Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire • Fleur Adcock:The Mermaid’s Purse • Stephanie Norgate: The Conversation • Parwanna Fayyaz: 40 Names • Gregory Woods: Records of an Incitement to Silence • Carola Luther : On the Way to Jerusalem Farm • Anna Saunders: Feverfew • Richard Skinner: Invisible Sun • Lynne Wycherley: Brooksong & Shadows • Maggie Butt: everlove • Polina Cosgrave: My Name is • John Short: Those Ghosts
When the Virus Came Calling: Covid-19 Strikes America edited by Thelma T. Reyna
Michael McCarthy: Like A Tree Cut Back
Walter Owen: The Cross of Carl
Derek Coyle • John Wheway • Adrienne Silcock • Rowena Sommerville • Carla Scarano • Neil Fulwood • Hilary Hares • D.A. Prince • Belinda Cooke • Stuart Henson • Sue Kindon • Anne symons • Janice Dempsey • Ian House • Neil Leadbeater • Patrick Lodge • Michael Crowley • Jill Sharp • Martyn Crucefix • David Cooke
Sean Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire reviewed by Derek Coyle
Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt. £10. Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 978-1787332263
There is something so calm, so assured, in this work by Sean Hewitt. Despite the experiences of emotional loss – the end of relationships, the death of his father – there is a stillness at the centre of these poems. Maybe it is the formal assurance or dexterity (in no way showy), that manages to hold the many moods and moments of these poems together.
We find it in the opening poem ‘Leaf’, a series of couplets, and a type of list poem, with the anaphoric ‘for’ repeated across the poem. Both formal components are well chosen for what is a chant and a prayer, a good start to the collection, an overture to its concerns: nature and its energies, time and its losses: ‘For woods are forms of grief / grown from the earth.’ This couplet has a fine line-break, the leap across from ‘grief’ to ‘grown’, from loss and sorrow, to the past-tense of living. The subtle consonance, the contrasting sounds in the central vowels. The poem’s long and short sentences, the line-breaks in other couplets and across them, the end-stopped line. There is an assured pacing here, despite the heavy subject: ‘For how each leaf traps light as it falls. // For even in the nighttime of life / it is worth living, just to hold it.’ This is how Hewitt lures us into his sensual sacred, with these poems as prayers, as hymns to embodied living, the sensual in all its dimensions, from semen to sap – we find it all here.
There is a great confidence in the revealing conjunctions that Hewitt weaves. Early on we are struck by ‘Dryad’, only three poems in. We get a local wood, a memory from primary school, and then late-teen lustful encounters with older muscly men. The wood planted as a primary school project becomes a cruising ground for a later self. The dryad of the title is an art installation – ‘a woman carved from the bole of an oak’ – on the edge of ‘the woods behind her,’ ‘our school had planted […] when I was eight or nine.’ You can hear an echo of Heaney, that poem in ‘Clearances’ when he contemplates the tree planted at his birth by his aunt – a sort of sacred totem that co-exists with his own life. Here the dance is of a very particular and different kind, and the totem pole ditto: ‘kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex…’ You wouldn’t find a scene like this in Heaney, and no dryad in Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and even John Keats, could manage to perceive such a sight either. And this certainly isn’t nature as dreamt up by a Romantic, either Wordsworth or Coleridge, as Hewitt’s sacred conjunctions derive from a different source – and, perhaps, a far more ancient one at that.
It is the sacred source of life itself that is properly acknowledged in poem after poem in this collection, the vital source, the energy that pulses and pumps through us and it all, and which necessarily involves a sexual transmission, however imagined. As Hewitt sees it, trees and men have this much in common. And it is in the lifting of this taboo – and with it the extension of poetry – that Hewitt’s modernity lies. And he handles this subject with such direct deftness that we begin to wonder at the lack of this concern within the world’s poetic traditions, a fact that becomes, ironically, all the more noticeable, and lamentable, by its absence.
What is remarkable is the casual confidence with which Hewitt explores this theme, and which is very apparent in ‘Dryad’s’ conclusion. The poet builds towards his ending with the type of questions a guilt-driven culture might see a self raise in this arena: ‘I wonder if I have ruined / these places for myself, if I have brought / each secret to them and weighed the trees // with things I can no longer bear.’ However, from this low point, Hewitt builds towards his ending, noting how all plants, all trees kneel to the earth (in prayer), how they take up into themselves the life-giving sap; ‘the aching leaf-buds’, ‘the cloud of pollen’, and ‘the shower / of seed’ released by children ‘knocking branches’ – and so, why might we not include ‘the people who kneel in the woods / at night.’ Of course, the intimacies of male to male erotic poetry is not totally new ground: we’ve read our Ginsberg, our Thom Gunn, whatever about the earlier suggestions of that pioneering frontiersman Walt Whitman – a man comfortable enough with the idea of naked men alone in the woods. What’s new, perhaps, in Hewitt is the setting (and the frankness today’s writing permits can only best anything Whitman dared write), the lusciousness of the woods, the flowers and fauna, rather than the more typical glitter ball of nightclubs, the steamy scenes of Gunn’s bathhouses. (And this, despite the conjunction of a Berlin nightclub and a heath, of its cubicle and a gorse-tunnel, of its white pill and a blackberry, in ‘Adoration’). Hewitt does note the chilly damp of his setting in these poems, but it is all to the good when this supplicant has his head ‘tilted up to God / and I am a wild thing, glowing.’
Given his interest in nature, and his sense of at-oneness with the natural world, it comes as no surprise to see Hewitt in the middle section of the book take on the voice of Mad Sweeney, the bird-man figure of medieval Irish poetry, in a series of versions after the anonymous author. In recent years it was Heaney who re-worked this myth for poems collected in Station Island (1984), after his own translation of the poem in 1983, published as Sweeney Astray. This myth has proved enduringly attractive to artists, from poets and painters, to composers like Ireland’s Frank Corcoran. I feel Heaney’s presence again in ‘Evening Poem’, a wonderful evocation of a childhood moment Hewitt spent gardening with his mother, as poet-child and mother repot tomato plants. The ‘not a word between us’ evokes Heaney’s famous sonnet about peeling potatoes with his mother. Hewitt’s poem delivers a sly nod to Heaney, as a poetic peer should, and is in no way slavish or derivative. It has a heft of its own, its solid quatrains Heaney might have admired, the sacred diction (‘apparitions’, ‘heaven’, and ‘dove’) mingling easily with words that accrue a divine nimbus of their own due to Hewitt’s new context for them: ‘stifled warmth’, ‘shimmy’ (a shimmer?), ‘a tealight in a jar’, ‘a paper lantern’, even the ‘apple-blossom’, and here the greenhouse might be an oratory. In fact, across this collection the poet sustains a nimble and deft diction: accessible, fresh, all his own, raised through his phrasing to an elevated instrument appropriate to his subject matter.
The collection concludes with a section dedicated to poems written to and about the poet’s deceased father. A poem like ‘Ta Prohm’ redirects the sacred energies: here the god ‘ringed with incense’, is a she; the setting, ‘the loud, wet forest’, ‘a stifling heat’, and one can pray ‘through unbelief’. And all, in the hope that:
father, only something old
and impossible can save us.
Hewitt can be traditional where he wants to be, handling old forms like the couplet as well as recent moderns like Plath, Hughes, or Gunn; and delivering quatrains as fine as any chiselled out by Heaney or Donne. But, he can abandon all this for the gentle freedoms of ‘Moor’; no full stops, the anaphoric repetition of ‘is’, the lack of capitals, the free flowing form. Given its metaphorical playfulness, this is a poem as old as an Anglo-Saxon riddle. Still, for my money, Hewitt is at his best in a poem like ‘Callary Pear’, its startling intimacies: the striking conjunction of semen and the scent of this trees’ blossom, ‘acrid and sour-white’; where ‘sacrum’ becomes a sacred word; and ‘my body burst its bloom’, a release, and a revelation:
the strain of myself
(almost smelling of another man)
held like blossom to my nose.
Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.
Fleur Adcock’s The Mermaid’s Purse reviewed by John Wheway
The Mermaid’s Purse by Fleur Adcock. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780375700
The first Fleur Adcock poem I ever read, ’For a Five-Year-Old’, struck me as a model of tone and register, unobtrusively marrying vernacular speech with strict form, and in a parallel way, showing us the universality and humanity that inheres in small, everyday actions. In each new book, the poet has produced more evidence of these gifts. In‘Not Quite A Statement’ (Herbert and Hollis, eds. ‘Strong Words’, Bloodaxe, 2000), she offers us a key to the naturalness and flexibility of her poetic voice: ‘I believe strongly in the authority of the voice inside my head (which is an aspect of my own physical voice, although it takes on other personae and accents). On the whole the voice speaks colloquial English of the age I live in.’ To savour the relationship between voice and what is on the page, I suggest watching her Launch Reading from her new collection, available on Youtube.
The title poem, the ‘Mermaid’s Purse’ – (the egg-sac of the dogfish, I discovered) hints of things being other and more alarming than they seem. Instead of ‘actual money’, this purse is full of ‘squirmy’ sea-larvae, alive but horrible to the touch, recalling for me Sartre’s nausea-inducing raw being. The imagination here does not elevate, but evokes a darker depth. The sea’s ‘coloured surface is camouflage;/underneath is black; black and heaving’ and conceals the drowned: a diver’s helmet becomes a rat’s nest – both purse and helmet seem, in disuse, to have been repurposed, not in a comforting way. ‘So where do we go from here? Down, down’. This is collection that like ‘Glass Wings’ her 2013 collection, deals with longevity, heritage, and the turn towards memories and history as life takes us deeper, and we find ourselves conversing freely with ghosts: ’Don’t wait for me – /I’ll be along later’.
‘Island Bay’ brings us back to the surface, ‘the limpid sky,/the sea drenched in its turquoise liquors’, and finitude appears piercingly as ‘Bright specks of everlastingness’, though,‘constructed by my retina/which these days constructs so much else’:‘everlastingness’ is evanescent and probably illusory. The turquoise liquors evoke a 70 year old memory of hunting for shells with a sister, passing beneath the liminal arch of ‘the whale’s great jaw’.
The quirks and weaknesses of memory and of declining senses are unflinchingly observed and noted. There’s a trans-generational panorama in,’The Fur Line’ which lists names of pet cats owned by the family, to show, via changes in naming fashions, how apparently slight whims and circumstances can become the foundations of a solid dynasty.‘Sally and Midge, Pussywillow, Ada’, yield to ‘Tiger and Snowflake, Marigold and Prince’, then ‘Brucie, Melba, Sasha, Lady Gaga.’ ‘All that fluff got into our synapses,/transmitting itself down generations,/ from nerve to nerve, or however it works.’ By the end, her ‘great-grand-daughters/grow up co-sleeping with their mother’s cats’. Note the deft choice of the word ‘co-sleeping’ to bring us up right up to date. By the final stanza, it’s ‘out of my hands; this is the future’. This is vintage Adcock, the tone conversational, the anecdote ordinary; yet the significance universal.
The older person, more vulnerable and acquainted with mortality, finds, in ‘Novice Flyer’, a baby robin, ’surprisingly heavy, surprisingly warm’ – /just getting the knack of being dead’; In ‘Wood Mice’, unable to cast out the invaders ‘nibbling at everything from stationery/to paracetamol’ to the woods where ‘a new life.. has been known to go wrong’, becomes ‘more sentimental/than might otherwise be’, leaving ‘a discreet crumble of toast/or a few peanuts under the cooker/for Big-ears in the night’. In a later poem, ‘Sparrowhawk’, she admires the lethal beauty of the ‘dazzling’ hawk appearing between Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, but ‘quakes’ for the small birds, ‘and for our battered globe’.
There’s political disillusionment in ‘Election 1945’:
The first election I can remember
is the one in which my father and mother
voted Winston Churchill out of office,
and we got the National Health Service –
which gave me an exaggerated view
of what democracy can actually do.
In ‘The Little Theatre Club’, what’s memorable from 1945 are not big political events, but local, often comic details, like the player Edith’s ‘tights:/apple-green, and wrinkled about the knees’. From the 60’s, in ‘The Other Christmas Poem’, naked drunken dancing to the Rolling Stones is tempered by awkward attempts to preserve decorum’: reminiscing over the ‘memorable party’ much later, they think ‘of the camaraderie – /and how our necks had been stiff with the strain/of never glancing below anyone’s waist.’
Mourning what’s lost is everywhere, as in ‘To Stephenie at 11PM’:
One last crumb of family history,
dear cousin, all these months after your death:
our great-grandmother Martha used to say
‘Night brings home all sorrows.’ So I find it.
These wry, unsentimental meditations on a life end with a long memorial sequence on her friendship with Roy Fisher. Fisher titled his own collected poems ‘The Long and the Short of It’. That’s what, in her assured and distinctive way, Fleur Adcock gives us in her satisfying new book.
John Wheway’s poetry collection A Bluebottle in Late October was published by V Press in May 2020. His poems and flash fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. AnvilPress Poetry published his chapbook, The Green Table of Infinity; and a novella, Poborden, appeared from Faber and Faber. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa.
Stephanie Norgate’s The Conversation reviewed by Adrienne Silcock.
The Conversation by Stephanie Norgate. £10.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: (9781780375748).
Step from poem to poem, as if crossing stepping stones over a vast river and you’re in conversation with the depths of Stephanie Norgate’s latest collection . Each poem has a unique surface on which to secure a footing, to seek balance above the flow, each connects.
The talk is of lockdown and of Covid, women protesting, questions about normality, about the environment and, importantly, of grief and the poet’s loss of a much-valued friend in the late Helen Dunmore. These are poems at once personal and universal.
By her own admission this recent work is ‘looser’ than previous collections. Yet the poems are sharp, well-defined. For example, in ‘Miracle’, where Norgate describes the sleeping child, beginning with the everyday image of the West: ‘In supermarkets, strapped / in a trolley’ , then on to the child: ‘in a box drilled with holes / in the hold of a boat, / in fish crates and on cardboard, / on pallets and straw ‘ using rhyme sparingly, thus: ‘on a bed of needles / on the forest floor ‘.
