Reviews for Summer 2021

*****
POETRY
Sean O’Brien: It Says HereRobin Robertson: Grimoire Alan Gillis: The Readiness Edward Hirsch: Stranger by Night Derek Mahon: Washing Up Eamon Grennan: PlainchantGrace Wilentz: The Limit of Light Robert Etty: Planes Flying Over Tiffany Atkinson: Lumen •  Claire Dyer: YieldCarole Bromley: The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster • Samatar Elmi: Portrait of ColossusPatrick Wright: Full Sight Of HerPenny Sharman: Swim With Me In Deep WaterDes Mannay: Sod ‘em-and tomorrow •  Patrick Shannon: Spirit Bird Oisín BreenFlowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten 

*****
CHAPBOOKS
Richie McCaffery: First HareRebecca Ruth Gould: Beautiful English Rose Cook: Shedding Feathers Natalie Rees: Low TideJohn Short: Unknown Territory

ANTHOLOGIES

Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets edited and translated by Terence Dooley • The Best American Poetry 2020

*****
REVIEWERS
Edmund Prestwich • Jill Sharp • Patrick Davidson RobertsKen EvansDerek Coyle Rowena SommervilleMalcolm Carson Sarah James Rosie JacksonSusan Castillo StreetNeil FulwoodPatrick lodgeCarla Scaranno AntonioGareth Writer-DaviesWendy KleinDavid J. CostelloCaroline Maldonado • Rodney Wood

*****

Sean O’Brien’s It Says Here reviewed by Edmund Prestwich

It Says Here by Sean O’Brien. 10.99.  Picador.  ISBN 978-1-5098-4042-7

I’d like to start by quoting the fine short poem ‘Names’ from O’Brien’s new book It Says Here. If just saying it aloud enchants you as much as it does me then this is a book you should buy:

Ravenspur, Ravensrodd, Ravenser Odd,
Salt-heavy bells heard only by God.

Drink to the lost and the longshore drift:
When there is nothing the names will be left.

It’s reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Merlin’ in its particular elegiac feeling and tune, but the names it refers to aren’t literary in the way those in Hill’s poem are (‘Arthur, Elaine, Mordred, they are all gone’). All three are different names for a port city on the Humber that was significant in the Middle Ages but has been completely lost to the sea. It’s a wonderful little poem that instantly communicates a powerful emotion or complex of emotions while inviting endless meditation and remaining in some ways teasingly enigmatic. I could write pages trying to disentangle the magic of the words but I’ll just mention two elements. One is a simple beauty of double meaning: the way that that sonorously melancholy second line both describes the three names, the words themselves, as salt-heavy bells and at the same time evokes the trope of the church bells of drowned cities ringing soundlessly under the water. The other is the way the whole poem slides towards paradox, a shimmering between suggestions that makes it resistant to reductive summary. I mean that as we’ve just heard those names they aren’t heard only by God, and the time frame seems to shift between the stanzas, the first being a time after the loss of Ravenspur, the second a time before it, unless we take it to mean ‘when nothing is left anywhere those names will survive’. We’re teased out of thought by being drawn into it.

Though this isn’t true of ‘Names’, sorrow and rage are powerful driving forces in It Says Here, as they have been in earlier books by O’Brien. Both often have a political dimension, but O’Brien’s strong political responses get their depth from the fact that they’re not isolated or abstracted from other forces that shape our lives. Moreover, although his responses may have a sharp topical relevance, in this book he avoids restricting them by applying them explicitly to any single situation. The brilliantly mordant, ballad-like ‘Little Pig Finnegan’ is an example. Apparently rewriting an old children’s book, this tells the story of a little pig who runs away from his farm to avoid being killed for bacon. He comes to another farm where the kind-seeming farmer’s wife makes him welcome:

She fed him and bathed him
And fed him again
Till the sleep rose up over his head
She put on a white coat
And she cut his wee throat
Till he thought holy fuck now I’m dead tra la
Till he thought holy fuck now I’m dead
Then she minced him for sausage instead tra la
She minced him for sausage instead.

At this point in time we might be tempted to apply the poem to the way the old Red Wall seats of the North went Tory in the last election, but I’ve no idea whether O’Brien had that particular association in mind. If he did, the poem’s relevance is clearly not confined to that situation.

The contrast between the styles of ‘Names’ and ‘Little Pig Finnegan’ illustrates O’Brien’s metrical virtuosity. Of all the different strengths of this book, it’s above all the richness, variety and emotional power of his music that impress me and that I want to explore.

Such skills are essential to the success of the big centrepiece poem ‘Hammersmith’. In this, largely set in and around Hammersmith and the Thames but with digressions elsewhere, scene dissolves into scene, time into time, voice into voice, without clear narrative or conceptual development. It opens

England is finished, not that it matters
When even the weather is done for,
When the Boat Race ends though it’s barely begun,

With a boy from Wisconsin who catches a crab.
For a moment the eye has him
Over and gone in the silver-black Thames,

In the deep shade of Harrods Depository –
Drowned Palinurus to sleep with the fishes
And raggedy scuttlers down on the slime-bed,

And several books later converse with John Snagge
In the slow fields of Hades by Hammersmith Bridge
Where Richard Widmark also met his end

At the climax of Night and the City, that love-song
To water and terror and death –
Oh, but the oarsman recovers, though the race is lost

Startling swerves of thought and reference come thick and fast. Even in the first line the speaker zigzags between dramatic outcry and shrugging indifference. In lines 5 and 6 the spectator imagines for a second that the rower who misses his stroke actually goes overboard. Though he’s pictured doing so in the shade of the great Edwardian brick building of the Harrods Furniture Depository near Hammersmith Bridge, in the burst of fantasy that follows he momentarily becomes Aeneas’s helmsman, Palinurus, who falls overboard and drowns in Book 3 of the Aeneid. Plunging under the Thames with him, among crabs like the ‘pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, we surface in an interview with John Snagge the boat race commentator. We’re still half in the dream of the Aeneid, though. Palinurus falls overboard in Book 3 of the Aeneid and Aeneas meets and questions his ghost ‘several books later’ when he goes down to Hades in Book 6. Suddenly, though, we’re out of that hell and in the hell of London in a 1950 film noir. All this takes a long time to disentangle but flashes through the mind of the poem in the second it takes to realise that the oarsman didn’t actually go overboard at all. As we read, the associations and resonances hit us fast. That’s because the syntax drives on so unhesitatingly and because of the speeding up effect of the metre. There are variations of pace, of course, but broadly speaking things are driven on by the strength of the stresses and the high proportion of unstressed syllables between them. Mixing different metrical feet, O’Brien capitalizes on the feature of our response to rhythm that makes lines in trisyllabic, anapaestic or dactylic metres, like ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’ or ‘Just for a handful of silver he left us’, move with a rapid swing. I love this swiftness of thought and the way tones flicker between grumpily lugubrious pessimism, flashes of visual delight and humour. The humour itself involves a combination of very different voices – both the comic raconteur’s delight in absurd action, preposterous spinning out of a tale and mordant anticlimax, and the donnish humour of a buried play on words in which the idea of a ‘post mortem’ on a race is imagined as an interview in the underworld. Even more than the rich unfolding of ideas, resonances and associations, though, it’s the music itself that I find completely spellbinding, the clear-cut, satisfying shape of each phrase, the variety of these shapes, and the effortlessness of the movement between them.

As the poem develops, individual lives and bits of individual stories come briefly but vividly into focus. Apparently they draw on facts about O’Brien’s parents and in particular on his mother’s memories but, as O’Brien says in his ‘Note on Hammersmith’, a great deal is imaginary or invented, and characters and situations melt into each other. This liberates the situations and emotions described from contingent attachment to the particular circumstances of particular lives, immediately releasing what I might call their archetypal energy. However, it does make a poem of over 800 lines difficult to hold in the mind as a whole. Brilliantly evocative, beautifully shaped, thought-provoking and sometimes moving as it is on a line by line, passage by passage basis, only time and rereading will tell how deeply and effectively it all coheres as a poem. There’s a kind of paradox here because what it would cohere around is an idea of disintegration. The whole work is pervaded by expressions of uncertainty that slide between expressing the ungraspableness of the past as the speaker fails to find solid facts about his parents, let alone enter the life behind those facts; expressing the (partly consequential) ungraspableness of his life in the present; expressing political and economic dispossession; and expressing the elusiveness and perhaps the illusoriness of the concept of Englishness embodied in various national myths.

Against these multiple uncertainties O’Brien ends the poem with an image of the speaker’s parents’ existing in a kind of visionary reality that is only just but also utterly outside the speaker’s reach. The luminous yearning of the lines is made poignant by the push and pull between the intensity of realisation that makes them seem so close and the acknowledgement that they can never be reached:

At the end of the garden runs a river
I will never reach. They walk there
In the silence of the intimate, and with the day

So vast and patient they have nothing on the clock.

Despair, a sense of universal disintegration and political anger reassert themselves with a hellish and pungently disgusted image:

There is no bedrock to be found.
Imaginary England
Rises for a moment like a gas-flare

From a sewer and is gone.

Here I think there may be an element of direct attack on Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ with its epigraph from Coleridge ‘the spiritual, Platonic old England’. O’Brien’s disgust and anger aren’t just for others, though; he knows we are all ‘Complicit by the fact of being born / And drinking from the poisoned well.’ Nevertheless, the yearning, the dream, the ideal all live in the mind as love for the beloved dead and also for the might have beens and perhaps the might still bes of wider society:

But let me remember the possible days,
The river, where the garden ends

And those I lost are walking still.

The traditional, even archetypal images of river and garden and the very rhythms of this section take us into a style of poetry surprisingly evocative of later Eliot and a very long way from the style of ‘Little Pig Finnegan’. One of the great strengths of O’Brien’s book seems to me to be the way it brings together in a richly personal brew very different, often conflicting thoughts, feelings, perspectives and ways of writing. I think it’s an important work which will repay much rereading, and my provisional feeling is that Hammersmith in particular does cohere brilliantly and paradoxically around its evocations of incoherence and uncertainty.

Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye.

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*****

Robin Robertson’s Grimoire reviewed by Jill Sharp

Grimoire by Robin Robertson. £14.99. Picador.  ISBN 13: 978-1529051117

On the striking dust-jacket of this collection, we’re reminded that Robertson is a ‘Booker-shortlisted author’, and one can’t help feeling that this volume is something of an opportunistic repackaging by Picador, on the back of Robertson’s unique achievement with The Long Take. The eleven poems it contains have all been previously published and there’s almost as much supplementary material as there is poetry. That said, it is a beautifully presented book containing some stunning poems, each one accompanied by monochrome images from Robertson’s brother, Tim. These seem to emerge from – or perhaps dissolve into – the page, adding a haunting visual dimension to the already powerful visuals of the poetry.

Encountering these poems in the generous white space they’re given is a very different experience from reading them in the usual slim volume. Here, both space and image offer a more expansive, even contemplative, mode of reading that is ideally suited to Robertson’s mythic themes.

The collection is given a brief introduction by Val McDermid, who highlights the tradition of shape-shifting and doppelgangers in Scottish storytelling, asserting that ‘quite often ancient magic feels as useful a clue to our lives as behavioural science.’ Robertson’s lyric poetry frequently confronts the darker, more elusive, aspects of self, and these ‘New Scottish Folk Tales’ achieve this with an often visceral intensity.

The first, ‘Through the Struan Door,’ is ‘the story of a boy, fetched from the water,’ a reworking of the Welsh legend of Taliesin. Robertson’s terse, condensed scene-setting opens out into drama and description:

he turned to a mackerel
slipping under the waves,
so she swam into the shape of a sea-otter bitch,
he flew up with the wings of a starling
so she stooped from the sky as a hawk

It tells how the boy who’d taken a lick of the witch’s special potion becomes a bard, and learns ‘how being strong is being many.’ Mid-way, the poem shifts from third to first-person narrative – the mode for the rest of the collection – with the transformation of man into goat, and concludes with the questioning that the poems take forward:

What have I ushered in now: already
streaming over this threshold?
A body in flux – a man or a beast or a god –
a kind of Christ, perhaps: busy at his endless resurrections.

Lines like these hint at a personal and as well as a creative enquiry, exploring what it means to be a poet, and a man; questions that are taken up once more in ‘At Roane Head,’ winner of the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2009. Here, the mysterious speaker tells of a woman with four sons:

All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I’m told,
though blank as air.

The husband has left, believing the boys ‘beglamoured’ and nothing to do with him. But then ‘thick with drink’ he returns and murders them. As in the opening poem, the speaker then comes to the fore in this tale, revealing his connection to the events he has related:

She gave me a skylark’s egg in a bed of frost;
gave me twists of my four sons’ hair; gave me
her husband’s head in a wooden box.
Then she gave me the sealskin, and I put it on.

Just as Tim Robertson’s images appear to emerge from white space, so the narrator or narrators – seemingly objective observers – often reveal themselves as central participants. And although each poem has a different narrative identity, the shape-shifting across the poems suggests that this is one creature in its many forms: male and female; human and god; goat, seal and stag – all disguises of the multi-voiced bard.

This sense of a personal myth unfolding feels especially potent in ‘Beside Loch Ifrinn,’ with its refrain repeated a few lines in from the poem’s beginning and end:

A woman’s kiss will lift you all morning.
A woman’s curse will grave you to hell.

Here, that curse feels played out in extended metaphors of a bitterly cold landscape: men found castrated, animals driven wild or mad. The narrator himself is left ‘barely in the likeness of a man.’ ‘In Easgann Wood’ develops these themes, with the speaker confessing to whoever lies in bed beside him, as well as to the ‘rapt god’ at the window, that he has committed two murders and a rape. Each of these events is viscerally recounted, Robertson having something of a butcher’s eye for a disembowelling throughout the collection:

I smacked him
with a rock and then cut him to collops,
made force-meat of his stupid legs,
hard-gralloched him and gibbed him…

Murder and rape are also the subject of ‘Under Beinn Ruadhainn,’ and this time it’s a dream of being hunted and hanged, resulting in something like self-awareness, perhaps:

I broke from sleep and sat up in the dark.
I groped around for the matches
and the matches were put in my hand.

A whole-life perspective follows this moment in ‘Inside Tobar nam Marbh’ – the ‘querious’ boy now a man, wondering at the fleeting and elusive nature of happiness, and experiencing, for once, a formlessness:

I go to the looking-glass and see nothing:
just empty space and the other wall, behind.

The concluding poem, ‘Before the Donnachaidh Falls,’ is a summation of all the metamorphoses that have gone before, the speaker now climbing to the top of the cliff, clad in bird-wings, poised to merge with the waterfall.

A grimoire is ‘a manual for invoking spirits’, and there’s no doubt that these poems do powerfully evoke them. The oral tradition is certainly invoked, through Robertson’s ear for the storytelling voice and his manner of conveying its rhythms and cadences to the page. Both Scots and Gaelic words are embedded within his precise English vocabulary in ways that never feel like mere linguistic gestures. The glossary at the back, though interesting, is unnecessary: the words’ meanings are always evident from their context and resonance.

What’s ultimately very satisfying about this collection is that, although the poems were composed separately, the thoughtful curation of them gives the book a narrative coherence, and a sense of something vital being painfully accomplished.

Jill Sharp’s poems have appeared most recently in Acumen, Envoi, Prole, Stand and Under the Radar. Her pamphlet Ye gods is published by Indigo Dreams, and her work is featured in Vindication, a six-poet anthology from Arachne Press. Her poem ‘Cemetery Crow’ was placed joint-second in the 2020 Keats-Shelley prize.

