Hugo Williams: Lines Off • Paul Farley: The Mizzy • Geoffrey Hill: The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin • Katrina Porteous: Edge • Frank Ormsby: The Rain Barrel • Jane Hirshfield: Ledger • Caroline Bird: The Air Year • Roger Garfitt: The Action • Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell: Two Girls and a Beehive • Peter Robinson: Bonjour Mr Inshaw • Ian House: Just a Moment: New and Selected Poems • Conor Carville: English Martyrs
Louise Warren: John Dust • Carole Bromley: Sodium 136 • Martyn Crucefix: Cargo of Limbs • Mike Barlow: Some Kind of Ghost • Hannah Hodgson: Dear Body • Elizabeth Hare: Testimony • Michael Bartholomew-Biggs:The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here • Lynda Plater: Saving Fruit
J.S.Watts • Edmund Prestwich • Rosie Jackson • Roy Marshall • William Bedford • Stephen Claughton • Carole Bromley • Louise Warren• Beth McDonough • Emma Lee • Michael Farry • Carla Scanaro • Neil Elder • Maria McCarthy • Emma Lee • Hilary Hares • Robert Etty • Neil Fulwood
Hugo Williams’s Lines Off reviewed by Stephen Payne
Lines Off by Hugo Williams. £14.99 (HB). Faber. ISBN: 978-0571349753
Hugo Williams is one of England’s most lauded and decorated poets. One feature of Williams’s success is that his collections are very widely reviewed, including Lines Off. This challenges a reviewer to say something that goes beyond the terms of praise that are widely used and with which I would agree: “clear”, “charming”, “self-deprecating”, “witty”.
One of Lines Off’s main themes is the writer’s own medical frailty, and the challenges and ironies of old age more generally. The book was written in the context of a kidney problem, a period of dialysis (‘For the first time in my life/I have a regular job to go to’), and, eventually, a transplant:
I passed my days
lying down with a machine,
till someone unknown to me died
and allowed me to go home.
(‘St Pancras Old Church and Hospital’)
About twenty of the fifty poems address this medical history, one way or another. The book also returns (more occasionally and briefly) to Williams’s more longstanding subjects— his childhood, his youth and his love affairs (a feature of Williams as a poet much interviewed in the national press is that one knows so much about all this, not only from his poetry).
I think the main issue to raise about the poetry is exactly how it manages so splendidly despite presenting as so straightforward. I’ve heard Williams himself, at a reading, describe his style as prose (the self-deprecation, again), and he has a point, with respect to Lines Off, in that the poems here have no strong metre and very seldom rhyme (although there’s one jaunty triolet, ‘The Savoy Hotel in Wartime’, and one fun poem where many lines have a nifty internal rhyme, ‘The Coming Out Ball’).
Nevertheless there is certainly attention to form. It’s light-touch, low-key form, but very consistently applied. The lines vary in length, but not too much, with a three-beat or four-beat line being the standard. Furthermore, all the line-breaks are at phrase boundaries (the extracts quoted here demonstrate this discipline).
The stanza structures are similarly managed. Six poems are arranged in a single stanza, and all the others bar one are in stanzas of a constant number of lines. (Between-poems the stanza lengths vary considerably between two and seventeen!) And the stanzas are all genuine stanzas, with no between-stanza enjambment (only a handful of stanzas don’t end with a full stop). The most popular stanza-lengths are rather long: there are seven poems in six-line stanzas, and eight poems in eight-line stanzas (six of these are forty-liners).
I’m not sure what all this patterning communicates to the reader, but perhaps it’s the degree of end-stopping, of both lines and stanzas, that lends an air of simplicity and calm, although I think this analysis shows that it’s partly illusory: the ducks are dancing below the surface.
Also, there is figurative language, of course, and more than first appears, perhaps, because the metaphors are unshowy and subtle, they cohere with the poem’s theme, or they are at the level of the whole poem rather than within-sentence.
For example, the book’s first poem (or perhaps it’s the second, ‘To My Granddaughter Silver’ is printed in italics before the Contents) ‘The Conductor Raises His Arms’, talks about the beginning of a day as if it were the beginning of a symphony, listened to on a vinyl record:
A crackle of expectation
a silence of suspense
as the needle touches down on the day,
‘Fall Zone’ reports on a hospital stay as if it were adventure-travel:
Light piles up like snow
round the edges of table and chair,
suggesting the outline
of a mountain village,
a scarf of perfectly clear mist
suspended like a hammock
between two peaks.
I lie here, swaying to and fro.
Similarly, ‘Pepys Island’, described as a discovery on a tall-ship voyage, is perhaps a metaphor for the consolations of escapist fantasy, whereas ‘True Detective’ uses a childhood mystery book as a metaphor for life’s difficulties.
Although he uses it of himself, I’m not convinced that plain is the best description of Williams’s style, because, along with all the metaphor, his syntax and diction seems less vernacular than that of plain speech: it’s the syntax and diction of controlled, well-written prose rather than speech (or perhaps these differences are slight in Williams’s milieu).
If the poems are compressed, then the compression is not in the syntax, but in the judicious choice of visual scenes and episodes, the rejection of wordier descriptions or transitions. When this technique falters, I’d say it’s because it hasn’t been brutally enough applied, a few of the chosen scenes or details don’t resonate as much as the others. ‘Dear Arm’ is a lovely poem, but is it not roomier than it need to be?— its third stanza just too mundane to be worth repeated reading:
Poor arm! I broke you once.
I burnt you once. More than once
I cursed your weakness
at arm-wrestling and swimming,
but I was proud of your tan
when I rolled my sleeve at school.
Even here, I’m wondering, as soon as I make the point, whether it’s really true. That stanza economically tells us something about the narrator’s values and background, and it’s so easy to read that it carries me from one brighter place to another. There’s some pleasure in seeing Williams’s mind sifting the stream, even when it’s not coming up with gold.
Perhaps the most characteristic and notable quality of Williams’s poems is their tone. If tone is what expresses an author’s or narrator’s attitude to self and to subject matter then it becomes most salient when there is a disconnect between the explicit meaning and the latent carriers of that attitude, such as diction and register. Williams’s tone throughout Lines Off has an offset of this kind: it is the tone of a man who treats a crisis as rather tedious, or puts on a brave face while complaining. Stoic, almost, but not sufficiently stoic as to remain silent about his troubles. Williams describes his personal medical challenges directly, but with a certain resignation, some gallows humour. Very English, or at least the English like to think so:
It’s funny at first
when you raise your hand
to touch the alien fur
and all of a sudden
you don’t know who you are.
(‘In My Absence’)
The only disappointing poems in this book, for me, are the very short ones. Some reviewers have picked these out as successes, but ‘Couple on a Bus’ and ‘X-Ray’, for example, seem rather obvious: a simple thought, not developed. Other readers might disagree with me, so here is ‘X-Ray’ in full:
They hold it up to the light,
incline their heads in consternation.
There it is as they had feared,
her name written across his heart.
Perhaps Williams’s style is too relaxed for poems this short to really break through. Or perhaps, in the particular case of ‘X-Ray’, it’s simply that the final word spoils the image. In any case, such slight poems are easy to forgive when surrounded by much better examples. Taken as a whole, Lines Off makes it clear how Williams has earned his reputation, and how well-deserved are all those laurels on which he is not yet resting.
Stephen Payne was born in Merthyr Tydfil and went to school in Stockton-on-Tees. In 2010 he was awarded the Smiths Knoll Mentorship and spent 12 months being mentored and edited by Joanna Cutts and Michael Laskey. His pamphlet, The Probabilities of Balance, was published by Smiths Knoll in December 2010. His collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by Happenstance in 2015.
Paul Farley’s The Mizzy reviewed by Roy Marshall
The Mizzy by Paul Farley. Picador. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1529009798
Ever since his first collection The Boy from The Chemist is Here to See You appeared in1998, Paul Farley’s work has been concerned with remaking versions of his childhood world, its places and its inhabitants. These preoccupations are once again to the fore in The Mizzy, a collection that displays all of Farley’s celebrated characteristics, namely, dry humour, great technical skill, a wonderful ear for the music of language, and an ability to coin surprising and inventive images. The book begins with ‘Starling’ which might be read as a poem in which the poet and the bird are one and the same:
All I’ve ever done with my life
is follow the average course of the crowd
and witter on about my hole in the wall
the place where I’m from…’
If interpreted in this way, the poem could partly be seen as mildly ridiculing the author’s life choices and poetic obsessions and partly as expressing gratitude to the reader (or publisher) ‘for allowing one starling a voice’. These ideas might be enough for most poets to explore in a short poem, but the final lines take another tack:
but if I ‘brood in my hole in the wall’
and ‘keep one eye on the summer stars
viewed as from the bottom of a well’
well, that’s only you in your human dark.
