Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell’s Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about the art and lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer reviewed by Carole Bromley
Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about the art and lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer by Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell. Two Rivers Press. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-909747-59-3
It is quite difficult to review a book of poems about paintings without the paintings! I also found I was constantly looking up who wrote which poem. It felt like an odd decision not to put the name of the poet at the end of each poem.
However, both Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell are poets whose work I admire so I was intrigued to read their collaboration, particularly as I love Stanley Spencer. I soon got caught up in this excellent book. Both poets are clearly knowledgeable about the lives of Stanley and Hilda and I do think it helps to know a little about the background. If you didn’t this book would probably send you straight to the shelves to find out.
By the time I got to the end of the first section, ‘A Village in Heaven’ I realized what a massive and ambitious task Jackson and Burchell had set themselves. Both immersed in Spencer’s work and his life and that of Hilda as well, they take the reader on a tour of Spencer’s major works and link them to contemporary events. In this first section we visit the great paintings of WW1 as well as the historical and personal background. I particularly admired ‘Roaring Great Hospital’ by Burchell and ‘Macedonia, 1918’ by Jackson. The two poems seem to complement each other beautifully and, given the current situation, I found the picture of that massive field hospital where ‘He, a barely known genius, fits in as an orderly’ particularly moving. In ‘Macedonia, 1918’ Jackson gives us both a glimpse of that great painting ‘Travoys with Wounded Soldiers’ and also of the artist making a vow ‘to devote himself to art once he’s home’.
I did find I needed to take a break between sections in order to digest the poems, the paintings and the background to them. I also found the work fascinating and it sent me back to my bookshelves.
Section 2 ‘Portrait of the Artist with Two Wives’ is a delightful combination of the sexy and the domestic. Both poets, working from paintings, photographs or documents, add to our understanding of Stanley and Hilda’s lives (and also the life of Patricia Preece) and the poems delicately complement each other so that I found myself guessing which poet had written what! I was particularly interested in this section and there are so many fine poems I could quote from. My favourites were Jackson’s ‘Lady in Green’ which is about Hilda’s ‘Portrait of Patricia Preece’ who, the artist thinks, ‘must be like butter’ and who has ‘her husband’s longing/ a certain knack with necklaces and hats’ and Burchell’s fine poem ‘Elsie’ which opens:
the maid (country girl), sat the children in a kitchen drawer.
There they could watch her iron, wash up, dry her hands,
those that chopped untrimmed wood that came in puffs –
The book is divided thematically into five sections to which both poets contribute. I was left wondering how they divvied up the paintings and whether there were any disagreements! My word, they know their art, these two and they also know just how to write about it in such a way that the reader enjoys the ekphrastic exercise, learns something new but also appreciates the paintings in more depth. Certainly I went back to my art books over and over again.
Because the book is quite long at 92 pages, I do not have space to discuss every section so I will skip to the final poems in Section V ‘Love’s Return’ which opens with a quote from Stanley Spencer ‘all ordinary acts such as sewing on a button are religious things and a part of perfection’ and the poem which follows, ‘Sewing on a Button’, by Rosie Jackson, is a masterclass in the use of minute detail to take us right into the world she depicts, on this occasion the act of sewing on a button seems to connect all women through Time:
She threads another needle.
Her thimble pushes the light.
She stitches the world together.
As Graham Burchell contributes only one (very fine) poem to this section, I will end on one of a sequence of beautiful poems based on letters which Stanley Spencer wrote to Hilda after her death in 1950. ‘Letter from Stanley to Hilda, May 1959’ which opens with a quote from the artist (‘My great losses in my life are my pictures and Hilda’) is a superb example of Jackson’s gift for inhabiting the life of the artist:
I should have painted you that morning at Chapel View,
leaning on the fence in your flowered dress.
I should have delivered you to yourself,
my Resurrection girl
This is a quite wonderful collection which anyone, but particularly those with some knowledge of or interest in Spencer and his paintings, would relish. An amazing achievement. I take my hat off to both poets. As David Morley says:
‘This book is an act of what Dante called visible speaking: visual practice takes on a refreshed verbal life; the landscapes of paintings rise clear in the mind’s eye; and their subjects speak newly to the mind’s ear.’
