Billy Collins: Whale Day • Moniza Alvi: Fairoz • Vernon Scannell: Farewell Performance • Caroline Bird: Rookie • Mike Barlow: Hotel Anonymous • Tim Dooley: Discoveries • Ron Scowcroft: Second Glance • Caroline Maldonado: Faultlines • Doireann Ní Ghríofa: To Star The Dark • Alan Price & Hervé Constant: Bewilderment • Estil Pollock : Time Signatures • Ralph Culver : A Passable Man • Neil Leadbeater and Monica Manolachi: Journeys in Europe/ Calatorii in Europa • Millicent Borges Accardi: Through a Grainy Landscape •
Billy Collins’ Whale Day reviewed by Stephen Payne
Whale Day by Billy Collins. £10.99. Picador. ISBN: 978-1529064537
And other formal devices.
He writes about mices.
I wrote this clerihew for Billy Collins before Whale Day was published, soon after I’d introduced my Finding Poetry book club to Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes: a selection of Collins’s poems that was, I believe, his first UK publication. I was thinking of poems I have enjoyed for years, like ‘The Country’ and ‘I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice”’.
Sure enough, there’s a new poem about mice in Whale Day. Conveniently for one who wants to find it in the index, the poem in question is called ‘Mice’, and here’s how it begins:
I was normally alone in my childhood,
a condition that gave me time
to observe the activities of the many mice
that had infested our house
one winter night when the house
next door burned to a crisp.
The poem moves on to a joke about the mice discovering little Billy’s kitchen, ‘which was like Columbus discovering / America, because the kitchen was already there.’ This joke irritated me, but only because I have an unpublished poem which uses the same joke (though it’s not a poem about mice).
Perhaps I’m breaking a reviewing rule by making such a personal, reviewer-centred comment. But personal is how it is with Collins’s poems: they feel intimate and warm, conversational in style and also in content, with the kind of nifty ideas that it’s a pleasure to hear about over a drink.
There’s a bit of a trend in the UK poetry world, I perceive, to dismiss Collins as shallow. People seem to want to grow out of him, to mark him as a gateway poet, a way in to the real, complex stuff. Certainly, some highly negative critiques are readable online, by writers I respect. Hugo Williams and Jeremy Noel-Tod, for example, dislike Collins’s whimsy. Fair enough. One of the things I most enjoy about Collins is his whimsy.
When critics praise Collins, they tend to point to aspects I’ve already noted: his welcoming manner, his informality, his humour. In this review I will point to three further aspects of his writing that I particularly appreciate: how readily he places a compelling visual image in the writer’s mind; how he manages syntactic variety; how (in many poems) there’s real intellectual interest beneath the surface.
With respect to imagery, this is how ‘Paris in May’ begins:
A teddy bear in a store window,
three housepainters waiting to cross a boulevard,
a woman in a café, her red nails
on a man’s nape while she smokes —
what are we to make of all this?
One thing I made of it, for sure, was a set of pleasing, interesting visual images. It’s like watching a movie, or a cartoon, an animation of crisp, clear, colourful drawings.
In one of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘I Am Not an Italian’, our poet is ‘leaning on a zinc bar in Perguia … my foot up on the worn iron railing’, and this reader is immediately enjoying the visual scene, all the more when he and his fellow cafe-goers are ‘draining our little white cups with an artful rotation of the wrist’.
Turning to syntax, well, yes, the poems are conversational, and not at all tightly compressed. They are written in well-formed colloquial sentences, replete with idiom. But beyond this, the syntax is very various, which keeps the reader engaged. Thus, in ‘Sleeping on My Side’ (another favourite), he casually describes the two geographical halves of America, thus:
At home, it’s the east that I ignore,
with its theaters and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.
The east is modified with a list, a pair of noun concepts to represent it through a surprising synecdoche. The west by a single adjective (that nevertheless evokes wide-ranging associations, perhaps including cowboy movies). How many writers might have preferred to reflect the symmetry of the comparison by doubling up their syntax?
If you look back to the opening sentence of ‘Mice’, you’ll see a deep nesting of relative clauses that’s not at all untypical. Collins’s sentences are easy to read, but they’d often be tricky to parse, supposing you met them in grammar class. Not for him the contemporary commonplace of the piled on single-level list of main verb-phrases or direct objects.
Here is another charming opening to further illustrate this point:
She’s painfully slow,
so I often have to stop and wait
while she examines some roadside weeds
as if she were reading the biography of a famous dog.
(‘Walking My Seventy-Five-Year-Old Dog’)
And here’s one more, this one employing the notorious fronted adverbial:
About a month ago, I bought a small transistor radio in a junk shop
run by a man as tall as a grandfather clock,
a pink plastic one from the nineteen fifties,
which plays only love songs from the past,
as if the radio had a memory and a melancholy disposition.
(‘And It’s Raining Outside, Which Always Adds’)
Rich syntax to express unusual, droll ideas. Finally, turning to depth, I had better admit that, of course, the labelling of ideas as deep versus shallow is likely to be an idiosyncratic judgment. Because Collins’s touch is so light, it’s easy to suppose that his ideas must be too, but they don’t seem so to me: rather, they make plain how intelligent and well-read and thoughtful he is.
Let’s look at ‘Evening Wind’ which ‘is the title of one of Edward Hopper’s / pen-and-ink drawings’. The poem considers a more available title, as a way of introducing us to the central figures of the sketch, a woman and a bed, before noticing the curtains. It finishes with this reflection:
It was not until I closed my eyes and imagined
her gradually falling asleep
after sliding naked under the covers
that I could envision the evening wind,
not just the wind as revealed by the curtains,
but the invisible wind itself blowing
through the room of this ingeniously titled drawing.
What an intriguing and particular commentary this is, it seems to me, concerning perception and imagination, the way that language can work as a bridge between the two, the evocation of lived experience. It raises a point with many philosophical or psychological echoes, depending on one’s background. It seems strange to say we can envision the invisible, but even that superficial near-contradiction serves the message. The message might also work as a kind of guide for how to read poems, especially those, like Collins’s own, which seem clear: attend to the surface and enjoy its details, then pause, close your eyes, and let your memory and imagination work their tricks with the lines they’ve just been given.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof (September 2021), and a pamphlet The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments (February 2022) were published by the same press.
Moniza Alvi’s Fairoz reviewed by Rosie Jackson
Fairoz by Moniza Alvi Fairoz. £10.99 Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780376004
After reading Moniza Alvi’s brilliant previous collections, especially At the Time of Partition (2013) and Europa (2008), I wasn’t surprised to find Fairoz equally ambitious in its far-reaching politics and deeply felt human concerns. Fairoz is a fictional teenager, vulnerable to the Internet and its dark pathways, drawn in to connection with a male figure who calls himself Tahir (later we hear he’s also sometimes called Abdul, sometimes Anwar) through whom Fairoz is seduced towards ideas of Islamic extremism. In a way it’s a coming of age story, though the adult world holds few attractions and I found it a hard, harsh collection to read through in a sequential way.
Behind the human narrative and woven through it is an archetypal battle between good and evil, God and the devil, their underlying and unresolved allegorical conflict a powerful ongoing battle, as in this little poem ‘The Contest’:
God held one end of the argument
and the Devil, the other. They heaved
and strained but nothing ever
moved much. The two of them
locked in a tug-of-war.
The rope they couldn’t drop.
Elements of folklore and fairy tale are also threaded alongside, though as the poem ‘Not Enchantment’ suggests, this is the darker, brutal realm of the human psyche where there is little uplifting magic, the notion of a soul or higher self or angel watching over us little but wish-fulfilment – ‘if this night-star could be true’.
The poem ‘Fairoz and Annat’ reads:
‘Fuck off!’ she said quietly. ‘Fuck off!’
She knows We don’t swear.
But now she swears a lot, under her breath.
And sometimes louder. Stonewords.
‘Why do you swear so much, Fairoz?’
‘Because I’m older. Because I want to.
And I need to that’s why.’
This is loss of innocence with a vengeance, an axe is always about to fall, and in the merciless world Fairoz enters, there is little escape. Fairoz becomes obsessed with Tahir and the way he can convincingly twist the tenets of faith into Islamic fundamentalism.
What would you do for Allah?
What would you do?
What wouldn’t you do?
We discover Tahir’s radicalisation has come from his own background of being subject to racism, abuse, poverty and violence. ‘When I was a kid our town was mostly white and our window was smashed so many times there was no point mending it. When they banged on the door we had upstairs. Like we couldn’t exist. I can’t forget that.’
