Reviews for Winter 2020

*****

Carolyn Forché: In the Lateness of the WorldPascale Petit: Tiger Girl • Philip Gross: Between the Islands • Heidi Williamson : Return By Minor RoadSinéad Morrissey: Found ArchitectureRebecca Watts: Red GlovesEvan Jones: Later Emperors • Colette Bryce: The M Pages John Mole: Gold to GoldRobert Selby: The Coming-Down Time Andy Croft: The Sailors of UlmRichard Kell: The Whispering SkyHugh Underhill : The Human HeartPat Boran: Then Again •  Ross Thompson :Threading The LightThomas McColl: Grenade GenieCarla Scarano: Negotiating CaponataDerek Adams: Exposure: Snapshots from the Life of Lee Miller • John Wheway: A Bluebottle in Late OctoberLiz Bahs: Stay Bones

Chapbook

Dawn Gorman •  Instead, Let Us Say

Translation

Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini translated by Susan Stewart

Reviewers

Tom Laichas • Sarah James• Glen Wilson • Sheila Hamilton • Malcolm Carson • Dominic James • Mike Farren • Paul McDonald •Isabel Bermudez • Patrick Davidson Roberts • Martin Malone • Patrick Lodge • Rodney Wood • Karen Izod• Carla Scarano • Alison Woodhouse • Alex Josephy • Ruth Sharman

*****

Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World reviewed by Tom Laichas 

In the Lateness of the World by Carolyn Forché. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1852249649

In the late 1970s, Carolyn Forché, a promising poet with a prize-winning first collection, was deep into a project translating the work of El Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría. One day, Alegría’s nephew, Salvadoran activist Leonel Gómez Vides, showed up at Forché’s door and asked — insisted — that she come with him to El Salvador, where state-sponsored repression had expanded into remote villages. “What he wanted,” she later recalled, was for a poet to speak out here in the United States, with the moral authority conferred on poets in Latin America. The word of poets meant something there. He imagined that this might be true in the United States as well. I tried to explain that it was different here. I don’t think he believed me. [Chard deNiord, interview with Carolyn Forché, World Literature Today, January 2017].

After she got over her shock — she’d never met Gómez — she consented. He took her all over the country, at considerable risk to them both, where she witnessed the aftermath of egregious abuses, assassinations, and massacres. What she saw transformed her and her work. When she returned, she wrote a celebrated second book, The Country Between Us (1981). One poem from that collection, “The Colonel,” is as chilling a dissection of dictatorial impunity as you will ever read, and remains among the most consequential poems of the last fifty years.

“The Colonel” is no political rant. Forché reports actual events (nearly verbatim, she says) without gratuitous comment. It is an instance — really, an archetype — for what she and Czesław Miłosz dubbed the “poetry of witness.” Drawing from thoughtful readings of Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas, and Emanuel Derrida, Forché distinguishes this “poetry of witness” from other kinds of political composition. Here’s how she states the case in her preface to the anthology Poetry of Witness:

In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it, and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness.

Forché believes that once we’ve truly witnessed violence against human persons, we are better able to see that those persons as persons. Formerly conceived as objects, they are revealed as Martin Buber’s Thou — not strangers, but an intimates; not things, but persons as sacred as ourselves.

This is quite a claim: that poetry possesses an often untapped power to restore moral sight to the self-blinded. Bringing this off requires of Forché an uncompromising gaze, a gaze that forcefully compels readers to see with their own eyes what happens when human beings are treated as mere instruments for the seizure and consolidation of power.

In the Lateness of the World, that gaze is at its most unflinching, as in Forché’s “The Ghost of Heaven”:

The girl was found (don’t say this)
with a man’s severed head stuffed
into her where a child would have been.
No one knew who the man was.
Another of the dead.
So they had not, after all,
killed a pregnant girl.

Don’t say this, she writes. Then she says it. And the reader, reciting the lines aloud, says it too. Here is a startling example of Forché’s declaration that “witness begets witness,” the reader looking through rather than at the poem to witness the scene the poem frames.

To voice a stranger’s agony can, in hands of lesser skill, go very wrong, veering into culturally obtuse ventriloquism or, worse, turning atrocity into pornography. It is far too easy to transform the site of a massacre into mere spectacle, viewed from the most privileged position of all: that of the living who weep audibly over the bodies of the dead. Repulsed by the prospect of such sentimental grotesquery, Theodor Adorno famously declared that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Forché understands what led Adorno to make that remark, but would no doubt reply that, especially since Auschwitz, there’s nothing more barbaric than the diffident silence of an averted gaze.

Given the stakes, it is no wonder that Forché takes such considerable time with her work. In the past forty years, while many of her peers have written a dozen or more collections, she has published just four. After The Country Between Us (1981), readers waited thirteen years for The Angel of History (1994), another nine for Blue Hour (2003), and seventeen more for In the Lateness of the World (2020).

In the Lateness of the World is very sparing in its direct description of human cruelty. As a result, when the ugliness does appear on the page, it is unexpected and shocking. Don’t say this, Forché writes. But it is said, and the reader, forced to see and speak, does not forget the experience.

It is exactly because such direct language is rare that it is so deeply unsettling. Some things only need to be said once. As Forché surely knows, such searing language leaves an after-image. Once you’ve seen the girl in “Ghost of Heaven,” you remember her while reading the rest of Forché’s poems — or, that evening, hearing certain news reports. She’s with you always. Because she embeds memory of horror so deeply in us, Forché can, in subsequent poems, call that horror to the surface without again reciting it. To do so, she invokes absences, denials, and repudiations, the rhetorical technique called apophasis:

so many
words for no one and nothing,
until history came for them too
with its years of industry and waste

(“The Last Bridge,” emphasis in original)

***
There is no album for these, no white script on black
paper, no dates stamped in a border, no sleeve, no fire,
no one has written on the back from left to right.

(“Tapestry”)

***
to speak is not yet to have spoken,
the not-yet of a white realm of nothing left
neither for itself nor another
a no-longer already there, along with the arrival of what has been
light and the reverse of light
terror as walking blind along the breaking sea, body in whom I lived
the not-yet death darkening what it briefly illuminates
an unknown place as between languages

(“What Comes”)

No, nothing, not-yet, nothing left, neither…nor, no-longer: what the page effaces, imagination restores. The effect works as well in “Morning on the Island,” a poem of environmental loss:

There is an owl living in the forest behind us, but he is white,
Meant to be mistaken for snow burdening a bough.
They say he is the only owl remaining. I hear him at night
Listening for the last of the mice and asking who of no other owl.

(“Morning on the Island”)

The “who of no other owl” — this is how loss is conjured. And this is how Forché writes what really are half-finished poems, poems that gape with absence. It’s the reader who completes these poems, supplying that ready image of what’s gone. So it is that Forché transmutes reading into witnessing.

Forché’s allusive figuration reinforces this effect. One recurring image, for instance, is that of a boat. At first, in “The Boatman,” she is very explicit about what she has in mind:

We were thirty-one souls, he said, in the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth
By morning this didn’t matter, no land in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.

we fetched a child, not ours, from the sea, drifting face-
down in a life vest, its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us.

Leave, yes, we’ll obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?

Here again, one concussive poem bruises every subsequent page. After “The Boatman,” every reference to the sea powerfully evokes desperation and loss. Hers are bleak tides, “blank-lit,” “black-winged,” and “gray-sick.” All her boats — the prau (“Report from the Island”), the “ruins of boats” (“A Bridge”), the “boat with a cargo” (“Passage”), the “rubber boats ripped / into the tough waves” (“Mourning”) — are that boat, carrying those souls.

Forché’s allusiveness extends to her landscapes. She does mention specific places: Rome, Hué, Aleppo, Raqaa. Often, though, she substitutes epithets: “the City of the Poor” or the “sinking metropolis” or the “distant city,” or the “city of smugglers and violinists,” or the “City Under Siege,” Places are simultaneously real and allegorical. They are there, but could be here. It’s as if Italo Calvino had turned to political journalism.

She intensifies this dislocation by showing rather than explaining. A reader may know how there came to be boat people on the Mediterranean, why death squads massacred Central American peasants, or how the vast plains of mid-century central and eastern Europe became, to borrow Tim Snyder’s phrase, “bloodlands.” To embed these events in their histories risks rationalization and excuse. Prior to understanding context — prior, really, to studying these events as history — we must, Forché believes, accept a universal truth: that to purposefully inflict suffering on another person, regardless of the reasons, is morally abject.

In her introduction to The Poetry of Witness, Forché insists that “the text we read” — that is, the poems she aspires to write — “becomes a living archive.” In the Lateness of the World reveals that archive through its vanished papers and objects. In “The Lost Suitcase,” a thief

expecting valuables, instead found books written
between wars, gold attic-light, mechanical birds singing
and the chronicle of your country’s final hours.

