John Glenday: Selected Poem • Clive James: The Fire of Joy • Vicki Feaver: I Want! I Want! • John Montague: Selected Poems • Matthew Sweeney: Shadow of the Owl • Kerry Hardie: Where Now Begins • Gerald Dawe: The Last Peacock • Christine McNeill: Sehnsucht • Nadine Brummer: Whatever it is that Chimes, New and Selected Poems • Penny Sharman: Fair Ground • Mary Rose Boehm: The Rain Girl • Mike Di Placido: Alpha • Noel Duffy: Street Light Amber • Melissa Diem: This is What Happened • Derek Coyle: Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee, Carlow • Louisa Adjoa Parker: How to Wear a Skin • Kitty Donnelly: The Impact of Limited Time
Rosie Jackson and Dawn Gorman: Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird • Claire Booker: The Bone that Sang • Carrie Etter: The Shooting Gallery • Helen Calcutt : Somehow • Shazea Quriashi : The Taxidermist • Louise Fazackerley: The Uniform Factory • Lyn Thornton: The Tyring House • Margot Myers: I Meant to Say • Catherine Faulds: decoding the dark
The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones • Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems by Makoto Ōoka translated by Janine Beichman • Manuel Vilas: Heaven translated by James Womack
Colin Pink • D.A. Prince • John Wheway • Paul McDonald • Mike Farren • Colin Pink • Kathleen McPhilemy • Wendy Holborow • Christine Tipper • Carla Scarano • Rowena Somerville • Pam Thompson • Emma Lee • Calvin Wharton • Neil Leadbeater • Ian Royce Chamberlain • Alan Price • John Rogers • Ken Evans • Edmund Prestwich • Terence Dooley
John Glenday’s Selected Poems reviewed by Colin Pink
Selected Poems by John Glenday. £14.99 Picador ISBN 978-1-5290-3771-5
John Glenday is an outstanding contemporary poet whose work repays reading and re-reading. His first two collections, published by Peterloo Press, have long been out of print and second hand copies are increasingly hard to find at reasonable prices, so this Selected Poems is a very welcome addition to his oeuvre. The volume includes poems from his four full-length collections: The Apple Ghost; Undark; Grain; and The Golden Mean, plus poems from Mira, a limited edition pamphlet of poems inspired by the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel, and it concludes with nine uncollected poems.
There is something profoundly allusive and elusive about Glenday’s work which means that it sustains a deep fascination over repeated encounters. His work is both precise and ambiguous; there is always more to a Glenday poem than immediately meets the eye, which makes them thought provoking and haunting. His poems are often somewhat uncanny and there is a strong awareness of mortality, of time running out, as the epigraph or fore-poem to the collection states:
There’s not a moment to lose.
Speak now if you have something to say …
there’s never a moment to lose. Nothing
goes without saying. So go ahead, say it now
but not just to yourself. The great silence is coming.
The great silence/death pursues the poet, but it also, in ‘Famous Last Words’, inhabits him:
I am a column of silence, resonating where it touches
on our world;
reluctant as silk drawn from flesh, or a harp
singing in its cage of wind.
The dialectical relationship between a wary silence and an ecstatic singing often underpins Glenday’s poetic voice. The fact that it is often hard to pin down a conclusive meaning to a Glenday poem, even though each individual part has a crystalline clarity, is what makes them so intriguing and rewarding. Like all great poems, the more one reads them the more subtle nuances of meaning emerge from them. The poems often conjure a liminal presence, as in ‘Edie’s Room’: ‘Just before dawn, I was woken / by the soft hush of the dead about their work.’ It is as if there always lurks, behind everyday experience, a ghostly other presence, so that humble reality is a thin veil separating us from a much more profound world. In ‘A Day at the Seaside’ the poet observes his father fishing:
We’re out in my father’s boat and he’s fishing …
I’m watching him as he fishes, because I’ve never
seen him so focussed before – so engaged.
It’s as if the fish had hooked him. Then just
as he makes his final cast, an oystercatcher calls …
The rhetorical device of reversing the expected relationship of things, the fish hooks his father rather than the other way around, is a favourite device to be found in several of Glenday’s poems (see for instance the poem ‘Concerning Shadows’ where ‘shadows cast us’). ‘A Day at the Seaside’ slowly builds up a vivid image of father and son immersed in nature, with the slight threat of being carried out to sea by the tide, but then, the final line completely turns around the meaning of the poem, as if metaphorically tipping over the boat:
… far out across the water. Far out across
the water an oystercatcher calls
just once, and then just once again, and then its silence calls.
The hurt lies not in the cross, but in the nails.
The repetition in the description of this gentle everyday scene lulls us (much like the repetitive motion of waves) but in the last line the poem becomes, in an instant, a focus for the contemplation of suffering and pulls in a raft of Christian allusion; father, son and fishing retrospectively take on whole new layers of meaning.
This sense that there is always something more, something spiritual, that cannot quite be articulated, sitting behind that which can be articulated, is summed up neatly in the short poem ‘Epitaph’:
Father, forgive this man.
He never listened to your song
till it was all but done
then found he couldn’t sing the words
so he spoke the tune.
Glenday’s imagination is often sparked off by quirky pieces of information, which can conjure up gentle humour and surprisingly powerful effects. A good example is an, unlikely, love poem about longing and desire called ‘Tin’ inspired by the fact that the can opener was invented 48 years after the tin can; it is worth knowing that Glenday met his wife at around the age of 48. The poem begins, humorously:
When you asked me for a love poem
(another love poem) my thoughts
were immediately drawn to the early days
of the food canning industry – …
and concludes with sensual longing:
and I thought of the first tin of cling peaches
glowing on a dusty pantry shelf
like yet-to-be discovered radium –
the very first tin of cling peaches
in the world, and for half a century
my fingers reaching out to it.
Glenday’s poems often create uncanny effects, with the homely becoming unhomely, the ordinary becoming extraordinary; as in the contrast between the opening lines of ‘The Apple Ghost’:
A musty smell of dampness filled the room
Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay
On folded pages from an August newspaper.
‘My husband brought them in, you understand,
Only a week or two before he died.
He never had much truck with waste…
and the concluding lines:
I knew besides, that, had I crossed to the window
On the rug of moonlight,
I would have seen him down in the frosted garden
Trying to hang the fruit back on the tree.
Perhaps, for Glenday, memory functions as the fruit that we gather from the tree of life and cannot put back. In ‘The Empire of Lights’, an ekphrastic poem inspired by an uncanny painting by René Magritte, he says:
The past is the antithesis of burglary. Imagine…
In the House of the Past we move backwards
from room to room, forever closing doors
on ourselves, always closing doors.
In each room, we leave some of those little trinkets
we love most, that the house is stealing from us.
Because we cherish them, we abandon them…
Glenday is often inspired by works of art, as in ‘Landscape with Flying Man’, about the fall of Icarus, the image of Vitruvian Man, the Flight into Egypt, several paintings by Magritte, a Chagall painting in ‘Over Vitebsk’ or a First World War painting of soldiers relaxing and swimming in ‘The Big Push’. In his later work he has produced a number of highly effective prose poems, such as ‘The Afterlife’, ‘Promise’, ‘Exile’ which remind me somewhat of the work of the American poet Mark Strand, with their quality of being at once vividly descriptive, elusive and playfully humorous or ironic.
The collection ends on a delightful image of domestic harmony, despite the encroaching darkness of the world horizon, in ‘For My Wife, Reading in Bed’:
I know we’re living through all the dark we can afford.
Thank goodness, then, for this moment’s light…
…What else do we have but words and their absences
to bind and unfasten the knotwork of the heart;
to remind us how mutual and alone we are, how tiny
and significant? Whatever it is you are reading now
my love, read on. Our lives depend on it.
Colin Pink has published two collections of poetry: Acrobats of Sound (Poetry Salzburg, 2016) and The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament (Against the Grain, 2019).
Clive James’s The Fire of Joy reviewed by D.A. Prince
The Fire of Joy by Clive James. £20. Picador, 2020. ISBN: 978-1529042085
Clive James has borrowed a military metaphor for his title. The feu de joie is a celebratory succession of rifle shots, performed by a regiment’s riflemen. It’s a reminder, as James explains in his introduction, that a ‘regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.’ That succession of noise evokes both the linear progression of poetry in English and also that essential component of poetry: sound. James is such a fan of the sound of poetry that he even includes his own practical list: Rules on Reading Aloud.
This book is a mixture of anthology and memoir, held together by selected poems and his life-long relationship with them. Some of it was written and much of it was dictated, as James tells us, while he was undergoing treatment for a rapidly-advancing cancer; he credits his wife with the initial impulse for ‘this book as a combination of critical anthology, teaching aid, hymnal and breviary’. He could also — but doesn’t — mention his personal relish for the humour surrounding the poetry world and how addictive reading poetry becomes, especially when linked to the personal foibles of poets. I found I had to ration my reading, to make the pleasure of his companionably gossipy anecdotes last as long as possible. James died in 2019, aged 80 — hence 80 poems by which he maps his life’s indivisible connection with poetry in English.
The subtitle is ‘Roughly 80 Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud’ — ‘roughly’ because although there are eighty listed on the Contents page he manages to slip a few more in via the individual essays. All these poems are ones he has by heart. His criterion for choosing is a simple one: these poems got into his head — ‘… seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. In fact, I believe that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.’
He even finds an Italian word to cover this — gazofilacio — which means ‘a treasure chamber of the mind’. His mother read rhythmic, rhymed poems to him, while part of his early schooling required him to memorise a poem a day. That may sound insignificant but it’s a foundation — the foundation — of that despite-ness of poems, the way some stick without having to be learned by heart. That’s something I recognise, having a similar memory bank; when you have it, you take it for granted and have to work hard at staying aware that other minds might not work in the same way. During his commentary on Louis MacNeice’s ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ James recounts how he survived a painful wait for an ambulance via an interiorised recital of this poem, along with ‘Snow’. — the full text of which is slipped in as an extra. One of the more practical uses of poetry — and Keats’ Odes are my go-to poems for dental treatment. Even as I type this my mind slides away to MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’ and how it might fit in; that’s the nature of this book.
That’s how this anthology becomes an ongoing debate between James and the reader: why this poem? why this poet? With the poems arranged chronologically, in line with the development of poetry seen as poets building on the work of their predecessors, the familiarity of the early poems (say, up to the early twentieth century) is inevitable. James had studied the traditional English Literature syllabus, first at Sydney University, and then at Cambridge. Wyatt, Donne, Milton and onwards — familiar ground. In the main the poems that have stayed in his mind are the ones that live in my memory too: Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The first woman to appear in the line-up is Christina Rossetti (with “Remember’) but that’s the nature of the canon. These are the poems of memory and at this level memory is subjective.
It’s in the twentieth-century century poems, and where James has personal knowledge of (and often friendship) the poets that the debate about who?/why? gets wider. William Empson might not be an obvious choice but James’ account of ‘helping’ Empson recite a couple of his poems at a reading in the Cambridge Union after a well-fuelled dinner is a delight. And while he has convinced me to read more Empson he can’t, quite, persuade me to return to John Berryman, despite his enthusiasm for Berryman’s ‘vaudevillian magic’. Poets are summed up in passing by James’ lightness of touch — Vita Sackville-West is commended for her ‘verbal carpentry’, Ted Hughes is ‘marinated in mysticism’. Robert Lowell ‘could rise to sublimity and fall to banality within a single phrase.’ His account of U.A.Fanthorpe’s ‘Not my Best Side’ recognises her ‘sensitivity to the tones of officialese’ and he records that ‘None of the witty male poets were quite as witty as she is in catching the more pompous turns of official and critical language’. That line takes me away from this review, to read other poems by her. A lot of James’ comments have done that.
That is the true joy of this book. It’s like a conversation with a cheery and well-read friend, better-read but never stuffy, where a lot of ideas and recommendations are lightly worn, and which takes you onwards — to more reading, to more debate. It’s very good company.
D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second full-length collection, Common Ground, HappenStance, 2014) won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A pamphlet, Bookmarks, also from HappenStance, was published in 2018.
Vicki Feaver’s I Want! I Want! reviewed by John Wheway
I Want! I Want! by Vicki Feaver. £10. Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 978-1787331815
A young girl, reading a stolen copy of Blake’s poems by torchlight and seeing herself with a Blake drawing of a child with ‘one foot on a ladder/reaching to the moon,/crying ‘I want! I want!’, decides ‘to be a poet.’ Vicki Feaver’s title poem appears as an epigraph ahead of the body of this wonderful collection, as notable for its rich picture of the psychology of desire as for its high poetic achievement. The child reads by torchlight after hours, and her book is ‘stolen’ – these transgressive actions creating an intensely personal version of the family aspirations of ‘The Ladder’, the poem that opens the main collection, showing her family driven by ‘the mantra/Climb higher! Climb higher!’, with mother ‘pushing us from behind.’ As the oldest daughter, the girl,’ expected to reach the highest rungs,’ climbs until the air is ‘too thin to breathe’ and longs to be again the child who sang of all things bright and beautiful things, ‘her voice soaring//into the rafters of the school hall,’ –an image resonating with Blake’s moonstruck child.
The girl as ‘War Baby’, is a child both of the Second World War and of the war between mother and grandmother, who, ‘like battle-crazed soldiers,…each grabbed hold of an arm/and a plump little leg//and pulled’. In ‘VE Day Photo’, she is the family scapegoat, posing ‘solemn and proud/as if carrying the grief/of the whole house’. Envious of the arrival of a baby sister, she breaks ‘The Doll with the China Head’: ’jagged pieces of scalp/and splinters of nose/and cheek and lips’ lead the doll-doctor to the verdict, ’There’s nothing we can do’, thus confirming her childlike conviction of her own wickedness; yet in ‘Grandma’s Bed’, after grandma has been transported from the family’s leafy suburb to ‘a cramped bedsit’ with ‘grey nets//a stained, beer-reeking carpet,’ her tears prompt remorse, like ‘when there’s a truce in a war,’ and her ‘father took the bed/to pieces again and strapped it/back on the car roof-rack.’
What of her ambition to be a poet? In ‘Elocution,’ her voice, far from soaring, is shamed and diminished: a teacher orders her ‘to lie on the splintery floor’ and enunciate like a princess. She can only muster ‘the voice of a little frog’. Another frog, in ‘Boy with a Knife,’ is speared, and ‘flung… into a gorse bush’. The perpetrator looks down ‘at my bare toes, like a row/of tiny bald creatures/pleading for their lives.’
Adolescence, in ‘The Dove,’ her rapprochement with mother pushes mother to a cliff-edge: in ‘Because Snow Had Fallen’, her loss of virginity is both comic and casual. In a poem titled ‘1974’ she is no further towards her vocation. 1974 was the year of Ann Sexton’s suicide, and at thirty-one, our aspiring poet is ‘the same age as Plath/when she turned on the gas’. Asked what she does, she ‘lies’ that she’s a poet, ‘jolting myself to life:/a woman buried under ice/with words burning inside.’
‘Bramble Arm,’ a dream narrative that compresses her struggle towards poetic expression into 13 terse couplets, the brambles encircling ‘the arm that wields//my writing hand’, ‘could be a punishment/for unlocking the voice//I was taught as a child/to soften or silence’ or ‘a weak woman’s arm//transformed into/a fearsome weapon.’ Bandaged not for healing but ‘to hide or smother/the barbed stems’ the bramble ‘still lives: roots twined round/sinew and bone;//spiked shoots/piercing the flesh’. Spikes are replaced by spines in the myth-like ‘Hedgehog Girl’, where her mother, and later she herself, tries to shape the poet into a girl who will ‘become the woman/of a man’s desire’ using a razor, tweezers and pliers to remove spines (or perhaps the ‘spine’ of autonomy).
Ambivalence, pleasure and pain mingle inextricably in, ‘The Smell of Rubber’, a smell ‘I half-hate/but am irresistibly/drawn to,’ that of a hot water bottle, evoking ’the johnnies we used/in the attic of the vicarage,’and ‘babies’ teats’. She pours ‘scalding water/into the floppy open mouth…hearing the burps/of squeezed-out air-bubbles’, the hot-water bottle-baby nurtured and tortured in the same act. ‘The longing to hold’ makes her ’hug/the small, hot, pliable body to my chest as I fall asleep’ – but ‘I know I’ll wake/with it cold in my bed,/and stinging burn marks/branded on my skin/like fierce red kisses’.
Moving eventually to old age, in ‘Ascension’, the girl who dreamed of climbing to the moon has,‘ended up in a bungalow,/in a valley hemmed in by hills,/often cut off by snow,’ though still ‘in my dreams I soar.’ ‘Home is Here, Now,’ finds her having let go of anguished memories and aspirations. Peeling an orange ‘at the end of the day’ (and with the end of life clearly in view), she is with ‘my in-and-out-breaths/and the faint tearing of pith/parting from flesh’.
