Martin Malone’s The Unreturning reviewed by Nick Allen
The Unreturning by Martin Malone. £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN-13: 978-1912524204
When the first part of your collection is called ‘Ghosts of the Vortex’ and the opening poem is called ‘Séance’, in which the writer says that he will ‘sit and reconstruct’ and ‘catch their words’, you have a good idea where this is going and Martin Malone doesn’t disappoint. The Unreturning is an accomplished act of reinserting a chorus of overlooked and forgotten voices into the song of the history of the First World War.
The opening poems have at their heart a sense of waiting but also of being unsure for what it is they are waiting. ‘Mrs. Mounter circa. 1914’ tells of the widow who has been letting the spare room to a variety of “types”, her life reflects England’s in its ‘certainty’, she sits ‘impassive as the teapot’, while:
Outside the world turns to mud, feeds its sons
to fire and lead and the names
you will hear for the first time:
Paschendale, Somme, Ypres, Mons…
The next poem ‘Let Us Sleep Now’ directs the gaze to Simmering, the cemetery at the end of the U-Bahn line out of Vienna and a ghostly young man heading that way. From here we are in the company of a variety of figures from across the continent, many of whom are artists, some of whom were active in the brief moment of Vorticism: Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Klemm, Pierre Jean Jouve, Paul Nash and George Mallory, among others.
One of the most intriguing being Charles Hamilton Sorley, a native of Aberdeen, shot dead at 21, ‘Lending yourself to the cross hairs’ in the disastrous action at Loos when 8,000 of the 10,000 men under Haig’s command, died in four hours. Only after his death were the cache of poems Sorley had written, found and published. Bleakly honest and unsentimental about the war, the collection was received with some acclaim. Sorley is contrasted with the professional soldier Julien Grenfell, remembered in ‘Phoebus Apollo’ who wrote ‘I adore war…One loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him’, of whom Malone writes, ‘you were never happier than on this big picnic, / chatting with the General when that shell struck’, before describing his ‘languid death’ from a shrapnel wound.
The hardship of those left behind, ‘the shrapnel of lost husbands’ is mourned in ‘The Turnip Winter’ as, ‘this weevil grief / that gnaws through the fabric of our days’. It becomes the demand to be allowed to play “their part” in the ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’ which recognises the determination of the Russian female battalions, in doing so it echoes Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, while quoting Thin Lizzy.
A pause for existential reflection arrives with the eleven lines of ‘Untitled’, in which the subject is, ‘Unable to recall what it’s like / to have never killed a man’.
‘Bidden’ inspired by Mary Borden who served as a nurse in the war, deals unsentimentally with the “things”, the practicalities of her daily situation:
You pile blankets
onto his wasted body;
fetch jugs of hot water;
boil long rubber tubes
in wretched saucepans.
Before noting finally, ‘Release has entered the room’.
This section of the book concludes with ‘Dear Revisionist’ in which Malone restates his purpose in what has gone before: to repudiate the history book version of this war that we have been instructed in over the last century, the sending out ‘of the officer class to explain’ ‘this complicated matter’, by reintroducing histories as told by rediscovered voices from everyday life.
The second part of the collection, itself entitled ‘The Unreturning’, is an engaging exercise in applied modernity: containing 50 prose poems, coming in at a tidy count of between nine and twelve lines each, retelling tales from each of the five years ‘14-’18, making use of modern vernacular (titles include: ‘flash mob, ‘emoji’, ‘one laptop per child’), linguistic invention, as if all these ‘diaries of the deep-drowned ditch’ suddenly had access to social media. It is a brilliant idea, expertly realised.
The effect of the aggregation of these poems is such that it is hard to select individual pieces as they lose the context offered by the whole: I offer a couple of incomplete examples:
Each evening the real work starts, not at the front but in front of it: repair the wire, recover his guts, dig that sap, patrol or raid…The land itself has never been so intimately known, as you snout an earth flayed of its skin…Reduced from subaltern to silhouette, an eye narrows on the cross-hairs, somewhere on high a lark sings and off clicks the safety catch.