In “Light of Sleep,” there is a “library of night,” containing, though impossible to see,

… drawings
of skeletons digging graves and inviting us to accompany
the corpse of x to the church of y, gift coupons, greeting cards
housekeeping accounts, ice papers to place in windows
for the delivery of blocks of ice, jury papers, keepsakes,
lighthouse dues slips for all ships entering or leaving ports,
marriage certificates, news bills, notices to quit, oaths, papers,
dolls …

In “Travel Papers,” we find
… imaginary
maps, smoke chased by wind, a registry
of arrivals, the logs of ghost
ships, and a few prison
diaries written on tissue paper.

These inventories are powerfully cinematic, reminding me of Lori Nix’s post-apocalyptic dioramas, Walter Arnold’s striking images of the abandoned Cossitt Library in Memphis, Tennessee, and Camilo José Vergara’s photographic record of urban abandonment, American Ruins. All recall human life by recording human absence.

As Forché erases people and their belongings from the earth, we gradually recognize ourselves among the erased. To achieve this, she frequently uses the rhetorical “you.” Sometimes it’s clear to whom she speaks. More often, she leaves this you ambiguous. As a consequence, many poems point an index finger directly out from the page and straight at the reader, as here in “Toward the End”:

you have gone under and come back, light, no longer tethered
to your own past.

It’s worth noting that while Forché points to you, the reader, she very rarely points to herself. She does not draw upon the pain of others to assess her own interior life or implicate her participation in oppressive systems. Because she absents herself from most of the scenes she describes, she makes room for the more consequential absence of others. This absenting-of-self runs counter to a confessional style that too often gets mixed into political poems, to their detriment.

And yet, so far as I can tell, these poems all grew out of events Forché herself has witnessed or conversations with people she has known. That means there’s nothing about (say) Rwanda in 1994, Chile in 1973, or Cambodia in the late 1970s. In the Lateness of the World is not a comprehensive Amnesty report or one of The Guardian’s long reads. Forché’s restraint, I think, speaks to her enormous integrity.

This is one book that should be judged, or at least understood, by its cover. That cover features Zsolt Kudich’s photo of an egret, its wings fully open in ritual courtship. The bird is both breathtakingly familiar (those angelic wings!) and eerily alien (that needle-beaked inhuman head!). Kudich took the photo for an ecological project completed with fellow photographer Réka Zsirmon. Its full title is: “Changing Fortunes of the Great Egret: A remarkable conservation success story, the Great Egret was saved from the brink of disappearance in Hungary.”

In its original context, the photo is not elegiac or tragic. It is not about death or disappearance. Instead it signifies one of the world’s billion annual beginnings. It is an image that sings of renewal and hope.

Forché populates many of her poems with birds. There is, In the Lateness of the World, an egret. There are also doves, gamecocks, starlings, swallows, swifts, swans, and storks. Some, like the owl, suffer for flying too close to human attention. But most remain free, and their flights and flutterings suggest possible worlds beyond our crude bloody-mindedness.

As I read these poems, I thought often of Kudich’s resplendent bird.

And I thought: Maybe, after all, it’s not yet so late in the world.

Tom Laichas‘s Empire of Eden was published by The High Window Press in 2019. Other recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oddville Press, Stand, Spillway, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere.  A chapbook, Sixty-Three Photographs from the End of a War, is forthcoming later this year from 3.1 Press.

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*****

Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl reviewed by Sarah James

Tiger Girl by Pascale Petit. £8.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780375267

With Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl, I’m wonderfully spoiled for choice on where to start and focus a review. These are poems of night and starlight, fire and blazing tiger stripes, birth and death, death and explosions of lupins (‘Her Flowers’), maybe even “constellations | of exotic fruit” (‘Sky Ladder’). And, of course, much more. One of the many delights to this collection is that it encompasses so many things, often near to simultaneously: love and loss, the natural world and human experience, beauty and cruelty…

The framework for this is the poet-narrator’s exploration of heritage and memories, her own and her grandmother’s life, in India and in Wales. Yet, everything within this is closely interwoven and connected. Sometimes the viewpoint is the poet-narrator’s. Other times it is the “tiger-girl” grandmother’s, or a merging of both. Humans and animals also live not just side by side but sharing experiences and the harshness of survival, stretched further then to commodification.

In ‘In the Forest’, “just one rib of baagh can buy a cow” and the whole poem vividly depicts example after example of animals poached, slaughtered and used for whatever human value they can bring. Later, in the heart-breakingly powerful poem ‘Pangolin’, one pangolin (even “perhaps the last”) is “like winning the lottery”, her scales “coins of a rare vintage” and “her pelt forged | by the great goldsmith in the sky”.

Meanwhile, in ‘Indian Roller’, the market of Murgi Chowk is:

a bazaar of cages, of tied feet, glued wings.
I’m not going to break your heart by saying
when you sent me back to my mother

she glued my wings together to stop me escaping.

The reality of escape here would be recapture by bird charmers to be sold again, with all the echoes of slavery and women treated as possessions as well as cruelty that this evokes.

The tiger and birds may be recurring motifs but so are many other animals – deer, leopards, langurs, elephants… as well as forests, jungles and gardens. When it comes to family, animal and human are often inseparable, almost sharing skin and fur.

In ‘My Mugger Crib’, a mother whispers unusual bedtime stories to the baby lying in a crib of crocodile skin (this hide painfully separated from the living creature). A nursing tigress and other animals come to the infant’s tent and watch over the baby as “my true mothers”.

Meanwhile, in ‘Chital Girl’, the narrator asks if her ‘markings’ are:

the white spots of a deer

or the black spots of the beast?

I don’t know who I am. […]

In ‘Tiger Gran’, the poet-narrator speak of her gran as someone “for whom I would weed the world”. Tiger Gran’s full passed-down story gleaned here and from other poems is that she was her father’s maid’s daughter brought up as his white wife’s child. As a “hybrid rose”, her face is a map of India in summer and Wales in the winter, her nose like a mountain between two countries.

Heritage may be a journey of self-discovery and belonging, but more than this, it can bring realisation of an individual’s place or part within the world. It’s such a sense, perhaps, that ultimately leads to increased appreciation of, and responsibility for, that world. Alongside the absences of settled human family experiences, nature becomes a strong kindredship.

In ‘Passport’, the poet-narrator’s real passport is one sewn from leaves with slug-trail text, an ocean watermark and biometric fingerprints that “have a scent only a jackal can read”. Bureaucracy, country divides, residency and the notion of ‘foreigner’ have different meanings here:

Home Office –
I am a citizen of the wild,
my address is a cloud,

This poem illustrates too how much the past in this collection still vividly shapes the present and is carried with us – as shown in the very first poem, ‘Her Gypsy Clothes’, where memories burn “slow as anthracite” and:

[…] some colours don’t fade
XXXXXhowever deep they’re buried

In ‘Baghwa’, the village vicar comes to have his fortune told by ‘tiger-gran’ and:

She rises from her flowery bed and wraps
XXXXXXthe garden around her like a sari,

carries a mountain on her head […]

Later on, in ‘Treasure Cupboard’, the television casts “black and white stripes | that roar over” the grandmother’s face and, once the test card goes, the screen “monsoons”.

These quotations are only a few examples of the ways in which this collection so completely incorporates both the intensely personal and the infinitely universal.

In ‘Walking Fire’, the narrator remembers and re-imagines sitting with her gran by the fire as “two Ice Age queens”. Embers spit “like sabre tooths springing from a cave” while the tigress:

When she leaps onto a stag
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXthe whole world slows
to hear the grass speak from inside the deer.

Imagery and language throughout these poems are colourful and fierce, caring and yet sharp. For me, it is also the close connections – the inseparable linkings as if shape-shifting into different animals – between humans and not just other species but the earth and existence itself that most reinforces their environmental force.

In ‘Mahaman’s Face through Binoculars’, a white chin is “creation’s brush | loaded with mist at the beginning of time”, while the blue in one eye is sky reflected:
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX[…]between blades

of lemon grass and vetivers,
XXXXXXXXXXXas if Earth is rising in her iris.

Meanwhile, in ‘Brown Fish Owl’:

I have survived five million years.
It is said my feathers sing when I fly.
It is said my calls are almost human,

Similarity doesn’t necessarily mean understanding or hearing though, as this poem reminds us. Poems like ‘Forest Guard’ are politically-charged and loaded with a sense of undeniable responsibility. The final lines of the collection also close on a different reminder of our wider impact on the world:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXHow it was we
who discovered fire and with our knowledge

lit the fuse.
(‘Walking Fire’)

That the collection culminates on this note is not to say that there aren’t potential seeds of hope. In ‘The Anthropocene’, a bride wears a dress of peacock feathers, her procession down the aisle likened to a planet with its seas spread out in this bridal train. Every peacock’s eye in these waves is “ a storm | held in abeyance”.