‘To sing of soap in desperate times’ is not only about washing your hands for twenty seconds during the Covid pandemic. It raises questions about the impact of soap on the environment, even about the embedding of history into accepted sanitary brands: ‘Imperial Leather, a name saddled with empire, / whose legacy refuses to be washed down the plughole ‘. But this isn’t pedantry. It’s light and dark at the same time, at times funny. The poem finishes with Gloria Gaynor: ‘singing “I will survive” ‘.
Her poems move through the depths of grief, tell of writing in her garden shed whilst knowing that her good friend is dying, that she wants to talk to her about fuschia : ‘red lanterns, flamed purple ‘ but she fears it’s already too late : ‘Don’t go. Not yet…who will care about the fuschia’s late fire?’
‘Ask the Heathland’ bears the weight of Shakespeare, with strong beats of rhythm. Norgate asks: ‘in what measure shall I walk my grief ’ , without upper case, for there is no beginning and no end to loss, even though ‘the cold day is not grief-stricken’. She talks about the complexity of grief with beautiful and precise language entwined within the beauty of the landscape: ‘the blond marrams of winter / wave from tussock islands ‘, its loveliness even in decay: ‘broken stems glint in lines’. The poem presents us with undercurrents of environmental threat and fragility, too, where the adder is : ‘flicking through the understory’.
See the finely observed detail in ‘The Summoner of Birds’, the conversation the poet so wishes she could have had with her friend – the woman on the beach offering meat and fish scraps to the eager birds. We are on the beach with her, watching, and she convinces us, too, to see : ‘a winged giant …threatening death’. We are left, like most who are in the face of death, questioning.
The poems stretch across wildlife gardens, the memory of the poet’s parents, the works of Salvador Dali and Velázquez. We’re continually enticed by visual images into a world other than our own, inextricably linked to a strong sense of humanity. The title poem ‘ The Conversation ’ is inspired by a long and treasured meeting with her friend which takes place inside a Trafalgar Square café: ‘with the gold of our talk glinting round our feet’ . This kind of talk, the poet tells us, can’t be named, even by ‘ the languages of the world / which find no true word for the talk of women ‘.
Stephanie Norgate wants to communicate all these things, past, present and future, with an artistic eye, with the eye of a writer who cares deeply about not only the personal but also the world as it presents itself. Poems to return to time and again, in order to embrace their truth. Thoroughly recommended!
Adrienne Silcock’s poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies. She recently published her collection Of Gardens and Witches with The High Window. Her first pamphlet was Taking Responsibility for the Moon (Mudfog Press, 2014), she is a featured poet in Vindication ( Arachne Press 2018, six women poets). She has also written novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2009) , Controlling Aphrodite (shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009) and The Kiss (for Kindle).
Gregory Woods’ Records of an Incitement to Silence by reviewed by Neil Fulwood
Records of an Incitement to Silence by Gregory Woods. £12.99 Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1-80017-128-2
Can it really be a decade since Woods published An Ordinary Dog? That work, his then fifth collection, saw him wearing his linguistic fluency and command of form lightly but with a seriousness of purpose one would expect. It was a sumptuous publication, a book to be returned to, its soaring achievements revelled in.
Ten years later, we finally have a follow-up (not that Woods has been slacking: his exhaustive and authoritative social history Homintern, published in 2016 by Yale University Press, attests to that) and it’s been worth the wait, though I dearly hope that the next Gregory Woods collection arrives a little earlier than 2031!
Records of an Incitement to Silence functions as a sort of interrupted sequence, albeit one whose implied narrative and chronological thread is rendered deliberately obscure. All but six of the 77 poems utilise the sonnet form. The vast majority of these unrhymed sonnets, freed from the constriction of pentameter, adhere to effectively short lines: “stripped down sonnets” as the back cover copy deems them.
Here’s one in full, by way of an example:
He walks around the city
at night, available
to all approaches, his
unbuttoned shirt a mere
suggestion of diversions
on offer to the bold.
His love of company
is what delivers him.
When he goes home to bed
he dare not go alone.
Like all his meals, his sleep
demands a quorum of
at least a pair. This need
of company defeats him.
This poem, titled ‘Company’, awaits your pleasure on page 19, about a third of the way into the collection’s first half. Eighteen pages later, this first section drawing to its close, we have ‘Disturbance’. Again in full:
He walks around the city
at night, his footsteps sharp
on cobblestones, his thoughts
like bats between the eaves.
He whistles to himself
as if afraid of silence
— or aware of it.
When he goes home to bed
his dreams express themselves
out loud, soliloquies
in which he has no say,
white-water rafting down
the stream of his unconscious.
In between ‘Company’ and ‘Disturbance’ are three other sonnets which take the same first line and a half of the octave and the same first line of the sestet. This creates a run of stripped down sonnets through which an echo resonates. Woods employs similar, and often far more subtle, devices throughout the collection. Places and memories of places are evoked: is “the sandstone farmhouse, now / a bed-and-breakfast” (‘Homecoming’) the same place where a silhouette beckons “against the open doorway, / a little darker than / the universal dark” (‘Blackout’)? Would a few steps through that doorway bring us to the umbrella stand in which the protagonist of ‘Visitors’ “propped his rifle” and waited for the partisans to arrive? Would the stairs take us to a bedroom where a “wardrobe looms above / the bed, sarcophagus / of nightmares, silent and / forbidding” (‘The Wardrobe’)?
Encounters abound, sometimes erotic, sometimes regretful, sometimes ambiguous. A cityscape looms large: there’s a harbour, a railway station, spartan apartments, anonymous rooms; a funicular railway ascends the city walls; political instability seethes; military activity is prevalent, men and materiel on the move. You get the sense, turning each page, that you might be asked for your papers or to account for your movements at any moment. Woods’s conjurations are elliptical, smokily atmospheric; cinematic if one takes Resnais, Robbe-Grillet and perhaps Costa-Gavras as one’s touchstone.
Woods’s confidence in obscuring the sequence’s chronology is to be applauded. He trusts the reader not only to recognise the interconnections and echoes and reverberations, but to appreciate that the isolation of minutiae – the Edward Hopper-like capture of single but intensely weighted moments – is vastly more important than the linear presentation of a series of scenes or episodes. There is a story here, but one’s enjoyment of Records of an Incitement to Silence would arguably be diminished in trying to seek it out. These are the things that are important: the hanging of a jacket on the back of a chair; a man looking across the city from a balcony as his lover slumbers; the silence after a train passes; an avenue of lime trees; a photograph in a wallet. These things lingered in my mind after I read the collection for the first time, and re-emerged as its defining textures on subsequent readings.
And what of the poems which interrupt this extended, fractured, haunting sequence? Well, two of them are very long and showcase Woods’s propensity for, as he puts it himself, “the wringing-out of a single form until it’s bone dry”. ‘Hat Reef Loud’, a seven-page investigation into language, sound and the relationship between man and dog, contains only monosyllables; while the ten-pager ‘No Title Yet’ uses alternating lines of iambic pentameter and dactylic trimeter to tell an essentially pointless and silly story (come for the metrics, stay for the Brian Rix farce). These self-imposed challenges would reduce a lesser poet to the most hideous contrivances within a page; an adequate poet would emerge from the linguistic contortions fetid with the ordure of show-offery. Woods just makes it look like another day at the poetry factory, albeit one where he racked up a fair bit of overtime.
Elsewhere, he delivers a prothalamion (‘A Knot’) whose rhymes riff on the couple’s names (Tim and Peter):
Crack open the champagne! Ignite saltpetre!
No artificial war of words can dim
The luminescence of tonight’s partita:
Each husband’s husband counterpointing him …
Towards the end of Records of an Incitement to Silence, a book whose nuances, rhythms and recapitulations approach the exigency of raison d’être, Woods cuts loose with ‘Dream Midnight’:
At midnight, one midnight in ‘72,
I wandered the city with nothing to do.
I wandered the city as if I were dreaming,
The blood in my temples insistently drumming.
The doing of nothing took most of the night,
So slow was my progress downwind of the light.
So slow was my progress i thought I was dreaming,
The blood in my temples insistently drumming.
Through another six stanzas, he coaxes the poem’s nuanced but insistent mantra into the reader’s psyche, the poetic equivalent of an ohrwurm. The effect is fitting: by this point in its hundred plus pages, the mysteries and cadences and images and dreamlike fragments of Records of an Incitement to Silence will have set the blood insistently drumming in the reader’s temples. It will have stimulated and dazzled them and left the door open for them to return to a cityscape and mindscape unique in contemporary British poetry.
Neil Fulwood is the author of three Shoestring Press collections: No Avoiding It, Can’t Take Me Anywhere and Service Cancelled. He lives and works in Nottingham.
Carola Luther’s On the Way to Jerusalem Farm reviewed by Hilary Hares
On the Way to Jerusalem Farm – Carola Luther £11.99, Carcanet, ISBN: 9781800171633
On the Way to Jerusalem Farm is the third collection from Carola Luther. It follows Walking the Animals (2004), which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection and Arguing with Malarky (2011). All three are published by Carcanet.
I have been a fan of Carola Luther’s work ever since Herd, the pamphlet she published following a residency at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, came out in 2012. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that the new collection includes many of the poems which originally appeared in Herd. I’ve enjoyed re-visiting them and being reminded of Luther’s consummate skill both as a poet, and as an open-minded observer.
If there is a theme running through this collection it is about the impact we humans have had, and are having, on the world around us. Standing quietly in the background, observing what kind of fist we are making of it, however, there are other powerful forces which include: Religion, Ancestry and the Natural World with all its diverse component parts. Despite this, the poems are never didactic. It’s up to us as readers to draw conclusions but while we’re not guided to form an opinion, Luther is not afraid to use her keen eye in order to open ours.
Using rhyme, half-rhyme, the possibility of rhyme she creates a poetic rhythm which is extraordinary – as natural as a heartbeat and, in terms of pace, these are poems that take their time. There’s no need to rush, no pressure and, as you read them you feel you’re in strong and capable hands.
Many of them celebrate the sheer joy of language in its many forms. Luther is also unafraid to maximise everything a blank page has to offer her. She fills a page in a variety of ways, using white space to great effect and, in some of the poems: ‘Air’, for example words land as lightly as feathers. In other poems, sound bounces back and forth across the page
Nature and the observation of the natural world is often a starting point, but it rarely ends there. As the collection progresses, we come to understand that we respond almost unconsciously to history, our ancestors moving within us like muscle memory.
The Collection is divided into six sections. The opening section, ‘Letters to Rasool’, is a conversation with someone she knows well enough to predict their replies to her questions. Together, they dip back into shared memories, seeing them afresh through the prism of a much-changed world. There is a longing which runs through this sequence. It travels from past to present in an effort to find what’s been lost. Whether this is a lost love or a lost world or even a lost part of the poet herself is open to interpretation but there are little hints that the journey continues when it becomes time for her and Rasool to ‘send our little capsules of tomorrow out out / into another year’, from ‘On Impermanence’.
‘Herd’ comprises the fourth section of the collection and in the Afterword to the pamphlet, Andrew Foster, Literature Office of the Wordsworth Trust, says of her: ‘she has a remarkable facility for imagery that is rooted in the visual but is capable of great imaginative leaps.’ I could not agree more and yet there is no fear of falling if you leap with her. These poems are rooted in the natural world but in ‘Losing the Swan’, our world intrudes: ‘a fighter-jet corkscrewed in, split / second before its sound, and slit the day’. In ‘Theft’ it is man who is intruding:
…do creatures and trees not need
what I need, to be left alone, to be unseen, sometimes, in
order to be
The section entitled Falling through Air is a celebration of lightness. In Commerce, Madrid, 2012 ‘Geese heave their huge hearts of over the city’, while in ‘Pending Asylum’, there is connection as well as tension:
I feel for them all: the bees, the fish, the flies,
sometimes the unknown faces that belong
to this city’s legs.
‘Between Visits’, Section three, is an observation of the vast range of human emotions. ‘Birthday at Emily Court’ plays out almost like a skit but a subtle, sombre tone is struck in ‘Watching over you in clinical light’ which focuses on a beloved who is clearly in the throes of a serious illness ‘you wanted to touch / to hold my face to your face so that we could go / backward.’
The final section of the book is entitled ‘Possibility of Horses’ and in it horses stand ‘still as tables laid with cloth – ‘Today is blue like blue used to be’. Here again, the poems sway gently in tune to the cycle of life.
So skilful is Luther’s ability to blend and meld ideas that, even when we are looking at 21st century turbines ‘… there’s longing in those arms going nowhere’ – ‘The Escape’. In this poem we are experiencing something intrinsically bound up with everything that has come before and, in the final line:
there are azure strips out to sea
and the position of purple and pink
are changing places
Having been an early fan, Luther’s later work is more expansive, more assured in terms of layout and form and so, I’m going to allow the last word to the poem which struck me most in The Opening Mountain section because I think it encapsulates what this collection is essentially about. ‘Perhaps Narcissus’ explores the angles we chose to perceive the world around us. Maybe he was just gazing lovingly at himself or did he see ‘…the world upside down, fragile, easily disturbed.’ He may even have been gazing into the depths of the pool or:
perhaps Narcissus fell in love
with idea made image. Suddenly perceived
his pool both mirrored life and lived
Hilary Hares lives in Farnham, Surrey. Over 200 of her poems have found homes online and in print including Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Stand and South. She has an MA in Poetry from MMU and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon sells in support of Winchester Muse. She won the Christchurch Writers’ Competition 2013 and Write By The Sea Festival Competition 2018. Her latest pamphlet, Red Queen, is available from Marble Poetry. http://www.hilaryhares.com
Parwanna Fayyaz’s 40 Names reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
40 Names by Parwanna Fayyaz. £10.99. Carcanet.ISBN: 978 1 80017 107 7
This is a powerful collection of poems by a poet born in Afghanistan, whose collection has accidentally gained even further resonance – as though such were needed – through recent events in that beautiful but ill-fated country, whose history seems to be one of constant and bitter struggle. As the book cover says, these are poems of witness – they explore the stories and histories (not always quite the same thing, but always working alongside each other) of women, most of whom have been excluded from education and from any agency in the public realm, and who manage their lives, recount their personal histories, and judge the wisdom or otherwise of actions and emotions, within an oral tradition and within a strictly imposed moral code. Many of the women within these poems pay a very terrible price for ‘wrong’ actions or emotions, sometimes with a lifetime of unhappiness or regret, sometimes with their actual lives. The collection is arresting – all readers with any imagination at all will be introduced to an unfamiliar personal and geographical landscape, and – it must be said – will be forced to confront some very harsh realities.