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*****

Alan Gillis The Readiness reviewed by Patrick Davidson Roberts 

The Readiness by Alan Gillis. £10.99. Picadoe. ISBN: 978-1529037661

Alan Gillis is a poet of that much-debated location, the liminal. This is not to say that his poetry lacks for decisiveness nor that it suffers from crippling anxiety (any more than poetry by definition suffers from the latter), but rather that he stands astride edges in his work, looking in or over to another side or future context that is both pursued and entered into and pulled back from or spat out. As the speaker in ‘On Blackford Hill’ has it

The city lights come on, wrapping the dark
in their cellophane light. A woman shouts
at her dog, or husband. On Blackford Hill’s
slopes, ice and ozone, I breathe in the air
and because it is not human, breathe out.

The sense of both liminality and the unsure shown here are typical of Gillis’ ambivalence, and the sense of the unpredictable and therefore the wariness of the poet and subject alike mean that a quiet though not dampening edge of threat lingers in the poetry of The Readiness. That does not rob the interchangeable nature of the woman’s dog or husband of its humour, of course (Gillis’ love for Joyce and Beckett delights in this wryness), but it does put the reader on notice about the sudden changes and reverses that the liminal is subject to. The light wrapping the dark, certainly, is rarely expected outside of pseudo-mystic spiritualism, but the ‘cellophane’ talks of the porous boundaries that contrasts often dismiss.

This sense of blur and mix leads often to depictions of dissimilation in Gillis’ work, with both undressing and disintegration a common feature. When Gillis writes about the infuriatingly transient nature of young love, he is clear about that transience:

The girl from the satellite
town holds berries in the fast-stream
supermarket queue.
She carries her longing like a stream of song,
her melody
a body over the border
of what is solid and what flows.
‘To Be Young and in Love in Middle Ireland’

The static nature of queues and the supposedly fast-stream category in which the girl stands are themselves the ‘border of what is solid and what flows’, and the imagery of the static item carried along by floating on the flow is lightly redone a few stanzas later, where others two are defined by their liminal or transitory nature, but with no loss of feeling

In a dream on the margins
of town one of the guys
hears a girl sing, her voice
like violins,
a basket of ripe berries
floating into the night
on a stream.

Undressing, streaming
from their outlines
through the borders
of town wrapping around them
the scent of fresh berries,
the girls, the guy, in derelict
bedrooms hear lucent songs.

The focus on and repeated employment of margins and borders and the crossovers of both to mean just what they are meant to mean is skillfully managed in the flow of the verses, but the implications of change in ‘ripe’ and ‘derelict’ (one suggesting the decay to come, the other the order and solidity now past) feed into the restlessness of the poem and give it its strength in its depiction of young love.

Unavoidably, with the title being what it is, Gillis’ poetry invites and teases the moments of crossover and action (the girls and boys will have to make a move, just as the watchers on the hill at dusk will), because ‘the readiness is all’, as Hamlet points out. Yet rather than torture the reader with the very real anxieties of poetic indecision (not that there aren’t plenty of great poets who focus on nothing else), Gillis employs a wryness and reserve that speak of the constant crossovers and choices of the same that we make in the everyday, and which are as important as they are bizarre. In ‘The Magus’, the very real desire for rebirth in light and transcendence finds its distinctly modern realization in exactly the right place; the gold of an advert’s shine

[…] and I enter a green meadow
with Charlize Theron.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow

of death, corrupt, weary and sore
I still seek gold, frankincense, myrrh. Dior.

While I’d be pressed to assemble more than a dozen pages of The Great Advert Poems of the Twenty-First Century, this is certainly one of them, and its utterly sincere immersion in the seduction of gold, capital and celebrity defies the cynic, or at least it did this one.

Part of the strength of Gillis’ work to date which this book has in spades is that his is not an unserious art, but at the same time seems utterly incapable of the sage old over-arching ‘project’ that so many collections these days lose their shine to while trying to keep The Main Point in the air above the poet. While there is both the profound and the weighty in The Readiness, Gillis does not squat Atlas-like before the reader, demanding our appreciation of his effort in the bearing of great weight. This mistrust of the epic demonstration is there from the titular (and first) poem, in its opening and closing stanzas

It could happen at sunset
on a sloping lawn.
In a yawning estate
it could happen at dawn.

[…]
So make sure you’re up to speed
when, at sunset or dawn,
worms vex the seed,
crows shadow the corn.

I’m always pleased to read a poet wresting the worm from the Welshman, and with a deftness of rhyme that would have made even Dylan smile (perhaps). Yet this sense of the constant possibility being entirely dependent on our engagement is a decent epigraph for this book itself. While the joy and vivacity of Gillis might suggest an ease of access, I would not make that case for this book. The Readiness is not easy, in large part because Picador (in cooperation, one suspects, with the poet) have bestowed a cover upon it that severely challenges the reader not to pass judgment and seems to plead for them to firmly back the volume in brown paper or duct tape, in order to be able to take it out of their bag. I would not make this point were it not such a problem. Yet as far as the book is concerned, this is a collection that rewards rereading and reevaluation. It’s a proper book of poems, to make decent use of your readiness for it.

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

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*****

Edward Hirsch’s Stranger by Night reviewed by Derek Coyle

Stranger by Night by Edward Hirsch.  £15. Alfred A. Knopf.  ISBN: 9780525657781

There is something gorgeously accessible about these late poems of Edward Hirsch. And this is entirely fitting for a poet who has taught poetry all his life, and who has tried to share the joys of this art with children, college students, parents and adults. A significant portion of this book presents poems that recount the teaching days of the young Edward Hirsch in mining communities of Pennsylvania. ‘Night Class in Daisytown’ relates how the poet finally touched a nerve with his class of eleven parents when he introduced them to the work of the Pitman Poet of Percy Main. Only then did the class come alive with their own tales about blackdamp, a father who woke in the dark to work all day in the dark, and the son lost for twenty-four hours who found his escape through a snatch of light glinting off a steel cable in a pit. It is fitting that these poems appear to grow out of the stuff of everyday life, which is exactly where we find Hirsch for so much of this collection.

The poem ‘What is happiness?’ recounts how this question, asked casually at a party, brought the poet back to a second-grade classroom, again amongst mining community children, and how happiness was the freedom to play in the Susquehanna River, at one with sandstone and shale, ‘jumping over/concrete dividers, steel railings.’ He took notes, wrote it all down, alight at their happiness, lost in the pleasure of writing poems.

The volume opens with a series of elegiac poems. Often recalling writers. The poet Mark Strand’s funeral is recalled, and the difficulties of marking death in a post-religious age. Yet, Hirsch reaches for one of the oldest conventions of elegy, what T.S. Eliot called ‘the pathetic fallacy.’ A cold chill is felt in the graveyard amongst the mourners at Strand’s grave; a feeling, that is also a shiver; and so it appears that nature seems to feel the chill of Strand’s passing too. And all of this is captured in a style reminiscent of Strand’s own poetry – a poet who wrote much about death and he in the heart of life.

Many of the elegies are for fellow poets. There’s a touching poem for poet William Meredith, ‘After the Stroke’:
…he is silenced now
like a cello locked
in a black case,
a church bell buried
somewhere in the earth.

There’s a poem (‘Riding Nowhere’) that remembers poet Philip Levine, and the two men training in a gym that overlooked the Detroit River:

that glided on and on
at its own sweet will
under the skyscrapers
churches and factories
in the early-morning light.

It would seem the poet cannot stop time, that he cannot obstruct fate, like that Detroit River. Ironically, the collection opens with ‘My Friends Don’t Get Buried,’ although this poem recounts how people don’t get buried in cemeteries as much these days. The funerals may not happen like they used to ‘but the mourning goes on anyway/because my friends keep dying/without a schedule.’ Nowadays, they are often cremated, or buried out in nature, or they have their ashes scattered ‘under a tree somewhere in a park.’ The poet concludes:

I just have to lie down on the grass
and press my mouth to the earth
to call them
so they would answer.

The poet might be aged, mourning the loss of friends, but he still has enough left in him to contemplate the pleasures and joys of sex – even just as a recollection. This is an interesting conjunction, sex and death. As, right after ‘My Friends Don’t Get Buried,’ we read overleaf ‘The Black Dress.’ It’s like sex and death are two sides of a coin. Again, there is an interesting comparison drawn from nature in this poem, as the oncoming storms of passion are likened to ‘the coming storm, summer lightening.’ This is an intriguing poem with many layers. We gather the ‘she’ of the poem is a writers, as the poem opens with the poet recalling the moment after opening ‘her book/almost randomly, on whim.’ The book, like a black dress ‘tangled in the branches.’ A letter falls out of the book – a missive that contains the explanation for the ending of their relationship. This figure, he was to discover, had unresolved grief from her childhood, ‘I didn’t know she was burning/when she took off that black dress.’ This poem, following the modus operandi of many in this collection, takes the form of something remembered from years ago.

And this is how Edward Hirsch’s Stranger by Night reads like so many entries from a lifetime’s diary, a series of discrete moments or episodes succinctly presented. Perhaps, those cherished memories, or what he now deems significant in his maturity, that he wants to record just before he leaves the stage. There is nothing mawkish or sentimental about this work. The great virtue of these poems is that they are written in a very accessible and readable style. And the most of them do just about enough to enter that mysterious and elusive, ever shifting territory that we designate by the term ‘poetry.’

Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.

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*****

Derek Mahon’s Washing Up reviewed by Ken Evans

Washing Up by Derek Mahon £10.95 Gallery Press ISBN: 978-191133-790-4

If not in exile exactly, more Roman ‘relegatio’ like Ovid, who retained a house in the ancient city despite banishment, nevertheless, Mahon living out his last years on the coast in Kinsale, has something of a renunciation about it, for a cosmopolitan poet who lived in the USA and France.
But unlike Ovid who felt, we are told, intellectually undernourished in his Black Sea backwater, far from the cultured company he was used to, drawn from poetry, theatre, politics and the arts, Mahon discovers much to enjoy in the green, coastal enclave that he knew well.
In ‘Washing Up’, the poet savours, in ‘Around the Town’, the man he calls, ‘Stephen, the local schizo, who calls out / quietly to the tourists, ‘Why don’t you lot / go home?’ Or Joseph, the beachcomber, in ‘Among the Rocks’, ‘who spends his days / sitting among the rocks and the rock pools / absorbed in his own thoughts, his own schedules… a bodhisattva or a Desert Father / for whom this life is only a glum phase.’ These two personae feel classic Mahon projections; the first, a candidly offensive raconteur-provocateur, rude as he likes to an overspill of the crass, as exemplified for him, in this instance, by a tourist crowd; but also a contemplative, reflective seeker of spiritual solace, in his own ‘glum phase.’ In ‘After Swift’ city-life leaves behind another Mahon alter ego, ‘a truculent, bewildered guest/at launch parties, art openings,/poetry nights and other things/where folks demand continually/’Please can you sign a book for me?’

This being Mahon’s last collection, we are tempted to search for glib sureties about a newly gained, but hard-earned, wisdom, or at least, a benign acceptance of a full life led. Mahon does get close to suggesting this at times. In the title poem, ‘Washing Up’ (with its layered meanings of ‘lost’, ‘finished’ and ‘cleansed’), the poet’s ability to find ‘the sacramental in the ordinary’, as Paul Muldoon characterised Mahon’s work upon his death last year, Mahon does arrive at the transcendental in the everyday, a characteristic in his work at least as early as the well anthologised, ‘Courtyard in Delft’ (written in 1981), with its 17th century Dutch domestic scenes overlaid with his own Belfast beginnings, son of a Harland & Wolff shipfitter.
In the poem, the stars ‘find a widower…a relic of pre-digital times, / fond of anachronistic rhymes, / in flight from the new politique…washed up on a deserted beach / grumpy, contrarian, out of reach.’

Mahon is literally washing up, ‘watching the soap bubbles blink’, and finding some solace in, ‘The best of miracles rely / on the old, known reality – / pines where the wood pigeons live, / wild garlic growing in the drive, / the nightly fun of wiping dry / dishes and bowls and cutlery.’ Muldoon says Mahon writes with a ‘jaunty gloom’ but always ends on an upbeat, an uptick of mood or insight. However, it often feels much more ambivalent, ambiguous and multi-layered, rather than anything as simplistic as straightforward consolation, or alternatively, deep pessimism. Even while he extols the joys of a mundane house chore, where he ‘stacks the plates with diligence,/ glad to have been of use for once,’ he steps outside the house to the blind and elemental, ‘to watch the sea/ washing up the estuary.’

Blake Morrison critiqued Mahon, saying he lost some expressive vigour in favour of adherence to formal qualities of rhyme and metre, that the man who had the technical audacity to rhyme, in his words, ‘catalogues’ with ‘dogs’, somehow preferred traditional pattern to forceful expression. His ability, especially when using a favourite Yeatsian ottava rima (though much more loosely than W.B), to ‘push the sense of the sentence right round the corner of the lines’ (as Muldoon says of him), is exemplified in the first poem in the collection, ‘The Old Place.’ The eight-line stanzas of eleven syllables straitjacket of the form is subtly adulterated, and played with. Muldoon thinks in this poem Mahon ‘shows the rest of us how to a manage a stanza.’
I love the idea of Mahon ‘managing a stanza’, as if the poets’ job of work is as a crafter-grafter, with hints too, of a proficiently competent high street shop manager, ensuring footfall circulates in the right direction around the displays, the shop is well-stocked, well-lit, warm and laid-out in best order to show off its wares, with the suited manager constantly on hand, attentive to his ‘customer’/reader. On the shopfloor, Mahon leads from the front by invigorating an old form with grounded, everyday language that allows the rhymes to discreetly propel the lines, while leaving the reader relatively unaware of the artifice that is engaging, structuring and directing, their attention (at least on first reading.)

‘The Old Place’ is almost an elegy for lost youth, addressed to two younger relatives/friends’ children, perhaps? The end-line rhymes in the first stanza ‘longer/rabbits/exams/when/stronger/habits/games/then,’ suggest a little of the craft, with full-on rhymes of ‘longer/stronger’ and ‘rabbits/habits,’ then a subtler off-rhyme thrown in to ‘soften’ the overt chimes, like ‘exams’ and ‘games’. This is developed in stanza two, with ‘ill-at-ease’ matched with ‘exercise’ and ‘writing table’ with ‘notable.’ This language allows for great directness of diction, within the ottava rima scheme, as well as fluidity in the sometimes emphasised, and sometimes veiled, rhyming.

Mahon perhaps comes closest in this poem to a self-portrait with ‘the old author… / framed in the window at his writing-table / …. a sort of hermit, working not for profit, / who was content to engage those few notable / readers who saw the point of the exercise.’

This is pure Mahon, self-deprecating and wry, yet I hope and trust, at the end, well aware of his unique voice that reached many, across five decades of what he would have scoffed at being called his ‘oeuvre,’ while at the same time, in all likelihood, correcting one’s pronunciation of the French, ever ‘le plongeur sans pareil.’

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.