I’ve already mentioned survival and the natural world. Petit’s ‘#ExtinctionRebellion’ doesn’t gloss over “lost species” but does imagine newspapers becoming tree again with a front page of bark. Here, phones “light up with chlorophyll” and people hold “leaves | intently as smartphones”. Technology and the natural world are wonderfully intertwined with a vanda orchid opening as “easily as hypertext”, while phones vibrate like “an apiary of apps”. And the underground (wood wide web) offers the resistance of:

fungal friends working in darkness,
their windows blacked out.

Tiger Girl is an extraordinarily beautiful and profoundly moving collection; this review barely touches on a fraction of what I admired. I’m going to end not with the final poem or the tigress but the bird imagery of ‘Her Bulbul’ because for me it encapsulates so much of a personal family relationship but also of humans living in Earth’s ‘house’ as part of Earth’s family. Here, the poet-narrator is called the grandmother’s little bulbul “because I’ve nested in her house”. Both the child and her grandmother, who was once her own mother’s bulbul, sing. Through this song, the grandmother teaches the old language, that a whole wood may grow from a twig, and:

how each note is an egg
balanced on barbed wire,
and in each egg an unbroken world.

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.

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*****

Philip Gross’s Between the Islands reviewed by Glen Wilson

Between the Islands by Philip Gross. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1-78037-506-9

Philip Gross opens his twenty-sixth collection with the marvellous sequence of ‘Edge States’, here Gross brings his customary deft touch to bear as he portrays the frailty and authenticity present throughout these opening poems, in a voice (and at times multiple voices) unafraid to deal with the grey areas and the difficult feelings:

‘and tears/the cold brings, all the purer without/tincture of emotion, tears clean/the eyes, for no sake but the sake of clarity, which should sting.’

The tone is mellifluous but daring, jabbing and jarring when necessary as in
Nocturne with a view of the pier: ‘a pier is a tease. A come on even when it’s empty’.

The vital and vivid language of ‘The Age of electricity’ was a particular pleasure, illuminating the subject and casting fresh light on it at the same time with a staccato rhythm that moves across the page like power lines but is conversely seamless. Gross paints startling images in nature through such pieces as a ‘Shag, Rampant’, and the isolated bull in Himself. But it is the thoughts and epiphanies he draws from and in the movement of water in all its various forms that permeates all this poems, imbuing floes, riptides and ice with candour and challenge. I especially love this line from ‘A Wave’:

‘A wave /is singular and plural. Human pyramid /aquiver /as it builds-shoulder to shoulder, /hand to hand…’

For me ‘The House of innumerable things’ is the standout poem of the collection, the collection in microcosm in many ways, managing to pack so much in without being dense and arduous.

‘…clutter is the outward form of nothing rightly known, a rife amnesia that’s lost the point of itself’

The title sequence, ‘Between the Islands’, shows his mastery and then his breaking of form with his fifteen line ‘odd snagged sonnets’ as he tackles absence and grief eschewing sentimentality for pieces that keep the conversation going between the one left behind and the one who has gone:

‘Where in the world/are we? Or out of it? We’re on the edge/more often than we think. Then one of us/is nowhere’

The interplay and tension of the tactile and spiritual makes this such an enlightening and rewarding collection, drawing you in with something familiar only to heighten the experience with unacquainted thoughts.

Glen Wilson lives in Portadown with his wife and children. He is a civil servant and Worship Leader at St Mark’s Church of Ireland Portadown. He studied English/Politics at Queens University Belfast and has a Post-Grad Diploma in Journalism studies from the University of Ulster. He has been widely published having work in The Honest Ulsterman, Iota, The Paperclip amongst others. He won the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing in 2017, the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award in 2018 and The Trim Poetry competition in 2019. His first collection of poetry An Experience on the Tongue with Doire Press is out now.

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*****

Heidi Williamson’s Return By Minor Road reviewed by Sheila Hamilton

Return By Minor Road by Heidi Williamson. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN     978-1-78037-522-9

Some readers will no doubt already be familiar with the work of Heidi Williamson; I come to it as a newcomer but on the basis of this new collection I am looking forward to catching up with the “backlist.” Heidi Williamson currently lives in Wymondham in Norfolk (incidentally, a town which in recent years has become home to several well-regarded poets) but back in 1996 she was a 20-something living in the Scottish town of Dunblane. Here is “From”in its entirety:

From the hallway you can see into every corner of our small flat.
From the kitchen window: the rose garden, golf course, the Trossachs.
From the bath you can see Glen Road’s sky and sky framed.
From tomorrow all this will be different.

On March 13th that year, as many reading this will remember clearly, a lone gunman went to Dunblane Primary School, entered the gym and starting firing. Within a few minutes he killed 16 children and their teacher, wounded further children and two further members of staff and then, as is so often the case with such incidents, took his own life. Return By Minor Road explores the aftershocks of that event.

What led me to this particular book was, largely, curiosity: how would Williamson approach something so difficult? In the wrong hands, such a series of poems could be excruciating. It could be mawkishly sentimental, especially as the event involved small children; it could come over as merely journalistic, a reporting of facts already well known; it could feel intrusive, exploitative, crassly ill-judged. Williamson manages to avoid all these possible pitfalls.

The collection is made up of three parts of roughly equal length. The second, central section (“Cold Spring”) has as its entire focus the event itself (“Now is the time when the world/is blown open.”) and its immediate aftermath; the first and third sections examine the ongoing legacy of the event and are situated mainly in the present. In “The wall”, the opening poem, the poet tends her child in 2018, a small child, someone who can’t have been born at the time of the tragedy, someone who is too young to know what happened:

Your soft toys shift and slide as I cover you.
My mind slides towards small absent ones
I cared for in passing. . .

There is a gentle touch in the words used, plain phrases, understatement and it is this, I think, which is part of the collection’s power and why it works so well. Instead of laying the obvious on very thickly, Williamson focusses on everyday details, the minutiae of the domestic. The poem “It’s twenty-two years ago and it’s today” is partly a recitation of domestic ordinariness: “You wake at five with our son. . .You clean. Toilets. Bathroom. Hoover. . . Our son eats cake. . .We shop for Sunday’s chicken. . .” Yet in between these details there are others that point to what happened twenty-two years, to the trauma which plays itself over and over: “We think. We can’t think. We stare at the garden. Pretend to watch the birds. . .We don’t read the papers. . .We keep our thoughts to ourselves. . .” Towards the end, it is this second strand that becomes dominant: “We know neither of us will sleep. We put tea-lights on the table. Neither of us says why. We save shouting for the next day.”

Approaching the collection, I wondered how the poet stood in relation to the events. I think I’m correct in saying she is not a one of the bereaved parents or a bereaved sibling. She is described in the blurb as “part of a Scottish community which suffered an inconceivable tragedy.” She places herself within the events as “incoherent bystander” and this incoherence is expressed most fully in the two-part poem “Cold Spring.” It’s impossible to set out “Cold Spring”here as it exists on the page: it is hesitant, staccato, in a voice that is struggling to speak, and around the odd words, the incomplete phrases (“you want to jolt awake/you want”) there is a lot of white space. As there is in “Elegy”, the only poem in the book that gives the actual names of the dead. That is the entirety of “Elegy”: 16 children and their teacher, and white spaces.

Traumatic events occur on a specific date, of course, yet ripple and echo and resonate through time. Also, and Williamson explores this at length, they become an unshakeable part of the place’s fabric. In “Lepus Timidus” the creature is light and slender, its newly winter-white body exposing “tender flesh”, and it runs “uphill on the scree/screaming the eagle away”; in short, it is not only a hare but also a cipher for the children under attack in the school. In “Dumyat”, a place acquires a particular poignancy that it did not possess before:

At the summit we kept numb vigil
for what we couldn’t say. . .

. . .On spring days
now, when cold tips the hills

I can see its cairn and trig point,
that chopped obelisk at its peak,
distant sheep folds, memorials of snow.

There are so many things to admire in this collection: the varied forms, the sensitivity to landscape, the first-person voice that is never intrusive or narcissistic. It is a brave book and I hope it reaches a wide readership.

Sheila Hamilton graduated from the University of East Anglia in 1989 with a degree in French and German, lived and worked in Hungary for two years, then in Scotland for several more years and currently lives in the North West of England. Her poems have been widely published. Her most recent full collection, The Spirit Vaults, came out from Green Bottle Press in 2017. Her most recent pamphlet, Lotus Moon With Blossom, was published by 4Word in 2019.

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****

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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*****

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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*****

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/

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*****

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,
xxxxxxxxxxxyes 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).

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*****

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.

