Recent Poetry from Shoestring Press: John Mole, Robert Selby, Andy Croft and Hugh Underhill

*****

John Mole’s Gold to Gold reviewed by Isabel Bermudez

Gold to Gold by John Mole. £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524532

John Mole’s collection Gold to Gold surveys ground covered with a clear eye. From this rewarding collection, coming late in terms of poetic output and following, without being a complete break, from his equally sustaining collection : ’Gesture and Counterpoints’ ( Shoestring, 2017) it is gen-tleness that springs first to mind and ease with depth. Moles’ affinity with jazz is both implied in the poems and stated clearly in interviews elsewhere. He is indeed something of a jazz connoisseur, as evidenced by the deftness of his line breaks, his skill at making a poem ‘sing’ in the silence of the pause.

He kicks off with ‘The Counter-Drift’ where praxis and poiesis are paired. Poetry is the ‘liberating course’. The rest of this collection which ‘drifts ‘against the prevailing current, spans poems such as the delightfully wry ‘Pottering’ and elegies for his dead wife and more obliquely, his parents; riffs on family history ‘His family Has Been Informed’ and 1950’s black and whites; Henry James and journeys on modern-day trains via what might be a nod to John Betjemen: the romping, rhyming ‘August for the Boys.’ We are led through kitchen windows and glass houses via the ethereal prison of ‘In the Butterfly House.’ Here the butterflies /poems are:

…frail specks,
they cluster around the glass and perspex,
carrying with them all our fears
on their behalf. Amazed, informed,
I read and then forget the Latin names
but what they come to signify remains
in stark translation. You have been warned.

So we tread with Mole, lightly yet surely to the bridge we’ll cross ‘when we come to it’.

In this way, Mole reminds us of truths in commonplaces, giving weight also to the truth of what is commonplace, serving these up to us with many a surprise. He evokes an old love, childhood, the past, and makes us see a Bonnard interior as perhaps nature itself: in ‘Open Ground’ … ‘all must await/the song’s arrival.’ Elsewhere, in ‘The Punch and Judy Puppets’, Punch and Judy are selling up: a springboard image for a poem about a neighbourhood that has changed, it seems, for good:

Where there was once
a string of sausages
dragged from the butcher
there is now only
a patient, orderly queue
at the meat counter.

In case the contemporary landscape should seem a bit bland, we have undertones of danger and threat, as here, where societal implosion is handled as a very minor sub-theme, the forces of dark-ness are managed almost off-stage in the poem, just as in the changed urban area in question:
‘Mayhem is now elsewhere/ under new management’.

Gold to Gold doesn’t disappoint. The collection gives and keeps on giving. A poem six lines long, ‘Drought’, turns niftily on the central paradox of an ‘old friend a who is also a ‘familiar stranger’:

The cracked face of exhaustion
is not that of an old friend
gone finally to earth. It stares up

from the bed it lies on,
a familiar stranger
thirsty for water and love.

A longer, satirical, voiced poem ‘On a painting by Grant Wood’ begins:

We the daughters of the revolution,
invite you to join us for tea
and an opportunity to put this world
to rights according to the next
on which we have firm opinions,
praise the Lord.

and ends with a tail-eating deft flick of the wrist:

…so the time must be now
or never. Let us begin.

Other family poems honour hardships endured by the post-war generation and are loving but hard-ly misty-eyed. Ambiguities abound. The tensions in a parents’ marriage echo in ‘1944’:

Tripe was what the papers
wrote a lot of
roared my father

at the breakfast table,
bringing his fist down
on our chequered cloth,

then, as a mild reply,
my mother served it up
at suppertime

when nothing much else
was in the larder
so it had to do.

Another sustained exposition works a more lyrical vein : ’The Mistletoe Show’ evokes a particularly English handling of deep emotion, a buttoned up-ness no less meaningful for its restraint, char-acteristic of a generation that learnt to survive rationing, bombing and censorship, bringing up fam-ilies at home during WW2. Here however, in this fine poem, the subject matter is subverted and the sense really heightened by the lyrical length of line, full rhyme and narrative-friendly quatrains that suit the telling of the story of his parents’ yearly Christmas mistletoe kiss.

In the title poem, the electrical charge is engineered by two gold wedding bands. They end up speaking to each other and to the reader as easily as a wife’s hands:

slim and reassuring
as they lay on mine.