Fayyaz herself has grown up and been educated within Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and is currently a Research Fellow at Cambridge University, UK. She explains that she ‘grew up among women who never went to school’ and says ‘it was learning English that gave me my voice as a poet, enabling me to distance myself as well as to comprehend the connection with the tradition I was brought up in’. Distance of many kinds is evident throughout the book, it is hard to grasp the cultural changes and collisions that this writer embodies.
The collection is in four sections: ‘Roqeeya’, ‘Patience Flower to Morning Dew’, ‘Forty Names’ and ‘In Search of a Woman’.
‘Roqeeya’ is the poet’s mother’s name, although in the poem of that name:
She has become Chaman Grass’s daughter, Ali’s mother,
the mother of children, or Oo wife.
and this first section addresses Fayyaz’s early childhood in Afghanistan. In ‘Three Dolls’ she describes her mother making dolls for her three daughters:
Mine with a skirt of royal green was the oldest and tallest,
and I called her Duur. Pearl.
Shabnam chose a skirt of bright yellow
and called her doll, Pari. Angel.
And our youngest sister, Gohar, chose deep blue fabric,
and named her doll, Raang. Color.
They lived longer than our childhoods.
‘The Patience Flower to Morning Dew’ section tells the stories of women in Fayyaz’s family, their relationships, their resilience, their patience, and sometimes their victimhood. She honours them – in ‘A Letter to Flower and Crown’ she says:
Here I measure time in the motion of my feet
crossing the oceans, to write their names,
and to find the knot that binds me to Flower and Crown’s souls –
to give them names so they can rest for the night during their next escape.
In ‘Queen of Sheba’ she says:
In the lonesomeness and harshness of adolescence,
as women, we grew imbalanced, inadequate and unalike.
And the truth is that no-one is to be blamed;
neither this woman, nor those women, nor me.
‘The Forty Names’ section opens with the poem of that name, which won the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. This poem, and this short section, commemorates stories and events in which women are excluded and demonised, or somehow enter a magical realm. ‘Forty Names’ tells the story of an apparent mass suicide or vanishing event, of young women who may have preferred to hurl themselves down a mountain rather than to face an unwelcome future. It has an echo of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’.
In ‘Wolf-rider’ there are distant echoes of Little Red Riding Hood, and also the charges laid on UK witches in previous centuries, that they consorted with wild animals, rode on their backs ‘all night, like one rides a horse, into the mountains’.
In the final section, ‘In Search of a Woman’, Fayyaz brings us ‘up to date’, exploring some of her own and others’ realities, although this was written before the current situation. In ‘Her Name is Flower Sap’ she updates us on the young Afghan girl with striking green eyes, photographed by Steve McCurry for National Geographic in 1985, although the poem alludes to this history rather than spelling it out. The image of that girl became a symbol of the then Afghan refugee situation, of the humanity and pity of it…..Fayyaz cites a comment (source not indicated) on that picture – ‘The light of her eyes can destroy fighter jets’.
She writes about Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, a victim of family violence:
Was poetry to blame?
Regardless, her words gave life
to a new tradition among Afghan women poets
whose words are no longer prayers.
She also honours Irish poet Eavan Boland, who died in 2020, celebrating the two of them reading Nadia Anjuman together:
Nadia and Eavan, a mind and a voice,
I hear them speak, and they speak of truth
That is never irrational or outside history.
They are in their simplest form, like time.
The final poem ‘In Search of a Woman’ seems to find Fayyaz back in the streets of Kabul, although, of course, this may well be a Kabul of the mind (I hope so). She writes of herself searching the streets for this woman, wondering where she could be at this time of day, reminding us once again of how limited and constrained the lives of these women are. She says:
Looking for a transcendence to emerge,
Or a memory to reside, each day is the same day.
I continue to write a poem.
Let us hope that this brave and defiant witness continues to write poems that help us all to transcend ugly truths, and let us hope that in time she will be able to celebrate the histories of the currently voiceless in a happy and peaceful Afghanistan, however distant a dream that may be now.
Rowena Sommerville is a writer, illustrator and singer and lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for all her life, as a creative and as a project producer. She has written and illustrated several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to anthologies and magazines. Her first adult poetry collection was published by Mudfog press in September 2021. She also writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen.
Anna Saunders’ Feverfew reviewed by Carla Scanaro
Feverfew by Anna Saunders. £9.50. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN 9781912876266
Ancient Greek myths have often been revisited by poets such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and others. Anne Saunders chooses a complex path where she exposes the incongruities of myths and, at the same time, reintegrates them into today’s political and social context in an alternative version. Her comments are sharp and unambiguous and she uses a poetic language that is enthralling and convincing. The collection is flawless; each poem grips the reader’s attention, with fresh images and rich language developing a stringent reasoning that does not leave space for banalities. The voice is strong and fierce and is determined to be heard loud and clear. It is the voice of an ‘outcast and avenger/spectre and seraphim, winged god and ghoul’ expressing the darkness (‘What I Learned from the Owl’). This darkness unravels in variegated tones, reveals a stark reality that is often unreliable.
As the title points out, the collection, or poetry in general, might be a cure for a fever, a symbolic sickness of the heart, and it is written in a feverish bout of creativity. As Saunders remarks, ‘I plucked febrifugia,/to smother my flames’ (‘Feverfew’). She expresses power, delusions, illusions and anger, but also releases the negative in a renewed awareness. The poems challenge the traditional narratives, suggesting different views – a rewriting that is not just fascinating but above all aims for change, defying the status quo.
Hades rides, his dark soul sealed
in a gleaming shell.
Who hears the kicks and whimpers
buried in the back of his cart?
(‘Hades Justifies His Off-Roader’)
Countless swans reiterating the story
of the winged and rapacious lover,
one for each night they had perhaps.
(‘Leda, by the River’)
The lyrical voice chooses the Harpy from among the mythological creatures, ‘beaked kleptomaniacs/carrying a stink of carrion’; she is a daring and disrespectful beast who opposes the patriarchal law of Jupiter, who lives ‘above the law […] Tearing the heart into pieces,/just like he cuts up the realms of the sky’ with his thunderbolts.
Love and relationships are also explored in penetrating lines that reveal a disenchanted view that is disillusioned and yet attentive to the different phases and possibilities. Romance is banned and lovers collide rather than meet in an encounter that is quick and temporary, a fight that might leave deep wounds.
The coupling is brief, but beautiful,
and in the spring light, the birds resemble angels.
But oh – the memory of two creature colliding,
that airborne heat,
before both creatures flew off into separate skies.
(‘A Memory of Two Creatures Colliding’)
A translucent man and a woman –
moving in synchronicity, like two damson flies mating
above a lake,
the Ghosts of Intimacy – fucking above my bed.
(‘The Ghosts of Intimacy Fuck on my Bed’)
Love relationships can be shattering and they can break you open. They are made of fireworks, explosions and flames as well as ghosts of intimacy and haunting tenderness, as in ‘Night Crawler’, which evokes the figures of Persephone and Euridice, who go down to the underworld ‘swallowing stones/like hard, grey truths.’ In a similar way, Saunders’s version of the legend of Dearg-Due is ironically expressed in the negative to point out her harrowing doomed destiny, which was manipulated by traditional narratives:
In this version, they lay stones on her newly-turned grave
heavy blue stones, slick with rain water
bulkier and harder than the human heart.
she does not rise and lies under earth like a wounded bird
matted feathers clotted against mulch.
they have lain stones over her body
so she cannot rise.
(‘Dearg-Due’, she is a vampire)
Loss is hard but recovery is intense and relentless. This condition is symbolised by the recurring image of the heron, which is ‘more dragon than bird’ and looks vulnerable and fierce at the same time. These thought-provoking poems make a deep impression. They trace a thoughtful investigation of the narratives of our society, engaging the reader in a conversation that is complex, wide and insightful.
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/
Richard Skinner’s Invisible Sun reviewed by Paul McDonald
Invisible Sun by Richard Skinner. £7.99, Smokestack Books, 2021. ISBN: 978-1838198817
Invisible Sun is the perfect title for Richard Skinner’s fourth collection of poems: it strives to make visible the things we recognise but rarely see. Taking his lead from Viktor Shklovsky’s call for artists to set free ‘the potential of inanimate objects’ and ‘make strange’ our overly familiar world, Skinner’s book reinvents the world we know so that we can know it better.
His eight part sequence ‘The High Street Inversions’, for instance, isn’t obviously about a high street at all, problematizing perception from the opening stanza:
On the wet lowlands,
xxxxxxxxxxxwe are in a fret & haar
xxxxxxof hazy whiteness,
wheeling us amnesiac.
We don’t quite know where we are, in other words, with our vision obscured by fog and forgetfulness: if we are in a high street then it’s accessible to us only through a veil ‘of hazy whiteness’. Perception is a slippery thing, which becomes even more evident as the poem develops. Consider section vi, which appears to suggest that we may be looking in the wrong direction altogether:
The now upside-
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxis a cloud-
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxless sky, a blue
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxOr is it sea?
It takes a mere shift of perception to transform the world: the ‘inversion’ achieved by simply looking upwards turns the sky into the sea, and we cannot tell the difference between the two; it reminds us, perhaps, of the common ground between high streets and everywhere else on the planet, and the fact that our relationship with the world is always underpinned by such ambivalence.
Skinner deals with the issue of subjective and symbolic perception too, as seen in a poem like ‘Boxes’, which opens:
You always hated my boxes.
The black belt box with its gold lettering;
the Art Nouveau tin of mints from Montreaux;
the red marbled box that held a bottle of wine.
The poem’s addressee can’t understand why he keeps boxes, but we learn that the boxes are no longer just boxes, but symbolic spaces in which the speaker can compartmentalise grief, and ultimately dispose of it:
Our grief composes itself in the whole space
of the upper body and comparts itself
into packets, boxes
that only then can I throw away.
The physical boxes are a tangible correlative to the psychological boxes that have important emotional work to do, even though they don’t literally exist. Because there’s a sense in which the exterior world is also interior, it’s important we see it as clearly as possible. Skinner’s poems help in this respect – certainly I doubt I’ll ever see boxes in the same way again!
Skinner finds ‘potential in inanimate objects’, then, and not just boxes. ‘Candling’ sees ‘Mrs Miller’ lying ‘prone and stoned, / gazing at a marble egg’. As an activity, ‘candling’ refers to the inspection of growing embryos with a bright light, so in literal sense we must assume that Mrs Miller’s scrutiny will prove fruitless. However, while a conventional embryo is absent, there remains plenty to observe if you look closely enough, including, we’re told, ‘the red lines of rivers on fire, / the dull glare of invisible suns’. Perhaps all it requires from us is a creative imagination? Mrs Miller has an epiphany of sorts as she gazes into the egg, and the poem ends with the line, ‘she finds the bullet in the bible’. I assume this is a reference to the bible which stopped a bullet from killing Lance-Corporal Elvas Jenkins at Gallipoli (rather than the album by Green Day). Thus Mrs Miller’s insight – that if you look closely enough you’ll see the light (‘invisible suns’) – can be viewed as a life-saving shift in consciousness.
We need to find ways of dealing with the ‘fret & haar’ that obscures our vision, and perhaps one way is to learn to love it, as suggested in ‘Mists’, quoted here in full:
We must learn to love the mists,
the way they waft through us,
making the day larger
turning our skins translucent
to soften our silhouette
so that we no longer
block out bits of the sun.
Mists can enhance as well as conceal – once we have accepted that, we can see things a little more clearly: our skins become ‘translucent’ and the sun, invisible or otherwise, can shine through us more easily. Such shifts in vision and mindset are encouraged throughout this book, not least in the final poem, ‘Winterborne’, which again is short enough to quote in full:
Across the river and into the trees,
the frightened trees,
I am a man lost in space
hurtling through a green passage.
Every false morning is a wonder.
I am here in the world with you,
this white-on-white world,
to see you safely into the day,
to say that you are dead; now live your life.
Here the speaker references a world that is normally too bland to register on the senses; it’s a ‘white-on-white’ world, and while every morning is safe, it’s also ‘false’ and ‘dead’; yet this insight is itself enough to prompt the instruction that ends the poem, and the book: ‘now live your life’. The title, ‘Winterborne’, I assume alludes to the winterbourne rivers that only flow after rainfall, and until then remain invisible (like the sun?) As with most of the poems in this collection, what at first appears obscure, gradually begins to reveal itself: all it takes is readers who are willing to make the effort. Skinner deserves to get plenty.
Paul McDonald taught literature at the University of Wolverhampton for 25 years, where he ran the Creative Writing programme. He has published over twenty books, which include novels, poetry, and criticism, His most recent book is Allen Ginsberg: Cosmopolitan Comic (Greenwich Exchange, 2020).