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*****

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

The Coming-Down Time by Robert Selby. £10. The shoestgring 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.

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*****

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.

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*****

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 life 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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*****

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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*****

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).

Dr 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.

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*****

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.

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*****

Thomas McColl’s Grenade Genie reviewed by Rodney Wood

Grenade Genie by Thomas McColl.  £8.99. Fly on the Wall Press.  ISBN 978-1913211134   

It was Sydney Smith who said “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so.” I’ve fallen at the first fence as I read or heard most of these poems before these 25 poems were put together in this collection by Fly on the Wall Press, which describes itself as “A publisher with a conscience”. A lot has happened in the world in the space of a few weeks this year with the global pandemic and reaction to it which has turned the world upside down so the economic, political and social realms are unrecognisable. Unsettling times indeed, but then again if you’re truly alive times are always going to be a-changing:

but are you prepared,
on finding it encased inside a grenade,
to pull out the pin to release the genie

The poems have been put together in 4 subsections (not humours, elements or points of the compass) but an exploration of the 4 Cs – Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted, perhaps inspired by Christophers Reid’s 2015 book The Curiosities, a series of poems clustered around the letter ‘C’. The poems look at human behaviour and especially how and why we accept social norms and conventions so readily or without asking pointed questions. That all sounds terribly serious but a lot of the poems make you explode with laughter and McColl never takes himself too seriously. In ‘The Greatest Poem’ he writes about visiting the Nayland Rock Shelter in Margate Sands 100 years after Eliot went there to write The Waste Land:

Things in my favour:
My first name is Thomas,
I once worked for Lloyds Bank,
and I write poetry.

He’s worried though that may not be enough and he will become famous for writing the worst poem of the 21st Century. Nevertheless, a poet must write, even in these days of social media, especially Instagram, that has reduced peoples attention span so they can only read and “like” the platitudes, of say, rupi kaur (you/are your own/soul mate):

Thomas Sterns Eliot may well have been the best,
but there’s no room for that now.
No, it has to be four lines or less,
and totally trite.

No matter what happens McColl’ll be a success, and the measure of success is being able to write another poem, in his case using a voice that is both honest and perceptive. The poems are like meeting with an old friend outside Topshop and they start talking to you about tressle tables, class warriors, shoppers, their ‘shields of apathy’, passing buses and the

unstoppable tide of commerce
and all that’s left to confront it now
are four delusional Communist King Canutes.

From ‘Socialist Workers on Oxford Street’. The poems are based mainly in and around London, where Tom lives and works, but that’s not to say people will be unfamiliar with what he’s talking about. Consumerism and thinking of nothing else but brands and shopping is another preoccupation but again it is handled with humour. In ‘Shopping with Perseus’ who’s warning about a new type of gorgon the “fashion victim” who’s hideous and is in dander of being

turned into plastic.
You must believe it. Where did you think
those showroom dummies come from?
I was stunned by this revelation.

How could anyone look at mannequins and think what or who they used to be? But it’s a useful tip knowing that you can still buy a cap of invisibility from Gap.

The world McColl portrays may be like Eliot’s wasteland but it is also far more unreal. In ‘Literal Library’ there is a section for Nazis full of decadent books and a box of matches; one on capitalism is stocked with one book entitled “Choice”; and other sections on Islam, Liberalism, Communism, The Roman Catholic Church and Atheism which is

completely and utterly empty
(only because the books have all been borrowed –
and in the Literal Library
once a book is borrowed from that section, no record is kept).

Another fantasy based poem is ‘The Surgery I go to has a Two-Headed Doctor’ with jokes about being in two minds, having a second opinion and two-heads are better than one but is does make a serious political point about the takeover of the NHS by big pharma:

Apparently, his wife has two heads as well,
and two pair of breasts.
It’s said they met as impoverished
but physically normal students,
earning money by undergoing laboratory tests.

‘All the Beach is a Stage’ says the Moon who is a “stuck-in-the-silent-era” actor who plays to empty houses, or rather to an audience of two metal detectorists who find only “faded junk and seagulls’ bones.” Like them the moon refuses to give up hope and like today they have been furloughe:

-and as it will be ever thus-
that no-one’s getting paid.

In ‘No Longer Quite So Sure’

We are all living lives more and more unnatural,
and in this messed-up world,
where buses are bison and people are grass.

The world is a strange and baffling place and then he notices

a message etched in the glass –
We’re gonna take the city back –

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” So sayeth Karl Marx.

In these poems McColl shows he is a real poet writing honestly and perceptively, expoloring what it means to be alive in these unsettling times. He takes poetry seriously but never himself in poems that often make you expolde wityh laughter.

Rodney Wood worked in London and Guildford before retiring. His poems have appeared recently in The High Window, Orbis, Magma (where he was Selected Poet in the deaf issue) and Envoi. His debut pamphlet, Dante Called You Beatrice , appeared in 2017. He is joint MC of the monthly open mic nights at The Lightbox and is also the Stanza Rep for Woking. You can find more information about Rodney and his work at rodneywoodpoet.wordpress.com

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*****

Carla Scarano’s Negotiating Caponata reviewed by Karen Izod

Negotiating Caponata by Carla Scarano D’Antonio. £6. Dempsey&Windle. ISBN: 978-1913329228

Lines from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) lead us into this feast of a collection that works on the structures by which we build memories, with a richly associative set of poems that evoke the senses and the pleasures and vulnerabilities of being an Italian making a life in England, while also being elsewhere.

‘Pajarito’, an exquisite epigram of a poem gives us a sense of that movement; the batting to and fro required of belonging, or being rooted, in two places which is captured throughout the book. In ‘Negotiating Caponata’, ‘My Father’s Death, and ‘In Touch’, the three sections making up this collection, Scarano D’Antonio’s poetry ‘touches’ on what seems to be her ‘constant urge to be present’ ‘Flying’, and ability to be present in these captured moments of her everyday life.

Negotiating Caponata brims with the heady aromas, textures and tastes of a culinary exuberance. I want to be in that kitchen, have her cook for me, serve me up her ‘Mid-Winter Stew’. And in a way, I am; in the spaces where Scarano D’Antonio allows her mind to expand and where we first meet the dilemma and intricacies of choice:

it seems to matter
I use the hob to warm my milk
Not the microwave.
It seems to matter I choose rosemary instead of oregano….’
‘Cooking Betrayal

and to wonder what it is that matters and is being negotiated here. There are many possibilities: the roles of mother, daughter ‘Cyclamens for my Mother’, the task of keeping family ties ‘Your Last Words’, and in the title poem, the challenges, as I encounter them through this work, of the assimilation and acculturation of living in a different place –

The aloofness at times.
They are difficult to digest like peppers
Or sour like aubergines,
Floating adrift, or biting back

We see the detail of this, described poignantly in ‘What I was leaving’: time moving, colours shifting, transient thoughts and experiences that cannot be grasped, or which escape embrace.

Throughout this section we are introduced to the capacity to move beyond the immediate, to notice the otherness in the everyday, dip hands into flour that extends our boundaries ‘Farina Manitoba’. But this is not a daytime television of a cookery programme; there is a ‘bellicosity’ at times, worked through in the disentangling of linguine ‘Special Carbonara’, and a hinted at aggression: knives that pierce, the dissection of the blender ‘Smoothie’, a mashing and a beating.

It is perhaps not surprising that Scarano D’Antonio is a Margaret Atwood scholar, and her reference to The Edible Woman, in ‘Only a Cake’, is playful, sensual, and full of the cathartic pleasures of beating and whisking. In the simmering and melting, which is offered at times as a balm, there is also the potential to come undone, the vulnerability of dissolving, of losing one’s self, of a bigger hand calling the shots ‘Ants’, alongside the robustness and capacities to survive and be given a fighting chance with a glass of water ‘Parsley’.

The death of a father is another negotiation, and wonderfully done by a number of poets – I’m thinking of Jane Clarke’s When the Tree Falls. But here Scarano D’Antonio reminds us that each death is a separate death, a unique ending that somehow has to be faced and digested, of the painful realities of what is exposed in families once death creates a new space. These are sparse poems that don’t shy away from the messy business of dying, nor the ambivalence, or shame in relationships that death forces us to confront or avoid. Scarano D’Antonio’s imagery of her father, ‘A wounded hawk/ clutching his branch’, is quietly, yet brutally contrasted with the mother, ‘on her unsteady knees/forgetting all the past beatings and shame’, ‘Your Illness’; the culinary beatings of earlier poems now come to mind to find new resonances here.

In Touch, the final section, gives an assemblage of pieces, shedding light on family history, heritage, moving across a century, and given form in ‘Grandad Ciccio and Grandma Orsola’, a specular poem, which offers a sense of beginnings and endings that are infinite, whilst they are captured in a photographic moment. And we are back to choices again: the child’s capacity to smash or to save, ‘Snake eggs,’ choices to stay or leave wonderfully located in time and place, and filling in some detail to earlier accounts of parental relationships, ’Volcano’.