This ‘extra’ twist might leave a reader feeling a little lost; who is the ‘quotation’ from and who is voicing it? Who is the ‘you’ and who is the ‘I’ in this poem? Perhaps they are all one and the same. While Farley’s technique never fails to impress, some readers might find that
a number of the poems in this collection leave them wondering who is who and what is what.
In ‘Poker’, the description of a pack of cards and the journeys it has made are undeniably beautiful; the cards are ‘dark-edged with mammal sweat’ and ‘shuffled to a soft pliancy, greased with lanolin’. Farley’s easy musicality and way with a cliché are in evidence:
and it might be a pack of lies
or it might be sleight of hand,
and you can’t tell which is bluff
because words are a good disguise
for holding nothing. I’ve found
that nothing is more than enough
Again, it may not be obvious to a reader what this last ‘twist’ means. One interpretation might be that stories are unreliable, and that any narrator is not to be trusted.
In ‘The Mystery,’ a funfair is deeply embedded in the speaker’s consciousness, and although the big wheel ‘still turns inside me’ the thing itself, like so much in this book, ‘has long since gone for scrap.’ The voice in the poem moves between ‘I’ ‘you’ ‘we’ and ‘he’,
and the reader needs to be attentive in order to keep up. The poem seems to highlight how the switch between having an awareness of being intensely alive, and awareness that all such moments are fleeting, can occur very abruptly. Numerous other pieces (‘The Green Man’, ‘The Ship in the Park’, ‘Swing’) revisit childhood with similar blend of celebration and sadness at its loss.
A poet writing their fifth collection undoubtedly faces greater challenges than one starting out, namely, how to return to themes and obsessions in ways that make the work new and interesting for both themselves and their readers. Farley approaches from oblique and multiple angles, sometimes taking ambiguous routes around and through his themes in order to conflate and conjoin ideas, and in doing so he often manages to cast what might be reductively described as ‘nostalgic’ subjects into new and vibrant patterns. Readers might find the more complex poems intriguing and rewarding or alternatively, frustratingly opaque and difficult to follow. This is certainly a substantial collection and there is plenty to explore and ponder in these sixty-two pieces.
Farley’s poems are largely depopulated. Instead of humans, objects, places and creatures are representations of vanishing worlds and their inhabitants, and a means by which themes and concepts such as identity, home, love, death, and memory are explored. ‘Atlas’ might be interpreted as a jokey description of a young person’s discovery of the altering effects of alcohol, swigged on the sly. The drinks listed are ‘Clan Dew’ (a rather downmarket and now largely forgotten blend of British wine and malt whiskey) and another now less than popular drinks cabinet staple of that era, Bristol Cream sherry. References to consumer products such as Sunblest bread and Golden Wonder crisps orientate the reader and reference a now vanishing, or already vanished past. Mundane objects (a cash point machine in ‘Hole in a Wall) places and situations (a public library in ‘Glade’) are expertly evoked and in some instances, memorialised.
In the most vivid poems, Farley creates surreal or hyper-real evocations of a moment or moments of perception, where past and present collapse into each other and the emotional power of memory flames into life. ‘Glorious Goodwood’ is a particularly fine example of this, when the world reveals itself, in the words of MacNeice, to be ‘incorrigibly plural’, and ‘crazier and more of it than we think’.
Birds have always featured in Farley’s work, and The Mizzy (a nickname for the Mistle Thrush) has an even higher avian headcount than previous collections. For Farley, a bird poem is seldom just a poem about a bird. In the sublime ‘Robin’, the bird is celebrated for its distinctive characteristics and focused purity of action. ‘Moorhen’ is a eulogy to the humble and shy creature that, the poem highlights, is descended from a dinosaur and so predates us. Other bird poems explore environmental loss and extinction. In an age of climate change and decline in the natural world, it would be surprising if a poet of Farley’s sensitivity merely wrote descriptive pieces un-shadowed by the spectre of loss.
‘Sloth’ explores a sense of culpability, acknowledging that the speaker of the poem has taken his eye ‘off the ball’, becoming distracted from ‘what matters’ and distanced from interaction with a disappearing environment, seduced, as much through inattention as anything else, by what is instant, facile, virtual and disposable.
In ‘Mistle Thrush’, which begins ‘The first park is the fastest park,’ a series of statements and images speed past in a mixture of concrete and abstract language. This makes for a poem full of interest and texture, but perhaps the piece isn’t entirely cohesive or satisfying in the way that some of the closely focused poems are. It may be that Farley is trying to capture a sense of being engulfed by the speed of change, a sense of his resulting confusion or disorientation. Perhaps he is also exploring the overwhelming ‘newness’ of childhood experience and contrasting this with adult ‘certainties.’ If this stylistic approach doesn’t appeal, the collection also contains ‘Sparrowhawk’ in which Farley’s skill and focus enables him to carry off an idea with the ruthlessly efficiency of the bird in the poem’s title.
Many of the poems in The Mizzy evoke those moments when we become aware of the wonder of being alive, but most of these moments are shadowed by a sense of loss, pathos, sadness and anger. Farley’s visits to earlier lives are accompanied by acknowledgment of the disappearance of the worlds in which those lives were lived. The complex and ambiguous nature of some of these poems might make them too elusive for some, but other readers may find reward in repeated readings.
If Farley is from a generation and background not overly given to open displays of emotion, then many of these poems convey the heat and chill of those feelings without overtly expressing them. In ‘Long-Eared Owl’ the ‘indigestible bones of a difficult year’ are regurgitated. The word (or perhaps more accurately the sound) ‘urgh’, is positioned at the beginning of the poem’s recollections, as though physical effort is involved in recalling memories, and these ultimately go much further back in time than ‘a difficult year’, with the speaker retching his way through leaving and returning home, and in the process, leaving and returning to his former selves. In this collection Farley has gone closer to and deeper into his past than before. Behind what might at first appear to be a certain type of scrupulously controlled, semi-detached, mildly humorous, deadpan Englishness, torrents of emotion rage and are occasionally allowed to break through.
Roy Marshall‘s poetry has been widely pubished in journals. He has published two full collections with Shoestring Press. Most recently Shoestrring Press has also published After Montale, his versions of thirty poems by Eugenio Montale.
Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin reviewed by William Bedford.
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill, £20. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-882952-2.
Eliot’s claim in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ ‘that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult’, always struck me as paradoxical. As a sixteen-year-old, the imagery and music of The Waste Land captured my imagination immediately, though I had little notion of what the poem was ‘about’. The famous Notes which he did his best to dismiss as page-fillers confused the issue, but Geoffrey Hill’s advice to readers of The Book of Baruch – ‘Trust that its true being is song’ (47) – seems to suggest that perhaps too much fuss has been made about Hill’s difficulty over the years.
The posthumous The Book of Baruch – 271 numbered rather than titled poems – seems to me a return to the Hill of the seven collections from Canaan to A Treatise of Civil Power. There have been changes of opinion – ‘In the impending referendum I shall vote to remain, Canaan notwithstanding, in which I derided the Maastricht Treaty as an international corporate fraud’ (240) – but the often tedious obscurity of ‘The Daybooks’ brought together at the end of Broken Hierarchies has gone.
The Gnosticism of the title holds that material creation is evil, in a world full of false prophets. ‘True gnosis is obsessed with small alien details of fact’ (81), more akin to chronicles – say the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – than history which ‘is not mere chronicles’ (78). But if this is history Hill is creating, it comes across as ‘aggressively recondite’ (111) in Hill’s familiar voice, ‘our grand old sing-along land’ (78). ‘East End music hall kvetch’ (6) this might be, where the poet says of himself ‘I speak as a fool’ (22), an ‘old duffer’ (20), who has ‘always been a name-dropper’ (62). In old age, he is furious in our ‘Unsteepled’ land (10) where his Toryism of Coleridge and Ruskin is as long forgotten as the religion his steeples signify.
The political anger is both deeper and less simplistic than some critics have noticed. As mentioned above, the poet admits to changing his mind about Maastricht, whilst remembering a time ‘long ago’ when ‘I fell to praising the Easter Rising’ (64). What he sees now ‘is an England of rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits’ (240), where Margaret Thatcher is accorded a rare ‘full state funeral’ (196) and ‘White youths provoke riot to declare themselves patriots’ (ibid). After the shock of Brexit, we are left with a ‘big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit’ (271) where this High Tory can say ‘Corbyn must win’ (186).