…communication is a problem. Best stick to the runner and keep it simple, cut down on the metadata, focus on the plan…We want speed, fitness, care of feet, a sense of urgency and comradeship in taking turns for dangerous runs…Please destroy upon receipt and do not share this :-(( [sad face]
Some of the poems in this section deal head-on with the modern-day after-effects of these lies we have told ourselves: ’38 Cold Call’ recalls the true story of the suicide of a 92-year-old poppy seller; while, ’39 Downturn’ eviscerates ‘the obsequious fetish of a national ghost’ before observing that ‘in times like these…we lap it up.’
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that the notes to the book are excellent, informative and dryly nonchalant: I particularly enjoyed 27 and 44.
Malone is an academic and it shows in the quality of the research that informs these poems, which does not mean that the language he uses is off-putting: academics should also be communicators and this fine collection is accessible, straight-talking, not without a sense of humour, but above all, it is illuminating.
Nick Allen‘s first collection, the riding, and his pamphlet, the necessary line, were both published by Half Moon Books, Otley. His recent collaboration with York based artist Myles Linley, between two rivers, was published by Maytree Press, Marsden. He helps organise Rhubarb at the Triangle , a spoken word evening in Shipley, West Yorkshire.
Charles G Lauder’s The Aesthetics of Breath reviewed by Daniel Bennett
The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles G Lauder. £10.99 V. Press. ISBN: 978-1-9165052-1-6 15
History blends with family in this engaging and impressive debut collection by Charles G. Lauder. An American poet who has made his home in England, Lauder offers us insights into the tension of his dual status throughout the course of the collection, but nowhere is this played out with more of a sense of scale and invention than in the opening poem, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh of Bexar County, Texas’ By turns wry and fantastic, the poem uses the figure of Raleigh (‘magus explorer buccaneer spy’) to play with idea of trans-Atlantic families:
what should I confess? That I stood naked in a circle
about the fire handfasted to a daughter of Mercia
calling forth spirits of the forest…
These sly winks to Britain’s ancient mythological past are reminiscent of the work of another American abroad: The Book of The Green Man, by Ronald Johnson. Raleigh isn’t the only historical figure who waves back at us from the pages of the book. Albert Einstein, Heinrich Himmler, Napoleon, the American union organizer Emma Tenayuca (La Pasionaria de Texas): all are presented at liminal, halfway points, cut out from the surroundings we might imagine for them. In ‘Finding Time’, Albert Einstein is viewed as a family man in Bern, working on his scientific calculations between the tram home from work, and time spent with his family. His escapes ‘to the alcove filled / with flitting sums products caught and pinned’ representing a neat avatar for a poet trying write amongst similar time pressures.
Rather than being presented at the peak of military splendour, in ‘Napoleon In The Bath’ the Emperor of France is glimpsed in the intimacy of a domestic scene, bathing while ‘servants slip through the room like shades/ steal away his boots jacket tunic trousers’ Emma Tenayuca becomes the central character in ‘A Short History of San Antonio’ not only re-claimed as a founding figure of the city, but also as an emblem of America’s radical leftist past, which is too often forgotten due to the purges of McCarthyism and the triumph of the freemarket.
In ‘Heinrich’s Advice on Healthy Eating,’ Lauder offers the reader a slanted insight into the mind of Heinrich Himmler, through a neatly composed found-poem based on letters from the infamous Nazi. The tone is didactic, almost fastidious (‘Hot meals, at least three times a week/ five times in winter’) and the piece achieves a kind of grim comedy by focussing on dietary advice from one of the twentieth century’s most infamous monsters. A willingness to explore themes of violence and evil runs like a dark seam through the collection, through such poems as a memorial for the attack on the Bataclan, and ‘The Nature of Killing’, (which in its functional approach to life and death echoes ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas). These poems have a laudable sense of adventure in daring to avoid hackneyed ‘poetic’ subjects. In particular, ‘Surviving’ offers a grisly and surrealistic scene of a stretch of river becoming home to a collection of corpses. Cinematic and curious, with a great sense of narrative, the poem could almost be a treatment for a short film: ‘one could be my family but I’ll never know.’