These later poems bring mother/child relationships to the fore. ‘Janet’ beautifully conveys a mother’s attempts to keep her child safe and close to home, while the limitations and possibilities of social media seem to provide a ‘good enough’ parenting (to quote the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott), that we can sustain connection, imperfect though that might be and though the shapes and forms of that are multiple.

This is a lovely collection, written both ‘precisely and casually’, ‘Smoothie’. Some of the language is startling in its directness:

you camouflaged the fennels in thick white sauce and parmigiano
served it on cold chopping boards,
it was frightful.
Cooking betrayal

and
her face is a riot
What the world throws at me

and it is this poem, which perhaps is the most difficult to know, yet is somehow the most telling. That life makes its marks on us, ravages, can’t somehow be resolved, yet continues with unknown possibilities in the movement and spaces of its final two poems.

The simple and direct style of this collection belies its strong emotional impact. It merits reading and returning to. I am left with a sense that this is a collection about identity, of identity that endures and carries with us, what it is like to connect and sustain relationships at proximity and distance, what we want to preserve, and what we might prefer to leave behind.

Karen Izod works as an academic in the NHS and as an independent consultant to organisations. She has published widely in magazines, journals and anthologies including Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, Channel, The High Window, New Welsh Review, the Journal of the British Psychoanalytic Council, and in a number of competition anthologies: Dempsey&Windle, The Stanley Spencer Competition Anthology (Two Rivers Press) and Best of British (Paper Swans Press).

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*****

Derek Adams’s Exposure: Snapshots from the Life of Lee Miller reviewed by Carla Scarano    

Exposure: Snapshots from the Life of Lee Miller  by   Derek Adams. £8.00. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN 9781907435942

The astonishing life of Lee Miller is cleverly depicted in Derek Adams’s collection. She was a remarkable woman: a model, photographer, libertine and actress who lived in the thriving artistic Parisian hub in the 1920s, a war photographer for Vogue and eventually an alcoholic. Her complex figure became an icon and an inspiration for artists, lovers and writers. She had an incredible capacity for rebirth, transformation and adaptation and was constantly pursuing personal fulfilment and success.

She was strong and determined but also vulnerable because of the childhood traumas she experienced. When she was only seven, she was sexually abused by a sailor, who infected her with gonorrhoea. Her beauty was renowned; she was slim and elegant with golden hair and sky-blue eyes and her face was a perfect oval; she was an ideal icon for Vogue, for which she worked as a model and war correspondent. Her love life was a rollercoaster ride in the Parisian avant-garde environment. She was the muse and lover of Man Ray and then married Aziz Eloni Bey in 1934, an Egyptian business man, and lived in Cairo for a while. Back in Paris, she fell in love with the English surrealist Roland Penrose and moved to Farley Farm in Sussex in 1949, where she lived until her death in 1977.

The poems in the collection follow a chronological order, exploring important moments of Lee Miller’s life. They are snapshots of her career and are precise and essential, with a modernist quality like that of Miller’s photographs. Since she was a child, her father, an amateur photographer, had suggested that she posed naked in the photos he took. She was an ideal model with her neat profile, perfect body and disengaged attitude. She was therefore the object of the male gaze, which saw in her the perfection of the idealised woman:

Keep still Li-Li
and do not smile.’
I do not smile.

I think about going indoors,
Putting all my clothes back on,
the hot chocolate Papa has promised.

He inserts a glass plate in the camera.
Uncovers, counts two, then covers the lens,
says, ‘I will call this one December Morn.

(‘December Morn’)

He places my arms behind me to emphasise
my torso, positions me so the window light
shapes and caresses my form.

The camera’s two lenses stare at me.
I look away and down, not from modesty.
‘That’s good, Betty, hold that pose.’

(‘Aesthetic’)

As John Berger remarks in Ways of Seeing, women are constantly observed and controlled by the male gaze. Miller is surveyed and consequently she ‘must continually watch herself’ in order to comply with the image of woman that society offers her. How she appears to men is crucial to her success in life. Consequently, her self is split in two. According to Berger, ‘she is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself’, that is, the image that society persuades her to have. Man is her principal surveyor but she eventually interiorises this, becoming a visual object for man and for herself. During the course of her career, Miller transformed herself from being the passive object of the male gaze to being an active artist through her skilful use of the camera.

Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by the photographs, documents and journals of her son, Antony Penrose, which were found in the attic at Farley Farm. He promoted her work, publishing books on his mother’s life, art and career and creating the Lee Miller Archives. The poems reconstruct Miller’s figure, evoking her adventures and artistic career; at the same time, they deconstruct the myth that surrounds her, showing her vulnerable human side. She was part of the avant-garde surrealist movement of the 1920s and 1930s in Paris, and met artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, Paul Elouard and the film director Jean Cocteau, who was mesmerised by her beauty and charm. She became Man Ray’s student, muse and lover, working in his shadow but also learning from him:

I chase after him all over Paris.
At last, in the bar Bateau Ivre, I spot his beret.
‘My name is Lee Miller and I am your new student.’

So it is settled, artist and muse –
master and student, in art and in love.
‘My name is Lee and I am your mistress.’

(‘Meeting Man Ray’)

As in all her relationships, she was not always subjected to her male partner’s dominance and decisions. She also managed to reverse the roles, or at least to maintain her autonomy. In this way, she acquired power via her independent, disengaged attitude that allowed her to mould her own life according to her desires and goals. Furthermore, she was a brilliant photographer. She was not only inspired by surrealism in her work but she also discovered with Man Ray a new technique: solarisation, that is, a reversal effect when the film is overexposed. This creates a halo around figures, highlighting the contours:

And it happens sometimes,
that illuminating moment,
like a flashbulb popping

a shape held within
its contrasting bounding line,
Integritas, Consonantia, and Claritas.

(‘Sabatier Effect’)

A thrown switch
and colloidal silver,
struck by light, blackens,

reversing the negative’s
transparent background –
an accident

Man Ray seizes the idea,
poses Lee against
a plain background;

exposes her profile
and re-exposes
in the darkroom tray.

The result, a Mackie line
borders her pensive
features and Marcelled hair,

isolating her
within a
personal darkness.

(‘Solarisation’)

Adams beautifully describes this new technique in his poems, connecting it to Miller’s personality. She was always overexposed in her life – she was the object of other people’s gaze and, at the same time, she was ‘isolated’ in her uniqueness, which the poet describes in a compelling image: ‘personal darkness’. Therefore, her frailty is drawn from her unconscious depths of her personality. This is also the source of her creativity, her vital transformations and her success.

In 1932 she opens her own photography studio in New York. Miller is now an artist; she has reversed the male gaze and is the protagonist of her own life:

Twelve exposures on a roll –
trap the pure moment
then wind on to the next.

(‘Rolleiflex’)

Exploding hand,
scratches
in glass.

Lines drawn
by rings
of years past.

(‘Exploding Hand’)

The poems depict in essential lines and sharp imageries Miller’s creative process and show her brilliant intelligence. She was a quick learner who thrived in response to her life experiences and the contacts she forged with the artistic Parisian world. ‘Exploding Hand’ in particular reveals the quality of her art that connects with a traumatic past but also ‘explodes’ in a present full of promises in a continuous renewal. The short, fragmented lines highlight this attitude. The process is sudden and implies suffering and change. As Susan Sontag remarks in her seminal book On Photography, photographs are evidence and a means of surveillance but there is also ‘an aggression implicit in every use of the camera’, which is ‘a tool of power’. Miller is on both sides of the lens. She is the war correspondent for Vogue and takes pictures of the Liberation of Paris and of the concentration camps in Dachau and Buchenwald; however, she is also the subject of many iconic photographs, such as the one in which she is wearing a helmet and looks ‘like/a knight of Charlemagne/on a quest’ or the famous ‘Dave Scherman’s photo,/naked in Hitler’s bath tub’ (‘Lee in War’). She remains the object of the voyeurism implicit in the use of the camera but she masters it too.

The final part of her life, which she spent at Farley Farm with her second husband, Roland Penrose, was characterised by ups and downs and an addiction to alcohol. She was forgotten, isolated and left outside the artistic hub that had so dynamically distinguished her pre-war years in such an exciting way:

Whisky gold as my hair.
Wine, red as my lips.
Pain eased with every sip.

Behind champagne-glass breasts
my Dionysian heart is sick,
its pain eased with every sip.

(‘Alternative Medicine’)

The collection ends with a nostalgic reflection on her past which becomes her present, with the Long Man appearing ‘chalked and ancient/on the Sussex hillside’:

A giant figure overlooking my life,
it seems he has been there forever,
dominating from a distance,

hidden in the mist,
appearing and disappearing
with the season.

