Moya Cannon: Collected Poems • Paula Meehan: As if By Magic: Selected Poems • Iliassa Sequin: Collected Complete Poems • Michael Longley: The Candlelight Master • Peter Sirr: The Gravity Wave • Rachael Boast: Hotel Raphael • Patricia McCarthy: Whose hand would you like to hold … • James Harpur: The Examined Life • Colin Pink: Typicity • Miles Salter: Fix • After-Images: Homage to Éric Rohmer: Antony Johae • The God of Lost Ways: Jane Lovell • Penny Sharman: The Day before Joy • Thomas Mitchell: Where We Arrive • Adnan Al-Sayegh: • Let Me tell You What I Saw • Sarah Westcott: Bloom • Patrick Cotter: Sonic White Poise • Jean Atkin & Katy Alston: Fan-Peckled – twelve old Shropshire words in poems and pictures • Sunita Thind: The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems
Poems for the Year 2020 – Eighty Poets on the Pandemic edited by Merryn Williams Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery
René Noyau : Earth on fire and other poems, translated by Gérard Noyau with Peter Pegnall
Malcolm Carson • Belinda Cooke • David Hackbridge Johnson • Mike Farren • Stephen Payne • Clifton Redmond • Phil Kirby • Isabel Bermudez • Konstandinos Mahoney • Patrick Lodge • Peter Ualrig Kennedy • Stephen Claughton • Carla Scarano D’Antonio • Steve Lambert • Pat Winslow • Ken Evans • Mat riches • Pat Edward • Neil Leadbeater •Kathleen Bell • Josie Moon • Neil Elder • Maggie Butt • Kathleen MacPhilemy • Oliver Dixon • Sam Milne
Moya Cannon’s Collected Poems reviewed by Malcolm Carson
Collected Poems by Moya Cannon. £16.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 80017 032 2
In reviewing collected work of over thirty years, the temptation is to look for development from what may be juvenile pieces to the ‘mature years’ whereby poeticisms and affectations have been put aside, to be replaced by more considered, measured explorations, or, conversely, by jaded reworkings of the poet’s better and more successful periods. Happily, none of these applies, for from start to finish the freshness and vitality as well as the accomplished choice of image and expression reveal themselves. Of course, subject matters change in tune with the mutability of loved ones – love poems, for instance, feature in Oar (1990), her first collection, in poems such as ‘Scar’, ‘Afterlove’ and ‘Eros’:
To be with you, my love,
is not like being in heaven
but like being in the earth.
and dream faint memories of a life
when we were high, green, among leaves…. (Eros)
And the deaths of family and friends is a feature too. But it’s the use of an image from Nature that is the key to the best of this wonderful Collected.
Simple poems such as ‘Survivors’, a poem about sea- potatoes, stand out as demonstrating Cannon’s almost intense relationship with the sea and its creatures:
Shorn of their soft, brown spines,
they are pieces of sea-porcelain.
Some are smaller than a fingernail,
others big as a baby’s fist –
the sea’s whitework,
translucent, nearly heart-shaped,
their innards freighted with sand.
Similarly, ‘Sea Urchins’ celebrates, if that’s the right word, the way they ‘Silently, eat limestone / and the drifted shells of dead limpets’ until finally they are given to us as ‘sunbleached, rosy lanterns.’ The forensic detail of her explorations runs throughout her work. The Tube-Case Makers focuses on the stages of the life cycle of, I imagine, the Caddis Fly. here we see Cannon’s simple, exact descriptions of the process of compiling ‘… this stone coat, eating leaf-debris, / adding, as it grew, a little sticky silk / to one end…’. It would be easy to dismiss the simplicity of language as prosaic and ‘non-poetic’, but the exactitude of the choice of language is precise and appropriate. Not only that, but Cannon knows that this accretion of other species’ remnants is just an infinitesimal part of the larger history Laying its eggs has ‘kept its tribe alive / since it rose in clouds / around the carbuncled feet of dinosaurs…’
Family life features prominently as you might expect. ‘The Washing’ relates how the ‘April light drenches the washing…’ and later, ‘…on the windowsill / the sun washes across a photo of my mother…’. Another photo, of her father, was taken ‘before they met / on two other light-drenched days.’ This is a beautifully constructed poem and shows the value of a title and how it can beguile you into a misapprehension about the way the poem might go or how it can provide a key to the meaning. A strong title can do so much more than tell you what the poem might be about. This is where I have a quibble about many of Cannon’s poems as she often runs the title into the first line. It seems irritating to me as well as a wasted opportunity. I did it once and was mocked mercilessly by someone I respected.
‘Halloween Windfalls’ is a way into a reminiscence about her mother, then in a nursing home. The business of gathering the apples is told beautifully and with the same clarity of musical clarity that we saw in the sea animals poems:
Apples can’t swivel on their twigs to catch the sun –
these are all half-red, half- green.
Blackbirds, tits, thrushes,
even crows have dug out their claims.
I wash off the dirt and the sticky leaves,
cut out the damaged bits,
set some sound, delicious ones aside.
A bit laboured this last, but it is transformed by the final stanza:
She used to set aside
the central leaves of the lettuce,
mash the heart of the cabbage
with a little butter and salt,
for the youngest.
Suddenly, it is about a tender recollection of the mother as she was. The death of the mother is about the gathering of the family – ‘her greying brood’ – as she dies, but ‘Death’s is a private country, / like love’s.’ Death,
In her 2015 collection, Keats Lives, Cannon has a series of poems about the relics of people in Ireland, the British Museum, the Ardèche, the Siberian Tundra, Egypt and Mondego in Portugal. In each, she demonstrates that attention on the minutiae that we saw in the earlier poems to tell a story. For example, in Four Thimbles, sieved out of the mud from the convent, she tells the imagined history of how they might have got there:
Crossed lovers, widowed noblewomen
or peasant girls who placed them
on middle or ring fingers,
who bent their heads
to stitch plain habits or fine altar linen
were sisters, but only
as stars are sisters…
The Textile Museum in Lyon similarly provides her with the detail she so loves but here she uses it to recall ‘the swish and click-click-click / of my mother’s treadle sewing machine…’. In the Textile Museum.
Other poems in this book deal more directly with family history and their rituals. The lovely Primavera, for instance, begins in a familiar way with a focus on ‘five low primroses’ which remind her that, despite being in the ‘the snow-shawled Alps’, it is still Saint Bridget’s Eve. From there she opens up the poem to recalling her father’s account of how his sisters acted out their annual ritual to herald spring. But then Cannon develops the poems further into contemporary worries about ‘floods and fast-calving glaciers’. Nonetheless, Spring still comes, enacting her aunts’ ritual of knocking three times to be let in.
This is a super collection. Cannon’s skill at exploiting the tiniest of observations is in evidence throughout the six collections represented here. Her simplicity of language and her innate sense of gentle rhythm are her strengths. There is no straining after effect, but she understands the importance of valuing what is around her and from that extending it out into larger issues in some poems, but in others letting images and music suffice. A beautifully presented collection to match from Carcanet. Highly recommended.
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.
Paula Meehan’s As if By Magic: Selected Poems reviewed by Belinda Cooke
As If By Magic: Selected Poems by Paula Meehan. £17.50. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 9781910251775
Paula Meehan, Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2013-2016, has a string of well-earned accolades and a backstory as brightly coloured as her poetry. In the face of shifting interests, and poetic style, she consistently captures life’s grittiness, with a sparkly, child-like intensity,
often inspired by works of art: ‘He imagines Dutch Paintings, bourgeois / interiors, Woman Washing, Woman Setting / a Table’ (‘Zugswang’), or the primary colours of fairytales mixed with hints of Snow White’s poison apple: ‘the purple, the eerie green of her bruises,/ the garish crimson of her broken mouth’ (‘Woman found dead behind Salvation Army hostel’).
The training ground for these poems is likewise colourful; her adolescent years show her as a politically engaged rebel, expelled from her secondary school, and subsequently going onto much travel and work within Theatre Arts and lyric song-writing, before later completing a degree at Trinity. Her poems are always crystal sharp, carefully crafted, self-contained monuments, perennially concerned with: motherhood – its love and loss, men to trust and those not, political turmoil, and the Dublin life of those born on the wrong side of the tracks. Given her own childhood of tough love and a fair amount of poverty, this last is explored with the natural empathy of one who has been there.
Her trademark is very much standalone poems. They invite strong comparisons with Carol Ann Duffy’s: always anthology-worthy and accessible for school pupils, but also rich in a nuance that rewards repeated reading, as well, as a potential to speak as a public poet. The following, for example, offers us a deceptively simple Everyman poem, revealing the complex emotions of those who place love of humanity over wealth – she’s certainly not giving us John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ here:
These hands hold nothing
They do not judge
They are drawn to the wounded
They have no history
They fire the first shot
Were I dying I would choose
These hands to guide me
Out of the world
You open your hands to me
Your empty hands
(‘You Open Your Hands to Me’)
A review can really just give you a taster of her ‘selected’, given the fact it is just chockablock with some absolutely magic poems, where there is just so much going on. Drawing from her five books to date, the poems start out quite abrasively, but gradually mellow as she is able to becomes more reflective on family and personal relationships; one senses a the shift from earlier more traumatic experience to her current settled life with her long-time partner Theo Dorgan. Along with this, there is a developing interest in Buddhism, seen in her title of her book Dharmakaya, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead which, for the uninitiated, is the state of ‘nothingness’ within the Buddhist theory of Trikaya, an idea comparable to the Christian three Gods in one. Then in Geomantic, which refers to a network of supernatural signs and patterns in the universe, she sets herself the technical challenge of writing nine-line poems, many also nine syllables long, and numerous different stanza structures and rhyme patterns. And though one can see what she is doing, the dazzling quality of her earlier poems, are just too hard an act to follow, so that these, at time little gems, nevertheless leave you wanting to more.
However, for newcomers to her work, just the first few pages will make you want to buy the book. Her first collection, The Man who was Marked by Winter (1991) shows her endlessly inventive extended metaphors – dangerous journeys, landscapes, painting and colour all milked for their use. She opens with a couple trapped in a totalitarian state, the man the dissident writer unwilling to depart: ‘his eyes were tins suns burning’, capturing the woman as desperate, pregnant and planning for departure, with a clever intertwining of nature and the urban: ‘…watching the sun // strut the length of the street, mirroring / the clouds parade’ (‘The Leaving’). Meehan’s colours here are symbolic rather than observed: his ‘black shirt ‘ she’d ‘embroidered with stars’, continuing into the next poem, ‘Her Dream’, with her ‘white dress edged with poppies’ a threatening contrast to the pre-war images of fountains, and peaceful games of chess in the street. However, we gradually realise that this narrative of totalitarian threat, actually points to more personal relationships closer to home;
My thirteen plots are all the same.
I borrow all the maps.
I fear our journey ends in wind and rain,
cold changeable weather,
the pages torn, the mirror shattered.
And these poems set the scene for long-running motifs which she manoeuvres with endless virtuosity, maps, in particular, surfacing again later: The poem ‘Zugswang’ is a brilliantly rich poem with hints of ‘Duffy’s Mrs Midas’. The title refers to a chess move that can only lead to a disadvantage and the whole poem is packed with sinister suggestions of the woman trapped in the man’s world. She is caught holding a jug as if in a Vermeer painting while all sorts of warning signs tell her of the need to depart: the dead mother’s voice in time with the washing machine, ‘I told you so, I told you so’; women in business suits on TV putting ideas in her head. From here the poem just builds layers of imagery to reinforce the entrapment: ‘Soldiers have set up a barricade down the road: / they are part of a nationwide search / for a desperate man and his hostage’; the woman transformed to a work of art: ‘For her face / and breasts he would use titles of pure gold’; her finally seen – having lost the plot – digging in the garden for lost loved ones. This is a poem that just leaves you almost desperate for its climax so you can take a breath from its captivating associations.
She revisits her relationship with her mother in the various collections with differing degrees of objectivity. Initially we see her giving a ‘tough love’, that is controlling and not averse to handing out physical punishment with Meehan, as the oldest of six children, the one who may have got the toughest deal, but by the time of Pillow Talk she is ready to offer tribute for all her mother has given her, here with her mother’s imagined voice:
You will walk freely on the planet,
my beloved daughter. Fear not
the lightning bolts of a Catholic god, or any other,
for I have placed my body and soul between you and all harm.
(‘The Ghost of my Mother Comforts Me’)
In general, Meehan’s range is massive, from heartrending poems on child loss: ‘…It is so cold down in the dark // no light can reach you and teach you’ (‘Child Burial’), to humorous poems on marital differences and conflict, here playing around with the notion of a rather dreamy partner:
…I do not think of you
up there with your yetis , your eagles, your thunderbolts,
and your dense cloud cover the sun cannot break through.
(‘The Man who Lives in the Clouds’)
The extended metaphor surface again in a shaky relationship with a partner who is rubbish at DIY: ‘And so I’ve learned to live with dodgy matter…// walls not built for leaning on’. (‘My Love about his Business in the Barn’). And once we move onto infidelity she includes a beautiful bitchy poem that concludes with great perception at her embarrassment the partner’s loss of gumption: ‘it’s just your cringing wounds me like a knife’. (‘Queen’). Not all her poems deal with edging into dysfunctional relationships she also has lovely city and nature poems, or poems transforming small moments into something transcendental, but somehow bleak really does it in poetry.
This is a book that it is hard to leave, as one just wants to keeping citing examples from the endless memorable poems, but for me I think her poem ‘Home’ is probably the one that most encapsulates her as a survivor. Speaking as one lucky enough to come from the uncomplicated childhood of: ‘how did it all go so right’, this poem really pulled me up short simply by its title, particularly given the Irish tradition of always calling Ireland ‘home’ no longer how long one has been away – for Meehan, though, home is, perhaps, an even more meaningful place:
The Wise women say you must live in your skin, call it home,
no matter how battered or broken, misused by the world, you can heal.
This morning a letter arrived on the nine o/clock post.
The Department of Historical Reparation and who did I blame?
The Nuns? Your Mother? The State? Tick box provided,
we’ll consider your case. I’m burning my soapbox, I’m taking
the very next train. A citizen of nowhere, nothing to my name.
I’m on my last journey. Though my lines are all wonky
they spell me a map that makes sense. Where the song that is in me
is the song I hear from the world, I’ll set down my burderns
and sleep. The spot that I lie on at last the place I’ll call home.
Belinda Cooke’s translations include Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov (Kazakh N.T. A., 2018); Forms of Exile: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (The High Window Press, 2019); Contemporary Kazakh Poetry (C.U.P, 2019). Her own poetry includes Stem (the High Window Press, 2019) and Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists (forthcoming Salmon Poetry).
Iliassa Sequin: Collected Complete Poems reviewed by David Hackbridge Johnson
Iliassa Sequin: Collected Complete Poems. £14.95. Grey Suit Editions. IBSNxxxxxxxxxxxx 978 1903006238
Even with eyes resolutely on the look-out for new poetic voices, blink and you’d have missed Iliassa Sequin. I know I did; apart from a chapbook from Peter Gizzi’s o-blék editions and a few appearances in French and American magazines, her work has been more or less invisible until now. Anthony Howell, with help from the poet’s husband, the painter Ken Sequin, and from Peter Jay, has gathered the Collected Complete Poems for Grey Suit Editions.
The briefest acquaintance with the volume gives an impression of extensive brevity; a big book of nearly 300 pages with very short poems – apart from the closing ‘prosodion’, no poem is more than a few lines in length. Closer involvement gives clues to this brevity: the poet’s desire to condense words and phrases, to abut images against each other, to suggest themes or personages fleetingly, to combine or connect disparate registers by means of puns and word play. Reading the poems in bulk creates the impression of a flickering screen – as if the poet herself was working from a store of images that do not so much make up a narrative but which become a playing of those images upon poetic thought. An elusive and allusive world is created where meaning gathers but doesn’t attach like an irrevocable label.
If such a sketch of method positions Sequin’s work in a ludic world this does not hide those deeper concerns and themes that appear to over-arch the collection: the games she plays are sometimes witty, sometimes deadly serious when they reflect uneven power struggles. She has a fascination with boxing, football, cricket and snooker. Her boxing poems at once become intriguing satellites to writings on the fight game by Hazlitt and Douglas Oliver. Her cricket poems abound with velocities that strike a contrast to those writings of Edmund Blunden that adopt a more traditional tone: ‘whereas i am i am also a no ball // again bowling over the wicket / dreams hasten past’. The poem ends: ‘again a haunted maiden over / wards off / their latent ritual’ – which by very different means does touch on the ideas of custom and ritual so lovingly adumbrated in Blunden’s The Face of England. Of the snooker poems, the one dedicated to Alex Higgins shows the yoking of the disparate that make Sequin’s work so strangely good; snooker terminology – ‘cueing superbly’ – is skewed with reference to Aristophanes’ ‘Attic Frogs’ – perhaps the poet is likening the game of snooker to the poetic contest between Euripides and Aeschylus that occurs towards the end of the Greek dramatist’s The Frogs – a kind of agon of the green baize.
Later, and as part of the same group of poems, Sequin shifts snooker-lingo into the punning sexuality of a more Shakespearian bent: ‘see how i began the break // plucking death’s balls out of their spotted virginity / wholly in love’. Later still: ‘pointless by half, i nudged the ball into an abyss’ – from love to despair seems to be the emotional trajectory of these superbly cued balls. But Sequin isn’t finished; the sequence ends with what might be a hint of poetic methodology: …. ‘a variant pot / of similes unchecked / the bold-rope of harmony snapped / the balls veered and stalled’. I find here that the unchecking of similes in order to snap their supposed connections is a compelling way to describe how Sequin’s poems work; idea and image are brought to a point of contact only to be violently broken apart – like the kinetic energy of balls striking. Having noted ‘harmony snapped’ above, we might use another musical analogy of Sequin’s; in an earlier poem she describes a tenor voice trying to hold its own against ‘wildandwhirling words’ that are ‘untempered’. The stakes on a snooker table might be relatively low but what if these untempered word games hazard conflict on a larger scale? Sequin gives us this: (and I quote the opening lines of the three tercets that make up the poem) – ‘how many more derisory games’…. ‘how many remaining Troys’…. ‘how much inexorable hatred’. Tellingly, the poem is called ‘status quo’. Here the game is history and the rules appear to be fixed to produce perpetual discord.