The dramatisation of the human story is brilliant, and the fact it makes such harsh and disturbing reading is a mark of Moniza Alvi’s genius in bringing such a harrowing story to life. The poems, stark and carefully crafted, show how global politics filter down into the minutiae of all our lives, in extreme form here in a tale about religious extremism, but present everywhere, innocence just about impossible for kids, especially girls, now, growing up with internet manipulation, and dangers of sexual, mental and spiritual abuse.
Of course, with a foreground focus on the dangers of Isis, Islam is filtered through the fragmented, jagged, partial, imagined, fractured versions of it that Fairoz experiences, and it is inevitable that God does not get too good a press. Where he appears at all, he’s rather ineffective, his best quality seeming to be his ability to suffer – which the last line of this poem conveys with brilliant heartfelt economy:
For an hour or two God lay down
in the shade of a wide-canopied tree.
‘Wake up!’ laughed the Devil who
always had to keep track of him.
‘You don’t have time to sleep!’
‘I’m not asleep,’ said God. And sighed.
Each eyelid was as heavy as a war.
All in all, I found Fairoz a disturbingly unforgettable collection, so powerfully done as the girl moves from one story of estrangement into another. When Fairoz asks the mirror whether she is young or old, the answer that comes is ‘young-old. Old-young’, leaving me terribly sad to think there’s no longer such a thing as youth, terribly sad for the fate of real faith, and terribly anxious for anyone who has daughters.
Rosie Jackson lives in Teignmouth, Devon. She won 1st prize Poetry Teignmouth 2021, 3rd prize Acumen 2021, 1st prize Poetry Space 2019. She collaborated with the late Graham Burchell on Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about the art and lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer, (Two Rivers Press, 2020) and with Dawn Gorman on Aloneness is a Many-headed Bird (Hedgehog Press, 2020). Her pamphlet Light Makes It Easy is published by Indigo Dreams 2021. www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Vernon Scannell’s Farewell Performance reviewed by Stephen Claughton
Farewell Performance by Vernon Scannell. £9.99. Smokestack Books. ISBN: 978-1-838465-33-9
‘Remember when it used to be fun?’ Simon Armitage asked before the start of one of his Oxford lectures. The loudest murmurs of assent seemed to come from the older members of the audience, people who may have remembered poets such as Vernon Scannell (1922-2007). Although he remained haunted by his experiences of war, Scannell certainly belonged to a time when poetry was fun. In Farewell Performance, his friend, Martin Reed, and friend and publisher, Jeremy Robson, have assembled poems from his six last books and some that were uncollected. Subtitled Collected Later Poems, it carries on from where the Collected Poems 1950-1993 left off and comes with a preface by Reed, an Introduction by Alan Brownjohn and a memoir appended by Robson.
Having worked as a professional boxer, teacher, novelist, broadcaster and critic, Scannell was clearly something of a character. In his memoir, Robson records that: ‘Vernon was a great anecdotalist, passionate about poetry, able to complete a Times crossword in record time, and full of entertaining stories about his misspent youth and war experiences …’ It could stand as a description of the poems themselves, which represent a continuation of his favourite themes: war, love, poetry, language, classical music, drink, boxing, youth and age.
The crosswords are no surprise, given Scannell’s interest in wordplay, or ‘the lexically ludic’ as he describes it in “Word Games”. He had a particular weakness for punning titles and wasn’t put off by discovering that “Eidolon Parade” (from his 1965 collection, Epithets of War) didn’t work as a pun on ‘idle on parade’, the emphasis in the Greek word for ghost falling on the second syllable. In Farewell Performance, we have “Elgar Louts”, “Gray’s Allergy” and “Snow Joke” (also the title of a poem by Simon Armitage), as well as “Daily Mail”, (about waiting for a love letter) and “Night Reflection” (thoughts on seeing his face in the window of a train at night). There are poems about verbal confusions arising from old age. “Hearing Aid” begins by attributing misheard radio announcements to deafness (‘“Leopards pray”, / the surplice voice intoned’), but ends by suggesting that rather more is amiss, when even with the aid inserted ‘The Great C Major’ evokes ‘Tall, muscular and lean / in full dress uniform, / a stern, bemedalled Royal Marine.’ Aphasia is described in “A La Recherche des Mots Perdus” and a more general loss of memory in “A Few Words to the Not-So-Old”.
The loss may be cultural, as in “Overheard in the Students’ Bar”, which plays on the distinction between Hopkins’s ‘terrible’ sonnets and terrible sonnets, or “Gray’s Allergy” (subtitled or More Words Overheard in the Students’ Bar), which conflates elegy with allergy, Thomas Gray with Gray’s Anatomy, then Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and more. Scannell often explores ambiguity (one poem is called “Ambiguities”) and how the same word is used differently. There is a sequence called “Delivering the Goods”, in which we have Good in Bed, Good for Nothing, Good Eggs, Good Grief, Good at English, Good Citizen and Good Time.
He had a wide knowledge of English poetry. Robson quotes from an article by the journalist, Simon Jenkins, who was taught by Scannell: ‘He did not teach English, which presumably was his job. He simply read poetry from start to finish. He read the entire canon and made us read it back.’ There are direct references to poets such as Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Pope and Gray and echoes of twentieth century poets who, like Scannell, were formalists – Auden and Graves in the way he constructs an argument in verse and Larkin in his everyday settings (for example, “Easter Visit”, “Wedding Picture” or “Prodrome”), although his poems don’t take off in the way that the best of Larkin’s do. In establishing a social setting, he can be almost Betjemanesque (“Ice Bucket”).
Nevertheless, Scannell had his own voice, which was conversational and direct, although he did description and atmosphere as well:
The motorway hazy, an evening in summer,
now twilit, the pause before swooping darkness;
headlamps approaching already aglimmer
but icily pale; incessant the sizzle
of tyres on the tarmac; at a touch the car radio
awakes to flavour the gaoled air with music,
saxophone, drums, piano and trumpet.
(“Aunt Clarice Dancing the Charleston”)
His insistence on form means that his poems often read as light verse, although by a serious poet, the endings perhaps a little too pat, with a fondness for paradox. There is also some quaintly old-fashioned phrasing (‘tributary gifts’, ‘a common appellation of my childhood’, ‘the knowledge is posterior to the act’ and ‘nomenclature of things’), though no doubt this is intended to be jocular. In “Maker and Creatures”, he says:
Sometimes you think, grateful and surprised,
‘That’s really not too bad’, or gloomily:
‘Many have done as well and far, far better’.
Or, in despair, ‘My God, that’s terrible.
What was I thinking of to publish it!’
Thankfully, none of the poems here falls into the last category.
Scannell was well aware that his kind of poetry was out of fashion. Brownjohn says that he ‘despaired of seeing in his time “a taste for shapeliness, cool argument and melody’s fulfilment” ever coming back.’ It’s a sentiment amusingly expressed in the poem, “Barometers of Fashion”, about inheriting from an uncle clothes too big for him, including an overcoat. In the winter of 1963:
The vicious icy weather swept away
What doubts I might have felt. So I went swathed
From chin to ankles, hem an inch or so
Above the ground and trailing in the snow.
Instead of being mocked, however, he finds that it’s the height of fashion, raising hopes that if he keeps his own, unfashionable clothes for long enough:
Perhaps the time will come around when they
Again seem up to date. But I must say
This seems unlikely. Could anyone suppose
A craze for doublet and cross-gartered hose?
Impossible. But then, one never knows.
Like many poets, Scannell was fond of drink. It provided him with the one religious experience of his life (“A Numinous Event”), although he was also well aware of its dangers (“Drink Problem”). His overcoat made its appearance in ‘“The George” saloon, Great Portland Street / Where BBC producers used to meet / With actors, poets, lovers, friends and foes’ and although he was a little too young to have experienced Fitzrovia in its heyday and lived the latter part of his life in Otley, near Leeds, it’s hard not to think of him as belonging to London’s literary bohemia. As he says in “Missing Things”:
And there are also places that I miss:
those Paris streets and bars I can’t forget,
the scent of caporal and wine and piss;
the pubs in Soho where the poets met…
There’s a similarly louche romanticism in his poems about boxing. Scannell, who grew up with a physically abusive father, was himself a boxer and wrote about the sport from the inside. In addition to pugilistic metaphors, there are poems specifically about boxing, including “A Kind of Glory”, a sequence written in memory of Howard Winstone, the Welsh world featherweight champion, who succeeded despite severely damaging his right hand in an industrial accident and, after boxing, worked as a hospital porter. Scannell wrote about boxing in the same way he might about poetry:
Wealth, the noisy worship of the crowd,
might come, but these are never what you crave.