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******

Eamon Grennan’s Plainchant reviewed by Derek Coyle

Plainchant by Eamon Grennan. £10.95. The Gallery Press.  ISBN: 9781911337973

The first thing we can safely say about the latest volume from Eamon Grennan is there is nothing plain about these chants. The title of this volume evokes the plainsong of the Roman Catholic Church, and, of course, the word chants itself carries the connotation of a sacred song. Through this means Grennan evokes the sacred roots of poetry, its ancient relation to prayer, liturgy, ritual, and rite. This is not to turn off the secular reader, or a reader disenchanted with the claims and actions of the institutional churches. But rather to strike out for something primal and buried deep in our personal and collective subconscious. In this way Grennan’s poems can be meaningfully read as secular prayers, a reverent homage to the beauty, majesty, and sheer awesomeness of unadorned nature.

And this is where we might locate his justification in choosing the word ‘plain’. There is nothing bombastic, verbose, or overly reverential or trembling in Grennan’s acute presentation of nature in this collection. As one might fear from a project titled as this one is. Grennan has long been a devotee of the West of Ireland, where he’s had a second home for many years. And so, place names that recur here include Inishmore, Omey, and Renvyle. In these poems we encounter gannets, several hares, cows, curlews, swallows, sandmartins, and ants. The German language poet Paul Celan is a presence, alongside Beckett. Painting is the sister art, suggested in poem titles like ‘Self-Portrait with Yellow Raincoat’, ‘With Curlews and Starlight’, just as Vuillard is evoked in ‘Room with Misia’ and Bonnard in ‘Nature Vivant: Just Looking.’ And Philosophy, rather than Theology, is the discipline conversed with, through two references to Heraclitus, and a penchant in the diction for words like ‘ontology’ and phrases like ‘this one space-time absolute.’

But this leaning never sees Grennan disappear into an abstract, opaque territory that leaves the reader or poetry lover searching for an ordinance survey map or GPS to find their way. Grennan is too wily and able a poet for that. Every poem in this volume keeps a clear and steady eye on concrete objects, clearly caught in its perceptive gaze. Above all else, these are poems of sharp-eyed observation. ‘Two Hares’ presents life and death unsentimentally, as simple facts of life, observed first in a dead hare sprawled at the edge of the road ‘in an attitude of sleep’ beside ‘the ragged verge of grass, buttercups and weeds.’ This sight seems to wring ‘all the good light out of everything.’ This vision is presented alongside the recollection of a young hare seen earlier that morning nibbling ‘the fresh parsley sprouts,’ with ‘infinite delicatesse.’ The connection between both hares is their mutual possession of ‘onyx-like eyes’; the first hare’s were ‘gleaming’; the second, ‘bright, live, ready-for-anything.’ Both hares are each given a long sentence, which never tires and is masterfully controlled. Two sentences, two hares, two worlds; one alive, the other dead. Like two rooms sitting side by side. One thinks of ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ by Wallace Stevens.

This is not to say that animal figures are the only sentient presences in this collection. If we can include the ghost of Grennan’s mother, who reappears in at least two poems, ‘Sieve’ and ‘Anniversary Mother.’ ‘Sieve’ is the type of poem built around a concrete object that Grennan is a master of. He thinks of his mother’s sieve whilst sieving his own Carrageen sea-weed sludge for ‘health-giving honey-coloured juices.’ This moment, and object, like a talisman, brings him back in memory to his mother sifting ‘whatever mash of potatoes, carrots, stewed onions and a sprinkling of thyme she’d serve as that day’s soup.’ The second half of the poem, contemplating the fact of her ‘simple solid nearness’, ‘a body of flesh and blood’, ends with her glancing into the oval mirror over the dining-room table, ready to serve dinner, a ghostly presence in the mirror even in real time at that time, but for certain she is that now, recalled to memory and framed within this poem. There is wonderful humanity in the poet’s recollection of his mother, her special care and regard for her young son, as we hear her speak: ‘Mind your hand, love’; ‘There now’; ‘It’ll be ready soon; think you can wait.’

Eamon Grennan is one of Ireland’s finest contemporary poets, one who celebrates the richness and vibrancy of the natural world with a fresh directness worthy of a gannet plummeting into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Ireland’s west coast. All of it captured in these slightly oddly-shaped meditations. Eamon Grennan is a very able craftsman of finely sculpted verse, as attested in earlier volumes like But the Body and Still Life with Waterfall. For this collection he has relinquished his hammer and chisel, presenting the poems in singular blocks, their width and breath governed by the poem’s first line. To this reader this method does seem like an odd choice. At points, certainly initially, it was odd to not be able to locate an immediate rhythmic footing in the poems, but once you let go of this need or desire, and read the poems like a rather blockish prose-poem, the poems do move along gracefully, and freely enough. This is really my only question about this rewarding collection. We must look forward to the day, which can’t be too far away, when the Gallery Press present to the poetry world a Collected Poems from Eamon Grennan. Rather like the recent celebratory volume from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. And, hopefully, many more poetry readers and lovers will come to appreciate the many virtues and talents of Eamon Grennan in this way.

Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.

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*****

Grace Wilentz’s The Limit of Light reviewed by Rowena Sommerville

willentz

The Limit of Light by Grace Wilentz. £10.95. The Gallery Press. ISBN: 978-1911338000

This is a first collection by a poet originally from New York, now resident in Ireland, which clearly reflects and represents the poet’s rich geographical and cultural experience. Her poems are cool and allusive, interpretations are left to the reader, meanings are implied rather than spelt out, and I welcomed that refusal to be obvious.

The collection is named after a poem in Part Three (of four) in the book which opens ‘I saw in this place a landscape/ where I could begin to grieve.’ and throughout the collection there are poems which refer to her mother’s cancer and eventual death – which is, naturally enough, a huge life event – but the collection overall is neither morbid nor depressing, but rather engaged, observant, interested and individual. The significant landscape which could support grief is a canyon, presumably somewhere in America, which makes Wilentz think of Saturn and its accreted rings:

From the canyon’s height it’s clear
how nature loves to ring itself – it’s there

in the layers striping the rock face
and the gentle ripple in the rare pool.

In ‘Partridge Wrapping Paper’ she describes her parents’ love for each other, her father having given her mother a lamp:

A small rectangle of that book paper,
with its indigo and green
forever partridges, folded in half,
taped to the box instead of a card
and inside, in my father’s neat capitals –
YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF MY LIFE.

This writer has evidently lived in various places and cultures and in ‘Cat’s Cradle’ she describes the playground game, particularly played by girls, offering its potential as a preparation for the adult world:

The game trains the hands to hold distance,
movement with elegance,
and for the mind:
that transformation is possible,
and may be swift.

In ‘Becoming Esther’ she seems to refer to her own discovery of her Jewish heritage, occasioned by her father taking her to a Purim children’s party – a discovery that seems possibly both mysterious and powerful:

Now I am Esther
who married the King of Persia
and saved her people.

We eat triangle Hamantashen, lick the jam,
wave the tin noisemakers bearing Haman’s twisted face.

That morning we left home without a word said.
We are a secret.

In ‘Belly of the Whale’ she imagines herself as Jonah, both isolated and enclosed, possibly through grief, though that is not stated:

There are the moments when
I feel myself to be
In a darkened theatre.

Sometimes I can feel us diving,
weightless, as I dream.

In ‘Last Look’ she describes visiting her late mother’s previously often-visited studio, its contents made unfamiliar by her death:

Seeing is like trying
to make out the still stones
at the bottom of the lake
obscured under running currents.

I point the viewfinder and take the picture.

In ‘Castlewellan Carwash’ she seems to be in Ireland and enjoying an intimate moment in an unlikely setting:

water runs in streams,
too thick to be seen through,
while we are warm and dry

and together here
for the long drive home
and, for now, the spectacle.

In ‘The Flood’ she imagines Noah disorientated after the flood, having survived the storm. This poem surely echoes ‘Belly of the Whale’ with its theme of surviving watery tempest and upheaval, possibly referencing grief in both cases – firstly encased within, then secondly shakily survived:

He wonders:
Am I the only one who remembers?
Did I survive the sky’s complete letting go?

Another poem of survival (and gratitude and belonging) is ‘Late Night Restorative’ apparently about a yoga class:

At the end of class we lay on our backs,
some of us doze off,
occasionally there’s a little snore.
coming up to ten-fifteen we sit up,

place our hands in prayer position,
express thanks to our teacher,
to one another, and also to ourselves,
for what the body can do.

In ‘A Year with Two Springs’ – the final poem of the collection – Wilentz celebrates being with a loved person, somewhere foreign and dangerous, with mosquitoes and armed muggers, but also with affection between the two travellers and a kind hostel receptionist . Despite the challenges of the locale and an enforced night in the hostel (having been mugged), there was a scenic palm tree casting a picturesque shadow, and she woke to her companion, lovingly encouraging her writing:

how my rucksack
floated from my shoulders,
and the disappearing rain,
then woke to you feeling
for the calluses on my fingertips,
smiling, saying:
from where you hold the pen.

This is an intelligent, interesting and enjoyable collection of poems, from someone whose life experience and learning gives them an unusual background from which to view the world. I look forward to reading what she does next.

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.

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*****

Robert Etty’s Planes Flying Over reviewed by Malcolm Carson

etty

Planes Flying Over by Robert Etty. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-70-9

I have known and liked Etty’s work for many years, from when I published his poems in the Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts’ magazine, Proof, in the 80s, to when I read with him in Lincoln a couple of years ago. Our roots are similar in that we experienced the same school in Cleethorpes, and both have a strong affinity to north Lincolnshire and its landscape and people. Whereas I left for Cumbria thirty years ago, Etty remains, exploring the same countryside and its characters. The question then is whether his recent poems retain the vitality and quirkiness that marked him out as such a talent.

These are clever, witty and very well composed poems which constantly surprise and amuse. Etty’s humanity and understanding of the foibles of the people he sees around him is extraordinary, and completely free from any suggestion of being patronising. His constant alertness to his making sweeping assumptions about how nature behaves is brilliantly achieved.

In The Land Registration Act, he poses the question of land ownership and its relation to the possession of that land by foxes:

Which multinational last purchased this land
most people and foxes couldn’t say,

but the likelihood of whoever sealed it
contesting trespass with this weary vixen
mooching windsweptly over wet mud
is as slender as the vixen caring.

He then goes on to say: ‘the vixen believes (but doesn’t) / it’s hers because she’s here and it is….’ Too easy, Etty seems to be saying, to attribute our feelings to animals in that the vixen can’t ‘believe’ but simply acts on her own instincts: ‘…it’s here and she is.’

These qualifications of easy-to-make assumptions are scattered through the book, cleverly questioning throw away observations: ‘Dragonflies fly (without knowing how long) / for a measure of weeks or months.’ (Pausing to Worry…) On the other hand, Etty is happy, when it suits him, to completely go along with the notion that nature can sympathise with our predicament. Pushing a child in a pram in a hailstorm, he tries desperately to shield it from the worst:

Any port
in a storm, so I leant half-over and pull-pushed one-
handed, which seemed to be drier than standing still,
or maybe the storm felt the sun at its back and held off,
from a sense of fairness. (The Hailstorm Part of it)

Etty has a wonderful knack of engaging us in his observations of seemingly mundane events. In The Goings-on Outside, for instance, we follow the ‘goings-on’ as though we know all the participants, alongside the poet:

Ex-truck driver Douglas is crossing his front lawn
to see what’s causing a more tuneful racket
than the usual thuds and clanks
of vehicles drumming across the potholes

three men painted light blue three weeks ago,
that Wendy next door rings the council about
when she’s fed up enough, but fat lot of difference
complaining makes, she complains, and Douglas agrees.

To carry your reader through such an innocuous non-event involving characters we don’t know, takes great skill, and Etty achieves this by making Douglas and ‘Wendy next door’ believable, and in their own ways sympathetic. We learn that Douglas had to give up lorry driving because of his heart and has failing eyesight: ‘Douglas has been sensing closings-in, and / -down, and possibly -over.’ With seeing his world shrink:

He almost thinks sometimes he doesn’t care,
but he’s here at the roadside putting his mind
to what hasn’t been done, and should be.

Etty uses this method of engagement – if it can be called a ‘method’ and even if he does it consciously – in Four Sentences About Weather And Pigeons …:

A car’s skidded into the local lamppost
and hoisted it over Norman’s mixed hedge,
which means until now it’s been too dark
to investigate why the lamp wasn’t on
and which parts of itself the car left behind
when it slipped off the scene without them.

I love the fact that we go along with the notion of knowing Norman and that his hedge is ‘mixed’, let alone that there is only one ‘local lamppost’. As for the pigeons, who come in at the poem’s end, they observe all these tumultuous events with ‘grey-membraned eyes taking dim views…’ and ‘… feel pleased to be pigeons, perhaps / but perhaps being a pigeon is always enough.’

Etty’s ability to describe a life unfulfilled is beautifully shown in ‘Late’ in which Grace, who has been fastidious about every aspect of her life from arriving ‘thirty minutes before appointments / in case of everything no one sees coming …’ to putting out the washing before it’s light, discovers that she has in fact been late for what matters, and only when things have gone, does she realise. In an attempt to catch up, she decides:

‘she’ll start cutting things fine
and exploring gaps as if inside one
she might arrive at what she was late for,
or be on time for the moment she’s in.

At other times, Etty is just very funny such as in The Naming of Colleagues in which ‘…turnover’s quick, and you don’t always hear…’ with the result that sundry people are left with assumptions of names which they don’t mind or which are interchangeable with their real one.

In Nothing New in A&E, Phil Baddeley gives the receptionist his name, to which she replies: ‘” Well, you’ll soon feel better…. Your name is…?”’ When ‘A voice at a door calls, “Mr Baddeley?” / Phil goes to discover to what extent.’

This is a wonderful collection, full of clever, witty, well-crafted poems covering a panoply of ordinary human predicaments. Etty’s humanity and affection for frailties and eccentricities shine through. In answer to my original question, Etty has indeed maintained the high standard he has set himself over the years. There is no sense of weariness or of mining the familiar for its own sake. If you don’t know his work, start with this and work backwards. It’s a constant delight.

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

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*****

 Tiffany Atkinson’s Lumen reviewed by Sarah James

 Tiffany Atkinson’s Lumen.  £10.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780375304

Tiffany Atkinson’s fourth collection, Lumen (Bloodaxe Books), is delightfully innovative and thought-provoking in at times troubling, moving, intense and also exhilarating ways.

The first part ‘Dolorimeter 19 readings’ examines pain – as witnessed and explored during a hospital residency. This includes overhearings, found text and observation of patients, their loved ones and medical staff. Literary, philosophical, Biblical, Buddhist and other reference points expand this illness-based consideration of pain (as they do again in the differently focussed second part of the collection). Although pain may be the main theme, this pain is also living – “a vital sign” (‘Neuropathy’, p. 24).

The second part opens with “The dog and I…” extending the types of pain and living explored to include IVF, family, love and work. There are political undertones, relationship dynamics and concerns over more than one kind of extinction/irrelevance. Here, human pain is also set in contrast to the dog’s freedom from it, especially in the section’s opening prose poem sequence:

“You haven’t seen joy until you’ve seen the red dog swimming. Into
the river he bowls like a runaway wheelbarrowxxxseizing the stick
with a wriggle of glee. Human joy is rarely so explicit […]”
(‘You can’t go there’, p. 41)

Then again, in ‘Dog speaks’ (p. 62):

this slow extinctionxxxLight yourselfxxxBe lit
xxxrise upxxxand mistress […]

Concern for language threads through all of these. The opening poem’s title is the phonetic spelling of dolorimeter, and the definition of dolorimetry is not just measurement of pain sensitivity or intensity but: “We might also call it language.”.