To do full justice to this book would require more space that I have here. Mention must be made of the extraordinary music of Sequin’s verse; line after line chimes not only with knotty sense but with rhythm and melos. Yet there is never a lapse into musical doodles; the poems remain packed with lyric meaning in their very dislocation of it. There are many poems about, or which use, music; indeed she uses ‘quartet’ and ‘quintet’, groupings from classical music, to designate almost all of the groups of poems. Worth mentioning also is the populated aspect of these poems – there are appearances, albeit in unconventional settings, by Salome and John the Baptist, Richard Dadd, Caravaggio, Xenakis, Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus and John Coltrane, and we also find that ‘nuclear Persephone put herself forth’.
These elusive yet vibrant poems must make their way in a world without their creator; Sequin died in 2019. But such a body of work as is revealed in this powerful collection should now resonate for those attuned to its craft, its subtlety, its highly sensitive verbal compass. In Anthony Howell’s ‘A note on this edition’ he mentions that there is enough material for a second volume of further work by Sequin including collaborations and unfinished projects. Might I be bold enough to suggest that this be issued as soon as feasible? This first volume then, must now make a hitherto almost inaudible voice heard, loud and clear; it is a quite probably a major voice.
David Hackbridge Johnson began composing at the age of eleven and has written works in all genres. His works have been widely performed. and include fifteen symphonies, fourof which have been recorded on Toccata Classics. He is also a poet.
Michael Longley’s The Candlelight Master reviewed by Mike Farren
The Candlelight Master by Michael Longley. £10.00. Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781787332034
The Candlelight Master is the twelfth collection from eighty-one-year-old Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. Often terse to the point of being gnomic – sixty-one poems cram into fifty- seven pages, the two shortest of them registering just twelv e words in two and four lines respectively – even where poems double up on the page, there is a lot of white space, perhaps reflecting artist Pierre Bonnard’s lifelong struggle “to understand / The secret of white” (‘Bonnard’).
However, alongside the white spaces, the book contains many shadows. The simple ‘Poem’ that gives the collection its title reads, in its entirety:
I am the candlelight master
Striking a match in the shadows.
A smoky wick, then radiance.
I am the candlelight master.
This almost mystical claim for the illumination provided by art is not made on Longley’s behalf alone. Following an epigraph from Miró (“And what looks like a zig-zag is really a straight line”), the collection opens with poems on a number of artists (Matisse, Bonnard, William Orpen) and writers (Francis Ledwidge, Wilfred Owen) captured mostly at the end of their lives, either from old age or war. Is it fanciful to imagine that the poet sees something of himself in the bed-ridden artists Matisse and Bonnard, at the height of their creative powers, even as their physical powers are failing?
On the other hand, Longley assumes a position of detachment in ‘Ors’, concerning Wilfred Owen but despite this and the fact that we know Owen’s fate, the intensity is still almost unbearable, as the living poet wills the dead one to evade the snipers and make it across the canal.
War plays a significant role in the collection, for reasons that are not immediately clear. Unlike earlier work by Longley, it’s hard to pinpoint parallels between previous conflict and Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’, except for ‘Flower Names’, which revisits the atrocity Longley previously memorialised in ‘The Ice-Cream Man’. Perhaps instead, there is a sense of circularity for Longley, whose early years spanned the Second World War, to revisit war in this late work. The tender ‘Glossary’ recalls his father as:
An old soldier remembering the trenches
And telling me what he saw in the embers,
Battlefields, bomb craters, firelight visions:
However, the shadow of the war at its most sinister falls over several of the poems devoted to the non-combatants – women and children – in concentration camps. In ‘Moths & Butterflies’, Longley wants “to talk to dead children, / The children of Terezín, / About moths and butterflies”, which they had not even seen in the ghetto. ‘Dandelions’ sees the voices of those children growing quieter with time and, after the raw anger and despair of ‘Ravensbrück’ (“It is Christmas Eve in Ravensbrück. Soon / They will tie together the Virgin’s legs.”), we arrive at ‘Primo’s Question’: “How can you murder millions of people / In the middle of Europe and not know?” Although analogies with The Troubles may be lacking, this is far from an apolitical collection.
Where contemporary Ireland does link with an older, more obviously heroic world, is in Longley’s continued use of classical allusion, often linking the homeliness of rural Ireland and his beloved Carrigskeewaun with the world of myth. The mountains evoked by 7th-century BC Spartan poet Alcman:
[Follow] me to Killary
And Mweelrea across decades
And millennia, from youth
To age (‘Night’)
Meanwhile, in ‘Heifers’, Longley asks his farmer’s wife sister-in-law to “Make room for Homer”:
He understands that cow-pat atmosphere,
The nursery pens and the milking parlour –
He can make out the milk tanker’s rumble
Along the narrow lane to your farmstead.
One perhaps slightly surprising way in which classical allusion obtrudes into the collection is in the introduction of an erotic element, most boisterously in the Ulster Scots adaptation of Catullus, ‘Hochmagandy’. Elsewhere, this erotic element is at times wistful, such as in ‘Courting Couples’, where those couples Longley and his friends spied on as voyeuristic teens “stroll slowly hand in hand / After us into their eighties and nineties.”
Most touching, however, is the poem ‘Et’, which examines the use of the Latin word for ‘and’ in the poems of the 1st-century BC Roman poet, Sextus Propertius. The word, which “dominates and insinuates, / Separates and joins”, comes to stand for the poet and his wife:
we took him with us when we married
Enacting that mysterious syllable.
Perhaps like Yeats in old age, there is an impulse to hold onto the vital things of life? More expected, however, is the way in which the losses of old age (there are many In Memoriam poems) are countered by the consolations of children and grandchildren. Sometimes, this appears ambiguous, as in the incredulity he expresses that his daughter, Rebecca, is fifty, before going on to conclude:
I am running out of rhymes,
O fifty-year old daughter,
And I am running out of time. (‘A Grasshopper’)
Mostly, though, the consolation of descendants is palpable, as in ‘Pietà’ (quoted in its entirety) which moves from the most intimately particular to the universal with remarkable economy and force:
How compassionate you appear
Bending over your three-year-old
And slipping your little finger
Beneath his penis to lift
The pee-arc away from his clothes.
Did Mary do this for Jesus
Among wood shavings and sawdust?
How tenderly she must have touched.
Although never sentimental, for my taste a few of the more personal poems fail to make this movement from the particular to something that will stir readers everywhere. Likewise, some of the very short lyrics seem to me to cross the border from ‘lapidary’ to ‘portentous’. However, these are few in number and a small price to pay for the rest of the collection.
And, as might be expected with Longley, nature is always there, as a comfort or a comparison. He writes with characteristic, loving attention to detail about wild flowers and birds. In the poem ‘Birthday Party’, about his 80th, birds seem to be as much a part of the celebration as the grandchildren, closing on a note of love and mortality.
Wind removed the swallows’ nest.
We shall walk hand in hand beyond
Where the burial mound was.
Mike Farren is an editor from Shipley, W. Yorks. His poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies and he has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and winner of both the Saltaire Festival and Ilkley Literature Festival poetry prizes in 2020. His pamphlets are Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) and All of the Moons (Yaffle). He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic.
Peter Sirr’s The Gravity Wave reviewed by Stephen Payne.
The Gravity Wave by Peter Sirr. £15 The Gallery Press. ISBN: 9781911337652
I’m not a physicist, but I understand that a gravity wave is, essentially, a ripple— a wave at a surface caused by a perturbation. One key fact about such waves is that they diminish as they spread, but never completely vanish. The spreading of a wave correlates time with space, as might the course of a human life, and the wave’s ever-presence is a symbol for the persistent effects of life events. Thus, in Peter Sirr’s poems, the physical environment, the kitchens, houses and streets, vibrate with history and memories.
The consistent application of this metaphor, and its emphasis on loss, makes for a collection of poems that is intellectually unified. The quiet, careful and caring voice is attentive and engaging throughout. The insights into a considered life, its griefs and consolations, the marks these leave, is cumulative and compelling. Yet at other levels the poems in The Gravity Wave are quite various, in their triggering subjects or inspirations, in the artworks that many are in conversation with, the domestic or farther-flung situations in which others are set.
Inventories can be dull, but to characterise this collection I think some mention of the range of cultural references is worthwhile. The poems that begin the book reference Homer and Ulysses, and surely nod to James Joyce, Sirr’s fellow Dubliner. Indeed, like many Dublin writers, Sirr writes about his city (e.g, ‘Deer, Phoenix Park’). But he also travels beyond it, to the horrors of Aleppo and to Berlin, to the house where the Final Solution was planned. He reflects on a painting by Cy Twombley in the Menil Museum, Houston, and on Bruegel’s ‘The Wedding in the Barn’. He translates Sappho, Borges and Willhelm Müller’s ‘Winterreise’ poems.
Some of the poems, I must admit, I found quite difficult to fully grasp at first; a few remain elusive to me. This might be my failure, as a reader, to notice the revelatory clues, but I think it’s also a design feature of the poems — information is deliberately withheld. The reader is asked to think their way into the text, and to wonder sometimes at what might be the tenor of a vividly described vehicle.
One of my favourite poems is called ‘Ode’. It begins:
Into your memory
I consign, again,
hints and suspicions,
It seems quite obvious to me now that the addressee, the ‘you’, is a cooking pot of some kind. But, call me slow, it was a little while until this dawned on me: at first I thought the narrator was cooking with somebody, a partner, who was the poem’s addressee. The poem could have been called ‘Ode to a Wok’ or whatever, and it’s interesting to wonder what, if anything, would be lost by such signposting.
In any case, ‘Ode’ is a beautiful poem, as is ‘Older’:
Could this be you
turning up again
wanting the news
me coming on
more brother than son
older than you ever were
In this case the reader might be confident by lines 6 and 7 on their first pass that ‘you’ refers to the narrator’s father.
In other poems, the ‘you’, for me, remains unresolved, even after using my noggin — the strategy recommended by Mary Ruefle in an essay in which she defends the ‘vague you’ against a critical article by Philip Sterling (which I have not read). Part of Ruefle’s argument, if I grasp it, is that the content of the address might be sufficiently interesting for the identity of the addressee not to matter — as in Keats’s ‘This Living Hand’.
Here, ‘Radio Life’ begins:
This was your radio, all the days you sent me.
Your voice from the woods, the kitchen table.
and, after 10 more lines in which the narrator slips a cassette into the player (a radio-cassette-player, I suppose— remember those?) it ends:
A light flares, your voice comes on
as if a great switch has been thrown.
Perhaps it’s the poet’s father, again, or perhaps someone with whom he made real as well as metaphorical music? Perhaps all that matters is how much the poet cared for the addressee? Perhaps that is what is gained by the vagueness?
In ‘The Visited’ it is the I, the voice, that must be resolved (but only partially can be). The poem is in the voice, I think, of a dementia sufferer, or perhaps the victim of a more acute illness or injury: ’Someone else is here now /not me / not anyone I know’. I find this a moving and creative device, giving a voice to the voiceless, visited one, and thus allowing the poet-visitor to indirectly express their own challenges. That this meaning dawned on me somewhat gradually seems fully in keeping with the nature of such visits, as many readers will recognise.
To return to the book’s title, and its underpinning theme, there is, scattered through the collection, a set of poems which address this theme explicitly, rather than merely exemplifying or illustrating it. The opening poem, ‘The Now Slice’ immediately, in its title, aligns space with time, and, as ‘Ulysses struggles from a speaker’ in the poet’s kitchen, both are collapsed: ‘I lift my cup and a star / explodes’. Likewise in ‘Signals’, messages are reaching across the universe, at all scales: ‘whole civilizations / under our fingers, between our toes’.
And finally, the title poem, ‘The Gravity Wave’ itself, a love poem in which the poet asks: ‘Where next for this gust / printing itself on your dress’ and realises that love is both tiny and infinite, and will not disappear, but rather is ‘lodged forever’ like ‘the hair’s breadth whisper / of what passed between us’.
Stephen Payne is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath and lives in Penarth, South Glamorgan. His second full collection of poems, The Windmill Proof will be published by HappenStance Press in September 2021, alongside a pamphlet, The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments.
Rachael Boast’s Hotel Raphael reviewed by Clifton Redmond
Hotel Raphael by Rachael Boast. £10.99. Picador. ISBN: 9781529037531
Is it the job of the poet to capture the mood of their own time and convey it in their own words in a way that enriches the literary movement? If so then Rachel Boast has managed to do this successfully in her fourth collection, Hotel Raphael, which is based on the concept of journey, sweeping the reader through heated landscapes while dealing with personal illness and the possibility of ecological disaster.
What we can establish is that these poems are peppered with meanings and counter meanings, like Heraclitan binary forces, the poems are living objects; everything is in flux. Boast’s fourth collection is a multi-layered book of concerns and preoccupations. It is split into two sections: the first group of poems act as a statement which section two attempts to address. Evidence of this structural aspect of the book can be found in the first poem ‘Hand, Match, Ashtray’. This is a poem of binaries which can be held up as a symbol of everything that will follow. The poem opens with a statement in which Boast’s speaker represents the collective ‘we’. She attempts to speak for all readers and the wider community about what is lost, ‘burned over an ashtray’. She responds in the second half of the poem with her thesis of recovery and how to rise Phoenix-like out of those ashes of words and lost civilization by stating: ‘I mean to offer you the sound of faraway bells from an abandoned church’, as a message of hope, of seeing that ‘fire is also light’. It acts as a mission statement of the overall work which presents the collection’s later concerns but to also give the reader a blueprint for the ambition of her work as it progresses.
All the time throughout the collection there is a sense of a journey being undertaken, in ‘Unfinished Admiration’ she echoes this concern:
I’m looking for the poem which is sometimes
a place or a person or whatever immediately
makes the road a little brighter than it was before
with a sense of arrival …
This arrival is knowledge. The result of this poem is a proposition to make a space for the power of poetry to fill the void as a force to deal with the predicament of finding hope where hope appears to be lost.
The book’s title alludes to the patron saint of pilgrims, Raphael. This pilgrimage recounts the poet’s own personal journey through illness where in the poem ‘Gifts of the Weather Front’ a poem after the Spanish film maker Victor Erice. She states that, ‘a woman knows when something breaks inside her’. In this sense the poems become the pilgrimage towards acceptance and healing:
to understand why things have to happen
in the order that they happen according to the book
of the sky and the pages of the earth according
to the spine that keeps them all together.
There is a sense of trust in the spiritual integrity of the universe. This metaphor of the natural world as a keeper of language is also a recurring theme throughout the work. The poems constantly refer to language as both a barrier of, and a portal to go somewhere beyond the physical world. And there are not many references to places where these poems occur, instead Boast relies on presenting a conceptual space, ‘a city hotel. It wouldn’t matter where, or when’, a timeless placeless landscape beyond maps and calculations, a place which could be anywhere. However, the poems do not suffer in their nomadic form but flourish without the roots of a specific geographic place, rather they open up to the idea of a concept of general place.
Boast in her refined management of the line does not allow the poems to lose control and drift into the abstract, rather, she increasingly finds roots for the reader in the choices of concrete images which she carefully presents. The poems are lyrical and their form is acutely aware of literary traditions. During the course of the book we meet poetic ghosts of the Romantic past such as William Blake and Samuel Coleridge. Their presence becomes another garnish of the unreal, illogical, which the collection attempts to base as its foundation. Apart from poetic predecessors, she looks outwardly to the visual arts when she presents artists whose central concern were in film: Victor Erice Alain Resnais, and Andrei Tarkovsky are all included. She uses these cultural giants to further refine the book’s determination to take on another way of presenting the concrete image with a fresh perspective.
This collection also makes use of the aforementioned techniques and themes to take on a political skin, albeit in a way that does not preach, but whispers. Boast handles political concerns in a more nuanced way then many of her contemporaries might. However, there is one exception. There is a tonal shift of voice in the poem, ‘It Never Crossed my Mind’. In this instance Boast’s speaker takes on the voice of a television interviewer to point out the silence of politicians to ecological grievances. The poet states:
if the adviser or the chief officer decrees
hostility on the judges of the land, the land
will fail and the Queen of destinies
will cover their houses in shame.
This poem and these lines do not shy away from the importance of the role political leaders play in allowing the planet to suffer needlessly, and Boast is instinctively alert to these issues. And this idea of loss and recovery then becomes one of the driving forces of this collection that make it so strong and worthy of careful consideration, of reading and re-reading, of recognizing the dialectical relationship between place and language to convey loss and recovery.
Clifton Redmond is an Irish poet based in Carlow and a member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-operative. He is currently studying at Trinity College Dublin and is a past student at Carlow College St. Patrick’s. He has had poems published across various forms of media in Ireland, United Kingdom, United States, Mexico, and South Africa.
Patricia McCarthy’s Whose hand would you like to hold … reviewed by Phil Kirby
Whose hand would you like to hold… by Patricia McCarthy. £5. Agenda Editions. ISBN: 9781908527387
In this extended sequence of thirty five poems, McCarthy deals head on with the experiences of living through the pandemic in 2020. In the process, she addresses many aspects of life and living which have suffered from its impact, inevitably including loss but also touching on subjects like the natural world, the environment and domestic abuse. Opening with ‘Prologue’, a poem which draws on the life of the Brontes and, in effect, invokes a muse, she subtly implies a parallel between their ‘attacker’ – tuberculosis – and the one which we have all fought over the last year – Covid-19.
The sequence itself then moves quickly into unsettling territory, concisely describing the fear many felt at the outset, with lines like ‘No-one knows whose head / will fall, which valley fill with the dead’, or ‘something undefined, unwritten / invisible is hanging over us’ and juxtaposing the imposition of lockdown with the freedom allowed to creatures such as geese, which, being granted ‘man’s oldest wish’ – the gift of flight – ‘can never be locked in, shut down’.
Subsequent poems seamlessly weave in references to our possible loss of religious faith, to portents in nature, such as the moon, and to the effects of past plagues like The Black Death and polio, from which the poet herself suffered as a small girl; and we begin to see the craft in the writing, too, skilful use of internal rhyme making for an almost rhythmic chime as we read.