Two poems form a coda. In ‘You Are Not’, she bathes and dresses her mother, in her head still ‘a giantess’, but actually a frail old woman, so she can ‘watch flycatcher chicks/leaving the nest, hearing/ the peep peep peep/of their mother’s warning call.’ ‘Finding My Father’ imagines her father as a choirboy ‘who in a clear high treble sings’ divine praise. This echo of ‘The Ladder’ where she longed for her own voice to rise ‘soaring// into the rafters’ brings us full circle.
Each of the poems in this book works on its own, yet how they resonate with one another, with motifs and images transformed from poem to poem, how tellingly they are juxtaposed and sequenced, give this collection a breathtaking emotional and formal coherence. This work is a monument to the ambition it portrays, and is Vicki Feaver’s finest achievement.
John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October published by V Press was reeviewed recently in The High Window.
John Montague’s Selected Poems reviewed by Paul McDonald
Selected Poems 1961-2017 by John Montague. £12.50 Gallery Press. ISBN-13978-1911337751
The first occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry, John Montague was a markedly successful poet in his lifetime, yet some critics insist on treating him as a minor voice in Irish letters. Despite his long and distinguished career, there are those who’re too quick to judge him alongside the towering figures of Yeats and Heaney, finding him derivative and unambitious by comparison. I prefer to read him on his own terms, and would encourage others to do the same – this excellent new selection from Gallery Press is a good place to start.
Like everyone, Montague was shaped by his background: born in America in 1929, his parents shipped him off to Northern Ireland aged four to be raised by aunts, and it’s hardly surprising that the themes of abandonment and exile should feature often in his poems. ‘A Flowering Absence’ from The Dead Kingdom (1984), for instance, deals with the complicated feelings he had for his mother, as the ninth and tenth stanzas make clear:
Mother, my birth was death
of your love life, the last man
to flutter near your tender womb:
a neon lit bar sign winks off & on
motherfucka, thass your name.
There is an absence, real as presence.
In the mornings I hear my daughter
chuckle, with runs of sudden joy.
Hurt, she rushes to her mother,
as I never could, a puling boy.
The resentment is obvious, as is the speaker’s inevitable guilt and longing: while his mother’s ‘absence’ is felt as a ‘presence’, his irrational sense of culpability at having ruined her life also shapes his mature mindset. This ambivalence appears again in another famous poem of the same period, ‘A Locket’, where the penultimate stanza reveals his mother’s refusal to see him in later life:
Standing in that same hallway,
‘Don’t come again,’ you say roughly,
‘I start to get fond of you, John,
and then you are up and gone’;
the harsh logic of a forlorn woman
resigned to being alone.
Again, while he’s critical of his mother’s ‘harsh logic’, his own guilty status as the son who is soon ‘up and gone’ is clear to see. The ambivalence persists in the final stanza where resentment is qualified by a posthumous revelation:
And still, mysterious blessing,
I never knew, until you were gone,
that always around your neck
you wore an oval locket
with an old picture in it,
of a child in Brooklyn.
The tone is typical of Montague, using unadorned, direct language to convey complex, contradictory emotions. When feelings are ‘mysterious’ he’s not afraid to say so, yet he always manages to avoid seeming vague; likewise, he’s rarely sentimental: scenes that have the potential for mawkishness in less accomplished hands resonate with powerful simplicity and integrity.
Contradictions drive much of Montague’s writing, as does the ability to universalize the details of his own life. This is clear in the political poems comprising his famous sequence, The Rough Field, particularly in ‘A Grafted Tongue’, one of eight poems included from that landmark collection:
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck
Such was the experience of generations of Irish schoolchildren, of course, which Montague identifies as a ‘stuttering garb- / led ordeal of my own’, leaving us to draw obvious conclusions about the psychological and political consequences. Certainly we can see the origins of another contradiction in the life and psyche of this poet, caught between languages and cultures in a region blighted by conflict.
Despite the indisputable political force of such poetry, Montague was often strongest addressing the natural world and his relationship with rural Ireland. Poems like ‘Windharp’, where the wind becomes ‘a hand ceaselessly combing and stroking the landscape’, is among the well known pieces included, as is ‘The Trout’, one of Montague’s best known poems. It opens:
Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.
The speaker takes pleasure from his presence in nature, and the experience of sharing it with another creature; again the language is typically direct, but leavened with unobtrusive lyricism – ‘his fluid sensual dream’ is a reality we can relate to, the sibilance offering a perfect complement to the moment he describes. The poem ends with sentiments reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Snake’:
The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped. To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.
This expression of empathy with the creature’s terror elegantly conveys a sense of self-awareness, and the speaker’s implicit guilt as he encroaches so clumsily on nature’s ‘sensual dream’. Poems of this kind – and there are plenty of them – reveal a profound sensitivity and intelligence, finely tuned to the world.
Animated by conflicts and contradictions we all recognise, Montague wrote with an unpretentious clarity that deserves to ensure a central place in the canon of Irish poetry for generations to come. My advice would be to set aside comparisons and enjoy this thoughtful, nicely produced selection from a gifted poet.
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 include novels, poetry, and criticism, His most recent book is Allen Ginsberg: Cosmopolitan Comic (Greenwich Exchange, 2020).
Matthew Sweeney’s Shadow of the Owl reviewed by Mike Farren
Shadow of the Owl by Matthew Sweeney. £10.99. Bloodaxe. ISBN: 978 1 78037 542-7
If we envisage a poet writing under the shadow of death, we are most likely to consider either the youth – Keats coughing blood; Owen in the trenches – or one who has passed three score and ten: there’s the recent example of Clive James’ public leave-taking.
Matthew Sweeney, who died aged 65 in 2018, doesn’t quite fit either of those templates, just as his writing did not neatly fit an established Irish or British template. This posthumously-published volume begins under the threat of an undiagnosed, though clearly serious illness, which became an imminent death sentence when identified as motor neurone disease.
This section, ‘The Owl’, presents an extended analogy between the lowering, unseen presence of an owl and the wait for a diagnosis in a dozen, numbered 20-line poems (one stretches to 21 lines). As the sequence – and the book – opens, Sweeney tells us, “No one knows where I’m going, / not even me”, and the process of discovering the destination gives the reader some impression of Sweeney’s anxiety at finding out. In this poem and the next few, the owl is cast as a messenger and his role seen as ambiguous, with Sweeney tossing strings of questions and speculations in his direction. This ambiguity gradually metamorphoses into tight-lipped malevolence, obsessing Sweeney, as the owl’s association with the disease becomes more explicit:
I saw my doctor
yesterday, he spoke of the deterioration,
and I felt the owl was hiding in a cupboard,
agreeing with every word. (‘The Owl: 5’)
As life goes on – listening to jazz, drinking Talisker or wine, eating rye bread – hostility from Sweeney to the owl grows. He tries the sympathetic magic of drawing owls on A2 paper, only to worry that this will be seen as an act of war, which leads him to up the ante with bow and arrow. In the final poem of ‘The Owl’, Sweeney tells us:
I heard a faint huhuhu followed by
a whoo. You cowardly bastard!, I roared, and
sprayed the arrows all over the blackened world. (‘The Owl: 12’)
The second section, simply called ‘The Sequence’, appears to be a string of dream- (or nightmare-) like metaphors for the thing that is trying to kill Sweeney. As his partner, Mary Noonan, notes in the introduction, he had the “habit of writing directly from his unconscious”, and this comes to the fore here, with visceral, Kafkaesque vignettes of looming destruction. Death is, variously: a movie director getting him to march over a cliff-edge; a series of fiendish devices (one operated by an owl) designed to finish the poet (recalling the machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony); a crocodile that lurks on the banks of Cork’s River Lee before following Sweeney home; a lift that rather too closely resembles a mortuary drawer…
The self-absorption in this might seem indulgent in other circumstances but feels absolutely appropriate to Sweeney’s position. “Why the theatrics?”, the poet asks in ‘The Assassins’: the reason seems clear – his imagination is playing out a literal life-and-death psychodrama. In ‘Crucifixion’, two nightmarish stooges bring a cross to his door:
to carry out your crucifixion.’ Seeing my reaction
he laughed. ‘Don’t worry it’s all been paid for.
Humorous touches such as this (and the fact that, in this poem, he is equally concerned at a pan of beetroot boiling dry) mark the continuity from Sweeney’s earlier work, in which the surface geniality of the absurdity covers something darker, more Dionysian. These touches also make the situation less painful to bear, as do the moments of blissful remission that intrude: angelic singing that interrupts a jazz CD or a disgusting stench (recalling his earlier ‘A Smell of Fish’) that transforms into the pine smell of a sauna.
Both consoling and hard to bear, however, is the final poem of ‘The Sequence’, ‘Plum Saké’. Here, a carafe of fine saké is mysteriously left for the poet to enjoy. As he consumes it “slowly as the sunset, wanting more before / it was gone”, it is mysteriously replenished. Finally, as the day slips into darkness “slowly as the rising moon”:
when I came back again
the carafe was full. I offered no complaint,
even raised my drink to toast the invisible
supplier, but I knew this was my last one.
Despite the beautiful sense of cadence, we’re only half way through the book. However, even if the remaining sections – ‘Other Poems’ and ‘Last Poems’ – are as much of a miscellany their titles suggest and sometimes feel unfinished, it would still be ridiculous not to want more poems by Sweeney.
Within these sections, the focus on small, soon-to-be-missed pleasures continues. When Sweeney declares himself, in ‘Trauma’ to be a Buddhist, it is unsurprising given the meditative intensity of reflections on friends, places, memories and other pleasures. In ‘Onions’ that pleasure is a piece of raw onion in a beef sandwich – “the Roy Keane of the team”. In ‘The Ice Cream Van’, “breezy circus music” almost distracts him while “waiting for the whole world to call me – / first my doctor, with the results of my tests”.
Even when attention moves back to the illness, the level of detail is perfect:
Shit smells like corned beef
when it’s kept in – those old
tins from far-off Argentina
that floated their way to Donegal
when I was a child, long before
this constipation that bedevils me. (‘The Bathroom Devils’)
The harsh realism of a side effect of the illness co-exists with the whimsy of the corned beef tins floating across the Atlantic in a way that seems entirely characteristic of Sweeney.
After the poignancy of the ending of ‘The Sequence’, it seems greedy to hope for a similarly affecting ending for the whole volume. ‘Mouse Sandwich’, however, is a Sweeneyesque dream poem further amplified by “Señor Morphine”, in which he takes defiant pleasure in the eponymous sandwich before teasing us, heartbreakingly, “I won’t tell you about the other dreams.” He won’t now, and we’re the poorer for it!
Mike Farren is an editor from Shipley, W.Yorks. His poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies and he has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and winner of both the Saltaire Festival and Ilkley Literature Festival poetry prizes in 2020. His pamphlets are Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) and All of the Moons (Yaffle). He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic.
Kerry Hardie’s Where Now Begins reviewed by Colin Pink
Where Now Begins by Kerry Hardie. £9.95 Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1-78037-510-6
This is Kerry Hardie’s eighth collection of poems. The dominant themes in the collection are observations of the natural world, the life of plants and animals, and the feeling of encroaching age, mortality and an examination of the disintegration of a sense of self, most striking in the long poem ‘There’s More Than One of Us in Here’:
Is it you,
or is it the Other One?
but also in a short poem such as ‘Inhabitants’:
Tell me, I,
how many mes
compete inside our over-crowded space?
The opening poem is a vivid evocation of an old tree whose ‘… branches / are bones, holding the air in its place.’ And it sets the tone for the sense in the book of nature framing our lives both as a source of reassurance and also an ongoing struggle. In ‘Hymn’ the poet struggles to control her garden:
Now everything’s gone mad growing, especially the weeds …
and me, struggling to tame it, over and over,
and failing to tame it, over and over,
and as long as it always wins and I always lose
there’s a chance.
There are several poems with a gardening theme. In ‘Shasta Daisies’ the poet assures us ‘even you can grow them’ and later the poem builds to a comical description of trying to dig up the roots:
then spearing the centre and rocking and trampling and twisting
till – brute force failing – you jump on it (the fork/sprong)
risking that awful oh shit cracking sound
when the shaft gives at the join, but it didn’t,
there was only a rain of soil and me on my back in the wet grass
Lying on her back, observing the tangled roots, there is a change of mood as the poet is reminded, by the ‘massed rosy shoots and long tangled roots’, of the interconnected turmoil of family life.
Hardie is aware of both the necessity for and the difficulty of relationships, especially in the context of Northern Ireland. In ‘Derry’ for instance: ‘Walking that street, the all-but-forgotten feeling/ of eyes-on-my-back has come back.’ From an ‘unlikely’ flower shop she buys tulips in bud and hopes they will be red; but when they flower they turn out to be an anaemic/pessimistic white, which suggests hopes for the future will be disappointed.
Feelings of identity and encroaching mortality are neatly expressed in ‘Bolt the Shutter’ where:
The face that looks from the mirror
has the long-boned jaw of my forebears.
How age gives them access. They gaze,
their eyes black with apprehension.
Where shall we go, they are saying,
when the hearth of your flesh grows cold?
Awareness of the inconsolable nature of death is powerfully expressed in ‘The Inadequacy of Letters of Condolence (for a French woman living in Ireland)’ which combines themes of identity, history, nature and death. The poem opens with some simple declarative statements: ‘The paper white, the ink black, / your sister, dead in France’; it goes on to contrast this with blackbirds rooting for worms and sheep grazing in a field with memories of wartime history, concluding:
The whiteness of paper, the blackness of ink.
The link in the chain that’s wrenched open;
your link falling loose.
The blackbird rooting as I write this letter.
The sheep in the ravaged beet field
that smells now of fish and decay.
If the above poem is (partly) about the impossibility of expressing mourning, in ‘Eel-speak’ (a memorial poem for fellow poet Ciaran Carson) Hardie finds a pungent way of dealing with bereavement, in one of the most powerful images in the book; she imagines herself fishing and catching the young Ciaran:
My line has flared across the arc
of all the years since we were young. I have you hooked,
hauled in, and thrashing on the bank.
Not you as you are now, but as you were –
all bristled tight and angry like a landed eel
and slapping on the hard stones of yourself.
Hardie ends the book on a more abstracted/philosophically oriented meditation on death, in a poem called ‘Coats (for everyone)’, where she disposes of the deceased person’s coat once ‘the smell of the wearer has finally faded’. And in the end:
Time will soon pass. You will also be dead
And that doesn’t matter, it’s only what happens,
the spirit moving to light
the flesh settling into the clay.
Colin Pink is a freelance writer and art historian specialising in modern art since 1940. His poetry has been published in a variety of UK and Irish magazines and his poem ‘Games the Dead Play’ was long listed for the National Poetry Prize in 2012. His first book of poems Acrobats of Sound is available from Poetry Salzburg Press.
Gerald Dawe’s The Last Peacock reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
The Last Peacock by Gerald Dawe. £9.50. The Gallery Press. ISBN: 978 1 91133 767 6
Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection, The Last Peacock, is relatively short but packed with beautifully observed poems and felicitous language choices which range from the academically formal to the rhythms and vocabulary of the Belfast usages he grew up with.
However, if you are new to his poetry, as I am, you may find this book a little fragmentary, even, despite the lucidity of the writing, a touch hermetic. The poem ‘Twine’ seems to acknowledge this in its description of all the bits and pieces found ‘in the cubby hole’ which represent a shared past. He finds ‘the splintered mirror / [which]lies upended, / reflecting whatever comes its way – / all those quick glances’. The collection seems to offer us a succession of quick glances at fragments of the poet’s past and the places where he has worked as an English Literature academic, in Ireland and further afield.
Dawe has taught in Galway, Dublin, the USA and Cambridge and there are references to many of these places in the book. The street names and other place names convey a sense of particularity but also exclusivity; if you have to look up Haigh Terrace to discover it is in Dun Laoghaire and Free School Lane to find it is in Cambridge, you may feel that these poems are rooted in their locations but also that they refer to shared experiences which you may not share. Trawling back through Dawes’ other collections, interviews and critical writings provides a greater sense of context for this volume and, I think, merits the effort. Sadly, his Selected Poems are no longer available, except in a Kindle edition, which raises its own moral dilemma.
My interest in Dawe was triggered by his background as a Belfast Protestant, something he holds in common, to a certain extent, with Derek Mahon and Michael Longley and, I suppose, Tom Paulin, although remembering the nuances of the Belfast class system, I suspect they were all more middle-class than Dawe. I was curious to discover how Dawe had reconciled his validation of the Protestant culture of the North with his perception that the Northern ‘state’ was founded on injustice. He described himself, in the 1980s, as:
someone who comes from a Belfast Protestant background and who reacted very negatively against that background until comparatively recently when I started to question, with a more constructive critical eye, what I was doing as a poet – namely, exploring my own past, and my family’s past, rooted in that specific social background.(from “The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland” by Gerald Dawe)
It is important to recognise this history when reading Gerald Dawe’s poetry, although it is not to the fore in this collection. Nevertheless, it provides a backdrop to the poems, in particular some of the elegies, such as that for the Belfast Irish language campaigner, Aodán MacPóilin, with whom his relationship went back to early days at the New University of Ulster:
when the wind battered against windows and doors
and in and out of the draughty house
we rented, heading up the coast
where no one lived on the seashore
we managed to ‘survive’ it all – the ‘war’ –
or the one for Padraic Fiacc, another Irish poet who chose to emigrate from the US to Belfast, and was a friend and mentor. Perhaps there is a muted optimism in the autumnal conclusion:
the sky sweeps
up high into the black mountain
and down the other side to your garden.
