Reviews of Recent Poetry

Colette Bryce’s The M Pages reviewed by Paul McDonald

The M Pages by Colette Bryce. £10.99. Picador. ISBN: 978-1529037500

It’s been twenty years since Colette Bryce’s first Picador collection, The Heel of Bernadette, won the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize and the Strong Award – since then she’s won several more prizes, including first place in the 2003 National Poetry Competition for ‘The Full Indian Rope Trick’, which gave her musical, emotionally charged verse an even wider audience. Her new collection, The M Pages, is as satisfying and convincing as anything she’s written.

While Bryce addresses subjects as varied as Cuba and dentistry in this book, death is by far the dominant theme. This begins with the opening poem, ‘Death of an Actress’, where the speaker assembles some familiar clichés about death:

She has, as chimney sweepers, come to dust.
And bitten it. She has given up the ghost
and lies in cold obstruction there to rot
where angelstubs perfect untimely frost,
now she. Frights me thus living flesh
does yield soft saply to the axe’s edge.

The Shakespeare allusion (to Cymbeline’s ‘chimney sweepers’) is apposite for the death of an actress, of course, and the clichés become no less literary as the poem progresses, with the subject crossing ‘the Styx into/history’ in the final stanza. The purpose, perhaps, is to remind us that the poet operates in the wake of the ‘already said’, and of the struggle to bring originality to such an old and enduring subject.

Bryce explores this problem in a slightly different way in the book’s second poem, ‘A London Leaving’, detailing a modern funeral where mourners seem oddly distanced from the deceased, and platitudes are privileged over emotional engagement. The service includes a ‘poem fished from Google search’ and the post-ceremony conversations on the parking lot are mired in stock phrases:

yes, we must
in happier…’ Some awkward hugs.
Glitter webs on the railings.
Travel apps and Uber cabs.
Splash dispersal on a map.

Perhaps this is what happens when we become disengaged from the meaning of rituals – sadness resides less in death than in the perfunctory nature of modern funeral routines.

The death of a tomcat is the subject of ‘A Final Day on Earth’, where ‘old foe old friend/old tightarse Moriarty’ is brought vividly to life, showcasing Bryce’s delightfully earthy voice and flair for humorous phrasing. Another, ‘The White Horse’, addresses the death of Saint Diarmait’s horse, his master ‘stroking the salt-soaked bristles of its muzzle/the two of them kindred/in the knowledge of his death’. The closing image of ‘a halo of flies around both of their heads’, makes both horse and Diarmait holy in their mutual mortality, at least in a figurative sense.

In the clipped lines of ‘Fungi’ the inevitability of decay underpins an awareness of death in life, as seen in the final stanza:

Always, fungi
is feasting,
working
its quick
saprotrophic
magic on all
matter, even
this seasonal
litter I’ve just
finished clearing
from your grave,
your shelf
of the earth,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxyes you,
who don’t
even realise
you’re dead.

Images of decomposition precede the final reference to death, and mutability is an ever present fact throughout life; we are linked to the dead in our inevitable grave-bound trajectory: we will never finish clearing ‘seasonal litter’ amid nature’s relentless alchemy.

The central sequence of poems, ‘The M Pages’, explores death through an even more intimate and personal lens. The addressee, M, is recently deceased: a sister dead before her time. The fourteen sections take us through stages of grief, starting with disbelief at the suddenness and finality of the event:

But ‘No’, scolds the universe,
‘It doesn’t work like that. Final
is final. xxxAnd that’s xxxthat’.

We cannot negotiate with the universe, and if we’re to resurrect the dead we can only do so in words. One of the joys of this poem is that it does exactly that, as M’s character is fondly reconstructed via delightful specific details: her impracticality, credulousness, and child-like quality are suggested through the details of her cluttered home, ‘the trinkets, beads, the strewn CDs,/the tiny totally-out-of-control kitchen -/bin bags spewing open on the floor,/dishes abandoned on every surface.’ Ultimately, of course, words aren’t enough, certainly not for the bereaved speaker who can’t find her sister in the detritus of her home, or in the language with which she attempts to conjure her. And language cannot conjure the concept of finality either, as seen in the closing stanzas:

Say it: dead. In perpetuity.
Continually, incessantly, repeatedly dead.
Say it: gone…The language

strains – for ever and ay,
for ever and a day – and ultimately
fails: for a very long time.

Where she began the book by exploring death’s clichés, she makes clear their inadequacy here. Where are the words that can convey eternity? They are absent ‘for a very long time’, particularly so for the bereaved, when closure is too painful to contemplate.