Your love is for one thing itself, the pure
enactment of the perfect moves, a blend
of the aesthetic and the agonistic which,
as spectacle, is thrilling, but to do
is pastime for the Gods, a true vocation.
(“A Kind of Glory”)
Scannell is best remembered for his war poems, in particular his 1960s collections, Walking Wounded and Epithets of War. His own war service was chequered. He fought in North Africa and took part in the Normandy landings. However, he also spent time in a military prison in Alexandria, having deserted after witnessing a massacre. Then, at the end of the war, he was arrested in Leeds, having demobbed himself, while convalescing from wounds received in France. Robson records that Kingsley Amis and some others objected to one of Scannell’s books being launched at the Imperial War Museum. Luckily, the Literary Director of the Museum was an admirer and stood firm. His war experiences haunted him for the rest of his life and war poems still featured in his final collection, Last Post. He clearly suffered from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although it’s not a term that he would have used himself. Recalling his landing at Sword Beach, he writes:
What I that day with many others shared
was ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’, or,
as specialists might say, we were ‘shit-scared’.
His range within the genre of war poetry is striking, including a gripping narrative poem about an air crew (“The Final Run’), darkly humorous monologues (“A Binyon Option”) and the grimly evocative “Remembering the Dead at Wadi Akarit”:
As the sun strengthens, a faint sweet feculence spreads.
Dark birds wheel and soar. Fresh light applies
a maquillage of ochre and red. Furtive needs
and greeds begin to plunder the submissive dead.
Scannell was fond of dramatic monologues and they still appear, but he often does the opposite in these later poems and instead of writing about characters in the first person, writes about himself in the third person, as he does in “The Year of the Crab”, a moving sequence of poems about his diagnosis with and treatment for oesophageal cancer. Perhaps it was a way of distancing himself, although he returns to the first person in the final poem in the book, “One More Last Poem”.
A compulsive poet (“The Need”), Scannell remained active to the end. For someone so prolific, it’s reassuring to know that he faced the same difficulties as most poets (“Content and Discontent” and “It Should Be Easier”). He was also active in promoting poetry (he once took the post of poet in residence on a council estate in Oxfordshire – not a very happy experience, although it seems that he eventually won the residents over and became a regular in the local pub) and “Farewell Performance” is an apt choice of title poem, given his frequent appearance at readings. Robson describes meeting him at a poetry and jazz concert. Initially suspicious, Scannell quickly relaxed and later on would recite some of his poems to a specially-written jazz accompaniment. (I was lucky enough to hear him read in Manchester in the 1970s, although without the jazz band.)
Vernon Scannell deserves to be remembered as an accomplished poet who was dedicated to the art and craft of verse and Martin Read and Jeremy Robson have done a great service in bringing these poems together. ‘I had a good time writing this’, he says at the end of “Delivering the Goods”. The reader will share his fun. He definitely delivered the goods.
Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. He has published two pamphlets: The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey & Windle, 2020). He reviews for The High Window and London Grip and blogs occasionally at www.stephenclaughton.com, where links to his poems and reviews can also be found.
Caroline Bird’s Rookie: Selected Poems reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Rookie by Caroline Bird. £12.99. Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 80017 186 2
I made a good decision when I chose to read Caroline Bird’s Selected Poems, Rookie, backwards, starting with pieces from her most recent collection, The Air Year (2020) and going all the way back to her astonishingly assured debut, at the age of fifteen, with Looking through Letterboxes (2002). In fact, I started with the ‘Afterword’ in which Bird provides us with two keys to help us unlock the poems. The first is what she says about her sexuality. She has been ‘out’ since she was thirteen, but this does not mean her feelings about being lesbian have been straightforward:
One big thing I noticed is how often I subconsciously translated my relationships into surrealist vehicles in which I was miraculously heterosexual. It’s funny how internalised shame can turn you into a surrealist because you’re constantly trying to hide behind a wild, fantastical (yet ironically safer) scenario.
This passage reveals her conflict: to be heterosexual would be ‘miraculous’; to be gay brings ‘internalised shame’. The later collections are certainly much more open about same sex or non ‘cis’ relationships. The other point the poet draws attention to is the idea of poetry as a form of hiding, or masking:
Even though people often associate poems with truth, I chose poetry because it let me hide and, once hidden, I could be brave, roll my heart in sequins and chuck it out, glittering, into the street. I could take the things I was ashamed of and translate them into dreams, turn drugs into fairy godmothers, breakdowns into tropical islands, depression into a wild horse with a clipboard; and feel protected…
Caroline Bird’s poetry is often described as surrealist, a label she accepts here; in interviews, she has also referred to codes and I think it is helpful to recognise that the wilful and conscious use of code in her work is as often a factor as the bubbling up of the unconscious into surrealism. The best poems combine the two approaches, the distancing of self through a coded or symbolic premise which then develops by licensing the imagination to exploit the surreal. In ‘Nancy and the Torpedo’ the bizarre premise is the discovery of a torpedo in the forest which the protagonist’s companion, Nancy, has a very one-sided sexual encounter. The narrative develops as an exploration of the relationship between the two women:
‘You stupid idiot,’ she said, her breath
quickening as she rubbed and grinded,
‘Can’t you see I’m doing this for you?
Can’t you see I’m exploding for both of us.’
Bird describes the inception of this poem in her Forward Arts Foundation interview, : ‘when I wrote ‘Nancy found an entire torpedo in the forest’ I had no idea who Nancy was or what on earth a torpedo was doing in a forest so the characters in the poem were responding to the situation at the same time as me.’ Be that as it may, the poem gains its weight as it reveals the reality of insecurity and low self-esteem underpinning the surreal fiction. In the earlier poems, I sense a greater straining after effect, the trying out of forms as in ‘Trouble Came to the Turnip’, work which is occasionally derivative, like ‘Gingerbread House’ and ‘Familiar Ground’ which recall Angela Carter. However, many of these poems tap into the form and content of nursery rhyme and fairy tale where the surreal imagination is often at its strongest and Bird is generally able to add her own twist. She experiments with different forms, such as the list poems, which I don’t particularly like, and disguised sonnets at which she is increasingly a dab hand: ‘Checkout’ is a subtle love poem where the traditional octave and sestet are replaced by two sentences, while the final poem ‘Speechless’ seems to reverse octave and sestet with a volta in the seventh line: ‘but tonight all the words left/ the house in their thinnest summer/ jackets…’This is a fascinating and cryptic piece, which in its placing seems to promise a new direction for the poet.
We are habitually told not to regard poems as autobiographical, not to identify the poet with the person, not to assume the poet is writing about themselves. In another, unusually direct sonnet about her period in rehab, the poet addresses criticism of her poetic style:
My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?
Perhaps the poet is hiding from herself but not very successfully. The poem about the Narcissus legend admits the truth in its title: ‘This Poem is Actually About Me’. It develops in a typical Birdian surreal narrative but concludes: “Narcissus splashed his lips against the water / and tried, he really tried, / to love himself.’
Caroline Bird creates a poetic universe inhabited by an extraordinary diversity of strange beings and peculiar behaviours. She presents her poems through the voice of a sad-faced clown, so that while they are often funny, they are not jokes and they are not happy. Nevertheless, all this diversity is the product of introspection, even narcissism. This volume is exciting, entertaining but a bit like a sweetie jar. If you ingest too much at once, it may leave you feeling queasy and surfeited.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but has spent most of her adult life in England and now lives in Oxford. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent being Back Country, Littoral, 2022. She is currently hosting a poetry podcast magazine, Poetry Worth Hearing.
Mike Barlow’s Hotel Anonymous reviewed by Isabel Bermudez
Hotel Anonymous by Mike Barlow. £10.00. Pindrop Press. ISBN 978-1-8384373-2-9
Mike Barlow’s latest collection of poems is one of those rare beasts: a collection which while di-vided into three discrete sections, nevertheless achieves a unity of theme and motif. The poems speak to each other within each section and across the collection in such a way as to make Hotel Anonymous amount to considerably more than the sum of its parts.
In the opening section, ‘The Pause’ sets the premiss: ‘Imagine all the lives others might have us live’. The poem goes on to describe those possible lives as imagined by others that ‘…for a second attribute to you a life/not like theirs but a version of it all the same.’ What strangers make of us, ‘projecting narratives and roles/you have no inkling of…’ is contrasted to the friend the poet has come to meet, in whose gift it is to ‘give you back/ your bearings, return you to old habits of as-sumption and conjecture…’Someone ‘who can maybe imagine your life too’ This theme of conjur-ing ‘a life’ , or exchanging one’s present life for another, or leading two lives runs right through the book. The poet is also a painter and this reviewer kept returning to the line ‘whichever life we live, its the other calls from ‘The painter in the barn’ .