Look just now, dead leaves for burning,
and it’s before all over again.
Or perhaps not. However, the poem demonstrates Dawe’s skill in capturing the ‘weather’, not just of the North but of the whole of Ireland as sea-encircled, Northern place. This comes partly from the accuracy of the description; Fiacc is imagined as perched among the ‘noisy blackbirds’ on a ‘sparse tree’; and partly from the use of colloquial phrases such as ‘settle yourself’ or ‘hither and yon’. The same sense of weather is present in the first group of poems, set in Dun Laoghaire and serves to create a sense of stoicism and endurance. In ‘House of Fiction’, there is ‘a drizzle of wind / and rain rattles / the loose windows upstairs’ as the observer watches the age-old scene of people embarking on the ferry which will take them to England. The poet seems to be reiterating the observations of an earlier writer, possibly Aidan Higgins, from the same vantage point: ‘Is that himself I see / squinting behind / the scrim curtains?’ The association of ‘scrim curtains’ with theatre and the title of the poem suggest that this is a comment on the role of the writer and the creation of archetypes, in this case the archetype of the Irish emigrant, trope of so much theatre and literature.
Dawe can move beyond Irish themes: ‘To Richard Ford Beyond in America’ describes a life-long love affair with American literature which ends in the grim disappointment of Trump:
to think what has happened
to the words of that great republic
which kept me awake at night
dreaming about the new territory.
‘Home Again’ is concerned with the plight of ‘displaced persons’ in the camps of Europe while ‘Tongues of Fire’ comments on the atrocities of Isis in the Middle East but both of these seem like occasional rather than intrinsic pieces. Some of these poems let the reader in; others afford glimpses of a life and a climate veiled by frames of reference which, if not private, are certainly restricted.
Kathleen McPhelimy grew up in Northern Ireland but now lives in Oxford. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She has published three collections, the most recent being The Lion in the Forest(Katabasis, 2005).
Christine McNeill’s Sehnsucht by Christine McNeill Reviewed by Wendy Holborow
Sehnsucht by Christine McNeill. £10. Shoestring Press. 978-1912524631
An unusual title fortunately explained on the back cover as something that can be defined as an intense longing. Sehnsucht bridges the gap between reality and possibilities, similar to the untranslatable Welsh hiraeth. This collection of 50 poems focuses on sehnsucht as its central impetus.
What an excellent image to begin this collection in the first stanza of the very first poem, ‘Outing’, as the poet tells us ‘Your car moved away like a whale / freed from a sandbank, / out into the open / I did not know.’ And later in the poem, ‘I drew the final minutes of the return journey / in long, winding threads.’ A premonition of many more jewels of imagery to come, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The more of the collection I read the more aware I became that birds were an important motif in the collection. Over half the poems mentioned birds by name: Owl, Larks, Heron, Swans, Hawk, Bee-eaters, Orioles, Pied Wagtails and so on, as well as generic references to birds such as birds singing, (Mahler orders their death as they distract from his composition in ‘Gustav Mahler at Attersea’), bird’s hop, feed the birds, the shrill call of birds, borne away by birds of prey. The poet’s sehnsucht is the longing for the freedom of a bird, if only she had wings to fly.
McNeill uses a delicate touch in her poems, as in ‘Owl Watch’ when she says:
Daylight ghosts over the tree-tops
and we’re still waiting;
by evening we’ll be back in our garden
with its scent of lavender and lemon-balm,
and from the porch a radio voice
will pour like warm milk.
And in ‘Lark’, ‘Listen to the lark / pull up its bag of trills / from the ground / to rise up, / letting it drop / over the long field.’
We move to poems dealing with a sense of ageing and a longing for the life people had known as in ‘In a Japanese Garden’ where an old man watches a heron lift off after feeding on koi, then ‘watching a small boy running / round and round the blossoming cherry tree / muttered under his breath: / I wish I could still do that.’ While in ‘Solitary’ an old man equates the monogamy of a pair of approaching swans to his own sixty-year marriage and tells the narrator, ‘That’s how it was for sixty years, he says ¬- / together. / The swans drift apart. ‘
A poignant poem, where a dog is aware of the gap between reality and possibilities, waiting for his master in Paradise: ‘Dog Waiting in Paradise’ begins ‘He waits in fire-ravaged Paradise / by the ruins of his owner’s house. /’ ends:
He listens to the crackling embers.
Only things humans can’t see exist for him.
He knows the soil has absorbed more
than the mutilated silence. Sniffs it.
Head on front paws, keeps vigil.
Continuing the theme of old age and loneliness, McNeill writes of an old woman in ‘Steam in the Kitchen’ ‘as she unleashed her life to the willing listener: / son killed in war, husband hanged, / others who rarely called.’ And the old academic suffering with dementia in ‘Birth of a Philodendron Leaf’ where the birds are not the longing but the curse:
After a life in academia
he didn’t expect to end
in this incoherent darkness.
Mandarin, French, Italian
borne away by birds of prey.
McNeill introduces us to artists; Schiele, in ‘Ways of Seeing’ where the narrator who discovers the art of Schiele is an eye specialist who ‘didn’t need special glasses to see / the worth of this artist.’ And in ‘The Connoisseur’, who says: ‘With Rembrandt, eating mint chocolate, / he dwells on the meeting-point / between life and art.’
The last few poems in the collection strike me as the antithesis to the freedom of the birds or maybe a parallel of escape as they deal with the topic of migrants and asylum seekers who have fled the wars and ravages of their own countries. In ‘The Offer’ we find ‘A stranger. A refugee. / A Syrian medical doctor / with wife and children still weeping / on the threshold of what was once their home in Aleppo.’ In ‘Bazella Wa Riz (peas with rice stew)’ The mother and daughter ‘stir the green of nature into the boiling rice. / In Damascus, children will play with a brighter yesterday / among rubble.’ And finally, in ‘Home’ the young boy is travelling:
Mid-afternoon, back to his lodgings, day in, day out
through this unloved landscape.
Mouthing words from the Koran
he glimpses something green
under the seat in front;
on his knees, cups it in his palm:
a grasshopper – alive!
Big as the ones in his country.
Reminder of heat and dust …
… he lets go of the insect
and the country of his birth.
For these migrants, perhaps sehnsucht has bridged the gap between reality and possibility, although it is the freedom illustrated by the birds that many of the old people crave in McNeills poems. I would thoroughly recommend this collection.
Wendy Holborow‘s most recent collection is Janky Tuk Tuks published by the High Window Press.
Nadine Brummer’s Whatever it is that Chimes, New and Selected Poems reviewed by Christine Tipper
Whatever it is that Chimes, New and selected poems by Nadine Brummer. £15. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-57-0
This collection of new and selected poems by Nadine Brummer has been collated from four previous collections: Halfway to Madrid (2002), Out of the Blue (2006), Any Particular Day (2013), What Light does (2017) and her latest one, Whatever it is that Chimes (2020) all published by Shoestring Press.
Nadine Brummer’s poems are vivid portraits of the world of nature, sounds, colour, music, art, relationships and religion, that encourage us to consider existential questions. Her poetry prompts us to reflect on our personal responses to life as we are drawn into her vibrant, colourful world. It is her use of colour that I particularly like and, I’m pleased to say, that this is a constant theme throughout her work.
For example, the striking description of the Mediterranean at sunset in ‘What the sea was like’ (Piana Corsica) (What Light does) took me back to the many evenings I have sat on a balcony watching a Corsican sunset:
That time the sea wore red
that time the sea wore
ultra-violet light beyond
the luminous, after storm’s
violence, violent red
beyond day’s shifting blues
that time the sea became
a field of shed, red petals
or rather, stepping out
of its water-body
a naked glow
when sky let go of cloud
allowing sunset through
to take away
a limiting horizon –
I particularly like the image of the sea as ‘a field of shed, red petals.’ We can see the waves gently moving the setting sun’s reflection on the water. In ‘Blue’ (Any Particular Day) land and sea are joined when the poet observes the sea-holly in her garden. The colourful, detailed observation leads to a questioning of what it means to be free:
like the purply blue
of sea holly in the garden
which this year stopped me dead,
thinking, if I looked hard enough
I’d know what it is
to exist intensely
not closed in
by walls, trees, fence –
to enter one’s lifeblood
like the ocean without horizon…
Several of her poems are about art gallery visits and paintings by Lucien Freud, such as, ‘At the Lucien Freud Exhibition’, (Halfway to Madrid) which includes the following line ‘I am forced to look again/at how I live.’ The painting and its props push the poet to search for what lies beneath the surface of our own body’s coverings to, ‘find bodies we’d not bargained for.’ The poet presents what is visible on the surface but then leads us to deeper existential questioning. In ‘Doors’ (Whatever it is that Chimes) we are given a glimpse of heaven in the first stanza, followed by an image of hell in the second one. We are led from the heavenly beauty of the blue of Michaelmas daisies to the uncompromising blue of a Greek summer sky:
Even in autumn a door
opens, sometimes, into a day
for you to see heaven, at least,
Michaelmas daisies vibrantly blue.
And in Greece, in hot, high summer
a cry breaks a hole in the day
when a tethered donkey brays,
unshaded, and you see hell.
Brummer’s Jewish heritage and her parents’ beliefs are explored in some of her poems from What Light does and Whatever it is that Chimes. In the poems from What Light does ‘A Narrative of Nothing’, ‘The Menorah Tree’, ‘Tattoos’ and ‘My Parents’ Gift’ the poet remembers events in her life concerning religion. There is a sense of missing the security that her parents’ Jewish faith gives them and her struggle to find ‘belongingness’. In Whatever it is that Chimes the poet declares in ‘Doorpost’: ‘like survivors/of tradition I’m a secular Jew-’ yet she still keeps the mezuzah from her childhood home and cannot envisage throwing it away. In ‘First Books’ she recalls the book of bible tales that an aunt gave her. Her aunt had not realised that the book contained tales from both the Old and New Testaments. The poet describes how she would furtively read the stories about Jesus and ‘If I heard mother’s tread come near/as I read about Christ, I’d rush/from back to front in the book.’ She was more worried her mother would discover her reading about Jesus than a sex-book.
Often Brummer takes us back to incidents in her childhood and how, as a child, she tried to make sense of the adult world. In ‘Rose Bay Willow Herb’ (Any Particular Day) she describes how she picked Rose Bay Willow Herb for her mother, who refused to let the flowers enter the house, ‘The child I was remains in shock/ each June/July when Rose Bay’s pink/becomes a pang of mother saying “No”/ to my good flowers.’ At the end of the poem comes the personal questioning, ‘But how do I learn to love again/ weeds tough enough to break/ through hard ground, wayward/ the way forgiveness is/when it finds a crack?’ This seems to be a metaphor for the poet’s relationship with her mother.
In ‘The Kaleidoscope’ (Halfway to Madrid) the poet relates the personal anecdote of when she saved her pocket money for fourteen weeks to buy a kaleidoscope only for it to shatter and break on her way home. ‘When it slipped and broke/my mother laughed.’ After this statement the poet attempts to reframe the memory so that her mother is also crying with her. ‘Or I see us weeping for each other/ Could that be true? I need it to be so… nothing is broken beyond repair/and there are only patterns.’ The coloured patterns of the kaleidoscope merge into the patterns of life and lead to the question of what can or cannot be repaired both physically and emotionally.
In ‘Full Circle’, (Whatever it is that Chimes) the poet weaves the pattern of the spider’s web using beautifully worked alliteration and assonance. She is a keen observer of the natural world.
Today thin, twisted threads
create a perfect circle
drawing gaze into gauze and shimmer
as did yesterday’s web.’
Brummer’s poetic imagery is visually compelling and her ability to create concise vignettes is a real talent. She takes the reader on thoughtful, colour-filled journeys through landscapes, art galleries and life. The reader can luxuriate in the beauty of language, colour and detail but, there will come a point when the reader will be prompted to question, consider and reflect upon what lies at the heart of being human.
I would thoroughly recommend this collection of Nadine Brummer’s poetry.
Christine Tipper holds a PhD and an MA in French Literary Translation from the University of Exeter, England. She is poet, author, artist, translator, interpreter and French lecturer and an internationally published poet and translator. Her translation publications include Changing Shores by Nadine Ltaif, Where Spaces Glow by Francis Catalano, Smile, you’re getting old by Evelyne Wilwerth (Guernica Editions). I write these words by Lélia Young (Inanna). Journeys by Nadine Ltaif (Guernica, 2020). Her anthology of 12 contemporary French-Canadian poets in translation was published by ‘The High Window’ (2020).
Penny Sharman’s Fair Ground reviewed by Carla Scarano
Fair Ground by Penny Sharman. £6.50. Yaffle Press. ISBN 9781913122003
Sorrowful memories and a hurtful past can haunt people’s lives and come back in dreams and nightmares, or be revisited in writing. Penny Sharman’s debut pamphlet bravely collects and explores scattered recollections at the threshold of daydreams. Her work is drenched in the landscape of North West England, a slippery place but nevertheless her ‘fair ground’. She creates self-protection through the lines of her poetry, building a shelter for her younger vulnerable self. Her work is an attempt to understand past and present events and hopefully heals the scars left by her traumatic experiences; her process is consoling and revealing at the same time.
A promise of renewal is present in the first poem, where the image of the eggs conveys openness in a world of innocent dreams:
each egg waits
in every dotxxxxxxx spec of life
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx it begins before birth
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx goes on and on
xxxxxxspirit-child exists in dreamtime
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwithin the dark egg
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx millions of stars
each one blessing
never letting go of memory
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxeach and every tiny dot
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx hands holding
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx our dreams
The poet confidently offers her lines to the readers; she makes a ‘coat’, a protection for them and for herself, ‘to pull down knowledge,/to weave them as jewels into fur and skin’ in order ‘to grow me,/to humanise me into new skin’. (‘Making a winter coat’) It is a transformation that allows her to revisit her past through her poetry and to develop her vision. She is the girl who plays ‘alone in her passionflower dress’, enchanted by the bright colours of nature and the excitement of a life full of expectations but also marked by an occasional ‘streak of liquid blood’:
She’s at home in her wired cage
where a pedestal is a substitute for sky.
She still dances when her eyes are closed.
In her passionflower dress she forgets her mouth,
how often she has spoken in tongues, how often
she had hugged all those sweet birds.
She forgets to copy, be a parrot or budgie,
follow the path of an upright flight.
She misses her beaks of song,
their cut-throat ambiguities, so called love.
She has a lump in her throat that won’t go away.
All that panic in the room when they went mad,
feathers abandoned in the parquet floor.
(‘Girl in a passionflower dress’)
Passion and innocence mingle in the girl’s imagination – excitement for a life that is dreamed rather than actually experienced – but her dreams were shattered by a brutal reality. Penny Sharman had a baby when she was a teenager. She was sent away from home to Camberley to live with a couple and then to Yateley to a mother and baby home. These traumatic events affected her whole life and left indelible marks. She now lives in North West England with her husband, Keith Lander, her ‘wonderful wizard’, to whom she dedicated Fair Ground.
These events resonate in her poetry and are transposed in a surreal dimension. In this way, the poet finds her place again in the natural world of birds, foxes and spiders and in the landscape of the Lake District. From the margins to which she was relegated, she finds her voice again, which is stronger than ever, and positions herself at the centre through the healing process of her writing. Nevertheless, this progress is not very easy or straightforward, and hopes and dreams alternate with recurring nightmares and fears:
In my dream state I keep my monkey in a violin case.
Every daybreak I unclip the clasp and let the inquisitor out.
She greets me with a pale face, jumps onto my hand
with a chitter-chatter and pisses over my skin.
The poem suggests that the figure of the monkey-inquisitor is interiorised, and it reiterates the detrimental and judgemental attitudes the protagonist underwent in her past life. Bad memories cannot be completely erased but can be exorcised through revisitation in order to understand them and maybe transform their negativity into a more positive outcome. In some poems, repetitions in the form of anaphora reflect the recurrence of haunting memories, as in ‘Coleridge Cottage’ or in ‘You may have seen me’:
You may have seen me moving fast,
like galloping clouds above the rocks.
You may have wondered at my freedom,
my big eyes that look into yours.
You may have seen me once,
you might see me again.
When I stand still on the headland
all I see is big water and unreachable land.
(‘You may have seen me’)
The rhetorical device is skilfully used to express the tension between longing for freedom and the hope of reaching a stable but ultimately unattainable definite conclusion to her wandering and dreams. In a similar way, the poem ‘Flamenco’ is particularly effective in merging form and content. The short, broken lines communicate the essence of the rhythm of the music:
rapture finger articulation
Flamenco is love song
beating a rosewood floor
heel howl heel howl
tradition is voice
it’s from the blood
It is a vibrant piece in which sounds and imageries work in unison to convey the musicality of the poem, which brilliantly evokes the dance. The repetitions and the double space between some of the words reflect the movements and tapping of the dancers.
