Three New Collections from Bloodaxe


Katrina Porteous’s Edge reviewed by J.S. Watts

Edge by Katrina Porteous. £12. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780374901

Before I embark on the review of this fascinating, multi-layered collection by Katrina Porteous (her third from Bloodaxe) I have a confession I need to make. I am not in the slightest bit scientific. Indeed scientist friends (I do have them) deem me to be the least scientific person they know. To be fair, I was once commissioned to write a performance poem based on stem cell research, but fortunately it turned out the Professor I was linked to was prepared to admit that he knew as much about poetry as I knew about stem cell development and as a result we got on swimmingly. I suspect it was this experience of poetry meeting science head-on and somehow finding ways to accommodate one another that drew me to Edge.

Katrina Porteous is also an arts rather than a science–based writer. Edge contains three poem sequences exploring “a poet’s view of science and the poetry of science, an imaginative narrative of how things came to be the way they are… from physics to chemistry and – eventually – to biology.” All three poem sequences were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle between 2013 and 2016 and were written in collaboration with research scientists and the electronic composer Peter Zinovieff. The “text of each [sequence] was written to be performed live as a continuous whole with Peter’s multi-channel music.” There is a detailed and informative introduction to Edge that explores the nature of these collaborations and performances.

I admit I approached Edge wondering whether the performance nature of the poems, deprived of their staged oral presentation, music and sound journeys, would translate readily to the page and also whether, as a non-scientist, I would be able to appreciate the poems themselves. I need not have worried. Regardless of their performance roots, I found the poems in Edge to be strong, evocative pieces exploring the cosmos and the creation of matter and life vibrantly and distinctively through image, metaphor and all the tools available to a skilled poet. The fact that, stylistically, they often appear lean and pared down makes their lyrical imagining of highly complex scientific theories all the more impressive. As for the science side of things, the collection boasts approximately fourteen pages of science-summarising notes explaining the theories behind the poems. I initially approached the collection from a purely poetic point of view and only dipped into the science notes sparingly. When I read the book again, and I very much intend to do so, it deserves it, I shall probably spend a little more time on the notes in the hope of improving my own impoverished scientific knowledge. The point is, however, that the sequences are successful as page poems, irrespective of the multiple layers of knowledge beneath and supporting them. Awareness of the science that germinated them just serves to make the feat of creating them all the more impressive.

The poem sequence called Field explores the beauty and metaphor of theoretical physics and quantum theory. Sun is an artistic response to solar physics and Edge, the title sequence, “takes us on a sound-journey to four different worlds – four moons of our solar system representing” the ancient primary elements of fire, water, earth and air. There are also some apparently unsequenced poems that relate to the three sequences, or are perhaps introductions to them. I shall quote from one of these unsequenced poems, Various Uncertainties II, that appears between Sun and Edge and which exemplifies, to my mind, the sparse, striking beauty of Porteous’s poetry:

You are only rumours:

Something broadcast
On a channel almost
Nobody listens to.

It is elsewhere, the party;
The ghostly
Immaterial numbers

Dancing all night
In the mirrored ballroom

Or gazing transfixed
At their own beauty.

At one hundred and twenty five pages, Edge is a sizeable publication and, I suspect, needs a much longer review than this to explore it fully. I am however, conscious of the number of words I’ve already typed, so I shall leave this review as a small moon to Edge’s substantial Saturn and end with a quote from Real, the first poem in the Sun sequence:

Darkness said to the Sun
Who are you?
That quiet pale face.

Grainy greyscale newspaper photo –
I want to know your bones.

And by reading Porteous’s elegant Edge that is what I feel I have been shown – the bones of the Sun and the universe that surrounds it.

J.S.Watts is a widely published  UK poet and novelist. She was born in London and now lives and writes in East Anglia. In between, she read English at Somerville College, Oxford and spent many years working in the British education sector. Her poetry, short stories and non-fiction appear in a variety of publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States including Acumen, Envoi, Mslexia and Orbis and have been broadcast on BBC and independent Radio.