Just one example among many fluent, musical poems, of this exploration of ‘borrowed lives’ – for want of a better term – is ‘On the run’: ‘Driving down a small suburban street/somewhere in the heart, I begin, as I often do/ to imagine a different life, furnished/ otherwise than mine.’ The poet pulls up outside a ‘white pebble-dash semi’, rings the bell to find ‘ A man my age but older’, who ‘takes my car keys, stands aside to let me in/and walks out.’ A voice from the back asks/ who it is. Just some crazy, I say.’ There are memorable details in the living room: Spode, crystal, antimacas-sars. The poet sits down and has tea and biscuits with the lady of the house and watches a quiz show. The poem finishes with ‘ I know the answers/before the questions and think to myself/if I were on the run they’d never find me.’ Here and throughout, a freshness, a startling use of paradox subverts expectations and, time and again, avoids the trite conclusion. Consider, for example, the last stanza of ‘Mulvaney’
It was the horses and the drink they said he knew it wasn’t
he’d charmed his way this far they said why stop
but all he knew was the camouflage of words
not getting caught. The moving on
not looking back for who’s to know
When truth’s a thing an honest man can’t tell’.
‘Sourdough’ is a wonderful poem which describes an odd-job man, with ‘tools/ of his overlooked trade stacked and secured;/boxes of bolts, screws, nails, grommets…’ in the back of his red ‘ex-postie’s van’. ‘We may think he’s been around/since our grandparent’s day but he’s kept up,/business now conducted by smartphone/and cash in hand.’ In the final stanza we have
Though when we need to put a finger on it,
his place in our world, we must trust to voicemail
or if we’re lucky, hail him like a taxi
as he happens by, so much a matter of chance,
the business of keeping house and home together.
This portrait of the painter/decorater/builder character is one we can all recognise, and it is also, it seems that of the poet/ Everyman. Both the tradesman’s precariousness and his elusiveness – he operates just below the radar – work as metaphors for the makeshift business of living in general and for the writing life itself.
Towards the end of the first section there are poems dealing with old age, hospitals, death. In ‘Cor-ridor’, we find a ‘straitened maze /its side doors opening and shutting like utterances/thought better of.’ And here too is ‘Michael’, a poem about a wound dresser, which at the same time wonders about Boniface, ‘there with a lump/on his ebony brow brought in by police/with his head in his hands…’. Everywhere it seems, and a waiting room is no exception, there are ‘unspoken questions like/ Boniface there’ which ‘may never be answered’.
Across the collection, Barlow employs metaphor to explore his themes of identity, inheritance, be-longing, chance and fate. The town maze described in Sonamnubalists kickstarts the second section, Before the Song , exploring the poet’s childhood, In ‘Back again to the town maze ‘ we have
I came here to find someone
my father, say,
with his bad jokes, familiar arguments,
the brother I wished I had, my wife
before she knew before I did I’d leave her.
In ‘A side passage’ the poet meets again familiar figures from the past: ‘Uncles John, Dick and Fred’/ slumped like sacks of corn feed/on chairs and sofa…’ He says later in the poem
I’m so shocked at Dick without his glasses on,
the ever-ready implements of John’s huge hands
limp and vulnerable, Fred’s paunch rising and falling
like a smithy’s bellows, I turn and run, intruder
in another life no one had thought to warn me of.
Back along the red and black chequerboard I go
until I’m old enough to be their father.
in ‘Working for my father’, Barlow describes accompanying his father’s workmates down the pub. He is separated from them by class and by their experience of the war, envying their easy ‘give and take’. But Barlow chooses to focus in the end, as he does with Boniface in ‘Michael’ not on his ‘outsiderness’ but on another ‘unanswered question’ which in this case, is Len:
And Len, ex-paratrooper, roughhouse, whose wife would,
any minute now, burst through the door demanding
this week’s pay before he tipped it down his throat.
And it is this willingness to look hard not just at himself, but at the wider world, its ambiguities and contradictions, and what’s more to articulate these as unanswered questions, often through the de-piction of ‘characters’, which lends many of these poems such depth and interest. There is autobio-graphical detail of course, but also so much more. In the last section – ‘Worlds’ – the poet looks at his current situation and relationships. There are standout poems here, including ‘Second guessing’, where at the Hotel Anonymous, one can play with anonymity, with a life led simply as an observer, before choosing to check out and assume one’s (by now) unfamiliar name and identity. One solution is to delete oneself:
Yesterday I deleted myself, closed my e-mail,
gave away the Mac, lobbed the mobile into the pond.
(‘The surreptitious life’)
The tension between life lived in the modern world, with its attendant technology and the calling of the poet, is played out in this last section with wry humour ( ‘From a little book of passwords’). My personal favourites from this section are ‘Between Rooms,’ where for rooms, read lives, ‘Victoriana ‘and ‘Parish’.
In ‘Parish’ Barlow juxtaposes the rural past ‘in the shire’ with the present of his local surroundings. The human comedy, – class division and the situation of the disenfranchised – despite the passage of centuries, remains essentially the same:
Where in the alehouse there was once
Francis Bland, pauper, common quarreller
and brawler, supping there, his clipped coin
spent on booze instead of shoes…’
Barlow then asks us to picture the present.
Now think of us today. Quiz night. Drinks
are on the winning team, a chequered crew
of offcomers and locals – architect, mole-catcher,
teacher, lengthsman. This time their coin is good.
There’s talk of the euro-zone, its sleight-of-hand,
Bent politicians, bankers. Sedition’s in the air.
But there it stays. Broken fences there may be,
stray strikes to deal with. But poachers, rustlers,
diesel thieves, they’re from elsewhere, up the road
In Keasden say, Blackburn or Lancaster.’
In ‘Victoriana’, the focus is on on a mother-in-law’s white elephant of an unwanted wedding gift. The history of this family heirloom, a dresser or sideboard of some sort – exactly what it is never specified – is conjured. It has been a witness to the poet’s marriage, a container of brake fluid; im-perial spanners; mortgage documents; dead tax returns. It is bulky, so awkwardly-shaped and cum-bersome that ‘It blocked the landing, caught guests ribs/and elbows as they padded to the loo.’ Barlow tells us ‘It does now as a hen-coop where the clipped girls/ and their scruffy cockerel script and peck.’ Finally he looks to the far future and what will become of his restored home and its and meadow,
…Years beyond us –
this meadow set aside (woodland and a golf course)
the house razed for retirement flats –
it’ll lurk there still, a dreadnought in the nettles.
And what will become of the various real and imagined lives, anonymous or otherwise, the poet’s homes and imagination have contained?
…Of what future
might we be the past? For those who’ll follow,
take our place and make it theirs, what arguments
and heart storms, dreams and seasons must play out
in this house with its ancient wiring, what other nights
or hail against the glass, what off-key winds?
In ‘Elsewhere’, the final poem of the collection, the maze makes a last appearance – not the town maze this time – but more an idea towards which Hotel Anonymous – geographically – from city to town – and from youth to age and past to present – has been twisting and leading. Rather than proceeding logically towards a natural centre, life only turns unexpectedly. So Barlow ends this highly enjoyable and beautifully crafted collection with the image of the rural ‘craggy maze’: a be-guiling conclusion and a final, teasing paradox:
Then the prismatic arch faded
As if we’d passed through it
And the track we were on
Turned unexpectedly: sheep trods,
boulder scree, a craggy maze to bring us
miles from where we’d planned to be.
Isabel Bermudez is a Colombian-born poet and textile artist. Her latest collection is Serenade, poems of Spain and the New World (Paekakariki Press, 2020). Magazine credits include The London Magazine, Scintilla, Under the Radar, The High Window, Agenda, Acumen. Two full collections with Rockingham Press and two further pamphlets, one of which, Madonna Moon, won the 2018 Coast to Coast to coast pamphlet competition.
Tim Dooley’s Discoveries reviewed by Tom Phillips
Discoveries by Tim Dooley. Two Rivers Press. £9.99. ISBN: 9781909747982
In his poem ‘Coincidences’ from the 2015 collection Buried Music, Peter Robinson recalls an ‘uncanny’ chance meeting with Tim Dooley on the London Underground while both poets were on their way home from separate poetry readings. Although ‘uncanny’, Robinson also observes that ‘meeting that way/fitted well with your calling, this serious game’ and it is this notion of poetry itself – not just the machinery of readings etc – being both serious and a kind of game (a language-game in the Wittgensteinian sense) comes to mind when reading Dooley’s own new collection.
