the abductor, entranced by temporary custody of an angelic child while its mother swims. Oddly, for so disturbing a theme, there is no sense of malice – the challenge comes from the poem striking a chord of recognition in the reader. Being human merely seems calm on the outside.
The second, short as ‘The Greenhouse’ and extraordinary in its own way, again bears reproducing in full:
Just a whisper
covetousness hissing in the ear
possession possession possession
the dragon curled on its hoard.
Let me not find it. The pirate stuff,
the heavy box lifted from under the sea,
the terrible weight of jewels,
Let me not find it.
Let me not get to the end of the rainbow.
Let it elude me.
At first like a fable, then increasingly a prayer (counterpointing the moving ‘Kaddish’ earlier in the book), the poem picks up the ongoing thread of persistence, revealing not obsession or mulishness but the deeply human need for longing and pursuit. Treasure found, after all, is game up – and what does lie at the end of the rainbow? Similarly, ‘Beyond’ puts flesh on the most skeletal of abstractions: the lovely “hoot/of a distant train”; “seascapes stretching out that didn’t stop at sky”; “the why/of flight … the gift of grace”.
Overall, ‘The Watching Stair’ perhaps does tease the reader a little, at the beginning – aha, a book of life unrolling from childhood to the end! – but instead goes on to deliver great riches of feeling, unexpected depths and meanings, and a jolt to the senses in every tightly-controlled poem. Its surfaces repay the reader’s touch, yielding to surprise and delight without ever breaking the poem’s calm skin. By collection’s end we are satisfied, and settling down to wait ourselves.
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The North and The Scotsman. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.
Ben Ray’s What I Heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World reviewed by Emma Lee
What I heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World by Ben Ray. £8.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN 978-1-912876-09-9
Ben Ray loves words, sounds and a wry sense of humour. He is also concerned with transitions; people or objects that transgress boundaries, if only to explore how the boundary came to be there in the first place. Around 1970, the UK moved to a new decimal currency, in ‘The day they decimalised the words,’ Ben Ray plays with the idea of words being renewed as if old coins being replaced by new:
everyone waiting to exchange their old, jaded letters
for fresh syllables, crisp and hot off the dictionary.
I remember how they tasted of newness and possibility
as I tucked them neatly into the back of my throat.
The older generation, they didn’t understand –
they cried when they opened their mouths
and their old, familiar sounds wouldn’t work.
Old words still exist but are unearthed during clear outs or found on notes tucked into old books where the finder might:
see how those now-strange symbols danced
and feel a nagging, empty sadness
for everything that had been left unsaid.
Old coins or words are collected and preserved but it takes individual love to keep them rather than a collective institutional curation.
Some of Ben Ray’s boundaries are literal, in ‘The Landsker Line, ‘the distinct linguistic and cultural boundary between the Welsh-speaking areas of northern Pembrokeshire and the English-speaking areas of southern Pembrokeshire, an area known as Little England beyond Wales:
This is war on a geographical scale. Watch-tower words
crouch in map folds, consonants drawn –
and underneath, language forces earth together
in a border crossing of flint-filled, igneous Cymraeg
pushed up against English’s softer sedimentary curves.
Put the dictionary down, there is no escape.
In Newgale the frontier carves a village in half,
Brandy Brook an anglicised battle line
the next beach north a fighting statement: Pen-y-Cwm.
To trace it you will need a phrasebook
and the voice of your grandfather – time clots
and cloys in the breaths between sentences.
It explores how language can divide families and homes, not just drive up illogical barriers. Interspersed amongst the longer poems are a series of knee plays, which were very short comic performances done with minimal props to keep the audience entertained whilst scenery was changed behind the main curtain in a theatre, e.g. ‘Sc. II: Reasons to embrace the rising sea levels’:
Eventually, ITV screened ‘Quick, Build My Ark!’,
beating the BBC to the prime-time evening slot.
I guess the world really is coming to an end.
It was hosted by Ben Fogle, pulling a serious face
whilst telling a bland family from Doncaster
how to beat the ever-rising sea levels
with just these Ten Simple Steps.
It makes you want to walk into the sea, you say.
No need, I reply, letting the remote fall from the sofa
into the water.’
Even in fun there are barriers, divisions and battles. Climate change is referenced elsewhere too, in “And now we are inside the mind of Nicolae Ceaușescu” set in 2018 after the UN climate change talks:
the slight tremble in the hands we shake. No: it is for the
that after autumn, there will be a winter
that our worldview need not be worldwide
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx4.xxxxx without knowing
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxabout the jagged
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbreathing of a world
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlarger than we are
and our fears only have to be human
rebellious students, struggling economy
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx3.xxxxxto not have to think
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxabout the sea levels
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhich rise to meet us
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xx2.xxxthat when we wake up
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxtomorrow there may be
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx1.xxxxxxxxxxno birds to sing.
It manages to be a poem that explores the narrow worldview of dictators and their inability to see that their own actions contribute to the destruction of the world they are so eager to conquer. Meanwhile those they seek to control are all too aware of the destructive nature of dictatorships but have no power to overthrow them.
The final, and title, poem harks back to the inital poem with its sense of things being archived and unearthed again. Here the last player is ‘a bird in a world that had no sky to spare/ mouth open for a dead language:,
it began to sing.
It sangxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof Maorisxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx of engines thrumming
cockle-pickersxxxxxxxxxxxxxx x out on empty sandsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI don’t understand
what arexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfish in the crackedxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx colour-seeped deep
sandpaper rustxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxvoices long gonexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhear this
men in shallowxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxgraves buildingsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxso tall the sky is
pierced the skyxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxis too brightxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhat so many gone
so manyxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwe did not thinkxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx here fingers on skin
clawingxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx holding knowingxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlisten
hhsssxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xhhsssxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxhhsss
The curator and I exchanged glances.
and I collected up the strands of tape …
With due reverence the cassette tape is reburied. The quote doesn’t go as far as the ending, but the poem ends without a full stop. There’s always a chance the tape will be recovered and listened to again.
What I hear on the last Cassette Player in the World is an exploration of boundaries between neighbourhoods, countries, people and the current day and past. With lashings of humour, it still makes serious points, allowing the reader to decide whether to read for fun or re-read and absorb the poems’ messages. Ben Ray demonstrates a love of words and desire to play with language, not to exclude readers but to communicate and engage.
Emma Lee’s debut collection was 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. Her latest collection is The Significance of a Dress published by Arachne Press.
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/
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.