This book interrogates cliche, reflecting on banality and simultaneously circumventing it – like all great poets she makes it new, reminding us of what’s left to be said. It’s at those times when language strains and fails that poets step up to the mark, and that’s precisely what Bryce does in this superb new collection.

Paul McDonald taught literature at the University of Wolverhampton for 25 years, where he ran the Creative Writing programme. He has published over twenty books, which includes fiction, poetry, and criticism, His most recent book is Allen Ginsberg: Cosmopolitan Comic (Greenwich Exchange, 2020).

*****

Pat Boran’s Then Again reviewed by Patrick Lodge

Then Again by Pat Boran. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN 9781910251430

Jonathan Simon, co-editor of the evangelically non-digital magazine Analog Sea, recently commented that we are all assailed by the surrounding Sirens who seek to “captivate our attention with relentless spectacle and noise” but that we all have the power to perform a wild and dissenting act, “of turning off the phone and staring out the window at all that life beyond the machine”. Alternatively, one might read this excellent collection which stares out of the metaphoric window and brings all that life to the reader. There is something gently “old school” about a collection which ranges far and wide but which has an unerring ability to focus on the small scale, to draw out the illuminating point, which, like a sutra explains all. This is a collection in which the poet is fully in control of his poetry, who knows what he wants to say and has the craft to do it. Yet it is not at all didactic, there is a marvellously human sense of the contingent, the contradictory within the poetry – the very title a phrase normally used to connect words that imply a contrast, an alternative perspective. The collection kicks off with a great image (actually the cover picture of two figurines in this lovely production by Dedalus), “Like two startled meerkats/sensing a predator’s approach” (Stillness). If this was the poet anticipating the response of the reader he need not have worried -startled the reader may be but only by the consistent quality of these poems.

Race meeting, Baldoyle is a perfect example of the way Boran’s poetry works. It is typical in the sense that the poem is not really about the title at all – the race meeting is simply an occasion – actually a photograph, the course closing in 1973 – which allows Boran a precise observation of a private moment. Here a couple seen for an instant at the race meeting but “What holds the eye’s and heart’s attention/is the quiet that seems to link this pair” in the midst of the racing. Yet Boran admits that the image has no chance of catching the living moment, “…no chance of capturing: their breath.” Yet that is precisely what his art has captured.

The poems here can be complex, storied, revealing themselves slowly and gracefully. Boran has the knack of making them seem simple (deceptively) but drawing out powerfully the purpose and point. In the best of these poems he allows us all to become voyeurs. Ostensibly many of the poems take their impetus from observed objects in museums, places or galleries but they are not really ekphrastic, except perhaps in the strictest Homeric sense where we do not need to see nor expect to see the artwork referred to. Take Unidentified Miracles which is written “after a painting attributed to Pietro Novelli” in the National Gallery of Ireland – the actual painting, which is probably of St Francis of Paola bringing back to life some fried fish (really), is largely ignored except to frame Boran’s father calling him to observe something in a water -filled basin that may have been fish (or eels, or frogspawn) but the poet, and the reader, see the real miracle, not resurrected fish but ‘…a sky so empty and blue/that before I knew it, it was,/in its own way too./a kind of miracle.” In the same way, perhaps, that Boran’s poems draw us to view the fish but deliver something much better.

Fountain is as close to perfect a poem as you can get. A moment, here in Paris (the poem is dedicated to the American poet Stuart Dischell, an aficionado of the city), where something is seen that reveals something else that says it all. Here a receding Parisian façade stops time (“like a path in what might well have been/a woodland clearing a thousand years ago”), a drinking fountain is seen and a small bird is drinking, everyone stops “to stand and wait our turn/a few moments more/in the history of the civilised world”. As Dischell himself had said, “When I’m in Paris, standing on a given street corner, I can almost see the layers of history under my feet.” And Boran is well able to take such an insight and shape a precise, emotional poem around it.

Now the last four poems commented upon are actually the first four in the collection and the reviewer has to point out that this is not a reflection of his laziness but simply a means of emphasising the quality of the work here. Nor has the editor front-loaded the collection with the “best” poems. While there are one or two that don’t work quite as well the quality of thought and execution which characterises Boran’s best work is consistently delivered throughout. There is a lot that reminds one of Billy Collins here in the sense of poems that are erudite, yet almost conversational and that bring the reader in for a nimble and entertaining chat yet quickly slide into profound observation on, essentially, anything and everything to do with being alive.