There is certainly much playing with form here, whether that be in the intricately structured prose sequence ‘6 panels’ or the more loosely structured, but no less powerful prose exploration of the origins of slavery,‘Traffiques and Differences’; in the interlocking mirrored lineation of ‘Diving into The Waves’, the rolling list-poem ‘Let the dog back’, the 12-line ‘Tomsk’ with its consistent line-end rhymes and half-rhymes on ‘street’ or the circularity of ‘Yellow’ that has a feel of Philip Glass’ systems music about it. What characterises much of the work collected here, however, is a pared-down, tightly written poetry that simultaneously gives us objects in, situations from and perceptions of the actually existing world and allows us the space to consider and reconsider them, often in the context of thoughts, hypotheses or propositions which are themselves pared down to aphoristic brevity.
In a collection that is much-concerned with art and representation (in all its senses, including the political) but wears its copious intertextual references lightly – indeed sometimes playfully – the key central sequence, ‘2020 Visions’, is perhaps the most sustained exploration of how we see, reach towards understanding and represent the discoveries we make about the world, ourselves and others in it. In ‘Dublin, 31.1.20’, for example, Dooley contrasts the sculptures in the city’s public spaces of ‘Nation-building statesmen,/sages, soldiers and abstract virtues’ made vaguely absurd by birds perching on their heads with ‘a small study/of marguerites on a mantelpiece’, the kind of ‘Unnecessary, intimate art’ that ‘holds the eye steady as we unpick/the secret bargain of metaphors’, while, in the following poem, ‘Breaking Away’, he notes: ‘The challenge may be to move from the/self-portrait to the landscape, to the detail of what grows between grasses,//to what goes crawling there, making its difference known’.
As the date in the title indicates, the poems were occasioned during the pandemic and the deep strain of social distancing and lockdowns run through the sequence (for the most part beneath the surface, rather than by exploding into view). In response, the poems themselves offer the opportunity to consider how what was simultaneously a mass, shared experience and a highly individual one might have recalibrated our perceptions during ‘our guarded times’, bringing differences and distances into sharper focus, but also having the potential to reintroduce us to the unfamiliar. There are reparative moments throughout, often generated simply by noticing ‘a different flower in that window’, ‘taking in what’s beautiful/in the passing of the growing year/and looking back at the sun – still low, yet bright’ or, perhaps more ambiguously, finding that ‘even the spent silver nitrous/oxide capsules … start to look like evidence of/someone’s reckless grasp at joy’. Indeed, the whole sequence ends with ‘There’s dancing’ which, despite its final reminder that ‘tomorrow/there will be work to be done’, evokes – via Martha & The Vandellas – a joyous public ‘silent disco’ where even ‘squirrels in gardens/who hang upside down/while raiding birdfeeders/are dancing’.
True to the promise of its title, Discoveries is indeed a book of discoveries, whether they be minor transient observations of a wood’s ‘leafy order [being] shaken/by a startling haste of clapping wings’ in ‘Forest Burial’, the inhuman processes of commodification that enabled colonialism in ‘Traffiques…’ or ‘the heart’s truth that such stories have’ in ‘Legend’. At the same time, however, it is as much about the process of discovery, the art of noticing, in itself and it is this, in combination with Dooley’s adroit use of language and poetry’s other resources, which ensures it engages on multiple levels.
Tom Phillips is a poet, translator and lecturer living in Sofia, Bulgaria. Recent publications include the online pamphlets How Much He Knew (2022) and Scenes from Unfilmed Cinema (2021) and, as editor, Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work (Shearsman 2021). He has translated many contemporary Bulgarian poets including Kristin Dimitrova, Petar Tchouhov, Amelia Licheva and Ekaterina Grigorova, as well as leading Bulgarian modernist Geo Milev. He is contributing editor for Bulgarian literary website Bulgata and teaches creative writing at Sofia University.
Ron Scowcroft’s Second Glance reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Second Glance by Ron Scowcroft. £8.00. Overstep Books. ISBN: 9781906856922
Ron Scowcroft’s first full collection explores relationships which have been lost but are found again, that connect the protagonist to an ever-changing reality – poetry to make sense of ageing, love, conflicts and global issues such as migration and the environment, that challenges the essence of our being human. Scowcroft’s striking lines encapsulate his thought in powerful imagery which conveys a rich sense of life. The vision is sincere and compassionate and implies loss but also explores the miracle of being alive and staying alive despite the difficulties of today’s world. Problems in communication are resolved in an open and genuine dialogue with the other that opens up the imagination in which the poet finds the space to express himself:
I find you again,
mist condensed on every lash
on every fibre of your hair,
in the crook of your sleeve;
how close we were.
(‘Greylags in Fog’)
The image of the partner is focused on details that convey an intimacy beautifully captured in the last line.
The collection is divided into three sections, ‘Peninsula’, ‘Care’ and ‘Sharing Territories’. They describe a development in themes that emphasise relationships, suggesting a search for connections in a shape-shifting world in which we cannot find definite answers. It is a land that, like a peninsula, ‘narrows’ leaving the protagonist contemplating an absence when the land merges with the sea. This vision seems to be enough for the protagonist; it nurtures the imagination, expressing the mystery of nature, both human nature and the environment, in terms of our capacity to survive in adverse and difficult situations. In this way, Scowcroft’s poetry creates a world that engages the reader through rhythm, sound and the careful use of words:
On quiet days I feel again
an urgency of shadows,
the heavy splint of timber stumping through,
recall your frantic hand
within my yaw and reach,
then holding back to stay beneath.
(‘Beneath the Ice’)
The interchange of line breaks and enjambment produces a rhythm that works in unison with the imagery. The form therefore complies with the content, conveying wholeness, a positive conclusion that seems to make sense of our life.
The second section, ‘Care’, presents portraits of elderly people the protagonist probably visited in a care home. The emphasis this time is on the effects of ageing on the body and the mind. There are moving details, humour and a compassionate tone as well as original descriptions that make these poems unique:
I tell them I came upstream
by the flow of the moon,
recall for them the novelty of trees,
how they found me in the shallows
and gave me this bed
and this walking frame,
but they say that these
are misremembered things.
(‘Marjory: A Mermaid’s song in Age’)
In the poem, Marjory has hands like spider crabs and there is salt on her lips when she sings. It is a surreal vision that validates the subject despite her apparently unimportant existence. There is a similar perspective in the poem ‘Margaret’, in which the protagonist ‘opens her wings/the ceiling lifts to sky/and she’s high above the house’.
Some of the people, sadly, die leaving their clothes ‘like disembodied memories’ that linger for a while and then are gone. This absence is counterbalanced in the figure of the carer who answers a calling of sorts:
because this is my calling
bring no care in your eyes
because I would see pity
take a comb to my hair
because I’d want you to say
pretty, how pretty, how pretty
The final line expresses the importance of caring no matter what or who the other person is, or what their condition and feelings are. Giving joy and being in tune with people seems to offer a solution the misunderstandings and the solitude that can afflict our being human. Reconnecting with others and empathising are not just duties or a way of being kind but might also be the truest way of being ourselves in continuous dialogue with the other.
The last section, ‘Sharing Territories’, consolidates the main themes of the collection. Significantly, the word ‘sharing’ evokes a deep sense of community and communication. There are poems about conflicts that are seen from a distant perspective and that focus on ordinary people rather than on the bigger picture. The final poem, ‘Aquarius’, which is about the poet’s birth under this zodiac sign, reflects the uncertain human condition in which we come to life and eventually ends in a positive tone. The poet is grateful that he has survived ‘against the odds’. The enthralling enjambments of the last lines express this vitality in a dreamlike atmosphere that merges with the harshness of life. The final message is that sometimes our dreams come true when we share our time, ideas and aspirations with others. This inspiring collection is sustained by observation and insight; it gives the reader a chance to have a ‘second glance’ at being human in a reality that can be demanding but is also stimulating.