Elsewhere, the poet’s work with thought and language to explore and describe inner experience is likened to a doctor’s:

[..] I’m sitting
with the quandary of how to formulate what’s
insidexxThis is Endoscopyxxxthis man knows about
the insidexxYou could say we have the same concerns

Like pain/illness/life:

And language too shuttles between frank
utility and the joy of doing what it pleases
xxxxxxxWe’re incidental to it after all […]
(‘Last’, pp. 36-37)

Reading and re-reading Lumen, there are many wonderful motifs that simultaneously extend each poem’s scope and create a cohesive accumulation across the whole book. These recurring elements include shit (this collection doesn’t shrink away from unpleasant aspects of lived experience), parts of the body, dogs in general and particularly the poet-narrator’s companion dog Otto, and the word ‘o/h’.

There are others, and I could examine any single one in review-length detail yet still have more to say. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on those suggested by the collection’s title, Lumen.

The lumen is a unit used to measure the amount of light given off that is visible to the human eye. Set alongside dolorimetry, this highlights the collection’s underlying concerns with the visible (expressible in words) and the invisible (inexpressible) when it comes to human pain, and how we can/cannot truly measure or capture this.

In ‘Clean windows’, the poet-narrator wonders:

[…] What’s
a word for how the light
this cold May afternoon
ruffles the blue pleated curtain
behind Mr Mooney

reaching for his tumbler
like a man underwater? […]

Light does feature across the collection. The previous poem, ‘A line from the doctor (annotated)’ (p. 31) closes on:

Keep the language clean and well-lit
Leave its shadows swinging on the gate

However, in ‘Clean windows’, the narrator already has ‘lumen’ biroed on her hand after a nurse used it, and, questioned about it later, Pinky (another member of the medical team) describes the word not in light-related terms but as “Just an opening”.

As striking as the recurring references to light are the repeated openings, and closings, coming in and going out, gaps, and letting go. This may apply to doors, gates, the body, breath… Swinging also features, as between decisions or actions not (yet) taken, or being held in a state of some kind of not quite steady fixedness. In ‘Clean windows’ again, a trolley rounds a corner:

as if the hospital
swings downwind
and hangs on its anchor

calm rolls up the jinxy
stairwells to this floor […]

Meanwhile, in the earlier ‘Song of a pain’ (p. 19):

What do I know of my openings

and deaths except thisxxxnow

I’ve touched upon the notion of ‘inside’ already but the juxtaposition of inside and outside the hospital, body, mind is another interesting aspect. Similarly, voice, eyes and gaze create their own threads across the collection, often intersecting with other motifs, such as the dog, breath and in and out in ‘Hymn’ (p. 61):

I stretch across the carpet breath-to-breath and watch his yellow eye
xxxxxxxxa trapdoor in and out of which some small hot thing is always bolting
flick and grow still.
May I never get over the slapstick of the red dog swimming.

In ‘Categories of experience c. 2016,’ (p. 63), the poet-narrator is “the archivist”, and the whole collection might be considered a witnessing as well as an examination and exploration of what happens in the hospital and in life/lived experience. Within this, language may behave like a body part that won’t quite function as wanted but the imagery in the poems is focussed and vibrant, while the metaphors and unfolding thoughts are striking and spot-on. In Yoga (p. 67) a middle-aged business man with his pressed white shirt:

folds/ unfolds himself like something being born/ still
nine parts liquid one part hurt/ he brings the body stretching
into light/ […]

I’ve already mentioned how all of the themes and motifs in some way merge or pick up on each other. But the interconnection, and small parts making up (or breaking off from) a bigger whole, is also there physically in the human body. In ‘The poem Kolkata’ (p. 64):

I can only move anywhere at the molecular level
A mote of me jangles with the bright girls up the temple steps

Another rises on a drift of puja smoke

The poem’s lack of punctuation, replaced by space (a kind of opening), is both a characteristic of the collection and reinforces this sense of motes, movement and interconnectedness. Again, there is that recurring element of (body) parts and “a lolling dog” in the other strange and beautiful examples given. The poem culminates in a stanza that also links up once more with joy and language:

Another million bits fly outxxxxattached to kitesxxxnot going
anywherexxxlike most joysxxxxlike a lot of language actuallyxxxlike this

I could write a whole article about style and techniques – Atkinson’s playfulness with form, line-breaks, white space, punctuation and syntax choices. I could also focus on the use of alliteration, or the taste-/sense-whetting repetition of sounds in poems such as ‘Parable’ (p. 68), where:

Arnab and Shonali feed us
sweet fish steamed in leaves with mustard seed

As in this poem, although pain (including the sense of failure) may be a strong theme in Lumen, there is joy. Other light touches and humour can be found also in the conversational tones and linguistic word play.

Even if I’d typed up my many other pages of notes, this review would only ever be a smallest glimpse of the whole. (And yes, perhaps, that notion of just a glimpse of the entirety is present too in these poems themselves.) Lumen is one of those collections that is infinitely re-readable, sparking new connections and revealing new delights every time.

Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Her latest titles include How to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Poetry Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press), both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards. She was delighted to be The High Window Resident Artist 2019. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk.

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*****

Claire Dyer’s Yield reviewed by Rosie Jackson 

Yield by Claire Dyer.  £9.99. Two Rivers Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-1909747845

Claire Dyer’s third collection, Yield, deals in large part with the gender transition of one of her sons. For this reason I approached it with some caution, worrying if the poems would be eclipsed by this very contemporary and politically charged theme, and caught up with conflicting emotions, as I imagined how I would feel if this had been my own son. But while the subject does keep it risky and often heart-wrenching, this is such magnificent poetry that my concerns quickly vanished and I was left wondering at the providence that gave this challenging personal experience to one of the few people who could distil it into such evocative, beautifully crafted work.

It seems to me that all the skills that Dyer honed in her previous collections with Two Rivers Press, Eleven Rooms (2013) and Interference Effects (2016), have come into their own in this new volume, where her deft use of form – subtle, suggestive, oblique, lyrical, understated –
is a perfect vehicle for the many undercurrents of her story. Indeed, I can’t think of any other contemporary poet who could deal so tenderly with the wondrous yet traumatic gender change of one of her children.

Wondrous is the word. For though a handful of the poems do make some overt reference to the medical side of things, as in the four pieces entitled ‘Clinic’, which gently chronicle the shifts of perspective. : ‘That first time you were boy’ (Clinic I); ‘That second visit you were girl and/I had less to say.’ (Clinic II); ‘You entered like a gazelle’ (Clinic III); ‘This time on your own’ (Clinic IV), the stronger focus is on the transformation as a kind of alchemy, a magical transition. The whole world has turned into the liminal place of fairy tale, where things shape-shift and identity is not what it seems.

‘I know this alchemy is yours,
but in my dream it’s sorcery –

a magician pulling a white dove,
startled, from a hat.

See this wizard-surgeon’s
cape swirl, how

his wand glints
in the hard, electric light.’ (Abracadabra)

This is not to say that Dyer reduces or minimises the enormity or complex repercussions of the transition for her daughter or for the family, there is no denial going on here. There are sharp edges of facts, unpalatable coming to terms with a new reality and with other people’s judgements. Some of the most moving poems for me are where Dyer talks about her mixed feelings directly: ‘See your honeycomb heart shatter’; ‘Then there was the time when the grief was tremendous…’ (Call and Response); ‘Come, sadness tells me, put on the yellow dress’ (Some Guidance on Leaving) ‘I don’t know you, I had two sons, this girl is a confusion.’ (Storm Warning.)

Also very powerful are the glimpses of complicated and baffled responses of other members of the family, such as her father. Here in full is her poem Coming Out II, which gives a flavour of her voice and tone as she captures her father’s incomprehension:

‘This grass is blistering in the heat,
is brittle underfoot as I answer the door
to my father ready to say

what’s been in my mouth so long
it’s hard to know when it began.
I’ve rehearsed, the words moving

across my tongue like marbles
in a drum. Act it, I tell myself.
Think stage lights, greasepaint,

Mavis selling ice creams
at the break. I keep the saying of it short:
the how, when, why, pledge

nothing will really change. And
then the pause, a silence vast enough
to swallow all of time,

each mountain, tree,
fern, salmon leaping up the fall.’

Dyer is also an accomplished novelist, with four successful novels to her name, which may account for the confident ease with which she captures family and social realities, the fullness of ordinary life, memories of birth and small kids, their childhood, everyday objects, lots of domestic stuff like laundry, groceries, feeding cats, all of which give the poems a grounded-ness and substance that anchors their more transcendent qualities. Wardrobe, for example, describes the boy clothes that are no longer needed. There’s also wry humour in places, which prevents the poems from being heavy even in their seriousness.

But what strikes me most about Yield is the transformative light that informs everything. So many images and metaphors of light, literal and symbolic: ‘the glittering light of a hallway,’ ‘summer gold threading your gold hair’, ‘this horizontal light’, ‘the way sunlight falls like nectar/on the stairs’, ‘ the way light blazes the darkling water’, ‘ the sun was spilling yellow across the sand’, ‘the day’s pearl light’, ‘a lattice of sun, ‘globes of white light are dropping from street lamps into kerb water,’ ‘plump light today, early and falling in bandwiths wider than heartbeats’, ‘all the chandelier light of that particular, wondrous night.’

Alongside Dyer’s usual delicious imagery, ‘the taste of grief like lemons on her tongue’, the overall effect of this is sensual, delicious, and uplifting. The poems are mostly couplets and tercets, some prose poems, some more fragmented syntax to intimate the transitions and difficulties of adjustment. Every line is carefully cut and polished till it shines. There is the fragile beauty of ceramics and broken pots, there are foxes, fireflies, fierce moons and furious seas. Visual images are particularly strong and time after time I felt immersed in a painting by Pierre Bonnard, interiors of family life suffused with colour and light.

This is a moving and memorable chronicle of coming to terms with and, finally, celebrating what is, after all, a magical sea change, an astonishing transformation of a child’s identity, an unravelling and remaking, with the over-arching unity of the narrative provided by a mother’s love: ‘Our love is unconditional.’ Although the overt and specific subject matter is gender transition, these exquisite poems also speak to any challenge to parental love. They speak of the need to find unconditional love, acceptance and surrender, of the difficult yielding to what life brings which we must all attempt.

Yield.
I am yielding, standing in the hallway
where the clock is talking now,

the stairs silently travelling, the carpet
holding echoes the size of stars.
In each room there’s a moment like leaf-fall.’ (Yield II)

Note: Claire Dyer has her child’s permission to refer to her by old name, gender and status where appropriate. (Ed.)

Rosie Jackson is a poet and creative writing tutor recently whose work has been widely published in journals. She recently moved to Devon after many years in Frome. Her poetry collections to date are: Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird (with Dawn Gorman, Hedgehog Press, 2020); Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline (with Graham Burchell, Two Rivers Press, 2020; The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016); What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).

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*****

Carole Bromley’s The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster reviewed by Susan Castillo Street

bromley

The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, by Carole Bromley. £10.99. Valley Press. ISBN 978-1-912436-47-7

The American writer Henry James once gave the following bit of advice to writers: ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.’ Carole Bromley is a shining example of a poet on whom nothing is lost. In her fourth collection, The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, her poems are unflinching in their clarity, honesty and eloquence. They are also subtle exemplars of poetic craft and aesthetic sensibility.

The title poem, ‘The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster,’ takes as its central image a male and female pair of peregrine falcons which have nested in one of the towers of York Minster since 2015. The poetic subject assumes the pragmatic, rather peremptory tone of a guide,

Best observed from Dean’s Park
(bring binoculars and stand well back,
so you don’t get a crick in your neck)

The focus of the spectator/reader shifts to the male falcon, roosting on a gargoyle called The Thoughtful Man. The bird is described as

The smaller of the two,
less powerful, more easy-going
with a neater and cleaner look
even when fluffed up and relaxing.

It is the female who hunts pigeon chicks, however:

Look out—the chicks will be
snatched and whisked to a nest
where the fledglings will soon take
their first scary flight from the House of God.

The granitic solidity and sheer weight of the Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe, contrasts vividly with the image of the two birds of prey, high in the sky above the crowds.

Another poem evoking liminal avian imagery is ‘Red Kites at Harewood.’ The kites in this poem may well be birds of prey, riding the currents in the sky far above, or a child’s toy:

…children pedalling
on Boxing Day bikes, and couples hiking
hand in gloved hand, not looking
up at where they tremble on taut string

then stoop to snatch at carrion
or worms or sometimes a skittering
vole or a hedge sparrow foraging.

Carole Bromley often turns her gaze to family and family relations. We come across extraordinarily vivid lines. In ‘Departures’, she describes an airport farewell:

Barry is more direct, misbehaving

fretting about the sweets for his cabin bag
refusing to write his journal
runs back through security
the airport like a funeral

In ‘Beverley Baths, 1959’ she captures the agonies of pre-adolescence:

I’m eleven. I’ve never seen my parents
in swimsuits. How I dreaded Miss Atkinson
unhooking my clenched toes.

Bromley deftly evokes the intricacies of language, regional vernacular, and social class in ‘Flittin’:

In six strange yards I wore the wrong colour,
Wrong face, wrong accent. Even my words
Were snatched form me and chucked
Round the playground over my head:
Clemmed, mardy, bairn, jammy, tarra

I learned to keep my gob shut till I knew
the new words till my mum had scrimped
for the new uniform though I was allowed
to wear my good brown shoes out
among that alien sea of black leather.

The poem ends on a note of splendid defiance:

Flit? Me? Not bloody likely. No ta.

‘Wild Garlic’ evokes the poignancy of bereavement in spare, pared-down tercets:

Your request, or so Di said.
Richard couldn’t face it
So it was just the two of us

Walking the riverbank,
carrying what was left
of you. No bluebells,

just wild garlic,the reek of it
and no space either
without people.

In poetry about deep feeling, less is more, as Bromley demonstrates when she evokes the mixed sentiments of horror and black comedy that often accompany grief:

Because it was horrific
like everything about that day
because I dropped you

in the car park, my hand shook
as I plunged it in
that hideous lucky dip

and could not cry, could not
think of you as you were
only this imaginary you

who knew where the bluebells grew
the mother who was never wrong
blown hither and thither.

This poem packs an extraordinary emotional punch. It should be obligatory reading for Creative Writing classes as an exemplar of Show Don’t Tell, as it tells a story of deep loss in language that is both austere and tender.

Carole Bromley, in a recent pamphlet, Sodium 136, describes her recent experience with brain surgery. She returns to this in The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster. Again, as in the poems at the beginning of this collection we encounter avian imagery, but from a very different perspective. In ‘Neurosurgery Ward 4 Bed 8’, the reader is taken directly to the sensations and sights of a hospital:

The drain in my spine is emptied: 10 mls
of brain fluid per hour. The nurse appears
to turn the tap. If I sit up the headache worsens

so I lie flat under my regulation cotton blanket
and for hours watch the pigeons dance on the rooftop
where sometimes a man appears to tie down the net.

The contrast between the dancing pigeons and the immobilised patient is stark. The pigeons are determined to nest in this grim place, and the poem goes on

(…)if the man only would let them,

they could bring twigs and mate and lay warm eggs
and preen themselves in privacy and warmth.
How I would like to preen myself. In three more days

I can shower and wash my hair. I can cut my nails.
How determined they are, my beautiful pigeons.
If only the man in grey would leave them alone.

The poem ends with a salvo of celebration, aliveness and gratitude:

I want to fling open the window and let in the air
and call out to them, Thank you. Thank you
thank you, thank you, my beautiful birds.