Lynne Wycherley’s Brooksong & Shadows reviewed by D.A. Prince
Brooksong & Shadows by Lynne Wycherley. £9.00. Shoestring Press, 2021. ISBN 978-1-912524-91-4
Brooksong & Shadows is a collection in two distinct parts. In some hands this could have been two separate pamphlets; yet it isn’t. The way the two halves connect and reflect upon each other strengthens the collection, as does the focus on a small geographical area. The first section—a seventeen poem sequence, plus a coda—has the overall title Brooksong & Shadows; Otterton and the Great War while the second section—fifteen poems, two of which are short sequences—is Path of the Dancing Hare; Otterton and beyond (2021).
Lynn Wycherley has worked in wildlife conservation and archaeology and brings the habit of close observation into everything she writes. This is her fifth book from Shoestring Press who brought out her first full-length collection in 2003. She grew up on the edge of the Fens and I wonder how much those large skies have conditioned her instinctive appreciation of light and variety of shadow across other landscapes. Otterton, the setting for these poems, is a Devon village; hills above and around, cottages below, and a stream winding down to the sea. It emerges through the poems, a significant landscape for the lives of the inhabitants, both during the first World War and in the twenty-first century.
White bird, elusive, winging.
Sky beyond sky,
cyan on its back, heaven-skim.
A village floats into vision,
Peak Hill and Catson,
the river, Colliver Lane.
This, from ‘Prayer for Peace’ which opens the Great War sequence, shows Wycherley’s compressed images, rapidly sketched, a way of paying close attention to the place. The airy lightness of the bird and sky give way to the village, initially floating, but then made precise by the local names. It’s a pattern she returns to throughout these poems, whether observing wreaths on the stone cross (‘Our wreathes are Os, unspoken’) or naming the fifteen men recorded on the memorial ‘Tree of Remembrance’. This naming pins the war and effects of war into one community, where lace-making and farming are the main occupations; this village below Anchoring Hill.
Although the period 1914-18 is the focus for the first sequence, Wycherley brings in the twenty-first century. ‘Landmarks’ opens with Anchoring Hill coming into focus—
calm beyond vicissitudes and cars.
A skateboard’s skim,
Indie-rock, creative, under the eaves.
Fibre optics, sibilance in glass.
reel us in when we drift too far
in data-currents, online haar,
downloaded lives unlived.
The ‘online haar’ of our times becomes less visible than the village and men killed in the war—‘the brook’s quicksilver’, ‘Chockenhole Lane, King’s Arms’, the ‘hoof-ruts’, all the landmarks that the men would carry in their memories. She’s attentive to the music of words—the rhyming vowels in calm/cars, the aural and visual play in creative/eaves. It’s a distinctive feature of her poetry, the musicality embedded deep in each poem.
We in the twenty-first century live with ‘our senses lost in pixels, screens’ (from ‘Making, Un-making’) while the people of 1914-18 were
Saddlers, tile-cutters, herders—
all making, honing, tending
while on the Front
the weft of life sky-blown.
‘Two-minute Silence’ is ‘Not for war but the war-torn’, for those left behind as well as the fallen in battle, ‘The squandered and brave’. It’s where ‘… we are collective and alone/ Here servers, dissenters,/ ‘Theirs’, our own’ , a carefully precise evocation of the emotions stirred in the memorial service.
Wycherley unites her readers with Otterton’s memories in the annual commemoration that persists. War persists, too, and is a consistent theme. In ‘Coda: To the Dartford Warbler’, the poem which ends this first section, Wycherley addresses the bird (at risk, and on the amber list) which shares its habitat above Otterton with a training site for the Marines. Both share the ‘… sedge-lisp, thistle-wind,’ but it’s the small bird that is vulnerable.
The second section, ‘Path of the Dancing Hare’, opens lyrically with ‘Pilgrimage; Park Lane, Otterton’—
on the lane’s tongue,
I taste the late spring air.
No pixels but pollen,
no touch-screen but sky,
no kerb to weave a city,
This is home, as well as friendship. It’s striking how many poems are written for named friends and incorporate the land. ‘As Cattle Fade to Curlews’—a sequence of four poems about the planned flooding of existing farmland to create intertidal habitat—Wycherley explores continuity and change, beginning with ‘…our not-yet-tidal valley/ the Friesians sway home,/ their yeasty smell, hay breath.’ This is part of the life under threat, a plan that’s ‘good on paper’ but doesn’t assess risks to the floodplain. The promise of a habitat more attractive to curlews has its counterweight—
Not your fault this upheaval.
Diggers with hedge-roots
dangled from jaws,
30-tonne roar, skeleton crane
Managing the land is complex and Wycherley doesn’t shy away from the inevitability of change, or from some of the benefits. In ‘A Beaver for a Neighbour’ she celebrates the carefully-managed return of beavers after four hundred years of extinction, something that has the river ‘singing to itself’. The beaver leaves its place in Anglo-Saxon riddles and its commemoration in place names to be alive—
alder in your belly, fletched hazel
in your mouth, your rudder
carving bright arcs in the cold.
It’s positive end to a collection that has balanced the tangible past against the on-screen present, that has looked at wartime history and its reach into the twenty-first century. The tightly-drawn picture of Otterton is built up through both sections even as dangers from an increasingly electronic world threaten its existence.
D. A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her poems and reviews have appeared widely in magazines. Her second full-length collection, Common Ground, HappenStance, 2014, won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A pamphlet, Bookmarks, also from HappenStance, was published in 2018.
Maggie Butt’s everlove reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
everlove by Maggie Butt. £8.99 The London Magazine Editions 978-1-5272-8623-8
In everlove, Maggie Butt explores and expresses her love for the world, from her most immediately personal involvements to the heartbreak of global tragedies affecting thousands. She acknowledges and accepts the complexity of that love – it is not simple, or starry-eyed, or facile – but it is real and it is confident, even in the face of cruelty and despoliation.
The collection is divided into three sections: ‘Torn’, ‘The Fallen” and ‘Fjording’. The poems in ‘Torn’ are essentially ekphrastic, written in response to works by American artist Mary Behrens, in a series described by the artist (as quoted by Butt) as ‘an attempt at empathy with the flight of families and citizens who are on the run from some trauma and/or dislocation beyond their control’. This empathetic approach is successfully echoed by Butt in her poems. In ‘Walk’ she says:
But not this. To put one foot before the other
towards an un-named abyss, following
the stream of people as if there was a leader
at the front with a destination held
in her imagination like a display at a museum.
Walking from. Not to.
and in ‘Hope-road’:
girlsays there’s hope in a road, right?
In the second section, entitled ‘The Fallen’, she explores territory that is closer to home, whether directly personal or directly observed. In the poem that names this section she describes a group of homeless people huddled round a brazier in the dark, and powerfully catches the poignancy of their current dereliction. She says ‘blueflame hurls shadows up once-beautiful faces’ and:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxOne speaks and the sound
is an iceberg splintering. Another replies
with the crackle-and-roar of forest fire.
In ‘March’ she has fun describing an unexpected fall of snow in early spring:
ha, ha, this’ll learn ya
hidin’ up the lambkins
an the daffydillys
Butt employs the ‘putting words together without spaces’ trope throughout this collection, and – as can be seen – in the overall title. For me it became a slightly mixed blessing, I wasn’t always quite convinced that it earned its place and added to the strength of what was being said, but I absolutely think it does in the above poem. Here I think it lends an air of joy, of relish, of playful mastery of the words, and her new coinages give punch and attack to her words. I love the final ‘whitebright’ – I surely recognise the shock to the system of a fall of snow on a sunny spring day.
In ‘The Sunday Night Commute from Bucharest to London’ she turns an observant and sympathetic (everloving) eye on migrant workers (I think this poem may have been written pre-Brexit):
Opening only the part of themselves
they can afford to spend on muscle-and-sweat
the cheap-hostel, fastfood, and overpriced beer
flying towards a muteness of men
hourly-paid and hourly-costed
flying into the loveshorn streets of the working week.
I admire the punchy rhythms of these lines, the short syllables and hard consonants skilfully evoking the physicality and labouring masculinity of its hard-working subjects.
The final poem in this section is ‘The Repair Shop’, a poem which was included in Poems for the Year 2020 ed. Merryn Williams (Shoestring Press), and which I had referred to in my review of that book for The High Window. In it she describes the television show of that name, in which old and damaged items of sentimental value to their owners are carefully restored by experts (not a dry eye), considered in the particular light of the first year of Covid:
And we, the hungry-eyed, watch for a sign
that our splintered world could be restored
by someone with the skill and patience,
the paint, glue, solder or stitch to repair time,
to return us to the days before the age of touch
slammed shut in our astonished faces.
The final section of the book –’Fjording’ – begins with the poem of that name, which celebrates the living of life, with its challenges and pleasures:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxuntil the itch-of-me
ache-of-me, whispering urge-of-me
drives you from your warmbed
to push out a coracle and step
from dryland onto the life-risk,
heart-race, rocking adventure of go.
Poems in this section are a mix of travel and of life lived, with the joys and inevitable losses of both. In ‘You see him coming’ she describes an importunate beach pedlar, but possibly refers to something else:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbut then he’s right
next to you with his sandy feet
and his bundlexxxbecausexxxx you’d almost
forgottenxxxxxxxxxhe comes for everyone
In the title poem ‘everlove’ she begins ‘everything has to be somewhere’ and describes the loss of an earring, whilst also addressing a loved person who has died, ending by saying that their place is now ‘deep in the core of me’.
The following poem ‘Now I must be’ addresses herself, now that her parents have gone, and will no longer be there to praise her successes or to offer comfort when she might need it. She says:
remember to lovemyself
pridepuff at my small achievements
my flocks of imperfections
In ‘Like Music, Like Light’ the theme of ‘everlove’ continues:
Love will find its way in
inhaled like pollen deep into the lungs
prising open the bars of your ribs
brimming with dazzle
The final poem of the collection is ‘All About the Light’, and it takes us through the calendar year, ending with the winter solstice. She finds promise and hope at that turn of the year:
sequencing blue-icicles dripping from eaves,
confusing the robin to carol-all-night
refusing to surrender to the dark,
waiting for the first streaks of light, breaking.
This is an engaging and warm collection of poems, full of everlove, as promised by the title. It is easy to read and to enjoy, both qualities which are a tribute to the writer’s skill and acute observation, and with plenty to make the reader think, as well. I am glad to have read it.
Rowena Sommerville is a writer, illustrator and singer and lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for all her life, as a creative and as a project producer. She has written and illustrated several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to anthologies and magazines. Her first adult poetry collection was published by Mudfog press in September 2021. She also writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen.
Polina Cosgrave’s My Name is reviewed by Belinda Cooke
My Name is by Polina Cosgrave. 12.50 Euros. Dedalus Press. 9-781910-251799
Since arriving in Ireland in 2016, the Russian poet, Polina Cosgrave, has clearly established a strong media presence, along with many accolades, with her debut collection, My Name is. This is a poetry noted for its fresh youthful appeal, as Mark Granier tells us in the book’s endorsement: ‘Humorous, spiky and inventive’. This, however, does little more than hint at the more important fact of her Russian/Armenian roots. Hailing from a city as traumatic as its numerous name changes might suggest – Tsaritsina, Volgograd, Stalingrad and back to Volgograd – many of us will know it best as Stalingrad, the site of the bloodiest conflict of World War Two, as well as the war’s turning-point in favour of the Allies. If we add to this her connections with Armenian history, and the little noted Armenian holocaust of World War One, 1915-1916, it is not surprising to find a collection rooted in much painful history. And yet, this heritage is counterbalanced by her light, often cynical humour, as, now settled in Arklow, Wicklow with a family, she gets to grips with her own past set beside her present self and language, having taken Ireland to her heart: ‘I want to marry the lemon / colour of your sky. You’re full of gold, Ireland. Say yes.’ (‘Say Yes’).
In general, her poems offer a mix of dark, cynical humour along with lighter unalloyed fun. Her subject matter is social and political engagement, history loss and emigration. Along with poems on her own identity in relation to that violence, she also explores how she connects with Russian language now she has left. We then see her passing on this mantle of language and identity to her newborn child.
We immediately get evidence of humorous spikiness in the cynicism of her innovative opening poem: ‘The nearest thing to romance known to men / Was to bring women roses / Stuffed into the flies of their trousers’ (‘A Summer Still Ahead’). From here, she moves to some painfully dark humour on the violence that Volgograd has had to experience:
My people dig up another hundred unknown soldiers.
We will never run out of them.
As long as we have our apple trees
planted by the victors
we will dig to find the inflamed roots.
Each time I eat a black apple
I smile like a still have a head.
But what is particularly enjoyable in the collection is the way she has taken Ireland to heart. She makes us feel with her the way she is transforming herself into an Irish poet, and that, if this is to happen then it will be through language: ‘Nobody ever talked to me the way your do, Ireland. I love what you did to the English language, for in your mouth it is the language of humour and seduction.’ (‘Say Yes’) Elsewhere it is more an absorption of all of Dublin’s city, its people and their sounds, the shopping trolleys that are ‘like sounds of the waves crashing on the beach / a silver sound of freshness’ (‘Metal Tide’), or the more cryptic engagement with Dublin’s ‘music’:
Dublin is a song
in a language spoken by lovers
muddled between the sheets.
It starts just a second before
they stop being human.
One keeps begging for more
of something the other never had,
but it’s working out so well
they choke on madness
and the sound echoes in the hotel room
so bare; waves on a rocky shore,
wood crackling in a fireplace,
wind whistling through heath and thistle
every time their bodies meet.
This is what I heard on Talbot Street.
(‘Dublin is a Song’)
Some of the most moving poems are those to her child as she contemplates how her identity will also be absorbed into this Russian/Armenian/Irish lineage. Her child’s first language is just the coded messages of her kicking inside her, ‘in her native language / Language of darkness and warmth’ (‘First Poem’). Beyond everything Cunningham leaves us in no doubt about the transformative experience of motherhood:
I am your soldier up until I am dead.
you soon will break the prison of my bones.
The second heart in me is getting stronger.
You are the one to whom my first belongs.
The world is yours to conquer.