(‘The Long Man’)

The Long Man is a god-like figure that is present in her life but is more of a surveyor than a source of guidance. Ultimately, this remarkable woman made her own life, creating her legend in a continuous evolution. She constantly reinvented herself, morphing her being in a relentless and restless attempt to attain fulfilment. As readers, we wonder whether this goal was realistic while at the same time cannot help but admire her incredible achievements and exciting, adventurous life.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. Her most recent publication is the chapbook, Negotiating Caponata (Dempsey and Windle, 2020). http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/

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*****

John Wheway’s A Bluebottle in Late October reviewed by Alison Woodhouse

 A Bluebottle in Late October by John Wheway. £10.99. V. Press. 978-1916109605

John Wheway’s brilliant debut collection, A Blue Bottle in Late October, is ambitious; a mini saga with a compelling narrative arc, told through a series of short, self contained lyrics grouped into three ‘acts’, with plenty of drama and action and memorable characters. An ordinary, everyday tragedy, made extraordinary by the telling of it. Nothing in this collection is ever one thing entirely. Consider the title. Late October reminds us we are in the autumn of life and what does a bluebottle do, except bash against a closed window? Is this how the narrator sees himself? Trapped? Futile? Pitiful? There’s a playfulness at work here, an almost gleeful, derogatory self-awareness alongside the ‘epic’ tragedy of broken hearts and glass, yet there is also an unflinching exploration of mind-blowing rage, perverse sexual jealousy and utter despair. The narrator eviscerates his own life, switches in seconds between self-knowledge (self-disgust) and self-preservation. The tale unfolds in the present tense, his narrating I, and weaves in his memories, further skewing the picture. The tension between who controls the narrative and the question of ‘truth’ engages the reader much more deeply than simply putting together the pieces of a story and Wheway does a magnificent job of maintaining the necessary ambiguity. I was constantly challenged to reinterpret, a very satisfying reading pleasure.

The first section, ‘The Skids’, opens with the ironically titled, ‘A Minor Crisis’ and a string of energetic verbs, ‘crash’, ‘leap’, ‘swerve’, as the narrator wakes to hear pottery breaking (household objects breaking runs metaphorically throughout the collection), their loving cups. By the end he is futilely ‘punching typos’, trying to text his wife to come home. ‘The Start’ is the third poem, ironic again, because who can ever truthfully fix the starting point of anything?

At breakfast that Monday she says
She slept with somebody

and she believes she is in love.

The time specificity of the word ‘that’ burns deeply, but the enjambment and sceptical ‘believes’ implies a tentative hope. This section ends:

It will take him years to realise
he’s never seen her so upset.

The change in tense is like a deep breath, a moment of clarity, borrowed from the future. He will be capable of recognising her pain, as well as his own, one day far hence.
In ‘Cartesian Dive’ (the title draws on the Cartesian diver experiment on buoyancy, specifically the image of figures rising and sinking, pressured by forces beyond their control) his wife still ‘washes his shirts’ and he is able, in odd moments, to ‘feel at home’.

However, though ‘they’re still afloat … it isn’t calm – ‘
he can feel the compression
before the sinking down.

There is, of course, a sense of helplessness in this image, of being caught in the turbulence, but at the same time he must abandon himself to the process, letting go of the natural inclination to fight against it. What choice is there? A companion poem ‘Laundry’, which opens section two, sees the narrator performing the domestic tasks alone. There’s almost triumph in his noting that he has found a better method:

the seams straight to count out ironing –
something she didn’t think of.

Yet he is soon overwhelmed by memories, ‘such a tangle, he could lose himself.’
The palpable sense of time passing is further supported by the eight poems concerning the narrator’s mother, a vigorous character when we first meet her in ‘Female Nude’, who loses her mind to dementia. In ‘Disappeared’ we learn:

Since it started, his mother’s gone
From bustling her trolley down the Gloucester Road

To inching forward in the corridor
On a Zimmer, …

Her descent mirrors his. In ‘Silent Night’, he questions his mother’s sanity as she claims she is hearing noises from next door that don’t exist. This is followed by ‘Jealousy’, a harrowing dive into the subconscious, where the narrator ‘sees’ a naked man curled around his sleeping wife.

The mother serves another important function. Several of the poems dip into childhood memories and these are suffused with a sexual embarrassment. In ‘Female Nude’ his mother decries ‘Filthy sex’, and in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ the narrator as a boy, rummages in his mother’s purse with its,

… big mouth with brass lips,

its satin folds shadowed with cavities,
valuables deep in a belly

and when he hears her coming he pulls out his fingers just in time,

trying to slow his breathing, to show
the look of innocence she needed.

This memory surfaces immediately after his wife has told him of her affair. In ‘Making Up’ he watches his wife dress for another man and sees ‘his mother in her,’ remembering the ‘eagerness in her pace’ as she left to meet the Polish captain who ‘was not his father’s friend’. The narrator has a life long fear of abandonment and associates love and sex with loss (both of innocence and love itself).

The poems in the latter part of the second section mark a change of tone. Less frenetic and more reflective (less bluebottle window bashing). ‘On Reading Donald Hall’s Without’ the narrator understands how a dead wife would leave an unbearable void. ‘What is Lost’ is a gentle paean to the nurturing intimacy of love, too often taken for granted. A list of seemingly unremarkable moments, such as: ‘Her pointing out the stars / As an owl flits over the moon’ ends with ‘His getting ahead of her on a walk, her dropping behind until she is out of sight’. This is picked up in the final poem. In ‘Steady’ they’re ‘almost at the end of their walk:

When he looks over his shoulder,
his wife’s still there, behind him

at a distance that remains
constant, more or less.

This collection has the heart and narrative scope of a novella, elevated into something special by the poet’s eye. Just open at random and enjoy, for instance, Provence on a hot afternoon, the walls and curtains ‘cerise, sea green, peach’, that harmonious combination of syllables and colour, or the stark imagery of his wife losing control on black ice and the ‘sheering off (of her) wing mirror, which twists on a wire as if hanged’, or the very particular way her ‘absence scoops out the space beside him’ when he is waiting at a café. Yet also, like the very best of stories, this one lives on. We want to know they’ll be okay; we think they will. We’re invested. We care.

Alison Woodhouse is a teacher and writer of flash fiction and short stories. She has won and been placed in many competitions and her work is widely published, both in print and online. She is part of the team who run the Bath Short Story Award and has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa. Her debut Novella in Flash is available from AdHoc Fiction.

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*****

Liz Bahs’s Stay Bones reviewed by  Alex Josephy

Stay Bones by Liz Bahs. £10. Pindrop Press. ISBN: 978-9993559-5-1    

Liz Bahs’ debut collection starts with a haunting:

There’s a girl living
xx beneath the floorboardsxxx I only catch
glimpses of –

This girl, who could be the poet herself, or perhaps a visitation from the past, lays an enticing trail:

xxxxx leaving my skin
salted from her kiss
xxxxxxx new and sharp within me as stars

The promise held out in these delicately sensual lines is fulfilled in poems that range widely from childhood to maturity, from America to the UK, through friendships, love (both of women and men), family, travel, adventure, and, it must be mentioned, pedicures. Motifs, themes and an understated timeline interact to shape the collection and leave plenty of space for surprises.

Some of the most striking poems explore versions of intimacy. In ‘The Thinking Chairs’, two sisters are drawn together for punishment in chairs ‘facing each other, knees touching’. They subvert this treatment, escaping joyfully into imagination:

…that afternoon, our two chairs

a wooden ship, tied with socks to secure us,
like pilgrims we sailed to The New World.
We fell asleep at sea, the sun low

behind the grapefruit trees, small bare legs
entwined, stuffed toys clutched
to our unrepenting chests.

Further on, a short sequence explores a passionate relationship with a woman, and later a parting. I especially liked ‘Dried Mango’, in which the poet and her new or about-to-be lover eat the dried fruit while driving (dangerously I suppose – which is of course part of the point!). The shapes and lusciousness of the fruit are deftly entwined with queer desire and the naming of it:

She takes each strip out
xxxxxx holds it up to the sun
names the shapes

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxone by one
like the first naming of things
xxxxxx – foetusxxxxlabiaxxxseaweed –

It’s a lovely, tender poem, achieved with an admirable lightness of tone.

In ‘Moving In’, she finds layers of meaning in the process of moving house:

Each day we unwrap more stories,
shifting boxes; slowly she tumbles my heart
out of its bubble wrap,
hands me back joy, startling
as a new skin.

There’s so much in these spare lines. Unwrapping is balanced against wrapping (in a new skin); stories emerge from the rediscovery of personal things in a new place; everything shifts. And once read, how could the unexpected word ‘tumbles’ possibly be replaced?