Poem ‘ix’, though not even one third into the sequence, poses the crucial question of who we’d like to be near when the end comes, and makes us consider ‘the endearments / not uttered, the lifetimes missed, choices / not taken’ and questions why we have not acted previously. It also poignantly asks us to ‘think whose hand you would like / to hold one last time, then press softly to your lips.’
Several hard-hitting poems follow, which focus on the potential strife caused by lockdown, highlighting issues of domestic violence and alcohol abuse; the difficulties faced by those in care homes ‘who have forgotten themselves’ or who are ‘locked down in their bodies’; sibling rivalries exacerbated by prolonged living in such close proximity, and the plight of those with no outside spaces in which to be reminded of ‘miracles / taken for granted before.’
In the last third of the sequence, we see life slowly opening up again, with workers ‘hesitant, uncertain / preferring the cocoon of furloughed days’, and where there has previously been, due to the control in the writing, a persistent, underlying, almost physical sense of constraint and loss, we begin to feel a palpable sense of release. Though even this is tinged with sadness, as in the postponed weddings or the loved ones we have missed:
Every summer I half concoct you –
under stone arches where we still embrace,
in dreams that repeat like a maxim
the surety of loving you. Long grasses
on lane verges bow down to you. But
you never appear.
However, sources of joy begin to re-emerge, epitomised by the exhilaration of seeing fledgeling swallows:
Such forked-tail swoopings, soarings,
wild angles and wilder speed dared
with their new little wings, white bibs in the air
Poem xxxiii addresses the world as it re-opens, with ‘summer leaves the bunting / for a new ‘normal’‘ and while it is, on the whole, celebratory in tone, there is also something of a lament for a world that seems to be returning too much to things as they were, for a world that has ‘gone back on itself’; McCarthy does not want the suffering and loss, or those that ‘died alone’, to be forgotten:
All the farewells that could not be said,
are printing themselves over and over
on backs of swallows, word for shadow-word
The concluding poem, ‘Epilogue’, as McCarthy explains in her endnotes, draws a little on Rilke in invoking the help of angels, who are ‘mythical rather than mystical… yet ordinary as tissues’. And while the angels may offer ‘life-saving lines’, they also leave us with conflicting feelings, telling us to ‘Fear and Fear Not’, reflecting the freedom granted by the emergence from lockdown, but also a sense of not knowing what may lay ahead. Whether because of what has gone before or what may still be to come, we end with a note of caution, since ‘The look on their faces is terrible.’
This book is admirable in its ambition to consider the scope and effects of the pandemic on so many aspects of our lives. Its success lies in the fact that McCarthy does not sugar-coat the experience. Consequently, it feels uncompromising and is, in places, an uncomfortable, even gruelling read – but this is a necessary part of documenting life under such duress. However, an added effect is to make the more personal, reflective poems in the sequence all the more emotionally tender. Overall, it stands as a fitting testament to a terrible year – and it may well be something of a monumental achievement, too.
Phil Kirby’s collections are Watermarks (Arrowhead, 2009) and The Third History (Lapwing, 2018). Poems have since appeared in Acumen, Poetry Ireland, Stand, The High Window and various UK and international magazines. He is currently working towards a third collection. As well as having run Waldean Press, he was an East Midlands Arts ‘New Voice’ and has read at The Cheltenham Literature Festival. Writing as P.K. Kirby, a teen novella, Hidden Depths (Applefire, 2016), is available on the Kindle platform.
James Harpur’s The Examined Life reviewed by Isabel Bermudez
The Examined Life by James Harpur. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN 9. 781909747876
It is impossible to add intelligently to Stephen Fry’s glowing endorsement of James Harpur’s The Ex-amined Life, which contains poems whose subject matter is the microcosm of a boarding school in the late twentieth century, without first acknowledging, as Fry does, that just as boarding school life is not for everyone, so poetic chronicles of such a world may seem to some an elitist undertaking or perhaps even aimed only at the few who have had similar experiences (such, of course, as Stephen Fry). I hasten to reiterate what we mostly know: the subject of poetry is life. All corners of it are grist to a writer’s and a reader’s’ mill, and, if the readers and writers of poetry are students of life, then The Examined Life does exactly what it says on the tin. Launched from our armchairs into this particular and, dare I say, obscure corner of Britain (1970’s English boys’ boarding school) we find a world governed by peculiar laws, with its own vernacular and peopled with (not always unfriendly) ghosts, such as the headmaster, who in ‘Scholarship Interview’:
is watching me – unthinkingly I wave,
childishly, as though he were my father –
and for a moment I feel blessed
but also…somehow sad – as if I’ve waved
goodbye to something not quite lost;
or which, just then, I think I’ve never had.
There is a quiet easy flow to so many of the poems in this collection, not least in ‘Prof’ which was published in Harpur’s previous collection, The White Silhouette and proves seminal to The Examined Life. Broadly speaking, some of the terrain explored here – fractured childhood, father/son/mother relationships and belonging/not belonging – is one Harpur shares with other interesting and contemporary male poets. That the poet and by extension, the reader, is on an Odyssean journey, as the dedication to Rob, ‘Jonesy’, Sarah and Ian clearly states, is part of the great enjoyment to be had from a book which dovetails from the opening Telemachus’ through to ‘Final Report’ and ‘Ithaca’, via ‘The Housemaster’s Enchanting Wife’ – Circe:
She threw us acorns,
beech nuts and cornel berries – the sort of food
pigs dream about when wallowing in mud
clandestine tunings in to pirate radio, ‘away’ matches, sixth form study rooms and Compline where ‘…we are breathing in the emptiness / resigned to Sunday dying in the gloom / and Monday rising like a hunter’s moon.’
A benign schoolmaster is recalled in ‘The Master with the Sports Car’, his ‘…tales of Rive Gauche glamour’: ‘And we were glad he didn’t stay for long / Afraid he’d lose the scent of foreign things / And turn into…a teacher after all.’
Behind this poem lurks the unmistakeable whiff of Gauloises, of internationalism and that veneer of sophistication which doesn’t, to the child’s perception as rendered by the mature poet, really belong in this ‘Escher-like world’ of ‘…East House. ‘Full of thugs and sadists.’ The masters have backstories in the ‘real’ world, begging the question: which is more real? In ‘Away Matches’:
Each school is part Colditz, part film set:
Eton’s a rambling Ruritanian Palace
with a thousand footmen clad in tailcoats;
Worth Abbey is Agatha Christie Gothic,
its staff disguised as sandalled monks;
Christ’s Hospital a Tudor pageant
with boys in knee-high yellow socks;
and Eastbourne, Brighton, Seaford echo
with gulls – town criers calling out
the sea the sea
that make you long for holidays.
The pupils grasp at their teachers’ former lives, rumour adding its tuppence worth. There are spymas-ters and former soldiers and a suicide:
‘and Psycho looked up from his Telegraph
and up to heaven shot his eyebrows-
as he jumped through the window.’
The image of the raised eyebrows here working in perfect counterpoint to the leap from the window, just one, like that of the narrator’s mother back at home, quietly shelling peas while watching Songs of Praise, of the many – dare I say it – damning yet not unkind poetic truths which leap out from The Examined Life. In this way, in ‘Summer World’ towards the end of the collection, there is a gentle yet telling comment on the narrator’s mother: ’they never told me she was so ill/they didn’t want to ruin my exams’ and from the same poem ‘and there you are weightless and peaceful/listening to the laughter of children/happy and invisible.’
There are recognisable glimpses of the backdrop: 1970’s Britain: Millwall skinheads, the Atomic bomb, an outside world of discos, pubs, embroidered kaftans, ‘…T-shirts dyed with cosmic swirls of turquoise…’ just visible behind the main stage of the school and to which every night, the day boys, but not the boarders, may return. The day boys are shipwrecked: ‘What country friends is this?’/‘School. You cannot leave. It’s school.’ (‘Illyria’)
And while we encounter the lightest of hints at subsequent psychological upheavals – one bell – ‘a sizzling ECT stops dead’ while another bell subtly positioned in the poem on the facing page, is imagined ringing unanswered at home – ‘my mother rushing to answer it/me hanging up, before it was too late’ and there are school bells that ring ‘like fate’ (‘Separation’) and in ‘Junior Dormitory: First Night’ unanswered knockings on dormitory doors: ‘Someone is tuned to Radio Caroline / and earplug-deaf intones a nasal chorus / I hear you knocking but you can’t come in’, the chronological cum Odyssean ordeal narrative ends with a measure of (exam) success. Our narrator gets the grades (three A’s), there is some illicit smoking in the dorm, a narrowly-avoided, imagined expulsion; the prize of Oxbridge beckons. But at what cost? Harpur’s ship is firmly rigged with insight and craft, ballasted by that classical education – an inheritance, if you like – which on the one hand keeps this particular school establishment in business, and on the other, informs these excellent poems.
Isabel Bermudez’s latest collection is Serenade, poems evoking Spain and the New World.
Colin Pink’s Typicity reviewed by Konstandinos Mahoney
Typicity by Colin Pink. £10. Dempsey & Windle. ISBN 978-1-913-32937-2
Colin Pink’s third collection, Typicity comes in at a generous ninety poems written over the past four years, a period that has encompassed the deaths of the poet’s parents and a close friend, the political turbulence of Brexit, a fragile world order increasingly dominated by populists demagogues – a lot to write about. Pink is also an art historian and the collection includes a bonus gallery of ekphrastic poems. Typicity follows Pink’s excellent debut collection, Acrobats of Sound (2016), with a welcome addition of well crafted, thought-provoking poems tempered by the experience of grief and a continuing and expanding mastery of craft.
Wine buffs will understand the collection title, Typicity, a term from the flamboyant lexicon of wine tasting, meaning the defining taste of a particular type of wine made from a single grape variety. The title poem, ‘Typicity’, is a tricky, witty little poem that starts off as a love poem and ends up as political commentary. It draws you in with its easy free verse conversational style, but behind the pleasures of wine, its freely transportable kegs and bottles, is the inhumanity of closed national borders. Pink cleverly segues from love to politics: ‘It says the wine is full/ of tenderness and typicity/ (tendresse et typicité) /which is a bit like how I feel/ when I think about us.’ He then moves the poem into political observation about borders, a topical issue with freedom of movement in Europe taken away by, a hard Brexit, Trump’s wall, and borders closed to the movement of refugees: ‘According to the label this wine/ crosses borders with audacity,/ nobility and success. / Something denied many people.’ The poem concludes with a reflection on the dehumanizing experience of barriers to free movement going up over the world: ‘ It takes audacity to cross borders today; / they strip us of any nobility / to examine our tendresse et typicité. /There is an art to crossing borders with success / let alone noblesse / and remain clothed in our confounding typicity. ‘ The easy movement of French-English bilingualism in the poem, crossing linguistic borders, wittily underscores the core theme of crossing geopolitical borders and ideological borders.
As Typicity deals with closed borders in a clever sidelong way via the language of wine tasting, Berlin Zoo obliquely chronicles the rise and fall of Nazism in a brilliant seventeen line single stanza poem about the animals in Berlin Zoo: ‘ None of the animals knew why they were in the Zoo. / None of them knew why the Jewish people stopped / coming.’ The poem goes on to describe air raids that affected the zoo and draws on real events to give the poem specific historical reference: ‘Knautschke, the hippo, barely escaped the fire in his / compound’ The Zoo Tower was also, apparently, one of the last battlefields between the Nazis and the Russian Army and the animals had to endure, uncomprehendingly, barrages of artillery fire. Pink uses statistics to bring home the devastation and depletion of the zoo population, a metaphor for Jewish people killed in the holocaust: ‘There were 3,175 animals in the Zoo. By May 1945 / there were 91 left alive. The poem ends by extending the metaphor to devastating effect, / In the end there were even / fewer since some were eaten by Red Army soldiers.’
Nazi atrocity is also the subject of Irma’s Apple, written as a triadic couplet, a new form that Pink has invented. Of the form Pink writes:
Each Triadic Couplet has a total of six lines made up of three couplets. This form is designed to utilise the power of grouping things into threes, a well-established rhetorical device. The three stanzas give the poems a format that is both flexible and strictly contained. It encourages a highly compressed mode of expression.
Contained within the constraints of this short strict poetic form, ‘Irma’s Apple’ deals with Nazi sadism in an objective way, devoid of comment and outrage, making the poem all the more powerful for letting the event speak for itself, a poem in which one person’s suffering represents the suffering of millions of others.
Irma Grese eats a juicy apple; places before the eyes
of a starving boy the generous core onto the floor.
The enormity of the horror of the Holocaust challenges artistic representation. German philosopher, Theodore Adorno wrote that it was: ‘barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.’ He later revised this to, ‘perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.’ Pink looks at the horror of the holocaust through the keyhole of one documented incident, how Irma Grese, the notoriously sadistic SS guard ate an apple in front of a starving Belsen inmate, she dropped the core on the floor and left the room, instructing her dog to guard it. She returned to find the apple core untouched:
It sits between the paws of her German Shepherd,
guarded by its jaws. She goes out, returns a little later.
Disappointed to see he had not attempted to get
the fruit she grinds it into a pulp under her boot.
‘Sophie’s Dream’ is a deeply moving memorial to Sophie Scholl, the courageous young activist executed by the Nazis in 1943 for distributing anti-Hitler pamphlets to her fellow university students. The poem, in two eight line stanzas, culminates in a transcendent image of Sophie Scholl passing her dream of freedom, her baby, to future generations:
Just in time you place the child on the other side;
it lies among the flourishing buds of the future.
But it is too late for you and you fall into the abyss
that opens ever wider to swallow you. You know
Freisler’s crooked blade will fall but your short
life burned so bright still we need to shield our eyes
Sophie Scholl was part of the White Rose movement that Pink celebrates in another powerful memorial poem, an anaphoric poem dedicated to that heroic Nazi resistance movement: ‘To think when thought is forbidden. / To love when taught to hate. / To resist the surge of the crowd. / To manoeuvre in a world of control. / To speak when silence is enforced.’
Last year was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that saw continuing efforts by the U.N. to foster remembrance of and education about the holocaust – Pink’s poems make a small but powerful contribution to that goal.
Ekphrastic poetry transmutes what was originally rendered in paint and other media, into words. Rothko’s colour field canvases, large oblongs in one colour with a blurry border in another, large black, or black and grey canvases, pose a challenge to the ekphrastic poet – not much to write about. In Mr Rothko in the Studio, Pink, rather than responding to a single Rothko painting, writes about Rothko’s creative process, the moments in his studio just before embarking on a new canvas. The first of the three quatrains has the painter smoking a cigarette, the smoke rising in, ‘lazy ectoplasmic limbs’ evoking a séance. The second quatrain moves from spiritualist séance to church, ‘Silence shrouds the studio which feels like church.’ The final quatrain moves into paganism, invoking the old Roman custom of divining the future by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals, ‘He looks through the layers of paint, reading destiny in the entrails of art.’ The religious imagery culminates in an image of the artist as seer who, ‘blurs the vision, to see beyond the edge of everything.’ As a lover of Roethke’s work I find this poem wholly satisfying, there is a religious intensity to Roethke’s canvasses and Pink has found a way of exploring this through describing the act of creation rather than by describing an individual art work.
Pink’s poems of grief and loss include poems for his deceased parents. Incarnated explores how the dead father “whispers” to the son and is still present in physical likeness, the same ‘lopsided smile’ seen in a mirror. The poem unexpectedly turns to self-criticism. The poet posthumously realizes that his father’s decision not to offer his son any advice was a wise move and goes on to castigate himself for his own slowness of uptake. The poem may end with the, ‘long open arms of love stretching’ towards him, but before that embrace is a complexity, a hint of things unresolved that makes this a powerful, honest and very human eulogy.
‘Triptych’ consists of three titled triadic couplets (see above) about the poet’s mother’s death. Each of the three couplets is contained and powerful, put together they create a magnified eulogy, her death seen from three differing perspectives. Pink is not a poet of the grand gesture, soaring line, declamatory voice, he builds his poem around honest feelings frankly expressed in a calm, considered, conversational tone. He is able to deal with the big emotional operas of death, grief, suffering, through grounded language and attention to specific details, events, objects that act as catalysts for the bigger picture. An example of this is the second triadic couplet in ‘Triptych – Mother’s Bed’, in which without fuss, anguish or hyperbole the poet encompasses and conveys the pain and perplexity of a major bereavement through describing his mother’s bed:
Afterwards, they came and dismantled the bed.
It was special and could tilt in any direction;
you could lower it all the way to the floor. Now
they’ve packed it away it seems surprisingly small.
As they carried it out to their van it reminded me
of when the undertakers came and took you away.
‘Funeral for a Friend’, a thirteen couplet elegy, is addressed directly to the deceased friend, ‘There were photos of you everywhere at your funeral.’ It is as if the friend is still alive, the poet in denial about his passing. We hear the gentle perplexed voice of the grieving poet talking to us as though we were the deceased. The poem follows the typical stages of an English funeral, the initial gathering, the walk to the grave, the burial, the reception. His observations are critical, wryly satirical, sometimes with a streak of dark humour, people talking about the deceased and the work he has done as if they were at his ‘retirement ‘do’. Relieved to get away from, ‘all the talk’ the poet walks to the burial plot where the reality of what is happening hits home, his friend is going to be put into a hole in the ground, ‘As if you were being punished for hiding away from us and not talking any more.’ At the reception the guests are given tea, ‘though frankly I could have done with something stronger.’ The poem ends with two couplets set a year later, a distancing from the intensity of the event with the poet ironically adopting the conceit that his friend has gone away on a long holiday and has forgotten to send a postcard, a distancing that makes the poem all the more poignant.