Ultimately, it’s the complexities of family life which offers the unifying subject for the collection. In particular, poems on family narratives occupy a decent portion of the collection, such as the dialogic ‘Family Legend Has It’ and the ‘Note To Self’ which explore the anecdotes that all families tell one another, and how these unreliable narratives blur into commonplace inventions that define our perception of our personal histories. Even one of the love poems ‘The Art of Eloping’ examines the beginnings of a marriage by framing actual events through the prism of romantic illusion. Fantasy is never far from realism in Lauder’s approach and, in fact, those presented as being close to the poet are viewed as as enigmatic as the historical figures glimpsed elsewhere. The theme is never explored more fully than in the final, long poem which gives the collection its title. ‘The Aesthetics of Breath’ moves us through family history, dark imagination of disease, Google Earth, and the security of a family home. It’s a pleasingly various work, by turns personal and grand, with its capacity of placing family life in a more elevated, magical context reminiscent of the work of Dennis Nurkse, particularly evidenced in this description of the narrator’s role in the family home:
each morning to ignite this house,
let it breathe and reason amidst
a deceiving land of shadow,
a beacon for the inhabitants’ return
In some ways this manifold debut— taking in, as it does, historical figures, family lives, the problem of evil, and how an element of fantasy and danger is never far from our perception of those we treasure and love— might strain at the edges and become less a sum of its parts, and more of, well, a collection. What draws it together is the consistent awareness of a sense of self. ‘Between lives no light defines us / no mirror reassures us’ as Lauder presents it in ‘Incarnations’: how we are different people in different contexts and how we remain enigmatic and unknowable even to those closet to us. This necessary blurring of character is, ultimately, what charges the writing, exploring the simple, everyday doublings wherein lie ordinary hypocrises, dreams and nightmares, as well as betrayal and infamy. The lies we tell, the love we offer, and the poetry we read: all are the aesthetics of breath.
Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives and works in London. His first full collection West South North, North South East was published by The High Window in 2019. He is also the author of the novel All The Dogs.’
Majella Kelly’s Hush by reviewed by Sarah James
Hush by Majella Kelly. £5. Ignition Press (Oxford Brookes University)
As the title Hush suggests, sound and its absence are important features in Majella Kelly’s pamphlet from Ignition Press. Section headings might include song, but that this is not the soft ‘hush’ of a lullaby tone quickly becomes apparent. In the second of the three sections in particular, it is an enforced silence.
This section is dedicated to the revelation of a mass grave in the disused sewage system of the former Tuam Mother & Baby Home, even these children’s deaths being absent from burial records. Kelly reverses this by listening to unheard mothers and babies, and giving voice back to them in her poems:
To go into The Home was to be given
your voice on a spoon and told: swallow it.
When they shaved our heads, our voices wilted
on our tongues like cut nettles in empty cups.
I have come to listen for the lost voices of the children. I know they are here. […] The only sound is a bicker of bones as rats in its pitch-black; the brittle sound of a fleshless kind of darkness.
This darkness is further heightened by the beauty of Kelly’s poetry in a way that almost mirrors what she describes in ‘The Art of Keening’ with the “whetted hush” and “[…] how transcendent pain can sound | when it throbs inside a song’s hollow vaults.”. The difference is that here the vaults aren’t hollow. What Kelly achieves is the exact opposite – a series of strong, haunting and memorable poems.
There is violence throughout the first two sections of this pamphlet, as there is in the world. But there is also beauty and transformation in the way that Kelly handles it. Even in the opening poem, ‘Funeral’, death becomes: “[…] White as a plume || of his bones made ash, fluent on the cold | air as a gannet […]. The poem’s indented shape on the page embodies this. Elsewhere, a churchyard cortege is like an umbilical cord. In ‘Portrait of the City with Mastectomy’, the landscape again merges with the human body, this time the city’s destruction and re-development merging with the mother’s scars:
[…] organs and tissue
which are dumper trucks, piles of runnel and a team
of men in hard hats and high visibility vests.