Ultimately the achieved impulse here is one of commemoration and retrieval, whether it be a nos-talgia for the addressing and fleshing out of very real moral ambiguities in old, post-war films such as The Third Man or the 1942 classic Casablanca, or a summoning of spouse and family de-parted. Through the whole collection there is, evoked with music and freedom, the shadow and sense of an era well and truly passed, for which the emblem, at least in the final poem ‘Moving On’ must be the image of the poet and his dead wife gazing at their own shadows. By a trick of the light these shadows turn out to be not in fact opaque, but looking back at Mole and his wife:

as if in wonderment
through parted clouds.

Isabel Bermudez trained as a documentary film-maker. Returning from three years working in television in Colombia and disillusioned with video, she retrained as a teacher of French and Spanish. Becoming a tutor gave her time and freedom to write. She has published Sanctuary (2018) and Small Disturbances (2016) with Rockingham Press. Madonna Moon (2019) won the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition.Her collection Serenade (Paekakariki Press, 2020), poems evoking Spain and the New World, is illustrated by Simon Turvey.

*****

Robert Selby’s The Coming-Down Time reviewed by Patrick Davidson Roberts

The Coming-Down Time by Robert Selby. £10.  Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524518

The Coming-Down Time is divided into three unequal sections. At the centre of the book’s second, longest section, the poem ‘Burning Clocks’ ends thus:

The train each night returns me to mine.
Avoiding that fate, you walk the promenade
of your dreams. It’s been a long time.

There is no single line or neat phrase in the entire collection that sums up or encapsulates the book entire, but this comes the closest. Returning to family. The girl is gone. A Train. Night. These will be more than enough reasons for many to turn away from the book, bringing as these factors do more than enough hallmarks of a poetry I’m told nobody wants anymore; the poetry of Edward Thomas and Larkin, but also that of James Wright in his calmer nocturnal observations. On the other hand, some of us consider those three poets to be masters and so may, like me, be held enraptured by those lines, particularly the superbly controlled ‘It’s been a long time’.

The book that Robert Selby’s debut most resembles is Graham Swift’s Waterland. Like that novel it contains a potted history of England, a family chronicle and a lyric exploration of the rag-and-bone yard of the heart. Like the best historians, Selby’s records speak to the reader of their own present condition far more than they simply document a far-off event, reflecting at another poem’s end that

Time, and a long pilgrimage, narrows
the daylight between mourner and tourist.

(‘XVIII The Daylight’)

The difference between a long pilgrimage and a long journey being that the length is sought and succour to the pilgrim, whilst an equivalent hike is frequently an inconvenience or irritant to the traveller. In many ways Selby documents a pilgrimage both of his own and of the reader in this book, through a history seen entirely through people. Generational lenses are difficult tools in poetry, too often plied simply (e.g. grandfather lived through the war, therefore he is the war), but Selby has perfect pitch, such as in ‘IV Elysium’, where the question of distance and travel are inseparable from that of transportation and age:

To spare them, one grandson’s planned move

to Tasmania is kept from them
as long as possible.
Before the secret can become untenable,

they, who knew the end of the horse age,
have made their own longest journey,
into the next life, the next set of fields.

The last few lines of this extract bring to mind the groom and groom’s boy at the end of Larkin’s ‘At Grass’, but the familiar story of the Antipodean move of the younger generation – a crucial sundering of generations in Graham Swift’s Last Orders – enables Selby to introduce the unreachable distance later found in death. The employment of the fields also illustrates this difference, with the sense of the grandparents having only moved a short way in death, while the grandchild in Tasmania seems in comparison beyond reach or even imagination. The crucial placement of ‘the secret’ becoming untenable being placed in the last sentence (rather than, as would seem to fit, with that before it) also gifts the grandparents a realism, in their knowing that theirs, in death, will be the further journey; Tasmania is not death.

Familial or generational divisions are also presented, unexpectedly, as sequential and shared divisions. In ‘VII The Divide’, the small differences between generations are played out first in milk bottles; the grandmother:

[…] hasn’t skimped on the milk, full-cream stuff
delivered in pint bottles with silver foil crowns
by the white-coated Unigate milkman

dawn brings whistling from his three-wheeled float.
He whistles under our windows too,
but clinkingly leaves pints crowned red and white:

semi-skimmed. […]

A simple enough difference, but then given a jolting turn a few lines later, with the poet reflecting that

My father, after all, is one of the suited men
who’ll step off the evening train.