In such a state, it is not surprising that Hill’s imagination returns to Milton and Cromwell, and there are repeated echoes of John Clare’s experience of the greed-driven enclosures which destroyed at least one old England. Slightly more surprising is Hill’s suggestion that ‘it is vital that we resurrect Brecht’ (124), who ‘sold out his intellectual and moral pedigree for what he could get’ (ibid), making him ‘all the more a fit object of study’ (ibid) in a period of ‘piecemeal self-betrayal like snot on a fingernail’ (ibid). We can certainly hear the writer who admired Swift in his denunciation of the condition of current British poetry, ‘much like that of semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station’ (205).
When I started reading The Book of Baruch, I thought this was going to be a Parnassian return, in Hopkins’s sense of ‘competent but uninspired poetry’ – late Wordsworth or Tennyson – continuing everything that I felt had gone wrong after A Treatise of Civil Power. But Hill was predictably there before me: ‘In truth he is a Parnassian and a sassy man’ (73) he tells us, deconstructing the Parnassian with that lively ‘sassy’. In vigorous ‘wind-burled, wryed at the neck’ (27) language, Hill proves emphatically that ‘Sentiment flourishes’ (26), the poet’s duty – as Mallarmé and Eliot saw – ‘to purify the language of the tribe’ still alive.
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.
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:
On a channel almost
Nobody listens to.
It is elsewhere, the party;
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.
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.
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
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. http://www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Caroline Bird’s The Air Year reviewed by John Wheway
The Air Year by Caroline Bird. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784109028
In her exhilarating how-to essay, ‘The Discipline of Getting Lost: On the Impossibility of Poems’ (in ‘Craft’, ed. R,Dastidar, Nine Arches Press, 2019), CarolineBird advises poets to ‘Fling open the door of your first line’. ‘Write a first line,’ she instructs, ‘that thrusts you out, unprepared, into a world of your own making’. Her latest collection of poems, ‘The Air Year’ offers textbook examples of such first lines:
‘Nancy found an entire torpedo in the forest’ (Nancy and the Torpedo)
‘I think ‘so, this is death’ and wonder why’ (Checkout)
‘It’s like being a windmill in a vacuum’ (The Deadness)
‘The hotel was called Napthalene Heights’(Napthalene Heights)
‘I do kind gestures. Remove my appendix.’ (Sanity)
‘No-one dies here or chews their food properly’ (Loveborough)
What is an ‘Air Year’? Is it airy, airy-fairy, airless, full of hot air, airborne? Is it a breath of fresh air, up in the air, a pocket, a bubble of air? A time of coming up for air? The collection is all of these and more. As a reader, I was impelled to obsessive free association, to frequent raids on my dictionary, the poet’s baroque cascades of gorgeous, inventive, often preposterous imagery inviting me to join in the fun.
Yes, it is fantastic fun, but the abundance of invention is often manic. Far from being a flaw, however, the manic energy of language in these poems, so contagious for this reader, perfectly enacts the narrator’s chaotic emotional world.
The focus is on love: lacking it, longing for it, getting lost in it, losing it. Driven by ambivalence about her desires, the narrator is portrayed as an addict, sometimes drowning in the addiction, eventually in rehab, with intervals of recovery before some fresh relapse.
‘Mid-air’ the opening poem, finds her and her lover suspended ‘in amber’, ‘Our mouths
midway/across the same/inhalation like robbers mid-leap between/rooftops’. Almost every line break orchestrates this suspended state – air, in the poem, is a held breath. It’s a moment of suspense, of anticipation, yet also a moment of arrest, of stasis, ‘A note almost sung’ that fails to arrive at song, a moment of agonising hesitancy filled with longing, comically yet wistfully depicted: ‘Locked/in the amber of the and./We just want to land or/be landed on’.
In ‘Dive Bar’, we plunge into a kind of hell ‘down a steep flight/of stairs into a windowless cellar’ where ‘an ingénue in a smoking jacket/sits atop a piano/as a host of swaying women/sing “Your Secret’s Safe with Me”’, through a series of increasingly vertiginous descents: ‘down a steep flight/of throat into a windowless cell’, then ‘through a red breath down a dark/thought into a swallowed sense/with shrinking walls…as a host of silent passions/mouth “Your Secret is Yourself”/inside the belly of the world’. Here ‘dark clandestine places’ become ‘dark dissolving spaces’ in both the world and in the self, from which the ‘windowless woman’ manages to escape, perhaps in imagination only, by breaking/walls down in herself, sprinting/up the shrinking/halls and up contracting/corridors and up the choking/fits of hard stares through dark/thoughts and dead/laws’ till ‘you’re spat out/on the pavement with/the sun just/coming out’. A nightmarish coming out indeed.
In a later poem, ‘The Ground’, the motif of descent appears again as falling off a cliff and landing on what appears to be the safe ground of domestic normality, where ‘I can bake that lasagne now’, only to find the ground giving way before landing again where it might be possible to ‘buy a puppy’, or further down, perhaps to‘ put up a shelf. Make that baby’. When the ‘falling, landing, falling out’ stops, ‘You lie and let your bones heal…experiencing plateau…cold, hard, real, the opposite/of air. You shake like a prodigal astronaut./I could build a house on this, you think,/staggering off.’ Though conveying a nightmare instability and lack of security, this poem like many here, also manages a comic, even slapstick absurdity, laughing at its own horror, not callously, but with compassion.
Many of the poems are beautifully linked. ‘Urban Myth’ the prose poem which follows ‘The Ground’
is a good example, in which the theme of falling re-appears, this time in an anecdote of the WWII fighter plane which,‘riddled with bullets from enemy fire’, is kept in the air by the crew’s chewing ‘Wrigley’s peppermint gum…to bung the bullet holes’. The anecdote is ‘not a true story’ but provides a telling simile: ‘We played our love like that for a while…a patch-up job cobbled in mid-air…fighting fire with blobs of miscellaneous optimism…cork(ing) each new wound with a wad of sweètness freshly printed from the panic of our mouths.’ Here, one again, Bird the dramatic poet fuses comedy and tragedy in a poignant portrayal of fragile relationship.
Pile-ups of images throughout this book portray a fragmented reality so intense that it could be a relief to believe ‘We’re trapped inside a movie’. (Surrealism for Beginners). Yet with considerable pathos, its narrator insists that she and her much-craved lover are no poor players.
Bird’s extraordinary fecundity of language, on vivid display throughout the collection, is itself viewed reflexively in several poems. In ‘Speechless’ (which is also about what needs to be said but has been unsaid), ‘the words…wrapped in furs like Russian soldiers/vowels crammed like backpacks…syllables bent from all the shouldering’ leave the house ‘in their thinnest summer/jackets, despite the December cold…now they’re shameless on the air, naked as a tune/sung by a sated ghost’. In ‘Anaesthetic’ words give the narrator a fix to manage her love-craving. While with certain words are predictably soothing – ‘I love you./Boom! I’ll feel better for a whole entire day’, others, like ‘Lozenge./Any word./Lysol. Shellac. Ditto.’ also relieve the pain. If this suggests the writing of poems might sometimes begin as a therapy, we have to be grateful it leads to poems as satisfying and accomplished as ‘The Air Year’. This book has genuinely expanded my sense of what can be done in poetry. Please do fling open its door.
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. He has also published flash fiction. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber and Faber published his novella Poborden. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October will be be published by V Press in 2020.
Roger Garfitt’s The Action reviewed by Stephen Claughton
The Action by Roger Garfitt. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1-784107-71-0
The Action is Roger Garfitt’s first collection since Carcanet published his Selected Poems in 2000 and it has been worth waiting for. His early poems belonged very much to the rural world of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, but although influenced by them, Garfitt had first-hand experience from summers spent on his grandparents’ farm in Norfolk and later living on the Surrey farm bought by his barrister father (see his highly-acclaimed memoir, The Horseman’s Word. In his new book, the countryside remains an important source of inspiration, although the foxes, hares and cattle have given way mostly to wildflowers. One group of flower poems near the beginning shares the theme of renewal, while a later group — like his sequence of butterfly poems — celebrates the flowers in their own right
Although there’s a nod in ‘Lesser Celandine’ to Wordsworth’s poem ‘To the Same Flower’, these are not literary flowers, but real, live specimens. What saves them from wilting under Garfitt’s intense scrutiny is the use of imagery that places them in the wider world: the lesser celandines subsist ‘like cottagers on their flitch of bacon / on the sugars stored in the long fingers / of the roots’; snowdrops have ‘Quaker heads bowed / in patience’; daffodils are ‘horses heads / of gold’. Tellingly, the world to which they are compared is older than ours and more closely attuned to nature. The flowers may fire off associations, but they remain themselves, as in ‘Dandelion’:
Not the lion-toothed leaves
but the flower’s lion heart,
its unruly sun
where it shouldn’t, universal scamp,
where we move from dent-de-lion to Coeur-de-lion to Larkin’s ‘Solar’, while at the same time recalling the way dandelions flower close to the ground before rising on their stalks prior to seeding. And when he writes of ‘that wingbeat of green / the petticoats show / when the stiff skirts / lift at last (‘Snowdrop’) or how the violets ‘cup open, greedy / as the Sheela-na-Gig’ (‘The Touch’), Garfitt reminds us that what flowers are really about is sex.