The poems in Then Again reward reading, to paraphrase Collins, as if watching a mouse dropped into them probing his way out rather than beating them with rubber hoses to find out what they really mean. “The Big Freeze” is another poem inspired by an image – in this case probably a 1930s photo by Fr Francis Brown SJ of Titanic photographs fame – of skating seminaries, novices at being Jesuits as well as skaters, and a good example of the “mouse” method. The clever references to Breughel the Elder are drawn out but, in typical leftfield fashion, Boran notes (in, possibly, an insight into his method) “…my eye is drawn to something more intense, /more telling.”).

With European war in the air, the attention is shifted to one novice whose “discarded great coat” is “ominous as a body” and who skates with perfection and brio, demonstrating “a bracket turn, /an arabesque, a perfect pirouette”. A faultless whirl of the poem from something light and observational to something of menace, and, hints of repressed physicality which allow the mouse to probe further and tie up the close of the poem with the prefacing epigram – a marvellous circularity. The epigram refers to the lake, on the closure of the seminary in 1969, giving up its statues of classical female figures thought to have ben dumped there by the Jesuits. The close of the poem develops that sense of frustrated sensuality with the lake “scarred by the skater’s blades as he goes, /unheeding of creaks, or groans, or the gentle rise/ of pockets of trapped air from deep below – /the breath of the goddesses marbling the ice.”

This collection is full of the memorable. Poems like “Stalled Train” which is a faultless meditation on life and death using a stalled train as the container where “…we tell ourselves/that somewhere down the line/things we cannot understand/are surely taking place”. Poems like “The Steps” where an ancient set of steps down into the sea in Sicily, latterly dwarfed by a disco bar now destroyed by storm, “stood clear again”. No great moralising here, no rubber hoses to beat out meaning, just a paean to perseverance, victory of truth and simple beauty. The steps are not burdened with any philosophical weight, are “still doing nothing/but leading down into the gently lapping sea”. They are surviving and being true to themselves. Poems like The Wardrobe , dedicated to Fernando Trilli, partner of the Irish poet Paul Cahill who died in 2003, and promoter in Italy of all things Irish. None of this detail matters except to fix the inspiration of a poem that speaks joyously and universally of the remembrance of someone dear. The wardrobe as “a kind of church/or chapel, shrine to a local saint/whose relics were once kept safe within” but “Now inside is emptiness itself, profound/ absence, a gentle ache of pine…” – what exquisite imagery, exquisite wording.

Boran knows the fragility of being human and alive, the tragedy and the absurdity, but his perspective is optimistic, life-affirming. Closing the wardrobe door, and the “mirror of the self’ Boran feels still “that someone watches over me with kindness,/ the empty hangers chime inside like bells.” His approach to poetry best summed up in Falling as “…the accident, the grief/somehow given grace and meaning”.

This is an exceptional collection which rewards the reader constantly with elegant, incisive poetry whose effortless lyricism betrays the utmost craft behind it. Pat Boran may be not that well known this side of the Irish Sea but this collection should alter that. If you buy no other collection, as they say, buy this one and read it again and again. You will find poems – as did the lady preparing a meal in an early Nineteenth Century Indian painting and staring into the cooking fire – that allow you to gaze, “…through the moment of the task/into some greater narrative, the larger story/of our give-and-take existences” (A Lady Prepares a Meal).

Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. A retired academic, his work has been published, anthologised and translated in several countries including Ireland, New Zealand, India, Australia, the USA and Vietnam and he has read by invitation at several international festivals. Patrick has been successful in several international poetry competitions. His three collections An Anniversary of Flight (2013), Shenanigans (2016), and Remarkable Occurrences (2019), were published by Valley Press UK.

*****

Ross Thompson’s Threading The Light reviewd by Malcolm Carson

Threading The Light by Ross Thompson. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978 1 910251 59 1

I get the impression from reading and re-reading this first collection by Ross Thompson that the writing of it has been a slow-growing process, certainly judging by the number of acknowledgements at the start of the book where the support he has had over the years is apparent. This is borne out as well by the range of topics covered, from early childhood memories, into teenage years, the destruction of favourite places, the deaths of loved ones and the birth of a child. Nothing new in that, of course, but it’s not often you come across such a beautifully crafted and mature first collection dealing with this process of growing into adulthood.

The seamlessness of this often painful experience is perhaps epitomised in Roman Candle in which Thompson recounts how even at university he was intimidated and mocked for having a Bible in his luggage by a ‘tall glass of bile: a gangly goon / in a biker jacket.’ Revenge is Thompson’s though when, the bully having seized him by the throat, he:

…socked him in the teeth
and taught him to bleed before hiding in the crowd.
I was not proud but a victim of that old rule:
bullies still exist, even after leaving school.