It’s gently done, but the sudden suspicion of the young by the old – whether in milk or work – and the knowledge of that suspicion in the youngest generation still changes the tone of the poem. These divides are not as simple as matters of diet or work, Selby seems to say, but that is how they make themselves felt in the day-to-day.

If all of this would seem to characterise The Coming-Down Time as entirely a book of elegy and narrative then it does it no disservice, but the central section of the book contains a brilliant series of separate pieces on love, both lost and enduring, that for this reader most demonstrate the poet’s skill. Selby has long been one of the best love lyricists writing poetry today, partly through the beauty of his phrasing but also through the clear-eyed, lucid manner in which he addresses the encapsulated catastrophe that the effect of love can imbue the smallest mistake with. I first read ‘Exterior with a Young Woman Upset’ in 2014, and while its arrangement has altered, the power of it endures, the closing section in particular

I received a birthday present from you
when all this was months ago,
and we were, too.

Unwrapping it, I found the catalogue,
and inside you had written:
Dearest Rob, may you find your beauty
& inspiration within these pages…

Judy, I keep finding
they are not within those pages
but in you, now and increasingly more.

The woman as raw material (as suggested in that last triplet) could have been exploitative (particularly after the earlier events of the poem) but the use of the names, and the sadness of ‘and we were, too’ with the past tense reveals a tenderness to the poem which, upon rereading, the reader notices has been there all along. ‘The Firecrests’ and ‘Your Bright Jays’ continue and further expand upon the sense of love as being both implication and empowerer of the wounded or fragile. While I am aware from examples not in this book that Selby is more than capable of the joyous or culminatory love poem, that the love lyrics in this book are not resolved or ended by such a poem is a sign of the shrewdness of his editorial arrangement. These poems are beautiful, delicately placed and the resulting order is almost silently effective in what it asks of the reader, and the many gifts that it bestows in turn. It is certainly the best debut collection of the year, but also makes a bid (in a strong year) for the best poetry collection that I have read this year, given the sheer expanse of its reach in subject, reflection, skill and execution. Reading The Coming-Down Time you do think, in the best possible way, ‘It’s been a long time’.

Patrick Davidson Roberts was born in 1987 and grew up in Sunderland and Durham. He was editor of The Next Review magazine 2013-2017, co-founded Offord Road Books press in 2017 and reviews for The Poetry School. His debut collection is The Mains (Vanguard Editions, 2018). In 2019 he ran All My Teachers, the all-women reading series.

*****

Andy Croft’s The Sailors of Ulm reviewed by Martin Malone

The Sailors of Ulm by Andy Croft. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN978-1-912524-48-8.

Andy Croft’s latest is interesting on many levels, some of them important to our idea of what it is that poetry can do, where it has been and in which direction it’s now being encouraged to go. The latter, of course, implies the possibility of alternative avenues we ignore to our ultimate cost. As we enter yet another era in which the new boss remains the old boss – his current iteration, in the form of biddable virtue-signalling metropolitan youth clubs recruited from the familiar Cosy Nostra of Oxbridge, private school and nepotism – this notion supports an ancient yet vital debate. And ‘ancient, yet vital’ happens to be a core aesthetic of this collection, the most obvious manifestation of which is the old chestnut of form. In this respect, the book is a tour de force of traditional formal values for which it makes bold and, often, hilarious apology. Yet, like Théodore Géricault, whose The Raft of the Medusa is parodied on the cover of The Sailors of Ulm, Croft seeks, also, to be both politically and artistically confrontational. I, for one, find this a real tonic. The poetry is brave enough to risk the charge of being dismissed as ‘old hat,’ in its effort to get said some things necessary to an age with a tendency to shut down intelligent debate and – worse still – the sort of nuance that poetry needs in order to thrive. Alas, such bravery, acumen and technique are becoming scarcer than we allow ourselves to believe.