The poems at the end of the collection emphasise the importance of writing and relationships in the poet’s life. ‘Calligraphy’ connects writing to the landscape in an act of survival:
a mark across white paper
a statement of living
a pattern on a whiteout
survival in the landscape
The double line space between the lines emphasises the crucial quality of the statements as well as their isolation, which is something that makes writing unique and central in the poet’s progression. The final poem, ‘Cutting rice’, is an outstretched hand to the unknown listener or reader, an act of profound empathy:
Let me stroke your hair, calm your thin-moon of stone,
your rock strangers that run through a corridor of minds.
Here’s a lemon’s balm to smooth out your wrinkles.
We cannot help but accept these generous verses that evoke past sorrowful memories in a surreal dimension that is sometimes sad but at other times joyful. They aim to heal and to provide hope for a rebirth that is uncertain but constantly pursued. The poems evolve in enthralling imageries and interesting forms in which repetitions reiterate traumas but also open up to new possibilities and renewed confidence in human relations.
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/
Mary Rose Boehm’s The Rain Girl reviewed by Rowena Somerville
The Rain Girl by Mary Rose Boehm. £9.99. Chaffinch Press. ISBN: 978-1838104108
Rose Mary Boehm is a writer of allusiveness and elusiveness; many of the poems are short and impressionistic, many longer poems are made up of short sketches, predominantly visually descriptive. She has worked ‘on the edge of the film industry’ according to the cover blurb – and her poetic style works in a filmic way, describing exteriors and surfaces, often leaving the readers to work out the plots for themselves and to attach/attribute their own emotional values and assessments.
The book is divided into sections, the second of which (and the opening poem of which section) is called ‘Instar’ – a word I hadn’t known – which means ‘a phase between two periods of moulting in the development of an insect larva or other invertebrate’ (thanks, Google). That suggestion of continuous change and impermanence seems well chosen by and for this poet, a German-born UK national, who has lived in a variety of circumstances, and in a variety of countries, including Peru, where she is now based.
The poem ‘Instar’ is written in the first person, and tells the story of a child growing up – the poem suggests – in or near pre-war Germany, whose family life is dismantled by cruel outside forces:
‘Caterpillars go from instar to instar.
They shed their skins, molt to grow.
By the time of my tenth instar
When they called me a stranger,
I had learnt to fly on my own.’
Some of the shorter poems do create an arresting image, but I’m not quite convinced that they necessarily do too much more than that – although perhaps that is enough? This is the whole of the poem ‘Bared’:
‘Wafts into the room.
Flows across the parquet.
Turquoise chiffon undulates.
from her shoulders.
Blue fish glide
along her swell.
Surely a seductive film noir vamp up to no good at all?
In ‘While I prepare lunch, my lover sulks’ another plot begins to unfurl, this time one of domestic tension:
‘My face is distorted in the bowl
of crimson water. My hand slides
into that silver body, empties
it of all life. When I feel his breath
in my neck I turn.
Knife in my bloody hands
I am ready to excise the boil.’
Though that is a little grand guignol for me……….
She often writes about refugees and wanderers – those who have had to flee or seek safety, those who have been driven from their homes by war or tyranny. This is done with insight (see ‘Instar’, above, as an example) and an empathetic eye for the telling detail, but sometimes I found her writing less engaging, as in ‘Once upon a time he’d been granted political asylum’:
‘The anacoluthon of struggle.
Perhaps we did.
Apophasis. He had no intention
of talking about pharisaic canticles
or fiducial point failures.’
I’m afraid I struggled with that stanza, even when I had looked the words up.
In the section called The Old Gods, the poems touch upon the eerie, the lost and the other-worldly. Her poem, ‘Haunting’, alludes to impermanence and incorporeality, with what I thought was a lovely final image:
‘No legs will carry
what I have become:
the note between the
harmonies, the breach
between severed limbs,
and the twilight
between worlds. When you count
the time that passes between
lightning and thunder,
that’s where you’ll find me,
leaning into the quiet
where I feel lace cascading
from insubstantial sleeves.’
The final section is entitled ‘It’s a Wrap’, which gives each of the poems in that section a certain undertow of finality, and also adds to the sense that the whole book has been a kaleidoscopic cinematic ride, eventually disgorging us from the darkened screening room, blinking into the daylight. In the sectional title poem she offers scenes and gossip from a completed film shoot, ending with:
‘Back home will they understand
In ‘Stars and Constellations’ she says:
‘Would that Taurus were conspicuous
overhead. Aldebaran (the hunk), Hinds
(bewitching and delicate), then the Pleiades,
the Seven Sisters:
‘an open star cluster containing middle-aged
hot B-type stars’.’
In ‘Changing of the Guard’ she addresses the wrap-up of the year:
‘September moves in gently,
his coffers are full
of purple, burgundy and gold. The first
harsh winds hint at skeletal trees
naked black against pale grey.’
The final poem of the collection is ‘Wings’, and the accretive imagery of this poem brought to mind a plane or drone mounted camera, flying over the planet, recording and broadcasting its beauties:
‘Wing it through the underbrush,
confuse a gaggle of late snow geese,
undulate the manta rays,
spread sails under the condor, the falcon
and the royal vulture,
unfold the crows from their cut-out spaces.
Ride the dust of ancient burial grounds,
colour the desert greys,
Suspend the stars on silver wires
flying in formation.’
The Rain Girl is a collection of sharply judged images and suggestive scenes, with an unusual range of reference, character and geography, it offers a stimulating ride.
Rowena Sommerville has written poems and made things all her life, the last thirty years of which have been lived in lovely Robin Hood’s Bay. She has worked in a huge variety of community settings and arts organisations. Having left full-time work in 2017, she is now freelance, both as a creative and as a project producer. She also sings with and writes for the acappella band Henwen which has been performing locally and nationally for a long and harmonious time.
Mike Di Placido’s Alpha reviewed by Pam Thompson
Alpha by Mike Di Placido. £10. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN 978-3-901993-80-0
Alpha is Mike Di Placido’s fourth collection after Theatre of Dreams (Smith Doorstop, 2009), A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press, 2013) and Crow Flight Across the Sun (Calder Valley Poetry, 2017) – a tribute to Ted Hughes. The short title poem, ‘Alpha’, last in the book, is a good place to start a review so a reader can appreciate because its wry, self-deprecating tone, and so sample the approach by which the poet brings his diverse alpha subjects to life.
I’d like to be an
alpha male – but do you think
the others would mind?
Di Placido’s home town of Scarborough is a frequent backdrop, as are other places in Yorkshire. Ferocious warrior leaders are playfully, and poignantly depicted. The poet/narrator greets Genghis Khan , “freshly disembarked from the Orient Express’ / new branch line to Scarborough”, causing consternation to onlookers “when we hug, people are unaware / of the connection, due to a dipsomaniac / Venetian ancestor …” (‘Genghis Khan’)
In ‘Hardrada in Scarborough Bay’ the poet addresses the Norwegian king as embarks on a planned invasion of Northern England:
You know what it’s like
to bide your time in a bay,
to wait for the moment, the right moment,
before you’re off and in –
but this is different …
Different because “Hardrada, Harald / Hardrada (the Ruthless), to be exact” has felt fear
and the poet speaks with prescience .” … how could you know of the force / that will butcher you and your men just / days from now …” but that there is only one way forward, “Do what you’ve always done – / act: marshall the fear to work for you, / push on into hell.” Humour is dialled down and poem speaks movingly to the alpha male’s vulnerable underbelly. People are vulnerable when their ego-saving armouries are punctured and Di Placido explores these exposures, not least in relation to himself. The opening poem illustrates this perfectly:
Someone said he looked like Al Pacino.
So he dug out a pair of shades, came up
trumps in the British Heart Foundation,
with a navy linen suit and Armani tee-shirt,
then hung around the precinct all day.
Nothing. Not a flicker. Not a glance.
The film-star comes up again when Di Placido meets Simon Armitage in a Huddersfield tea-room, “ We were getting on famously till I started to choke – / too many fluffy nibbles and not enough tea” When Armitage queries the other poet’s surname, Di Placido makes a diversionary, “ I don’t usually sound like The Godfather”, to which Armitage replies “.. I did have a look of the Al Pacino / about me. This I took as a compliment // and not some marker of perceived threat.” Armitage leaves and Di Placido imagines him “nervously checking over his shoulder / as he made his way back to his golden life.” The poem works enjoyably – as so many do in this collection – via several different layers: the poet’s clear heroism – for Pacino and Armitage; the anti-heroism of the situation, meeting a poet you admire and choking on a cake and tea. The poet/narrator embellishes the scene while, at the same, placing himself within its ‘mythology’.
The mundane and the mythic are juxtaposed as in ‘Tiresias and the Bottle-Bank’.
The poet meets the seer, Tiresias, outside the bottle bank, “ Tiresias, he announced, / when my last bottle was posted, was there anything / I’d like to know?” . The poet asks Tiresias a series of questions about how certain events of the future will pan out, “ ‘Did global warming get us?’ … ‘A non-event’ … ‘Nuclear destruction …?’ … ‘… no …’”. Also if he ever “gets lonely or burdened / on your cosmic, two way street” . Tiresias replies that “we all have our crosses to bear” and hands the poet “ a wodge of cash”. The poet’s anxiey that it might be a “set-up” is assuaged somewhat by a charitable act and the poem ends on another act of flight, the poet-narrator’s, “past the Pound Shop, and slipping in through the doorway of HMV, without looking back.”
Central is Di Placido’s love of literature, especially poetry, and he adopts various types of rhetoric to highlight this – the parody of a Shakespearean monologue:” We shall prevail, friends! Our barbies will burn! / Our sausages shall spit and sizzle.” (’As the onset of rain threatens the barbecue, he adopts a Shakespearean persona’) or the imagined speech by Caitlin Thomas to Dylan, in ‘Boathouse’, “’It’s the shed for you boyo. Go and gaze over / your starfish sands, your dab-filled sea.’” The three poems in the series ‘Wilfred Owen in North Yorkshire’ are more elegiac in tone. A note explains that after recovering shell shock (neurasthenia) in the Edinburgh hospital Owen was transferred to the Clarence Gardens Hotel in Scarborough where he was put in charge of the domestic staff In the first poem, Wilfred Owen meets Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockhart Hospital, the younger poet, “approached the great man / tentatively … offered him those attempts at verse” , the poem concluding, “ … together, like the sound of / some tragic choir, / you would rise above the poppies – ring around the world.” (i. ‘Craiglockhart and Sassoon’)
The dialogue on life and poetry between John Keats and John Ashbery is something of an ongoing project. It materializes in two letter poems, ‘A Correspondence: John Keats to John Ashbery’, where Keats, in reply to Ashbery, speaks of “the wondrous nightmare that you describe as your time” and goes on to expound upon “negative capability” as if doing so for the first time. Ashbery responds with empathy, in expounding more on his times, says “ … we are all categorised … I have been described as a leading light of postmodernism … and you, Keats, are a Romantic …”. Their correspondences are made possible via the time tunnel of poetry. It would be intriguing to read more.
The male poet’s shed is affectionately sent up in a parody of John Masefield’s ‘Sea Fever’:
I must go down to the shed again,
to the shed and the lonely sky,
I’ll take some WD-40
but please don’t ask me why.
More on the shed in a follow-on poem, this time in the style of Chapter 17 of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Were the sheddee’s family and friends at all concerned with his increasing shed time?
Possibly. However, they reasoned that, at the very least, he was safely
contained and occupied in his harmless and persistent – though mostly
probably futile – venture of writing.
Mike Di Placido is an ex-Professional footballer and England Youth International and so we might expect poems about football and footballers, that most outwardly alpha of professions. “Goal Scoring’ gives a true insider’s glimpse, “ And when it comes off … // … it’s as though you’ve materialized / with the ball tucked up your shirt.”, as does ‘The Beautiful Game’:
In those days the balls were bread puddings
and heading the lace meant early onset.
Other poems worth mentioning are those where ‘alpha-ness’ comes at us sideways. In ‘Red Hot Pokers’ those weirdly vibrant phallic flowers are characterised in all manner of alpha signifiers:
In Greek myth they’d be rampant love gods.
As cars, Maseratis or Ferraris.
As rock stars, Lemmy or Freddy Mercury.
They’d be the only pillar box in the Sahara.
In ‘And how …’ the poet looks on at men who seem to have it all. it’s a wistful but slightly suspicious observation:
They don’t check and double-check
and retrace their actions, they just do things
and nothing stops them. Look, there’s one, there,
mowing the lawn and whistling.
He’ll be painting his house next.
‘Party Animal’ contrasts the veneer of occasional celebrity glamour with what’s most real and sustaining in the end:
… I can wear a gold lame suit
with the best of ‘em. But here will do. Here
in this walled garden, dense with peace …
This is a collection that wears its heart on its poet’s sleeve, touching, funny and celebratory. The Di Placido in the poems is frequently hapless, slightly out of step, with his family raising their eyes at his exploits but loving him and them all the same. It’s a collection filled with love and empathy – for example, in ‘Jezza’ where Di Placido, holding, as he says, no particular political line, recognises injustice when it comes from all quarters:
… but it’s his back I wanna see.
It must be bloody huge!
It’s got to be, really, hasn’t it –
to fit all those knives in?
And heroes are heroes, aren’t they; about that, there’s no disguising
under the treads of my tyres
the horizons come.
(‘Ted Hughes’s Mountain Bike’)
Pam Thompson is a writer and lecturer based in Leicester. Her publications include The Japan Quiz ( Redbeck Press, 2009) and Show Date and Time (Smith | Doorstop, 2006) and Strange Fashion( Pindrop Press, 2017). She is a recent Hawthornden Fellow.
Noel Duffy’s Street Light Amber reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
Street Light Amber by Noel Duffy. £7.77. Ward Wood Publishing. ISBN: : 978-1908742742
I will begin by declaring that I loved this collection! My repeated readings of the book for the purposes of review allowed me to try to analyse why I liked it so much, why – despite its narrow and even seemingly mundane focus – it didn’t bore me, and how its particular magic was being worked, but I am not sure that I have really managed to identify that, so all credit to the writer for weaving his spell.
Street Light Amber is a slim volume, with a narrow focus, as stated, and with a decidedly quotidian range of reference – cups, cigarettes, curtains, dustbins – and yet its subtitle describes it as ‘a metaphysical love story’. It is introduced and concluded with the same rather mysterious poem, entitled ‘The Department of Dead Letters’ the first time and ‘Erase. Rewind. Start Again.’ the second time. I am happy to own that I definitely felt the stirrings of some metaphysical magic, despite all the dustbins and bathroom sinks referenced within (or maybe all the better for its seeming rootedness in the everyday).
The book’s blurb says that the collection focusses on the return of a lost lover three years after she had originally left, and ‘the tentative process of regaining trust’. While the loss and the three year’s return are made evident within the poems, I didn’t really feel that trust was being rebuilt, but rather, that trust was acknowledged as painfully and precisely not being rebuilt, and the mood is frequently that of the sadness of lost hope. I know that interpreting poems and/or poetic themes and references as literal biographical indicators is both leaden and potentially misguided, so I’m trying not to do that, but I would say that the overall mood is not indicating a positive look to the future……
The opening and closing poem/s, speaks of a man whose nightly work it is to leave his sleeping lover and to go to:
the sorting depot.
There it is his duty to piece together the clues
and runes of misspelt addresses, the half-remembered
names, the scrawling handwriting, undecipherable;
the lost love letters or wedding invitations
written to those long since parted or departed –
and when there is no return address to be found, the profit is his – ‘the love so carefully expressed, now his and his only’.
The writer – I can’t say ‘celebrates’, that is not the tone – records small observations. From ‘Touch’:
Noticed in the stray moment, your hand
resting by the glass of mint tea on the table,
the sun brought down and contained in the liquid,
the green of its leaves reflected on your fingers.
I guess the magic, the metaphysical, is in the phrase ‘sun brought down’, which literally illuminates this portrayal of a lover’s observation.
In ‘Distant Windows’ the writer addresses memory and suggests the process of photography/development, which recurs as a reference throughout the collection (sometimes more consciously than here):
metronomic heartbeat against bare walls and floor –
an afterimage played out in the mind like a door opening
onto a chamber that you had forgotten was there.
The re-animation of the relationship seems to be full of hazards and bear-traps. In the discouragingly titled ‘Crime Scene’ he says:
I let the curtain
fall back, passing like a shadow across the brain.
I watch you lying on the bed, half asleep,
no shining light to disturb the eye just
the bulk of things hiding in darkness.
Later in the collection, in ‘Moon-Man’, the writer is self-questioning, perhaps accepting responsibility but possibly refusing guilt for what went wrong before. Addressing himself he says:
You weren’t special, nor were you cruel,
just find yourself waiting for the signal to stop playing
the part of the guilty one – moon-man,
blind stenographer of what-might-have-been,
combing the darkness for signs.