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Frank Ormsby’s The Rain Barrel reviewed by Edmund Prestwich

The Rain Barrel by Frank Ormsby. £12.00. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1780374925

‘Untroubled’, the first poem in The Rain Barrel by Frank Ormsby, is a kind of brief resume of the whole volume, and also I think one of its best poems. It stands out both for the speed with which it makes the mind move and for the way that even as it does so it sustains a powerful sensation of stillness, of remembered domestic serenity suspended between a remote violent past and violence to come:

Caesar is flattening Gaul
by the light of our Tilley.
My father has slept
with his mouth open
since the beginning of the war.
My mother is on a cleaning campaign
in the furthest corners of her empire.
The frozen centre of the night
is a dog’s yowl released between hills.
I am translating from the Latin.
It is 1962, JFK smiles from our mantelpiece.
Before the decade is out
we will fear the unmarked car in the lay-by,
the live device thrown into the garden.
But on this quiet night
logs are burning out in the stove
and a dog in the hills
is fashioning a winter elegy.

The deep model for this poem seems to be Derek Mahon’s ‘The Snow Party’. Ormsby’s poem traces a similar arc but with a very different setting and atmosphere. Rapid changes of gear are obvious from the beginning, with the time-and-space jump between Caesar’s Gallic wars and the Ireland of 1962, where young Ormsby is doing his Latin homework: ‘Caesar is flattening Gaul / by the light of our Tilley’. Within those two short lines there’s a swirl of changing tones, not only moving forward but also reflecting back; the word ‘flattening’ becomes particularly apposite when we realise that we’re seeing things from the perspective of a boy. Then we settle to a more earthy comedy as the father’s open-mouthed sleep is presented as if it’s lasted all through the Gallic wars rather than just through the son’s homework time. With the jump forward to the Troubles, security and humour vanish altogether, until we return to 1962 in the last lines. Of course a poem whose tone is so volatile and whose meanings arise so much through juxtaposition, implication and imaginative suggestion may speak very differently to different readers, or to the same reader at different times, and that is its beauty and strength. The main elements are established with strong, clear strokes but can come together in the mind in many different ways. For me, the contrast with the Troubles intensifies the memory of peace. It becomes an island of calm framed by storms, earthed and saved from sentimentality by humour. However, I can imagine that for a different reader, knowledge of Irish history and of the old wounds that the Troubles reopened might undermine the supposed idyll. For such a reader, Caesar’s wars may evoke British imperial oppression, the reference to the mother’s cleaning campaign, which seems light hearted to me, may be poisoned by its suggestion of wars of suppression and ethnic cleansing, the father’s open-mouthed sleep may suggest dumb obliviousness to the underlying realities of the situation … and so on.

Different elements of this poem recur throughout the volume, the Troubles being recalled in a number of the poems about the lost graves of murder victims. Among them there’s ‘The Disappeared’, which I’ve seen greatly admired but which seems to me not nearly as good as ‘Untroubled’, if one reads it in isolation:

There are lost graves on the mountain
but somebody knows where they are:
the man with the cleanest boots in town,
the man with the spotless car.

In isolation, that does pack an immediate, powerful punch. However, once the reader’s taken the point of its single fierce thrust there’s nowhere else within the poem for the mind to go. In this way it’s quite unlike ‘Untroubled’, which keeps the mind in movement around the multiple and contradictory realities it presents. However, if one reads the volume through, there’s an effective shock in suddenly stumbling on ‘The Disappeared’ after the sweeter and more relaxed ones that come before it. Then, as one reads on, what comes next gets the mind moving again, like a river flowing round a rock it can’t flow through. There’s something of a paradox here. Ormsby has a fine sense of rhythm and form, so there’s pleasure in the shape of each individual poem and of the individual lines within it. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that The Rain Barrel is best read as a whole, or a number of poems at a time, because so much of its beauty arises from its constantly shifting angles on recurring topics, so that the poems meet each other in a fluid way, like the shifting surfaces of water on the sea or a wind-blown lake, rather than confronting each other as separate crystals or like sculptures dotted round a lawn. Of course many of them would make a powerful impact on their own, and no doubt have in magazines, but others that might not seem particularly memorable in isolation have loveliness and life as part of this shimmering between poles of celebratory bucolic recall, immediate positive experience and encounters with the wounds of the life. The fourth poem, ‘Fuchsia’, reflects this receptiveness to change in the way things are seen:

The earrings, the lanterns, the tassels
of the fuchsia change before our eyes.
Now they are bells, now frozen tears,
now blood-drops from the heart of summer.
The fuchsia hedge is redolent of old battles,
a peaceful tapestry in the annals of stone.

In a more extended way, a fine poem called ‘The Butterfly House’ flicks between pleasure in the voluptuous beauty of the butterflies in a simulated tropical environment and a shiver of repulsion at the thought of a snake in (presumably) another part of the zoo. The butterflies

spend their days

being exquisite in a history without wars. We are able,
briefly, to forget the scaly intent,
the cold-skinned slither a hundred yards away
in the tropical ravine. Hold up your arm

and with luck you will emerge into the garden,
badged and sleeved with butterflies,
a thousand bright sails opening around you.

This poem would certainly be richly resonant and satisfying on its own but it too lives most fully in context. In context, for example, the description of the snake resonates with that of the ex-terrorist in ‘The Disappeared’, and the way the blessing of beauty makes visitors to the butterfly house ‘able, / briefly, to forget’ horror makes a poignant contrast with the inability of the loved ones of terror victims to forget their loss, in poems like ‘Today There Has Been Information’, ‘Winter Landscape with Searchers’, or ‘No Closure’.

The garden of ‘The Butterfly House’ is a kind of secular Eden with snakes in its background. As ‘with luck you will emerge into the garden’ suggests, Ormsby’s keen sensitivity to the world’s richness and beauty is animated by awareness of how precarious our enjoyment of these things is. That obviously relates to the wound of the Troubles. There are poems on the sadness of age, too, and the inevitability of death. I’d particularly like to mention ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ in this connection. However, Ormsby’s willingness to admit grief and loss doesn’t have a depressing effect on the book as a whole. Its grief is the obverse of its joy, and there’s far more of the joy than the grief. It’s full of lyrical delight in small things, accepting life in its totality and in its constant movement between different kinds of feeling. Radiant lyricism is one expression of its joy. Another is laughter – sometimes just a smile or chuckle in the corners of the poem, sometimes a full-blown delighting in absurdity. There are a number of serious and quotable poems on the art of poetry – I particularly like the three graceful haiku elegies for Seamus Heaney – but I’ll finish my review with the beginnings of two comic ones. Together they illustrate Ormsby’s skill in subtle variations of register, and the way his lyricism is earthed to common sense, common experience and common language even as it moves easily into language of more rarefied kinds. They also, of course, illustrate contrasting attitudes to life and art. No prize for guessing which is closer to Ormsby’s own.

From ‘Poem Beginning and Ending with a Drunken Poet’:

Snowflakes are melting into wine.
The poet, Li Po, drunk as a lord, has dropped his cap
in the dust and the way it blows back and forth
is the funniest thing he has ever seen.

And from ‘The Poets’:

The Poets are spaced out singly
around the park in dark overcoats.
Even the women are wearing bowlers.
Deaf to the barbarous vowels of the waterfowl
they talk to themselves
in an elegant, indecipherable murmur,
unnerving the swans.

Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye.