The book comes in sections, which gives it a shape and a coherence. The first section, In Place, has a wonderful poem, July, in which Thompson deals with recalling memories as though on an old home movie reel, and is taken back to when ‘By a horseshoe bay – calm, clean and ringed by green fields…’ he is ‘digging to Australia with my toy spade.’ The remembrance is immediate and intense as the woman, presumably his mother, warns him about cutting his bare toes on crab claws, ‘…then the film fades to black and the loop starts again.’

Just as intense a memory, and one the occurrence of which cannot be accounted for, is when, as a child, he inadvertently strays into the wrong chalet while on holiday, only to encounter a stranger engaged in some bizarre practice: ‘…a real dead ringer for a serial / killer.’ It’s the randomness of the recall though that puzzles Thompson since it occurred as he was undergoing tests for cancer.

A number of poems deal with this terror of childhood. In Threads, for instance, he talks about he would:

…spend most days
petrified by the threat of the world’s end:
a vision of a thin, quicksilver blade,
powered by fission, tapering from white flames…

‘Bad Boys’ House’ too imagines how inadequate and vulnerable he would be if he were to be sent to a Borstal where ‘They would chew you into tiny morsels.’ The Troubles present a more real and immediate threat to his growing up when, as he was in his bedroom with his comics and videogames, ‘the window / shook in its jamb, bending inwards like rain speckling / a spiderweb…’ (Boutade). This is a powerful poem in which the seemingly prosaic nature of the context in which the explosion occurred for him gives a more intimate insight into how the desperate times in the North of Ireland affected so many lives, particularly of the young.

But Thompson doesn’t simply explore his childhood and adolescence. In Part Two, ‘The New World’, there is a series of poems dealing with the cinema including ones about the Projectionist, the Cigarette Girl and Chaplin, and then a beautifully constructed poem about coming across: ‘a phalanx of gleaming typewriters, ready / to receive eager fingers…’, and then one which was:

a vintage device,

midnight black with ebony keys, nursing a solitary
folio, yellowed slightly at the corners, bearing

the same touch-typed phrase, over and over:
I ask nothing of you … only that you love me. (Olympia Splendid ’66)

There are poems too in this collection which demonstrate Thompson’s excellent narrative ability such as ‘Domino Day’ in the which ‘a team of ninety master builders placed / the final of five million tiles…’ into the most elaborate domino collapse imaginable. The precautions taken were extreme, so much so that the movement of a spider creates such apprehension and stasis in the builders that eventually they were enveloped by the spider’s web, ‘neither falling nor failing.’ Thompson manages very effectively to build up the tension and amusement in the reader through the sparsity of language, common throughout this collection, yet which is enlivened by wonderfully evocative expressions.

He is also capable of expressing a sad eloquence such as in Promettre, in which the lover promised his love a peach: ‘But I could not find you a peach. Instead, / I gave you the word: peach. Smooth and tasteless, / it clung to your tongue till you spat it out.’ The word ‘spat’ becomes plosive by the rhythm of the line.

Thompson then presents some very powerful and extremely personal poems dealing with the gradual death of his mother and the birth of his child. In ‘The Switch’, the two events are closely intertwined:

She clawed her way back with mettle
and grit

and has carried on in the same vein
ever since.

But when you aimed for the same light,
you missed.

Not even my surfeit of flitting breath
could fit

between the beat that your heart skipped,
and you slipped

between the bars when your faint pulse
went amiss.

As you may have gathered, I have enjoyed this book immensely. The writing is powerful and often very personal, which can be a real challenge for a writer as there is the risk of a descent into mawkishness and self-indulgence. Thompson, though, maintains a strong detachment which has the effect of enhancing the effect through his very disciplined use of imagery and stanza construction. The final poem, ‘On Castlerock Beach’, is a delight, again dwelling on how memory can creep up on us:

Years from now, when I have long since whispered
into the air, you might wake in the dead
of night and reach for a glass of water
to quench the sandbank of thirst that has swept

into your mouth. And, as if by magic,
a baroque pearl will roll into your palm
as memory forms like spit and dirt…

The memory is of the time when the three of them were at the beach and he had to ‘beat a frenzied drum’ to claim his child’s lost shoe.

Close behind,
the water rushed in and out of the void,
as if to say, “Next time … next time … next time.”