In ‘Street Light Amber’, the last poem before the closing repeat of the opening poem, the writer addresses memories:
These, the most casual things, are what
ambush the mind yet are still too close to hold,
just as the hand pulls back instinctively
from burning coal.
There is a, surely deliberate, echo of the 1930s bittersweet song ‘These Foolish Things’ in this poem (including a reference to Ella Fitzgerald, who did record it), plus a conveyed sense that the burning coal of memory may prevent satisfactory romantic re-engagement. – once bitten etc. The position of this poem in the book, and the obvious fact that it names the collection, give it added emphasis, and means that the reader searching for those potential biographical interpretations, will pay close attention. As an ever hopeful romantic I fear I will be disappointed by the way the renewed relationship is shaping up, plus, while the ‘amber’ reference is to a streetlight, it also has resonances of traffic lights, where it does mean ‘prepare to stop, or stop if you safely can’ – I cannot feel encouraged.
So, in summary, a slim volume with a narrow focus, and rooted in the everyday existence, and yet packing a very considerable metaphysical and romantic punch. I thoroughly recommend it.
Rowena Sommerville has written poems and made things all her life, the last thirty years of which have been lived in lovely Robin Hood’s Bay. She has worked in a huge variety of community settings and arts organisations. Having left full-time work in 2017, she is now freelance, both as a creative and as a project producer. She also sings with and writes for the acappella band Henwen which has been performing locally and nationally for a long and harmonious time.
Melissa Diem’s This is What Happened reviewed by Emma Lee
This is What Happened by Melissa Diem. €19.70 inc worldwide p & p. PoetryBusPress http://thepoetrybusmag.wix.com/change
This is What Happened is a collection of poems and artwork – chiefly photographs of buildings and interior scenes, usually peopleless. Both offer a play on possibilities, dreams and flights of fancy and the poems frequently use an image as a jumping off point, e.g. in “Glimpsed Auntie in New York”, where “These days I spend more time imagining lottos and picking out real estate/ it’s structured over a dune a long legged hollowed out animal on its way to the beach”. The poem continues:
She has a high-waisted bikini on, oversized sunglasses and Jackie O smile
This is the image I play of my aunt it must’ve been the Hamptons
it must’ve belonged to someone else a sunburst and sparkly eye opener to a seven-year
old girl who secretly wished she was adopted but someone arrived and limbs moved
quickly and my auntie could be heard make sorts of apologies and explanation
I was wearing culottes and my hair in a bun
My father said it was typical and something about real world commitment
But my aunt wasn’t the one fleeing New York in a yellow VW Beetle
It’s accompanied by a collage image of a house with walkway down to the beach and a VW Beetle with a black and white photo of a young girl in the back. The aunt on the beach seems to be the one with a dreamy lifestyle which is criticised by the father (it’s not clear if the aunt is his sister or a sister-in-law), yet he’s the one who drives away. The poem states he drove to Florida, the location for the following poem and photo, “Coordinates of Time and Place” is a photo of a house in Key West with the poet’s pregnant mother on the porch:
I want to go back and watch us me and my sisters from the outside I want to see
what we looked like and my brothers while I’m at it
how we talked and moved and got in and out of cars before we left the continent
maybe make some cuts change some scenes I want to walk the streets of New York
in sixty-nine and the early seventies
I want to meet this other self who I would have been
Don’t we all find ourselves wondering what might have been if a different decision had been made? The long lines typical of most of the poems create a sense of expansiveness, taking an idea and seeing how far it will go. The longer gaps between some of the phrases suggest pauses in thought, as if the poems are real-time recordings that capture the points when thoughts drift or the thinker has to wait for a word to surface. Leaving America was a decision imposed by parents on their children so naturally one an adult child looking back might consider and explore what might have been if they’d stayed. That idea the speaker not having automony is picked up again in “Red Dress”:
I wore a small red dress
It was not for me to decide
what would happen next
It’s not clear if the dress is small because the wearer is still a child or if it’s an adult wearing a short (small) dress. The choice of “red” is tricky. Children are often put in primary colours or it might be a favourite colour or it could be a signifier of (potential) passion. Whichever, the speaker is waiting for something, that they appear to have no say in, to happen. In “My Father Has Emphysema,” the speaker is an adult looking back:
I’m climbing into the pit of my childhood to grab a few things and get back out again
before he sees me while sights and sounds hurl towards, around and behind me –
and I’m wondering why people don’t check out more often
The use of “check out” creates the idea that childhood is like a hotel adults can check in and out of at will. But the memories created in childhood don’t get left behind even if you do check out of them, a little like “Hotel California”, the song by The Eagles where you can check out but can’t leave. Later in the poem there’s a reference to “dolls in red dresses” so the earlier poem “Red Dress” could be read as a doll’s voice, something inaminate waiting to be aminated by a child. “My Father Has Emphysema” contains a note of childish defiance, “I’m pushing my future around because you’re not! going to be its determinant.”. A now-adult child pushing herself to be independent from her father. The emphasis of the exclamation mark isn’t just childlish but also an implication that her father made some wrong decisions or wants a different life for his daughter.
Ideals meet reality in “An American Road Trip in Ireland”, where the speaker imagines, “I’m wearing high heels and flipping poker chips as though I lived in Paris Texas” meanwhile:
all those smoke-filled rooms in midland towns with long crossed legs on tipped back
to the ceiling chairs where our conversations rose like clouds of moths
as we planned our escape on a road trip out of Ireland never having figured in
an ocean or your luggage and the birds were watching
from the wires while it all played out and the foxes nearly weeping
for where it might have gone
with a bit more road
Ireland doesn’t have America’s expanse and the practicalities of making a trip happen scupper the reality of making it happen. The moths of conversation fly towards the light but continue into the dark beyond. “Falling” has a speaker at the airport unable to choose where to go:
as you stand with your flight all arranged out of here and me going nowhere –
under a roof that rests on walls only because its wants to fall and I’m staring
at these meaningless coins falling from my palm Halved between two selves –
one falling apart and the other unchanging with eyes that are dying to shut
or to see and waving you off at the terminus with nothing to say
and it took me so long to find you
The separation has triggered a sense of unbelonging, a feeling common to migrants of being caught between two countries and not fully belonging in either. A feeling that can be buried until something, here “you” leaving, triggers it.
The collection’s final poem, “Surrender”, ends on a notion that an insect landing on the speaker would take a mouthful of her away and:
if I just stay still then this insect would take bites of me away
that this stillness could somehow change me pare me down
piece by piece until I would be left
with only goodness
It’s a fanciful notion that somehow sloughing off the ‘bad’, when an individual’s actions or decisions resulted in hurt for someone else, would be possible. The desire to edit a life is understandable but characters who are only good or only do good are boring. It’s flaws and how they are handled that make for interesting reading.
This is What Happened is an exploration of alternatives and desires, how the impact of decisions, particularly by parents that impact on children, can linger long after they’re made. The poems start with an image and ask ‘what if?’, what if a different decision was made? What if that journey was not taken? What if a life could be edited and re-written? What if we could ensure what survives us is the good we did, not the embarrassments? The long lines and gaps in place of punctuation recreate the experience of allowing thoughts to drift and make connections, the spaces where a word or image has to be found. Through the combination of poems and complementary images, Melissa Diem asks readers to engage and imagine back to their own lives. What happened to you? How would you have made a difference? The questions are asked without an agenda. “This is What Happened” is a gentle, thought-provoking collection.
Emma Lee has been widfely published and is a regular reviewer for The High Window.
Derek Coyle’s Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee, Carlow reviewed by Calvin Wharton
Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee, Carlow by Derek Coyle. Magnus Grehn forläg. ISBN: 978-91-984419-5-6
In his note at the back of Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee, Carlow, Derek Coyle begins by stating: ‘There is never a bridge too far.’ Throughout this collection, Coyle energetically explores possibilities such a declaration suggests, bringing with him an A-list crowd of companions. From Johnny Cash to Franz Kafka, Genghis Khan to Mozart, John Lennon to Kathleen Ní Houlihan—each is incorporated into the poems as a character, active rather than simply name-dropped.
Neither is the American poet, John Ashbery simply a name spliced into the book’s title. An openness to the potential inherent in each poem that characterizes Ashbery’s approach to writing permeates and shines through in Coyle’s work. He’s not leaning on the other poet’s reputation, or imitating his style, but acknowledging an affinity for an expansiveness which I imagine Ashbery would have appreciated.
A suggestion of how Coyle has come to such a poetic process can be found in Carlow Poem #7, where he writes:
I think it’s fair to say
knowing is a type of cloud
that stops you from seeing
something else—equally true
Coyle incorporates a unique titling scheme, in which most of the poems are numbered, as in the poem mentioned above. In each case, the titles use odd numbers, and don’t appear in numerical order. Employing odd numerals counters the glibly complete roundness of even numbers, suggesting that even the titles respect the overall openness of the poems.
The collection begins with ‘The Shoulder’, a lyrical homage to Kafka, and ends with several poems spun from Coyle’s experience of Sweden. These comprise the handful of non-numbered poems in the book; but despite the minor variances from the ‘Carlow Poem’ entries, the tone and structural strategies remain constant.
Coyle typically composes with short lines. This technique accentuates the deceptively casual cadence of the poems, and in some the use of enjambment nudges the reader forward while gently reconnecting in reverse. The pace of the poem wants to be quick, but the speaker encourages the reader to slow down. It’s a clever device that mimics a spoken voice. For example, in ‘Carlow Poem #55’:
I’ve been reading
John Ashbery too much
and need to learn
the saxophone. I’m sure
Hamlet knew moments
like this, when the sun
and the summer breeze
are too much fullness
However, in a few of the poems the short lines create a feeling of breathlessness that works against the rhythmic progression, for example in ‘Carlow Poem #19’:
Given the state
of your earnings
and the global scale
of your financial affairs,
we refuse to travel
any further from sea
to mountain, and
mountain back to sea.
Here, the line endings seem to stumble. But this is rarely the case, as typically Coyle will offer a line or two that provides a resolving comment, reassuring the reader, as in ’Carlow Poem #47’:
When Beethoven played piano
it was like the moon
generated more heat
than the sun, flashing
sporadically in weird
electrifying bursts of energy.
I want my poems
to be like that.
Coyle’s enthusiastic imagination acrobatically juggles a variety of seemingly disparate scenarios, as found in ‘Carlow Poem #97’ where Marianne Moore hangs out with Cassius Clay and Norman Mailer, dancing like ‘popcorn in Chile/ —caritas, or “little goats”—/ the way it jumps in the pan.’
There is of course, a real Carlow (where Coyle lives and teaches), but the Carlow of this collection is more like a doorway to a parallel poetic universe. The poems range geographically far and wide, to Vienna, New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Buckingham Palace and beyond. But despite the large cast and variety of locations, the dominant speaker’s voice remains consistent and significant throughout.
Consider the shortest piece, Carlow Poem #21, which begins: ‘The Earth spoke’ and resolves into an address of complaint at the way its human inhabitants treat this planet. Is this the Earth speaking for the poet, or is the poet speaking through the voice of the Earth? Indeed, Coyle’s many characters have a lot to say, but he deftly leads the reader to disregard that these are his words filtered through the characters. Or perhaps more accurately, filtered through the reader’s perception of who those characters might be.
There’s also a numbered ‘Tranås Poem’ entry, which comes from the poet’s time spent in Sweden, particularly as a participant in a Coracle Europe Literary residency. In this and several companion poems, Coyle’s portal to that other universe shifts to the town of Tranås, ‘too eccentric/ and interesting for the prescriptions/ of common sense’. The poet introduces the place and its inhabitants, who love to tell the ‘tale of Lenin/ passing the town in the train,/ just days before its infamous/ potato rebellion.’
The poems reveal and take energy from the poet’s sense of humour, an element that often drives Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee, Carlow. The reader encounters, among other things, a chicken making soup (and ‘glad he wasn’t in it’), a jockey who wins a race despite having a heart attack midway through, and Ghandi cheating at a table quiz. Certainly, there is no bridge too far.
And Coyle’s willingness to cross the many ‘bridges’ he encounters in this collection creates numerous pleasant surprises along the way. Readers are fortunate to travel along with him and his imagined entourage, and can be confident in their masterful guide.
Calvin Wharton lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada, and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is the former chair of Creative Writing at Douglas College. His books include a collection of short fiction, Three Songs by Hank Williams; a collection of poetry, The Song Collides; and most recently a poetry chapbook: The Invention of Birds. A new collection of poems, titled This Here Paradise, will be published in 2022.
Louisa Adjoa Parker’s How to wear a skin reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
How to wear a skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker, £9.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN:9-781910834985
Louisa Adjoa Parker writes poetry, fiction and Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) history. Her first poetry collection and pamphlet were published by Cinnamon Press, and her work has been published and performed widely. She has been highly commended for the Forward Prize, and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is of English and Ghanaian heritage and has lived in the south west of England for most of her life. Among other things, she is a co-founder of The Inclusion Agency (TIA) which provides consultancy around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to a range of organisations as well as delivering diverse Arts and Heritage projects in the south west.
Parker’s poems in How to wear a skin are concerned primarily with the subject of identity. In this collection, identity is explored in a range of different guises. It is chiefly to do with place and history but it is also manifested in terms of genetics, temperament, cultural traditions and habits. It can even be defined by the clothes we wear.
Being of English and Ghanaian heritage, Parker is steeped in two different cultures with an ocean of difference between them. Navigating these seas is no easy matter. In ‘What I Have Lost’ she reflects on school holidays in Ghana, ‘living with two cultures / side by side like twins / who are completely different.’ She knows that she is ‘someone who is more / than just one thing – / a bit of this and a bit of that’. The need for acceptance and belonging is palpable in ‘Beach Huts’ where she wants to tell a woman with a little boy who trails behind her ‘I lived here once, I lived here, me.’ In ‘Land, Real And Imagined,’ she addresses the question of where she is from, a question that is offensive to many BAME people in our society today.
‘Take Back Control’ is a powerful political poem that touches on many issues that are endemic in society: racism, nationalism and migration to name but a few.
Her love of language and the ingenious games that can be played with it is self-evident in ‘Breaking Point’ where the first stanza explores the word ‘breaking’ and the second the word ‘point’ as separate entities in their own right. These explorations knit themselves together to create a pattern that is pertinent to the title itself.
‘The Scarlet Ladies Come To Town’ plays with language in a different way by revolving around the key word ‘Scarlatina’ – an alternative name for ‘scarlet fever’. Innocence, temptation and experience are all woven into the fabric of this poem about a mother’s concern for her daughters who are being set on fire (metaphorically speaking) by the ‘rose-cheeked’ scarlet ladies who have ‘lips the colour of post-boxes’ are ‘heady with excitement’ and can’t wait to ‘paint the town red’.
In ‘Duffel Coat’ Parker keeps us guessing as to whether the person she is portraying is alive or dead. It could be an obituary since everything is stated in the past tense but it could also be a recollection of someone that the speaker once knew who may still be alive. Every detail in this 32 line poem defines the man. The red Citroen that he drove, the way he would inch it up the drive, the grand piano in the drawing room, his love of parties, the fact that ‘he didn’t do housework but liked to mow the lawn’ all act as identity-markers. They build up a picture, a kind of identikit of who he was (or still is), right down to the fact that ‘sometimes he’d wear a duffel coat for days,’ a piece of information that Parker lets slip at the very end of the poem bringing it full circle in terms of linking it with the title.
Several poems address issues such as drug and alcohol addiction and others hint at domestic violence. These short, powerful poems are imbued with strength and send out a warning to others. In ‘The Best Years of Her Life,’ Parker cuts straight to the chase:
The Best Years of her Life
went up in smoke; sitting
in hazy bedrooms, dis-used sheds
watching the orange tip spark and glow
in the darkness, waiting her turn,
heads nodding lazily to a reggae beat.
Washed down with booze
bought from dodgy pub landlords
or begged from older boys.
Anger gives way to compassion in the emotionally charged ‘How To Be A Good Daughter’:
Forgive him. Wholly and completely
even though last week you’d decided
it was better not to see him. Dig deep
into the chambers of your heart.
Do not forgive, then un-forgive, and then
forgive again. Understand
he is a person too.
Parker is a survivor. Often there are more questions than answers but that does not stop her from trying to find out the right answers:
I want to bang my head
against a wall until
the right answer falls out of me
lands at my feet
like a coin
from a fruit machine.
Two memorial poems, ‘Bones: an end and a beginning’ and ‘Pearls’ reveal a remarkable sense of empathy for events from the past that clearly still resonate with us today. The first of these commemorates Melanie Hall, who disappeared on 9 June 1996, following a night out at Cadillacs nightclub in Bath. It was not until 5 October 2009 that her partial remains were discovered, after a plastic bin bag containing human bones was located by a workman on the M5 motorway near Thornbury, South Gloucestershire. The second commemorates Henrietta Lacks an African-American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important in medical research that continues to be an invaluable to the present day. As was then the practice, no consent was obtained to culture her cells. Consistent with modern standards, neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use.