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. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020 by Dempsey & Windle. She completed her PhD degree on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/
Caroline Maldonado’s Faultlines reviewed by Deirdre Anne Hines
Faultlines by Caroline Maldonado. £10.00. VOLE. ISBN978-1-913-32967-9
Italy has been the fulcrum around which Caroline Maldonado navigates her poetic eye. Her poetry publications include a pamphlet ‘What they say in Avenale’ , and four books translated from Italian. It comes as no surprise then that her first full collection centres on the consequences of the 2016 earthquake in Le Marche. What is surprisingly original, however, is how she uses that event to further examine the multiple meanings of landscape itself, and how that event becomes a springboard to examine landscapes of the mind itself. The word ‘landscape’ entered English from the Dutch in the late 16th century with its implied meanings of stasis and order. It was not used to mean ‘physical terrain’ until as late as 1725.As a force or medium which we live within is how landscape has been described in more recent times, and this is perfectly realised in the opening poem simply titled ‘Mario’. Maldonado’s use of simile here is neither loud nor angry, but gentle and interesting:’fine as silver paper, gleams the sea’. Mario’s lamp lights the clods of earth until dawn arrives:’Daybreak picks out edges’. The poem’s bucolic scene belies what is to follow. Landscape as a force with which we think and feel is how the contemporary tone has addressed landscape in recent times, and there are some exquisite examples of this in some of the early opening poems. I particularly liked the dancers, stage, church and village caught in a blown bubble :’all lifted / to meet the white moon’ in ‘On the eve of Ferrugusto’.No-one who has travelled in recent times can forget the number of street hawkers selling pitiful belongings on dusty street corners. Each one has their own story to tell, but Maldonado raises the bar with ‘The musician in Naples’. When Marianne Moore wrote that the cure for loneliness is solitude she could have been writing of the Tuareg musician in Maldonado’s poem. After travelling with one hundred and ninety nine others in a fifty foot boat, where twenty five died, he now stands peddling his wares; ‘ a jacket, old trainers, a phone’ every morning. The tercets she writes this poem in are a good choice, as they constrain the grief on the page, until some small measure of escape is afforded in the last three lines:
I used to walk for hours in the desert.
I was blessed with solitude,
The land and I were one.
That relationship between land and human is altered overnight in the poem ‘All out to sea’, which is a sequence of four sonnets. I love the sonnet form with its Italian ancestry. These sonnets work in the main as a foreshadowing of what is to come:’ the solid relationship between land / and sky askew.’ The sea no longer gleams but has hardened to: ‘hammered platinum’. There are fourteen poems in the first sequence written in response to the earthquakes that claimed three hundred lives in 2016. ‘The breach’ is a harrowing read, as the people who die within it are not imagined but real. Its opening line gives us the exact time of the quake:’At 3.36 the earth heaves us on its back and strikes..’ The poem is nineteen lines in all, made up of four four lined verses and ending in a signature tercet Here, however, it is as if the trauma experienced precludes another line, trauma as shown most viscerally in the second verse:
A campanile slants over rubble, its clock-hands stuck
at 3.38 by which time a child’s gone, one foot shoeless;
a son on leave from his good job in Rome, aunts,
cousins, gone. Hilltop towns a war-zone.
The British literary critic Jonathan Bale defined ecopoetics as a practice one of whose tasks are to ask ‘in what respects a poem may be a making…of the dwelling place’. Most often our increased attention to our interconnectedness with the earth is as an outcome of disaster. This is most brilliantly realised in Madlonado’s sestina’ Water,now‘. This is a sestina that is exceptional in its insistence that the message be heard clearly despite the demanding requirements of a closed form. And that message is best told in the closing envoi of the poem:
Our wine’s finished and evening has drunk the heat.
We must confront the damage: where’s our water?
Where, our fountains? What’s become of our life?
Maldonado’s poetry is rich in imagery. She has a painter’s eye and a sculptor’s feel for form. The second sequence is particularly apt then. Titled The Creek Men its nine poems were inspired by Laurence Edwards’ sculptures found in the low and undulating landscape of East Anglia. These sculptures portray poetic links between humanity and the landscape. Each of the creek men are eight foot high bronze giants standing on an iron raft. They are the landscape they are forged from as we are: ‘ All day they carry our remains / and wear our faces’. Although Edwards does not sculpt women figures, Maldonado imagines a shadow who often leads the men. She calls her ‘ the memory bearer’.
To me Maldonado is a memory bearer in poems that allow the wind to blow through them, poems that remind us we are not as much in control as we would like to think. The darkness and terror that the earthquakes in Italy opened the poet’s eyes to are examined through a different lens in Interiors, the last section of the book. Its nine poems move inexorably through the landscapes of the interior mind. It is the ekphrastic poem ‘Goethe in Rome’ that closes the collection that stuns. Goethe changed how the world viewed darkness, indicating that darkness is something vibrant that exists all the time and that light is merely a means to see it. Maldonado has done the same in this collection, albeit through the darkness of landscape and its terrifying and mesmerising control of all of us. A fascinating read. Go grab a copy. Published by Vole Books.
Deirdre Anne Hines is an award winning poet and playwright. Her first book of poems The Language of Coats was published by New Island Books, and includes the poems which won the Listowel Poetry Collection Award. Reviews of hers have appeared in PN Review, Rochford Street Review, The Dublin Review of Books, and Sabotage. Her verse novella for younger readers The Mermelf-A Fable for our Times will be published later this year by Austin Macaulay Publishers.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s To Star The Dark reviewed by Rona Fitzgerald
To Star The Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, €12.50. Dedalus Press 2021.ISBN 978-1-910251-86-7
To Star The Dark is seventh book of poetry by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. A bilingual poet and essayist, she writes in Irish and English. Ní Ghríofa is originally from Galway in the West of Ireland. As I began my review, my autocorrect wanted to edit the title of the book – yet the title is important to draw us in to writing that is about experiences – the minutiae of everyday where the poet seeks words to engage us and finds light/starlight for herself. To Star The Dark is characterised by precision and quietness. The quietness is notable, even in high emotion, Ní Ghríofa does not shout, scream or raise her poetic voice.
An example is ‘Seven Postcards From a Hospital’ a sequence about her experience giving birth to her third child. Each postcard is written on a different page:
iii. Minus One: the baby is hurried to Intensive Care. I weep on
floor three, tethered by drip, cannula and catheter. I resent
my deadened legs; I fret that she may be waking alone, blinking in
The blinking in phrase at the end of the line is so skilful, allowing us to imagine the medical
machines blinking their lights and the baby opening her eyes in glare, without her mother. The other poems in this sequence are equally sparse. Their impact is magnified by precise language and the use of space on the page.
Ní Ghríofa has been compared to Eavan Boland because of her focus on domestic themes and women’s lives. For me, Ní Ghríofa has her own strong voice – direct and attentive – where she weaves a spell of words to draw us in. Her focus is on every lived moment, every reflection whether from laundromats, Parisian parks, inns and other public spaces to the intimacy of the maternity hospital.
I came to Ní Ghríofa through her prose work/essay A Ghost in the Throat, where she explores her relationship with Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill an eighteenth-century woman who wrote a lament for her husband’s death, ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.’ I liked the way Ní Ghríofa interlaced moments and fragments of her days and nights into the narrative, allowing us to journey with her in the writing of this book. Above all, I liked her assertion that her essay/memoir is a female text.
This collection of poetry is another female text. The poems are characterised by the ebb and flow of energy, of hormones. We can feel the rhythm of the days, the disruptions, mood turns, and above all, the passion of the poet as she asks questions and lives her life. In the poem ‘While Bleeding’, Ní Ghríofa makes the connection between leaving a winter coat in a charity shop and having her period. The final verse somehow encapsulates tenderness, regret, life, renewal and the visceral presence of blood:
This pocket may once have sheltered
something precious: a necklace, a love letter,
or a fresh egg, feather-warm, held gently
so it couldn’t crack, couldn’t leak though seams
so it couldn’t stain the dress within.
The poems in To Star The Dark cover a diverse range of topics while maintaining the focus on life, death, children and longing. They are tender, visceral, daring and in some ways mysterious. Having read the poems a number of times, each reading yields new riches, perspective and for me as a reader, questions.
Rona Fitzgerald was born in Dublin; she now lives in Glasgow. Rona writes poetry, stories and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in many journals including The Stinging Fly, Oxford Poetry, the Blue Nib Magazine, Dreich and Culture Matters.
Estill Pollock’s Time Signatures reviewed by Timothy Dodd
Time Signatures by Estill Pollock. Broadstone Books. $25/£20. ISBN 978-1-956782-14-1
Given the ease and consistency with which the chiseled, image-rich narrative poems of Time Signatures flow, one can get almost complacent in reading them. Make no mistake, however. Estill Pollock’s words scorch and soothe. And not cheaply. With this new collection, there is no obfuscation as to what the veteran poet has placed in our hands: these sets of poems are a moving museum we can carry anywhere, tangible time capsules to open as extensively as we wish. Indeed, Pollock’s provisions speak like magical paintings on museum walls whose haunting clarity and force enamor and overwhelm even as they resurrect times and places so frequently erased by more recent and faddish avenues. The poems of Time Signatures are anchored in the past, yet allow the mind to dream, refresh and begin anew, preserving the beauty of lives, experiences and eras while simultaneously keeping them in motion to find new chapters alive and breathing in their drift.