The book opens with a poem, ‘Ladywell’, which celebrates a spring that ‘busies up out of the summer night / the moment we turn off the TV’. It was ‘the Mesolithic // for survival’ and as important to the Romans as to Mediaeval monks. It is — in the nature of springs — unstoppable:
under the siltstone arch will pass
the Atlantic through the harebell
and still not rest.
The idea of continuance is questioned in another ‘broad-sweep’ poem, ‘An Innocent’, which is about ‘The frog by the coal bunker’. It speaks of:
a suppleness in the air
off the Atlantic
frogs have sheltered in
since the meltwaters dispersed
the Gulf Stream steadied
and the frost lifted the frost
of strange pollen of pale
and deals with the way frogs breathe through their skins. The refence at the end to ‘cloud cover where // a fungus might form’ is a reminder of the skin-eating, chytrid fungus that has wiped out 90 amphibian species in the last 50 years.
Equally topical is Garfitt’s Brexit poem, although the B-word isn’t mentioned. ‘The Hedger’s Mittens’ is written in memory of a countryman, who when his leather mittens became too stiff would ‘bury them in the ground / for a spell, put them back to Old England…’ The poet doesn’t share the old man’s rooted patriotism: ‘I was left to wonder at the depth of that trust // where I felt only an absence, the absence of / all those young men Kitchener had pointed / the finger at’. Instead he invokes the war poets, ‘Voices raised out of the cross-grain of England, / out of the questioning that won our common ground’. It’s a poem that speaks out against the dangers not just of nationalism, but of all violently-held opinions. The poet doesn’t ‘disavow that old man and his gentle trust’, but wants to ‘enlist’ Owen, Sassoon and Gurney, ‘as England turns ungentle once more.’ It’s not so much mittens being buried here as a hatchet.
He adopts a similarly nuanced approach (‘the play of water in a walled garden / and one facet glancing off another’) in other poems about war, notably the four unrhymed sonnets about the English and Spanish civil wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. In ‘IED’, a soldier:
… crouches, choosing where to angle
the cutters, as if he and his fathers before him
were not hardwired into the blindness of this place,
the agency that brought down the visionary King
just another throw in the Great Game, and his own death,
if he fails to read the signs, a secondary
of Empire, like the child bride brutalised
in the cellar, or the woman whose crime was to be raped.
In other words, we are the problem, British agents having brought down King Amanullah Khan, whose reforms (a footnote tells us) would have transformed Afghanistan in the 1920’s, and the soldier himself is another potential victim of Empire.
Although several of the poems are about war, the Paul Nash lithograph on the cover isn’t one of his war pictures and the action of the title poem doesn’t refer to military action, but rather to the bowling of his brother-in-law, a cricketing builder, and how it was evoked by the vigour with which he plastered a room in the poet’s house. It’s a moving poem about regular journeys made across country to visit the dying man. In other elegiac poems, people are remembered through images (‘Two Photographs’) or objects (the crafting a double harp) or in the case of Garfitt’s late wife, the poet Frances Horovitz, simply a gesture. The poem, ‘Outside’, begins:
You take off your gloves, spread your fingers
to the air. Anonymous for a moment,
let yourself be turned into a bay tree.
By transforming her gesture into an image — of Daphne, metamorphosed into a bay tree to escape Apollo — the poet also preserves his wife’s memory from death. It’s the most effective of the mythological allusions in the book.
‘The High Cut’ about a ploughman (one of the poems written during his residency at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm) reminds us that another of Garfitt’s influences is Hopkins with his love of ‘all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’:
Drawn like blades of earth, the ridges catch light
out of a dull sky. Half-crouched, his arms wide
to the plough handles, a man stalks them as they shear
from the mouldboard. Every other pace
he halts the horses, takes a long spanner
from his back pocket and tightens the outrigging
of press wheel and boats, keels of metal that he draws
on chains, furrow-sharpeners that ride in his wake.
Garfitt is scrupulous in his choice of words: the way that the Ladywell ‘busies up … birling’; or ‘the changle of a [horse’s] bit’ in ‘Daffodils’ (made up, but nevertheless just right). Some of it is to do with scientific accuracy: flowers powered by ‘sugars’ rather than just sap; spring flowers gathering energy from ‘the darker bands / in the spectrum’; ‘a pulse / of electrolytes across / the membrane’ of a frog’s skin; or, less convincingly, a buttercup species ‘so prone to change it can only be rooted / in a quantum universe’. There’s an interest in words themselves: plastering a wall ‘until it was sheer on the / original sense and shone’. Sometimes he creates images with single words: the ‘bracketing warmth of the wall’; or the description in the dedicatory poem to his wife, Margaret:
of those long, stage-crossing strides
you could never quite suppress, even
on the tut-tut-tut of the library floor.
His images rely less on ‘Martian’, visual parallels than on the quality of things. In ‘The Hackle’, he describes a cadet soldier:
All five foot of him stretches up to the hackle
on his beret, the white plume tipped with red
that bloods him as a Fusilier
and might be his avatar.
What better way of saying that the boy’s a featherweight?
In ‘The Other Company’, writing poetry is compared to catching a bus. (Certainly, both involve a lot of waiting around.) When the poem-bus turns up, it’s usually one ‘built of misgivings, // whose engine labours / under a rattle of flaps, // whose exhaust is a spew / of midnight oil,’ but ‘Once in a month of Sundays’ there arrives:
…the well-tempered bus
riveted with light,
the bus that pulls in
out of nowhere,
with just one seat left
on the long bench.
The ‘long bench’ evokes the idea of the poet being received into the company of heroes rather than just a bus company. The same images same appear more explicitly in ‘The Space’, the final poem in the book, which is about a poetry group.
Just before the end, there are some poems about jazz. (Garfitt himself performs poetry with a jazz group.) He writes about Lester Young, Miles Davis (twice) and Charles Mingus not with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Larkin’s ‘For Sidney Bechet’, but more deliberatively and obliquely. Garfitt isn’t an obscure poet, but like all good poems his need to be read with due care and attention. As this book demonstrates, it is an investment that pays off.
Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. His first pamphlet, The War with Hannibal, was published by Poetry Salzburg in October 2019. A second pamphlet, The 3-D Clock, containing poems about his late mother’s dementia, is due out from Dempsey & Windle in February 2020.
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.
Louise Warren’s John Dust, reviewd by Neil Elder
John Dust by Louise Warren, illustrated by John Duffin. V Press. £6.50. ISBN 978-1-9165052-8-5
John Dust arrives in the first poem as follows:
pushes through hedgerow
caved in, busted,
John Dust narrow as a pipe, face like a claybowl
And so this figure emerges, becoming something real and identifiable but also something beyond reality, a mythical figure that haunts the liminal space of the Somerset Levels where the work is set. Indeed, so authentic and richly imagined is the character of John Dust that I had assumed he really was part of folklore, a figure stalking the South-West for generations. In fact the character is Louise Warren’s own invention and it is the realisation of this character that gives the pamphlet licence to dazzle, with inventive imagery and new rung language running through the poems.
From the off, with the eponymously first poem, we have simile being stretched and then stretched again to create a sense of John Dust never being still, never fully knowable. He has a:
face like a field tuned over
face full of buttercups …
face like a millstone …
face like a battle
The character of John Dust becomes something larger than an individual; he morphs into something elemental, a part of the landscape, at once ancient and new. The landscape and marshland in particular, plays a big part in these poems, often so fully realised that you can feel the damp seeping up from the page. Titles such as ‘The Marshes’, ‘The Drowned Field’ and ‘Winter Bathroom’ create a visceral sense of where we are; think of news coverage of flooding across the Somerset Levels and you have an image of where these poems take place, but read the poems and you can feel and the damp and smell the air. It is Warren’s bold use of repetition across the poems that means they take on a layered effect, as phrases refract and reflect so making the world of John Dust seem absolutely real, though just not in any way we can quite grasp. An example of landscape evoked in a surprising way is clearly seen in ‘The Marshes’, a poem which incidentally won the Prole Laureate Competition in 2018:
You fetch each room, one by one, back to the marshes.