It will be interesting to see how her work develops as she acquires a more mature absorption of Irish language rhythms into her own voice. At present I found some of the poems a little too driven by the use of lists, though there is no question that she can do this kind of poem well.
One particular ‘list poem’, ‘My Name’, has already been flagged up as an award winner. It is particularly successful in the way it universalises her name with all those from her past, building with its twenty-three long-lined examples such as:
‘The name of an old man whose head was torn off by a bomb and
whose body was left on the frozen soil of Stalingrad,
The name of his wife whose body slowly melted in times
of hunger and cold,
before the climax:
I’m so full of names.
My name is a verb,
My name is to awake,
My name is to destroy,
Myname is cavt tanem,
‘I would take away your pain’,
Say it like it’s yours.
No question, this is fresh, lively new voice that hasn’t failed to be noticed.
Belinda Cooke completed a PhD on Robert Lowell’s interest in Osip Mandelstam in 1993. Since then her poetry, translations and reviews have been published widely. She has five books to date: Resting Place (Flarestack, 2008); The Paths of the Beggarwoman: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, (Worple Press, 2008) and (in collaboration with Richard McKane) Flags by Boris Poplavsky, (Shearsman, 2009), Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov (Kazakh National Translation Agency, 2018) and Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (The High Window, 2019). She lives and teaches in the Highlands of Scotland on the west coast.
John Short’s Those Ghosts reviewed by Stuart Henson
Those Ghosts by John Short. £6.99. Beaten Track. ISBN 978-1-78645-480-5
In an age when poetry threatens to become a branch of identity politics—or slip down the rabbit-hole of social media—there’s an endangered species that could probably do with a bit of protection. The Older White Male can’t claim any of the revolutionary privileges of the oppressed, and he (he likes to use gender-specific pronouns) doesn’t have the photogenic advantages of youth either. And since he’s probably been out of school for more years than the young turks have been alive, he can’t even raise a Fentonesque hand and claim ‘Please Sir, I’m urgent!’ These are the poor souls guyed-up in a recent essay by Eva Salzman as Morris dancers with ‘too many full beards, heavy socks and jingly bells’.
In the field, they’re not difficult to identify. There’s a whole slew of poems in any number of collections that take an incident from the author’s misspent youth and comment wryly on it from the perspective of his wiser, more world-weary self. I may have a stroky beard and arthritis now, but in my time… In most cases the poem’s not bad, but once a trope becomes a commonplace it’s that much harder to make it convincing. (The same is just as true of the youthful penchant for the bizarre metaphor or concept as an indicator of originality—you know the kind of thing: ‘My Mother as a Field of Sarsen Stones’ or ‘Keats is Dead so Beat Me from Behind with a Copy of Cosmo’.) In the end, our enjoyment rests on the quality of the poet’s vision and technique rather than her/his/their social affiliation—or at least it should.
So where does John Short fit in this scheme of things? Firmly encamped among the OWMs I’d say. And proud of it. The book’s subtitle ‘A Life in Poems’ gives you a pretty good indication of where we’re going. A glance at the contents page confirms it: ‘History Lesson’, ‘Barcelona Rain’, ‘Passing Through Perpignan’… This is a collection that raids the author’s life for all the good stories. Grandad, tell us the one about the Girl from Gallieni! And they’re not bad as anecdotes go. Short has enjoyed fine times in France, Spain, Italy and Greece and had his fair share of romance in most of those places. His quirky humour can occasionally lift a poem out of its historical pre-occupation too—as in the conclusion of his description of Narbonne in 1987:
There’s a guy who always carries a baguette
under the arm of his charity overcoat.
As old and hard as stone, just for appearances.
He’s scared of the police – doesn’t want
to be seen as a vagrant and as is well known,
the baguette is a symbol of respectability.
There’s something almost Ionesco-like in the character’s use of this ‘Stone Baguette’, and the more Short looks outward rather than inward the more successful he is. Memories can be like holiday-snaps. Selfies are fascinating to the taker but the general viewer is always going to be more interested in what’s going on in the background. To his credit, John Short is quite capable of pricking his own bubble with a bit of self-deprecation. Remember Larkin in ‘Poetry of Departures’, staying at home, dreaming of crouching in the fo’c’sle stubbly with goodness? Well, here he is—if he’d only had the gumption to get up and go:
I tread an open road in Spain
with walking boots
and canvas rucksack,
fresh loaf, cheese and wine.
I think there’s a touch of irony intended. A bit of bathos certainly in the later stanza:
Romantic at heart, I dream
of Don Quixote, Laurie Lee,
Platero Y Yo, but get instead
a dust cloud raised by packs
of cyclists clad in Lycra.
In recent years, the OWM has suffered a good deal from habitat loss as magazines have turned themselves over to editors and contributors from the Moral High Ground, but there are still a few forests of the night in which he can browse happily. Time and Mortality are always part of his staple diet. As the title poem of Those Ghosts reminds us, ‘You can’t seal up death / despite the rituals, / it abides in tobacco / pouches and old armchairs…’ Neither can you bury the past:
its ghosts haunt
the edges of today,
persist in shadows
that linger a moment
too long when you drift
into that room with
your thoughts elsewhere.
(I like the slightly absent-minded line breaks there. The way they / echo the sense.)
Short styles himself as something of a flâneur in a number of the poems, casting his eye upon the curiosities of bars and alleys, streets and bed-sits:
New curtains and light bulbs
from alien shops as dusk descends.
A bell tower sends its shadow
in the moonlight’s shifting angles;
backyard dogs yelp endlessly. (‘Immigrant Girl’)
But there’s danger here for the OWM. The flâneur’s observation and the ‘male gaze’ can be hard to separate. Short tries in ‘The Girl From Gallieni’ in which ‘a vagrant poet appears / from behind the church’ and ‘crosses the square to where / a brunette in a saucy dress / is already laying out / the tarnished cutlery for lunch…’ The detail is clear enough, but that adjective ‘saucy’ is more René Artois than Stéphane Mallarmé. And can you describe a young woman as ‘a brunette’ or ‘a blonde’ in 2021 without appearing to objectify? The perils of the indefinite article! In this case, you could argue, we’re looking from the point of view of the dramatized ‘vagrant poet’ rather than the author’s. Whether there’s distance enough as the poem proceeds, I’ll leave the reader to judge:
He orders coffee, dips
into a rucksack for Aragon
but can’t take his eyes
from those plump thighs
as she stretches over tables,
a suburban orchid
and caring not a damn
for this situation…
Again, the devil is probably in the adjective—and Short is not one to eschew a good adjective if it springs to mind.
It may be this tendency toward the adjectival that can lead to a feeling that, occasionally, a poem is a tad under-powered. In ‘Grandma’s House’, we find the young John listening to the slop of the sponge on the bare-bricked kitchen floor, to family arguments, the cracking of eggs and the (implied) sizzle of the hot-plate. His grandma wipes his face before they go to mass. It’s a charming piece in many ways—reminiscent of Heaney’s youthful word-pictures and ripe with the kind of nostalgia for lost childhood that informs the ending of Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. Here are the last five lines:
Carefree through the summer,
urging lead and plastic armies
to battle across the dingy carpet
then parties would erupt at night
with music from a portable.
The compression of ideas in this is almost too great for the stanza to carry them all, and yet at least two of the three adjectives—lead, plastic, dingy—are expendable. And ‘then’ as a connective doesn’t really have the heft to link the continuous summer boyhood with the occasional parties. The poem drifts away into the night with the music just when we want to find out more about the aunt who has argued with Grandma and is, presumably, the instigator of the festivities. Perhaps Short has run out of interest, knowing more than the reader.
Still, you’re left with the impression that John Short is a sharper poet than he sometimes allows himself to be. When the language is on a tight rein, the reader snaps to attention. This is ‘On Being Young’ in its entirety:
The psychologist said
we are sexual sunflowers
reaching towards the light.
The teacher said
just remember: the best
contraceptive is a single word.
The parents said
we really hope
that you’ve been good.
The consultant said
go get her a coffee and be
more careful next time.
Witty, sympathetic and just a touch sardonic. That’s exactly what you want your OWM to be.
Stuart Henson’s The Way You Know It, New & Selected Poems, was published by Shoestring Press in 2018. Twelve Days, a pamphlet of Christmas poems with illustrations by Bill Sanderson will be available from Shoestring in December, and a new collection, Beautiful Monsters, is due in 2022. A selection of his fiction, Driving to Bear Lake & Other Stories, is also forthcoming from Postbox Press.
Neil Elder’s Like This reviewed Sue Kindon
Like This by Neil Elder. £5.99. 4Word Press. ISBN 978-2-490653-11-9
Instead of starting with a dedication, Neil Elder begins with a quotation from the novel Stoner by John Williams: ‘What did you expect? he asked himself.’
Over the course of the next forty-four pages, Elder questions the nature of expectation, reality, and perception. He says in the Preface that most of the poems were written in the last two years, which, as we know, haven’t been the easiest of times. There is an underlying sense of early 21st century angst and uncertainty; In ‘On Hold’, Emma from Reception wants to know:
how long to hold on for,
unsure of when the line
will be disconnected.
Elsewhere, there are flashes of colour and dazzling light, as in ‘No Reception’, the opener:
The sun is splashing through leaf cover
and I squeeze tight-shut my eyes
to see a kaleidoscopic rush of yellow and green.
Often there are two perspectives of the same situation. ‘Two Views’ speculates on the different outlooks from the writer’s hotel room and that of his neighbour across the corridor. In the delightful fantasy, ‘The Dutch Room, painting no 12’, the young herdsman in the picture is eager to experience life beyond the valley, and is disbelieving of the viewers, who are envious of his bucolic existence. A deft piece of mental gymnastics. The two-viewpoint theme recurs in ‘Broken’ – which party actually let slip the glass?
Then there’s that thing we do when the mind wanders off :
I don’t remember how I arrived
on this stretch of dual carriageway.
and: even as you talk,
I am picturing the dessert menu.
There are moments of hope and humanity, – a whole poem of them in ‘These Moments Will Keep You Warm’, with its implication that you are going to need them in the cold places to come. There is laughter, howls of it. A wry humour is at play, at times reminiscent of Billy Collins. This comes across strongly in ‘Birthday Surprise’, where the speaker tries (and fails) to put on an appropriate smile at his birthday celebration. The second stanza is unexpected:
Scanning the faces of friends and family
who are giving Happy Birthday a go,
I see my father; a surprise
because he has been dead so long,
and he always hated parties.
The matter-of-fact tone of this revelation works a treat, and is sustained to the end of the poem. The smile appears, and touches the reader.
I am a little in love with ‘When David Attenborough Died’, which wrong-footed me into fact-checking on Wikipedia. Panic over, I could enjoy this fabulous (in all senses) fantasy of the ecologist-friendly response to the imagined demise of the great man, from the bewilderment of office workers and the reaction of schoolchildren, to the shutting down of production lines :
…plastic punnets remained empty.
And pilots quit their cockpits, refused to fly again;
that was the start of the Heathrow Nature Reserve.
Throughout the book, Elder strikes an accessible, conversational tone, and there are no awkward line breaks lying in wait to ambush the pleasure of reading aloud. Free verse at its best, and an existential world view in a digestible form.
Overall, a deal is struck between possibility and certainty; in the poem ‘Balance’, Elder concludes:
Ahead is a day of work: I should be glad
and indeed, I am. But I shall be glad
when I drive home into the sun,
knowing I shall do this again tomorrow.
Like it or not, life is like this.
Sue Kindon lives and writes in the French Pyrenees. She has been widely published in magazines, and has had some success in competitions. She considers her greatest achievement to date to be a prize for a poem in French. She is currently working on a third pamphlet to follow She who pays the piper (2017) and Outside, The Box (2019).
Colin Pink’s Wreck of the Jeanne Gougy reviewed by Anne Symons
Wreck of the Jeanne Gougy by Colin Pink, with illustrations by Daniel Goodwin. £12.50. Paekakariki Press 2021 ISBN 9781908133434
This is a beautifully produced volume: Goodwin’s woodcuts perfectly complement Pink’s poems, a partnership we have seen before in The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament (2019). Paekakariki Press uses traditional letterpress settings and binding — this is a book you will want to hold in your hands.
The strong writing we have come to expect from Pink accosts us from the very first page. ‘Sylvia Plath on the Moor, September 1956’, both charms and disturbs:
She is a sylph punctuation mark on the horizon;
perched on top a dry stone wall, one foot dangling
among the cowslips, the other crossed to create
a makeshift desk to balance her portable typewriter.
We hear the echo of her name in that description, and a ‘ghostly whisper’ of Wuthering Heights in the setting. ‘Sylvia has married her own Heathcliff whose voice / she thought was like the thunder of God . . .’ Pink takes us below the surface of a scene or an event — the mist of the moor, the precision and weight of the stones, the voice in Plath’s head.
These are poems in 3D, Pink opens a cabinet of curiosities; Sappho’s love poems turn up in the mummified corpse of a crocodile, ‘shredded into thin strips.’ But the poet is moved by this strange fact to reflect on the fragmented nature of love which sits: ‘in the gap between giver and receiver, filling the void with promised treasure, leaving us orbiting a star that sucks us ever nearer’. The prose of the poem opens up at this point allowing the white space to bear witness to the lover’s desire:
How many tongues must I taste in search of you?
Love weaves its way through this volume; the poet confronts Death (Thanatos) and waits for a visit from Eros: ‘The door off the latch. It’s never too late.’ And at the ‘Pont des Arts ‘Love is the breeze that tickles the hairs / along your arm as you cross the bridge.’
Pink is a master of form: there are sonnets lying square upon the page, neatly balanced by the black and white rectangle of Goodwin’s woodcuts, and always with a turn which shakes the ground of the poem. In ‘Sophie’s Dream’, describing the vision Sophie Scholl’s had the night before her execution Pink takes us from ‘a fine sunny day, almost festive’ and ‘a refuge from the storm’ to the shock of a crevasse which ‘opens in slack-jawed brutality.’