Let me clarify: Time Signatures is divided into two sections—the first focuses primarily on the lives of literary figures (Kafka, Dickens, Auden, Edward Fitzgerald and others); the second consists of four poems, each taking on a specific painting (one each from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, and Brueghel respectively). As Pollock mentions in his brief introductory remarks, the poems are unmistakably embedded in biography and history, but are not tied to it. Each poem is situated within its own course of events, lives and milieus that the reader can see and touch, but from there the poetic impulse drives, frees and expands, imbuing revered artists with a conscience of their own. In Pollock’s hands, lived experiences of crafters and creators are now dynamic moments of humanity and introspection—doubts, difficulties and desires that explore their own artistic output, travels, mental and physical health, and more.
The poems in Time Signatures are histories of creations, but also creations of histories born of energy, flux, imagination. They are facts as fiction and fictions of fact which, more importantly, might show the error of ever believing too much in such a dichotomy from the start. In any case, who isn’t enamored when a perceived dichotomy gets lovingly clipped by the joy and curiosity of the poetic principle?
But what does this look like on the page? Samples will say far more than any summary:
“Dickens in Italy, 1844” begins with Boz’s own despondence—lovingly rendered:
Chuzzlewit and Twist—inventions of soot
And piecrust drains, until nothing but a shattered soul
Remains of me, instalments of characters driven headlong
To firesides from Blackheath
To Belgrave Square—my mind is coal ash, scrapings
From the hearth, and still the Public clamours
And from this stanza in “Brecht Translating Shelley, 1938,” one sees how Pollock turns historicity to poetics…and vice versa.
I am a breath ahead of the Nazis, my coffin
With its trap door, my gallows noose of soap, a ventriloquist
Squawking names and dates of places where
I am meant to be, living on a small island, in a house
With whitewashed walls—my refuge
From my countrymen, their rhetoric of barbed wire
And iron weather trumpeted from the towers
Of burning libraries
And here is a brief charge from “Auden and the Imagined Life, 1930” —a personal favorite:
My childhood was an album of familial tweed
Like a patient with a cobweb of neuroses—hidden
There among the paper lanterns
In the pines, the arsonist, the past
A tinder twist of public summons and desire
As one sees in these brief examples, Pollock’s imagery is a continual cloudburst and his language true and never forced. Through these vehicles, the poet delivers pathos from the created introspection of some of our most beloved artists. Quite simply, those intrigued by literary figures, geography, history and art should not miss this rewarding collection. These poems are migrant birds returning to give us another look: we remember that which has enthralled us in the past, yet see our subjects now from an entirely new angle as well—our own wings lifted.
Timothy Dodd‘s most recent poetry collection is Modern Ancient which has recently been published by The High Window.
Ralph Culver’s A Passable Man reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
A Passable Man by Ralph Culver. $19.95. MadHat Press. ISBN 9871952335297
In his first full-length collection, Ralph Culver, who studied in Vermont and now lives there since the 1970s, explores the ordinary from an extraordinary angle in which light and shadow alternate in a multifaceted vision. His work has been widely published and has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. He won the 2012 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Prize and other awards too.
The vulnerability of the human body and our consequent risk of experiencing failures and having flaws make our existence uncertain, with ups and downs that seem to be inevitable. In these troubled waters, survival is attained through the quotidian, which is closely observed and skilfully depicted in the poems:
On the vine this morning, on the vine this morning,
she repeats. Two thick ropes of smoke begin idly paying out
xxxxxxxxthe boy’s nostrils,
braiding upward in the midday stillness. And then in one
she snaps a paper bag open and begins to fill it with tomatoes
as the old people points: this one, this one. This one.
They describe intense, brief moments in which the conventional becomes lively, an epiphany of sorts that conveys vitality. In this way the ordinary becomes mythical, as in ‘A Go to the Lifting-stone’, in which a round granite stone was so heavy that few men could lift it off the ground. It is an example of ‘provincial glory’ but also a mystery:
you think, in a sense, your future
lies bearing its secret under the stone,
the days breaking in your favor
or not an equation of space –
its possibilities –
conjuncting with the flesh
and its limitations.
Culver’s voice delves into these themes, transforming common people and everyday events from a universal perspective. Examples are his acrostic poems such as ‘Seamstress’, in which the name of the protagonist, Betsy Decastro, is spelled in the first letter of each line. Her figure becomes mythical in the sense of being exemplary and is linked to a wider idea:
Belief in the thread consoles, redeems. The warm
ease of your ceaseless hands draws down
the twill-flecked light. Beyond the windowpane,
stars shred themselves and drift across silk, seams for
your later eyes to follow.
rising, constellated with the remnant sparks. You,
only sewing. Something else is joined together.
Similarly to the characters in ancient myths, the seamstress makes clothes in her incessant work, joining together pieces of fabric which are metaphors for pieces of life; in this universal view the patterns may be connected at random or with a purpose. The vision is significant and compelling, cosmological in an encompassing way.
A similar sense of mystery and awe can be seen in ‘Tabernacle’, a sequence of haiku:
my whole life
this is my temple
deep breath and tears
leading to this welcome
Dust and breath mingle, making our human condition vulnerable but also vital in terms of its connection with water, the source of life that evokes death and rebirth. The concept is complex and comprehensive, suggesting deep awareness and continuous scrutinising. Sketches of everyday life are closely observed and described with precision, involving the reader in a familiar world that opens up to reverie and meditates on existential issues.
Culver’s skilful use of repetitions and climax enhance the meanings and give rhythm to the poems, such as in ‘Round’, ‘The Tinies’, ‘The First’ and ‘So Be It’:
my thin bones
death. Mine. Mine.
And this hunger. How it goes on, and tomorrow, and always,
blazing up in the body, torching the years to ash.
(‘So Be It’)
Death is therefore present in every moment of our life, even in the most joyful ones; it mingles with a survival instinct that keeps us alive. In this context, love, sex and relationships enrich the quotidian and give us a reason to appreciate life.
The three poems about the poet’s father reveal a difficult relationship that is probably due to the father’s addictions. He tries to find a topic they have in common that might connect them to each other and create a bond of affection. Writing is a possible link, though the father ‘wasn’t writing anything./One dry, lying drunk knowing the other/dry, lying drunk is lying.’ (‘Skill without Action: Silk Kite, No Wind’). The conclusion of the third poem is stark and unambiguous: ‘Consecrating myself to the silence, and then/to what interrupts the silence’ (‘Fishing with My Father, and the Craft of Poetry’). Culver is therefore committed to the unspeakable, a mysterious reality that he voices in riveting lines and insightful descriptions. He is a ‘passable man’ who nevertheless knows what life holds because of his wise and wide-ranging views. They reveal a world that is experienced in the everyday through the power of the imagination and is expressed in riveting images and impeccable lines.
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. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020 by Dempsey & Windle. She completed her PhD degree on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/
Neil Leadbeater and Monica Manolachi’s Journeys in Europe / Calatorii in Europa
reviewed by Greg Freeman
Journeys in Europe / Calatorii in Europa (bilingual) by Neil Leadbeater and Monica Manolachi. £6. Editura Bifrost. ISBN: 978-606-95341-7-5
I began this review during an unprecedented UK heatwave, in the hope that association with the waters of the Rhine and the Danube might offer some cooling respite. This is a bilingual book of original poems about two of Europe’s mightiest rivers by Neil Leadbeater and Monica Manolachi. who has translated both sets of poems into Romanian. It is the second such collaboration between Edinburgh-based Leadbeater, an author, essayist poet and critic, and Manolachi, a lecturer in Spanish and English at the University of Bucharest.
In the book Leadbeater says of himself: “Sixty years of river water has flowed under the proverbial bridge since he first journeyed down the Rhine as a small boy with his parents. It was an idyllic time and one never to be forgotten.” Indeed, a sense of schoolboy wonder still flows through this collection. The composer Schumann and his third symphony are summoned to express the spirit of the Rhine:
That was when all the colours of the Rhine
broke out in brass, timpani and strings –
the forward push of the melody
soaring above the barline
(‘The Rhine in E flat major’)
The Rhine rises in the Swiss Alps, and ends in the North Sea at Rotterdam. In his final poem about the river, Leadbeater celebrates its “journey of a lifetime”, which has involved “crossing borders / on a passport to oblivion”. This “long and magnificent career” ends in “the flatlands of Holland”:
This is where I died
(and am still dying)
Even as my ending
Is also my beginning.