Plant forks and teaspoons, chairs for the heron’s nest,
propped up and broken,
the sky rusting over, smashed up with egg yolks,
water as mirror, water as leather, water as smoke, as trick,
a light under the door.
Warren can capture a mood with her observations and is able to express those feelings we might have but would struggle to articulate in any standard form. Whether it is the way “the afternoon moves heavily around the house,” or how a “tap runs a long cold evening, the colour of lead”. Here then we must also recognise that John Dust is an aspect or projection of the speaker. The poems move from third person observational into a dialogue and interaction with John Dust: “John Dust, you were with me at dawn”. This figure is part sprite, part imaginary friend and also part projection of feeling. The collective sense of these poems is something almost haunting and at times wistful, though because of the nature of John Dust he moves swiftly across a gamut of sensations.
The world which is created in these poems is one where normal rules do not apply, and this aspect is furthered in the way the language creates its own grammar. The final poem, ‘Folklore’ in which there appears to be an attempt to pin down the figure of John Dust, is a good example of this meeting of the strange and prosaic, given character by the vernacular style:
They said he spelled the Post Office back for an hour,
Mrs Trott bought a book of stamps,
when she got home nothing but leaves in her purse.
That’s for nothing.
The John Dust poems are joined by two other sections in the pamphlet, one entitled ‘The Parish Magazine’ and the other ‘Riddles’. The latter is what the title suggests – playful, teasing pieces with answers supplied a page or two on. The former, is a set of surreal reports, riffing on the sort of items that appear in parish magazines. These pieces play on the South-West dialect and certainly show a dexterity with language and imagery. I am not quite sure how the two sections sit with the tone of the John Dust pieces. I felt the world of the ‘The Parish Magazine’ might be a promising furrow that Louise Warren can expand upon elsewhere, but the eerily beguiling world of John Dust seemed diminished by being placed alongside more playful work.
The pamphlet is beautifully illustrated by John Duffin. I wonder how much discussion there was between poet and illustrator on how to present the figure of John Dust. I am one who never likes to see photographs of authors in books I’m reading, for fear that they will be a distraction. Here John Dust is fully realised, but I’m happy to say I didn’t find this got in the way of my immersion in the world of the pamphlet. If John Dust was not an actual part of Somerset folklore before Louise Warren dreamt him up, he certainly is now.
Neil Elder has been widely published. His pamphlet Codes of Conduct was a winner of the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet competition and was nominated for a Saboteur Award. He has a chapbook Being Present with Black Light Engine Room Press, and his prize winning full collection is The Space Between Us published by Cinnamon Press. Spring 2020 sees the publication of a new chapbook, And The House Watches On.
Carole Bromley’s Sodium 136 reviewed by Maria C. McCarthy
Sodium 136 by Carole Bromley. Calder Valley Poetry. £7
ISBN: 9781916038745, £7.00. 34pp.
The meaning of Sodium 136 is not clear until we reach the poem of that title, late in Carole Bromley’s sequence. There is no mystery, however, in the title of the opening poem, ‘Benign Cyst Pressing on Optic Nerve’. In this poem we meet a cast of characters on a hospital ward – Liz, Sharon and Jean. Bromley watches, listens, waits to meet ‘the man who will drill / inside my skull.’
Bromley reads Henry James as she waits, What Maisie Knew (‘Reading Henry James in Hospital’). She feels that she is not like the others on the ward: ‘Sharon glued to Corrie’; ‘Jean flipping through Take a Break’. But there is a foreboding that she may yet become like them:
over the zimmer Jean parked by my bed,
tells me not to keep my frame there.
I do not have a frame, I protest.
Jean looks up from her article. Yet.
Bromley keeps her Poetry Society bag on her lap during an ‘Ambulance Ride’: ‘Take if you must this little bag of dreams;’ a line that stands alone amongst the plain language of the rest of the poem, which also pervades throughout the sequence. There is a ‘sick bowl’, discussions about the route the ambulance driver should take, the ‘bumpiness of the ride’. The banality and ordinariness of this contrasts with the near horror of what is to come: ‘When we arrive on the ward I feel lost’.
The poems are short on metaphor, indeed they sometimes slip into cliché: ‘A man walks up and down like a zombie’. Perhaps only plain language will do, only cliché can be reached for in such a situation. This is used to good effect in a found poem, ‘Leaflet’. This begins with the less-alarming : ‘You should avoid blowing your nose or sneezing / for three weeks after surgery’ and builds up to ‘Any brain operation carries a risk of death.’
There is little of the outside world as the sequence progresses. The ward is closed and contained; patients cannot recall the month of year, nor can they find the correct word to describe it. There are occasional glimpses of the outer world through a glass barrier. ‘Outside the window, rattled by a storm, / a snowdrop cracks the earth.’ (‘Ward Round’). This also marks a return to poetic language, the poet has been rattled, yet her true self is breaking through. In ‘High Dependency’, there is the joy of seeing the Humber river post-op, when Bromley’s sight had been at risk. Immediately, though, her attention returns to the ward: ‘an old man / talks all night to dead people’, Bromley measures out the day in slow and painful trips to the toilet, where her liquid intake and urine output must also be measured. The aftermath of the operation, the world of the ward are too much for those that do not inhabit it: ‘My daughter can’t look at me’ … ‘she looks at the Humber a lot.’
Returning to the idea of looking from the inside out, through the barrier of a window, Bromley remembers travelling in her father’s funeral cortege, looking at ‘the rest of the world / through glass’. In this poem, the title, ‘One Day I Started to Cry’, flows into the first line, ‘And I knew I was going to get better.’
There is no reading Henry James now. In ‘Nobody Tells Me’, as CSF drains and drips, the poet wonders
whether I am losing poems
and thoughts and bits of brain
along with the fluid.
Metaphor returns to the writing in ‘To My Cyst’, which she sees as
in the cramped space
between skull and brain
which I imagine
as like a crack in a tunnel
where a buddleia
tries to flourish
In ‘Visiting Time’, the poet now sees herself as like the other people on the ward, unlike in the earlier poems. ‘In here everyone talks to the dead’; this now includes the poet, who talks her mother, a regret for not allowing her ‘the dressed / crab that awful lunchtime.’ A meal that turned out to be her mother’s last.
‘Sodium 136’ is the number that her sodium levels must reach before Bromley can leave the ward. Her fluid is severely restricted until it does so. We see again the use of plain language, this time to express the sheer joy of ‘glass after ice-cold glass’ when the level has been reached and she can drink freely. The final poem, ‘Who Knew’, uses simple language; there are no startling images here. It ends : ‘Sodium 142. I’m going home.’
I am in awe of Carole Bromley’s to process this terrifying experience into art, and in a relatively short space of time after the hospital stay. In reply to the note sent with the pamphlet by the editor, I did ‘enjoy this moving sequence’, and highly recommend it.
Maria C. McCarthy has published poetry, short stories and memoir. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent, and was the winner of the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015 for her short story, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’.
Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs reviewed by Emma Lee
Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix. Hercules Editions. £10. ISBN 9781916197107
Martyn Crucefix used Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid as a scaffolding for this sequence inspired in 2016 as the current refugee crisis unfolded. In Book 6, Virgil tells the story of Aneneas’ journey across the Mediterranean to found Rome where he also travels to the Underworld, meeting the ferryman Charon, to consult his dead father. He notes that Charon takes some souls and not others, later understanding that the ones not selected had not been given proper burials or were not yet buried. The narrator is a photographer giving a witness’s account initially offering reasons for those making the journey,
those sun-lit harbours
beyond risky nights
a body washed to the beach –
then gods let me file
untroubled as I’m able
to emulate a brother
sprinting the Gran Via
dodging the smacks of snipers
let me not blink
at what rises towards me
this revelation – what
happens is what’s true –
dark places of blood-
blackened water –
The “body washed to the beach” is a reminder that in 2016 Alan Kurdi’s body was washed ashore and he became a symbol of both the dangers faced by refugees and of a tragically foreshortened life. The alliterative “smacks of snipers” is not just what these refugees are fleeing from. They are also in danger of being forcibly recruited into either the army or rebel militias. The language is reportage, allowing readers to build an emotional picture of someone determined – “let me not blink” – and ready to face whatever the journey might bring. Its risks are easier to accept that the devastation left behind. There’s a later warning of the dangers of fleeing,
still bend figures swarm
to every water’s edge
mothers on their men’s
shoulders and limbs legs
of bravest heroes
of boys and half-dead girls
unmarried alone children
and young men alone
beyond their eyes
parents they’ve clung to
one last time to be buried
little left to bury
The passengers also carry emotional trauma for those they’ve left behind or lost on earlier stages of their journeys. “Alone” is repeated to underline that the children are bereft of companionship and are facing what lies ahead of them without familial support. Despite the risks, there are still more people than places available on the boats and the narrator asks,
by what moral right
does any man here let
some pass and some pushed
back into the night
no less fraught than
the cold and lethal waters
these others scrum
to risk their lives upon…
It’s an echo of Virgil describing Charon leaving some souls behind which Aeneid doesn’t understand at first. Here though the selection of those who get selected to go on the boats and those left behind seems more random and leaves those waiting to be selected at the mercy of those organising and running the boats. There’s no objective selection process and money or other inducements may influence a favourable decision. Then it’s remembered that these refugees are fighting over an unsafe passage.