There are triolets with their tracery of repeated lines and rhymes:
Like an old photograph left out in the sun
I feel my dreams slowly curl at the edges
Hope begins to fade and fall apart undone
And the insistent drum beat of a list poem in: ‘The White Rose, in memory of the members of the German resistance movement 1942-1943’
To think when thought is forbidden.
To love when taught to hate.
building over fourteen lines:
To face down the ranting judge.
To listen for the drop of a blade.
Pink’s skill with the shape of a poem is supremely evident in the poem which gives the collection its title: ‘ Wreck of the Jeanne Gougy’. In the fourteen eight-line stanzas we hear echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythm punctuated by a repeated refrain: ‘ Oh God no not again’. Each stanza begins with a stark statement — we watch the scene as from the ‘balcony seats’ of the cliffs, our view expanding to take in the detail of the loss and rescue. Unlike Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, God is not in charge, the supreme power here is the sea, alive and unappeased: ‘the trawler’s carcass is ravaged; / A bone licked by the sea, broken by molars / That grind it down to suck out the tender marrow.’ Pink hits us with the force of this event, carrying the horror to the final lines when he drops us into a macabre news item: ‘ It was 1962, of her crew twelve / Drowned, just six were rescued; / The Beach Boys had a hit with Surfin’ Safari.’
This is Pink’s fourth publication; an alchemy of poet, illustrator and press, superbly crafted and deserving a place on your bookshelf.
Anne Symons: After a career teaching deaf children and adults Anne began writing poetry in retirement. Her work has been published in Orbis, Obsessed with Pipework, Ekphrastic Review, Agenda, Poetry Salzburg Review, Ink Sweat & Tears The Atlanta Review. She has recently completed an MA in Writing Poetry with Newcastle University and the Poetry School, London.
Mandy Pannett’s The Daedalus Files reviewed by Janice Dempsey
The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett. £5 (+£2,95 p&p). SPM Publications. ISBN: 9781916226357 (Available from SPM Publications, https://spmpublications.com/)
The Daedalus Files, Mandy Pannett’s ninth book, is a perfect small gem, reflecting the light of the poet’s keen emotional and intellectual intelligence. In her preface, she explains the genesis of the collection. It was inspired by the sight of Syrian refugees arriving as immigrants on the Greek island beach near where she was staying. Already fascinated by the Icarus myth, from that starting point she wrote this series of poems, part narrative, part philosophical.
Pannett’s image of Daedalus as the obsessive creative scientist whose inventions are subverted for frivolous or dangerous purposes speaks clearly to twenty-first century readers. For Daedalus, the death of his son, Icarus, is the paramount tragedy, but his overwhelming urge to know, to build and create, brings conflict and fear to whole countries, whole populations.
Early on, in ‘The Sweetness and the Spark’, she puts a hard question to scientists of any era: “Was the technical sweetness a drug? / You should have noticed the birdless trees, / The unsplashing fish rivers, the cold bees. […] Tell me, was it worth it?”
The inventor’s answer echoes down the millennia: “I am not accountable / for tinkering fingers / […] You say my devices lead us to death. I say / if it wasn’t for me you would not possess this, this, this …”
In ‘Laboratory Neon’ we imagine Daedalus at work in a modern biology lab, taking risks on an apparently smaller scale (“its/ just a cell, just for science”) Pannett finds a parallel between the monstrous Monotaur, born out of an inventor’s unethical work, and the treatment of the alternatively abled of any time and culture who are shunned or imprisoned as outcasts.
The last six poems are devoted to the furtive, fearful preparations that persecuted exiles and illegal immigrants must undergo, but also, in ‘The Air is Waiting’, one of the book’s most beautiful poems, the joy and exhilaration of flying like a bird:
“… as he slips out of
gravity and soars
wherever the winds blow
and understands at last the workings of wing and
muscle, the quill’s uplift
the meaning of sky.”
This collection is greater than the sum of its parts, its meanings layered and intense, and each poem perfectly poised. I loved it and will read it again, often.
Janice Dempsey is the co-founder of the small press Demspey & Windle.
Robin Thomas’s Cafferty’s Truck reviewed by Ian House.
Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas. £8.00. Dempsey and Windle. 978-1-913329-55-6
In this slight and momentous pamphlet of twenty-three short poems, Cafferty and his truck go from here to there, from somewhere to anywhere, for various reasons or for none. The journeys are absurd and unreal and utterly convincing, the very stuff of our own lives and of the lives of the mysterious others we see going about their daily and unknown business.
Cafferty’s journeys are in and out of his world and our world, to an unspecified ‘small grey town’ or on a ‘rust-smeared ferry’ or to Tesco, where, with his rattling cart (for Cafferty must always have a vehicle), he gives rapt and detailed attention to ‘the 3D White Glamorous Shine’ of ‘Total advanced clean antibacterial and fluoride’. Cafferty has his eye on the real world and its advertising clichés but he doesn’t buy, for in the back of his truck, as we learn from another poem, he has fininbrun and xylocarp and sachets of phlogiston: ‘ingredients for …,’ as we may well wonder.
The first poem takes the risk of being splendidly portentous. Cafferty’s truck brings ‘the sad news’ to ‘the small grey town’, stops at each house, and then ‘Cafferty’s done’, over before he’s barely started. Meanwhile, Byrne ‘in his trim red van / respectfully following, follows / Cafferty’s yesterdays with his tomorrows’, lines that unavoidably resonate with life as the tale told by an idiot. Yet the next poem is the epitome of inconsequence. Cafferty ‘follows his map / where the map doesn’t go’ and when he’s got there, wherever that is, he turns in his tracks and ‘follows the map / to get safely back’ – though, of course, to get safely back he doesn’t need the map for he could just follow his tracks.
The other inhabitants of this world are O’Brien, with his horse, perhaps a relative of Flann O’Brien, inseparable from his bicycle, and Byrne. In the background, from time to time we glimpse a Manichaean struggle between Cafferty’s old truck and Byrne’s van. Byrne we can come to hate for he is always ‘washing, rinsing, / leathering, buffing’ his shiny van with its sparkling windows and glowing tyres. There can be only one end to this conflict. We shall last see the truck ‘much the same’ and parked, while a van goes flying by, driven no doubt by the heartless and socially conformist Byrne, to whom, in the pamphlet’s epigraph, is attributed the assertion: ‘Cafferty? Never heard of him.’
Thomas’s great achievement is to leave well alone: to give the reader what is needed, no less and no more. An artist’s preliminary sketch may engage the viewer more fully than the completed oil painting, for the painting may be merely whatever it is, whereas the sketch suggests and becomes all its possibilities. Thomas’s sketches impel us to imagine the scene and leave us free to derive whatever significance we can derive or none. For this reason the poems are haunting. They hang about in the mind long after we have read them, for the mind is still at work, still feeding on them.
This engagingly quirky collection is a shaggy dog story that leads us up the garden path and round the houses on a journey fraught with significance. Its characters (three men, a horse, a van and a truck) travel an allegorical road but in a land, perhaps suggested by their names, of blarney. I’d not be surprised if Cafferty knows Vladimir and Estragon. His is a sad story and great fun.
Ian House taught English for thirty-five years in various schools in England and also in the USA and in Eastern Europe. Since then he has had three collections of poetry published by Two Rivers Press, the latest of which, Just a Moment, came out in 2020.
When the Virus Came Calling: Covid-19 Strikes America reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
When the Virus Came Calling: Covid-19 Strikes America edited b y Thelma T. Reyna. £12. Golden Foothills Press. ISBN: : 978-0996963275 9Available via Amazon.co.uk)
Every so often a book is published that catches the moment and, in so doing, defines the age in which we live. This is one of them. Although the book focuses on the American experience of the pandemic, its subject-matter is global and it is something which we, as readers, can all identify with on a deep and meaningful level. This anthology contains poetry and prose from 45 distinguished authors written in real time from across America from the outset of the pandemic up until the end of July 2020. Editor and poet, Thelma T. Reyna, whose books have collectively won 14 national book awards, handpicked the authors from across the nation sending out personal invitations to them to write poetry or prose in response to the pandemic as it gripped America and the world.
Many of the submissions go wider than this remit seeking in their own way to address other subjects that plague America today, in particular, racism (as the book neared its final stages of pre-production, George Floyd was killed on the street in Minneapolis on May 25 by a police officer), injustice, modern day slavery, political inertia and that ever-present elephant in the room that even now at the eleventh hour some refuse to acknowledge even exists: climate change.
The anthology is structured into four distinct parts addressing separate subjects (invasion, seclusion, introspection and realizations) that progress in a chronological time-frame.
Gerda Govine Ituarte’s poem which opens the first section is entitled “Bloom”. The title is an interesting one. I immediately thought of an algal bloom: a description for a rapid, invasive increase in the population of algae in freshwater or marine water systems whose toxicity affects the whole ecosystem, lowering oxygen levels and killing off otherwise healthy organisms with the result that fisheries have to be closed and water supplies to residents cut off. Moving beyond the title to a more positive interpretation of the word, Ituarte wants ideas to bloom by asking what writers can do to make the world a better place to live in. Recognising that poets are the people who keep the ‘door of possibilities ajar’ she expresses the wish to:
let each of us as poets create
words that feed our souls
free our minds make us thankful
to be alive
Amy L. Alley, in her poem ‘Facts and Fearlessness’ captures the whole spectrum of our response to the pandemic across the age range: everything from denial and disbelief to caution and fear. Michael Haussler and Mara Adamitz Scrupe reference previous epidemics from 1924, 1957 and 1968 in an attempt to put the present pandemic into some kind of historical perspective while Khadija Anderson summons up her creative powers to imagine Covid-19 as a Disney movie. In ‘Mother Earth Speaks’ Judie Rae draws attention to our selfish disregard for the planet:
I gave you oceans
rich with reefs and fish.
You tossed your waste into the sea.
I gave you windswept deserts;
you sucked oil from their bellies
to fuel your greed.
In ‘Home at the End of the World’, Lauren S. Reynolds writes movingly of the silence in the streets, feelings of personal guilt and the realization that ‘fear / and freedom / are tricks of the mind.’
In the second section, Michael Haussler’s personal essay ‘The World Gets Quiet’ draws inspiration from passages taken from Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and Nature’s respite while we temporarily press the pause button giving it a time to heal itself. ‘The larger issue,’ he concludes, ‘is the way we have come to interact with the earth, with the animals and fellow human beings who inhabit it alongside us. The world cries out for a new ecology, a revision. Can we do that? It remains to be seen.’ Immediately following on from this, Cassie Premo Steele, in her poem ‘Come Home’, exhorts us to listen to the cries of Nature, to pay attention to, and respect, the beauty of creation. In other poems and essays, Teresa Mei Chuc explores the impact of isolation from the perspective of high school students, Jimmy Recinos writes about marginalised communities, R.D. Armstrong emphasises the need to adapt to a new normal in order to survive, Marlene Hitt hungers for physical closeness while others simply wait it out.
In the third section, Tresha Faye Haefner writes movingly of the dead being lifted into makeshift morgues where ‘the city is silent with its own sadness’, Thelma T. Reyna documents one day in New York City at the height of the pandemic, Maija Rhee Devine records life in lockdown, Michael Sedano watches the world pass by from his window in plague-time noting the number of people who are or are not wearing masks, Nancy Shiffrin listens to Bach’s cello suites and Judy Bebelaar takes us out of this world for a breath-taking moment in Apollo 8 when:
Lovell, Borman and Anders
left earth for the moon in ’68,
how that flight
was a leap of faith,
but they leapt.
Among some of the poems and essays we find in the final section, Richard Blanco in his poem ‘Say This Isn’t The End’ expresses the hope that we will ‘forget the masks / that kept us from dying from the invisible’ but not those we have been wearing for most of our lives ‘disguising ourselves from each other’. A number of poems address the difficult subject of coming to terms with grief or record quiet moments communing with nature that are seen as small acts of healing. Others offer a positive affirmation that, whatever happens, we will survive. An incisive Afterword by Mel Donaldson concludes that a better future awaits us all.
Reading this anthology I was encouraged by the way that the majority of the contributions, far from being introspective, reached out to the wider world: to the suffering of others, to the volunteers making masks, to health care professionals looking after patients, military troops and guardsmen ‘fulfilling [the] duty of death’ and, last but not least, nature itself giving the reader a real sense that we are all in this together, that we are stronger together, and that we will get through it together. As Robin D. G. Kelley writes in his excellent introduction, ‘Great poetry looks catastrophe in the eye, stares it down, and penetrates its terrifying exterior to find its core, its seed, its soul.’ This is a seminal text that does just that, it is a social record that is very much of our time. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely both at home and abroad. His latest publications are Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), The Engine-room of Europe (editura pim, Iaşi, Romania) and River Hoard (Cyberwit.net, Allahabd, India, 2019). He is a regular reviewer for several journals including Galatea Resurrects (USA) and Write Out Loud
Michael McCarthy’s Like A Tree Cut Back reviewed by Patrick Lodge
Like A Tree Cut Back by Michael McCarthy. £9.95. smith|doorstop 2021 ISBN978-1-912196-36-4 £9.95
The Irish memoir has become over the last few decades a staple of Irish literature – albeit, as Liam Harte writes, the “Cinderella genre” with critical neglect and marginal literary status. Tomás Ó Criomhthain, the writer of An tOileánach, a marvellous 1929 memoir of life on Great Blasket Island off Dingle, captured perfectly the grander rationale for such writing in saying, ‘I have written very accurately about many of our activities so that they would be remembered in some corner or other…because our like will not be seen again”. The more recent rash of Angela’s Ashes-type memoirs with a remorselessly downbeat tone that would make Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch seem a joyous celebration of life, has encouraged a more curmudgeonly view of the well-populated genre. As Neil Gelzlinger put it, “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up”. In this delightful book, Michael McCarthy, Yorkshire priest and poet who died in 2018 and completed the manuscript only a few days before his death, thankfully did not shut up and, in what he describes as “Part History – Part Memoir- Part Meditation”, happily recalls aspects of his full life because, indeed, his like will not be seen again.