Apart from the Shakespearian tribute to Robeson, in ‘Paul Robeson Sings in Mudfog Town Hall’, Croft favours a distinctive sonnet that eludes the traditional six forms while yet suggesting them. Most closely, I suppose, they resemble the Spencerian: formally controlled, elegant of execution but alive with freewheeling wit and contemporary detail. This raft is awash with such sonnets, boasting several sequences ranged around subjects as diverse as Middlesbrough (‘Moving Backwards’), evolution (‘Tomskaya Pisanitsa Park, Kemerovo’), the nature of time (‘Forty Winks’) and the Ars Poetica that is ‘Cider In Their Ears’. The latter is an hilarious Ed Reardon-esque lament for things we’ve jettisoned to our cultural and political cost: its lost world of When The Boat Comes In solidarity, self-improvement and Old Labour socialism one I recognise, somewhat ruefully, as my own. But don’t mistake technical elegance for mere decoration, these poems bite when they have to, as in this sharp-eyed critique of those outlets purporting to be forums for radical debate that are, more truly, ingrained signifiers of a problem they perpetuate.

These creatures talk of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’
(The Moral Maze) as though we need ‘em,
As if the see-through walls of class
Weren’t solid as the studio’s glass.

(‘Sonnet 8, Cider In their Ears’)

You may correctly intuit from these lines a collection that’s downright Augustan in spirit and scope: we are enjoying here, a writer unafraid the step out of the atomised confessional lyric mode in an attempt to speak to what remains of collective consciousness and interrogate the appalling ponzi scheme of century 21 capitalism. While some may find this off-putting or, as I say, a touch anachronistic, I’d suggest they merely park up the often lazy – or worse, performatively convenient – bias against ‘elitist’ canonicity and dip further back in their reading of English poetry; simply because they’re missing out otherwise. They’d certainly be missing out on some of the genuine strengths of this collection, particularly the heady brew of the book’s masterpiece, ‘Don And Donna’: an excoriating satire on the vanity of modern wishes and how we’ve allowed the world to turn to shit on our watch. This roistering epic of sixty-seven stanzas dextrously appropriates the ottava rima of Byron’s Don Juan and sets out on a Dantean safari of contemporary moral, cultural and political poverty which also serves as a declaration of artistic independence from the short-term tyrannies of current fads. It’s performed utterance, for sure, but more artfully constructed than what we’re ever likely to see from a social media scene that appears to have enlisted people’s fear of recognising poetry’s one truly great gift: it’s ability to function as a bulwark against herd simplicity. So, it’s narrator – an inmate of today’s Losers’ Prison – mediates for those disenfranchised who don’t play so well to the gallery of feigned liberal concern, nor parlay their performed pieties into a cosy little career as cultural gatekeepers:

Because I’m not allowed to show you round
xxxxxxxxYou’ll have to let me tell you what I know
And since I’m buried six feet underground
xxxxxxxxI’m going to have to tell instead of show;
I know this is heresy that’s frowned
xxxxxxxxUpon by critics everywhere you go,
But I would rather trust in my own eyes
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies.

(XVII, ‘Don And Donna’)

Should you allow yourself to trust this collection, you might see something of the scope and merit of Tony Harrison’s grander work. And, parking up the current vogue for subordinating erudition to the cosy tyranny of the hashtag, you might recall, too, Harrison’s more truly revolutionary observation that: ‘Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’ [my italics]. So, let’s have it.

Martin Malone lives in north-east Scotland. He has published three poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011), Cur (Shoestring, 2015) and The Unreturning (Shoestring 2019). Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 will be published next year. An Associate Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he has a PhD in poetry from Sheffield University.

*****

Hugh Underhill’s The Human Heart reviewed by Paul McDonald

The Human Heart by Hugh Underhill. £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-191252468656

The Human Heart is Underhill’s sixth collection of poetry, the latest in a writing career that covers a lot of ground, including scholarship, fiction, verse, and time as co-editor of the literary magazine, Helix. He’s covered much geographical ground too, having lived in Germany, and taught at universities in Australia and the Far East. His voice and themes are as erudite and cosmopolitan as you’d expect: the book teems with literary allusions, and shifts between a plethora of locations from Sussex to Saigon. His purpose is to tell us what he’s learned about the human heart, or, perhaps we might say, the humane heart.