Carole Bromley is a widely published prize-winning poet. Her most recent collection is a pamphlet of poems about her recent experience of brain surgery, Sodium 136, by Calder Valley Poetry. Her next collection, The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, will be published in 2020 by Valley Press
Bonjour Mr Inshaw, Poems by Peter Robinson, Paintings by David Inshaw reviewed by Louise Warren
Bonjour Mr Inshaw, Poems by Peter Robinson, Paintings by David Inshaw. Two Rivers Press. £15.99. ISBN: 978-1-909747-56-2
I have long been an admirer of the artist David Inshaw, whose vivid dreamlike paintings have a surreal and poetic quality to them. So I was intrigued and excited to see that the poet Peter Robinson has composed a series of poems to sit alongside some of Inshaw’s paintings. I was curious to see if they worked and I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. In a fascinating introduction, Robinson charts his first meeting with Inshaw more than forty years ago. Since then their ‘acquaintance’, as he calls it, has endured through a number of ‘coincidences’ and a shared love of the West Country landscape, the writer Thomas Hardy, the artists Alfred Wallis and Courbet, and a small circle of literary friends including the poet Jenny Lewis. The idea of a collaboration emerged, and this book is its culmination.
The meshing together of text and image can be a difficult and prickly business. It is all too easy for one form to eclipse the other. However, this is a collaboration born out of many years’ acquaintance. Poet and painter know each other well and Robinson slips below the surface of the paintings, offering us glimpses of a mysterious haunting.
In the opening prose poem, ‘A Woman A Poem A Picture’, written in 1977, he first conveys the image and then invites us to look more deeply:
The flattened cumulus darker than slate allows bright sunshine to break across the gap between cloud banks and the tumuli as, elsewhere, topiary hedges.
Would it be a woman reaches up to adjust her – what’s it called? – a parasol. Or, no she waves goodbye.
Turning from word to image and back again, we are mesmerised and uncertain. We are not sure what is going on.
One of my favourite paintings is ‘The Orchard’ and here Robinson weaves an atmosphere of uncertainty, strangeness and sensuality with a delicate reference to Courbet, all set in the dusk-deepening garden with its menace of white cloud above the apple trees and its empty ladder. Here is the beginning of ‘After Courbet’:
You were working on The Orchard.
We talked about its foreground ladder,
The feet secured, it seemed, nowhere
on that unresponsive canvas …
With poet and artist in conversation, the ideas flow back and forth. Evoking personal memories, Robinson often uses ‘we’ on these shared journeys, as here in ‘Fulfilment’:
Then from my lips slipped out fulfilment.
‘Now there’s a word,’ is what you said
beside the signs of all it meant
uniting hand, eye, heart and head.
That’s how the things we love can happen –
as back-turned women lean at windows
to keep their options open
in aid of fulfilment too, God knows.
The image facing the poem is of late evening, a line of washing, an owl chased by two raptors. A moon ringed in gold.
I’m not saying this is all easy, you have to really look into the poems. As with the paintings, there are secret meanings and some of them are intensely personal. You need to return to them again and again, to look more deeply into the words and the images, then find your own connections. I found mine in ‘East Cliff, West Bay’:
I was searching out your likely viewpoint
where a puce house in the foreground
might line up with cliffs behind
fish-dock scents from floats and nets,
lobster pots, gear, rusted tackle,
painted seagulls’ cries!
The painted cliff opposite rises up sheer above the pink house like a green wall.
How immediate the words are. The use of the exclamation mark suggests Robinson’s excitement at trying to find the exact spot that inspired Inshaw.
In ‘After Inspiration’ for the poet Jenny Lewis. The inspiration is the painting ‘Wiltshire Landscape, Silbury Hill in the Distance’:
Uninterrupted, mid-winter sunlight
comes clear and bright after days of grey,
the transitory blossom
real as you like on reminiscent boughs …
How poignant these words and images are now! This green and empty landscape, a sinking red sun and rising pale moon. The road deserted.
Let us end with ‘Remembered Scenes’ alongside the painting ‘East Kennet Long Barrow’. Another empty landscape. A sinking sun. Trees. Robinson begins with a quote from Bernard Williams: ‘and things begin to be / hopelessly strange to us.’ Then takes us through a series of remembered images, including:
sights of hedge, copse and a beech clump
redouble uprooted determinations
to feel at home somewhere –
as exiles belonging at a distance know!