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Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger reviewed by Rosie Jackson

Ledger by Jane Hirshfield. £10.99  Bloodaxe Books.  ISBN: 978-1-78037-512-0

In times of human crisis such as our current one, we need poetry more than ever – poetry that can both voice our natural responses yet remind us of a larger view that can help us through. As Jane Hirshfield herself wrote some years ago in her essay ‘Poetry and Uncertainty’:

‘when crisis requires a mode of negotiation with the chaos, entropy and loss-terror that are the steady co-inhabitors of human life, poems are turned toward, as a plant requiring light turns toward the sun… Simply to feel oneself moved creates an increase of freedom; outward circumstance is not the self’s only definition.’ (1)

The appearance of Hirshfield’s latest collection Ledger in the midst of the devastation wrought by Covid 19 makes these words especially prescient, writing as she does about life on our planet under threat, her poems wondrously able to move through a whole range of response as they mourn, praise, ponder, remind, witness and celebrate.

I don’t recall where I first read Hirshfield, perhaps in one of the Bloodaxe Staying Alive anthologies, but for years she has been one of the poets I repeatedly go to for support and nourishment. When I wrote my memoir, The Glass Mother (2), it was a quote from Hirshfield I chose for the book’s epigraph, thanks to the way she captures so succinctly the resilience of our human spirit as we deal with the many impossibles thrown at us.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.
(from ‘The Weighing’ in Each Happiness Ringed by Lions)

Perhaps it is her strong Buddhist training – in 1979, she received lay ordination in Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Centre – that gives Hirshfield her tone of quiet equanimity, able to accept and delight in the riddle of existence, though she herself prefers to downplay the Buddhist label. And while the poems in Ledger have many of the same preoccupations and characteristics of her previous work – philosophical, sensuous, questioning, ethically aware – they now have an even greater urgency, evident in many of the rich titles: ‘Ghazal for the End of Time’; ‘Cataclysm’; ‘Now a Darkness is Coming’; ‘Engraving: World-tree with an Empty Beehive on One Branch’.

The poems in Ledger are characteristic too in their deceptive simplicity: a plain and unpretentious vocabulary, more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate, often seemingly more monosyllabic than not; short sentences, sometimes leaning towards the epigrammatic; images rooted in everyday things from the human and natural world: stones, buckets, walls, paint, snow, glasses, turkeys, doors. Love, betrayal, endurance, death, are simply more things caught in our ledgers as our lives play out, repetitive and unredeemed by any outside epiphany, lifted only by our own perception, our layers of subtle cognitions and re-cognitions.

Things seems strong.
Houses, trees, trucks – a chair even.
A table. A country.

You don’t expect one to break.
No, it takes a hammer to break one,
a war, a saw, an earthquake…

Troy after Troy seemed strong
to those living around and in them.
Nine Troys were strong,
Each trembling under the other.

(the opening of ‘Things Seem Strong’.)

But if Hirshfield’s poems work like metaphysical riddles, they are less intellectual puzzles than the marks of someone who has lived deeply, questioned much, and in the absorbing of experience, distilled it through reflection into something that sustains its mystery and wonder. One thing I love about the riddling quality is the sudden unexpected line or phrase that can make the poem turn towards a totally different direction, often including not only one volte in a poem but several. Unsurprisingly, for someone who has written a volume of essays called Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise, surprise is one of Hirshfield’s recurrent themes, as in the poem titled ‘I wanted to be surprised.’

I wanted to be surprised.

To such a request, the world is obliging…

I don’t know why I was surprised every time love started or ended.
Or why each time a new fossil, Earth-like plant, or war.
Or that no one kept being there when the doorknob had clearly.
What should have not been so surprising:
my error after error, recognised when appearing on the faces of others.