In one of his last interview McCarthy said “I fancy myself as a teller of tales” and this collection confirms his intuition. Some readers looking for more of McCarthy’s gentle but powerful poetry may be disappointed to find Like A Tree Cut Back is mostly prose but they should not be. This memoir of childhood, coming of age and eventual priesthood offers insight into where the poet came from – it is a small disappointment, however, that the book does not engage more directly with McCarthy’s development as a self-conscious poet as it ends with this taking up of a year-long sabbatical at the University of Alberta which allowed him time for “reading, meditating and hopefully writing poetry.
The book starts with a seminal moment in McCarthy’s life – the death in an accident of his brother – which he recalls in a faux-naïf style which, presumably, puts the adult writer back into the mind of the child. This artifice did grate a little though it is consistent with the development of the person that structures the book and does, also, allow for insights into the skills of McCarthy as a poet and writer. Something is happening but he does not know what – his mother had run from the house but the child McCarthy can’t see where she has gone – “what I can see is the way the grass covers the ditch. And the stones coming through the grass. I can see each individual stone clearly. I can see each bit of grass.” Here is the habit of close observance and the squint, revealing perspective that characterised McCarthy’s mature poetry.
The paradox of the childhood memoir though is that while we all have experienced childhood very few of us actually write about it until we become adults. Often such recollections become the stuff of a fiction but where they appear as memoir it is always the adult that writes it. McCarthy’s approach generally works well. There is no sense of an organising and censoring hindsight per se and it is often productive of a gentle humour – his discussion of what must have been a highly important event in the life of both rural Ireland and the would-be priest – his First Holy Communion – focuses less on the sacred but on the fun attendant on the event itself. No ecclesiastical pomposity but only a gentle smile – “We all have a great time. Then we have more lemonade and biscuits”.
McCarthy often ruminated whether he was a poet-priest or a priest-poet. The debate is irrelevant as, certainly, he was an outstanding poet but he was also an outstanding priest, counsellor and spiritual director. It is typically of his gentle, self-effacing style that the memoir does not focus agonisingly on the emerging sense of a vocation that would determine his future life. McCarthy explains that “I often said I wanted to be a priest like my uncle. I was born on his fortieth birthday and given his name and so it seemed a natural aspiration for me to have”. Thus he is sent to a Junior Seminary and then to Carlow College, the second oldest Third-Level institution in Ireland which, until 1989 operated as a seminary for the training of Catholic priests.
It is clear that McCarthy loved Carlow – “I found Carlow College a well-rounded, wholesome and affirming community” – and the sections of the book which deal with its history and its role in developing McCarthy’s self-confidence and self-understanding, are engaging. Clearly, the opportunity the college offered was seized with both hands and McCarthy was wholly absorbed. The day he was ordained a Deacon, Bobby Kennedy died and he writes in a reflective poem , “Someone says Bobby Kennedy is dead / I didn’t even know he’d been shot.” McCarthy returned to Carlow much later to run a creative writing course and clearly delights in the success and transformations of his adult returners who, like him, came late to writing.
A major section of the book is a poetic sequence focused on the Carlow College alumnus, John Joseph Therry (1790 – 1864), the “Apostle of Australia”. Therry ministered in the harsh conditions of the penal colony and the poems – many less effective “found” poems using letters of the time – capture well his dedication (many letters are from prisoners condemned to death who request Therry to attend and receive them into the Catholic faith) and refusal to accept any barriers to his performing his priestly role. I did wonder if McCarthy’s saw any parallels between Therry’s ministry and his own in deepest Yorkshire!
The latter part of the book is warming and affirming. Two things stand out in the memoir. Firstly, McCarthy was rejected as a Columban missionary and this began a therapeutic journey which shaped his life and art. In Chicago he had begun a course in Spiritual Direction and suffered a breakdown linked to his finally engaging with the repressed grief from his brother’s death. Tellingly, he writes “I am at once a forty-two year old man and a four year old child” and it is this truth which allows him to pull off the writing of the early sections of the book in the voice of a four year old. It is this sense in the book of McCarthy, the established priest and poet, seizing the opportunity to reflect – “Now I was being offered the chance to go back and meet my eighteen-year-old self and all the selves I had become in the intervening years” – and joyously and suddenly understanding what it was all about. Secondly, McCarthy was diagnosed with colon cancer just shy of his 50th birthday and the day before his first poem was published. Typically his response was to offer up a simple prayer – “I’m just coming up to my fiftieth birthday. I don’t want to die now”. Someone was obviously listening because it was from this point that McCarthy published most of the poems which established his reputation. In the poem “Passports”, McCarthy writes of “…Meeting my history backwards / I surrender to the moment, embrace my younger self”. There is no sense of complacency and self-satisfaction in this book – just a content at arriving somewhere where one should be and understanding. In “Another Country”, he reverses Yeats in a hymn of satisfaction, “Things come together now. The canvas broadens / There are connections. I learn from my mistakes”.
This was a marvellous book to review. Fr. Michael was parish priest in an adjoining parish to me in North Yorkshire and I often attended Mass at one of his churches. He was also my spiritual director for a time – a period I enjoyed though I’m not sure he was obliged to be anything more than patient and long-suffering. I thought I knew Fr Michael but I didn’t and this excellent book reinforces the sense of loss that I could not engage with him differently when we occupied a similar space. The book ends with an elegiac poem – “In Memoriam” – full of his self-deprecating and gentle humour. He imagines a 25 year old doctoral student researching “forgotten Irish poets” after discovering some of McCarthy’s work “…on micro-disk / buried in the archives of a library / in Edmonton Alberta, where / I was almost famous once.” The student finds his grave and “weeps as I wept over Yeats”, and the poem ends with a few simple lines which place McCarthy in the place he would want to be: “ A briar sways in an unnoticed wind. / Far below the waves say hush. / Close by a blackbird sings.”
The title of the book – Like a Tree Cut Back – is taken from the motto of his Alma Mater, Carlow College and that which is cut back “burgeons forth more abundantly”. Fr Michael McCarthy, poet and priest, certainly lived up to that.
Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is of Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published widely in the UK and abroad. His most recent collection, Remarkable Occurrences, is published by Valley Press as were its predecessors: An Anniversary of Flight (2013) and Shenanigans (2016).
Walter Owen’s The Cross of Carl reviewed by Michael Crowley
The Cross of Carl, an Allegory, by Walter Owen. £9.95. Grey Suit Editions. ISBN: 978-1903006214
The Cross of Carl first published in 1931 has a 2021 edition. The author subtitles his book as ‘An Allegory’. It is a novella of only around 100 pages but it is not a quick read. The narrative, such as it is, conveys the reader from the trenches of the First World War to an imaginary underworld of mechanical slaughter and human recycling that foreshadows the Holocaust. The prose is vivid and even poetic at times, but is it a crafted nightmare – meticulously painted horror. Owen explains in a preliminary epigraph that Everything in this story is purely symbolical. The symbolism is Christian, the piece an allegory for the Passion. For today’s reader, two generations and another world war later, the disturbing aspect of the book is not what it describes but what it foresaw.
Owen was born in Glasgow in 1884 and spent much of his childhood in Uruguay, returning to settle in Argentina. His vocation was translating Latin American poetry into English. Owen attempted to enlist for both wars but was rejected. In a note on the text, he confides in us that he wrote the piece in the lucid aftermath of a period of opium use. The narrative has four parts: Gethsemane, Golgotha, Sepulchre, Resurrection. The single character of any substance, Carl, is of uncertain nationality, the chosen name one suspects deliberately ambiguous, an Everyman who suffers his ordeal alone without mourners or disciples. It is best described as horror, a genre that emerged from nineteenth century Gothic. The principal function of horror fiction is to engender fear into the reader, which the book does, but The Cross of Carl has a more dominant effect in evoking pity for mankind who has created a beast in modern warfare. Carl is killed at his first encounter with action.
On the edge of a crater, he saw a man in front kneel down as though to pray there, at which Carl, this being his first charge, indeed his first taste of war at all, hurried to him, and was just about to touch him when the man went forward on his face limply in the clay, and at the same instant another figure some three yards on his right said, “Ah!” and, gasping, sprawled.
Biblical and Classical allusions are enlisted along the way, but only to illustrate. Though war is mythologised it is always a monster and this war is the most monstrous yet. He describes what happens to a human body under artillery fire.
Here like a sheaf three bodies stand leaned together, planted to the knees in mud, one headless, one with a jagged fragment of steel projecting from its back…near these a carcase, without legs or arms…lies like a grey valise.
He labours this point but it is an important one. Much of the iconography of modern warfare shows bodies intact, lifeless and sprawling, but whole. Representations were not always so. The Bayeux Tapestry displays severed heads and arms and Goya’s etchings on ‘The Disasters of War’ depicting events of the Peninsula War, are populated by the dismembered. Such is war, and the First World War in particular was a war of shells and unclean death.
The Cross of Carl was written at the war’s end, it is a reaction to its immensity and barbarity, which unlike the Second World War, produced a great deal of art and radically changed literature’s course. The shock of the war imposed itself on Edwardian sensibilities. Thomas Hardy was still writing and a verbally confident culture responded. People marched into the conflict idealistically, romantically in the case of Rupert Brooke. Had Brooke lived to take part in the Gallipoli landings, he might have gone on to write as realistically as Owen was to. He may well have also abandoned the sonnet, the couplets and quatrains of the previous century and looked for forms more suited to the latest warfare. The catastrophe also produced enduring drama and fiction: A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey’s End, Testament of Youth, Robert Graves’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs. There is an echo of this novella in Hans Schlumberg’s play Miracle at Verdun. Austrian playwright Schlumberg had served in the First World War as a young lieutenant. He survived to write a series of anti-war plays. In Miracle at Verdun, the French and German dead rise from their graves and walk home carrying their crosses to a world that doesn’t want them. In a dreadful irony, during a rehearsal of the play in Leipzig, Schlumberg fell into the orchestra pit from the stage, dying of his injuries. In comparison to the First, the Second World War was to leave a vacancy in literature. Veterans of the trenches attested that if death wasn’t inevitable insanity was. AK Chesterton was a regional journalist and a Shakespearean critic who had spent two years on the Western Front and suffered from permanent respiratory problems as a result of a gas attack. Like many veterans he became an alcoholic who endured nervous breakdowns; regrettably his political conclusions were to turn him towards fascism. He once wrote that constant nightmares populated by the dead made him see the world as “one vast necropolis.” A place perhaps depicted in Sepulchre.
Owens’ prose deserves to be read slowly; at the pace one reads poetry. One can tell immediately this is someone who has worked in poetry: “Carl stood a space dazed.” The death factory he describes in Golgotha, is a vision of Auschwitz, borne not of Nazism but by free enterprise, “and the Factory, though under military organisation, is run at a profit, must so run, or the shareholders will be angry.” Owen himself never saw battle but his imagination is sufficiently powerful to makes us believe otherwise. That he imagined a version of the Holocaust is further evidence, if it were needed that the First world War begat the Second, not only in political terms but humanity’s recurring capacity for savagery.
Michael Crowley is a writer and dramatist. Earlier this year he was commissioned by Sky Arts to write and direct a large-scale community play on the English Civil War. In 2017 his debut novel The Stony Ground was published by Waterside Press, in 2016 his debut poetry collection First Fleet, published by Smokestack Books. He has a new collection out next year. Michael has also written drama for BBC Radio and was a writer in residence in a young offender’s institution for six years.
Anne Carson’s The Trojan Women reviewed by Jill Sharp
Euripides – The Trojan Women – A comic by Rosanna Bruno, text by Anne Carson. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-590-8
This version of Euripides’ tragedy, a comic book billed as ‘both wacky and devastating’ on its cover, is in A4 format, with loose monochrome drawings and hand-written block capital text set within speech bubbles. Four Trojan women are its focus: Hekabe, queen of Troy, her daughter Kassandra, and daughter-in-law – widow of Hector – Andromache. The fourth is Helen, queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus, who had Trojan statehood thrust upon her when she was given as a bribe to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite. Euripides, the great dramatist of women in extremis, never depicted their struggles more powerfully then in this impassioned anti-war drama.
The original play was written in mid-fifth century BCE Athens at a time when the city state had committed war crimes similar to those of the Homeric Greeks against the Trojans. It made a bold political and humanitarian statement by bringing to the fore a few marginal characters from the Iliad – mothers, wives, daughters – to probe and question Homer’s heroic version of that war. Adapting and reimagining existing texts has been a practice since ancient times, then, with new adaptations – like that of Euripides himself – created to address issues relevant to the contemporary audience.
Euripides’ tragedy seems an odd choice to be given the comic book treatment, but in the spirit of reworking old texts to lend contemporary resonance, a version that offers both text and image is a unique opportunity to enact the drama across the page in a way that might appeal to new, and perhaps younger, readers.
The choices facing Bruno and Carson are more complex and varied than those for the poet or novelist, with text and image needing to work in tandem to present a coherent, convincing whole. And the decisions they’ve made are certainly daring. All the characters, whether gods or humans, are depicted as visual metaphors. Poseidon, the sea-god who acts as the play’s prologue, appears across a double spread as a huge breaking wave, and is introduced in the text specifically as ‘a large volume of water measuring 600 clear cubic feet.’ So far, so metaphorically convincing. More puzzling is the image of Athene, ‘a big pair of overalls carrying an owl mask in one hand.’ The owl makes sense – symbol of the goddess of wisdom. But the overalls? And Poseidon’s introductory speech – intended to set the action in context – confounds with anachronistic literary references unlikely to resonate with a young readership:
Troy, I’ll give you Troy:
just a big old hotel,
luxurious, damp and full of spies.
It crouched on the plain
like James Baldwin
with its eyelids drifting down and drifting up.