This review began by citing Henry James. In conclusion, I’d like to quote another American writer, Edith Wharton. Wharton once said: ‘There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.’ In The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, Carole Bromley’s poems both reflect the dazzling fire of her perceptions and spread that fire to her fortunate readers. This fine collection is warmly recommended to all discerning readers for its poetic craft, its passion, its unflinching courage, and its wisdom.

Susan Castillo Street is Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College London whose poetry has appeared widely in leading journals and anthologies. She has published four collections of poems, The Candlewoman’s Trade (Diehard Press, 2003), Abiding Chemistry, (Aldrich Press, 2015), The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, (Aldrich, 2018) and Cloak (Kelsay Books, 2020), as well as a pamphlet, Constellations (Three Drops Press, 2016).

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*****

Samatar Elm’s Portrait of Colossus reviewed by Neil Fulwood

samtar

Portrait of Colossus by Samatar Elmi. £4.00. Flipped Eye Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-905233-61-8

Is it declassé to commence a review of another poet’s work with a reference to one’s own? No doubt, but I never claimed to be a gentleman or a role model, so here goes:

My first collection contained a long poem called ‘Litany’, a threnody of sorts to the lost pubs of my hometown. The starting point was the conversion – or rather the deconsecration – of a former Unitarian church and its reopening as a branch of the Pitcher & Piano pub chain; it seemed ironic that a church was now a pub when so many former pubs in the city were now other things: Tesco Metros, student flats, even vacant lots.

Samatar Elmi’s debut collection Portrait of Colossus immediately endeared itself to me with the poem ‘The Hope and Anchor’, about a mosque that used to be a pub:

An imam stands where the last barmaid called last orders,
his jukebox of aythaan and ayaat, his little number.
Worshippers squeeze into rank and row – face Mecca –
as once punters, rasping for that one-for-the-road,
made a beeline for the last pitcher.

How could one not love a poem that seems to function as a flipside to one’s own work, right down to the word “pitcher” fetching up in the opening stanza? And there’s much to love about it in its own right, from the “last pitcher” rounding out the twice-used “last” in the first line, to that “rasped one-for-the-road” when “gasped” would have been the easier and more obvious choice. “One-for-the-road” carries, of course, its own hint of leave-taking. The pub’s closure hangs heavily over the poem, even though its erstwhile name remains:

… a wooden sign above the door …
which the imam kept – a portly reminder that God’s house
is al-amal wa marsa, that others have gathered here to escape
until last orders.

(“Portly”: again, a perfect choice of word.)

Elmi is a UK-based poet of Somali heritage; his work necessarily reflects on identity, culture, race and the immigrant experience, but finds unexpected and often warmly humorous ways of doing so. Take these observations:

The first time I met my country of origin
I fell flat on my face and kissed the ground so hard
The sand bit my lips. This is how my country returns affection.
[‘Cain and Abel’]

The elders hold counsel, every night, in a burning house.
We are numb to the flames, so we talk.
Over time, fire has become our favourite metaphor.
[‘Khat House’]

She scolds her brothers for their sins:
as bachelors; their western laissez-faire,
hides their razors in the morning
in case they forget the beard is fard,
along with the thobe to guard
their nakedness.
[‘Burqa’]

Elmi is just as good on cultural differences, be it the difficulty, even in the face of parental disapproval, of maintaining a virtuous lifestyle in the headiest and most intoxicating of European cities —

Our parents are disappointed.
They raised us right. Right,
I remind them, in the shadow
of the Colosseum.
[‘Drunk on Rũm’]

— or the assimilation of living in London as a “taxonomy” of landmarks and districts experienced while

…. walking alone at the end of the night

over Parliament bridge
past Nelson’s column
up to Camden,

up and up,
until at Hampstead
where the first impressions of dawn
are the songs of birds

whose names
I never had to learn
for them to sing for me.
[‘England’]

Similarly, ‘Manuel Cortes and the Immortal Tree’ and ‘When I Think of Nostalgia I Think of Bramble Picking’ use the poetics of the natural world to make points about people, places and memories that are never forced or overstated; they suggest, in fact, that Elmi could attain a Hughesian capacity as a poet of nature.

Not of which is to say that Portrait of Colossus is a rural dalliance that sidesteps the harsher aspects of racism and/or the immigrant experience. It’s telling that ‘Step this Way’, a piece that bristles with the forced politeness and insincerity of institutionally racist bureaucracy, is immediately followed by ‘NIGGER’, which takes as its starting point Dean Atta’s admonition: “Rappers when you use the word ‘nigger’ / remember that’s one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard, / so don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word”. Elmi subjects the word to a rigorous etymological shakedown:

Taken out of context, six black letters
on a white page, a word with Latin
not African roots.

The many Roman synonyms;
taeter, malificus, piceus.

Morum: the black mulberry fruit.
Atratus: clothed in black.

But nigrum made its way back to us.
Its two syllables a kick and snare.

It’s also telling that ‘NIGGER’ (why the word is fully capitalised is revealed in the poem’s brutally effective penultimate line) segues into ‘The End of History’, which for my money is the best poem anyone has yet written on Brexit. It doesn’t mention the B-word or its perpetrators, nor is it sarcastic, bitter or angry in the way most of the poetry on Brexit is (I include some my own work in this catch-all) – instead, it’s sad almost to the point of wistful. It deserves to be anthologised widely.

As does Elmi’s work on fatherhood, the best of which – and arguably the collection’s standout – is ‘From a Father to a Daughter’. Here’s a good chunk of the opening section:

Your mother wants poems about you:
fatherhood-bildungsroman-eulogies,
clever villanelles where, like you, the refrain
reinvents the stanzas of our narrative,
a reassuring haven for us to return to.
She wants sonnets that mirror the paradox
between finite space and infinite odds,
fit for you, our living breathing dialectic.

Good stuff. Elmi balances, by means of interweaving them, the importance to him of being both poet and father. Throw in that wry undercurrent that invites us to speculate on the power balance in the marriage, and things are simmering nicely. The second of the poem’s three sections shifts the prism from poetry to musicality, Elmi delivering a shimmering fantasia in which the pure love of his child carries over into the pure love of words. The third section distils the foregoing into a deeper rumination, moving toward a final line that is just perfect. I’m not going to quote from either of these sections, or spoil them with further remarks: the reader deserves to discover the piece, as a whole, on its own terms.

The same can be said of the collection of a whole. Elmi has achieved a first collection which announces him as a distinctive talent. He has the ability to avoid rhetoric when engaging with emotive subject matter, to capture formative life experiences in the slightest of phrases, and to load seemingly oblique moments with the weight of history, heritage and the messy business of simply being human.

Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.

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*****

Patrick Wright’s Full Sight Of Her reviewed by Patrick Lodge

patrick wright

Full Sight Of Her by Patrick Wright.  £10.99. Eyewear. ISBN 978-1-913606-04-6

Colm Tóibín, writing about the “devious power” of Elizabeth Bishop’s late poems, described them as using “exact detail to contain emotion and suggest more”. In this powerful, moving, harrowing but, in the end, sustaining collection, Patrick Wright writes of the death in 2017 of his “beloved”, the artist, Kim Parkinson, with, at times, unsettling forensic detail which, paradoxically, in seeking to enclose and restrain the emotional catastrophe of an early death, allows for a breadth of feeling and affirmation to suffuse the work. The result is an extraordinary collection which, while taxing to read, ultimately repays the reader with its honesty and unsentimental love.

Though many of the poems were written before Kim Parkinson became terminally ill, there is a consistent and almost premonitory unity about the collection (‘this grief has yet to happen’, ‘Une Ville Abandonée’) that essentially narrates chronologically the relationship until her death. Wright elsewhere called it a “a narrative arc of foreshadowing” and many of the poems, while dealing with recalled events, remember them with an instinct that some things – the ‘tumbleweed moments’ (‘Antics’) – need to be evoked and fixed before they disappear. The unabashed love poem (as indeed all of the poems are), ‘Before It All Starts Up’ thus explores a good memory: ‘ Here is happiness as the world filters in, / as the fan whirrs on, in moments of just us / at the origin of things…’ yet throughout there is a desperation to remember, to capture and hold the detail, ‘…Such is the meaning she gives / to the morning, as I fall in love again…’. Again, ‘It Starts With Her Awkward Hairline’ is never mawkish nor sentimental as Wright describes combing hair which, while it becomes a hymn to a lover’s detailed knowledge of another person’s physicality, still is a presage, ‘The filaments are the days we’ve got left’.

The use of “filament” with its connotations of a slender, fragile thread that can become incandescent with light is perfect. Partly because the poems are characterised by Wright’s delight in words – the poem ‘Aubade’, for example, contains limen, oxytocin, dysphoric, valerian, tisane. Occasionally the reaching for the dictionary is done with a sigh, though the vocabulary does give an exuberance to the poems but their absolute precision also anchors them as they seek to deal with potentially overwhelming feelings. Wright’s language denies the hackneyed poetic – “A sunset? No sunset in sight” (‘The Balcony on Barker Suite’) and is consequently much more expressive.

The very overwrought quality of some poems is token to their edginess, the struggle between the undercurrent of high emotion which, while driving the writing, would, itself, seek to subvert the very writing of the poetry. In the complex, fantastical ‘Insomniac’, for example, where Wright turns and turns in sleeplessness, there is ‘No escaping my orbit, / my barycentre of regret, gyring round this hub-’. Barycentre was a dictionary moment but it is a perfect choice, indeed, the perfect word with its meaning of the centre of mass of two or more bodies orbiting each other, its sense of being endlessly trapped and unable to let go or to want to and the Yeatsian use of “gyring” suggesting that any spiral is necessarily downward.

Another theme throughout the collection is the play of light and shadow. Kim Parkinson, registered as visually impaired, was an accomplished artist, notably in photography where she turned her limited perception of light into striking images, several of which enhance the book. Light and shade interweave throughout, reminding always of the bittersweet, the love and the loss, the live lived: ‘I love how you call them numens, / invoking all that’s lost in the world / as blocks of visitation on contact paper.’ (‘The Blind Photographer’); ‘As I describe / to you my smile, your blindness / rehearses the grief we’ve denied’ (‘Selfies’).

Memory plays a large part in the collection as Wright’s mind roams across the relationship and a host of other remembrances from his past. At times his gaze seems as a torch sweeping a scene, an attic, illuminating things temporarily, enough to see their significance and give some retrospective order to them in passing. He recalls video games, dystopian TV series, family deaths – ‘Sometimes #9 Dream, the bay window radio / amid airwaves, lyrics or cafes through the day. / They carry you through the membrane’ (‘Revenant’). One feels that such memories also carry Wright.

Lennon claimed #9 Dream came to him in a dream and he just churned it out. This collection has no churning out – it is a tightly constructed and crafted collection that moves at an inevitable pace – though at times it seems almost an extended dream sequence though that might be another “coping strategy”. The act of making poetry of what is happening maybe the ultimate “coping strategy”. At times Wright may seem desperate (‘Sunlight on her face, I tried to make it permanent’, ‘Echoes’) or at an extreme (‘To wake is to jump off a high rise’, ‘Mornings’). But throughout – except for one or two moments of brutal and justified anger, Wright’s tone is almost casual, matter of fact in poems that deal with Kim Parkinson’s declining health and her death. With that choice he lays bare the raw sense that things simply take their own course and there is little to be done but wait and suffer: ‘Upstairs she starts her chemo; down here its limbo’, only the edge of Hell. Other patients are called, ‘Upstairs they go, living out their stories’ (‘The Waiting Room’) as Wright has to live out his. There is no self-pity here, only poems of painful honesty written with grace.

The closing poems are both beautiful and painful. They are hard to read but the events they describe must have been harder to live through and hardest of all to write such powerful poetry about. ‘Martyrs To Each Other’ with its repeated, chant-like phrase ‘Now the treatments have passed” signal that there is only time left for ‘final acts of love’ of which this collection must be one of the best. ‘The End’, in its repeated use of ‘Let’, becomes a litany of resignation, of finally letting go. The closing prose poem (‘Shadows On The Ceiling’) is a moving reflection on Kim Parkinson, though, of course, the whole collection itself, can be seen as this.
Søren Kierkegaard defined a poet as “one who suffers”, one who opens their mouth in anguish but so sweet is the output that readers want more, want the poet to suffer again. Well no-one would want Patrick Wright to suffer again and hopefully this collection may act as some sort of catharsis but there is no doubt that his next collection, whatever the subject matter, should be eagerly awaited.

Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published in several countries and he has been successful in several poetry competitions including the Gregory O’Donoghue, the Leeds Poetry Peace Prize, Poetry On The Lake, Red House Poets, the Trim Festival and the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition in 2020 and he is Manchester Cathedral poet of the year for 2020/21. He has read by invitation at festivals internationally and reviews for several magazines. His latest collection, Remarkable Occurrences is published by Valley Press.

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*****

Penny Sharman’s Swim With Me In Deep Water reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio

penny swim in deep

Swim With Me In Deep Water by Penny Sharman . £7.99.  Cerasus Poetry.  ISBN 9781073328529  (Available to purchase from the author at https://pennysharman.co.uk/)

After her debut pamphlet Fair Ground, Penny Sharman surprises the reader with the rich imageries and enthralling lines of her first full collection, Swim With Me In Deep Water. Her surreal imagination explores a world where reality and fantasy mingle in extraordinary variegated patterns. Magic is present as part of life, a mysterious side of our reality that attracts and prompts wider visions. The poet’s connection to nature in the form of creatures that live in water, earth and air comes to the fore in this collection together with the contrast between light and darkness, a reminder of her past hardships. Nevertheless, healing moments that she has experienced with her partner and her children are also recalled As she says in the foreword, ‘much of my poetry is grounded in nature, in the wilderness of spirit and the edges of human love and despair’. Sharman is not only a poet, she is also an artist and a photographer whose work connects the peculiarities of being human with universal concepts.

The collection is divided into four sections that investigate from different angles the swimming and diving of the poet in unfathomable depths in a metaphoric way:

Swim with me in deep water,
sidle up close,
hear me,
hear my whispers,
let them fall into your ears.
Let me wait under your belly,
hide from danger.
Let me sigh, sway,
sing and wait for answers,
wait for echoes of deep voices.

(‘Elephant whispers’)

It is an invitation to dive into the poet’s world, to be oblivious of what is happening around it. But it is also an invitation to immerse ourselves in our own deep waters, our own conscious and unconscious experiences, and encounter the deepest sides of our being. The poems therefore trigger a meditation on who we are and on our flaws and strengths in a complex network of relationships:

Jack tells me stories
about the centre, how
we create who we are
from inside our orb-webs.
I read about your spirit,
your meaning, beastly totem,
how you’re all about
creativity and I should
pay attention to your harmless ways.

(‘Spider’)

Some poems are written in the voice of plants and animals or elements of nature; this is a personification that allows the poet not only to speak about environmental concerns, her connection with nature and the essence of the object described, but also to express feelings of sorrow and joy that voice the human and the non-human:

I am mostly made of water,
moon drop on moon drop,
faced with calm and wild seas.

Grandmother moon calls at dark of night.
Through velvet curtains her rays wake me,
leave a halo of tears on my pillow.

