Recent Poetry from Carcanet: Morrissey, Jones and Watts

*****

Sinéad Morrissey’s Found Architecture reviewed by Malcolm Carson

Found Architecture by Sinéad Morrissey. £14.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 78410 931 8

It’s somewhat daunting to review the Selected Poems of someone so festooned in honours: in January 2014 Morrissey won the T.S.Eliot Prize for her fifth collection Parallax and in 2017 she won the Forward Prize for Poetry for her sixth collection On Balance. (Wikipedia will give you more details of the other prizes and awards she has garnered over her career thus far.) This Selected covers all six of her collections with a generous 220 odd pages of poems in a beautifully presented book, but where to start a review?

I am going to approach it as I would any other, as a collection of poems that stimulate or otherwise in their own right. Inevitably, her development will intervene in judgements of individual poems, but this approach seems to me the best for the context. After all, reviews of her individual collections abound, I’m sure, and, no doubt, critical analyses of her development.

There is a beguiling simplicity about her early poems. Europa Hotel, known as the most bombed hotel in Europe for long enough, epitomises this:

It’s a hard truth to have to take in the face –
you wake up one morning with your windows
round your ankles and your forehead billowing smoke;
your view impaired for another fortnight
of the green hills they shatter you for.

While it’s an address to the hotel itself, she manages to locate the resilience of those whose lives were altered by successive bombings, except of course that many lives were not so easily rebuilt as a hotel.

Belfast features a lot in early poems such as in Tourism where ‘Troubles tourists’ ‘bring us deliverance, restitution, / as we straighten out ties, strengthen out lattés, / polish our teeth.’ Ironically, just as in Derry, they want to see the city as it had been, but tamed, ‘like a staked African wasp.’ What a great image for the horrible irony that normality has brought.

Rock Pool from Between Here and There (2002) demonstrates Morrissey’s ability to move from a seemingly commonplace poetic device into the exploration of the pool’s depths and its inhabitants, but these are women from another age:

My arm submerged is a Eucalyptus tree
in an eighteenth-century birthing room, lurid and luminous.

How the women who have blocked the keyholes
and the door jams with rags and snuffed the candles scurry!

(Shouldn’t that be ‘jambs’, by the way?) Not afraid to introduce more sterile language, she creates clever collisions such as:

… the law of averages, the law of probability, and on the memory
of what their ancestors learned and saw, as unswayably
as they swell in crevices and suck rocks.

However, there are times when she doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the admixture of sources, something that troubled me occasionally throughout. To Imagine an Alphabet, for instance, is a beautifully constructed poem with a sparsity of language and image, perfect for the context:

Too far back to imagine
It all was dissolved
Under soft black strokes
Of a Chinese brush
Diminishing the fatness
Of original things

Animal legs and human legs are emptied of flesh and blood

One of a number of China-influenced poems as a consequence of a British Council commission, there is a typically filmic transition from one scene to another with superb images such as: I get lost in a landscape of noisy ideas that cross and flare in fireworks of strokes. Yet, for all of its beauty, I can’t pretend to understand all of the poem. Is it enough, as the blurb suggests for there to be ‘always a paradox which she enters and explores, making it luminous but never resolving it’? Of course we don’t want to be too directed but we don’t want to be abandoned.

Occasionally too she unnecessarily obfuscates matters. One example is the wonderful poem with the dreadful title: ‘A Device for Monitoring Brain Activity by Shining Light into the Pupil’. The poem works perfectly fine by itself, so I wonder about the need to seek after another theoretical and intellectual level. The abiding image is of a liner in Belfast Lough that is ‘white as a tent in Plantagenet France’. While this remains the focus, there is some beautiful writing such as: ‘hillsides / snided in gorse bushes crackled and sang’ and ‘The liner shone all the while. / Absorbing the sunlight, throwing it out again.’

Morrissey recognises, however, that there is a case for explanatory notes, which are more to do with the background to the poem. This helps in interpretation to only a limited extent as some speak for themselves, one such being Jigsaw which gives us the background in the opening lines.

One standout poem for me is Ice, a super poem about the power of ice on trees in Canada, and the relationship between the protagonists. Her descriptions are beautifully direct and spare:

Branches bend & snap & forests
xxxxxxxfor years afterwards
hold their grieving centres bare
xxxxxxxwhere Pin Oak,
Siberian Elm, Common Hackberry
xxxxxxx& Bradford Pear
perform a shorn prostration & are
xxxxxxxunable to right
themselves; they teach the weeping
xxxxxxxwillow how it’s
done.