A series of love poems, in particular, ‘Warm Pebbles,’ and ‘Black Orchid,’ which act as a counterweight to some of the more difficult subjects aired in this book, are sensual and exotic and show a lyrical side to her writing.
In this collection Parker writes with compassion and conviction about her experience of being a BAME person in the south west of England. In doing so, she also writes about issues that we can all identify with, and learn from, in our quest to build a better world.
Kitty Donnelly’s The Impact of Limited Time reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The Impact of Limited Time by Kitty Donnelly, £9.50 (PB), Indigo Dreams Publishing,
Born in Oxford and of Irish parentage, poet and critic Kitty Donnelly is an MA student at Manchester Writing School and has degrees in English and Mental Health Nursing. In 2019, she received a Creative Future Award and was commended in the McLellan Poetry Competition. A regular reviewer for Mslexia, she also assists in editing the online journal The Beautiful Space – A Journal of Mind, Art and Poetry. She currently lives in West Yorkshire.
The Impact of Limited Time is Donnelly’s debut collection and it is dedicated to her father, the writer and lecturer, Hugh Donnelly (1951-2003) who taught her to value limited time. The collection was joint winner of the Indigo Dreams Collection Competition for 2019.
Drawing on crime novels, police work and the judiciary and her own personal experience of working in mental health, Donnelly conjures up narrations from the past and the present on subjects as varied as childhood and childbirth, missing persons, states of mental health, Pre-Raphaelite muses, loss and single parenthood with compelling power. The unsettling nature of some of these poems have the edge of an Edward Hopper painting. They have the power to convey so much through what is unsaid after Donnelly has painted in words the briefest of introductions.
The title very much conveys the theme of this book. Titles in the table of contents: “Time,” “Limited Time,” “Age of 37,” “After the Solstice,” and “The Day The Leaves Let Go” bear this out. To Donnelly, time is ‘a dull insistence’ that tugs at us ‘like a thread / spooling from a wheel’. In an interview for The Wombwell Rainbow (11 January 2020) Donnelly gives us an insight into the problems of time management in terms of finding or making time to write.
In that same interview, she speaks of her ‘extremely down-to-earth childhood where finding a ten pence piece in the lining of the sofa was an event of high excitement (meaning sweets or being able to go to Brownies),’ a subject that is covered in her poem “Church of Sweets”.
The pervading atmosphere of several of her poems is that of mystery. The first poems she read that inspired her were “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes and “The Listeners” by Walter de la Mare. Both of them have a mysterious quality about them and that quality can be felt in Donnelly’s “Dusk in an Empty House” and the unsettling “A Year in the Butcher’s Flat” with its reference to Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent who was reported missing, presumed murdered, in 1994 and whose case still remains unsolved.
There is much to admire in this collection. For a start, there are some eye-catching titles: “Swansea on the Rocks,” “Relative Who Leapt From His Breakfast and Was Never Seen Again,” “Dusk in an Empty House,” and “She takes the room in Miller’s Court.” There are some good turns of phrase: ‘when subtlety cracks like a river bed,’ ‘timers touching noses over alleyways,’ and ‘pockets of cold questions / jangling like coins long out of currency’ and there is the musicality of repeating vowels and consonants in ‘I Used to Work Here Once’ where she writes:
……….A girl scales
stile and furrow, the cycle of seasons
ingrained in her bones, as tide
ridges rock, or rings of an oak
map winters without nourishment.
The economy of ‘Field Mouse in the Rat Trap’ where so much is said in five short couplets is perfection itself. Donnelly is also a believer in strong end lines. These are especially evident in “Mr Sparks,” “Woodman,” “Age of 37” and “Pudding Lane” – a poem about the Great Fire of London seen through the lens of the maidservant.
The sonnet, “Birds in the Hospital” delivers on two levels simultaneously – nature and man, man and nature within the framework of an invasive hospital procedure. The surprise attack (‘abush’ in the urban dictionary) of the birds ‘pecking the stitches of darkness’ on berries and stripping the holly bare is likened to a scope that is placed inside a patient and then finally withdrawn.
“Whitestone Farm” relies on the use of contrast (the frost-cast hillside versus the fire in the valley’s pit) for its visual impact and under its original title of “Night at Whitestone Farm” was long-listed for the Canterbury University Poet of the Year, 2016. “Fall” is Donnelly at her most personal. Here are the opening stanzas:
before towers had fallen
before cells misfired and multiplied
before we had the language to describe
what we were sheltered from
when we loved and were loved
where shadows were long
there were pale summer afternoons
when midges hovered in low clouds
and apples from the garden
shrank our tongues with sourness
where we ran ragged leaping streams
unselfconscious as animals
With the exception of two lines of recorded speech, the whole poem is without punctuation. It is as if this is a subject that can never be ended with a full stop because there will always be more to say, to remember and to be grateful for. This, and many of the other poems contained in this volume will continue to resonate long after they have been read. ‘The Impact of Limited Time’ is a very fine first collection from a poet whose voice is fresh and open, resonant and memorable.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).
Rosie Jackson and Dawn Gorman’s Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird reviewed by Ian Royce Chamberlain
Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird by Rosie Jackson and Dawn Gorman.
£5.99. Hedgehog Press. 978-1-913499-45-7
True collaboration is a joyous thing. Whether it’s poets and painters, dancers and musicians, actors and writers, few pursuits bring as much sheer satisfaction as the joint production of work that really chimes.
Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird was conceived with the announcement by Hedgehog Poetry Press of a competition in early 2019, the latest in their ‘Conversation’ series. A dialogue of 20 poems by two writers was required. Rosie Jackson and Dawn Gorman had no trouble in deciding on their theme: women, sex, ageing bodies and mortality, with occasional related digressions into the Natural World.
The process of creative collaboration stretched and delighted them both. Dawn says, ‘I found myself reaching higher, further, and focussing on our themes with heightened awareness – I was constantly gathering in related snippets, so as soon as a new poem from Rosie plopped in to my inbox, I was ready for the off, and would respond, with a first draft at least, more or less immediately.’ Rosie explains further, ‘We read our first drafts out loud to each other as a sequence, dropped some and rewrote some, then redrafted the whole as poems in their own right. So this was not just collating poems we’d written separately, but the slanting of poems against each other.’
The result is not the first book of poetry which might be sub-titled at-this-stage-of-my-life, but it is the most open and honest I’ve come across. That rawness is combined with the confident lyricism of two writers clearly at the top of their game. Reading and re-reading this consummate selection I was continually reminded of Sharon Olds, pieces like ‘I Go Back to May, 1937’. It’s easy to see why Aloneness… rose to the top of the judges’ pile.
And Hedgehog have done it proud – the finished product is beautifully designed and produced. Its contents, by and large, document the personal philosophies of two women who have adventured far and wide: women who possess the acute self-awareness which comes with maturity and – inevitably – magnifies perception of the ageing process. They have mis-adventured too, usually accompanied by men who were unsuitable or worse. I am only surprised they are not angrier; perhaps it’s because both poets appear to have arrived – eventually – at a selective groundedness.
In the largely conversational ‘All that Glitters’, Gorman presents arguments against the struggle for eternal youth; she sounds pleased to have become:
…someone who doesn’t shout but listens,
hears the groan of the wheel of the world,
steps up, presses her shoulder to it.
On the opposite page, after a harrowing memory of her mother in Untouched, Jackson ends on a positive note to herself:
… grateful to be carried safely thus far.
There are more and similar reflections. In ‘The Light We Can’t See’, Jackson reports the sudden death of a friend – and how such tragedies offer a new perspective:
… I don’t care any more who wears
the medals or feathers, I’m just thankful to have arrived
at the harvest of myself…
Perhaps that harvest is still going on: five poems end with question marks – mostly rhetorical, but enough to show that the new-found groundedness doesn’t include all the answers. In Treadmill, the opening poem, Jackson lightly contemplates the body’s ageing process; towards the end she admits:
… the treadmill is moving faster than I can run,
each day a scramble up the chute that tips us towards landfill.
The language throughout remains as plain as that – nothing is left open to misinterpretation, nothing is left unsaid. One poem in particular is shockingly direct. Jackson’s ‘Floored’ begins with a vividly painted couplet, no more than a hint of the horror to come:
I try to erase the day my father died, because pulling it
out of history’s python mouth brings shame sticky as coal dust.
Some readers have been appalled by ‘Floored’, genuinely upset. ‘I didn’t write it for shock value, simply to record what happened that day,’ Jackson has said. But shock it certainly does, the simply-told narrative clattering around in the mind for days – without doubt the most troubling poem I’ve read in years.
Men have much to answer for: three more lines from Gorman’s ‘All that Glitters’
all those bloody men,
too much screaming, too much booze,
too many lies (mostly theirs)…
And in ‘The Ground We Stand On’ Jackson’s mother:
… longed for a real bloke
who could mend cars, win the pools, have a backbone
that didn’t cave in to illness…
To balance the darker memories, both poets find room for optimism, but on their own terms. In Bloodlines Gorman reveals:
I love my solitude, would rather wake
to the natter of sparrows under
centuries’ old eaves than to some man’s
flicked-on radio beside me…
And Jackson, reviewing her career and the place she stands now, admits to:
‘Folly, of course, from a worldly point of view, to fall
under the spell of words, to live so near the breadline.
But it taught me to hear things in shells, to notice the in-between,
the weeds (les mauvaises herbes), the hidden path, interstices.
Gorman’s ‘Hands Like Ours’ brings the book to a homespun conclusion
We are capable of more love than we know.
That’s something to reach for, isn’t it,
in the dark of the night?
Rosie Jackson has called this project, ‘… the collective voicing of female experience from our era.’ She added, ‘Perhaps the effects of #MeToo have allowed this voicing more openly…’ I doubt any woman of her generation will fail to connect with it. Men should read it too, be ready to learn – and to hang their heads.
Ian Royce Chamberlain’s latest publication is an illustrated pamphlet from Mudlark Press, Not Forgotten / Nicht Vergessen. Earlier work has appeared in many anthologies in addition to two full collections, stumble into grace (Wylde, 2012) and Vertigo & Beeswax (Oversteps, 2017). Ian has a strong stage presence and is an accomplished reader of his own and other poetry. In 2014 he co-founded Teignmouth Poetry Festival.
Claire Booker’s The Bone that Sang reviewed by Alan Price
The Bone that Sang by Claire Booker. £6. Indigo Dreams. ISBN: 9781912876396
Dark humour, ironic detachment and acute social observation brim over (though never over the top) in Claire Booker’s The Bone that Sang. Here is a poet concerned with social injustice and individual hurt: however her controlled anger doesn’t make Booker a political poet or one of excessive self-examination. The hurt that concerns Booker never falls into obvious categories such as social commentary or personal confession. She’s more a dispassionate onlooker at the habitual imperfections of living and how to deal with them. Things might be difficult. But there are ways out to a necessary, if hard won compassion. Booker’s title poem, ‘The Bone that Sang’ announces her intension to make her finely crafted poems (or bones) command our attention.
‘The bones sing when they find a ready ear.’
Booker’s subject matter is extensive and intense. The plight of a would-be asylum seeker, the violence of a child in poverty, a homeless man swept up into a bin wagon, a weary billboard man and even a paving stone’s cry of freedom as it’s attacked during a riot. That last poem ‘A Paving Stone fights for Freedom’ being a remarkable
example of duality – an inanimate object is made to feel exhilarated by its uprooting and continues to comment on a demonstration. It’s quite something to imagine such a concept! Those poems, and others, announce a lyrically indignant voice, refusing to be easily politicised.
Of Booker’s more personally reflective side we have her memories of a relative devouring TV nature films, the tense intimacy of a couple holidaying in Greece and Spain, the chatting up by an unsuitable man (“So he Scarlet O’Hara’s her up the stairs”) and a poem about Booker’s dead mother concluding with the lines.
drops out of my hand like a dove.
It smells of her.’
Tender writing of this high quality reveals how Booker can cut through the business of dealing with the affairs of the dead to perceive a small object so piercingly as to make her mother live again. A Resurrection? Redemption? Maybe these are tricky words to now employ in criticism as they can have negative religious connotations and risk sentimentality.
Booker does have one very powerful, stand-out poem about religious ritual. Called ‘Passion at Oberammergau’ it concerns the villagers of Oberammergau in Bavaria who have staged a Passion play every ten years since 1633.
Her poem cleverly circumvents Christian belief for this is dubious theatre replete with ironies and disturbances – the actors remembering no performances taking place during 1940 because of the holocaust and its later legacy of great guilt.
Of Judas, Booker says:
‘Tomorrow, he’ll betray again with a kiss.
Cheek will touch cheek and a great love will be traded.
He takes the word forgiveness; pins it to his chest.’
Forgiveness is an apt noun for Booker and not just for irony. In spite of her unflinching eye, in the face of cruelty, Booker very much cares, whilst never pinning things obviously down, finding solutions. For the very last lines of her collection, settle the reader, gently and coolly, to deal with the outcome of hunting for all those bones and truths that must sing out.
‘The quiet truth of you
breathed out in snowdrop and celandine.’
Claire Booker is a serious poet with serious concerns that are tightly packed with intelligent, startling and rigorous imagery to make you read on. Perhaps at times she’s just a little too detached from her subjects and a shade self-conscious, but not much. Give me some of Booker’s brilliant standing back than the emoting of much current English poetry. A terrific pamphlet.
Alan Price is a poet, short story writer and film critic. Two collections of his poetry, Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady (2018) and The Trio Confessions (2020) have been published by The High Window Press. He’s also the author of two collections of stories, The Other Side of the Mirror (Citron Press, 1999) and The Illiterate Ghost (Ebionvale Press, 2019) Alan has recently completed a series of prose poems about films and has finished a novel called Dangerous Optics.
Carrie Etter’s The Shooting Gallery reviewed by John Rogers
The Shooting Gallery by Carrie Etter. £7.50. Verve Poetry Press. ISBN: 978-1-912565-45-0
Carrie Etter’s new pamphlet, The Shooting Gallery strikes at the core. If her previous collection, The Weather in Normal responded to environmental crisis, the prose poems here are responses to other human-wrought catastrophes: they deal with the aftermaths of unparalleled violence, until the reader gets to the next poem and finds something equally heinous playing out again.
The book is divided in two. The first half responds to the line drawings of Czech surrealist transgender artist, Toyen. Her art, also entitled ‘The Shooting Gallery’, depicts nightmarish landscapes, ones which are plagued by death, and the deeply confusing internal/external worlds of being young. The troubles Toyen presents were invariably influenced by the beginning of the Second World War, in addition to her own difficult formative years, and Etter communicates this darkness. For example, ‘The Shooting Gallery XII’ opens with a problematic closed question: ‘Is this the end of childhood?’ The abstract noun fits with the ambiguous question: whose childhood? The girl’s? Everyone’s?
The pamphlet’s genesis came from Toyen then but, during the writing process, became bound to the second half: US school and university shootings. Educational settings, as well as shooters infiltrating the privacy of dreams (from Toyen) are two of the most sickening places for violence. The poems in the second section continue to be called ‘The Shooting Gallery’ with a tag-line that denotes the specific tragedy. The reader is therefore unable to escape the relentless attacks on innocents and, though there are poems about attempts to take flight (birds are a motif in the first half), Etter tersely conveys how this is no option: ‘Yes, there are birdcages here and there, but none has held a song’ ends ‘The Shooting Gallery IV’.
There is a danger that the work could become predictable—each US atrocity being vividly presented with an all too overt call for reform on gun law, but Etter keeps her poems’ perspectives fresh until the last. Yes, she does depict the violence, but there’s equally cool reportage in ‘The Shooting Gallery, Normal Community High School, Illinois, 2012’. Etter turns to the first-person here to explore the closeness of shootings in her hometown, but still from a distance: ‘I Googled. I found in my town Darnall’s Gun Works & Ranges, C.I. Shooting Sports. I found photos of the aftermath, the brawny teacher leading a column of students / away, away’. The plain language points to a systematic search for information, and how disbelieving she must have been on encountering the images. There are echoes of Linda Black’s economical use of the form too. Black also presents difficult subject matter with easy language in a poem like ‘My Father’: ‘My father wore braces and shat in a bucket under the stairs. My father sat on a low stool lighting the boiler for hours.’ Etter finds a similar menace in her simple sentences and repetitions.
Could she bring the prose poems into dialogue more by selecting a Toyen poem to support what, for readers, is likely to be the more prominent topic of the school and university shootings? Perhaps, but this would disrupt the opportunity to read the Toyen poems as a sequence, and they do make a compelling set. A reader wants to turn from the haunting but is drawn right into the next poem: ‘You will be sated, but first you will bleed.’ ends ‘The Shooting Gallery IX’ before the next picks up ‘Across the desolate plateau / battlefield / meadow.’ The threatening modal verbs in the former suggests that the speaker is concluding some sadistic game (perverse forms of entertainment feature elsewhere, most notably ‘The Shooting Gallery, Santa Fe High School, Texas, 2018, where the killer sings, “Another one bites the dusts”), before Etter thrusts the reader back into an unfathomable landscape of paradox: all that grows is death. The Shooting Gallery is no comfortable read then, but it’s immediate and pertinent.