(‘Moonspeak’)

The connection with nature is so profound for Sharman that it allows transformations, a metamorphosis that the poet feels is ‘recognisable over my skin’ where the storm coming ‘prickles/as flesh waits for a downpour.’ It is ‘this wished for thunder’ that breaks and cures at the same time that gives the poet an unconscious awareness. It evolves in a spiral, in a ‘Tsunami of Hearts’ (the title of the last section) as the poet says: ‘we will forget,/forget our lost horizon, the hidden behul.’

Nevertheless, the recurrent memories of a dark past do not stop life from flowing in renewed family relationships and new loves in spite of drawbacks, as is expressed in the poem ‘An ice cube’. The lyric voice puts an ice cube in her lover’s mouth and ‘when it’s vanished/I will kiss your lips/from under the waterfall/then we can/remember our/hot flesh moving’. This is a poignant moment that emphasises renewal after ‘our frozen year’ in a blessed symbolic melting space in time where love blossoms again.

At times, Sharman’s poetry can be experimental, dealing with different mythologies ranging from Hindu and Buddhist ones to those from the pre-Christian pagan world, such as Celtic and Anglo-Saxon deities and Roman gods. Lines like ‘moss mosS moSS mOSS MOSS/let the east wind carry your spores of reckoning’ (‘Sphagnum’) and ‘the luna luna luna/the shine/moon-milk bottles full of white’ (‘Things to do in moonlight’) reveal an original use of language that pushes Sharman’s reasoning to the edges of logic and opens the reader up to a world of imagination that has no limits. The repetitions convey a sense of infinity that resounds in the reader’s mind, emphasising the poems’ constant tension. They propose different views that shift from elements of nature to animals, plants and memories and communicate diverse possibilities of looking at our world by suggesting that we explore who we are. The last three poems keep the strength of this vision (‘The Salt bride’, ‘Sea Star’ and ‘Iona’) in a transformation and regeneration that are personified in the voice of the sea creature, the sea star: ‘You forgot I am a class-A asteroidean/who generated a bloodless life lived with you.’ The possibilities are infinite and the poet observes and investigates many of them in this collection in a ‘suspension of disbelief’ that does not deny sorrow but always implies hope and renovation.

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

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*****

Des Mannay’s Sod ‘em-and tomorrow  reviewed by Gareth Writer-Davies

des Mannay

Sod ‘em-and tomorrow by Des Mannay. £12. Waterloo Press. ISBN 978-190674278-2

I’m very much a page poet and Des Mannay is well known on the South Wales poetry scene for performative protest poetry. Fair play to Des. So, how do I put aside narrow prejudice and give him an impartial hearing? Remarkably easily as it happens, as this is a collection that manages to please both eye and ear. A wise decision has been made to divide the seventy-six pages into three sections; poems ruled by rhythm and rhyme and outright protest book-ending ‘story poems’.  Having said that, it is free verse that opens the collection ‘And The Dead Shall Rise’; here are the first lines:

And what price did you pay for the silence?
The ultimate price: 266 men sent to the grave

and the last lines

Because if they fail the dead shall rise
shattered into tiny fragments-along with the shale….

This is the main drive of this book; a shout for the oppressed, the shafted, in this case the miners of the Gresford Colliery Disaster (less a disaster than an inevitable result of management for maximum profit and minimum safety)

The next poem ‘On the death of Muhammad Ali’ is less about the titular hero than the poet’s own experience of racism; the first verse of this long poem made me smile grimly:

Goodbye Butterfly.
You stung like a bee.
You stung me!
From you I learnt
resistance!
To all the
“nigger, nigger-pull the trigger”
playground taunts
I could reply
“C’mon Bugner!”

There is humour in these poems but the prevailing mood is cold, considered anger.
I find this approach most attractive and more effective than unpondered howling; this is a collection that seeks to get change done rather than give into despair. There are though only so many causes that one can have the energy to pursue in this wicked world and there is always the danger of Dave Spartism. Which brings me to the tricky matter of persona.

This collection is written with the full lash of a keen pen; irate and certainly pissed off at how society is organised to supress the common man. And Des Mannay is that man. But a poet by defintion is a complex being, a sideways-looker, at the very least a concerned citizen of humanity. One can end up being given a character that though mostly true is not the whole truth and cannot be shaken off (Anne Sexton Queen of Scream anybody?) and swamps one’s writing.

These thoughts are brought on by the poems of the middle section. They really impressed me. The anger here undergoes transmutation with stories of the lost and broken:

She had a crazy father with fire
in his eyes, who beat her mother
and any other child within
the house, except her brother- (3-6)

But the girl who jumped when things went bang
grew into a woman-
who could fly into inexplicable rage one minute,
and cuddle a baby off to sleep the next. (10-13)

‘The Girl Who Jumped When Things Went Bang’

‘A Child’s Purgatory in Wales’ caught me out, ratcheting tension and ending with:

Nothing remains of then
except a nervous inner-child
and a rocking horse,
which still stares at me accusingly
from a corner of the attic

The best of his performative poems are very good indeed, but in this collection
(wherein such poems are bound) it is poems like the measured ‘Nicotine’ that explode off the page; it ends thus:

Like a clock that is ticking
Away at life’s measure
And the ash that you’re flicking
Is like discarded treasure

From a burnt out old ruin
That once was a home
And you sit there smoking
Cigarettes on your own

The final poem ‘Sleep’ perhaps points the way ahead; a meditation with an undercurrent of disquiet and anger, it starts:

I should go to bed
before it gets light
but there are things
which bother me at night

there is hunger in the house and hunger for change and ‘then there is my skin / how it bloody thickens’. I like that admittance of doubt and vulnerability.
The poems finishes:

Sickness is systemic,
or so it seems to me,
I’ll off, away to bed,
dreams can set you free

This is a book that weighs well in the hand, but for a first collection, I think there are too many poems here.I would have shaved to say 50 poems of the performative (like a stand alone book of lyrics) and then kept back the middle poems for a second collection. Has he overdone the testimonials and recommendations? Possibly, This is something to which poets are prone; a safety net of approval is a comfort, but I think Mannay should trust his poems to stand on their own feet.

Not all poetry crosses from stage to page; after all, you wouldn’t expect a creature of the desert to flourish in the sea. But there are exceptions and Des Mannay is on his way to being such.
The book is a very nice production job with a loose jacket (with flaps!) that carries a lino cut of a street protestor taking a baseball bat to the shield of the opposition. Marketing as message; it does what it says on the cover. I congratulate him on his first collection; more power to his arm if not his fist!

Gareth Writer-Davies is from Brecon, Wales. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2014 and 2017). He was  commended in the Prole Laureate Competition (2015) and was Prole Laureate for 2017. He has also been commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition (2015) and Highly Commended in 2017. He has published Bodies  (2015) and Cry Baby (2017), both published by Indigo Dreams. The Lover’s Pinch (2018) and The End (2019) are published by Arenig Press. He was a Hawthornden Fellow (2019).

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*****

Patrick Shannon’s Spirit Bird  reviewed by Rowena Sommerville

spirit bird

 Spirit Bird by Patrick Shannon.  £7. Mudfog Press. ISBN: unavailable

This is a wonderfully warm and welcoming collection, the author’s second with Mudfog. Patrick Shannon was born and raised in Ireland and now lives in Sunderland, and his tender generosity of spirit is clearly informed by both those landscapes, their joys and their challenges. He is a lecturer and nurse, and his poem ‘Song of Care’ (included here) was circulated across the UK by the Royal College of Nursing to honour the work of nurses during the Covid 19 epidemic – which continues as I write this review.

The collection opens with poems largely rooted in his Irish boyhood – and the elegiac tone of childhood reminiscence is tellingly punctured by both the inevitable pains of growing up and the very particular pains of growing up during the ‘Irish troubles’. In ‘Dublin Paths’ he says:

He rode an imagined horse,
Tonto on his shoulder,
Rin-Tin-Tin on the hills. Escape days
until the field fell to the feet of others
from far away upper roads,
blackditch boys with skills not found
in either imagination or kind, hardened,
whose names were not to become men.

and later in the same poem:

Ah Blinky, what misfortune. Your every itch and twitch.
What was your day before we fought? Who laid the path
you lost?
From behind a barricade you died in a hail of shot.

In ‘Finding Galway’ he writes:

Boys on holiday in the West
Draw water’s weight in wire-handle pails,
Carried from the cross pump down the sloped lane.

and:

Gentian blossoms flash under an Eastern moon,
on the boreen after the marquee dance in Caltra.

I gather that a ‘boreen’ is a ‘narrow country road, frequently unpaved’. Inevitably, the Irish names and words, the mostly rural setting, and the looking back at childhood, all call to mind other writers, including giants such as Heaney (to whom an In Memoriam poem is included) and Laurie Lee, but I felt that this writer held his own, that these poems carry his own individual memories and emotions, expressed in his own individual way. After all, it is not his fault that the context of these poems is freighted with such charm, and we can let ourselves yield to that while also hearing and responding to the stories and the voice within.

Several poems allude to the losses along the way – we all have these, of course, but Ireland has more than its fair share, one way or another. In ‘Cry’ he says:

We smoked and drank tea for months, saying enough to
hold onto.
Those evenings folded into a rhythm. When you moved his
car from the yard
a change came. There was turf in the range. Dr Moloney
called often.

Shannon is a keen observer of plants, both wild and gardened, and descriptions of which occur in many poems to set a scene, or denote the passing of time, or to describe the single or shared labour of, say, turning fruit to jam. In ‘Tree Planting’ he says:

It’s getting that the choices made now will be late
beddings.
Better for their colour and taste.
And hands that work their season sing in Spring’s flower.

I want to feel the leaves drip in their forever transition and
find how.

In ‘Daffodils’ he says:

There is a knowing in the moment’s eye,
that hand over hand, years in rooting stalk to bine,
now it becomes the late flower of each other.

In the title poem, ‘Spirit Bird’, Shannon explores his experience of being examined for, and found to be clear of, cancer. He speaks as from one of the hospital waiting rooms, joined by nurses and another patient, less lucky than him, and who has vowed to take to drink given his diagnosis:

Down in pulmonary function I breathed deep for the
machine.
The shadow figure earlier was a spirit bird.
Near asleep with tiredness I hear her. Not yet she
whispers and unzips my back,
untangles the red mess and soothes the spasm.

I send her on to the man on the drink.
My name was called, when certain,
she returned, my spirit bird to help the healing.

Her wings sheltered my eyes and her breast shielded pain.
I am chosen.

As I said, the poem ‘Song of Care’ has been widely shared by the Royal College of Nursing, and Shannon is, or has been, a nurse. His humanity is evident, plus his appreciation of the skilled work of ‘hands’ which is echoed throughout the collection:

We have borne illness in truth besides,
Known in time and touch.

In your hand and heart is the doing
you give voice to.

All ages, all nurses in seeing and silence.
There in the heart that knows.

I found Spirit Bird to be suffused with a genial and humane spirit, but not easily or tritely so, and written by a poet who has seen plenty of dark events, and who has known plenty of life’s casualties, both in his childhood and in adult and working life. As a reader I felt welcomed, I’m sure others will feel the same.

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.

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*****

Oisín Breen’s  Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten reviewed by Derek Coyle

breenflowers-w

Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten  by Oisín Breen

Oisín Breen’s debut poetry collection Flowers, All Sorts in Blossom, Figs, Berries, and Fruits Forgotten (2020), despite its rustic title (suggestive of the pastoral) is an experiment in poetic form. Rather than a series of discrete, independent lyrics, the volume offers a series of fragmented, loosely associated poetic meditations; ‘an effulgence of shadows/shimmering on sun-whetted stone’, perhaps. The sequence opens with the grave of the poet’s father, and concludes with the poet tending the grave of his mother, which ‘remains as pretty as ever.’
In-between, in a rich poetic diction, ‘stilled and muted harmonia’, ‘sinuous leaves’, a schema of licentiousness’, ‘a languor reconstituted’, we snatch glimpses of the city of Dublin: the Liffey Run, Howth hedgerows, and the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit). Along the way we head back to childhood and summers spent ‘in a Wexford caravan park’, an experience generations of Dublin readers will relate to. Central to the caravan park episode is the recollection of a childhood incident involving the ignoring of a chap the group considered ‘retarded’; how the poet hid in the long grass with a sense of guilt and regret, and quiet glee – at least I’m not the one being picked on – and let this chap pass by. After this, we get references to events in 1323, 1794, 2015; and diverse locations: Dachau, Uruk, Prague. We get Dublin street idiom too: ‘the DART track is mad-long’; a dealer might say, ‘story bud’; and, ‘dey read it in a bewk’ (trans. as, ‘they read it in a book’).

In its use of open form, Breen’s poetic investigation calls to mind the experimental work of an older Dublin poet Thomas Kinsella. Breen could agree with Kinsella, one might well contemplate the Tao from the banks of the river Nore in Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny. In terms of form, the lines are long and loose, and no set pattern of rhyme or rhythm is allowed to take over. One of Breen’s lines might best capture what this experience is like: ‘these notes of incantatory creation’. And, perhaps, the strengths and weaknesses of Breen as we catch him at this moment in time are to be found here; that word ‘notes’, with its suggestion of lyrical flare, ‘these refracted signals,/where laceworks of my own selfhood are pulled taut’; to this reader’s yearning for a dramatic arc or tension, some sense of artistic wholeness or unity (if wholly found in and workable for this piece alone), to pull these fragments together in some coherent fashion, however limited or momentary; ‘pregnant with a real salt of the earth kenning of ourselves.’

Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.

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*****

CHAPBOOKS

*****
Richie McCaffery’s First Hare reviedwed by Rowena Sommerville

First hare cover

First Hare by Richie McCaffery. £6.  Mariscat Press.

The blurb on the back cover of this pamphlet describes the collection as containing ‘pellucid poems of love, life and family with a Northumbrian flavour’, and the two additional laudatory quotes add ‘small compass, but charged particles’ and ‘taut and lucid’ – and I happily echo all of these descriptions. The cover design itself features a hare (dead, I fear), a rather bloody heart, a measuring tape and a clock, and the reader may accurately infer the tone and the range of subject matter from those images.

The writing throughout is straightforward, unadorned, clear, direct – which is absolutely not to suggest any want of thought or cleverness, but rather to point out that McCaffery uses his powers of thought and cleverness to speak in plain terms, that he wants to communicate to the reader his interpretation of/reflection on a scene or a relationship, and to make himself understood. The poems are easy to read and easy to understand, and once those things are done the reader will be struck by how well they have been done, how skilfully histories have been condensed, and how tellingly details and/or words have been chosen.
The opening poem ‘Northumbrian’ possibly addresses Stef – to whom the collection is dedicated – and seeks to explain some of the harsher facts about the Northumbrian countryside:

You asked me why, in the village
and fields where I grew up,
there are large blue barrels –
They’re pheasant feeders, I said.

You told me: That’s so kind!
I hadn’t the heart to tell you the truth
and kill your desire to see good
always in the midst of bad.

The poem suggests that pheasant-feeding is possibly not the only malign effect of current land ownership/management:

We move so much I sometimes
think we’re stolen goods.

And the final couplet suggests that it’s not just countryside management that may bring about harm in the world:

Our love fattens itself daily
Unaware of greater schemes at play.

Perhaps not the most comforting sentiment to share with a lover……

There is an awareness of time passing – several poems are written in memoriam, or addressing family members now dead, plus a visit to the local graveyard. In ‘Falling’ he writes about his great grandfather, who came from Felling, and who falls in various ways through a number of couplets, an action which McCaffery is, perhaps rather alarmingly, drawn to:

Sometimes I’m jerked
awake in the pitch middle of the night

by the feeling of freefall. It used to scare me
but now I like the sense of weightlessness,

of being unburdened.