Some people like to read newspapers backwards, I find that I have written this review backwards – the political poems at the start of my piece are from the final section of Pink’s collection, followed in reverse order by the ekphrastic poems and the poems of grief. It is therefore only fitting that l should end at the beginning with the opening poem, Hymn to the Thames. For Pink a Londoner living in Richmond, the Thames is a river that cuts through his corner of the capital. The poem has an immediate visual impact, written in seven triplets with the second line of each triplet indented, we get a fitting sense of movement, the ebb and flow of a great tidal river. The Thames is a less glamorous river than the blue Danube, the romantic Seine, and Pink is no court painter flattering his subject with idealized portraits – here we are given the Thames’ power and mystery, but also its ugliness. The poet addresses the river directly as if it were a sentient being:
You are always moving, restless, changing your appearance,
as if you can’t decide what mood you’re in.
Your inky skin covers over the dark thoughts of the drowned.
The energy, restlessness and pitfalls of the great city it runs through are woven into the flow of the poem, currents hurrying up and down always late for an appointment, a river in perpetual search for contentment drenched in dreams, beachcombers and the homeless along the way, a gateway of commerce as well as a river of dead bodies its waters laced with washed away drugs. The poem ends with a broad philosophical reflection on the inescapabilty of fate:
You are a churlish friend, flooding the tow-path, strewing it with
tangled twine and plastic bottles, reminding us
that all we have thrown away might come back to taunt us some day.
Typicity is a cornucopia of strong poems rich in honest, reflective observation. Pink is a poet who does not shrink from writing about the dark side of life, the horrors of fascism, the dangerous complexities of the present, the pain of grief. He is also a poet of great wit, humour and humanity, a poet whose knowledge of philosophy leads to poetic reflection, whose love of art spills into celebratory ekphrastic verse. Pink’s voice is profoundly human, quiet yet powerful, serious, yet sparkling with wit and joy. Typcity is a welcome raft for all those lost at sea.
Konstandinos (Dino) Mahoney, a London based poet currently living in Greece, won publication of his collection, Tutti Frutti, in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition 2017, and is winner of the Poetry Society’s 2017 Stanza Competition and published in various online poetry sites and printed poetry magazines. He is also part of Dino and the Diamonds (shortlisted for Saboteur Award, 2018). He teaches Creative Writing at Hong Kong University (visiting lecturer).
Miles Salter’s Fix reviewed by Patrick Lodge
Fix by Miles Salter. £8.95. Ohm Books. ISBN 978 0 9931064 4 6
In 1960, accepting the National Poetry Award for ‘Life Studies’, Robert Lowell talked of two types of contemporary poetry – the “cooked” and the “raw”. Both may be seen to deal with strong emotions – the former by tight structure and order but the latter, more loosely patterned but no less crafted, by its willingness to take on extremes of feeling, and thus better, as Lowell said, “dished up for midnight listeners”. There are many examples of “cooked” poems in this collection because Salter is a skilled writer, but so too are there examples of the “raw” and it is the latter which give such an edge to this excellent collection.
Salter has fingers in many pies – a writer, musician, festival director, storyteller, radio presenter – so it is no surprise that this book comes several years after his last full-length collection. Salter once said ‘writing really takes off when you access the things that are a bit scary’ and since the last collection a great deal seems to have happened in his creative and personal life – changes which this collection faces with powerful honesty and not a little humour, albeit surreal at times. At its best this collection does indeed take off. It brings together prose poems as well as more standard creations and covers many themes including music, childhood, relationships and contain several poems riffing on the title and its many different meanings – in a fix, getting a fix, fixing things.
Salter has, and uses, a wild imagination that often seems to spiral out of control as a poem moves onwards – but control is never lost because Salter has the craft to manage this kind of wild ride. There is a lyrical side to these poems which drives them forward. Certainly at times it is less a question of the willing suspension of disbelief and more the succumbing to an acceptance that you simply have to go with the flow of Salter’s poetry. His world seems superficially to be unlike the one most of us inhabit – Jekyll and Hyde go for a curry, Hull becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, Strontium Dog walks out of a comic into his bedroom, and in the wonderfully punny “Well Hung”, a woman finds several men on hangers in her wardrobe. At the heart of these poems though, Salter’s world is no different from anyone else’s – it is an imperfect world with imperfect people trying, if not to be perfect, at least a little better and if they can’t, then to seek some escape from the life lived. In his desire that the poetry makes things better, Salter is a kind of Holden Caulfield – a catcher in the rye trying to stop people going over the cliff edge. Here is a flawed but ever willing superhero trying to right wrongs,
trying to fix things but at a personal cost – ‘Healing the world was killing me’ (‘Fix One: See It, Say It, Sorted’).
In a Salter poem something weird is usually going on but amidst normal life – indeed it may well be that that normal life is what prompts the madness. In ‘Swamp’ the narrator asks a nearby person, ‘If I crawl into the swamp will you wash me clean?’ but is ignored as the person was on the phone to the energy company and, rather creepily, because the words (voices?) were only in his head. It is ‘normal’ life which has driven the narrator to this – ‘In the morning I drove to work to submerge in another day / of meetings and emails and fidgeting with the window”. By the end of the poem a kind of Reggie Perrin slide into a lake seems a perfectly natural response to life’s demands on a person. It may have been cold but ‘There was nothing to buy or apologise for’ – a somewhat limited conception of paradise but revealing about the narrator’s state of mind.
The earlier poems seem characterised by a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian past life. In “Benidorm” it is chips and lager which become Salter’s Proustian madeleines in his recollection of a visit to the eponymous resort with its fleeting sense of ‘belonging somewhere, and becoming ourselves’. There is a sense in this collection of a looking back, a reflecting on what it all might mean, what was good about it and a strong sense that time is short. Thus in ‘Guide’ Salter is philosophical about our short strut on this earth, ‘no sooner off than back again, a brief, brief song, a fraction of a hymn’.
It may be at times like reading Wendy Cope on speed, or more probably psilocybin, as the poems barrel along, often using the listing of things as a technique for driving them on at a pace. Shining out of the fantastic are marvellous images – ‘Bouncers loom at doorways, the ghost of / a tattoo on their knuckles’ while enemies ‘with jewelled / tongues chew freshly poisoned mushy peas’. (‘Hull as A Shakespearean Tragedy’)
The emotional heart of the collection and the most brutally honest of the poems focus on the breakdown of a relationship. The raw candour of ‘Said’ is shocking in its I said/you said construction with its devastating final line that guts both narrator and reader, ‘It’s just words, you said, you’re good with those’. Indeed, Salter is good with words and their use to explore a long, dark night of the soul. ‘Fix Three: Fire’ imagines a relationship characterised by the participants’ need for exposure to an ultimately consuming fire, ‘Hotter!’ we cried. ‘Let it burn!…’. There can be few better poems that express so well the intensity of emotion surrounding the last stages of a relationship and the almost addictive nature of the heightened state before the end. This is where the imagination of a poet is at its most powerful – when its application remains grounded in life’s reality, however painful or productive of unhappiness. Salter is capable of deft delicacy too – there is such sadness and sense of loss in the masterly ‘A Trip To The Café’ where a visit to a café appears – through the use again of lists – at first mildly amusing but ending on the achingly sad ‘…dream of a busy house, / a woman who is kind and children who know where / their roof is, and all of us eating bolognaise and laughing / and the room warm and there’s steam on the windows / and somebody asks for water and somebody asks for salt.’
Walter Kirn, the novelist and literary critic, wrote in the New York Times that the poems of Robert Lowell – so often seen as a “confessional” poet – “proved that if writing is a form of therapy, it’s a uniquely unsuccessful one…and that insights into the larger human predicament don’t guarantee their author a good night’s sleep, a stable marriage or a dignified passing.” The final poem in this collection – ‘Apple’ – has the poet noticing a bruise on an otherwise perfect apple and, deciding not to throw everything away, taking a knife and excising the damaged part and then “Smelling the bright, pale part, / I nodded, closed my eyes, and got ready to bite.’ There is here, gently stated, both resolution and optimism. One hopes this collection proves Kirn wrong. In writing it Salter deserves both plaudits and, at the very least, a good night’s sleep.
Patrick Lodge retired from an academic career teaching American History several years ago and now writes full time. He lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published in many countries and he has been successful in several prestigious poetry competitions. His first collection, An Anniversary of Flight, was published by Valley Press in 2013. Shenanigans (2016) and Remarkable Occurrences (2019).
Antony Johae’s After-Images: Homage to Éric Rohmer reviewed by Peter Ualrig Kennedy
After-Images: Homage to Éric Rohmer by Antony Johae. £10.50. Poetry Salzburg. ISBN: 978-3-901993-73-2
Antony Johae’s collection After-Images will take its own important place in the pantheon of modern poetry, resting as it does on the shoulders of the great Éric Rohmer, cinéaste and film director. “What interests me,” Rohmer once said, “is to show how someone’s imagination works” and here in this collection Johae brings his own imagination to bear on Rohmer’s characters and situations. Johae reminds us that these are his “recollections of Rohmer’s films; that is – after-images.”
His first poem ‘Delphine’ is indeed an after-image of Rohmer’s ‘Le Rayon Vert’. It starts gently:
I saw her drift from gate to hedge in the blowing summer,
from path to field as trees bent to the westerly,
their mad swish her heart in protest,
driven clouds her fretful flight,
tears signalled by first drops on a pool
emptying herself, drenched in a timeless field.
The second stanza is gawky; “sitting astride a comfortable table protein laden” but then Johae picks up the tale as Delphine goes off to Paris to be lonely –
Nor did the river of longing lovers kissing on the quay
put from her mind the Regal Spade
providentially lying on her back
– which is a clever way of introducing the playing card, the Queen of Spades, that signifies the bad luck which Delphine will experience. The poem is written in free verse in three parts. The first part ends with a sonnet – the only piece of formal verse in this piece, other than the rhymed couplets in the eight-line stanza at the end. Johae continues his journey through his recollections of Rohmer in both poetry and prose; the poetry now is mainly reportage in free verse. ‘Plums’ deals with the ad-ventures of Reinette and Mirabelle; we readily catch the reference to Mirabelle, while Reinette is a French apple. Johae produces some play on words with the fruit connotation:
Quite a plum. An artist’s model, I wouldn’t wonder.
Wait, there’s someone else coming down – but not so fruity.
In the second section of ‘Plums’, Johae has visual fun in telling “a cubistic conte” with an “oblique eye / on an unripe plum” and he challenges the reader with a tantalisingly constructed typographical jumble of words and spaces – concrete poetry which I imagine to be in the spirit of e e cummings.
The sequence of texts brings a change of mood, and change of style, with each new poem. ‘Epitha-lamion with Flashbacks’ for ‘ Le Beau Mariage’ is a long poem of quatrains with a rhyme scheme mostly ABCA; it paints a pretty picture of a wedding day as visualised by the bride, ending with four lines of mild eroticism:
He has kissed me deep
rapt me to his rhythmic thighs
so much to make us want to sigh, to cry,
to die … to sleep.
I am attracted by Johae’s use of “rapt” as a combination both of being transported and of being wrapped. We remain in the realm of love with ‘Aubade’ which once more is rhyming poetry, a sonnet, this time almost but not quite a Petrarchan rather than the earlier Spenserian sonnet. This morning-after poem has some properly affecting lines: “As touch you draw me lightly and we’re no more two”, while closing in jocular mood with: “awake my love – get up you lazy-bones!” Johae shows us that he has a light touch with the bedroom scenes. And he can quickly set the stage, as the deft opening lines of ‘Pauline’s Complaint (Pauline à la plage)’ demonstrate:
I am fifteen.
I appear pert.
I like lying on the beach
When I lie on the sand
with the grains in my hand
the sun on my skin
the breeze stroking me
I don’t like the men who make advances
nor the boys who press for sex regardless.
Poems and prose pieces follow on, emulating Rohmer’s practice of making short films in the ‘ca-méra stylo’ technique of using the camera like a pen. The final poem ‘Industrial Filmscape’ is a good example:
The windmill sails have stopped
though the wind has kept blowing
and the stream is still flowing.
It stands now a rotting relic
close to a vacant church
untenanted on the whistling plain.
The camera picks up rain.
Antony Johae’s After-Images stands as an erudite and whimsical love letter to the films of Eric Rohmer. Well imagined, and well written in Johae’s inimitable style.
Peter Ualrig Kennedy is lead organiser of Poetrywivenhoe, and a past editor of the quarterly magazine Wivenhoe News. He edited the contemporary poetry collection Days begin… (Wivenbooks 2015), and the collection The Tales Told by Birds (Watermelon Press 2020). His poetry has been published in several journals in print and online. His forthcoming collection, Songs for a Daughter, is due to be published in June 2021 by Dempsey & Windle.
Jane Lovell’s The God of Lost Ways reviewed by Stephen Claughton
The God of Lost Ways by Jane Lovell. £9.50. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-912876-41-9
Jane Lovell’s 2019 pamphlet, This Tilting Earth, ended with a poem about a divine curator inspecting an Earth infested with microscopic parasites, excreting substances that were going to kill them and everything else. The answer was to conserve the essential species in a laboratory culture, until they could safely be reintroduced. Man, the parasite, wouldn’t be among them. In The God of Lost Ways, her first full collection (and again a prize-winner), man and nature remain in conflict, but at a more local level. Climate change is addressed only once (in ‘Cimitero di Santa Maria’, an atmospheric poem about Venice). On the other hand, there is a lot of roadkill. The poems are rather more straightforward, although no less enjoyable, and might be classed more as nature poetry than eco-poetry.
People figure in relatively few of the poems and when they do, are secondary to nature. A dying woman’s garden:
… thrives in neglect.
The peony never looked so good, so vibrant;
her blooms loll like woozy ladies on a lawn
brilliant with lipstick and scandal.
Smoking a hornets’ nest out of a chimney parallels the experience of refugee neighbours:
They are the lucky ones, they say,
watching the crack, its pudding of bright foam,
and the last few hornets clunking drunkenly
at the stack, butting and looping back and fore
in the bewildered air.
(‘Two men and a hornets’ nest’)
‘The Longest Day’ is dominated by a description of the day itself rather than the suicide that has taken place during it (a kind of et in Arcadia ego) and in ‘Milk’ it is not the old woman herself who is characterised, but her memories of rural life. ‘Fieldfares’, a poem about an idealised countryside, ends:
Only your mind can steal into this world;
your bones, your terrible human heart,
you must leave behind.
For Lovell, the natural world, which she describes beautifully, takes precedence. However, her book is as much about death as it is about nature. Roadkill apart (a cat, a pheasant, a badger and possibly a fox), there are numerous other dead or injured creatures (an owl, a blackcap, a dog, the hornets, a pike and a zander) killed directly or indirectly by man, on top of which is the toll taken by nature itself.
The title poem, at the start of the book, provides the key to these twin themes. The god of lost ways, ‘Phantom, mercurial’, I take to be Mercury himself, who as well as being the messenger of the gods, the guide of souls to the underworld and the god of commerce, trickery and thieves, was also the god of travellers, lost things, boundaries and luck:
When you are drowning in the enormity of days,
he offers you sea glass, the shiver
of dune grass, an eel switching
across slipstreams of mud.
The natural world provides not only a reminder of mortality, but also in its beauty and variety an antidote to dwelling on the human condition. Concentrating on the fine detail of the natural world can help us live in the moment like the mice preyed on by a kestrel:
They have no notion of death,
no knowledge of the thing descending
from the heavens
to tear them
(‘Kestrel hunting, East Sutton Churchyard’)
In ‘Hare’, ‘Time passes only in the shiver of leaves, / a solitary beetle ticking in the sage’ and the unnamed, burrowing animals in the gothic ‘On Rye Hill’ ‘… come and go, / our days measured by the tilting of the light / and the bloom of the grass’. Like Ted Hughes’s ‘Wodwo’, they are teasingly unaware of what they are. But for all the references to death and predation, Lovell’s natural world has less of his violent machismo and more of Clare’s detailed observation. A number of poems in the book are purely descriptive. Another influence is Hopkins. It is difficult to write about a kestrel without invoking the spirit of ‘The Windhover’ and Lovell faces the challenge head on by producing her own tribute:
wired to weave perfect light
winnowing ocean-air turbulence
xxxxxxxxin dark-path leaf-curl
Hopkins’ influence also appears in her fondness for unusual words, some of them technical (‘phloem’ or ‘grume’), others rather more baffling. The ‘timmering leaftip dew’ may be a portmanteau word, combining ‘trembling’ and ‘shimmering’, an idea captured by an actual word in ‘tremors of shirred light’. ‘Skanked’ in ‘the men, thin and skanked’ is also a real word, although its use here doesn’t seem to fit any of the dictionary definitions, the actual work being done by the simple word, ‘thin’. Others appear to be neologisms: ‘the jiggery of voles’, which describes their movement rather than any jiggery-pokery; or the ‘slinted claw / and oilbead plumage’ of starlings. I thought their ‘clockwork grobbling’ might have been coined as well (these are dreamed, artificial birds), although the online Urban Dictionary lists—among rather more unpleasant meanings of grobbling—that of ‘grumbling’ and ‘“robble grobble” the incoherent shouting sounds made during crowd or mob scenes in the television show South Park’, which seemed to fit, so I’m happy to be proved wrong about any assumptions of coinage.
Like Hopkins, she also uses verbs as nouns (as in the fox ‘alert to every whit and scrattle / of leaf, rat or shrew’ or ‘huntdown’ in ‘Hare’) and creates novel compounds (such as ‘blackslam’, ‘bloodbang’ and ‘softpaw’ in ‘Hallowe’en Cat’). Both are ways of giving the words extra force.
As well as using a daring vocabulary, Lovell also produces some striking images. There are the hare’s ‘planetary ears’, the ‘wind-chased verge’, the air ‘slice-cold’ and the ‘pared-down moon’ in ‘Hare’. A blackbird ‘seduces worms with his raindance’. The jerky movement of a dragonfly is described as ‘time-lapse / flight’. A cat ‘turns mice into angels’ by both killing them and thereby gaining them our sympathy.
The poems are by no means earthbound. ‘Blackbird’ begins:
A conduit from sky to earth
he holds the perfect angle,
steals into his keyhole portal
bird-shaped pieces of anti-matter.
Planets course through,
constellations, that black stuff
that surrounds stars and goes on forever.
And ‘Funeral for an Owl’ ends: ‘… your last glare fixed / on the far circle of stars above your twisted wing.’ It’s the interaction between the earth and the cosmos, between life and death, that gives these poems much of their power.