Altogether, this is a beautiful collection, fitting for such strange times. Breathe them in, be dazzled by the images. Enjoy.
Louise Warren, who was born in Dorset but now lives in London, is a poet and playwright. She won the 2011 Cinnamon First Collection Prize; her debut poetry book A Child’s Last Picture Book of the Zoo was published in May 2012. She is currently working on fusing her poetry with visual imagery and performance.
Ian House’s Just a Moment: New and Selected Poems reviewed by William Bedford
Just a Moment: New and Selected Poems by Ian House. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978 1 909747.58.6.
Though Ian House’s Just a Moment is subtitled New and Selected Poems, the eighteen poems selected from two previous collections – Cutting the Quick and Nothing’s Lost – reveal the early interest in transformations which informs all his work. ‘The mind is not/a shoe-box storing bric-a-brac’ ‘Out of Sight’ tells us, ‘but stained and leaded glass/whose reds and yellows flare up in the sun.’ A boy trying to understand ‘How I Dealt with Uncle George’s Glass Eye’ finds that ‘Our laughter/made the birthday candles genuflect./His mouth and left eye shone./The right was as indifferent as the stars.’ The fish in ‘Silver Bream’ may dance like ‘industrious lap dancers’ and yet ‘If there were souls,/they’d dance like this’, just as the man and the heron in ‘Light and Shade’ share a concentration when fishing which makes them one. Moments and surfaces are a deep theme in Just a Moment, reminding us in ‘A Cubist Notebook on Cézanne’ that ‘Cézanne, too, painted surfaces’, those appearances which somehow get to the heart of things.
The new poems begin with ‘The Harbingers,’ where ‘a shiver of leaves/which thickened to shadows’ bursts in ‘a blaze of doublets and speeches,’ introducing Orlando in As You Like It pinning ‘love’s name/to a tree in Arden’. In ‘Moment,’ the ‘jaws of a photograph’ capture a ‘living woman suspended/as in art, as in amber,’ while ‘The Spotted Veil’ reveals:
how what’s present, the given,
is less a moment suspended
than a site of transition
from whatever one’s come from
to wherever one’s going.
It is here that Ovid’s theme of Metamorphoses emerges, followed immediately by two elegies. ‘Imagines’ takes us back to 1956 at the time of Suez, when despite the young poet’s ‘self-righteous’ anger his ‘Father dug in behind the Daily Telegraph’ with its biblical masthead – the ‘biblical’ a resonant choice given the circumstances. Years later, in ‘Three Meetings,’ we see the father again, ‘upright in bed, majestic and smiling,/waving to all in the ward/as though his stroke had released a trapped stranger’. Surfaces are misleading in these poems, things changing as we change, metaphor so often being our only recource.
Even spring, which we all look forward to, in ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece,’ has ‘pushy daffodils,/flagrant tulips,’ ‘randy birds and lawnmowers/and rampant gardens that are bloody hard work’. The shadow of Macbeth lurks over the whole poem. And as always, death. In ‘Blank’: ‘Her going left all the possibilities/of white-walled rooms/at which his eye winced, was foiled’. In such moments, ‘White sheets stared back at him./Whatever breeds breeds in the dark.’ ‘What’s present’, ‘Taking Flight’ tells us, ‘is too much perhaps “to take in”./Imagination failing, absence/is more intense. We bring back/the distant and the dead/so convincingly/that loss, each time, is fresh.’
Two sequences concentrate the focus. ‘It Must Change’ has seven poems based on paintings by Paul Nash. As the ‘Notes’ tell us, ‘Throughout his life Paul Nash’s paintings and drawings examined the landscape of England, transforming what is seen. Hence, in ‘It Must Be Other,’ ‘All we’re looking at is columns and rows/of cherry trees,’ and yet ‘In winter 1917/it’s worse than a graveyard, it’s a regiment’. ‘It Must Go Deep’ has ‘Nash, freeing himself/from slavish habit and the tyrant eye,’ for me pointing straight to Hume on habit, a hint that is explored in the final poem in the sequence, ‘It Must End,’ in the first stanza:
Waking at four, a Humean bundle
of thoughts and sensations
knowing there’s nothing
but a blackness, a blankness
and one day the end of it.