In ‘No fellow-travellers’ he walks between graves, as a sort of misplaced ticket inspector:

Most of these people lived half
a mile from here and now they
couldn’t be further away,

but they’re all arranged as if
they’re just trying to get home
and the train is waiting on a signal.

I notice that McCaffery does seem to have a very wounded view of masculinity, his male characters are mostly inadequate or uncomfortable or dead – or sometimes all three at once. In ‘Uncles’ he describes a young nephew trying to rub himself out (with an actual rubber) and refers to the uncles who ‘rubbed it out with drink’ (the ‘it’ being unspecified). He describes his father as still believing in God ‘though he’s little faith in himself’, and in ‘Pat’ he describes an old man crumbling as ‘the young/ put up walls around him’.
In ‘The fork’ he describes himself avoiding the school reunion for the shame of accounting for ‘what I’d not become’ despite having shown such promise – one can sympathise, but in ‘Certificates’ he refers to his own birth in 1986, so there are surely a good few years yet in which the ‘promise’ may come to fruition!

The female characters, on the other hand, are often presented in a rather heroic light. In ‘Mac’ he says:

I know that Mac, my sister’s younger son
will seek out the help of any female
in the house, be they Grandma
or girl – and I love him for it.

In ‘Sports days’ he describes his mother working as the school cleaner:

She worked three jobs and raised two of us.
I saw her once, during the break, cleaning my classroom.

When I caught her eye she pulled down the blinds.
I never was embarrassed. She cleansed the place.

He celebrates the small (or not so small, of course) pleasures of everyday life. In ‘Circadian rhythms’ he says:

Most diaries would have had it blank, that day.
We woke together late, you fed the cat, I the birds
then we made breakfast together.
…….
The cat sat on each of our laps. We went
to bed together, both asleep within minutes.
It was one of the best days of my life.

It is lovely to see domestic happiness hymned in such a quietly affirmative way.

In the final poem, ‘Cedar of Lebanon’, he describes the potential of green cones to be ‘thrown into the future and explode/ in mushroom clouds of resinous canopies’. This closes the pamphlet with a more strikingly ‘poetical’ turn of phrase than he has generally employed throughout it, and provides an upward, outward turn of focus at the end of the collection.

I enjoyed reading First Hare and I look forward to reading more from this poet as he is thrown forward into his own green future.

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.

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*****

Beautiful English, by Rebecca Ruth Gould. £5.00. Dreich.  ISBN 978-1 873412 09 1  reviewed by Wendy Klein

Rebecca Ruth Gould is many things before she is the poet who wrote Beautiful English. Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham, she is the author of ‘Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency’, a multiple prize-winning book. She has also translated books by the Iranian poet, Bijan Elahi (2019), the Georgian poet, Vazha Pshavela (2019), and more.

The scope of her broader knowledge spills into her poetry from the opening/title poem, itself a somewhat ironic commentary on the perceived importance, rather than the beauty of English, the way that it can be divisive. Here the protagonist waits for the arrival of someone of huge emotional significance: someone whose ‘nineteenth century speech / is more contemporary to me than the news cycle.’ It is ‘a beautiful distortion / of familiar sounds’ where ‘Every syllable punctures an illusion.’ For all the promise of delight in the anticipated arrival, there are forebodings of disjuncture – a beginning that heralds the ending before it can begin. After a precise sequence of tercets, the poet introduces a cascade of lines followed by a powerful hint of linguistic and cultural tension:

All my words
–all my Englishes –
lie exposed before you.

Meanwhile you speak the veiled language of
Hafez & Said to your mahram
Many secrets are kept from me.

Mahram – someone whom it is forever forbidden to marry! The final four tercets signal in escalating emphasis, the ways in which this relationship, is doomed:

The roles of language, food, clothing, and religion are interwoven throughout these poems where they intersect and where they divide. In the second poem a rice dish Tahdig (spiced scorched rice), acts as an aphrodisiac invested with physical/sensual qualities

Your golden tahdig was like a warm blanket
I wrap around my body
every night, in order not to feel alone.
The blades of rice – I pretend – are your arms.

and later: ‘your tachdig was our dialogue. / it was our way of making love / when our libidos were crushed’– ‘crushed libidos, a wallop of an image. The poem ends on a particularly doom-laden note: ‘The food we shared was our Last Supper, / our last feast before you marched to Golgotha. The Christian symbolism juxtaposed with the tahdig and the earlier use of the Arabic mahram seem to signal a clash tantamount to actual war.

It is apparent by page 10 in Isfahan, a city in Central Iran, that ‘Some Things are Hopeless’

The imperative to love.
The need to make one’s love a gift.
Some things are hopeless.

they submerge the will,
passively
in wonderment.

Here a sub-text seems to be evolving. There is something in the relationship with all its passionate intensity that begins to seem much more complex, though the elements of a romantic idyl are sustained through the poem ‘Arches of Isfahan:

When we recited poetry in Isfahan,
the Bridge of Thirty-Three Arcs
stretched to embrace the firmament.

The power of the reading of poetry or the power of the passion between the pair? The next and longest poem, in three sections (‘Small Town Tyranny, Love Poem in the Islamic Republic of Iran’) opens up the wider political implications of the lovers’ relationship, raising questions in my mind as to what extent this is their story, or whether this sequence is intended as allegory. Gould takes us through a history of the persecution of poets in this poem, the first part of which opens:

Your persecution my beloved, is a familiar song.
I read about it in the annals of the GULAG
& in the murders of Mandelstam,

Titsian, Paolo Iashvili, and Cholpon,
I witnessed it in the deaths of Mayakovsky,
Esenin, Tsvetaeva, and Galaktion.

and closes:

The lists of victims, my beloved, is long.
Resurrecting these dead poets
in the Islamic Republic of Iran

revives the executioner’s threnody.
I fear losing you—the suffocation of our love—
beneath a veil of poetry.

The words ‘a veil of poetry’ act as a real threat, heralding Section II, where the actions of the oppressive Iranian religious regime are listed in all their full horror:

the formulaic recitations
of state-sponsored poetry
the forced confessions broadcast live,

Finally, in Section III, the poet asks:

Will the bureaucrats
use our love to proclaim the victory
of their provincial tyrannies,

just as they hang
dead bodies in the public square:
to terrify lovers everywhere?

Will they, indeed? The will they/won’t they find a way together dynamic is maintained throughout with broader and narrower focus. In ‘Linebreak’ Gould cleverly uses the idea of the poetry linebreak to extend the narrative in a piece formatted as cascading lines: ‘Our lines break over us / like waves on the beach.’ They punctuate the couple’s ‘unsaid goodbye.’ Their journey takes them from Iran, to Armenia to Berlin during which there are moments of aching tenderness during separations such as ‘Arabic Lessons’:

I called you every night.
Every night, the phone buzzed to silence.

I hope your glasses protect your eyes
from incessant drum of the bombs.

In and amongst the relationship poems are standalone pieces with piercing political insights ‘Stolen Limestone’ – ‘Jerusalem Limestone that spreads / like an occupation over the ancient city of Bethlehem’. Here the poet sets out her position, a universal, if regional, dilemma:

Neither Palestinian nor
Israeli, I dwell in the complicity
of routine hypocrisies.

This stripping away of the ‘romance’ of the so-called Holy Land, at its heart, the city of Jerusalem, and all it implies, is proof positive, if any is required, of the value and importance of political poetry that can be both lyrical and informative at once.

The combination of compelling narrative, superb language, powerful imagery, and perfectly controlled verse could tempt a reviewer to comment endlessly on the contents of this quite short (27 poems), collection. This is not my intention. Gould herself makes no attempt to resolve the issues that divide and unite the couple or the much wider religious and political dilemmas. that divide the world. She leaves the reader with no happy ending for either subject. There is, however, a satisfying sense of a story, romance, allegory, or both, well told by a highly skilled and insightful storyteller.

The book ends with a well-observed portrait of a girl in café, a girl who might be the poet ten or twenty years younger. She is described as asserting her independence, but she is later seen to give way to the touch and allure of a young man ‘as if her butterfly skin / was crushed in the palm of his hand’, as if ‘all that mattered was his desire for her.’ It makes the poet wonder; it makes the reader wonder, which is as it should be. This is a stunning first collection from a multi-talented poet. There will be, one hopes, much more forthcoming.

Wendy Klein was born in New York, but left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, and on from there to France, Germany and England where she has lived most of her adult life. A retired psychotherapist, she is published in many magazines and anthologies and has two collections from Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013). Her most recent collection is Mood Indigo published by Oversteps (2016).Out of the Blue, Selected Poems is published by The High Window.

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*****

Rose Cook’s Shedding Feathers reviewed by Rowena Sommerville

rose cook feathers

Shedding Feathers by Rose Cook. £4. Order from info@greyhenpress.com

This feathery collection (appropriately published by Hen Run) is full of birds and angels, and considerations of the states of being winged or wingless, flighted or flightless. Additionally, the author seems to have experienced a foot operation during the writing, which rendered her temporarily ‘Anchored’ (one of the poems), but that clearly hasn’t removed her scope for imaginative or spiritual flight.

The title poem – ‘Shedding Feathers’ – comes early in the collection and suggests a sombre tone:

I lost my way, couldn’t see anyone, talk.
This is the furthest I’ve ever come. I didn’t care.
Just went on, stones in my pockets, through stumbled dusk.

But overall, the mood is lighter than that, suggesting a woman reviewing her history, considering her lot, and being ready to acknowledge the difficult passages in life, whilst also quietly celebrating the happier times and her current positives.

In ‘Dark Feathers’ she says:

We carry our wounds
as carefully as an unborn child.
When the time comes to be redrawn
we will need our heart.

The mood of reverie and contemplation continues – in ‘Preparations’ she asks:

What does your heart want to remember?
Love’s arousal, the shrill of a lark, and pain.

What do your hands want to remember?
Smooth skin of babies, the feeling of rain.

And your eyes, what do they want to remember?
Oh blue, blue of sea, of sky,
quick dart of swallows, your face in shadow.

In ‘What the Angel Said’ the writer seems to be attending a school nativity play, possibly either as mother or grandmother, and considers a child’s passing remark about the heaviness of wings. Her conclusion suggests that earthbound imperfection may be the wiser way (or at least, best to accept it):

I think about the times I longed for wings,
fairy, angel, bird,
then remember those who struggle to be perfect,
(a kind of angel complex),

their tears, terrible anxiety,
the hours coaxing them to relax.
I flex my own back, wingless, curl my toes.

In ‘Help Arrives’ she receives unsought and unexpected help from Charles Bukowski, whose ‘wolfish’ arrival proves surprisingly welcome. He urges her to enjoy life while she has it (‘ No juice being dead.’), and she responds to him with a list of the inanimate things that may give pleasure:

‘Is that what you meant? Things to be noticed.
How a bed can be generous, a staircase uplifting,
a door opening the most joyful song.’
He smiled.
‘Yeah, that’s what I meant.
That’s what I fucking meant.’

Some of the poems are clearly centred on her close family, stretching back into the past, and looking forward to succeeding generations. In ‘First Daughter’ she says:

Because I was his first child
my father hung lead around my neck
….
Release came later, unlatching
lighter shoes, years of thrill and air.

In ‘Sparrow’ she describes her father teasing her (‘pale and shy’) brother that his muscles are ‘like sparra’s ankles’.

There are also poems which describe birds and the love of birds directly. In ‘When Swallows Fly Low’ she writes fondly of the local birdwatchers:

These are men who love birds, scan to observe where
pairs roost and non-breeding swans cluster,
which martins and swallows are still out, which gone.
Their focus is worship, devotion.

In ‘Anchored’ she is kept at home by the foot operation – although the majority of her sentiments could apply equally to life in the time of Covid. She says:

I live for months on one leg.
Windows become my eyes.
Every day weather happens,
such kindness.

In this time as anchorite
weeks slip by unwritten.
I am
out of the world.

In ‘ I Said No’ she writes about her unexpected reluctance to re-engage with the outside world after the period of seclusion. It is obviously unfair to review the poet’s works in the light of Covid, when they have not been written in that time or with that consideration, and yet – at the time of writing this review – I cannot help but be struck by the resonances. I am sure that many people are feeling very ambivalent about the possible return to ‘normal life’ as anticipated for spring/summer 2021, and many will have enjoyed the opportunity for reflection and imagination that the enforced lockdown has occasioned. She says:

I am afraid that to go out
will break all that,
make my world small again.
Seems ambition has gone
leaving me unconcerned.
I notice how I like to laugh.

However, as she says in ‘Fresh Start’, ‘we start over’.

In the final poem ‘The of Hay’, she fully identifies with the feathered beings of the collection, and imagines the whole house permeated with the smell of hay:

wooden floor, bright window
and a huge nest.

A nest to fit me.
Rounded soft, dear hay.
I fold my wings,
hop straight into it.

So, a collection buoyed up by feathers, which, of course, can do surprisingly heavy lifting; the poet’s wings allowing her to look back with honesty, to encounter and deal with injury, and to look forward to generations to come. All rounded off with a sense of coming home, to find inside her house the perfect nest.
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.

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.

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*****

Natalie Rees’s Low Tide reviewed by Gareth Writer-Davies

low tide natalie JPEG

Low Tide by Natalie Rees. £7.00. Calder Valley Poetry
ISBN 978-1-9160387-8-3

Born and raised in Ireland to a German Mother and Irish father who were both pastors of a Pentecostal Christian Church, Natalie Rees makes grist from her quixotic background in this splendid pamphlet which I read in one gulp. And then went back for more.

I have a wee advantage here as I grew up a Calvinist amongst polite Anglicans, so already had an idea of the territory and perhaps my sympathy was ready to be engaged. But then, who wouldn’t have their attention grabbed by the first two poems!

The collection opens with ‘Little House’ a childhood fantasy (plus more) addressed to the author Laura Ingalls:

………………I turned the top shelf of my plywood wardrobe
into your mid-western attic bedroom,
and sneaked up matches to read my Bible by paraffin lamp

Charles Ingalls (“Pa”) enters:

…………a paternal figure to soak my shame
into the metallic sweetness of his flannel shirt.

Turn the page to poem two and ‘the last throes of fucking’ with ‘La Petite Mort’

because all I can think isxxxxx if I fall over the bannister to the bottom step
will he finish himself off xxxxxbefore he dials 999

Dark humour abides throughout; but why wouldn’t it when the the absurd facts of childhood are threatening enough especially with parents who are priests and priests who are parents:

Four men form a circle around you;
you have been plucked out:
Praise the Lord, are you ready to receive Him tonight!
one shouts at you, eyes on the crowd.
…………………………………………………………..
The catcher with the bald head lunges
from behind, hands at your armpits,
next to the lady with the modesty blanket
ready to cover your knee-high socks
when you hit the linolleum floor.

‘Daisy Chain’

These are poems of relationships-marital and familial (especially with die Mutter)- and (unsurprisingly) trauma but Rees writes with wit, style and the compromised elegance of one who has found recovery though now perhaps knows too much….

These are poems of disconnect and hesitancies; Rees often lets white space do the talking:

I recognised the first time we metxxxxxxxxxxxx we would become
those people who xxxxpass on the street xxxxxxxxxxxxxand pretend
it was the beginning xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof everything

‘Phantom of the Floating World’

So what of the title poem?
Such a poem always asks to be judged differently; is it the hinge of the collection? Or perhaps the tidierupper of what’s gone before?