There is a fine Covid-19 poem, ‘Linnets’, in which the pandemic is subtly referenced in ‘the broken sky blown blue, / the last of the contrails, the last / of our days’ and:
Dragged from the kindness of sleep,
radio news drowning the strange silence,
we mourn our secret landscapes,
the people we felt we knew
but will never meet again:
our ghost worlds
and the ghost spring sliding away,
stealing with it our lives.
The final poem in the book (‘Made certain by the signs of birds’) ends on a positive note that neatly encapsulates Lovell’s credo:
There are shadows, of course, and dead things:
the chewed stalks of wings, mud-trodden
carcasses of ideas, lost paths through dead trees,
but always the signs of birds
and that backwash of blue light.
Her latest book confirms Jane Lovell’s excellent gift for description, as well as her particular ability to convey atmosphere. Despite the high body count, hers is natural world we want to inhabit.
Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. He has published two pamphlets: The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey & Windle, 2020).
Penny Sharman’s The Day before Joy reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Penny Sharman’s The Day before Joy. £14. Knives Forks and Spoon Press. ISBN 9781912211753. (Available to purchase from the author here.)
In her second collection, Sharman experiments with poetry and photography, developing new perspectives and unpredictable realities. Her world is open to a creative space that is free and personal. Compared to her previous works, in which the memory of past traumas evolved towards healing in connection with nature, Sharman reveals more insightful thoughts and a mature prosody in The Day before Joy.
The collection combines pictures and poems. Her artworks are photographs that she modifies and adapts to create art-photos. The images do not necessarily relate directly to the poems – sometimes they stand alone. Nevertheless, they are chosen to sit next to certain poems like a mirror or an alternative view that comments on and/or enriches the lines. The poems and pictures therefore ‘sing’ to each other in a subconscious collaboration that speaks profoundly to the reader.
Differently from the previous collections, these poems are interestingly experimental in content and form, a characteristic that is reflected in the artwork as well. The title of the collection prompts a sense of expectation, a yearning for something that might happen, that maybe has already happened, and for a joy that seems to be present in the fulfilling relationship the author has with her partner:
Before you arrived all frogs in my garden were made of clay. Circumference of days and nights heard you singing somewhere else. December was always the warmest month with you, lost in white cotton sheets and red wine. Endorphin life entered the front door in the palms of your hand, within slate blue eyes. Forget. It’s so easy to leave all those lonely years behind. Growing bluebells buds under the Acer reminds us both of happy bees, the golden honey. Hellebores, my favourites in spring, a sign like birdsong, return of warmth in the bones. I don’t know what I’d do without you now that your roots are entwined with mine.
She recalls places they visited and experienced together, revealing their reciprocal harmony as well as curiosity and wisdom, a kind of wisdom which is open to different possibilities. She explores the limits of ageing too, accepting what is coming, its inevitable limitations and the aches of the body, but also emphasising its potential. The body has predictably transformed and so has the mind, adapting to different horizons and shifting perspectives. Despite fears and ‘lack of timing’, lack of libido and lack of manhood, the couple is blessed by ‘the gift of love’ (‘Flawed’). This is reflected in the exploration of the mysteries of life that are present in nature and in the experimental form of some of the poems. Sharman examines multiple possibilities of prosody, playing with the shapes of the characters, with punctuation, or absence of punctuation, and with spaces between words and lines:
In the clearing of the squalid
hearts set on …
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxone in a hundred with a dizzy tiredness
one in a thousand with
bundles xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbreathing problems
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa scaly skin rash
(‘Possible Side Effects’)
The ancient heard voices. ghost cat xxxxxHomeric epics
people guidedxxxxx balance fish xxxxan internal
voice xxxxxcandle-fly xxxxxautomatically. xxxxxa people,
free will or rational xxxxegg-sucker .
(‘“Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness”’, Socrates)
The connection with nature is very strong throughout the collection, as in Sharman’s previous poetry, and is further developed here in its positive interweaving with her happy relationship. Life therefore flows ‘over the singing river, where I can’t stop the/water coming in, your breath behind the door’. The ups and downs of everyday life seal their profound friendship:
i hold you
close to my heart-song
my will is your will
in this white light
we are our own noise
our songs strong
like a blackbirds chorus
(‘I hold you’)
Sharman’s vision is also described as multiple and cryptic, in a way, in the poem ‘Serpentine’, in which the word serpentine significantly discloses different interpretations which coexist:
means heart, love, wealth, attraction,
means gleam, cobbles, stiles, flagstones,
means treasures, means common use
This concept opens up to infinite explorations that Sharman investigates both in the poems and in the artwork. For example in the mirror poem ‘Parasite’, in her clever use of anaphora, in repetitions at the beginning of the lines that emphasise the description of the same idea from different sides, and in the pictures that are modified, distorted or blurred to underline their vulnerability but also their fluidity and their openness to different readings.
A poem I particularly liked is ‘Bear’:
Claw me down my backbone
with the smooth edge of your hook.
Leave the sharp point for hunting dark thought.
Let your calcified marble massage pain away.
Leave your fur on the hallstand and be naked
with me now.
The essence and presence of the animal are not only powerfully described but are also cleverly connected to the vision of the poet in dark uncanny undertones. This matches the strength of Sharman’s poetry that in this collection is particularly diverse, multi-faceted and engaging.
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/
Thomas Mitchell’s Where We Arrive reviewed by Steve Lambert
Where We Arrive by Thomas Mitchell. £15.90. Lost Horse Press. ISBN: : 978-1733340083
This, as the collection’s title suggests, is a book about arrivals. It’s also about departing. About the journey itself. It’s a book about place (the Pacific Northwest and Oregon, mostly). It’s about aging and remembering and imagining. Most of all, this is a collection of nature poems. A true nature book, in my opinion. A book that understands nature: its beauty, its terrible indifference, and its importance to our inner lives. Its style is consistent, but, at times, Whitmanian, Deep Imagistic, purposefully meandering like Robert Lowell’s Life Studies period work, and Riffy like The best of Richard Hugo. There is also something Chinese about many of these poems, particularly, the nature poems, which are filled with resonant images. While, thankfully, these poems are absent of anything resembling epiphany, there are moments of clarity that crop up organically—they surprise the reader, happily. One gets the feeling, as one reads, that we’re both, reader and writer, being surprised almost together. A pleasant affect.
In this collection, Mitchell writes of “the knowledge” or “truth” in “the world’s ways.” This knowledge is on the surface—nature, specifically—but he does hint at some other, deeper knowledge, a felt knowledge. An intuitive knowledge. It seems that this knowledge is at times the knowledge that there is more to it (nature) and life, but that it isn’t something expressible in words. It’s something, rather, in the mood each detail of observed nature evokes. Mitchell is concerned with how we—as part of nature—connect with our natural surroundings on an intuitive or implicit level. Mitchell’s poetry—quite consciously, I believe—reminds us that nature does makes us feel, and that that feeling is not just poignant but important. A timely proclamation, to my mind. Mitchell is urging us to look and let that looking deepen our experiences. That receptive observation is one of the reasons nature is here. Those feelings are the knowledge—a knowledge not of “knowing” but of feeling. A knowledge of connection.
Where We Arrive is made up of five distinct sections. Section I is perhaps the least consciously thematic, but it does introduce the reader to the motif of water that permeates the collection and to the themes that run through it: nature as a restorative, aging, art as a means for remembering. Section II is a doubling down on the water motif. Water is everywhere. The reader / narrator seems always to be on the edge of water, looking at water, watching a storm approach, listening to rain. Water is omnipresent and Mitchell uses it to suggest many things: movement (rivers), renewal or change (rain), the quietude of observation (lakes). Section III doesn’t take us out of, or away from, nature, but it does bring on a shift. Nature and water are still there but now we are in it with people, people the narrator is fond of, and the narrative poems about family are the highlights of this section and perhaps the collection. The father poems are the most purely enjoyable in the collection, and the poem “Palmistry” has some great moments of humor and warmth. Section IV: begins with a storm (back to water) and that storm is followed by two pandemic poems, which took me by surprise. The preceding poems could have “happened” any time in the last, say, fifty years or so. These two pandemic poems sharpen the books focus—or, rather, locate the book in the moment, in the now. Section V, the final section, concerns itself with the coming of spring (the arriving of spring) and, appropriately weather (rain!) was a frequent image and motif. “Wednesday Morning, Abundance,” a lovely sort of nature list poem, is a highlight in this final section. The final poem, “Harmony,” reasserts one of the collection’s main themes: that “there is knowledge / in the world’s ways…” The poem ends: “Nature goes so, / effortlessly, in pure and simple rhythm.”
The narrator through almost all of this collection is a watcher—a receptive, sensitive observer of nature—attuned to it and in awe of it and, gladly, in no need of some kind of explanation or salvation (though there are many unforced moments of grace in the book; even a poem titled grace). I like this, and I appreciate this. This is important to me. There is a distinct difference between the nature I grew up with (I’m a Floridian) and the nature in Where We Arrive. I feel surrounded on all sides by mosquitos, alligators, water moccasins, rattle snakes, copperheads, bull sharks and brown recluse spiders. Venture in for further examination and you may find beasties hiding, here and there, who are obliged to kill you and feed you to their young. My personal feelings of nature are a bit grimmer than Mitchell’s. But I am a sucker for storms and birds and shorelines….And I do respect a fellow traveller, one who does not “spiritualize” nature. This is key for me. Nature just is. Nature has no intention. Nature is indifferent to us and our agendas, as we are not separate from it. Mitchell doesn’t recognize this explicitly. But, I think, he would agree with this. He doesn’t suggest anything benevolent about nature—only that it is awe-inspiring and stimulating. It is cyclical and adds an important rhythm to our existence. And we can’t live well without it.
Steve Lambert’s writing has been published widely in the United States and beyond. appeared, He is the recipient of four Pushcart Prize nominations and was a Rash Award in Fiction finalist. He is the author of the poetry collection Heat Seekers (2017), the chapbook In Eynsham (2020) and the fiction collection The Patron Saint of Birds (2020). His novel, Philisteens, will be out May 2021 and his next poetry collection, The Shamble, will be out in October, both with Close to The Bone Publishing. He lives in Northeast Florida, with his wife and daughter, where he teaches part-time at the University of North Florida.
Adnan Al-Sayegh: Let Me tell You What I Saw reviewed by Pat Winslow
Let Me tell You What I Saw by Adnan Al-Sayegh. £12.99. Seren Books. ISBN 9 781781 726020
Adnan Al-Sayegh’s Let Me tell You What I Saw begins like a play with the narrator ‘on the balcony, alert’. The narrator is plucking the feathers of clouds and watching Khofu, who commissioned the pyramid at Giza, sitting on top of it ‘gulping the dregs of a massacred people’. The scene shifts suddenly – here it becomes more like a film – to a world of revolvers and bugging devices. Then, just as quickly, he sees the blood of slaves on a Sumerian altar before catapulting us forward again to the era of TV presenters. It’s dizzying because we too are present. We are the camera. Whatever he looks at, we are forced to see, as well. This is a kaleidoscopic body of work, dense with references to Arabic literature and history, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories, Greek and Irish mythology, as well as modern and contemporary European writers. It draws widely upon the deep connections made across time and place. Let Me tell You What I Saw is both a testimonial and a rallying cry against injustice.
Adnan Al-Sayegh is an Iraqi poet now living and working in exile in the UK. It took him twelve years to write Uruk’s Anthem. For eight of those years, he was conscripted into the army to fight in the devastating Iran-Iraq War as well as being imprisoned in a military detention centre for eighteen months. This work was written both as a response to the brutality of the war and to the regime that gave rise to it. It is, too, a condemnation of tyranny and oppression per se. We do not yet have Al-Sayegh’s 550-page epic in English, but we have a fine translation of extracts in the form of a dual language volume. Let Me tell You What I Saw also comes with an excellent introduction by translator Jenny Lewis.
We are urged to read the notes, and they are certainly helpful. I ended up regretting the lack of breadth in my reading – there is so much I have yet to acquaint myself with – but please, I beg you, don’t let this put you off. This is a work that rewards returning to again and again. It is fierce in its denouncement of violence and fierce in its love of homeland, though we are advised to bear in mind that ‘the government is not the nation’. Not knowing Uruk’s Anthem, I found myself wondering if these extracts are inherently fragmentary. This is a very human way of processing what violent suppression does to people. Many refugees who arrive on our shores, having escaped war and other unimaginable horrors, have memory blackouts and flashbacks. It’s one of the symptoms of PTSD.
Let Me tell You What I Saw is both witness account and a deep insight into what it means to be an exile and living in fear – ‘We carry our mats like a country/and fold them quickly/whenever security forces raid us’. This is a poetry of brokenness and longing. There are echoes of Blake when Al-Sayegh talks about ‘aging like a house in the palm of the hand’. But he chooses life and love over the absurdities and horrors of oppression. History repeats itself, and yet beauty is always painfully close where ‘morning is a mood of sparrows’ and there is a fragrance of ‘myrtle, henna/candles/and bullets’. Our actions outlive us, whether we are snipers or poets. ‘Can a man be killed who is carrying flowers?’ he asks. He reminds us that ‘each carries between his gripping fingers and the gun trigger, a widow and an orphan.’ When Al-Sayegh says ‘We suffer because poems last forever’ he is speaking for the many poets who have been and continue to be persecuted for their writing. He is also acknowledging the power of the spoken and written word. Poets are feared for good reason.
The sense of loss – of having his life stolen – is profound, as is his despair over the desolation of his home:
Aya ruled the earth
xxxxxxxeagerly blowing her horn
to make everything in her being beautiful
and joyful in the land –
now harvest drums sound
xxxxxxxeagerly on the land
destroyed by the flood
xxxxxxxeagerly by locusts…
He berates an unnamed general:
What did you do to this country?
xxxxxxxxIt can find no trees to lean on, other than your sword,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxand nothing to water it
Everything that was once good and worth living for has been exploited and usurped:
We would have gone on building these lands
xxas God wanted in his Babylonian dream –
xxxxxxwater and prayers rippling over the steps of its hanging gardens
but they destroyed us,
built a prison from our dried blood
and called it a homeland
then said: Be grateful for your country.
Al-Sayegh’s narrative shifts frequently between the declamatory voice and something more tempered and intimate. There are passages that are dreamlike and surreal, almost hallucinatory, as well as snippets of conversation that are reminiscent of Eliot’s Wasteland. Flashbacks are sometimes personal and feature Al-Sayegh’s alter-ego, Aboud. I was reminded of Private John Ball, David Jones’ alter ego in In Parenthesis, another body of work that is both kaleidoscopic and rich with literary allusion.
Let Me Tell You What I Saw burns with urgency. The translation that is rendered by Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida is fresh, clear and vivid. Al-Sayegh writes equally well for performance and this energy, as well as his lyrical intensity, leap off the page. We are very lucky to have this work in translation and I look forward to a time when the whole of Uruk’s Anthem will be made available to us. In the meantime, I urge you to buy this book and to catch one of Al-Sayegh’s readings with Jenny Lewis.
Pat Winslow has published seven collections, most recently, Kissing Bones with Templar Poetry. A winner of several notable competitions over the years, she is currently enjoying commissioned collaborations with film-makers, composers and artists. Pat also works as a storyteller. For more information see www.patwinslow.com and https://thepatwinslow.blogspot.com/
Sarah Westcott’s Bloom reviewed by Ken Evans.
Bloom by Sarah Westcott. £9.99. University of Liverpool. ISBN: 978-1800348707
In her second collection – what the poet refers to as the ‘sister’ to her first, called ‘Slant Light’ – Westcott sets out her intention from the first line of the opening poem:
‘Have you looked,
Have you looked deeply –
the feeling is what I mean.’
Her subject is the natural world, and how it bleeds into us and we, into it, in almost osmotic exchanges. ‘The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches,’ wrote US poet Lisel Mueller (‘Monet Refusing the Operation’). Westcott dramatises this transformative exchange in detailed language, which accepts its own failure, ultimately, to explain all the mysteries and complexities of the natural world, as it is: ‘Language: a barrier, a raft of sticks, a child with a nest in his / hands /’ (Apples).
Westcott blends dynamic, sensual language with the scientific, which reminded me of plant scientist poet, Sarah Watkinson. ‘April: frothing and foaming, / cuckoo spit dripping from its mouth. / Cellular thrumming in wet light.’ In ‘Cherries’, the skin, that is both the fruits’ own and also seemingly, the narrators, might break, and contain ‘glistening drupes’, a botanical term for a seed or nut. In ‘Princess’, flowers have ‘gracile’ heads, a term drawn from anthropology.
But whereas in Watkinson’s work, the empirical scientific lens always ‘frames’ and therefore detaches, the poet-narrator of ‘Bloom’ seems to almost bodily flow, meld and join with the natural world. As in the poem ‘Dancer’ where, ‘my brain is millions of buds picked out against the air, / I am a shape of chemical channellings, electrical lengths, / impenetrable and porous.’ The experience is visceral, with a consciousness of the mutability of skin, blood, bone and milk (as in a poem about breast-feeding, where ‘All night he’s on me like a lamb / and it is a love act, this feeding / fit to his wet mouth, his baby guts, / sucked nest from the heart.’ Later, the startling awareness the child is, literally and metaphorically, ‘swallowing me’ (Breast).
In ‘Songbird’, Westcott’s homage to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird/Romantic poet/narrator share a tender touch, ‘I hold your voice lightly in my throat, / no space in the note but itself – oh, touch my body tenderly…the tone / like an egg, line-less and unbroken – our throats skinned open and trembling.’