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.

*****

Richard Kell’s The Whispering Sky. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-50-1.

The Whispering Sky by Richard Kell. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-50-1.

Nonagenarian, Irish-born poet Richard Kell boasts a publication record stretching back to the 1950s. His Collected Poems appeared as long ago as 2001, since which seven further volumes (including this one) have been published, all but one of them with Nottingham’s Shoestring Press.

I found it sobering to consider that Kell’s name was totally unfamiliar to me, as I approached this collection.

The Whispering Sky approaches ‘the big questions’ of life and death, faith and doubt, science and literature in what possesses all the trappings of comic verse – strong, flexible rhythms and even stronger rhymes that occasionally lapse into doggerel (‘lexis’ / ‘perplexes’ or even ‘John McEnroe’ / ‘have a go’). Ultimately, the abiding impression is one of lightness, despite the asperity of subject such as the abuse of street children, or euthanasia and the pervasive imminence of ‘the void’ (with or without a capital ‘V’).

The collection is organised into four numbered sections that adhere internally to broad themes. Section I looks at news reports and scientific snippets that mostly appear to lead to a rather bleakly Hobbesian view of the world: a poem entitled ‘The Beauty of Life’ ends with the words. ‘I wish the dust / from bursting stars had vanished into the Void’.

There’s a constant, unresolved wrangle between science and religion (elsewhere, Kell describes himself as ‘agnostic’ and ‘wishywashy’). Serious scientific and theological questions are raised but the necessities of rhyme and metre constantly undercut the gravity of the subject matter, sometimes throwing up bathos, sometimes making the discussion unnecessarily prolix. For example, in ‘A Triad’, 40 lines are spent decrying the view of humanity as ‘the peak of creation’ and a further 42 are dedicated to attacking our unconditional reverence toward life, before a final (20 line) section effectively turns its back on the debate, concluding:

I’ll walk on level ground, still try to care
for things long cherished by the simple heart,
including trust, compassion, friendship, art.

In section II, the tone and the themes are a little less black, with the emphasis on appearance and reality, including some gentle sparring with concepts from Buddhism and quantum physics. In ‘On Being Stuck with My Familiar Self’, Kell buttonholes the Dalai Lama, going on, in ‘Prospects’, to ask, ‘How, reduced to a reptile’s, could my behaviour / be ‘good’ in ways to lift me back towards human?’ Meanwhile, ‘Still Trying to Understand Relativity’ (quoted in full), reads:

My coffee being stirred went round and round.
According to Mach and Einstein—Berkeley too—
its tiny circling meant that it was bound
to every other object we can view,
the galaxies included. As I drink,
that milky prelude makes me think and think.

Many poems in the collection exemplify Kell’s tendency to think and think, perhaps in the process nodding to Yeats’ notion the ‘out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.’

Section III is where we confront the matter of literary style, with Kell railing in a picky, somewhat curmudgeonly fashion, against imprecise language and obscure poetry, typified for him by ‘Stevens, Ashberry and Prynne’ (‘To Some Poets’). In the same poem, he self-deprecatingly suggests that, ‘Nursery rhyme and hymn / are all I’m fit for’. ‘Reader Taking Trouble’, however, shows that this view is not sincerely held, as he sets out his manifesto:

xxxxxxxPoetic writing
should have a style that’s clear:
obscurity’s uninviting.

The book’s final section returns us to the contradiction at the heart of the collection – the disparity between form and subject – dealing as it does with decrepitude and death. Here, however, the impression is rather one of gallows humour and a certain, admirable, attitude of defiance, in which that disparity becomes the point of the poetry.

This is exemplified in ‘Liberation’ (again, quoted in its entirety):

If you are near the end,
apprehensive, ailing,
chuck the old paradigm!
Think of time failing
(cellwork undone by time)
of death as a dear friend.

Despite Kell’s Irish origins, it seems that his Anglo-Irish roots and long-term residency in the UK are more to the fore here, with the insouciant stoicism of an older, more confident generation on display, in the face of (the ultimate) adversity.

Perhaps it’s the sense that The Whispering Sky and its author are somewhat out of their time that makes it hard for a younger reader to settle to its tone. However, some of the perceived mis-steps in the earlier part of the collection and even some of the grouchiness and atavism of the third section can surely be forgiven in the face of Kell’s mastery of technique, nine decades of experience and continuing willingness to grapple with the most timeless and the most modern of questions. And even if that’s not enough, his grace and steadfastness in looking into the Void would surely win over the harshest critics.

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/

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