The poem though is located though in their relationship and ends with them kissing ‘& everything between us flew apart.’ By itself that sounds trite, but the poem is perfectly integrated between the observations and the observers.

Don Juan was published in 2012 and recounts the adventures of a Eurocrat while dealing with the events of the day, including the Crash, Greece’s economic collapse, Al Gore and Climate Change as well as the disappointment of Obama’s years. The necessary hero of the poem is Donald Johnson, whereby we see the vulnerability of political verse. In 2012, who, apart from The Simpsons, could have known that Trump and Johnson would be in power? Sadly, the hero is not a composite of the two. The vehemence felt towards the EU is considerable, but in the light of Brexit would Morrissey feel that now? The poem rattles along at a good Byronic pace and is a ‘good read’ after some of the more demanding poems.

The last collection, On Balance (2017), is the one that I find most powerful as this is where Morrissey deals with more immediately personal issues. Collier, for instance, tells of the life of her maternal grandfather who was injured in a mining accident for which he never received compensation. Morrissey’s telling of the life is beautifully done, with no sentimentality or mawkishness.

A month at a Miners’ Rest, alright, but no compensation –
every time she paid a coal bill, or dressed my mother
in a cousin’s pinafore, my granny would preen and peck

at the elderly man grown elderly early
hunched across from her in his armchair.

At the end he is ‘like a man who has tasted the rind of the moon, without ever leaving home.’

The Singing Gates too is another great poem in this latest collection. It strikes me that this is picking up the ‘beguiling simplicity’ of the first collection but approaching the subject matter with all the maturity of a poet in full flow. A brilliant book despite my misgiving about some aspects, but who wouldn’t be prepared to be this good and have flaws?

Malcolm Carson was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. He moved to Belfast with his family before returning to Lincolnshire, becoming an auctioneer and then a farm labourer. He studied English at Nottingham University, and then taught in colleges and universities. He now lives in Carlisle, Cumbria. He has had four full collections: Breccia in 2006, Rangi Changi and other poems in 2011, a pamphlet, Cleethorpes Comes to Paris in 2014, and . Route Choice in 2016. His latest collection is The Where and When in 2019. All are from Shoestring.

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*****

Evan Jones’s Later Emperors by reviewed by Mike Farren

Later Emperors by Evan Jones. £9.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 78410 910-3

I sometimes feel that, for the anglophone world, the ‘dark ages’ fell upon the Roman Empire a few centuries early. We’re up to speed with Julius Caesar, Augustus and a handful of the subsequent emperors but, after that, it’s in the hands of specialists and admirers of Gibbon. If this is the case for the western empire, it is surely even more so for the east, where Yeats’s Byzantium poems are probably better known than the city’s pre-Ottoman history.

However, in the Greek world, it may well be a different story. Greek-Canadian poet Evan Jones (Ευριπίδης Ιωάννου) certainly appears to inhabit easily the worlds of first millennium Rome and early second millennium Byzantium brought to life in these poems.
Later Emperors, Jones’s second collection published in the UK, is divided into four sections, three of which present series of short vignettes, while the fourth is a longer dramatic monologue.

In the first section, itself called ‘Later Emperors’, each emperor from Maximin (235-238AD) to Diocletian (284-305) is epitomised in short poems, from six to 18 lines. Despite the period covered being under 50 years from first to last accession, this section runs to 23 poems, many relating to obscure and short-reigning emperors.

In themselves, the poems are gnomic, imagistic and run through with a straight-faced irony as they comment on the ambition, vainglory and occasional plain bad luck of those individuals who found themselves ‘in charge’ of the runaway train of an empire. Of ‘Maximus and Balbinus’ (two of the six emperors in 238), Evans remarks:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThey are trapped,
more than anything, in their hostility to each other,
unspoken but agreed on. They are unaware
their inner battle is not the problem.

Despite the integral, vignette-like quality of individual poems, as a sequence they form a narrative of the turbulence of the third century empire, like the panels of a graphic novel.
And yet, most of the individual emperors remain so obscure that it’s not clear why we would be interested in reading about them, and if we want narrative, there’s Gibbon and more recent scholarship. Why these poems? Why now?