John Rogers is an MA Creative Writing student at Nottingham Trent University. He studied BA English at the University of Hull and was awarded the Joseph Henry Noble Scholarship in both 2012 and 2013 for continued performance. He achieved a PGDE in secondary education in 2016 and maintains a keen interest in providing English Language and Literature tuition.
Three chapbooks from Verve Poetry Press reviewed by Ken Evans.
Somehow by Helen Calcutt
A first page of search results for ‘Signs of Male Suicide’ are all US or Australia-based. Hardly scientific, but does it say something about British reticence on a subject, when male suicide is at a 20 year high in the UK (before Covid.) Helen Calcutt, creator of the poetry anthology ‘Eighty-Four’, produced in aid of the male suicide prevention charity CALM, makes an even more personal claim to the territory in her new pamphlet.
Calcutt’s brother killed himself three years ago. The poems in ‘Somehow’ convey all that grief and darkness but with plain, natural images of light, moons, trees, leaves, clouds, childhood and milk. The poets’ use of Nature’s exemplars as a way through her distress, ironically in Spring-time (most suicides, counter-intuitively, occur in the Spring), is limpid, delicate and austere and rendered with movement (Calcutt is a choreographer, and kinesis is clearly central to her work.)
In ‘The blossom tree’, a tree (or is it a human?) ‘lifts the tender heavy-groan of its roots one weighted foot / in front of the other and with a leaf-sigh / lowers cross-legged to sit in front of me.’ It is like the poets’ dance partner, ‘and tells me / I will be okay duly in a voice like a river’ The hardest poem to read for me was the moving, ‘A conversation with my daughter about my brother’s suicide,’ in which the poet’s daughter asks, in the way only a child can, ‘how he died’:
I try to explain.
Sadness can make you very tired,
It can make you want to sleep,
It can make you want to close your eyes on everything.
The repeated, incantatory diction is both child-like in its ‘simplicity’ and a ‘chorus’, touching on the profound. The hit-in-the-solar-plexus moment is when the child asks, ‘if the sadness of missing him / will make me… (the poet)… die.’ The mother-poet says, ‘I hold her then, / I accept / the weight of her.’ Load and different types of ‘weight’ (branches and bodies) feature strongly throughout the poems. This distressing poem concludes on the life-affirming uplift of mother and daughter who ‘agree – we want to see everything.’
The highly personal, but tender and lightly written, is contrasted with the ‘Found’ poem, and the Latinate words of a coroner’s post-mortem report. The forensic detail is almost too harsh to bear, ‘The mark was deep, 1cm / but no scar.’ The agony in the moment for the deceased is conveyed but combined with an aftermath in which there is no visible skin rupture. The bureaucratising of death, examined on a slab with exactitude but no empathy, is powerfully evoked. This is a tough, touching and necessary read. My only reservation is too challenging in its’ own right, in a way, in that ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ featuring three times in six lines toward the end of the last poem, seems too great a shift from the lyric and personal, to the universal and epic, as if reaching for transcendence at the last. If it is harsh to deny this sense of hope to the bereaved, I still wanted to stay with the personal, turned so beautifully in phrases and images of Nature as solace, and even, redeemer.
The Taxidermist by Shazea Quriashi
Taxidermy is an irresistible symbol of poetry and art. An article of August 2019 in The New Yorker was headlined ‘Taxidermy Is a Metaphor for Our Time: How a kitschy art became a symbol of sex, loss, and self-invention.’ Quraishi suggests the idea of Invention/Creator in her poems, with the opening poems being numbered Days 1-6, possibly referencing the biblical Creation myth. Each is interspersed with taxidermological musings on a white mouse. On Day 1, the creator ‘Begins / taking apart / putting together.’ On Day 2, revisions begin: crickets is crossed out in favour of ‘grasshoppers.’ In one of the interspersed poems, a mouse, ‘his modest truth disarms me’ and ‘I admire / this raw meat of us / this ease’. By Day 3, the artist’s meditative gaze is locked onto the details of ‘Sky blue as the bucket by the tap / air cool an ant crosses her foot / bees in the lavender bush. A bird in a tree ‘watches her watching’…and at the end, even air, inside her intense concentration, is colourised – ‘air smells how to describe it orange’
By the next day, the taxidermist is scrutinising her own practise, the ‘careful labour to preserve restore what? ‘Limbo’ is crossed out. The creator-poet-artist-scientist decides instead, ‘past-in-present perhaps an imprint a 3-dimensional holding / of memory (crossed out) of once-being’ In the third white mouse poem following, the poet-surgeon says: ‘ I sew him shut / wish him home. The ‘shut’ instead of the more natural ‘up’, suggests, despite all the layers of detail caught by the alert eye, the dead animal is an enigma, closed to complete understanding ‘he was / he is’ is all we can say in the end.
By Day 6, the poem’s lines are more expansive across the page, much has been filled-in, but in the end a hummingbird, ‘Nestled in the palm of her hand wings tucked in as though / cold / she regrets her wish to see one so close’ This sequence of poems about looking and knowing and the limits of that looking, culminates in ‘Reading’ (itself a form of knowledge-acquisition), where the whale in the poem, who may have swam ‘untroubled through the waters of the northern seas’ in Shakespeare’s time, is essentially still a mystery:
‘They lead secret lives….Nobody has seen one give birth they live so far below ships and divers we do not know they may be everywhere the ocean goes deep and cold thye could be closer than we think’ These contingent, creeping forward and down into greater and more acute perceptions give the poems movement, they are the ‘gaze.’ But dissect and probe as we may, we cannot ‘own’ or know this life, only our re-invention of it.
The Uniform Factory by Louise Fazackerley
Four ‘landays’ punctuate or make ‘pauses’ in this pamphlet. I nearly wrote ‘caesuras’, but feel sure Fazackerley, a rollicking, die-hard raconteur of Northern working-class daily life, would not put up with such a phoney, Latinate word, I feel sure. As I didn’t know, I looked-up a landay and read it is a 300 year-old Afghan folk poem form, perhaps recited or sung around the village water pump or washing stone. They share deep, harsh truths about the world. To this end they can be sorrowful and critical, though they can also be funny and full of ‘bite’, of satire. This last characteristic makes clear their appeal to Fazackeley, along with their roots in ordinary people’s lives, and not the ‘Academy.’ For ‘ordinary people’, read the extraordinary women of Afghanistan, who maintained the form even through a Taliban ban from 1996-2001.
They are couplet-based poems, with their second line longer than the first (there is more to it in the original, but as in the haiku, ‘interpretative licence’ is permitted, in the number of syllables used, for example). The bitterness Fazackeley captures in the first example, an almost bald statement of a violent aggression:
The drones have come to a British sky
The mouths of our rockets will sound in reply
Returning soldiers bring back the night-time sweats and tremors, though even with PTSD: ‘Paroxetine can make an erection last for hours.’ But ideally you come back not disturbed in mind but:
‘Be iodine-yellow or blood-red
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.’
Sex and violence are literal bedfellows.
Two longer poems stand out among the fruitfully sarcastic and dark landays, the four-page ‘Street Life’ and the slightly less long, ‘Remembrance Someday.’ The latter has echoes (perhaps it’s my age) of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ lyric (sung by Elvis Costello) and the same artists’ ‘Oliver’s Army’, with the final tercet, ‘Why do we remember, but never seem to learn? / And you’re washing your hands, you’re washing your hands, / you’re washing your hands.’
The italicised phrases reminded me that like in song, these lines are best heard live for their full impact, as drama plays as much a part in the poems’ forward movement as the words repetitions, counting out the beats, such as ‘Tut tut tut’ and ‘turn it, turn it. Turn it forwards’ and count-out Time literally, in a performative, almost metronomic way, with ‘tickticktick, twitching, defibrillating.’
‘Street Life’ has touches of John Cooper Clarke (an admirer and poetic kindred spirit of Fazackerley): ‘despite cheap water, cheap / Council Tax, / cheap strangers don’t buy / houses here. No matter how fecund / of thought they are.’ Leaving that supposedly higher functioning ‘fecund’ at the end of the line to emphasise the incongruity, in a world of ‘Back-to-backs in Accrington brick / and souped-up cars with neon lights,’ is classic J C-C. At other times, Fazackerley has an Ian Dury-esque (a word she will hate, probably) eye and ear for the street life she writes about. ‘dogs, muscular with half-light masters / who are thin, off their heads, / prescription meds., booze, / the walking dead’
The pamphlet only half-conceals its sarcasm, satire, despair and political outrage in its’ dark, deadpan street humour, much as in the discreetly virulent landays.
Ken Evans’ work has been longlisted for the Poetry Society’s National Competition (2015) and was highly commended in the 2015 Bridport Prize. His debut collection was shortlisted in both the Bare Fiction First Collection Competition and in the Poetry School/Nine Arches ‘Primers’ selection.
Three chapbooks from from Poet’s House, an imprint of Mulfran Press reviewed by Kathleen McPhelimy.
This trio of elegantly presented pamphlets from Poet’s House is presided over by Jenny Lewis and it is to her credit that the only thing each of these short collections has in common is their quality; there is no attempt at a house style.
The Tyring House by Lyn Thornton
The Tyring House by Lyn Thornton is a beautifully lucid series of poems, mostly, though not entirely, based on Shakespeare’s characters and plays; there is an excursion into Greece and the classics at the end of the book. Thornton is clearly steeped in the plays and her poems are informed by her close familiarity with the texts as well as the many productions she has seen. This can be seen in ‘Lear’ where the strong visual detail suggests the theatre:
their father’s feet, tiny in kid leather, assault
to rest on
while the ‘nothing’ opening the next stanza isolates and foregrounds a key word from the text.
I remember, when I was a teacher, how A-level classes used collectively to fall in love with Hamlet. Lyn Thornton’s Fortinbras seems also to have succumbed. The poem, despite its name, is all about Hamlet, from a hero-worshipping portrait of him as a student in Wittenberg, ‘all purpose and defiance’ to the tender final image ‘when [the light] catches your hand/slender and white as a girl’s’. Usually, Thornton avoids such almost sentimental involvement in the characters as she explores their back stories and futures in clear-sighted language. She shows Paulina, from The Winter’s Tale, creating order and calm in the midst of chaos and heartbreak. The austere, controlled couplets mimic Paulina’s iron control over herself:
She folds linen neatly into piles
with the calmness of a nun
this is what she’s good at
this is what she’s perfected
Paulina, the agent of redemption in the play, has a role influenced by a mixture of Christianity and a more ancient magic. In the poem, she appears as an image of long-suffering but powerful womanhood. This is where Thornton’s project is most valuable. She is not just developing her own views of various much-loved Shakespeare characters. She is using them to explore aspects of human behaviour and emotions.
Margot Myers: I Meant to Say
Margot Myers is also an observer of human behaviour and emotions. ‘Sex Lives of Aunts’ and ‘The Conquest of Everest, 1953’ are warm, comic poems which might seem to evoke the past of the Hovis advertisements or early episodes of Call the Midwife. However, Myers’ eye for detail hints at the reality behind the fuzzy glow. She remembers the next-door neighbour she had a crush on as a little girl:
Timothy Beevers, Timmy, Tim – you are a god, descending
from the snowy sky in your pale-blue cable-knit jumper
and your lovely round head shining under the lamplight
like a golden doorknob.
However, the adult poet records the conditions her mother was working in as she ‘gropes through the sooty steam, and with no extra oxygen/ gets on with stuffing the bird.’
She makes skilful use of mock heroic to create irony as she includes phrases in italics from contemporary accounts of the ascent of Everest. The bathos is reinforced even in the phrase ‘golden doorknob’, a simile which describes her hero’s head, as he climbs, not Mount Everest, but the roof of her house where the chimney is on fire.
Perhaps the prevailing characteristic of this pamphlet is the poet’s celebration of exuberance, evident in the opening ‘Bukbukbukbukbukbukbuk’ of ‘Aubade’, the first poem, in My Life in Meringues where the final line gives the poem its title, and in ‘Buddleia’, where the ungovernable plant, ‘floozing/its purple on street corners//tagging the wall/by the bus stop…’ comes to represent the irrepressibility of life. However, the poet’s wit becomes more sardonic when she confronts the downside of the past, as in ‘Housewives’ Choice’:
My mother’s breath condensed down the walls,
her hair grew thin. She hid her sweets
deep in the sideboard drawer.
Myers is very good at being funny, even when the subject is grim (‘Your Farewell Performance in the Methodist Hall’), but her work has a depth and range which will be better served in a longer collection.
Catherine Faulds: decoding the dark
Decoding the Dark by Catherine Faulds is the most challenging of these three pamphlets, thought-provoking in the best sense. We are told that the poems developed out of a mixed media project on the theme of darkness undertaken jointly by the poet and the artist, Sarah Davidmann. They spent several weeks in Svalbard during the darkness of the Norwegian winter. Catherine Faulds is herself an artist and one can imagine these poems working well in a gallery complemented by photographs and visual work. Some of the poems are lucid descriptions of the arctic experience, others experiment with visual and aural patterning of words devoid of syntax. The collection makes me want to ask questions. Why, for example, does the writer use the third person in ‘arrival’: ‘through the window/in the arrivals hall/she sees nothing’? Assuming this is not the description of someone else’s experience, we can speculate that the writer is trying to separate the person who was there from the artist who creates. This attempt at detachment reflects the poet’s suppression of the lyrical or subjective ‘I’ in order to honour the landscape which she is presenting. Nevertheless, I think ‘I’ would have worked equally well. In contrast, the use of third person pronouns is effectively cinematic in ‘editing’: ‘she opens the car door/…. she’s part of the story’, ‘he’s shouting he runs with a rifle/he’s entering the picture space’.
A cool, quasi-scientific gaze is achieved successfully in ‘Hecla’, ‘Pyramiden’ and ‘species of ice’. In the last she combines the technical terms for different kinds of ice with brilliantly selected epithets: the nip ice ‘takes/hold with pincer floes’ whilst shuga ice is described as ‘sharking closer’. Here, poetic exactness and creativity combine.
The decoding the dark sequence becomes increasingly convincing with rereading. I can imagine the poems projected on walls over huge photographs of arctic scenes, and I understand that they are built from contributions of words and phrases for darkness, so in that sense are almost communally authored. The second poem is particularly visually striking as it reaches forward in a bow shape and then bends back; the fourth invites an oral performance with its sequences of ever fewer syllabled words finishing with several which, at least in English, are sounds without meaning:
a an ar ra da ao de us at bid ale mo di be ro ta or in ar re an
The effect of this is to undermine the status of words that are words or to make the reader try to combine syllables into meaning. The instability of the language reflects the fragmentation of the ice and the fragility of the environment which the poet is exploring.
The third in the series is particularly moving as it orders and reorders words and phrases to create effects which are suggestive, beautiful and ominous:
xxxxxx a coal nocturne
Kathleen McPhelimy grew up in Northern Ireland but now lives in Oxford. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She has published three collections, the most recent being The Lion in the Forest(Katabasis, 2005).
The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan
reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones. £19.99. Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 78410 994-3 3
‘Traditore traduttore.’ All translations involve distortion, dilution or both, and good translations of great poetry tease us with the desire to get closer to the original than any one version can bring us. Evan Jones’s The Barbarians Arrive Today gives all the canonical poems and a large number of unpublished ones (Jones calls them ‘hidden’) in English translation only, together with nine prose pieces. It’s a valuable supplement to existing translations, for those who already know Cavafy, and a good point of entry for those who don’t. There are masterstrokes in it that throw a brighter light on particular poems than any other versions I’ve seen. There are inevitably disappointments, but a number of his versions will become my ‘go to’ poetic translations. Unfortunately you have to read quite far into the book before reaching these.
It’s in the poems with (for Cavafy) contemporary settings that Jones most fully comes into his own. ‘He Planned to Read’, ‘He Asked About the Quality’, ‘Two Young Men, Aged 23 or 24’ ‘The Street’ and others give brief, thrillingly vivid glimpses of moments of overwhelming sexual desire or dazed fulfilment. They share an extreme sense of transience, even if the moment of loss that implicitly haunts them lies in an unimagined future. One where Jones scores a particular triumph is ‘The Bandage’. In this, the speaker recalls a visit by a man with a bandaged shoulder. He says that when this visitor reached for a photograph on a high shelf the bandage came loose, and the wound bled. The speaker retied the bandage, taking his time because he liked the sight of the blood. After the visitor had left, the speaker found a bit of bloody dressing on the floor and pressed it to his lips for a long time. Meticulously, almost pedantically detailing these actions and the visitor’s apparent lie about how he came by the injury, Cavafy builds up a powerful sense of actively suppressed feelings which demand poetic release. Jones’s masterstroke comes in the final line. Keeley and Sherrard translate this tamely and vaguely as ‘the blood of love against my lips’, Mendelsohn as ‘the blood of love upon my lips’ but Jones as ‘the blood of longing on my lips’. With the word ‘longing’ the poem’s implicit drama comes into sharper focus and finds explosive release. The last line resonates and lingers in the mind, and – as a great last line should – makes us replay the whole poem in our imaginations again and again.