What ‘tis, is a rather wonderful poem; Mother as sea/children as waves;

they sat there with vacant eyes
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxshoving fistfuls of sand into their dry mouths

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxone day you’ll thank me she told them
crawling backwards xxxxxscraping her knees
along the rocky bed

‘Low Tide’

It’s the type of poem you don’t so much think about as feel upon first reading; when you come back to it you find more and more has been uncovered by the retroceding of its disarticulated lines giving a see-through quality to its surface. Here the white spaces are like small catches of breath:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa pencil blue line
so static xxxxxxxxyou could balance xxxxxxxxa glass marble on her

‘Low Tide’

A poem of metaphysics and there are more such waiting further along.

Some such lines for your reading pleasure;

The way the spare room became a shipwreck
and you had to wade through floating plates

and bed covers to find me.
The way I kept flapping out of your hands when you did.

‘Let Me Count the Ways’

There is one poem in the collection that doesn’t quite work for me but amongst such strong material it would be churlish to name it; possibly a problem of placement but I shall say no more…..

Another fine production from Calder Valley Poetry who publish some of my favourite poets; I have no hesitation adding Natalie Rees to that company!

Gareth Writer-Davies is from Brecon, Wales. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize (2014 and 2017). He was  commended in the Prole Laureate Competition (2015) and was Prole Laureate for 2017. He has also been commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition (2015) and Highly Commended in 2017. He has published Bodies  (2015) and Cry Baby (2017), both published by Indigo Dreams. The Lover’s Pinch (2018) and The End (2019) are published by Arenig Press. He was a Hawthornden Fellow (2019).

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*****

Unknown Territory by John Short. £5.00. The Black Light Engine Room. ISBN: 978-1913324087 reviewed by David J Costello

The opening of ‘Zero Hour’, the first poem in in John Short’s pamphlet Unknown Territory, is almost a waymark for what follows. The three words ‘Turkish mountains loom’ are clearly a straightforward description, but given the poet was resident in Athens at the time it strongly suggests another kind of shadow cast by Turkey over its Greek neighbour; one of history rather than simple geography. These poems are rooted in his time in Greece but, thankfully, go well beyond the sort of sentimental description that renders so many similarly themed work unreadable to the seeker of the enquiring line.

These poems are imbued with an understanding of a complicated place and its sometimes-awkward juxtaposition with the rest of the world. Another example is in ‘Shades of Smyrna’. The current plight of refugees is contextualised with earlier migrations in the opening stanza:

Past refugees
haunt the streets of this city,
pave stones cover forgotten lives
each district conceals
a trail of hardship and loss.

The themes of migration, adaptation and integration continues in the following poem The Albanian Maid:

Down south from a mystery,
shedding the skin of one language
to live seamlessly inside another
she now owns this environment.

In ‘The Dogs of Athens’ the observational becomes a metaphor for something much darker in this context:

They roam around
in crazy, noisy packs
these canine delinquents
hysterical and after blood,
tear pieces from clothes.

It is difficult to read this and not reflect on the far-right Golden Dawn Party’s success in the 2012 Greek General Election and their subsequent outlawing as a criminal organisation even to the point of involvement in murder, The dogs of Athens indeed!

At no point does the poet tell you what to think though, and that’s the real strength of these poems. In ‘On Ikaria’ the ball is firmly kicked back into the readers court:

I dreamed a fall from above,
awoke to a waxy smell
of candles melting on stone,

took a walk across wet sand
under an insomniac moon,
the subtle movement of stars

then chanced upon some figure
standing on the sea at daybreak.

No sign of any wings at all,
though certainly alive, it seemed,
as if to contradict mythology.

I needed coffee, then returned
and swam out to the spot; found
just a ledge of seagull rock,

feathers littering the waves
the usual collage of bathers’ cries.

‘as if to contradict mythology’ – almost a theme in itself.

It’s great to see Harry & Morbs at The Black Light Engine Room supporting an emerging poet like John Short. They have demonstrated sound judgement in publishing this pamphlet.

David J. Costello is widely published. He has won the Welsh International Poetry Competition as well as prizes in the Troubadour International Poetry Competition and the Grist Poetry Prize. David’s pamphlets are Human Engineering, (Thynks Publishing 2013) & No Need For Candles, (Red Squirrel Press 2016). His first collection Heft (Red Squirrel Press 2020) is currently on the shortlist for the inaugural Welsh Writers Best Collection 2020 Prize. He runs Pop-up Poets in Wallasey, Merseyside and is an active supporter and advocate for Wirral Libraries. www.davidjcostellopoetry.com

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*****
ANTHOLOGIES

*****

Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets reviewed by Caroline Maldonado

ten spanish

Ten Contemporary Spanish Women Poets edited and translated by Terence Dooley. Shearsman ISBN 978-1-84861-722-3

It’s still not easy to find publishers willing to take on poetry in translation in the UK and translators require a good dose of determination and faith in the original work to spend the years required for its identification, translation and promotion. So Tony Frazer of Shearsman, who already includes many Spanish translations both classical and modern in his list, and Terence Dooley, the editor and translator, are to be welcomed for introducing us to this selection of contemporary Spanish women poets. The collection is deservedly a Poetry Book Society recommendation.

In his Afterword, Dooley provides a brief cultural context and informs us that works by women in Spain have only been published in any number in the last 25 years and still account for merely 15% of poetry books published. He also describes some of the effort being made to redress the balance, such as women setting up their own publishing houses (including by Elena Medel, represented in this collection). To counter the absence of Spanish women’s poetry in English was one of Dooley’s motives in his collection but more, ‘to bring their musical, lucid, forthright poems to English readers is its principal intent’. In that he has been successful. As translator he has remained close enough to the original text to preserve each poet’s voice while occasionally shifting line and stanza breaks to ensure that the end result loses none of its lyricism and power in English.

The ten poets, who are all in mid-career and have won prestigious prizes, are responsive to world literature (epigraphs to poems are drawn from Ingeborg Bachman, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery and others) and several have been translated into many languages. Yet their poems are rooted in Spanish culture, where the trauma of Franco’s legacy still exists as well as the disappointment with what followed and the 2008 global recession and subsequent austerity. Disillusion with the politics of neo-liberalism and consumerism runs throughout the collection. Questions are raised, about the role of women in contemporary society in relation to politics and to personal relationships, and about memory and forgetting, hope, truth and lies. In a long sequence of prose poems taken from a full-length book Chronicles of Olvido by Graciela Baquero, Olvido is the name of a homeless woman who claims to be the poet’s sister but the dictionary definition Baquero gives reverberates through many of the other poems:

Failure to remember something
Numbing of an emotion once felt
Omission or neglect of a duty
Woman’s name.

In a few poems the past history of mothers and grand-mothers feature in relation to the present, such as in Erika Martínez’s ‘The House falls down’ :

So many mothers scrubbing its flagstones,
giving birth on its flagstones,
hiding shit under the flagstones
that their drunken sons
and their sober husbands trod in
who worked and fucked
for a country they had no faith in.

So many years that I,
of a generation surplus to requirements,
lose my belief in emancipation,
gaze at my bedroom ceiling
and the house falls down around my ears.

The themes are various. With irony and anger as well as lyricism these poems confound the stereotypical expectations of women writing about relationships and the body. Hope, disappointment and despair are expressed but whether frustrated desire is sexual or political can be ambiguous. Sexual, matrimonial and domestic interweave with political and global. The false attractions of consumerism and globalisation are evident in Elena Medel’s three explorations of the hydrangea viewed in its domestic/ matrimonial and global context, as well as in Mercedes Cebrían’s poem about the history of migration of the exotic kiwi from New Zealand. For Julieta Valero, political ideals have been replaced by the drug of consumerism:

‘Here they reward the end of youth with a studio flat’

And in her poem, ‘Siddhartha on Google’:

People with children have access to lucid despair

People from the Southern hemisphere don’t have a problem with the abstract,
but they do fear tornados.

As I started to write this review I soon realised that it would be impossible to do justice to the variety of theme, mood and writing style of ten disparate poets but I have now come across this video produced by the Instituto Cervantes in Manchester that zoomed the launch of the book and I strongly recommend it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_leg09jCF4 Each of the ten poets reads two poems in Spanish and the translations are read by English women poets. It is a joy to hear, for example, the drama and musicality of the verse as Mariá Eloy-García reads her humorous, philosophical exploration of a soup bowl in ‘Tureen’. The Youtube video offers an extra dimension to this exciting collection.

Caroline Maldonado’s recent most translations from Italian include Isabella (2019) with poems by Renaissance poet, Isabella Morra, and Liminal, poems by Laura Fusco (2020) both published by Smokestack Books.

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*****

The Best American Poetry 2020 reviewed by Rodney Wood

Best american

The Best American Poetry 2020 edited by  Paisley Rekdal and  David Lehman. £14.99. Scribner Poetry. ISBN 978-1-9821-0659-1

The anthology has been alive since 1988. A guest editor attempts the mammoth task of reading all poems published in print or online the previous year and the best 75 are chosen. Just what you mean by the “best”, “American” and “poetry” is debated by every editor. This year’s editor is Paisley Rekdal, the author of six books of poetry (the latest is a rewriting of the Ovid myths) and four collections of non-fiction. Her work has appeared in previous volumes of the series and she’s currently Utah’s Poet Laureate. Previous editors have included John Ashbery, Paul Muldoon, Louise Glück , Rita Dove, Kevin Young and Terrance Haynes.

Series editor David Lehman’s foreword assesses the current state and news of poetry starting off with Time and the headline “Do they dare?” the subhead “The Democrats will likely impeach.” Echoing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He talks of the continuing influence of the all embracing behemoths Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the death of the prolific literary critic Harold Bloom and ends talking about the current plague and how people turn to poetry during a crisis “for it is then that we become most acutely aware of our need for beauty, truth, wisdom, charm and delight.”

Paisley introduces the thought provoking, unsettling, exhilarating and mainly longer poems by asking a question. Does it really matter how we read poetry? Surely the mark of any poem, including those posted on Instagram, is that it means something to the reader, The most interesting part is the section dealing with her criteria for selecting the poems. This relies on the concept, first developed by Coleridge, of the pleasure principle which includes enjoyment as well as the pleasures of thought, emotion, discussion, laughter, consolation, being challenged, language and the feeling of the self being expanded. It is almost the same as Robert Bly said in his 1999 introduction, when he talks about the heat of inwardness, intensity, pungent phrasing, layers of meaning and “that sort of language that springs from the fight between God and the donkey.” Paisley finished writing the introduction in April 2020 before COVID had really taken hold but hopes we find some fellowship in the poems. The question that remains though is how could she have read all the poems published in America? The 35 or so monthly print journals, online magazines, websites, podcasts, daily poetry publications, Instagram feeds, blogs, prison, communal, high-school and undergrad journals. She can’t. About 30% is the upper limit. And that’s excluding all the spoken word poems. So if anyone tells you a poet should read all the current magazines, chapbooks, collections as well as knowing about the tradition and major poets from other countries, just say no. You want to have a life.

The titles are poems in themselves and they pique my interest – Saving the Children, Becoming a Forest, Big Gay Ass Poem, After a Transcript of the Final Voicemails of 9/11 Victims, Qassida to the Statue of Sappho in Mytilini and She talk like this ‘cause me Mum born elsewhere. I recognize a few poets – Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Tony Hoagland, Ilya Kaminsky, Yusef Komunakaa, Sharon Olds, Matthew Olzmann, James Tate and John Yau but the other excellent poets are new to me and well worth investigating.

Rick Bardot for example, From “The Galleons”, a poem in 4 parts each consisting of 15 unrhymed couplets, which is an an elegy for his grandmother who travelled from the Philippines to the United States in the late 1940s with his grandfather and his toddler mother. In part 1 her story is described as an aspect of history but what’s history? “part of something larger”, “an illumination”, “distinct”, “a net”, “a blur” but in the end

Here is a ship, an ocean.
Here is a figure, her story a few words in the blue void.

In part 2 Before her story is the history of trade and the

things listed in the archives
as filling the galleons when they left Cebu and Manila –
ivory objects, jade objects, copper objects…

slaves that were called indios
or chinos, nails, tools, iron hoops, fireworks, opals-elegy?

Another object. I imagine if this was workshopped in this country people would be tut-tutting about the repetition of the word “objects” (but by emphasising the word it allows you the space to think specifically about actual “objects” rather than generalised types) and another objection might be that the list is just too long and smacks of research rather than poetry.

Part 3 consists of a dialogue over each other between his grandmother’s reminiscences and him listening “to the hours of tape, of the two of us at the dining table.”

I was born in Ormoc, December 8,
that was enough, the responsibility done. Our conversation

1924 or 25. This was the apartment we lived in in Maryland.
Stopped when my aunt came to take her out for some errands.

That’s Junior there in the picture. And there’s your mama.
Chatter, chairs moved around, then noises that are just noises.

Part 4 moves to Madrid where he connects the present where he visits “the memorial for the murdered…watches a movie without understanding the words” to the past which is “incredible and true.” The past which is just another story.

Or Camille Guthrie, During the Middle Ages. I’m reminded of the voice in Coleridge’s Lime Tree Bower only here we have a description of someone having no dear fiends and being fat and crying all the time:

Nobody wants to lick my neck
Nobody wants to hold my hand at the doctor’s office
Nobody to grow old with me I’m so crabby

Where are you handsome? Are you
Driving in your car to come visit me
Bringing a bottle of wine & a present so gallant?
A new translation of Akhmatova? I love it!
No? Well, I guess it’s better than living
In the real Middle ages where

Vikings disembowel your cousins
And the Lord of the Manor thinks you’re cute
And it’ll be a very long time before Pop Art
And meercat videos and cotton candy
And sexting and fish tacos and girl bands
Everything’s just so bad and you have buboes

Being a woman sucks. There’s patriarchy, despair and somehow you’re not and never will be the perfect woman. But then she discovers Sei Shonagon “A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him who discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything”. She comes to appreciate the present, stop complaining and “take your medicine”.

Clare Rossini, The Keeper Will Enter the Cage.

It begins with the two of us locked in a long stare,
The crowd slowly shushing.

It knows what I need.
I feel the battering down of instinct, its and mine, our capitulation looming.

Between its lips, then teeth. Whispering tenderly, I crank the heavy jaws
Open. Then into the cast yeasty maw

Goes the tender planet of my skull.

A liontamer at the circus in the nineteenth century. Both the lion and the keeper have to suppress their natural instincts, one to bite and the other innate human respect for the power and intelligence of wild animals. Only it doesn’t quite go like that. When between the jaws the liontamer thinks of “the trapeze girl last night,/Her pale thighs, her quick bright yelps”. Is he dominating or respecting her? The poem expands

Queen Victoria came to watch the act six times.
SIX TIMES! The papers crowed.

The empire ravaging the colonies and its natural resources. The oppressor and oppressed both poorer, both beasts “making low, pained mewling sounds” as they behold each other.

The book end with sections of biographical details of the poets (most have a publishing history, are teachers or otherwise members of the poetry establishment) and useful comments/context by the poet on the poem selected, from the brief “I wrote this after watching a film by the Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade” to the more usual paragraph length mediation on what inspired and what effect the poem aims for. The final section shows magazines where the poems were first published (from the well-known Ploughshares and The Southern Review to the smaller Waxwing and ZYZZYVA) so you know where best to send your poems and receive the accolade of being published in BAP, if you’re American that is.

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

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