Another unifying thread is photography. Interspersed throughout, there are poems linked to photographic terms – ‘motion blur’, ‘polaroid’, ‘slow shutter’, etc. I confess to taking a nerdish delight in these per se; they also add a distancing effect, an implied comment on ‘ways of seeing’ (as in John Berger’s seminal book). These are not standard ekphrastic poems, in which a still photograph is examined, described, then mined for emotion or connotation or developed as a story; more interestingly, Bahs finds fresh ways of looking at life, in all its constant motion, through the lens of photographic language. This seems to tilt the lines slightly, so that for instance in ‘Engaged,1973 [shutter lag]’, an image is partially lost (‘my shutter’s too slow’), giving the impression of a shifting swirl of memory.

The prose poem ‘Her Skirt’, linked to the term ‘image transfer’ is another example. A grandmother’s skirt tells the story of her youthful hopes and their eventual suppression:

…it was the only thing…she made just for herself, made at fifteen, before she knew she’d have to marry the Smith boy she’d camped out with. The one whose soft voice and tight rage wouldn’t allow her to wear a skirt that bright, that thick with flowers, a skirt she’d stayed up all night stitching with fine green thread.

The granddaughter wears the skirt ‘through college’, caught up in its colourful invitation to rebel, enjoying the ‘image transfer’ across generations, then gives it away, poignantly enacting the careless way in which we so often lose touch with our own histories:

I don’t know how in the world I let it go.

Bahs adapts and uses form with impressive ease. There are several prose poems (one of these, ‘Mowing’, could be a new take on Lydia Davis ‘A Mown Lawn’); a found poem; a clever, surreal specular; an airy sequence of short pieces about a love affair with an okapi (is it really an okapi?) Throughout the book, there’s a tone of underlying optimism. Bahs does not avoid what’s difficult, but is inclined to focus on what’s interesting or amusing in human behaviour.

Among the many delights to be found in the book, I must mention one more.

On first reading, I thought the title poem, ‘Stay Bones’, stood out from the rest as less personally derived, more of a researched piece. Having reread the whole collection, though, I see how it sheds further light on the often ambivalent nature of women’s experience, and how characteristic it is of Bahs’ elegant use of language.

‘Stay Bones’ refers to the busks used to make nineteenth century women’s corsets (‘stays’). Whale bones or baleen were carved with images and messages, then sent by sailors to their sweethearts to incorporate into their stays. They acted as reminders of commitment, pleas for fidelity, intended to be placed close to a woman’s skin. Bahs uses repetition and wordplay to hypnotic effect; the stay bones are both a reward:

the finest bones
if you stay, if you wait

and a goad:

Feel the bite of bone, carved
with thorn and rose.

It’s a mesmerising poem, sharply imagined, both beautiful and threatening, ending on a sensual promise:

Watch as the flowers appear, see

the sea rising; ships slide into view as we free
the bindings, the spine’s curve, bone by bone.

This first collection has left me hoping that the next will appear before too long, with the added attraction of not quite knowing where it will lead.

Alex Josephy lives in London and Italy. Her collection, Naked Since Faversham, was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016, and White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu

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*****

Chapbook

Dawn Gorman’s Instead, Let Us Say reviewed  by Ruth Sharman       

Instead, Let Us Say  by Dawn Gorman. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435904

I have read and re-read my copy of Instead, Let Us Say to the point where the pages are falling apart and the pamphlet needs replacing. These are haunting poems written with seeming effortlessness, the lightest of touches, dancing off the page. This is the language, these are the idioms, of everyday life but manipulated to produce phrases, lines and images that stop us in our tracks, surprising, thought-provoking and often luminously beautiful.

There is so much that Gorman is “good” at. She’s good at writing about relationships – with lovers, in particular, although there are moving poems about her daughter here too. She’s good at observing, and extracting the full emotional impact from, tiny poignant scenes – a man and child walking by the shore, the final moments of a hare… She empathises with the plight of suffering creatures and engages with our threatened planet, hearing the “silence howl”. She uses prompts from the world of art and – as in all powerful ekphrasis – takes us to places where we never expected to go, a piece of sculpture evoking the memory of her child, all elbows and knees, butting up against her in the womb …

Many of these poems are characterised by a quiet, easy familiarity with the natural world. Boundaries blur between the human and natural so that in “Confidante”, for example, the poet finds herself asking advice from a hill. The opening line – “I asked the hill what she thought about this” – is intriguing, the “this” never spelled out, although by the final two lines of the poem we have a pretty good idea, a sense that “this” has to do in some way with “damsel flies mating”.

Sensuality marks the point of intersection between the two worlds, as we see perhaps most clearly in the remarkable poem “Old Baptist Graveyard, Mid-May” – one that ought, if there were space, to be quoted in full. The natural scene mirrors a moment of human intimacy: gates moan when touched, the “speedwell’s blue eyes” watch “the way skin meets skin”, the blackbird releases “the ache / in his throat”, while the very headstones lie back and mouth words that reflect the physical and emotional transactions occurring at the poem’s heart. There is something here of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the energy that invests his poems – think of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, the sense of all life as noisy and expressive, giving voice to itself in the only way it knows how – while Gorman’s startling final line (another thing she is good at) reads like an epiphany: the ecstasy of “a shout and a shout of blue” belongs to the sky but to the earth and to these two human beings too.

Gorman’s poems themselves are “loud with life”, her language muscular, strong and lean. “This is the blood of me”, she writes, daughter of a mineworker looking back at her roots in “Clout”. “This is the blood of me / men squinting at sunshine / through dust dark as moleskin…”, the word “moleskin” suggesting not just the colour but also the texture of that darkness, the air smothering, unbreathable. Her poems capture the urgency of the moment, life at its most elemental, unstoppable, the “feral drive” to live and love, but set against what she describes in “Memorial Spoon, 1664” – an eerily prophetic poem about plague victims – as “that swift scything to nothing”.

In “If we are all one”, we read

When that dunnock on the fence post
stops and looks straight at you,
can you imagine how the thinnest of wafers
could possibly slide between you?

This is how close we are to the world around us. But it’s also how close life is to death. “Portrait in the Museum” captures a sense of this wonderfully well. Gorman conjures up a life, a few imaginary details, for this unknown woman whose story, even as she poses for her portrait, “is unravelling / like a ball of fine thread”; but, as the poet turns to leave, her own reflection in the glass seems more ghostly than the image of the dead woman herself, “a passing shape, / nothing more than that”.

Death stalks these poems and Gorman’s ability to unsettle her readers in subtle ways is testament to how skilfully she works behind the scenes, despite the apparent effortlessness of the writing. “On Hearing Alice Oswald Read Memorial” is a poem unafraid to focus on mundane, everyday details – the McDonald’s vouchers “ripped from papers on the Tube” and the topping up of an Oyster card – and place the lofty and the mundane side by side so that each gains potency from the other. This poem, like so many others, demonstrates the poet’s instinct for finding just the right word: “startling homes for the tip of an arrow” offers a disturbing association, the only comfort here afforded for the cold metal of the arrowhead, while the transition from “cold metal between teeth” to “on the poet’s tongue” cleverly brings together the physical and the abstract, the action of speaking and the reality of dying.

The ending of a relationship, and with it the fading of joy, is in a sense another kind of death, and in “Compulsion” the poet links the irresistible pull of sexual attraction (and here its inevitable aftermath) to the strange and inexplicable urge of beetles to cross a road, “swap these nettles for those”, oblivious to the oncoming car. The glittering optimism of the woman who has replaced her in her lover’s bed finds its parallel in the “hopeful iridescence” of the beetle – where human emotion has been subtly transferred to the animal world – and, once again, love and life on the one hand, death on the other, are separated by the “thinnest of wafers”.

There are 25 poems in this pamphlet, every one of them meriting discussion – great riches in a relatively small space. Having read and repeatedly re-read them, I find myself wanting more and look forward with pleasure to seeing a full-length collection from Dawn Gorman.

Ruth Sharman was born in South India and moved to England when she was six. She read Modern Languages at Cambridge and now lives in Bath, where she works as a freelance translator specialising in French. Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador. Scarlet Tiger won Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016 and Templar is due to publish a third collection focusing on India and the poet’s search for her roots.

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*****

TRANSLATIONS

Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini  reviewed by Carla Scarano

Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini translated by Susan Stewart. £12. Princeton University Press. 978-0691171265

An excellent selection of poems by the well-known Italian poet Alda Merini (1931–2009) is featured in Love Lessons, translated by Susan Stewart. The title of the collection was suggested by Merini herself, who viewed the translations before publication. Stewart’s work is a good example of what Umberto Eco calls the negotiation of translation, that is, an experience of translation that cannot say exactly the same thing in another language but needs to negotiate with the meaning and say almost the same thing. Translation is a form of interpretation that should respect the intention of the original text, according to Eco. Stewart is faithful to Merini’s work and respectful of her poems, sometimes in an almost literal way. Her translations can be read line by line immediately in front of the original and clearly convey the meaning and intention of the source in a positive negotiation that is, at the same time, fresh and poetic in the target language.