A possible answer lies in Don Share’s blurb for the volume: “How those later emperors resemble the tyrants of our own time!” It almost feels that these poems are excerpts from an on-going litany – as if a later selection might pithily, dismissively sum up a Trump, a Putin, a Johnson or a member of the Kim dynasty. “His reign was short, his ideals never tasked, Jones says of ‘Aemilianus the Moor’ and of ‘Quintilius’:

The cost came down to this:
he assumed the purple
and lost his life.

It is almost reassuring in our even more turbulent times, to hope that a future Evan Jones might cast an equally cold eye on the reign of our own later emperors.

The other three sections are also interesting in their philosophical concerns and their use of specific form. ‘The Further Adventures of Michael Psellos’ again proceeds by means of vignette, to depict scenes from the life and career of the Byzantine monk, scholar and political fixer. These short poems, with long lines whose visible caesura snakes down the page, sketch a Thomas Cromwell-like figure, half a millennium before the Tudors:

He seems to just know
things’, the emperors thought,xxxpausing at ‘things’. One morning,
though, Michael woke up exiled and alone,xxx his eyes still in his head
(this was a Byzantine worry).

(‘Many Days Yet’)

As with Cromwell, some of the abiding impressions from these poems concern the arbitrary nature of power:

The emperor
liked to stand at the top, someonexxxhas to be responsible, and every
now and then kicked so that the whole xxxthing jolted.

(‘Here is the Ladder’)

…and the precariousness of dealing with power:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe emperor dislikes questions.
He is in love with his thronexxxand only Michael is his friend.

(‘The Book Dwindles’)

Similarly, the third section, ‘The Journal of Anna Kommene (c. AD 1150)’ presents snapshots from a single life, this time the princess who failed in a bid to become empress and was consequently exiled to a monastery. This section introduces another highly particular form: seven-line poems split halfway through the fourth line. As all 13 poems’ titles begin with the ‘On…’ these feel like maxims or apothegms, though all assume a personal twist, as in ‘On Love’ (quoted in its entirety):

The lords and ladies of Antioch, many of them were
friends. We were mutually acquainted with literature,
the language, rhetoric, the works of Aristotle,
the dialogues of Plato.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI live in an apartment,
alone, surrounded by codices, reading and studying
the statements of men who swore their words were true.
I hope they are, but I know better what they cannot hold.

The stoicism (in the non-technical sense) of the character depicted mirrors the terse, aphoristic nature of the form deployed.

Most engaging, however, is the final section, ‘Coda: Plutarch to His Wife’. Here, Evans allows himself room to expand and digress, imagining the biographer and philosopher pausing on his travels to write to his wife, having just heard of the death of his two-year-old daughter. Like a Browning monologue, the 20 eight-line stanzas see him begin the letter, digress about food and wine and his secretary, reminisce about his career and the life of his daughter, before ending with a moving circularity as he ditches the letter and stars again.
After the great men and women, the highest of high politics and the machinations of the first three sections, it cleanses the palate to come down to the humanity of this poem:

The wine is strong and good. It brings
the space for these words to retire with grace.
Timoxena, I will always love you, daughter
and wife of the same name, our family
will thrive, it always has, for thriving is
common, easy as earning money.

The letter may have been “begun in haste” and “mishandled”, but not this collection, which finds a light in obscure phases of history and shines it on our own lives and times.

Mike Farren’s poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies. He has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and runner-up in The Blue Nib’s Chapbook Contest (2019). His debut pamphlet, Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) was published by in 2017, followed by All of the Moon’ (Yaffle) in 2019. He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic in Shipley, W.Yorks. Website: http://www.mikefarren.co.uk/

*****

Rebecca Watts’s Red Gloves reviewed by Dominic James

Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts. £10.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784109554

This is Rebecca Watts second volume. By the top and tail of ‘Barbecues’ – as she sets out her stall – I would prompt the casual reader to approach her work with care. These poems can run quick combinations of language and meaning and the niceties might slip by unguarded attention. The overall pace is set at a good measure, perhaps under the pressures of a second collection with Ms Watts’ awareness she must steer her work on. I do not doubt that her first collection, The Met Office Advises Caution was a deserved success given the poet’s clear native wit and ability.