Against transience we have memory. At its most basic, there’s the involuntary memory of the body, described in ‘Return’. Jones’s translation of this beautifully intertwines lyrical symmetries with the more irregular cadences of urgent speech:
Return often and take me, the loveliest
sensations return and take me –
when memory of another’s body awakens
and an aging passion runs through the blood;
when lips and skin remember,
and hands feel as if they touch again.
Return often and take me in the night,
when lips and skin remember …
In its very nature as a prayer for and evocation of involuntary memory, this poem goes beyond such memory, becoming an instance of that memorializing power of art that meant so much to Cavafy.
Jones’s book is less useful as a way in to the historical poems than to the contemporary ones. This is partly because of the lack of notes. Cavafy was steeped in Greek history and wrote about it in a way that assumes knowledge few non-Greek readers will have. One example is the poem titled ‘Aemilianos Monae, Alexandrian, 628 – 655 A. D.’ Aemilianos speaks the first eight lines, telling us he’ll craft ‘an impressive suit of armour’ out of words and body language, hiding his weakness, fear, traumas and vulnerability from ‘vile men’. Four lines by another speaker call this bluster, tell us that Aemilianos died in Sicily at twenty-seven and wonder whether he ever did craft that armour. We don’t need to know more than the poem tells us for a certain pathos to come through, or to see the typical Cavafian preoccupation with vain intentions. However, we probably wonder why Cavafy specified that Aemilianos was Alexandrian and died in Sicily. The answer is in his dates. The Arabs conquered Alexandria and the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Middle East in 642 AD, when Aemilianos was fourteen. Knowing this sharpens the poignancy of his boast and fate. We see him as an exile or refugee whose fear of humiliation leads him to cultivate a self-protective image, and we see the irony of his choosing the metaphor of ‘armour’ to describe it. We also see his representative function: his poem marks the end of the Hellenistic world in the Middle East. Jones places it in a section called ‘Portraits and Memorials’, which ignores this representative function, but the lack of historical background also stops us seeing clearly the kind of person it portrays.
Lack of contextual knowledge also limits understanding of the much more important ‘In 200 B.C.’ This begins with a quotation, printed as an epigraph by Jones: ‘Alexander, son of Philip and all the Greeks excluding the Lakedaimonians…’ The quotation is from a phrase that Plutarch tells us Alexander the Great caused to be inscribed on booty from his conquests when he sent it back to Greece. The Lakedaimonians – the Spartans – had refused to accompany his great expedition because, as Jones puts it,
campaign without a Spartan in command –
who would fear that?
The longish first stanza considers the Spartan point of view, at first seeming to embrace it as a natural one for the foremost military power of the classical Greek world. Then two shorter stanzas draw the consequences. Pride in past supremacy has led the Spartans to become a backwater in the next phase of Greek history, not participating in Alexander’s crushing defeat of Persia at Granicus, Issus and Erbil or the creation of the great new world of Hellenistic culture with its Greek-ruled kingdoms in Egypt, Syria and Persia:
Exclude the Lakedaimonians from Granicus;
and from Issus; and the final
battle, where the fearsome Persian army
at Erbil was swept away.
The first level of irony in the poem is easy to grasp: it’s directed against the Spartans by the speaker, looking back from a high point of Hellenistic culture 134 years after the battle of the Granicus. Already there’s a subtle balance between such irony and a sense of pathos at what the Spartans have done to themselves. But the key to the poem – the point of its title – is a further irony at the expense of the speaker. In the year 200 BC the Hellenistic world was itself on the brink of defeat by Rome. The speaker reveals his own blindness even as he mocks that of the Spartans. This doubling of the irony expresses Cavafy’s profound pessimism about how the course of events, the processes of history and time, expose illusions and make a mockery of aspirations. That puts it too simply though. This isn’t the kind of crude, simple irony where A really means B. Nor is its gaze at human aspiration simply destructive. The interplay of mutually undercutting but equally partial perspectives releases complex ripples of reflection. However pig-headed it was and however much it’s been wrong-footed by events, the attitude of the Spartans has an integrity that gives it a kind of dignity when compared with the frivolous-sounding complacency of the speaker in 200 BC. This dignity is more fully suggested in the outstanding ‘In Sparta’ (which unfortunately isn’t one of Jones’s better translations). However, the speaker isn’t treated to simple ridicule either. When he celebrates
Our influence, our ability
to adapt, a common language, Greek,
carried forth to Bactriana, to the Indians
he’s celebrating a colossal cultural achievement, one that far outlasted Alexander’s or the Romans’ military power. Greek was the language of the Byzantine Empire – the part of the Roman empire that survived into the fifteenth century – and of course the language in which Cavafy wrote his poems. From this point of view, the date in the title suggests how long the inheritance has endured.
Some of the best historical poems are essentially freestanding, of course, in a way that allows Jones the poet-translator to come into his own. One such is the exquisite ‘Caesarion’. In this, the speaker tells us he was idly reading a book of Ptolemaic inscriptions when he came on a brief mention of the supposed son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, murdered by Augustus. There follows a haunting reverie about this almost unknown youth, who becomes for Cavafy an incarnation and symbol of vulnerable, defeated beauty. The power of the poem depends on a shift between two styles, one detached and mildly cynical, the other lyrically rapt. Despite one or two jarring notes, Jones captures the shift effectively, sometimes departing from literal detail for the sake of a deeper truth to feeling:
I would have put the book down but for a brief
and minor entry on King Caesarion
which caught my attention …
Fleshed out in the depth of night,
my lamp flickering –
how I wanted it to flicker –
you came into my room
and stood before me – as you stood
in conquered Alexandria,
pale and tired, in complete sorrow –
hoping those wicked men might pity you,
they who hissed, ‘One Caesar too many.’
Even more successful is his version of the great ‘Myris, Alexandreia 340 AD’, which also needs no more information than the poem itself holds. Here, the centre of interest is psychological. Set in a time of transition between paganism and Christianity, it gives a young pagan’s account of attending the wake of his Christian beloved, the Myris of the title. Myris had belonged to a band of pleasure-loving young men, all pagans except for him, and had seemed completely in harmony with them except in a couple of trivial-seeming incidents. Now the speaker’s presence causes hostility and embarrassment to Myris’s Christian relatives. He himself is ill at ease. Grief at the loss of Myris in the present and future gradually gives way to a terror that he’s also losing him in the past – the feeling that he never really knew Myris and therefore never really loved him or had his love. An abyss opens in the memory that is the last refuge against loss. The narrative arc brilliantly divides our attention between what the speaker feels and what he sees without really understanding it:
Feeling came over me. Somehow
I could feel Myris leaving my side;
I could feel that he was a Christian,
Entirely at home with his people
The reader’s contact with the speaker’s emotion is piercingly direct, creating a shudder of sympathetic horror, but the intensity of his feelings blinds him to half of what we immediately understand. It’s plainly not true that Myris was ‘entirely at home with his people’. Conceivably they actually knew nothing of his other life. More probably the fact that they did know something of it explains both their hostility to the speaker and the strenuousness of the efforts they are making now. The point is that neither side really had or knew Myris and now both have lost him, or, to put it differently, the divisions within Myris himself meant that he wasn’t ‘entirely at home’ with either. Jones vividly transmits these tensions and shifts, making the poem live in our minds with great power, though his translation of the last three lines doesn’t match the violent intensity of Cavafy’s Greek.
Like ‘Myris’, many of the historical poems deal with homosexual love but what more importantly links all the historical poems with the contemporary ones is their shared obsession with time and transience, the perishable nature of beauty, the volatility of feeling, the way time and event expose the illusions on which our emotional lives, decisions and actions are based. In the various conventional orderings of Cavafy’s poems the interweaving of contemporary poems with historical ones creates a rich imaginative interplay between the two perspectives, of transience as lived in and transience as looked back on. I value this interplay of voices and experiences across time so I’m uncertain about Jones’s thematic reordering of the poems, but it does bring poems into new associations and perhaps therefore help one look at Cavafy in a slightly different way, as he suggests in his Afterward. For me, though, the essential and very real value of the book lies in its versions of individual poems, some of which are outstanding, and the way they make one see the individual poems in a new light.
Edmund Prestwich studied English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Merton
College, Oxford. He has been a rfegular reviewer for The High Window.
Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems by Makoto Ōoka reviewed by Andrew Houwen
Beneath the Sleepless Tossing of the Planets: Selected Poems by Makoto Ōoka. Translated by Janine Beichman. Kurodahan. $16. ISBN: 978-4-902075-95-3
Since its publication, this selection of the poems of Makoto Ōoka (1931-2017) has been awarded the 2019-2020 Japan-United States Friendship Commission Prize. This is a welcome development, but it deserves even broader recognition: all too often, modern Japanese poetry is still presumed to be derivative of Western poetry and ignored in favour of haiku and tanka. When I introduced Nishiwaki Junzaburō’s poem ‘Ame’ (‘Rain’), one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, to two distinguished American poetry critics, they were astounded even to find out that there was Japanese poetry not written in these traditional forms. Modern Japanese poetry has developed a distinctive combination of contemporary poetic techniques with Japan’s rich literary tradition.
Ōoka’s oeuvre embodies this combination of the modern and the traditional. As the poet Tanikawa Shuntarō’s preface observes, ‘Ōoka was never a blind worshipper of anything imported’ because of his ‘thorough knowledge of classical Japanese literature’ (ix). This knowledge was famously demonstrated in his daily poetry column in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Oriori no uta (‘Poems for All Seasons’), which he kept up for twenty years, seven days a week. These columns, though, were usually brief, encyclopaedic entries on particular poems and poets; it is in his own prodigious output of critical works on poetry and, as is evident from this collection, especially in his own poems that this knowledge was optimally put to use.
His poetic career began in the aftermath of World War II, with his first published poems dated to 1947. In 1954, he joined the Kai (‘Oars’) magazine, founded by Ibaragi Noriko and Kawasaki Hiroshi the year before, and in 1955 he demonstrated his growing interest in surrealism by joining the Surrealist Study Group with poets such as Iijima Kōichi. This led to his founding of Wani (‘Crocodile’) with Iijima and Yoshioka Minoru in 1959. By 1972, Ōoka had achieved international recognition with the inclusion of his work in Penguin’s Post-War Japanese Poetry and Thomas Fitzsimmons’s Japanese Poetry Now. This collection, however, only includes poems from his 1972 collection Tōshizuhō—natsu no tame no (‘A Perspective Diagram of Summer’) onwards.
The first quarter of a century of Ōoka’s oeuvre is thus excluded. Of course, poets, translators and editors are free to select poems as they please, but a brief explanation might have helped the unfamiliar reader with an understanding of how Ōoka’s career developed up to when this collection begins, especially if it is to be called a Selected Poems. The translator Janine Beichman’s surprise at hearing of Ōoka’s writing of ‘chinkon’ (‘requiems’), because she ‘had only heard it applied to the elegies of Kakinomoto Hitomaro, the great court poet of the eighth century’ (xiv), might also have been tempered by knowledge of Japanese post-war poetry collections such as Ibaragi’s Chinkonka (1965) or Irisawa Yasuo’s Waga Izumo waga chinkon (1968).
The translations themselves, though, stand out as beautiful poems in English. They tend towards the more liberal end of the spectrum, but this approach makes them all the more successful in their poetic effects. It makes Ōoka’s poetry appear more playful and less formally rigid than the originals can often be. ‘Chōfu I’ (a reference to the Tokyo suburb where he then lived), for instance, is a sonnet, a form popular with Kai poets such as Ibaragi and Tanikawa, as the latter’s 62 no sonneto (’62 Sonnets’) suggests. In Beichman’s translation, however, it is turned into a seventeen-line poem that cleverly foregrounds the dramatic emphasis on the ‘me’ (boku) at its conclusion. One need not know Japanese to appreciate Beichman’s decision in comparison with the original’s final tercet:
kumoma ni yuragu machi no tō ni yoromeitari shinagara
itsuka, betsu no kūki ni uzumaku, betsu no machi e
dete shimau boku (150)
so there, stumbling back from a tower that sways among clouds
then arriving, somehow, in another town, one
xxxxxx wreathed in a separate air
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx me (29)
This playfulness with form is especially noticeable in Beichman’s use of space on the page in ‘Chōfu IV’. The ending of Ōoka’s original reads:
sono ue ni
hana ga chitte. (149)
This is the final image in a poem on the ‘noisy, cheerful cries’ of frogs in summer, louder even than ‘all you Mick Jaggers’, for ‘Four or five days running’ before they ‘reenter the earth’, ‘Their duties fulfilled’ (30). Their evanescent life is compared to the blossoms of the ‘cherry trees’ falling over them (30). A literal rendering would simply give these lines as ‘Above them / petals scattering’. But Beichman’s translation enlivens this conclusion with a wonderfully evocative mimicking of the petals’ scattering on the page:
Ōoka’s work is at its most successful when it is most profoundly informed by his ‘knowledge of classical Japanese literature’. The best example of this, perhaps, is ‘Raifu Sutōrii’ (‘Life Story’). The original is a haiku in one line (as haiku are usually printed in Japanese) followed by three units of seven Japanese syllables in its second line:
ichiwa demo uchū wo mitasu tori no koe
niwa demo uchū ni jūman suru tori no seijaku (137)
In the first line, though there is only one bird, its cry fills the universe; in the second, though there are only two, their silence inundates (jūman suru, a near-synonym, yet greater, for the first line’s mitasu) the universe. When read in the context of the collection as a whole, it brings to mind the affection between Ōoka and his wife, the playwright Fusake Saki, which permeates his poetry.
Beichman’s innovative version is remarkably apt in capturing the two moments of perception that come together in one universe:
The cry of a single bird fills up
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx: the universe
The silence of two birds overflows (48)
The two lines thus dovetail into ‘the universe’ they share. In this way, the translation beautifully imitates in its layout the sense of unspoken connection between the two birds in the second line. It is this poem that most fittingly represents Ōoka’s foremost preoccupation in his poems: ‘To talk about love and nothing but love’, as Beichman puts it in her introduction, ‘and yet rarely use the word: that may be what we remember him for best’ (xvi). As these examples clearly show, Beichman’s own love for Ōoka’s poetry brings out the best in his work.
Andrew Houwen (1985-) is a translator of Dutch and Japanese poetry. His translation, with Chikako Nihei, of the prize-winning post-war Japanese poet Tarō Naka’s Music: Selected Poems was published with Isobar Press in 2018 after some of its poems had appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Shearsman, Tokyo Poetry Journal, Cha, Tears in the Fence, and Poetry Salzburg. His co-translation with Yosuke Tanaka of Paul Hetherington and Shane Strange’s poems into Japanese was brought out in Gendaishitechō. In September 10, 2017 he edited a supplement of Japanese poetry for The High Window.
Heaven by Manuel by Manuel Vilas translated by James Womack and reviewed by Terence Dooley
Heaven by Manuel Vilas translated by James Womack. 12.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 1784108863
I was once at a poetry reading by a Welsh poet in the Festival Hall. He chewed gum all the way through his reading and I was rather impressed by this. Afterwards, I thought I had been rather childish to be impressed. Manuel Vilas, too, in these poems is 95% pose, cool and swagger: sex and booze and rock and roll, with a good dash of the poète maudit thrown in. The saving grace is the sheer energy of his writing and its voluminousness, and the flickering hope that he is sending himself up, at least some of the time.
Vilas has just had a huge success in Spain with his novel Ordesa, soon also to appear in English. It’s a Knaussgardian autofiction, about his parents and his divorce, with hints of the unreliable narrator and a dirty realistic depiction of down-to-earth Spanish life. These two earlier poetry collections, Heaven and Heat, collected in one volume and expertly translated by James Womack, also rely heavily on first person narration, sometimes switching to third person with Manuel Vilas as the subject. (You have to love the title of a subsequent collection: Gran Vilas/Vilas the Great).
Many of the poems are extended anecdotes about one-night stands or gin-soaked all-nighters. They can also be almost biblically lyrical in the Whitman or Bukowski manner: ‘I kiss the ones who have nothing. / I kiss the ones who have lost it all. / I kiss those who no-one will kiss. // I kiss the light.’ (Or perhaps that’s more like Leonard Cohen at his most Paolo Coelho.) There’s something faintly old-fashioned about all of this, like the songs he quotes from the’60s or’70s.
James Womack has said that his first encounter with these poems was like being struck by lightning. Well, in the sense of being overwhelmed, dazed, and feeling a little queasy, I can see what he means.
Terence Dooley has published poems and translations in Ambit, Acumen, Agenda, The Compass, Envoi, The London Magazine, Long Poem Magazine, Poetry London, New Walk, POEM, Brittle Star, Envoi, MPT, Shearsman, Tears in the Fence, Dream Catcher, Ink Sweat & Tears, and in el cuaderno and Quimera (Spain). A pamphlet of his poems is to be published by Argent Press.