Underhill has learned to celebrate what distinguishes us as human, as suggested in poems like ‘The Quality of Mercy’ where he references Hokusai’s painting, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. With its ‘giant claw/mounting to immolate its victims’, the Hokusai-like wave capsizes a raft full of refugees seeking sanctuary in the west, spilling its human cargo. For unsympathetic observers, these people ‘are not human beings/they are “problems”, an irrelevance/on hedonistic beaches’, but the more humane among us have pity, as seen in the final stanza:

Every day on Lesbos
two Greek women, one steadied by her stick
stride the seafront intent with purpose:
they will hug the children flushed from the boats
fished from the water

The women’s spirit, augmented in the poem by our sense of their physical frailty, is a match for the colossal swell of such waves, and for the dehumanising politics and indifference that Underhill condemns.

There’s a strong sense of history and time in this book, and some poems imply that we owe a debt to both. ‘Unredeemable’, for instance, suggests that while we cannot redeem spent time in a chronological sense, we might do so in a moral sense; he takes us to the war-torn Middle East, where ‘Tanks churn the desert dust’, but where the human heart has redemptive potential:

Abdullah used his time to create a paradise garden
a garden in which his bees could flourish
he sold their honey, admired above all the queen
her flying adeptness: judged females matter.
Then came Isis, kidnapped and raped.
Used his time succuring fugitive women
bestowing the honey of his kindness
a way perhaps of redeeming time
if such a thing is possible.

Through nurture, industry, and the ‘honey of [our] kindness’ we may create ‘paradise’, if not redeeming time, then upholding the human values that transcend it, and which ennoble us as it ticks by.

Art itself seems to have redemptive potential for Underhill, at least when pursued with courage and integrity: in ‘Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’, for instance, he references the painter’s image of ‘an old woman from his hagridden deep/imagination’, alongside Goya’s suggestion that she should ‘complain to time’ about her decrepitude. This isn’t callousness from Goya, merely a willingness to embrace reality, which is a moral imperative in itself. To be stoical in the face of time’s ravages is another laudable characteristic of the human heart, as identified in the aging Goya:

He battled the years
distress and despair in the land
and in his own frame
their equal to the end

Goya’s response to such trials is to paint ‘yet another masterwork’, this one an image of his own waning body, tended by his doctor, Arrieta. The painting shows us that Goya, renowned for his empathy and kindness, knew it when he saw it in others.

In ‘Double’, a poem that opens with images of children splashing in the sea, history is presented in the form of ‘immutable stone’ – the speaker spends time describing both the ‘bare ruined choirs’ of ransacked Dunbrody Abbey, and the ‘inscrutable’ interior of Ardmore Cathedral – but in the final stanza, he returns to his opening image:

Time to walk out on history.
I head downhill, past cars and shops, to the beach, for whose
tides history is beside the point and where children
with all their cheap gimcracks hymm the vivid present.

Notwithstanding his interest in time, it’s clear that value and relevance resides in the here and now for Underhill, and most importantly in the human. History is transient and time is relative, but the human spirit endures.

The Human Heart gives the impression of a poet who’s spent a lifetime studying and interpreting the world, but who’s come to focus on what for him are simple truths: the self-evident and the irrefutable. In ‘Things That Happen’, for instance, he presents ants in their ‘nuptial flight’, and the ‘sheened gauze of their wings’ on the grass ‘rippling like light on water’; alongside this is the image of a feather ‘spilled from the pigeons which fool in the trees’. But the significance of such things is elusive, and Underhill doesn’t chase it – they are merely ‘things that happen’ as the world turns and the seasons shift:

Two months later gossamer glides
over damped-down grass

sparingly gilded
by faltering sunlight.

Amid these reflections on history and time, it’s inevitable that Underhill will ponder his own mortality, his own all too human heart. Again he feels compelled to think in simple terms: ‘An Alternative Person’, for instance, denounces the cerebral complications of psychoanalysis to offer a more straightforward reading of the self: ‘Stow Jung and Freud and their expositors/and all the guff about what motivates us’; the mature poet is disinclined to theorise either about the self, or anything else – no need to complicate the lessons of the heart. This is the final poem of the book, and it’s is a sad one, showing the speaker contemplating his own demise:

I dream a lot but don’t interpret what I dream
or even much remember it. Dream doesn’t stop
all the options retreating. Still, the world’s
not ending yet which leaves me here
to sit and wait and watch…

We have an image of a poet anticipating death, but it’s crucial to note that he’s waiting and watching, rather than watching and waiting – the emphasis is on his enduring vision – and while Underhill continues to ‘watch’, and his humane heart beats this strongly, we’ll be interested in what he sees.

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).

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