She even marries surprise in the wonderful poem (quoted here in its entirety) ‘Husband’:

Some things can surprise you in both directions,
coming and going.
Like a stretch of single train track with shuntings over.
The auto-correct I don’t know how to stop
suggested, just now, “overwhelming,”
with shuntings overwhelming. Almost I took that.
Almost I took you as husband, love. Then you left me.
I took surprise for husband instead.
The Phoenician letter for “h,” pronounced heth,
resembled at first
a slanting, three-runged ladder.
Later it straightened, becoming a double-hung window.
Husband surprise, I climbed you, I climbed right out of you.
And while the poems often allow themselves some humour, as in the playful ‘Fecit’ (the pun of the title is surely intentional!) or in skilful word play, this cleverness is not an indulgence, but put into the service of serious ethics. The cleverly sustained anaphora of ‘Spell to Be Said Against Hatred’, for example, urges deep empathy and caring about the suffering we have brought upon ourselves and the world.

Until each breath refuses “they,” “those,” “them.”
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another.
Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly “I.” …
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken….
Until by “we” we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by “I” we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and sounding and
vanishing completely.
Until by “until” we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger,
the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.

Many of the poems are meditations in their own right, each day a new essay. ‘I keep a white page before me./ Each time one is marred with effort, striving, effect, I turn to another.’ ‘All day wondering if I’ve become useless.’ ‘I waited through wanting nothing/then waited longer.’ There are traces of koans and Zen riddles here as Hirshfield embraces the many paradoxes facing us: she captures the thingy-ness of things while knowing they are an illusion; celebrates the loveliness of life, what she calls ‘the magnification of being,’ in the very midst of transience; feels the reality of ageing while never being more vital; drops ever deeper into her humanity while identifying with the animal and natural kingdoms; is at the same time political and a-political, personal and impersonal, passionate and detached, engaging implicitly with the biggest issues of our time while her focus remains on the small, endearing things.

What about the charges of too much detachment that have sometimes been levelled against her? The late Tony Hoagland, in his brilliant essay ‘Soul Radio: Marie Howe, Jane Hirshfield, and Linda Gregg,’ pointed out that there are always pitfalls awaiting spiritual poets, not least ‘didacticism and piety’, and he claimed that Hirshfield too sometimes ‘drifts towards preachiness or aloofness’. (2) It’s true there are have been times in the past when this tone has snagged me too, when I’ve been left hungry for more detail, more particularity, more of the personal revelation that comes with being more open about the facts of one’s own life, the way, say, that Marie Howe reveals more of herself in her poems. But though I was still curious to know, for example, what Hirshfield might mean by ‘error after error’, there is an urgency in these poems, a generalised yet inclusive voice which makes it applicable to all of us. If these poems convey wisdom, it has not been easily won but wrested from and wrestled with. Hirshfield might be lamenting our human folly, but she knows she too is complicit, as we all are. There is no smugness, only more trying, no final epiphany, only evidence of endless struggles and practice to reach the calm reassuring ‘Yes’ that marries compassion and dispassion alike.

And there is plenty of space in this volume for breath, for reflection (including a blank page under the title ‘Silence’). Ledger is a book of harvesting of inner and outer experience, and at an extraordinarily barren time in human history, its fruits are a perfect, stunning and much needed blend of bitter and sweet.

1. ‘Poetry and Uncertainty’, delivered as a lecture put on by Bloodaxe and Newcastle University in 2007, in Jane Hirshfield, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry (Bloodaxe, 2008).
2. Rosie Jackson, The Glass Mother: A Memoir (Unthank Books, 2016).
3. Tony Hoagland, ‘Soul Radio: Marie Howe, Jane Hirshfield, and Linda Gregg,’ Twenty Poems That Could Save America and other essays (Greywolf Press, 2014).

Rosie Jackson’s poems are widely published, including in Acumen, Ambit, Frogmore Papers, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Scintilla, Tears in the Fence and anthologies. What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014) was followed by The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016) and her memoir The Glass Mother (Unthank, 2016). She won 1st prize in Poetry Space competition 2019, 1st prize at Wells 2018 and 1st prize in the Stanley Spencer competition 2017. Poems about Spencer, Two Girls and a Beehive (with Graham Burchell) is published by Two Rivers Press, 2020. Rosie lives near Frome, Somerset.

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