This intense dissolution between observer and observed is a kind of union that is fleeting and sacred, a membrane pierced, but also entering the poet, subcutaneously, in an almost mystical way. As well as the lamb, there are references to a cross and holly. But whereas in the nature poetry of John Glenday, say, in his Mariscat pamphlet on his birthplace and returned to home, the Firth of Tay, (‘The Firth’) Glenday sees Nature with a capital ‘N’, as metaphor, teacher, and parable, and the angle of his ‘voice’ is therefore observational but outside the experience, Westcott’s narrator-poet seems to commune and dissolve into the natural environment, or at least, seeks to: ‘Into mutability, something held back between the pools & the / working river & lets me half in, I sit with rabbits to eat –.’ In ‘The Field’, this immersive, shifting, restlessness of the natural, ‘Always the beat of blood, drawn through the world’, is emphasised through frequent use of the em-dash, ten usages, in ‘Birdsong’ alone, for example. In its capacity as a punctuation device to suggest both interruption and amplification, it seems to create a simulacrum of a bird’s forever nervy, twitching song, as well as suggesting the way our own auditory attention is wrestled with and then slips on in a barrage of bird voices, each grabbing at our attention in stops and starts, as we listen and try to distinguish one from another, before moving on.
This close inter- and intra-connectedness with, and of, nature, could become a little too performative, ‘showy’ and pantheistic, as the appeal to the loss of self-consciousness in dissolution in nature reveals itself as its polar opposite, an acute solipsism. Westcott skilfully avoids this trap, by rooting her poems in actual events (the response in floral tributes to the death of Princess Diana, for example); or in ‘Breast’ (about a new mother’s experience of feeding a baby); or in Desert Holly, where the poet approaches the horrors of a ‘mass shooter’ in the US, through an art installation about the event, in which the perpetrator killed randomly at a Las Vegas rock concert.
Image and an exact precision and sincerity of expression also help avert the dangers of the overblown, fey, whimsical or abstract. In ‘Common Orange Lichen’, the lichen is compared to Scotland’s sugary, fizzy drink, ‘Irn-Bru’ and a ‘fry-up on the roof’. It’s stubborn clinging to stone and other surfaces is ‘mulish’…’mottled underparts like bark, / so choral I would like to join your choir.’ In ‘Spring Fragments’ ‘I see one aeroplane/the contrails break into genetic code/ chromosomes opening into further forms/up the cow parsley comes.’
This second of the Westcott’s ‘sister’ collections shows us a powerful nature poet unafraid of a bolder reach in expression, where we are ‘one layer of carbon’ (‘The Turn’) among so many others in nature, but one grounded in the particularity and exactitude of that world.
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.
Patrick Cotter’s Sonic White Poise reviewed by Mat Riches
Sonic White Poise by Patrick Cotter’. €12.50. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1-910251-84-3
Sonic White Poise is divided into four sections, the first of which is titled ‘Side A’. It interests me and makes sense that there is no Side B, no flipping over of the record to listen to the other side because the collection as a whole feels very much like there’s something always going on behind the poems that we can’t hear. It’s a book that is on first name terms with some of the ghosts contained within, but also about struggling to hear from or communicate with the living as well as the dead.
However, communication with the dead is often easier in this collection that it is with the living, as evinced in poems like ‘Mais Feliz’, where a pianist records himself playing a song for his distant or departed (as in left, not another ghost) lover, but this a recording with a difference:
For penance he glued sandpaper to the piano keys
— red on the ivory, yellow on the ebony, and played
what had been their song,
He winced and groaned, yelped and cried
with each note, making all the noises she complained
he never did with her, between the sheets.
This sense of distance and the unsaid (and ghosts as well) is encapsulated perfectly in ‘Music for Ghosts’, where the protagonists muses on what to play for the ghosts in an empty house, while there’s consideration of music by Chic, Cole Porter or Count John McCormack, it doesn’t really matter:
But I believe leaving ghosts
any music in an empty house
all to themselves while the dial
of the electric meter spins
is a gift and not only the living,
but ghosts too deserve harmony.
A lot hinges on that use of the word “harmony” as the poem ends on a sadder note, a note that explains why the house is empty in the first place:
when I am sitting on the stairs staring
at the shadows thrown by the morning sun,
as you sleep under stars in a distant timezone.
While the sibilance of that last stanza would be a potential nightmare for any recording engineer and a challenge to pop shields in any recording studio, it is a beautifully balanced stanza. The inner rhyme of stairs, staring and stars works wonderfully, and I may be over-reaching here, but I think the stanzas gradually get longer as if working out from the central groove of a record.
This sense of communication from other sides continues in the second section of the collection, ‘War Songs in a Time of Peace’, and in particular in the poem ‘Dog Morse’. Incidentally, given the volume of dog-based poems in this collection I’m guessing Cotter is more of a dog person than a cat person—not that it’s binary, but we all know it is really.
However, I digress…we can see further hints of music in this poem, ‘The dog down my street knows Morse I swear, / his pitch, his expression as rare as Stan Getz. / I know him by his barks alone.’ In an article in the Guardian about Soviet-era bootleg music being printed on old x-rays (which is almost a tailor made story or catalyst for a Cotter poem in my humble opinion) the author quotes from an expert who states “We need to get out of that mindset that background noise happens at the expense of clarity.” ‘Dog Morse’ is almost the very poetic embodiment of this quote.
The I of the poem talks about hearing coded messages from a local dog.
You might laugh, but last week he barked in English:
The yellow bittern’s song
Enters the dark quadrant
When it is hungry
The yellow dog’s whine
Happens some days
To hit the same notes
As the song of the yellow bittern
It’s possible he is a spy or the instrument of a spy.
That sense of background noise and information offering a new sense of clarity if we will just listen is continued into the third section, Bestiary, and the power of dogs is also present in ‘The Pity of Dogs’ where the sensitivity of a dog’s nose is used to dramatic and frightening effect. While the poem starts with ‘Fresh-cut grass is too sweet for the canine nostril” the poem ends:
Nothing smells new about my master, but one subtle
spice he exudes grows stronger daily, I can smellualize
its black florescence spreading through his lungs.
Each time I lick him now, it is with greater tenderness.
There is so much to love about this poem, even though it has a terrible subject matter, but the coinage of the word ‘ smellualize’ (This site is the only other place to reference the word, and that came in Mar 21, so post-publication) is worth the entry fee alone., elsewhere in the poem our canine protagonist (pro-dog-anist??) uses words like ‘piquancy’ and ‘alluring’, they feel like five-dollar words for dogs, but perhaps that says more about me than it does dogs.
This sense of the unsaid having potentially terrible consequences reaches its zenith in ‘Lost Tiger’. In this poem someone has posted a note on the ‘neighbourhood lost-pet pole’ for the titular creature. ‘Fifi she answered to, / apparently; could be awkward around Jack Russells” However, as the poem reaches its conclusion we get a sense that this could all be a hoax or worse:
Maybe it’s not a prank, but an intimation of wretchedness
by someone so outcast they never had a pet to lose — so imagined one
and, to sense belonging, posted the loss of their imaginary tiger?
I dialled the number — a real one. It rang and rang and rang.
The sense of a connection missed is palpable in the ringing out of the telephone and begs so many questions. The number may be real, but was the reason for its existence genuine? As the protagonist says, was the tiger ever real or a symbol/manifestation of a deeper disconnection from the world?
For all this talk of missed conversations, mis-directed chatter and misunderstandings, the poem that I think is perhaps the finest work in the collection, ‘The Isle of Langette’, is to be found towards the end of the fourth section, ‘The Lee Road Codex’.
In Cotter’s own words, the poem “recounts the narrative of an explorer who seeks out a lost world [of the tongue eaters], when he gets there he describes the occupants in the language of occidentalist exoticism. The story does not end well for him.”
Having travelled far and found the ‘tongue eaters’, our protagonist spends several weeks in their company and is treated like royalty before blurting out “how I would tell the world / of the glory and detail of their recipes.’
They scissored out my tongue and spooned it back to me
as a smoothened salve. “Consuming its goodness
will stop the stump from inflaming,”
they said in purring tones, in their own language
I came to understand after many, many years.
The final note of warning that we should learn to hold our tongues, and that there are lessons that need learning when we try and impose our own way of thinking on others is as relevant now as it has ever been and asks the question of where else we should be looking and asking the same thing.
There is a strong argument that we leave a Patrick Cotter poem with more questions than we went in with, and we didn’t always know we had those questions in the first place. That may well be a definition of poetry that I can get on board with.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (They don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for HappenStance, The High Window, London Grip and The Friday poem. He has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. He’s on Twitter as @matriches and blogs at Wear The Fox Hat.
Jean Atkin & Katy Alston’s Fan-Peckled – twelve old Shropshire words in poems and pictures reviewed by Pat Edwards
Fan-Peckled – twelve old Shropshire words in poems and pictures by Jean Atkin & Katy Alston. £12 . Fair Acre Press. ISBN 978-1911048497
Having recently been involved in collaboration with a musician, I have first hand experience of the challenges of working with another creative. I also know what an utter joy it is when it works and you feel both parties were honoured and enabled to shine. This is clearly the case in Fan-peckled, a collaboration between poet Jean Atkin and artist Katy Alston, in which twelve old Shropshire words are written about and illustrated.
Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press has done a wonderful job in producing a perfectly square volume which does justice to the fine pictures, which I think must have originally been pen and ink drawings. Each poem takes inspiration from The Shropshire Word-Book, A Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words by Georgina F Jackson, first published in 1879.
I thought I might play a game of hazarding a guess at the meanings of the twelve words but most proved elusive. I did manage to guess the onomatopoeic ‘clicket’, the fastening for a gate, and I guessed ‘keffel’ which is like the Welsh for horse. Each word takes the reader straight to old country places and practices, to birds, animals, myths and preoccupations. In ‘Buts and Feerings’, it’s “the gold rustle of next summer’s wheat”, soon echoed in ‘Lady-with-the-Ten-Flounces’ by the goldfinch with “her yellow dress and rustles in the hedge/like silk in the small hours.” It’s worth noting that this poem is one of six which are written favouring stanzas of three lines, and is the only one in which Alston’s illustration carries very bright, vivid colours.
My favourite illustration is the one for ‘Clicket’, which gets deliciously close up to the detail of metal, screws and wire, matching the poetry, “the gate’s clicket rings like a small, high bell”. That’s exactly it, how it reminded me of those bells on a bicycle and the mechanism engineered for ease of use.
In Fan-Peckled Atkin brings to mind all the spotty markings and imperfections of nature in a poem that cries to be read aloud so we can hear its sounds: ‘speckled’; ‘tickled’; ‘freckled’; ‘crinkled’; ‘barnacled’; ‘wrinkled’; ‘cuddled; ‘pickled’. The story of the ‘Keffel‘ is heart-breaking, the poor old horse hauling “seven tons of Shropshire cheese” along the canal until he falls. ‘Talking to Mommets’ evokes the church bells that have fallen silent amongst the ruins, vanished like these old words. ‘Geolitudes’ uses repetition to good effect, reminiscent of the relentless rain that warns of a future full of flooding.
In ‘Shalligonaked’, a word for a thin jacket unsuitable for wearing in bad weather, the mood is one of strange ambiguity; is the red grouse hunted by a woman in the snow, or is she some kind of owl-like creature, “her neck rotated and/ her gaze was hooked and fierce”? We encounter another type of bird in ‘Glid’, the red kite which “draws the shape of the hill-edge on the sky” just as Alston does in her illustration.
Still more rural life features in ‘Noon-Spell’, which we learn is the word for a labourer’s lunch time. Atkin conjures up old machinery and the skill needed to use the tools of the blacksmith, cartwright and mechanic to best effect.
I think my favourite poem in the collection is ‘Barley-Child’, the tale of a woman who has fallen pregnant about three months before her hurried wedding, meaning that her baby is born in wedlock. The poem carries all the elements of shame, rumour, gossip and family secrets, clothed in the imagery of sowing seed and harvesting the barley. Although the poem is rooted in former times, it still smacks of the modern shaming of women and the predominance of men in certain parts of our culture, “I do, she says, and feels a weak relief, as well as nausea.”
The last work in the book shows off Alston’s beautiful illustration for a map, and reveals ‘A Corve of Oddlings’ to be a basket full of odd things. In a final flurry Atkin spills out a glossary of old dialect, like a poem written in another language. Who knew that “Moon’s up, shim-white and trailing hen-scrats” actually means ‘the moon is bright white with filaments of cloud’? Lovely!
Atkin is no stranger to writing about country life, the landscape, its myths and traditions. She writes with warmth and wit and a great sense of respect for the natural world, but never shies away from exploring mysterious and darker themes. Alston’s often muted palette with a mixture of clear outlines defining important objects and more sketchy mark-making to suggest movement and texture, is a perfect match for the poetry. The swish of horse tails, leaf and petal shapes, the wind on barley fields, on water and in trees, sheep sheltering from rain, birds soaring high above fields, place names on maps – all pure joy.
This is a book to return to again and again to lift the spirits. It is short enough to digest in a spare half hour, with poems and illustrations offering layers of detail to discover and re-discover with every browse.
Pat Edwards is a writer, reviewer and workshop leader from Mid Wales. Her work has appeared in Magma, Prole, IS&T, Atrium and others. Her debut pamphlet, Only Blood, was published in 2019 by Yaffle Press. Pat hosts Verbatim open mic nights and curates Welshpool Poetry Festival.
Sunita Thind’s The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems by Sunita Thind, £7.00 . Black Pear Press. ISBN: 978-1910322239.
Sunita Thind is from Bedford and lives in Derby, England. She is a qualified Secondary English and Primary School Teacher, a make-up artist, singer, writer and nail technician. She has a degree in English and History from Northumbria University and her poems have been published widely in e-zines, poetry websites, magazines and literary journals. The Barging Buddhi and Other Poems is her debut collection.
Several of the titles of Thind’s poems, together with the title of the collection, make use of alliteration: ‘The Barging Buddhi,’ ‘Dusky Daughters,’ ‘Mumbling Mamaji,’ ‘Metastatic Maiden’ are just a few memorable examples. The ‘Buddhi’ of the title refers to an affectionate name that Thind gave to her Punjabi-Indian grandmother.
In her helpful introduction, Thind explains how as a female, Punjabi, South Indian, British writer writing has always been for her ‘a form of escapism from the monotony and pressures of living a dual cultured life’. Living in a kind of cultural diaspora between East and West she remarks upon the pressures that are placed upon women to stay within their cultural norms and community, to marry within their own racial group and follow stricter rules so as not to dishonour the family.
The poems in this collection kick against the goad of societal and cultural norms pitching them in the context of an East-West cross-cultural divide. Her subjects include child brides, a Punjabi funeral, the wearing of turbans, Indian food (lots of it) and pre-wedding bridal rituals.
Thind’s choice of vocabulary expresses the strength of her feelings. Subjects such as menstruation, sex and sexuality are prevalent themes within the collection. In many ways, Thind’s poem ‘The Obey Doll’ sums up her argument and is central to the whole book. Here she addresses head- on the subject of misogynistic ideology:
This strangulation you impose upon me, Father,
culturally choking me with a chuni, Mother,
curry the favour of both sides? British and Asian? Woman
and wife? Daughter and Sikh?
Am I a paraplegic to this so-called chastity I must maintain?
Who shall dictate the terms and conditions of my life?
In ‘Dusky Daughters’ Thind explores the issue of skin colour. She poses the question: ‘Are we itemised by the colour of our skin?’ and then goes on to confess ‘I am the shade of fragrant tea that my Dadima and Nanima / slurp while nonchalantly remarking that skin colour dictates / aesthetic appeal./ Why should I disown this swarthy skin?’ She concludes that ‘Pearlised and pale…is not the only ideal, / not the only beauteous ideology.’ This subject is touched upon again in ‘Bollywood Blaze’ where the producers and directors are ‘preoccupied with this ‘gauri’ (white) fairness, / bedevilled by pale dolls, blighting their dusky eyes, / ‘Lightening skin, eyes and hair’ in their dream factory’ where ‘‘Gauri’ is best…’
As a survivor of a life-threatening illness, Thind writes unflinchingly about her experience of ‘the inconvenient truth of cancer’ in a sequence of powerful poems that track her treatment with ‘devastating dosages’ and ‘targeted therapies’ after which she is able to rebuild her life.
Elsewhere, there is humour in ‘Calamitous Curry – Indian Banquet of Sabji’ and in ‘Gawping at the Gods of the Gurdwara’ when Thind writes with touching irreverence:
I have numbed buttocks from sitting on the floor for hours
of the ceremonial hall trying to decipher this exotic
prayer. I am only partially bilingual…
I continue to gawp at the gods of the Guwara in
befuddlement and awe.
In this collection, Thind breaks cultural taboos, takes the lid off repression, discovers her true self and celebrates her own identity.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019).
John Greening’s The Giddings reviewed by Kathleen Bell
The Giddings by John Greening. £7. Mica Press. ISBN: 978-1-869848-28-6
We cannot banish the recollection of past poets from our minds; as T.S. Eliot wrote, in a slightly different context, ‘they are that which we know.’ It’s therefore impossible to keep John Greening’s pamphlet poem The Giddings wholly separate from Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ in his Four Quartets. It traverses, in both geographical and historical terms, some of the same territory with what must be conscious references to Eliot’s poem, most notably in he elder tree’s words “not a broken king” but Greening’s psalm-children, who learn psalms by rote for pennies, are very different from the more mystical children’s voices in Eliot’s apple-tree.
Greening’s Giddings, encompass three linked villages: Great and Steeple as well as Little. The poem starts in prose with a businessman, booked into the nearby Travel Lodge, who walks through the Giddings at night and finds he is drawn backwards through time.. The recent memories he encounters include as the cruise missiles stationed at nearby Molesworth that toured the country lanes – but these are a brief stopping point. His destination, like Eliot’s, is the village of Little Gidding in the 17th century and much of the human life in the poem is concerned with scholar and courtier Nicholas Ferrar. This too moves backwards through time, starting with a fine canzone as Ferrar burns his books in the hours before his death and including the plague which drew him to the Giddings, his court days and work for the Virginia company,his travels in Spain and Italy, and finally his youthful studies and time at court.
But a focus on the unnamed businessman, of whom little in learned, and even on the central human figure of Ferrar ignores the main role in the poem played by the trees. They embody a different kind of history and observe their own characters and vulnerabilities according to genus. This includes loss to such diseases and Dutch Elm and Ash Die-Back. One lone surviving English elm mourns:
We could not make coffins enough for them, the religious zealots
and atheists, the dancers and pontificators, all vanish
from the landscape. As you will, with your over-eager business card
made out of American pulp.