Nobody should be able to see right though
the lungs of the city like that, […]
One technique that Kelly handles strikingly to reinforce this is her use of line breaks, particularly across hyphenated words:
Look, Ma, mermaid tears! he says, hands over
-flowing with seafom, cobalt and honey
– amber glass fragments, […]
(‘Sonnet for the Glass Blower’)
This breaking of the usual linkage, with the hyphen only apparent on the next line, creates an unsettling effect. But, simultaneously, it also transforms by opening up two readings that are both possible, the one with ‘over-flowing’ combined and the one with ‘hands over’ and ‘flowing with seafoam’.
With voice and song comes words. Words and song in an invigorating, hopeful, joy-filled form are most evident in the third section’s ‘love song’ poems. The poems here are also especially sensual and transformative.
In ‘This Is Not a Proposal, but Maybe It Is’, both the narrator’s mouth and the nature of ‘The Word’ totally metamorphosize through a range of stunning painful metaphors until:
[…] All of a
sudden my whole mouth is the forest
floor. My tongue sits with petrichor.
“It diffuses from the base of my throat.
The Word is a raindrop on a porous surface
after a dry spell. […]
Meanwhile, in ‘Anadromous Vocabulary’, three wilted clammy words dropped into the river like mayfly eggs are taken by a fingerling. We follow the fish’s beautifully evoked nature-filled journey until she is about to reach for the fisherman’s fly that the loved one has tied. Then she will open her mouth for the words to emerge:
and polished in her gullet
the way waves mend sharp edges
of sea-glass. […]
As all my quotes hopefully demonstrate, Kelly’s precise imagery, her metaphors and the music of the lines are exquisite. Scent is also especially used to great effect. In the second section, the home’s unpleasant smells contrast with the nuns’ chamber pots in a painfully revealing juxtaposition. Meanwhile, in the third section, drinking jasmine tea has a far more wonderful evocative effect:
snow-white blossoms spoon-tight at sunrise;
that gasp of petals as they part in the dark
which signals a readiness for scenting:
There are many other aspects of Hush that I could focus on, such as religion and the notion of sinning (or not!). But, for me at least, these are an inherent part of the background and setting from which the main features then unfold and transform. By this, I mean poems of loss, lust and love, and also the natural world (with its own different ways of living/rules). Past suffering can’t be undone; the sharpness and pain will always be there. But here, hushed, hidden and forbidden voices are given song and transformed into something that is also unforgettably, unignorably, beautiful.
Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Her latest titles include How to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Poetry Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press), both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards. She was delighted to be The High Window Resident Artist 2019. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk.
John McCullough’s Reckless Paper Birds reviewed by Tom Bland
Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough. £9.99. Penned in the Margins. ISBN:978-1908058638
Charles Simic has a wonderful line, ‘Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.’ John McCullough’s book, Reckless Paper Birds, has this sense of the poetic:
Someone left a dictionary on the wall outside my house:
a gift, a threat.
The poem continues:-
The dictionary’s mislaid its spine and cover so, when shut,
might be mistaken for a block of ice. Each word’s retrievable,
could lead to magic. The decline of the jellygraph …
One of the things I loved about this book is McCullough’s ability to open up an idiosyncratic mythology that draws on queer culture with all its hidden entanglements and rituals:-
So we stroll down Kings Road, past the thumping beat
of a drag queen at her sewing machine. Lines of stitches on rayon
structure her illusion…
Language creates the reality of the poems: it is surreal in its perceptions and even occupations. McCulloughs’ surrealism is sometimes conscious, and other times drifts as if it’s utterly integral to reality, as integral as the roundabout outside my window, the one with the tree, which at the present moment, a man stands next to, shouting into his phone. Reckless Paper Birds is a very unique collection and I recommend taking a ride through its ‘vomit and blossom.’
At times, I would like a little bit more darkness – a disturbance in the sudden appearance of the uncanny – but the reality of the underworld (the real world) is always there:
Have you got a cigarette
will lead to Give me your wallet.
And in another poem, the line – ‘her eyes black as an addict’ – makes this a collection worth having in your hands when you can return to the otherwise appalling ride to work after the quarantine, after the madness, which never really ends, always for a chance to flash before your eyes.
Tom Bland’s The Death of the Clown came out with Bad Betty Press in 2018. His next book, Camp Fear, will be out in 2021. He edits the online magazine, http://www.spontaneouspoetics.co.uk.