‘This is finis’ is one Metamorphosis that offers no consolation.
The second sequence, ‘Metamorphoses,’ brings us another seven poems, this time highlighting Ovid’s theme that ‘the whole of Nature, and of human and divine nature, is always changing’. Two of House’s ‘versions’ employ what Renaissance scholars would have regarded as imitatio – reinventing the source in contemporary terms – rather than translatio – making the source speak in the distinctive language of the translator’s culture. We see this in ‘One or the Other or Neither or Both,’ where Ovid’s tale explores ‘why men who bathe in this pool become effeminate’, which House updates powerfully in terms of our LGBT debates, with a boy ‘Fifteen and full of himself’ seeking ‘safety in water’ but finding ‘a boy’ who ‘knows that she’s him’. ‘Pyreneus and the Muses’ also has contemporary Populist echoes, seeing Pyreneus ‘as the enemy of the expressive arts,’ and our liberal dilemma depressingly obvious:
we’ve a wonderful life:
art, history and song –
if only we were safe. But today
no act of wickedness is impossible,
innocence is obsolete.’
There are two poems which seem to me to capture House’s imaginative sensitivity most brilliantly. ‘Let His Bones Live’ begins with the Relics List displayed at Reading Abbey. ‘Glance at this list and you’d think/how charming the credulous faith/of the twelfth-century monk/who listed’ the collection. Surprisingly, as the ‘old monk stirs to life’ in the poet’s imagination, he finds ‘no dryasdust or blind believer/but a sceptic’ whose ‘Capillus sancte Marie ut putantur’ – ‘(A hair of Mary . . . reputedly’)’ – ‘sounds just like Cromwell’s man’. But House hesitates, wondering whether the relics which caused Chaucer such generous and Thomas Cromwell such vicious amusement had a different meaning for the monk.
Whether, ‘as he handled the girdle and tunic’, he was also dumbfounded ‘as each day at the altar/when bread became flesh in his hands//and then that enormous collection/of rags and body parts/sang in his ears/and the glorious company of the Apostles/the noble army of Martyrs/appeared to his eyes’. This is clearly a reference to Catholic – and Aristotelian – notions of the substance and accidence of everything in creation: here, the mystery of the bread’s visible qualities remaining the same while its ‘substance’ is somehow changed; in ‘Silver Bream,’ ‘If there were souls’, then like the fish ‘they’d dance like this’.
Metamorphoses, sites of transition, surfaces are all explored throughout Just a Moment, most movingly in ‘Crushed Velvet.’ Here, a man abandoned by his lover tries to empty their home of anything she left behind: ‘a hairgrip,/her Copper Fire lipstick, a note at the back of a drawer//her shopping bags and Simone de Beauvoir,/her copies of Cosmo’. ‘He burnt what/he could/and hammered the rest,’ yet whatever he does, ‘absence made her real’. ‘One day, by the furrowing sea,/his stick/wrote her name in the sand. He watched the tide swirl the grains/to wherever, because of the writing, they’d go.’ He has no control of the surfaces which constantly bring the loved one back. Yet here, beside the sea, the wisdom which is evident in all of these poems, is summed up:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThough things smash
to smithereens and the fusions of memory, nothing’s lost. They’d stood
in a strange light in a flooded meadow as a white horse, leading her
picked her way across a violet wash, hoof by high-stepping hoof.
William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition. Dempsey & Windle published Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.
Conor Carville’s English Martyrs reviewed by Beth McDonough
English Martyrs by Conor Carville. Two River Press. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-909747-53-1
Sometimes a title leads, but equally, it may be placed to mislead, and send the reader via unexpected directions to uncover places less easily found. Armagh-born Conor Carville has taken the latter route in this, his second collection, and it’s certainly not a reviewer’s job to issue spoilers about where readers may arrive.