“Cargo of Limbs” doesn’t offer any answers but gives witness to the refugee crisis. Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid is a useful framework to explore the implications of that witness. The neutrality of a photographer recording what they see without judgement gives the reader space to think about the wider implications, why people take such risks and the emotional journey alongside the physical one. The lack of answers is with good reason: it enables all nuances to be illustrated without dictating or steering the reader to easy conclusions.
The poems are accompanied by stills from the film “Purple Sea” directed by Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, which with generous notes and introduction makes this a physically attractive pamphlet to have.
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.
Mike Barlow’s Some Kind of Ghost reviewed by Emma Lee
Some Kind of Ghost by Mike Barlow. New Walk Editions. £5. ISBN 9781999802653
Mike Barlow’s “Some Kind of Ghost” focuses on those seemingly small moments that nonetheless create lasting impressions and memories. In the casual, long titled poem, “There’s that scene in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy first realises the deaf and dumb Chief Bromden can hear and speak”
“and Jack Nicholson carries the moment – only a moment in the movie, a moment in which he doesn’t move while everything changes
and I’m away then to my own shifts and shivers, moments I’ve been stilled while the pulse jumps or the gut drops its stone. A missed beat’s invisible in quiet conversations where the something or nothing someone says carries a tectonic nudge
and you’re left with the kitsch painting on a café wall or a white Mercedes with a parking scrape along its side, irrelevant images fixed in mind by the logic of the soul, markers for a moment you suddenly fell out of love, or heard your own name in the third person”
The poem ends on the image, “moments run into one another explaining to yourself who you really are”
The moments that trigger memories of significance events accumulate into a life’s narration and explanation. Moments that others dismiss or overlook because they’ve not realised the import of that throw-a-way comment or gesture which has the listener or observer sent back to a point in time where something trivial has become life-changing. The exploration of these moments is not confined to the poet’s life. “Six Shouts for the Missing” includes,
Ella who finally left home at sixteen with nothing
but a pocketful of change and the rag doll of her childhood.
May she find the latchkey in her purse one day
and courage enough to use it.
A shout, a keepsafe shout
Les, fitter who didn’t fit chucked the factory job, his mates,
the lies and moved away where he could be
Lesley, shaven legs, coiffed hair, skirt and blouse,
the bare truth of lipstick and mascara
A shout for her. A shout for her.
Readers never find out why Ella left home with loose change and a childhood toy, but the narrator hopes she’ll find her way back. This hope assumes that there was love in the home she left, but happy children tend not to run away. It’s difficult to disagree with the narrator who wants Ella to keep safe, but I have concerns about urging a teenager to go back to a place that might not have been a home. The misfit Lesley is on safer ground, leaving a life to become the person she really is.
In “Plums”, the end comes after an uncle calls for his son who died fighting in Korea and dismisses the nephew who does respond to his call,
So I slow down, tip-toe the long hall to the scullery.
And there’s Aunt Dora washing plums. I knock
on the old plank door and hold my breath.
She’d always ignore me when she knew
I was making things up but this time she turns,
hands me a bowl of glistening Victorias to stone.
Aunt Dora is an ally here, offering the nephew not only something to occupy him, but a sense of solidarity. She knows he’s been rejected by the uncle and perhaps is carrying the burden of never being able to live up to the lost son.
Sylvia Plath once describe poetry as “moment’s monuments” and here Mike Barlow has created a series of monuments to moments that carry a significant weight. The poems’ colloquial tones and vocabulary belie their import.
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.
Hannah Hodgson’s Dear Body reviewed by Hilary Hares
Dear Body by Hannah Hodgson. £5.00. Wayleave Press. £5. ISBN: 978-999978-0-6
How many of us come into contact with complex illness and disability up close and personal? Those who are thrust into it as family, carers, teachers and medics know what a big deal it is … the rest of us probably have little idea of how a complex range of special needs infects every aspect of daily living and alters every expectation and aspiration that life can offer us. How brave of one young writer to peel back the lid, therefore, and show us what it’s really like to live in a body that betrays us in so many different ways. As she puts it in ‘Chronic Fatigue (not the syndrome)’ – ‘My body is like the weather/difficult to forecast’.
This, then, is a debut from a talented newcomer who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is with total focus. The writing is uncluttered and direct and, the fact that Hannah Hodgson approaches her subject matter with an unblinking eye reveals a maturity beyond her years. She’s unafraid of the blank page. As a result, her writing is stark and unsentimental and a number of the poems are short lines containing short sentiments. They all pack a punch, however, and all of them punch above their weight. As the dedication points out:
I am not a fairytale
My mind is a princess
locked in the tower
of my skeleton
This is not a rant, however, and one of the things I like most about the poems are that they challenge things about ourselves that we take for granted. Some of these points are brought home by the fact that Hannah turns the tables on us – sometimes you are as odd to me/as I am to you’, from ‘Unsaid’).
There is humour to be found here, too, much of it quite dark. In ‘Collection’ for example – ‘I am a display cabinet of infection/I’ll auction it off to the most suitable antibiotic’, raises a smile, even if it’s a wry one. Familiar characters from fairytale and nursery rhyme are also employed to help carry the message. ‘Invisible’, the opening poem, features, amongst others, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White, Aladdin and Goldilocks ‘who can’t go to the ball/because there are no accessible pumpkins available’.
If there are themes within this pamphlet they are about marginalisation, lack of understanding and a desire to demystify the details of a life lived under severe constraint. What prevents it from being an uncomfortable read is the fact that the
poems are softened by threads of carefully crafted, tongue-in-cheek irony. ‘Dear Body’ the title poem is a good example:
I’d be handing you
a redundancy notice
if the end of you
didn’t mean the end of me.
All in all, this is a confident start and what impressed me the most is the fact that the poems encourage us to walk a mile in her shoes and, in fact, the shoes of so many people who will never get to walk that mile themselves.
Hilary Hares’ poems have appeared in anthologies and magazines including Amaryllis, Antiphon, Bare Fiction, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Magma, South, Stand, Obsessed with Pipework, Poems-in-the-Waiting Room, The Interpreter’s House and Under the Radar.
She has an MA in Poetry from MMU and was shortlisted for the Grey Hen and Paragram-Paradox Prizes 2016 and won the Christchurch Writers Competition 2013 and Write By The Sea Competition 2018. Her pamphlet, Red Queen, is forthcoming from Marble Poetry in 2020.
Elizabeth Hare’s Testimony reviewed by Hilary Hares
Testimony by Elizabeth Hare. £5.00. Wayleave Press. ISBN: 978-1-9999728-2-0
It’s said that life will bring you what you need when you need it and, on reading Elizabeth Hare’s Testimony, I was struck by the fact that it would not have had nearly the same resonance if I had read it a few months ago before our lives were overshadowed by the threat of the coronavirus.
The title says it all. This is a testimony; a range of poems that cover a variety of topics in order to bear witness and they are clearly the work of a thoughtful observer. They offer a window onto a world of deprivation where the ‘have-nots’ frequently challenge the stereotypes and shine a spotlight on the many ways in which the System fails.
Many are short narratives with a point to make – perceptive social commentaries about the state of the world but it is a world which is redeemed by the fact that it is often the point of similarity rather than difference which are highlighted.
This is a poet who has learned her craft and she makes good use of both repetition and dialogue. There’s technical skill on display, too. The villanelle is a notoriously tricky poetic form to master and my acid test for a good one is that the reader shouldn’t be aware that they are reading a villanelle. ‘Bamburgh Beach’ is a good example of the form. The writing feels effortless and doesn’t show its workings.
Our journey through the pamphlet begins in 1660 when the first version of what became the Quaker Peace Testimony was delivered to the court of King Charles II. In the light of current events, how prophetic this now feels and those people currently over-crowding the London Underground or panic-buying in the supermarkets would do well to take note:
To seek peace and to ensue it.
To do what tends to the peace of all.
Bloody principles and practices we utterly deny.