At the first pass Red Gloves appeared to be organised into those poems for me and against, and the same might be said by anyone. There is range. Personae emerge in divisions of approach and tonal effect and we are engaged by variety of thought and character. Although I would remark, with light censure, in the more self-regarding poems, designed in current style, her gender and age is emphasised to the exclusion of others.

I tripped over a few of the upended conventions with the notion a male presence lurking in the background might as well be my own. On reflection, finding any bucked form was thoroughly considered, and I was pleased to make a few adjustments in sympathy. In ‘The Entangled Bank’ (that ends with no stop, which doesn’t matter a jot) A quotation is taken from Darwin on the varieties and inter-dependence of different (life) forms, diverged:

yet cannot grow
out of the pattern

roots xxxxxxxxxxfaces
pullingxxxxxxxx down swivelling up

can’t not strive
for the sun’s approval

are diminished
when she turns away

That’s where I articulate: Huh? Yet I soon found, however arranged, the poetic lines never mislead, if sometimes they are offset for amusement. I was much drawn to the narrative pieces, ‘Interns’ and ‘Whereas’ particularly, with its conscious stream of blather, whose grammar I first doubted and then couldn’t find why. Throughout Red Gloves the weave of the poetry tightens and relaxes in the turning of a page with entertaining variety, sometimes placing the verbose beside, for instance, a few halting words with hardly the grace to rhyme at all – such is ‘Matrimony’.

In general, the rhythms are assured and sense is properly contained even while, as is commonly the case, form and rhyme are not of paramount importance. I am not lulled by a scarcity of fixed stanzas and end rhyme, I anticipate a corresponding dip in sound, yet there is no such fault. My doubts are precisely addressed in ‘Building’:

as though everything about us
is prose
till someone comes along and
chops/
us/
up//
(oh Eliot
in this you did not
xxxxxxxxxxxxhelp us!)

Very Watts! Eliot can be cited for having pushed at the doors of chaos – ‘there is only good verse, bad verse and chaos’ – and whose poems never were prose in the first place. Certainly the poems in this 60 page are good verse, and if irregular or, informal stanzas, despite experiments in typesetting make no advance in form, the vital sound is consistently good.

In terms of content, the title poem bears its proper weight. I was taken by the essential observation in the poem starting Daffodils:

Daffodils push through in the mild
first days of January,’

prompting my colleague to say ‘too soon –
they’ll regret it next week when a hard frost sets in’.

And yet, for them, early and late don’t mean;
they do what they do while conditions allow; and if to him

they symbolise disappointment or failure,
or the hubris of the eager,

they also show how nature deals not in ought
but is – the blip of green or yellow breaking up black

soil, perhaps not making it.

There are poems of less consequence, observations which seem reserved though warm enough in the incidental and autobiographical verse, and ably handled even if they appear to fail the dual aspect of the thing. Poetry needn’t be profound but it should touch us; not all the conclusions here strike a lasting note. Again, I think of the mechanics of the form, how rhyme can spin lightly or seize. In the second of the Gloucester, Mass. poems, while in keeping with tone – and depth, yes, I visualise the waves’ great trough – an anti-rhyme rhyme sinks our boat quite as intended but flattens the bitter end: ‘And black –/black is the submarine’s domain/from which no fishing boat//is coming back’.

With that said and done, this collection is a good read all of a piece. It carries the reader along. Insightful and bright in the pleasing adoption of an untrammelled intelligence at work: how very nice to see the world with sharp eyes and a younger mind. My disassociations as the older man lift clean away. I nod sagely on, sharing objections to the presence of gilded men in ‘The Drawing Room’: They lived; were painted; died, My sympathies side with the verse. How deliciously we commence ‘There have been moments’:

and still we anticipate the ball
for our entire year

my vixen
caressing her silken purple gloves

your wolf
hind-legged in a borrowed tuxedo…

Entirely capable and engaging, Red Gloves is a noteworthy collection, a step forward for the poet and a rewarding read for all-comers.

Dominic James is widely published online and in print, occasionally he competes, winning first place in Anglica’s free entry prize for metrical verse, and runner up in a recent Wirral, Festival of Firsts. He has a collection, Pilgrim Station (SPM Publications, 2016) attends local poetry events and reads or recites more widely with the Bright Scarf group.

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*****

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