The collection can be read in two separate sequences, that is, in the original Italian first (for those who know the language) and then the English translation. In this way, the reader can appreciate the musicality of both versions and can especially appreciate the translations that efficiently express the poet’s prosody and imageries. In addition, Stewart’s introduction explains Merini’s poetics, her personality and the adventures and misadventures of her life very well, and it also discusses the environment and the cultural context in which she lived. Was she a ‘madwoman’ or did she only suffer from depression? Was she unjustly hospitalised for about ten years in mental hospitals? That was a time in Italy when electroshock treatment, physical restraint and heavy sedation were common therapies. Merini was also sterilised when she was thirty-nine after having had four daughters. It goes without saying that the abuse she underwent in the mental health hospital and the suffering associated with mental illness resonate in all of her poetry in different forms and voices and are reflected clearly in the selection of poems for the collection.

Merini started to write poetry when she was a child and was part of cultural circles from when she was a teenager. She was in contact with poets such as Giorgi Manganelli, Salvatore Quasimodo and Pier Paolo Pasolini. They appreciated her work and published her poems in anthologies. Her first collection, La presenza di Orfeo, was published in 1953, the year she married Ettore Carniti, a bakery owner. Various critics see the influence of Campana and Rilke in her poetry, which was considered unusually complex in terms of its language and its visionary imageries for such a young poet. Other collections followed: Nozze Romane (Roman Wedding), in 1955, and Tu sei Pietro (You are Peter), in 1961. There was a silence during the period she spent in the mental health institution. In the 1980s, the poetry came back, which was a solace after the terrible years she spent in the institution: La terra Santa (The Holy Land), from 1984, which won the Montale Prize, was about her hospital experience; there were poems about her love for and marriage to the poet Michele Pierri after the death of her first husband; and several other books and poetry collections, such as L’altra verità: Diario di una diversa (The Other Truth: Diary of a Misfit), in 1994, Delirio amoroso (A Rage of Love), in 1989, Sogno e Poesia (Dream and Poetry), in 1994, Vuoto d’amore (Emptiness of Love), in 1991 and Superba è la notte(Magnificent is the Night), in 2000. She was twice nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 2005 she published her last works: Uomini miei (My Men) and Sono nata il ventuno a primavera (I was Born on the Twenty-first in Springtime). It is a prolific production that testifies to the centrality of poetry in her life in a process of growing awareness as a writer and as a woman. Her work reflects her life and is mainly centred on the topics of memories and love; the mutlifaceted aspects of the latter are explored and encompass sensual love as well mystic, abstract and symbolic kinds of love, and friendship too. Stewart’s collection of translations spans Merini’s poetic career with a really good selection of poems that brilliantly describe the poet’s development and highlight the characteristics of the texts.

From her early works onwards, Merini employed language, forms and imageries innovatively, using distinctive techniques that make her poetry compelling and original:

I won’t prepare you by revealing myself to you
in a bound-about closeness,
but just in case your hand, in touching me,
might hold a memory of omens,
I’ll lie down, fused
with what is formless, melted within the darkness,
as far as I can, secreted and alive,
becoming chaos again …

Orpheus, new friend of absence,
out of your lyre you’ll tune once more
my dawning figure.
At the threshold, you’ll be gentle, divining
silence’s absolute mystery,
unaware of my limits from so long ago,
you’ll leap for joy, holding the lonely essence.

(‘The Presence of Orpheus’)

The myth of Orpheus is a recurring trope in Merini’s poetry; she adopts it as the symbol of the poet that she may identify with but above all as an example of the betrayal experienced through the male gaze. This is also connected with the experience of the apostle Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Therefore, love implies betrayal, which, in Peter’s case, is re-experienced as redemption, while in Orpheus’s case it is the total loss of the loved one. Both experiences are present in Merini’s poetry, and her thirst for a form of total love seems insatiable. It is proposed as a combination of joy and pain, spirituality and eroticism; it is often unrequited, as in her early love affairs with Manganelli and Quasimodo, and is always emotionally and physically involving:

Yes, this will be our house,
today I’m here to see it;
but you, lusty man, who are you?
I take your measure: an eternal formula.
You take on an inexorable look.

You will dig me down to my roots
(not to search for me, not to help me)
you will strip away everything hidden
through the savagery of your crazy habits.

(‘Roman Wedding’)

And it would be even easier for me
to come down to you by the darkest stairs,
that one out of the desire that assaults me
like a barren wolf in the night.

As for my crying over you, I bleached it away slowly
day by day as full light does
and in silence I sent it back to my eyes,
which, if I look at you, are alive with stars.

(‘And It Would Be Even Easier’)

The poems that are directly inspired by the period spent in the mental health hospital express the dark side of the experience in sometimes brutal images, such as in ‘The Moon Unveils Itself in the Madhouse Gardens’:

The moon unveils itself in the madhouse gardens,
some patients sigh,
a hand in the nude pocket.
The moon demands torments
and exacts blood of the inmates
I have seen a patient
dying from shed blood
beneath the shining moon.

The translation reflects the original form and the perfect choice of words convey the context of the poem and respect its message. This negotiation with the original is not always so smooth; in some of the poems translated by Stewart it is more difficult to adhere to the source. This happens, for example, when Merini’s syntax reverses the position of the subject and the verb, which cannot occur in English, or when the translator needs to interpret words that are untranslatable in the target language. For example, ‘vento di fuoco’ is translated as ‘fiery wind’, ‘dove adagio si stendono le suore’ is ‘where, slowly, the nuns lie down for their nap’, and ‘e oggi avanzi in cielo come donna superba’ becomes ‘and today you ascend to the stars like a movie star’. These are not literal translations but the translator’s choices that imply an interpretation that is always a negotiation, a win-win situation in which one part gives up something but obtains something else. As Eco claims, the important thing in translations is to respect the context in a satisfactory economy of loss and compensation. Stewart’s translations apply Eco’s idea successfully and with satisfactory results that provide an enriching reading. This reflects her accurate knowledge of Merini’s work and conveys a competent experience of her poetry.

Later in her life, Merini became a celebrity of sorts, not only appearing on TV programmes about poetry but also participating in debates on current events and singing in shows. She even posed naked for the Italian magazine Panorama. The myth of the ‘madwoman’ attracted an audience and was apparently reflected in her chaotic everyday life, her obliviousness to practical matters, such as money management, and the untidiness of her house. Nevertheless, her poetry became more and more aware of the human condition and more accurate in its descriptions of it. The human condition is centred on the body and, at the same time, is universal, aspiring to wider perspectives that go beyond the physical. Her sense of freedom is expressed in both tones and grammar where the so-called ‘scorrettezze’ (grammar improprieties) break the barriers of language and of common sense and disclose her powerful poetry.

Christianity and paganism, which is linked to classical myths, mingle in this view in a balance that is encompassing and ironically describes the hybrid condition of humanity. Poetry is therefore the poet’s way of exploring life; it is the door to redemption after the unsettling experience of mental illness, where intimate pain is rooted in the flesh, as she states in her self-portrait, ‘Alda Merini’:

I tenderly loved some very sweet lovers
without them knowing anything about it.
And I wove spiderwebs from this
and I always fell prey to my own creation.
In me there was the soul of the prostitute
of the saint of the one who lusts for blood and of the
hypocrite.
Many people gave a label to my way of life
and all that while I was only an hysteric.

It is an ambiguous self-portrait that expresses her multifaceted personality and the construction of identity that is shifting and incomplete. In ‘As for me, I used to be a bird’, the poet is described as an albatross, which is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s famous image, who ‘whirled over the seas’ but ‘someone cut my throat/just for laughs,/I don’t know.’ The poet speaks the truth and is misunderstood, as she states in the following aphorisms:

The poet
who sees everything
is accused of freedom
of thought.

I enjoy sin as if it were
the beginning of well-being.

I am in love because
my body
is always
in evolution.

Thus, in Merini’s poetry, spirituality implies eroticism, love is linked to betrayal, joy can be painful and irony can end in dreamlike imageries. It is an ‘unbearable chiaroscuro/shifting concept of every day’ that starts from the ordinary and expands to the eternal. Susan Stewart’s selection appropriately defines this multilayered quality of Merini’s work in accurate translations that cleverly convey the intention of the texts and engage the reader in Merini’s poetical world.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. Her most recent publication is the chapbook, Negotiating Caponata (Dempsey and Windle, 2020). http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/

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*****

 

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