Having set out from the past, however, Elizabeth Hare quickly moves on to the realms of her own experience, or rather her experience of other peoples’ experiences. In ‘You can’t do Shakespeare with these kids’, her days teaching in a deprived area of London’s East End is brought to life with a series of little word pictures of the children, characterised by the parts they play: ‘And Prospero himself, captain of the football team,/who tried so hard to grow a beard,/six feet tall at seventeen’.
We then move on to her work with homeless people and her interaction with refugees.
‘Lunchtime stories’ is a great juxtaposition of cultures and circumstance which highlights their heartrending experiences:
He said he’d hidden in a freezer lorry,
running on the spot all night
just to stay alive.
‘Borders’ also makes its point powerfully. It starts out with the Berlin wall and moves on to Ireland where an old man ‘crosses a bridge/between two countries every day to feed the ducks. […]/When asked, he says he didn’t know it was the border/because both sides looked the same’.
The final poem, ‘Beneath the Surface’ ends on a note of hope despite the fact that ‘the world [is] at odds with itself’. In summary, then, although the writer approaches challenging material with a light touch this is still a thought-provoking read and one which, I suspect, will repay revisiting again. I’m looking forward to the next time I dip in.
Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’s The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here reviewed by Hilary Hares
The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs. £5.00. Wayleave Press. ISBN: 978-0-9935103-9-7
The mystery of a man who left a quart of blood as a legacy is immediately compelling, especially when it turns out that this was a man who was lost at sea! Everyone loves an enigma and, right from the title, this pamphlet encourages us to pursue an illusion which never quite materialises.
As we’re told in the blurb, ‘This sequence of poems emerges from the poet’s attempts to find out more about the elusive and enigmatic figure of his grandfather, to “fix his likeness” as it were. This proves to be quite a challenge because of the sparsity of information the poet is able to discover about him. Nevertheless there is skill on show in bringing the man to life even though they never met.
In terms of the structure of the writing, the poems and are written in reverse order to ‘mimic the trajectory’ of the research. This effectively creates an air of mystery – not so much a who-done-it as a who-was-it? The overall effect is that we feel we have dipped into a moment of time in this man’s life. Is he fully fleshed out? Not really. Is this significant? No, because it adds to the intrigue and keeps us engaged in the quest.
The source material barely equates to a pound of flesh:
as this is all there is and barely fills
the donor’s card
that’s propped, dog-eared, beside the quart of blood
which he bequeathed me.
In ‘Birthright’, the opening poem, we learn that this was an Irishman who changed his name when he came over to England in order to anglicise it. From there, he joined the Merchant Navy and went on to sail the world, even crossing paths with Dame Nellie Melba at one stage:
She might have liked the Leitrim slant
across his words; and he was handsome
for his age.
Nautical images and a spirit of adventure abound but the poems are not entirely insular. The pamphlet gains depth by touching on a number of bigger issues. These include both the Irish Troubles (‘More or Less Irish’) and modern day terrorism (‘Irish Question – Canary Wharf, 9 February 1996’). The poet’s desire to establish his own Irish identity is also explored, sometimes with a touch of humour: ‘There is general agreement/that Mrs Rooney would remember/something if she wasn’t dead’ (‘Root Finding’).
As might be expected, the poems gain in confidence as the story progresses until, at the end, the poet feels he knows his grandfather well enough to write not one but two postscripts in his imagined voice. The poet may not know ‘…the deep slow burn of peat/or the winding length of memory’s fuse (‘Irish Question’) but he vividly evokes both the era and the spirit of the man. This is skilfully done but it did set me wondering what traits of his grandfather have manifested themselves in subsequent generations. This might make interesting material for a subsequent sequence!
Hilary Hares’ poems have found homes online, in print and in anthologies. She has a Poetry MA from MMU and has achieved success in a number of competitions. Her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon supports Loose Muse, Winchester, and Red Queen is available from Marble Poetry. http://www.hilaryhares.com
Lynda Plater’s Saving Fruit reviewed by Robert Etty
Saving Fruit by Lynda Plater. Wayleave Press. £5.00.
The cover of Saving Fruit, Lynda Plater’s warm and observant second pamphlet from Mike Barlow’s respected Wayleave Press, features only the title, author’s name and a striking watercolour of an apple by Plater herself. This focus on essentials hints at the finely tuned writing to follow. There is no contents and the pages are not numbered, which enhances the sense that, while the 21 poems are separately titled (with 13 of them dated and ordered chronologically), they interweave to form an intimate record of one family’s life across more than a century.
Lynda Plater is a poet from Lincolnshire, and she and I belong to the same poetry group. This is how I am able to confirm that her spare, tender poems are entirely authentic and hard won. Every careful word has earned its place, and the lines have been crafted through painstaking drafts. As is often the case, an apparent simplicity belies the depth of the content.
A list at the back of the pamphlet names five members of the Cook family. Great-grandad is George ‘Ratty’ Cook (approx. 1858-1942), cockler and market gardener. The latest on the list is Mam, Edith Mary Macdonald (neé Cook), who died in 1971. This genealogy underpins the poems: these are the people whose lives their writer descendant evokes and reflects on.
That they lived close to the elements is reflected in Plater’s pared-back poems, whose short lines are precise and near the nerve, with broad margins suggesting the openness of Lincolnshire then and now. Work depended on seasons, land and sea: we read in an insider’s detail of preserving plums, breadmaking (‘Then sides / of the bowl cleared / of the mix by / the palette of her hand’), raking cockles, digging, gathering samphire. In the first poem, ‘Monday, February 1908’, where Plater describes Great-grandma washing worn sheets ‘In the watery house, / a lean-to with / whitewashed walls’, vivid language recreates the toil and arouses the reader’s compassion:
with mangle turn.
The clothes-line drawn down
sagged with the weight
of sodden linen
which dripped down
the nape of her neck.
In ‘Great-grandad at the cockle bed, 1910’ (in which ‘He is the line of sea, / drawing in rills and runs / of tide as he rakes cockles’), Plater’s neat understatement implies the fortitude which drives these people on:
At the yard, enamel buckets
rattle as man
and wife rinse shells:
he on pump, she with
water rills up her arms.
They are both singing.
In some poems Plater uses a past tense, establishing small histories from routines or particular events. In others (such as ‘End of a living, 1931’, below) the present tense replays the past, and the interim disappears:
He will no longer be heard
calling from Eastgate
as women wait with cups
for a gill of cockles
raked from Donna Nook.
Great-grandma has come –
leads her man home
where numb stars
wash about his dark.
Original, compact expression, as in the last two lines above, often brings Plater’s reader up short. In ‘Saving Fruit’ there are ‘windfall words’, in ‘Turning’ autumn is ‘curling’ into winter, and in ‘Rooks in winter’ the birds ‘make an etch of marsh in winter / with their span on papered sky’. This is where (part of) the poetry is, and what draws us back to a line where another reading will reveal a further meaning.
In over half of her pamphlet Plater writes, with affection and insight, about previous generations. She takes us out of Lincolnshire in two poems about Sid Cook during and after WWI, and brings us inside living memory in ‘Laboured hands, 1951’, where the harshness of cutting vegetables (‘greens’) in frost is painfully conveyed. There is, of course, no lack of poems (and prose) about deceased relatives, and it is a mark of Plater’s recognition of the pitfalls of the genre that each family member is depicted with minimal authorial comment, and any unfitting intrusion is avoided.
In the remaining, more expansive poems Plater’s painterly eye turns to her home landscape today, celebrating a vital continuity, and her evocative description of nature emerges in, for example ‘The ring ouzel, November 2018’: ‘Small bird, sloe-grey eyed, / a white collar like a pastor …’. She seldom appears at the forefront of her poems, and the occasional first person pronoun comes as a surprise. By ending the poignant opening sentence of ‘Lipstick’ with ‘kiss me’, Plater makes real the weight of the past:
On the sideboard,
in a gold-tone case
of vintage Arden
has the smell
of Mam when
she bent low
to kiss me.
‘Gather’, the sharply visual final poem, describes how for yet another year ‘… fields are ploughed / in lines of brown corduroy’. ‘In the mercy of a dry hour’ the speaker and a companion watch a murmuration of starlings ‘fold into the cloth of dusk, / its soil and reed, its hedgerow’. The poem closes with ‘As we walk home / our sleeves and shoulders brush’. It is a lifelong brushing with people who have known and worked the Lincolnshire land that is at the heart of Lynda Plater’s accomplished new collection. Her feel for a touching phrase, her ability both to show and tell, and (not least) her sincerity ensure that this pamphlet, while standing as a unique tribute to her family, will stir the emotions and admiration of those who read it.