You are asking what became of the community. What became
of mine? You see a few of them, piteous, with drips at their trunks,
or hear of one left stranded; no, a thousand thousand suckers push
up to be heard: We’re English Elm.
As the traveller listens, different trees have different voices and require different formal qualities. The linden tree describing a 17th century barge in royal procession, has a different metre entirely:
The air takes up
a name, a scale,
a humming scent.
These little hearts
in lowland shade
prepare their ticker-
Carve what you like.
Your way is free
But only under
the linden tree.
The interwoven stories of trees and Ferrar make strange connections and puns when the books Ferrar burns become the books of the trees:
The book of the willow, the book of the cypress,
are tear-jerkers. The larch does light verse.
The high shelves are groaning and creaking as ever
at privet jokes.
For all this interaction the poem is built around a huge contrast as the brevity of Ferrar’s life is set against the ‘sure progress’ of oaks to whom ‘civil war / is hardly more than an unfurled leaf’. There can be no simple conclusion from this contrast but the terrain set out before us can, with pleasure, be repeatedly explored.
Kathleen Bell’s most recent pamphlet, Do You Know How Kind I Am?, is an exploration of voices in lockdown and has been published by Leafe Press. Her first full collection, Disappearances, is due from Shoestring later this year. She is currently engaged on a long-term poetry project drawing on archival research into the life and times of the engineer James Watt, his family and his circle of friends. Kathleen lives in the East Midlands.
Stella Wulf’s A Spell In The Woods reviewed by Josie Moon
A Spell In The Woods by Stella Wulf. £7.50. Fair Acre Press. ISBN: 9978-1-911048-50-3
Stella Wulf casts a beguiling and lasting spell in her beautiful collection, A Spell In The Woods, in which painting and poetry come together in a perfectly balanced honouring of the natural world:
Opening with a seemingly simple dedication;
For all Earth’s creatures great or small,
may we all find balance in her scale …
Wulf invites us to join her on a magical journey into a world where the viewpoint of nature and the creatures that she so dearly loves and venerates take centre stage. We are first guided into night in the company of bats and an owl through the villanelle, ‘Nightlife’, that gives us ‘bruised day dies’ and ‘the wind sighs,’ in a poem that celebrates and laments wild nature and indicates to us that Wulf is disturbed at the damage that has been done.
In ‘Crow’ this sense of disturbance and damage is underscored in the way poet and crow share the same precariousness of existence, separated only by a ‘brittle pane,’ both on ‘the threshold’ and both ‘perplexed creatures.’ The crow, beautifully drawn with hints of purple in his plumage is open-beaked, cawing to the world, demanding that his voice be heard. All of the animals in the paintings have startling eyes; eyes that invite the viewer to see the world from their point of view, to empathise with their perspective. Subtle and spare use of colour invite the human eye to travel through the paintings, paying attention to the red in the fox’s pelt, the pink hands and nose of the mole or the red spotted toadstools so enticing to the hedgehog. There is magic in the paintings; old lore and echoes of ancient tales and the fae world where animals can speak and where it is ill advised to not heed their wisdom.
The titular poem, ‘A Spell in the Woods’, sits at the heart of the collection. The names of the great trees of the land are listed in an invocation, a call to their wisdom and sanctity:
‘Dogwood, hawthorn, cherry, birch,
woodpecker’s larder, roe deer’s church.’
But this wisdom and sanctuary is cruelly destroyed in the final stanza when Wulf breaks the spell and brings us to the violent reality of the modern world:
Chain saw, bulldozer, open sores,
Tesco, Pound World, British Home Stores.
Wulf constantly reminds us of the human interference and destruction that constantly threatens the natural world while also siting ancient power and wisdom with the creatures and their perspective. In ‘Hare Reflects’ the hare is not just witness to creation, she proclaims it and the heron in ‘The Heron’s Cup’ is the high priest, invested with the wealth that matters but that is also undermined, compromised as the final line suggests; ‘gilt will lure him further out of grace.’
For the sheer joyousness of its language, ‘Making Mountains’ is the poem in the collection that delights me most. The mole, that humble little underground dweller, bane of gardeners’ lives is given a feast of words that roll and tumble from him and which are delicious and to be savoured:
We’m roly-poly piccolo dandies
plushy n palpy as pups
roamin the loam, push’n up sods
with us root’n scott’n handies.
The moles are little miners, tunneling and burrowing, perhaps evoking the lost industry of Wulf’s native Wales.
Throughout the collection Stella Wulf leads us into the magical realm where creatures dwell and tell us their stories. However the collection is never sentimental or cutesy. It constantly reminds us of our responsibilities to the earth, which we tend to forget is also our only home.
Josie Moon is a poet, performer and community arts practitioner based in North East Lincolnshire. She has published work through La Luna and has had recent poems published on Ink, Sweat and Tears. Josie wrote Fish Tales, 2016 and A Requiem, 2019 with jazz arranger and saxophonist Alan Barnes. Both pieces are available from Woodville Records. Her collection The Ninth Wave, 2015 is available on Amazon Kindle. Her 2018 collection Poems from the Swamp is available directly from her website.
Mike Farren’s Smithereens reviewed by Neil Elder
Smithereens by Mike Farren. £5.99. 4Word Press. ISBN 978-2-490653-08-9
The title of Mike Farren’s pamphlet sounds playful, ‘smithereens’ is an enjoyable word to say. However, we also have the phrase ‘smashed to smithereens’ in our minds when we see the word, and the fragmentation of things once whole and healthy is a central part of this beautifully produced pamphlet from 4Word Press.
What is documented in these poems is the friendship between two men (one being Farren himself) that began in childhood and lasted for more than forty years before the friend (named ‘A’ in the Preface, and never named for reasons of sensitivity to those still living) died from alcohol-related causes. So far, so bleak, you may think. Weirdly, however, the pamphlet does not come over as depressing. Furthermore, Farren has avoided producing anything too sentimental, a pitfall that would be easy to fall into. I have tried to pin-down how Farren manages to walk such a fine line between elegiac and nostalgic, and I think part of the success is the clear-eyed, slightly removed stance, taken by the first-person voice in these poems.
So, a collection of poems that run in chronological order from around the early-seventies up to somewhere around 2017, as the friends became men with their own separate concerns and paths in life. Poems that document a particular friendship and locale, run the risk of being nice for those in-the-know but a bit hard to wear for the rest of us. However, there is something we surely all recognise in the tale of lives that diverge as life takes over, we send a Christmas card to those we may think of as friends, but who we know less and less about as time passes. I certainly relate to this, and I relate to the analysis of male friendship that is present, as stated in the poem ‘Grand Canyon’, ‘we never talked / about it, being blokes.’ (Being an English bloke of a particular generation seems a triple blow, in this instance, as the poem ‘Angry’ makes clear).
‘Grand Canyon’ stands as a symbol of what develops in the relationship depicted, the two men increasingly adrift on either side of a gulf that becomes too hard to bridge. Part of the difficulty is that we are pre-Zoom and email for much of the time, ‘I air-mail you’, but also life happens. Farren writes in ‘Green card blues’ of ‘the years when you and I / get on with defining what we are’, and for ‘A’ that means a life of academia in America. Indeed, part of the tragedy of ‘A’ is he beats the odds of his Northern working-class background and reaches Vegas via a Classics degree at Oxford. This biographical information is deftly filtered through the work, not presented in one clumsy hit, but left for the reader to piece together. Indeed, we are in some way reconstructing the life that went to smithereens.
We don’t learn a huge amount about the narrator of these poems, at least not much once adulthood arrives. That’s fine, the focus is the other person, but I do wonder if the contrasting fates might have been further contrasted with a little more background. In the case of ‘A’ we have some terrific and perplexing snapshots of his life, but they are left in the haze because that’s how relationships like these turn out.
There is much I’d like to say about this pamphlet, but I think readers will enjoy the poems more without having too much fed in advance. Interestingly though, the pamphlet begins with a poem called ‘Afterwards’ which collapses the whole narrative into a single poem, and throws up the sobering thought that ‘Afterwards your ghost / lives on on social media,’ (I feel a collective shudder at the idea). Personally I would have printed the poem again at the end of the pamphlet – something that rounds-matters off, but also because when I got to the finish I went straight back to that poem to drink in the narrative arc I’d enjoyed in one hit. The narrative pull of these poems is great, because they speak to so many of us of how life has a funny way of going in a direction we hadn’t foreseen, or as Farren puts it so well in his poem ‘Fewston’;
we sat here, just us two, with cans of beer
and planned the legends of our future lives.
not thinking to factor in the world’s resistance
to plans, and everything that could go wrong
and will – but hasn’t yet,
Notice the casual reference to drinking; as the narrative goes on, you realise that the poems contain drinking almost from the off – the seeds are being sown. Exactly why one person succumbs and one survives is perhaps unfathomable, but Farren offers enough to make ‘A’ and his demise wholly believable and poignant. Indeed, that sense of guilt and puzzlement that one might have as the survivor of the pair is clear, no more so than in the poem ‘Angry’ which marries form and content in a rant about the death of ‘A’, but which also brings together many of the strands that have filtered through the collection; feelings of never quite belonging because of your roots, feelings of what being ‘English’ means, feelings of rage, and a sense of the bigger, wider political and historical backdrop that neatly brings events of 2016 together with ‘A’s Classical education.
I must also say a word or two about the craft in these poems. There is a beautiful restraint in the work, I get an echo of recent Andrew Motion in the clipped narrative style. The poems are highly organised, often set into neat, even stanzas, and that structure is an ironic counterpoint to the life of the pamphlet’s subject, ‘A’, who somehow in his seventeenth year leant on a plate glass window and shattered “everything to smithereens” (St Malo, 1980) – the foreshadowing is there for all the readers, but as Farren knows, the signs are hard to spot when you are at the epicentre your own chaos.
Neil Elder won the Cinnamon Press Debut Collection Award with The Space Between Us, having also won their pamphlet competition with Codes of Conduct. Since then, Being Present, a chapbook with BLER and The House Watches On from Cicero have appeared. In 2021 his pamphlet Like This will be published by 4Word Press.
June Hall’s What If reviewed by Maggie Butt
What If by June Hall. £4. Hen Run. ISBN: 978-1-9996903-9-7
I have been an admirer of June Hall’s dark and amusing poems about Parkinson’s Disease since I met ‘Funny Devices’ and ‘Fine’ in her first collection The Now of Snow (2004). The pamphlet What If brings them together for the first time in a moving, illuminating and unexpectedly funny collection.
June was diagnosed with PD at the age of 48 when she had two small children. These poems chart the shock, fury and sometimes despair of living with an incurable, degenerative disease, but they do it with the wit, charm and acerbic humour which is a hallmark of June’s writing. The poems are peopled with doctors who offer their ‘malediction / things will get worse.’ When she complains of pill-induced confusion the doctor says, ‘If I held back on every drug that causes confusion Mrs M, / I shouldn’t be prescribing at all.’ And June watches as his ‘suit grows darker, his smile / wider as it cracks around the mouth.’
Other characters include her own alter egos Mrs Muddles, Mrs Dribbles and Mrs Wobbly as she unflinchingly catalogues her own worsening symptoms: ‘bent limp, slouch / and crooked mouth,’ ‘skin twitching / hand rolling, foot jerking,’ ‘ the journey of a thousand backward limps,’ ‘the salty beard foaming round her chin, ‘ her ‘scrambled’ slurred voice, ‘leaky bladder,’ and insomnia ‘down the long, blind alley of night.’ She tells us the ugly truth, ‘Pain steals the night. My hand’s not mine, / the leg that drags is made of clay.’ She shakes and falls. ‘On the hard floor-tiles / she feels broken in a million pieces – like her pride.’ She has become a ‘broken, clockwork doll.’ Except of course that she still has her words, her sharp intelligence and her ability to laugh at herself:
Don’t dribble on your cashmere, dear.
Don’t stain the wool.
Don’t shiver ¬– that’s a sign of fear.
Don’t be a fool.
Don’t mumble in your beer, dear.
Plain speech is the rule.
She parodies Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ in her wry and chilling poem, ‘If I had Pills Enough…’ here quoted in full:
Had I the dopamine to waste,
and no regard for time’s great haste,
I’d wink and dance and have a fling –
you’d find me up for anything –
but at my back these days I hear
new blister-packs pop at my ear.
With dribbling chin, stiff limbs, lost tone
am I still me? For long? Not known.
Hall’s appreciation of the natural world is undimmed by her illness:
Cloud fans down the valley,
darkening the patchwork of pink soil, copper fern
and emerald larch stitched
with a scattering of lambs
behind which the black mountains bare their backs
to the spring sky.
It is this blend of acute observation both of herself and the world around her which she brings to the finely crafted, hilarious and fabulously angry villanelle, ‘Fine’ which concludes:
My body shakes, it’s in decline,
mouth drools, arm cramps, nerves knot and fray.
I know you want to hear I’m fine…
Well bugger off. I want to whine.
This collection is irrepressibly funny, heartbreakingly honest and fiercely defiant. Her character shines through the poems. Has she been beaten by her illness? ‘Not me. Not yet.’
Maggie Butt is an ex-journalist and BBC documentary producer, turned poet and novelist. Her sixth full collection is everlove (The London Magazine Editions) 2021. Her poetry has escaped the page into a mobile phone app, choreography, and film-poems. She has judged a number of international poetry competitions and taught creative writing at Middlesex University for thirty years. Her novel The Prisoner’s Wife was published around the world in 2020 by Penguin Random House under her maiden name Maggie Brookes.
Poems for the Year 2020 – Eighty Poets on the Pandemic reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Poems for the Year 2020 – Eighty Poets on the Pandemic edited by Merryn Williams. Shoestring Press. £10.00. ISBN: 978- 1912524 90 7
One consequence of the Pandemic has been an explosion of poetry. It may have been that people have been ‘hurt’ into producing poetry, or possibly that they have had more time on their hands as a result of lockdown. Certainly, masses of poems have appeared in print and online so that Merryn Williams is to be congratulated on sifting through so many of them to create this collection. We are very close to the events of last year and the impact of Covid-19 is very far from over so this collection must be regarded as product of the times rather than a review of them, and as a reflection of the first shock of this new plague rather than of the ongoing circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Merryn Williams is an authority on Wilfred Owen and the poetry of the First World War so that she must have been making connections between the poems produced from the trenches and the work which is being published now. Then and now, there was a lot of dross, and the category of poetry could include anything from satirical doggerel to high art. All of these have their place as human responses to extreme conditions or events and continue to have value, particularly for historians. It seems to me that the value of this book lies in its nature as a snapshot or cross-section of our experience of the pandemic, rather than as any sort of definitive ‘best pandemic poems’ anthology.
Much of pandemic writing can be divided into the categories of rant or bleat, political or personal. There are several splendid political rants here which gain force from their lack of subtlety. Anon, Scotland attacks the irresponsibility of those who fail to social distance in rollicking semi-dialect rhyme:
Mary had a little bug
The one they call Corona
She caught it at a Catch-up
Wi her pals, Yvette and Shona.
Who else was there?
“I dinnae care:
We’ve no been oot fur weeks”
Now Shona’s blue, in ITU,
Too breathless when she speaks.
The same point is made in Ann Drysdale’s satirical poem about those who thought it was ok to go to the races ‘And later we’ll go on the lam / just like we did at Chelten-ham’. Again rhyme is used to enforce the satirical point. Another political poem I enjoyed was the very funny ‘Blurred Vision’ by Melanie Branton, which uses Dominic Cummings’ ill-judged trip to Barnard Castle to make a wider political statement: ‘We are a child in a car, a man with blurred vision/ behind the wheel’.
The more personal poems vary considerably, from those which celebrate individual initiatives or discover forgotten values to others which turn a wry gaze on how we are now. John Mole presents the dutiful social distancer: ‘See me perfect my neighbourly// swerve and dip/ away from the pavement//or my deft parabola//while exercising in the park,// part virtue, part apology,/ and always with a smile.’ The personal poems which avoid the ‘poor me’ bleat but show us the reality of the disease in society are perhaps most effective. Vicki Feaver’s poem ‘Threads’ ‘for my son, Silas, NHS anaesthetist and rock-climber’ skilfully deploys the metaphor of rock-climbing into the setting of the hospital ward while weaving in a reference to the Fates : ‘ a terrible/scissor-wielding hag//decides who to spare,/ which thread/next to cut.’
It is remarkable how many of the poems allude to or model themselves on earlier poetry. Rip Bulkely and Lucy Newlyn both echo Auden, Bulkely in a reconfiguration of ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and Newlyn in a sinister ballad form. Jill Hadfield writes in Chaucerian Middle English, Simone Mansell Broome leans on Christopher Smart, Chris Jackson on Stephen Spender, Paul Stephenson, in his toilet-roll hoarding poem, on William Carlos Williams and Deborah Cox, ‘never such innocence again’, on Philip Larkin. There is a sense that poets are clutching at previous poems like lifebelts, something which will give some feeling of security in this unknown and dangerous present.
Another anchoring device is reference to past events, either personal or of wider historical significance. Gail Holst-Warhaft in ‘Athens, 430 BC’ perhaps goes back furthest, but ends with the heartening words of Pericles to the plague-struck Athenians:
that the Spartans will go, plague will pass –
you’ll still be citizens of a great city.’
In ‘Anathema’ (sic)Jane McKenna reckons the dead in terms of previous disasters: ‘Ten Hillsboroughs today,/Two 9/11s since we started counting.’ Patrick Osada refers to the Great Plague of 1665 and hopes for a green rebuilding and recovery as London was rebuilt after the Great Fire. Some refer to the austerities of rationing and World War II. This is the ironic conclusion to Rita Ray’s “Meat Market’:
There were rabbits on the market,
Aunty Annie insisted on one with a head
in case it was a cat.
And now the small market animals –
the bats, the snakes and the pangolins
are wreaking their terrible revenge.
Alison Brackenbury has a rather strange poem where a past train journey in Russia is linked to nightmares of the present: ‘Each night I board, in home-locked dream,/ a fearful train.’ Each part of the poem is powerful although the link is a little tenuous.