Fittingly, this two part collection opens with the almost sonnet of ‘An Old Carved Doorknocker’. Not only does this sound a very suitable entry note, but it offers an indication of a series of poems which will push between worlds, with some barriers less readily opened than others. Many of these poems trip in and out of worlds, in a way which is almost hypnotic, and has echoes of J.O. Morgan at times. ‘5.Spittal’ delivers in a pulsed nigh-perfection of five taut quatrains:
apatic pathways alkaline and powdered, dusty as the Martian canals
though the body jogs on, Ding-Dong, a set of values on a screen, a date-bleed,
a risk prediction triggered from an off-shore platform, all studded with feeds
and acanthus leaves, all schooled and wreathed in loop-the-loops, the hoola-hoops
These are reference-dense poems, which spin from the seeming quotidian of children’s lives, through the cosmos, to medicine, mathematics, historical benchmarks, past artists and methods of transport. There are shifts between languages, and in some cases these come in the disconcerting space of very few lines. Not all of this will work for everyone. Fairly soon, I found myself becoming irritated by what often seemed a kind of cultural name-dropping. Doubtless there will be many more learned than I am, who will not interrupt reading to check regularly on unfamiliar terms. However, I suspect I will not be alone in this. Whilst the findings illuminated, I felt my appreciation was disrupted, and I often yearned for an endnote or footnote…a mapped aid to keep me closer to the page.
Even so, I urge you to persevere, for these are rhythmic, often self-deprecating poems, with a delicious wit which pops up as often as Antony Gormley’s figures (both flesh and cast) do in the first series. What initially had made me peevish was often punctured brilliantly by a killer last line. Perhaps the most gloriously self-aware example of that, with its laugh-aloud finale was in ‘The Seminars VII’. No, I certainly won’t give the game away. Similarly, ‘The Pitbull’ extends ebulliently , in unbroken tercets (complete with Antony Gormley) for four full pages. Such is the dynamism and throttling engine of the poem, that’s it’s a joy to read aloud to that marvellous ending:
Gucci out of Nibhaz out of Nomos out of Baal,
Bezek out of Rémy out of Kukri out of Yves,
Yoda out of Scud out of Kishi out of Igloo.
‘Gucci! Gucci!’ Slower now. Curious. Trotting squatly
and diagonally down towards the blue-chip
statues, the gallery hands oblivious, faces blurred
Truly, a wonderful dog chase, past ‘flanks and forearms,//the gelid heads, the stoppered ears, the thumbed out eyes,’ and much more.
This is not to say that it’s only in humour that these poems work. Far from it. The perfect pairing of the titular Andromeda with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or in ‘Geneva’, where soup is paralleled with the Large Hadron Collider, and in the layered metaphors of ‘The Brides of Crossrail’ which work with tight and beautiful economy. In some of the longer poems, sometimes I found it hard to make the similes’ ends, or I wandered in an out of a plethora of influences, becoming very unsure. Then again, Muldoon does this so well, and for some that tactic will prove similarly successful in Carville. There is indeed something of ‘an incandescent tiger by Rousseau’ present in all of these poems.
The second series, ‘Bless’, has an almost strobe-like effect, dancing between gaming, a child’s interactions, Wombles, those very martyrs and more, with the titular word flickering throughout. Again, there were times, as in ’18.Tronies’, where I wanted to linger with ‘the sock-puppet fizzog’ in Flemish paintings, and enjoyed the contemporary references, but wondered why I needed to be diverted to Venice and ‘Bellini’s fanatical hard-faced Doge’. That, he is, but for me, there was more to be developed and enjoyed in the already rich and weaving references. Undeniably, that’s a matter of my tastes and what I might want to luxuriate on in a poem, but that iconic Lorenzo deserves his own poem too. Back on Wimbledon Common, however, Carville’s description of assembling young mothers at the park is pitch-perfect and very recognisable.
The extraordinary ’17.The Head of Oliver Plunkett’, really cuts to the purpose of the Bless sequence, asking some uncomfortably important questions about how we can slip in and out of humanity:
This is the head before it had cooled to the boked-
up coconut you see in Drogheda,
Those aware of the history will already see in this that the martyrdom of the collection’s title is never what it seems.
The final poem of the collection, also called ‘English Martyrs’ (one of two so-named) is a virtuoso tying up of threads.
Conor Carville’s poetry is not for the faint-hearted. That in itself is not problematic, and I will return to ‘English Martyrs’, undoubtedly with increasing benefits. I hope, however that others will learn from my early mistakes when reading this packed collection. Please let the sounds carry you a longer way than I did at first. Keep those references for later. Nonetheless, it is a compacted joy and I suspect, even now that a little space, and perhaps some endnotes, might keep many readers closer.
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.