You know that poem of Friedrich Seidel
where James Baldwin is a leopard?
The leopard kills and eats its trainer every day.
Well, goodbye to all that.
Troy kills and eats no more.
Deities offer rich scope for imaginative liberties, but visual metaphors continue in the depiction of human protagonists. Hekabe is drawn as ‘an ancient emaciated sled dog of filth and wrath’ and Andromache is ‘a poplar tree with trunk split.’ The metaphorical significance is clear, but as visual image it can look plain odd. When Andromache’s baby son, Astyanax – depicted as a stumpy sapling – is taken from her ‘branches’ and hurled from the walls, all visceral impact is lost with the dead child, laid on Hector’s shield, drawn as a lump of wood.
Intriguingly, only clairvoyant Kassandra retains her human form in this comic version, shown ironically dressed as a bride brandishing flaming torches. She rejoices at her forthcoming death, as she knows it will also mean the death of Agamemnon – to whom she’s been given as sex-slave – and the ruin of his family.
The fourth Trojan woman, Helen, is given ‘a changeable form, sometimes a silver fox, sometimes a large hand mirror.’ In dialogue with Menelaus (‘some sort of gearbox, clutch or coupling mechanism…’) she puts up a spirited defence of herself, blaming the Olympian goddesses for the so-called Judgement of Paris that gave her away, Troy’s fate sealed in that moment along with her own.
Ancient Greek drama was performed in masks, and contemporary actors and directors who’ve retained the convention in their productions have noted how obscuring the face can allow for a deeper reality to be expressed. This may well be the thinking behind Bruno’s decision here – masking the human form to achieve greater freedom of expression. It’s a brave approach and a risky one, to fix each character within a specific metaphor, and it jars at least as often as it succeeds.
Carson has made choices too: for the language to be colloquial and contemporary, with free use of anachronistic cultural references such as new-age spirituality and even Christianity. Again it’s a risk, as so often it sits oddly within the moral and cultural context of the drama.
While the verbal and visual approaches of this comic reimagining highlight Euripides’ dismantling of the ‘heroic’, it’s a version that seems unsure of what it’s doing, or for whom. For me, this version only achieved Euripidean force in its closing stages – the drawings less cluttered, the language pared down – with Hekabe and the chorus of dogs and cows mourning the loss of Astyanax, and watching Troy burn. Carson echoes Beckett to powerful effect in her working of Hekabe’s final words, as the dog-queen embarks for a life of slavery: ‘We can’t go on. We go on. We go on.’
Jill Sharp’s poems have appeared in magazines including Acumen, Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Poetry Salzburg, Prole and Under the Radar, and online at Ink, Sweat & Tears, London Grip and The High Window. Her pamphlet, Ye gods, was published in 2015 by Indigo Dreams.
Pia Tafdrup’s The Taste of Steel / The Smell of Snow reviewed by Martyn Crucefix
The Taste of Steel / The Smell of Snow by Pia Tafdrup, tr. David McDuff. £12.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: : 978-1780375045
The Tafdrup/McDuff/Bloodaxe collaboration goes back more than 10 years now. The Danish poet’s work inclines to themed series of collections – The Salamander Quartet appeared between 2002 and 2012. The current volume presents in English the first two collections of another planned quartet of books, this time focusing on the human senses. In fact, the ‘taste’ book here feels much less conscious of its own thematic focus than the ‘smell’ one, not necessarily to the latter’s advantage. There is often something willed, rather laboured, about some of the work included here, which is most disappointing given Tafdrup’s earlier books. But her curiosity about the world remains engaging, her poems are observant of others, often self-deprecating, her concerns are admirable (environmental, the world’s violence), plus there are several fine pieces on desire and female sexuality.
Her world view though, is essentially tragic: loss and the passage of time predominate. ‘Chink’ ends in a resigned tone: “Slowly life takes / the life from us”. The Taste of Steel is particularly imbued with a sense of personal, romantic loss: “The moment I begin to love, / the separation starts, / at least the fear of separation” (‘Separation’). The awkward evidence of a partner’s infidelity – a broken sugar bowl, a coffee stain on a book – are “disasters” in what the narrator thought of as “my home” (‘Stages on life’s way’). In such circumstances, even the poet’s pen assumes the qualities of an “axe” (‘Unposted letter’) and unsuspecting visits to museums yield up pessimistic clues and conclusions:
In the absence of words
poisoned arrows sing through the air,
but behind the arrows’ decoration
the idea is the same: peace
is pauses between wars.
‘Not even in museums is there peace’
In both collections, Tafdrup gathers poems into brief, titled sections of about half a dozen poems each and the ‘War’ section extrapolates the sense of personal conflict and loss to more global/political concerns. ‘The darkness machine’ opens plainly, if irrefutably, with the sentiment that a child “should be playing, not / struck in the back by a bullet”. The point is made more powerfully (because less directly) in ‘Spring’s grave’ with its repeated pleas to “send small coffins”. ‘View from space’ adopts the even more remote perspective of the Cassini space probe’s view of the planet, but also ends with plainspoken directness: “that’s where we ceaselessly produce / more weapons, practise battle tactics, / turn our everyday lives into a night of hell”. The concluding genitive phrase makes me wonder about the quality of the translation; I have neither Danish, nor the original in front of me, but does Tafdrup really use such a cliché?
You might say the Cassini viewpoint is taken up more metaphysically elsewhere in Tafdrup’s frequent sense of the world’s ultimate mystery (“the fleeting, / the unbounded, the ever / changing” (‘Undercurrent’)), forever slipping beyond the grasp of human language, an idea imaged in ‘Loneliness’ as a God who “is born at every moment, it is said, // is the life of the endless deep, / and does not cease His revolt”. Only occasionally are we conscious of such a presence – unfamiliar moments, as in the poem ‘Power cut’, where it is an electrical outage that prompts a reshaping of perception to the point of “only now / discover[ing] the world, as though we are suddenly / noticing heart and lungs”. And – returning to the theme of these collections – Tafdrup’s use of (lengthy) listing in ‘Taste’ is perhaps intended to evoke the often unremarked, radical multiplicity of the world-as-it-is through the window of one of the human senses.
This is also a method adopted in The Smell of Snow, the lists of olfactory images are even more determinedly developed in poems like ‘Smell-trace of a morning’ and ‘Benchmarks from a long day’. In this second book, most poems contain some allusion to the ‘smell’ theme. The idea is put to powerful erotic effect in ‘Your fragrance wakes me’ in which the lover, coming from a bath, is tracked and anticipated; “Not yet the taste of your kiss, / not yet caresses”. Other ‘smell’ poems yield good results: to comic effect in Tafdrup’s close observation of the noses of other passengers on an airplane; an interesting exploration of gender in a poem on men’s proclivity to relieve themselves in public places; on environmental concerns in the evocation of the smells of cleaning products; racist undercurrents when a peculiar smell is detected during a stranger’s visit (a dead mouse is later found to be the cause).
But over the course of 189 pages, the imaginative pressure driving Tafdrup’s poems flags. The human senses theme yields poems that feel like exercises in completing a brief. A poem on the 2015 terrorist attacks in Copenhagen works well enough except one is left waiting for the ‘smell’ to feature (eventually we get the “smell / of bloodstained February”). When poems don’t need to be written they tend towards the banal. That these are poems in translation may be part of the problem. However many times I read these 6 lines, I am still puzzled:
I pour water
in abundant quantities
in the grey misty light,
sweep like the wind through a willow
the shadow from your face,
turn a stream magnetically.
Tafdrup’s language as rendered by McDuff is for the most part clear and unexceptional (this is one of the losses compared to earlier work which leaped and surprised its reader more often). Lines like the above give off the aura of a passage not fully resolved in English. The book’s concluding poem also seems problematic. Its (Englished) title might leave it open to the kind of schoolboyish humour that Tafdrup would not have sought: ‘The stream of smells from below’. Its opening three stanzas lack any sense of forward movement seeming to repeat three times the same idea that individuals on the planet are similar but different to others. Then:
Each person is referred to their own sensations,
as I am now
with the sun in my face, June,
and the chill in my back
stop [ . . . ]
This reader has little stumblings over the verb ‘referred’, with the month/interlocutor, ‘June’, and the odd juxtaposition of ‘back / stop’. McDuff’s previous work with Tafdrup has been superb, but once doubts creep into the reader’s head about the ‘bringing over’ of poems into another language it is hard to contain them. This is not Tafdrup’s best work, nor is it McDuff’s; I, for one, will be going back to the earlier Bloodaxe books by this fine poet.
Martyn Crucefix‘s most recent publications: Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019) and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). These Numbered Days, translations of the poems of Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, 2020. A Rilke Selected will be published by Pushkin Press in 2023 and a translation of Lutz Seiler’s essays, Sundays I Thought of God published by And Other Stories. Currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library, he blogs on poetry, translation and teaching at http://www.martyncrucefix.com
Tua Forsström’s I walked on into the forest, poems for a little girl reviewed by David Cooke
I walked on into the forest, poems for a little girl by Tua Forsström translated by David McDuff. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books ISBN: 9781780375823
Tua Forsström is a highly acclaimed Swedish-language Finnish poet whose work has been widely translated and who has received numerous awards throughout Scandinavia including the Nordic Council Literature Prize (1998). I walked on into the forest, poems for a little girl which, like much of her previous work, has been translated by David McDuff, is her twelfth collection. In 2003, Bloodaxe published I studied once at a wonderful faculty, a monolingual omnibus edition of three earlier collections: Snow Leopard, The Parks and After Spending a Night Among Horses. This was followed in 2012 by One Evening in October I rowed out on the lake, in a bilingual Swedish-English edition. Her latest collection is again published in a bilingual edition. Although its English title does establish a link with its predecessor, it’s Swedish title, Anteckningar, which means ‘notes’ or ‘jottings’, gives a helpful insight into the poet’s creative process.
Enigmatic and elliptical, Forström’s poetry can often be challenging because of her unwillingness to join up the dots or give the reader much in the way of specific context. However, inspired by an overwhelming sense of grief at the death of a beloved granddaughter, I walked on into the forest, poems for a little girl, is her most accessible collection to date. Divided into four sections, its overall structure is musical, like that that of a classical sonata, rather than thematic or sequential. Returning obsessively to the intractable nature of her grief, it’s a form in which she gives memorable expression to it. This is hinted at from the outset by an epigraph taken from W. G Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz, where a racoon is observed ‘washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.’
In the course of its opening section, as one works through Forsström’s ‘jottings,’ the reader gains a powerful sense of her struggle to come to terms with the incomprehensible reality of the child’s death. Unfortunately, we are given virtually no information about the child or the circumstances of her death. This is not only challenging but can also be frustrating as we, like the poet, try to make sense of what has happened. However, for Forsström, it would seem that all meanings are elusive, fragmentary, and have to be to be pieced together from hints like the tracks of animals in the forest: ‘the creature’s tracks / disappear in the fog towards the forest. Paws, / claws, glints, matted down’.
The sequence does, however, draw the reader in with an iconic image of an adult and a child set against backdrop of the Finnish landscape:
Do you still remember when you were a child
and walked with us the same road day after day?
There was a little waterfall that roared so
loudly, and the mountain fell steep in the water.
Soon, however, the perspective shifts into a more visionary mode:
There are dreams that are more transparent than water
You left perhaps to sleep far away
I write these letters to you of snow and rain
In §5 her lyricism has an effect that’s reminiscent of some of Beckett’s late prose as the child becomes an increasingly wraithlike presence and Forström’s syntax dissolves, so that the boundary between verse and prose is blurred: ‘Swim weightless swim butterfly swim coolness slender arms water-colours swim to the lighthouse darling swim home swim underwater weightless …’. It is not until §7 that there is a hint of more circumstantial detail where the woman and girl seem to be planning a holiday to Iceland.
Throughout these initial ‘jottings’, the child is portrayed as a vulnerable presence, like a sparrow, a butterfly, a small green beetle, or the tiny mice trying to escape a forest fire, in a world which is itself under threat: ‘Things fall apart / Perhaps it will all blow away in / the gale.’ In Australia forest fires are raging. Elsewhere there are hurricanes and unrelenting rain or the glaciers are melting. At one point, expressing her grief for the child and her fears for the environment on which we all depend, she strikes a note that recalls Vergil’s sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: ‘When the heart is grieving all the water in the world turns to tears.’
In Section 2, the various insights and fleeting memories already evoked are woven into a more extended meditation based on a walk through the forest, where the poet’s senses are alive to an array of sights, sounds and smells:
I go past with my basket in my hand, the fog,
drops from the branches, little chimes.
It is brilliantly green, it is ever so green!
The acoustics, rotting leaves
and no wind
Here, in spite of her sadness, the poet does her best to express a more positive vision: ‘I think about all that is wonderful / There are heart and world, it rains // There are darkness and kindness.’ There is an attempt at stoicism also: ‘The moss doesn’t need any roots / The moss needs a little water.’ Further on in this section, we do eventually learn that the girl’s name was Vanessa, in a poem about tears, water and fishes that develops further the Vergilian image and moves seamlessly into Section 3, where another, possibly childlike, presence is evoked. Although the significance of this figure is not elaborated upon, we do learn that her name is Sirkka: ‘Everyone is in a hurry, writes Sirkka / but it’s not worth it dearest friend / and in the dream it snows incessantly, it snows on the little stations.’
The fourth section, which, to continue with the musical analogy, can be seen as a coda, is a sequence of poems on the theme of ‘learning and forgetting’. In the first of these, Forström returns to her fundamental and unresolvable conundrum: ‘Why did it have to be her, who was so little, why not me.’ Finally, she evokes the figure of W.H. Auden, who said, famously, that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Asking herself: ‘But what then / can the poems do?’, she accepts, provisionally perhaps, his answer that they: ‘allow us to commune with the dead … remind us to enjoy life … at least endure it a bit better, keep us company for a while.’
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His latest collection, Sicilian Elephants, has just been published by Two Rivers Press.