Brackenbury’s poem conforms, like a number of others, to my rather narrow view of what a poem is, a distillation and reworking of experience rather than an attempt to write down and represent experience as accurately as possible. The latter seems to me more like what is loosely called ‘life writing’. It is perhaps inevitable when writers are responding to something so immediate that their writing will take on the qualities of journalism and reportage. In any case, labels are hardly important in an anthology of this nature which is to be recommended for its variety and its range, for its representation of a gamut of human emotions from anger, pity, fear, love and wry laughter.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Northern Ireland but now lives in Oxford. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She has published three collections, the most recent being The Lion in the Forest( Katabasis, 2005).
Apocalypse: An Anthology reviewed by Oliver Dixon
Apocalypse: An Anthology (edited by James Keery). £14.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784108182
The word ‘apocalypse’ derives from the ancient Greek for revelation, in the sense of a prophetic uncovering of secrets. This was the original title of the Biblical text subsequently translated as The Book of Revelations (the blurb on the back of the anthology makes a nudging pun on this when it suggests “apocalyptic poetry will come as a revelation to most readers.”) Over the centuries the word has increasingly acquired a different resonance, of course: it has come to mean the end of the world or our civilisation, as in the many dystopic scenarios of “post-apocalyptic” wastelands spawned by numerous novels, movies and TV series. Both the Covid pandemic and the impending threat of climate crisis seem to have given birth to an intensified mood of apocalyptic dread in recent years, to the widespread belief that we are at the end of days and that the fate of our world is spinning beyond our control.
Setting aside the fact that millenarian movements and doomsday cults have been present throughout history and that the threat of an impending apocalypse is inbuilt into Christian eschatology, James Keery’s title could perhaps be seen as a timely one for our anxious days. In fact it’s a reference to The New Apocalypse, a seminal anthology edited by Henry Treece and JF Hendry that appeared in 1939, a gathering of many of the cutting edge poets of its day (including Dylan Thomas, WS Graham and George Barker) which was later characterised as the starting point of a movement or grouping, the Apocalyptics, invariably seen as the poetic mode which dominated the 1940’s and which the Movement poets of the 50’s (chiefly Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and Donald Davie) were to react against and critically debunk.
In his Introduction, while insisting on Dylan Thomas as the hugely influential leading light of this “period style”, Keery is also keen to identify a wider strain of “visionary modernism” that went beyond the narrower connotations of the New Apocalypse anthologies (there were three in all), with a longer historical span than just the 40’s (reaching back to ‘The Waste Land’ and Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’) and a more international involvement than just the UK (Hart Crane and Paul Celan are both mentioned as parallels.)
Joining the dots of this broader historical tendency is a valuable enterprise which tilts a fresh and invigorating lens on mid-20th century literature, with the 40’s in particular always being something of a grey area in the history of British poetry. The received narrative is that the fast-moving, mechanistic cataclysm of the Second World War gave less opportunities for significant poetry to be written than the First, and that the clotted, Surrealist dream-imagery and angst-laden gestures of the Apocalyptics were merely symptoms of this unhealthy dearth. True to say, many poets of their generation died on the battlefield before properly fulfilling their potential (eg. Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis); others left London (eg. WS Graham and John Heath-Stubbs) or England altogether (eg. WH Auden and Bernard Spencer ) so overall less books and journals were published.
What Apocalypse amply demonstrates, however, is just how many good poems did manage to get written during this disrupted period and – probably because of its later reputational slump coupled with the scarcity of their publishing histories – how many fascinating poets from this time have been unjustly forgotten or overlooked. Keery’s chief strength as an editor is in unearthing such a trove of unsung gems, effectively sifting the wheat from the chaff and picking out a substantial array of poems which largely avoid the slide into incoherence or overblown silliness which afflicted some 40’s poets while at the same time making a virtue of the adventurous lyrical energy and emotional resonance of the style.
Two aspects of Keery’s editorial choice-making are also noteworthy. Firstly, he attempts a positive gender balance by uncovering a large number of neglected female poets whose biographies are often both fascinating and saddening to piece together (Keery advises us to use the internet for research which is a sensible alternative to a sizeable appendix of notes to an already hefty volume). Aside from enthralling discoveries like Blanaid Salkeld and Julian Orde, one revelation here is the presentation of Nessie Dunsmuir as a poet, rather than as the partner of WS Graham. The first poem by her poignantly hints at the sidelining of her own plans (“I would have chosen children”) to support a poet who often lived in extreme poverty and alcohol dependency, suggesting the complex gender dynamics involved in many creative partnerships. Conversely, perhaps the greatest Welsh poet of this period, Lynette Roberts, (whose husband Kiedrich Rhys is also included) makes compelling, innovative poems out of an immersion in domesticity and motherhood.
This leads on to the second admirable aspect, which is the generous inclusion of Welsh, Scottish and Irish poets in this anthology, reasserting the significant role they played in a movement that was essentially non-academic and decentralised, in some respects an attempt to give a voice to writers operating outside the spheres of Oxbridge elitism and the rational, intellectual, well-mannered literary mainstream that went with it. In a comparable fashion to what was going on in the visual arts in the 30s and 40s, with the renewed interest in British landscape and native folk traditions explored by painters like Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and John Piper, “visionary modernism” was also in many respects a return to the soil, a delving through the “myth-kitty” for symbolic material which (as in Robert Graves’ influential study The White Goddess, published in 1948) often lead to ancient Celtic sources and to earlier beliefs in the poet as vatic seer, his or her life a full-time, sometimes perilous commitment to the Muse, not merely (as the Movement poets came to advocate) a comfortable path to academic tenure.
In this status as poetic outsiders, the Apocalyptics (as well as heirs as various as Rosemary Tonks, Roy Fisher and James Berry, also included here and others not included such as JH Prynne and Denise Riley) could be seen as important contributors in the gradual move towards the more pluralistic, diversified poetry landscape we find ourselves in today. The fact that it has taken us more than 70 years to reconnect with many of these brilliant, neglected voices is suggestive of how the history of poetry is invariably written from within the literary establishment.
Oliver Dixon‘s first book of poems Human Form (Penned in the Margins) appeared in 2013 and his philosophy guide Who the Hell is Friedrich Nietzsche?( Bowden & Brazil) in 2019. During the last year he has had reviews published in PN Review, Poetry Review and The High Window and a poem published in Tears in the Fence 73. As well as being a writer, he is also a college lecturer who lives in Hertfordshire.
René Noyau’s Earth on fire and other poems reviewed by Sam Milne
Earth on fire and other poems by René Noyau, a bilingual edition translated by Gérard Noyau with Peter Pegnall. £12. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-85-2.
The translators in their Introduction tell us that Joseph René Noyau was born and grew up in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. He was born roughly about 1912-1913, and he died on the island in 1984. At various times in his life he was employed as a seaman, a lawyer’s clerk, a book-keeper/accountant, and a journalist. He became interested in poetry as a teenager, reading Romain Rolland and Charles Baudelaire in the public library in Port Louis. His poems appeared over the years in his native island and in Parisian journals. He visited Paris, and in 1950, at the request of the British Council, came to London where he met, amongst others, Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Roland Penrose. After that visit he returned to Mauritius where he lived the life of a recluse to the end of his life. This is the first time his work has been translated into English.
On reading Noyau’s poems for the first time (in the French originals and in the English versions collected here) my impression was of a poet who, from the 1930s onwards, was constantly seeking new forms of expression (moving from classicism and romanticism, all the way through to symbolism and surrealism, then at the end, in the ’fifties, reverting to a more conventional, realist mode). I had the impression of a quester after artistic truth who was always probing, experimenting and finding methods by which cross-cultural allusions (to Europe, the USA, Africa and his native Mauritius) and a cross-fertilisation of styles (French, English, Creole and Malagasy) could serve his vision, even though there is always a sense of ambiguity in his writing in the language of the oppressor (the French imperialists) rather than in his native Creole.
The translators promise us ‘a generous introductory selection to his poetry’ and they praise what they rightly call his ‘integrity and vigour’, his ‘raw clarity’ (more evident in the French originals obviously), their translations bringing these qualities out sensitively and expertly. The selection must have been difficult to collate as Noyau (rather like Fernando Pessoa) published under many shifting personae. These pseudonyms included Jean Erenne, Jean-Claude Bouais, Louis-Aristide Sylvain, Madeleine Thomas, amongst many others, scattered across a myriad of small magazines. Whichever nomenclature Noyau adopted though, he was always mindful, as the editors tell us (quoting his own words) that a poet needs ‘to see clearly within oneself and to draw on all acquired wisdom’. As we shall see, he rarely deviated from this ethos through the whole of his creative life. Let’s look at the poems as they are set out in the volume. The first point to make is that the poems are not arranged chronologically by the editors (though some of them are dated so we can follow the trajectory of Noyau’s imagination) which I think is correct, as Noyau’s style always shifts and changes, as much as his mercurial personae.
His earliest poem collected here shows his commitment to a life of poetry from which he rarely veered: ‘My Life is a poem with golden rhythms… / My Life is a poem scarcely started… / My Life is a poem still unfinished’ he writes. There is an element of visionary innocence apparent in these early poems in such phrases as ‘the music of the inner ear’ and ‘of the radiance of the World’. These poems (what the editors call, rather condescendingly, his ‘First Steps’) show the influence of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé in their strict rhyming schemes. The influence of Fauvism is also clear in a line such as ‘here are blue trees split with trunks’ (in ‘Récurrence mélodique’). This appealing innocence (‘The sky will be the colour of glory and the road white. / The sun like on the first day of creation… / I will take you by the hand to save you from doubt’) is soon undercut by obtrusive experience: ‘But it will be the end of a longing / and the dawn of an anguish / which hopes for the light / of another embrace’. This ironic note, the end of pristine innocence and hope, heralds Noyau’s adoption of a more modernist style, a transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. What Noyau calls ‘the voracious blood’ of doubts has crept in. The new tone of voice owes something to the poetry of Laforgue, Corbière, Paul Éluard and T.S. Eliot (the title poem of the volume, ‘Earth on fire’, is actually dedicated to T.S. Eliot), especially the latter two. Eliot’s voice can be heard in lines like ‘Because faces smile at me / Because the goat goes to drink’ (close to Eliot’s ‘Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope’ from ‘Ash Wednesday’), the marked recursive style redolent also of Éluard’s ‘Tu es inscrite dans les lignes du plafond / Tu es inscrite dans les yeux que j’aime / Tu n’es pas tout à fait la misère’ in ‘A Peine Défigurée’. Many of Noyau’s poems employ this type of rhetorical-musical device. A startling image of Noyau’s such as ‘and the rising day is like a body embellished / by the homicidal knife’ is close to Eliot’s ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’ from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Laforgue and Corbière can he heard in Noyau’s homage to the Mauritian poet, Marcel Cabon:
And then will come the beautiful season,
the season of nights in hotels,
when in the park young ladies
will smile at you from under their umbrellas.
These voices in turn are transcended as the poet develops his own style, particularly as he moves towards his surrealist phase. The first signs of this shift can be found in his first truly disjunctive poem, ‘Une simple introduction’:
Here comes the woman-plank
freshly painted red and white
just leaving the dockyard…
A little nothing in satin follows the automatic dream
of her back…
so white and so extraordinarily plank
After this stage, Noyau then moves on to what one might call a period of‘full’ surrealism (It is an acknowledged fact that Noyau introduced surrealism to the Mauritian literary tradition.) In this phase he wrote an experimental, radical kind of poetry which attempts to surmount ‘this ancient voice we call habit’ (as he calls it). ‘It is fitting to start again,’ he says, ‘and for each one to bring his own special touch’; ‘let us hurl back the fine cloak of morality and religion / let us go back to our core’; ‘cast out the tawdry rags of your empty morality’. ‘Why search hesitantly’ he asks, ‘in these dark areas of the day / the meaning of the summits which escapes you’—‘A sneeze of wind is on its way / take care of your castle made of old fables,’ he warns, ‘Your Lilliputian Olympus’ is ‘made of papier mâché’. Typical of his style at this time is the following aperçu:
In the back tyre of my thought
pxxxx fxxxx f xxxxt
—demonstrating that unpredictability and subject/object fusion distinctive of the French surrealist style. Traditional syntax and meaning remain, however, in poems like ‘Portrait of my sister’, and conventional metaphor survives too even in an overtly surrealist poem such as ‘The angel with feet of bronze’: ‘my train came intransigent / questioning by raising its flag of smoke’. Abiding themes ground his experimentation: like many islander poets the sea is particularly important for Noyau, as in the poetry of Derek Walcott and St-John Perse. ‘I have suffered a lot from the sea,’ he writes, ‘yes I have suffered a lot from the sea / from the endless sea / from the sea which is always the same’, noting ‘the harrowing drama which plays out in the sea and in my heart’, the wind carrying ‘the perfumes of our island’, ‘the salty smell of seaweed and sand’, ‘the frantic flights of white sails’—‘Then it was the song of fishermen which bit into the silence / that song with words which we could not understand’. There is also a strong element of sensuousness and sexuality in his work. ‘I have dreamed of the happiness awakened by your fingers’ he writes in ‘Toute la nuit’, ‘You had raised in me all the pale leaves /Of my past, all the sap of my joys’. In ‘Across the lies of dreams’ he writes of ‘hands drunk from embraces and full of hidden honey’, and in ‘Une simple introduction’ he writes of his mistress that ‘she is like a sweet that would melt under your fingers’. In ‘L’ange aux pieds d’airain’ (The angel with the feet of bronze) he celebrates ‘the white naked body you offered me’, and later ‘the fan of your fingers on my face’. In ‘Terre en feu’ (the poem dedicated to T.S. Eliot) he writes, in a female persona, ‘My wound had the power to close / and open like an oyster / at the approach of his fingers I needed / to be shaken to the bark’—all signs of an unpretentious, down-to-earth approach to sex.
Noyau’s surrealist phase marks the beginning of a strong political conscience (typical of many surrealists) where his verse becomes more polemical, adopting a conscious anti-bourgeois stance, decrying the degradations of colonialism: ‘Love is a region / too pale for our race / so heavily laden with lies,’ he writes, ‘At this degree of latitude / we would die of cold and ennui / if the bourgeois had not invented / the calorific engine of stupidity’—‘you will get burnt for acting the dreamer, bourgeois!’ He develops impassioned pro-independence views with poems resisting imperialism and colonialism, with his resentment of those forces of deracination (uprooted from Africa) very clear in the tone of his poem ‘Sega de liberté’ (‘sega’ is a Mauritian dance-song):
No we do not have totems
but the cord of our navels
belong over there
in the land of totems
in the land of lambas
and plaits on the heads
of your daughters
And the baca flows like water…
to give us this deep-rooted taste
(‘Lambas’ is cotton or silk which forms part of the traditional dress of Madagascan women; ‘baca’ is Mauritian fermented drink from ancestral times.) Peter Pegnall rightly describes this wonderful poem as Noyau’s ‘anthem for the dispossessed’, Noyau himself that it summons ‘our hunger for freedom’. The poet had in mind here the example of other islander poets such as the Haitians Pierre Faubert and Oswald Durand, as well as later poets such as Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor (a friend of Noyau’s, later president of Senegal) and the Harlem Renaissance figures of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Mauritian song and dance, the ‘elemental drums’ of Madagascar, become potent symbols for Noyau in these political poems, with their stress on African roots and heritage (he names one poem ‘Notre ascendance’—our ancestry, for example) thinking back to the proto-languages of the slave ships, the adoption of French rather than Creole or Malagasy, the loss of richness of his own culture, recording the colonial ‘measure of human latitudes’:
…our desire for freedom
has driven us mad
Just like the drum
yielding it skin to the fire
we yield ourselves to our brothers
who fight in the midst of fire
There is also a brotherly connection in the poet’s love of jazz: ‘the forks play jazz on the plates / Real jazz / silver blue shoes glide over the parquet / and shine’.
Towards the end of his life, as death loomed (‘ the spiral without end’, ‘vile leper whose decaying fingers become loose’) Noyau returned to his earlier vision of lost innocence (original sin, for example, was the theme of an early poem called ‘A travers les nuages et le temps’, ‘Across clouds and time’). The editors have decided to call these late poems ‘Prayers’, and again I think this is right, as they embody a mood of meditative peace and acceptance, a feeling of innocence tempered by experience:
Please let my skint hands
wither like the grass for animals
please abolish all love
that is not
my love for you
Such a poem indicates ‘that passage / from clear doubt to obscure trust’ of which he also writes at this late stage, reminding us of his earlier poem celebrating ‘the first day of creation,’ ‘the radiance of the World’.
The aetiology of Noyau’s poetic development can now be viewed then in three stages: firstly a colonial period of imitation, secondly a revolt against that tradition, and lastly finding a post-colonial voice that suited his spiritual needs. The key moments in Noyau’s verse celebrate friendship (which he prizes above art), charity, forgiveness, love, tenderness and passion ‘pulsing in all its fibres’. ‘The current volume’, the translators say, ‘is an effort to reach an audience he might never have imagined’, and I think they have succeeded in that. Peter Pegnall rightly says we can ‘drink deep from his words’.
Gerard Noyau (the poet’s son) ends his Introduction by telling us that ‘Noyau wrote on a scrap of paper that he could not see himself appreciated at his true worth before the end of the twentieth century. Let us hope that this bilingual edition will help in making him better known.’ As far as I am concerned, it certainly has, and he deserves a wider readership. He himself had written ‘it will come the time of true laurels / after all the sleepless nights and hardship’, but at the same time he had added (in the tone of Ecclesiasticus) ‘You speak to me of glory; vain puff of smoke, / bitter bark, fruit bitten into by too many teeth’:
But you must also reflect,
when the time of laurels comes,
that glory is a very small thing
alongside old friendships.
Even if we bear his caveat in mind, that time has surely come:
And when we eat this bread from the earth
when we give it to our children
when we offer it to our dead
the baca flows like water oh
the baca flows from everywhere
in the veins of the earth
to give us the taste of this bread
We owe a deep gratitude to Gérard Noyau and Peter Pegnall for bringing such a fine poet to our attention.
Sam Milne lives in Surrey. He is a regular reviewer for Agenda magazine. He has published two collections of poetry, a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and a critical study on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill. He publishes poetry and plays in Scots in Lallans magazine.