Rob Etty’s poetry has been widely published. His most recent collection is Passing the Story Down the Line (Shoestring Press, 2017).
Roy Marshall’s After Montale reviewed by Carla Scanaro
After Montale by Roy Marshall. Shoestring Press. £7.50. ISBN 9781912524402
Translation is an intriguing and difficult task, especially when dealing with authors such as Eugenio Montale, who is considered one of the greatest Italian poets of all time and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975. Roy Marshall gives us a good overall picture of his poetry in his skilful translations that capture the main concepts and feelings of the original. As Walter Benjamin remarks about the task of the translator, it is not about conveying information or meaning but about finding the intended effect and producing an echo of the original. This is certainly true of Marshall’s work on Montale; the pamphlet is titled After Montale and is a translation, that is, an interpretation of the original that reflects the translator’s feelings about the poet’s work. This means that in some cases the English version of one of Montale’s poems may skip some of the lines of the original or make Montale’s complex syntax more readable for the English reader. This choice of language and the selection of poems both contribute to make After Montale an excellent introduction to the poet’s major themes.
Marshall’s interest in Montale is linked to his Italian grandfather, who fought in World War One and opposed fascism, just like the poet did. This connection, his interest in the existentialism expressed in the rough, bare Mediterranean landscape of Montale’s poetry, his feelings about the ‘male di vivere’ (evil of life) and his disillusionment allow Marshall to develop his work as a translator and, at the same time, to speak using his ‘own voice’, as he explains in the preface. There is a good balance between fidelity and licence in these translations: they are faithful to the original but also depart from them at times Nevertheless, a translation is necessarily temporary and needs to be renewed; it changes the original and provides a fresher version than previous translations that might sound outdated to contemporary readers. Translations transform the original in a poetic way, expressing a relationship between languages in a process that is not permanent but is significant in its own way. According to Benjamin, a translation needs to be transparent – it should not obscure the original, which should filters through it. This is what Roy Marshall’s work does, making Montale’s poetry effective in its genuine signification and expressing, at the same time, his own voice in a poetical English version.
The poems chosen span five collections. Some are famous and well-known poems, such as ‘Midday’, ‘Sunflower’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘Lemon Trees’. Other poems are less known and have been cleverly chosen by the translator to fit with his taste and feelings. There is a profound sense of keeping in touch with the essence of Montale’s poetry and giving the reader the opportunity to appreciate the poet’s work. The sharpness and essential quality of Marshall’s work make it accessible and readable. Complex existential concepts such as the emptiness of the human condition when humans are lost in an unfathomable world, the poet’s courageous acknowledgment of a state of constant instability and disbelief and the necessity of accepting human loss and frailty are successfully conveyed in this collection. A good example is ‘Lemon Trees’:
In a near silence like this
it feels as if everything
has dropped its defences;
that a secret is about to be revealed;
as if an unravelling thread
will lead to the still point
at the centre of reality, a link
that can’t hold. You can feel
nature’s symmetry, breathing citrus
as the day cools, almost believing
in a fading human shadow.
Now the city sky’s dissected
and obscured by towers,
the air is a conduit for fumes and noise
and even the ground
is tired of the rain. It seems this winter
doesn’t know when to stop.
But I remember an errand
to another part of town, a door
open to a courtyard, a glimpse of trees
with branches full of lemons,
each a bell, chiming with light.
The complex language and thought expressed in Montale’s ‘I Limoni’ (Lemon Trees), despite his declaration at the beginning of the poem that he prefers ordinary landscapes and simple words, are translated in short lines that respect the rhythm of the enjambments that unravel the reasoning. However, some lines of the original are condensed into fewer phrases that convey effectively the essential feeling of the poem. It is a personal choice that helps the reader to understand the sense of this multifaceted piece which deals with our constant illusionary search for a goal or a meaning, even though ‘La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s’affolta/il tedio dell’inverno sulle case,/la luce si fa avara – amara l’anima.’ (rain wearies the earth,/the winter’s tedium burdens the houses,/the light turns mean – the soul bitter). Then, suddenly, at the end of the poem, the vision of the lemon trees with their ‘trombe d’oro della solarità’ (trumpets of sunlight) strikes the reader.
Roy Marshall’s interesting translations highlight the main themes of Montale’s poems with a clever selection of pieces that summarises effectively the poet’s work and conveys the translator’s personal response to his poetry. The translator’s voice emerges discreetly without smothering the poet’s pieces, and there is a good balance between faithfulness to the original and freedom of interpretation. The effect is unique and successful in its own right.
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/
Nadine Ltaif’s Journeys (trans. Christine Tipper) reviewed by Neil Fulwood
Journeys by Nadine Ltaif (trans. Christine Tipper). $20.00 (CAN). Guernica Editions. ISBN 9781771834070
Drawing on work published between 1999 and 2014, this handsomely produced volume should hopefully bring the work of Lebanese-born and Montreal-based poet Nadine Ltaif to wider recognition. Ltaif has published poetry, writing in French, since the 1980s and while this is by no means the first book of hers to be translated, nonetheless she has remained under-represented for English-reading audiences. Indeed, the immediacy of her verse and its lack of pretentiousness – a style ably captured by Christine Tipper’s robust translation – should lend this volume (for all intents and purposes a Selected) appeal.
Accessibility can often be a pejorative in poetry criticism, snidely synonymous with simplicity or lack of sophistication, and it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that an early reading of Journeys pushed my thoughts in this direction. Is it a bad thing that a volume of poetry can be too easy to read? Ltaif for the most part uses unchallenging language dispensed over very short lines; at 74 pages, Journeys can easily be read and digested in under an hour. An example, in full:
Because of the copper
colour of their skin
The Greeks called them
The ‘Reds’ – the ‘Phoenicians’
covered by the colour
on their shoulders
There is no requirement here for close reading, no layering of allusion or metaphor that allows the critic to spend a couple of paragraphs showing off. The first four lines are a statement. The next four expand on it with a slightly more poetic colouration (pun intended). The remaining five could be a text or a tweet; a capsule description of a photograph; a hastily recalled memory. It’s almost reportage, albeit in lineated form. Apart from querying why lines three and four start with capital letters when they’re a run-on from line two which doesn’t, there’s little for me to discuss here.
‘Between Relics and Disappearances’ offers a little more for the critic to play with. Here it is, again in full:
I stand there.
Wars wipe out
populations and towns
if not cataclysms.
and we are
on the other side
of the small screen.
This is one of the book’s two shortest poems (the other is ‘Beirut-the-Red’); grenade-like in its compression. There’s a play off of “wars” against “cataclysms”, inviting the reader to consider the cyclical nature of conflict and natural disasters, how ruinous the effect on a people, and how ill-luck on both of these fronts can imprint itself into a collective national or regional psyche. Likewise the “small screen” of the last line leaves itself open to interpretation: is it a television screen, flickering with the hyperbolic news reporting of, say, CNN; or the screen of an iPhone, either capturing shaky and unmediated video footage of an atrocity, or allowing a Facetime connection between two people, perhaps continents apart, one at least of whose futures is uncertain.
It was poems like this one that drew me back to the book after I’d initially set it aside uncertain as to how effectively I could mine its contents for a review. The non-specificity of ‘Between Relics and Disappearances’ is the key to the piece: Ltaif doesn’t even specify the location. We can pick any news story of displacement or disaster and the poem is relevant. Elsewhere, though, she is very specific as to time and place and this, too, proves a strength.
I remember a name
the shapes of shops
the Wardiyé petrol station
where I took my first
communion even if
I am not a
(‘Yes, Beirut Has Changed’)
The small hill
pulls me along in its turbulence
of traffic jams and horns
Everything must go fast
The roads cut off
No longer possible to pass
from East to West
without risking one’s life
from South to North
from North to South
in our respective regions.
The defining aesthetic of Journeys is that it is a poetry of place and displacement, of memory and the uncertainty of belonging. Inevitably, then, it is also political; yet there is nothing of the polemical here. Ltaif does not deal in protest poetry, flag-waving or the banging of drums. Instead, the focus is on smaller details, specific and vivid memories, places and people; colour. In this respect, there is arguably a touch of Imtiaz Dharker’s easy grace and calm wisdom to Ltaif’s work. Occasionally, a wry sense of humour is evident, most notably in the prose poem ‘Ya Bayé Ya Bayé Ya Bayé!’
Journeys wrong-footed me on a first reading. The ostensible simplicity of Ltaif’s verse, and its absence of overt politicisation, is what allows it to seed itself in the reader’s mind. There are some books that do not necessarily need to be critiqued, dissected or over-analysed; they simply need to be read, after which they are carried and remembered by their readers. Journeys is such a book.
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.