(‘The river in retrospect’)
Monica Manolachi’s Danube passes through ten countries, on its journey from Germany’s Black Forest mountains, to the Black Sea via Ukraine. Some poems in the Danube section of the collection resonate with grim European history, such as ‘The eyes of Günzburg’, one of the most evocative and piteous of Manolachi’s poems. Günzburg in Bavaria is the birthplace of Josef Mengele, the infamous medical officer who conducted experiments on inmates of Auschwitz concentration camp. One aspect of his hideous researches was a fascination with heterochromia, a condition in which the irises of an individual’s eyes differ in colouration. There is a monument to Mengele’s victims in Günzburg, a plaque and inscription surrounded by dozens of eyes: “Every hour another eyelid closes / and the shadows grow longer and longer / like syringes left on a memory shelf.”
A longer poem, ‘Snapshots of Ada kaleh’ mourns the loss of a island in a gorge in Romania, engulfed to make way for a hydroelectric dam, while ‘Somewhere near Grindu village’ records a Danube ferry disaster when more than 200 people died. Sometimes less is more, and more than once Manolachi employs the device of three haiku to capture a mood or scene concisely and effectively:
Rust washing river,
three boats near the lighthouse –
On the wet duckboards,
a green dragonfly –
Evening is falling.
Today we have reached
The end of our journey –
A shining full moon.
This collection represents a feat of European navigation, and versatility in poetic styles and subject matter; a celebration of two great rivers by two poets which nevertheless refuses to ignore dark subjects along the way. Leadbeater and Manolachi are to be commended for this confluence of vision.
Greg Freeman is a former newspaper sub-editor, and now news and reviews editor for the poetry website Write Out Loud. His debut pamphlet Trainspotters was published in 2015 by Indigo Dreams, and his first full collection Marples Must Go! by Dempsey & Windle in autumn 2021.
Millicent Borges Accardi’s Through a Grainy Landscape reviewed by Sam Pereira
Through a Grainy Landscape, poems by Millicent Borges Accardi. £11.69. New Meridian. ISBN: 978-1737249108
As I begin the exploration of Through a Grainy Landscape, the new collection of work from poet Millicent Borges Accardi, I must start with a disclaimer of sorts. Maybe you are reading this because you have read other collections by this poet, and you are thinking that you might want to read more. Maybe you want to see just how Borges Accardi has handled the first quarter of this 21st Century we now find ourselves locked into. Perhaps you are intrigued with the anticipated focus of a “grainy landscape.” If you fall into any or all of those mentioned partitions, you will certainly not be disappointed. However, I suggest opening this brilliantly packaged new work with a clear set of eyes, and to take chances along the way at what will seem deceptively familiar most of the time, but in fact won’t be. Therein lies the subtle epiphany that remains good poetry.
Borges Accardi begins her latest journey, which is not without some of the earlier charms encountered in her previous book Only More So, but now the poems take on a much more seasoned and empowering view of life. The speaker in these new poems is alert to her previous poetic incarnations and uses them to delve even further into the waystations of what may or may not be a personal past filled with warmth, as well as some well-tuned intermittent lapses that pain brings to all of us sooner or later.
Nothing shines a light more brilliantly on that notion than the poem “Letting Yourself Look Silly or Ridiculous.” There is the traditional breakup of a relationship, which in the wrong hands could easily become maudlin at best. However, Accardi takes the commonality of a youthful breakup to share and feast on the education life brings to us, assuming we are up to it. This poet is nobody’s fool and she is up to it.
Running through the various themes and adaptations in this powerful collection of new poems is the constant connection to the past, the ancestors young generations mostly just tolerate growing up, and then as time begins to work its evil on their own souls, the young find themselves strangely drawn again to old worlds and old ideas. In the poem “So You Believed in Fatima and Fadistas,” which is taken from a line by the contemporary Portuguese American poet, Paula Neves, Borges Accardi lets the reader know how important and life sustaining the quest for a connection will always be. It begins “Like someone who wanted/to hide, you believed in the past,” and concludes with the sea being “a distant eight blocks away.” As a fellow Portuguese American haunted with many of the same feelings that line these pages, my awe is never misplaced.
What prevails throughout the course of these nearly 100 pages of quietly victorious poems is a sense that brotherhood and sisterhood, whether addressed openly, or in the guise of the almighty metaphor, are a necessary force, and that it is holding us by the hand; telling us to walk on these little glimpses of life-giving water; telling us that any true religious experience has to do with flesh and blood and mistakes and, yes, the resurrection of ourselves.
One also discovers, after reading these poems, that they have taken fruition, often with the help of recalled lines from the works of other Portuguese American poets, as well as Portuguese poets and writers in translation. There is a good dose of musicality running through this concert of one and of many. The Fado singer has taken off her black dress to a backdrop of ocean, and the audience goes wild at the darkness it never expected to see.
Sam Pereira received his BA from Fresno State in 1971. From there, he went on to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was granted his MFA degree in 1975. After working in and managing a co-op farm supply store for over twenty years, he taught junior high school English for another twenty-one years. He has published seven books of poetry thus far; the most recent being True North and Untrue You from Nine Mile Press (ninemile.org) in New York.
Alan Price and Hervé Constant’s Bewilderment reviewed by Neil Elder
Bewilderment by Alan Price & Hervé Constant. £10, Martello Press ISBN 9781739637200. Reviewed by Neil Elder
A print review of this handsome book, Bewilderment is inevitably going to fall short on some fronts because the book consists of twenty five paintings as well as corresponding poems. The artist Hervé Constant and poet Alan Price have teamed up to articulate their response to “this business of living.” The book is very much a collection of paintings and poems, but inevitably I am concerned with the poetry here.
The poems are a loose form of ekphrastic poetry, where the paintings serve more as prompts than directives. In his revealing and helpful introduction, Adam Feinstein reveals that Price often did not have the title of the paintings when writing his response – something that presumably offers the poet freedom and gives rise to the chance of a very different direction being taken by artist and poet. However, it isn’t quite clear which works Price did have a title for and so the fact that his response to the painting entitled ‘Roots’ begins “Roots are nerves” leads one to believe that he did have the title to that piece.
Price had the freedom to respond however he felt to the paintings. However, the reader will not have the same open approach to Constant’s work because Price has got there first. Either the reader needs to look at the paintings in isolation first, and enjoy them without the filter of Price’s words, or they need to somehow set the response Price has to one side. I wonder how the artist feels about the fact that these quite ambiguous paintings are being shepherded in a particular direction.
The direction taken by Price is a rather startling and alarming one. The disquieting tone bookends the collection, first with ‘Soul’ where a sense of helplessness over direction is established –
Now my vertigo
sways the ceiling
and cannot be halted
by any wish for control
The poem builds around a series of negatives: “no logic/ no reason / no control … not moment not person / not rightness” and the claustrophobia is palpable. The sense of surrender to something greater is echoed in the final poem ‘No More’:
I see a forced
a cleansed wall
myself into a garden
of scorched grass
and lost innocence.
The poems do raise the notion of alter egos, parts of the self being separated and not fully understood by the speaker. The poem ‘No More’ is one that does successfully capture a sense of urgency and, as the title of the collection suggests, bewilderment. The poems all dispense with punctuation and the units of sense between lines can blur, accentuating the sense of distorted realities that permeate.
It is tempting to pin contextual elements onto the poems, and ‘Souviens-Toi’ suggests climate change and pandemic rolled into a ball of dystopian angst:
I do not recall
a moment like this
when the sun blazed
so naked in the cloud
in the last week of winter …
blowing blood rain
tearing the mask
off my nose and mouth
However, for most of the poems there is a strong sense of the individual in pursuit of answers to questions that only they are aware of. The unattainable is present in ‘The Letter’, where again Price uses the repetition of negatives to get closer to a point he cannot reach
was somehow present
on changing terms
mine turned away
There is a dream-like quality to the works that is helped by reading the poems collectively, in one sitting. The poems are less able to stand alone than the sort of poetry Price generally writes (he has several collections to his name and his interest in visual art is often on display in his writing on cinema). I am sure Price knows this, and is also aware that without the art the poems become something else.
There is an intriguing quality to the poems, and much to enjoy in the compression of imagery. In ‘A Fallen Leaf?’ Price explores the way a leaf resembles a flag and debates the power of nationhood and patriotism versus the individual’s ability to self-determinism
I can wave one
and shout proud
or crush the other
in my hand
which gave me
the greater strength.
I also enjoyed the disquieting, but also humorous, ‘The Certificate’ in which identity is parcelled up and placed into a compartment, though we wonder how that is even possible when there are so many parts to our identities. What part of identity is our true self? The bureaucracy of certification ( a birth certificate?) is not actually who we are – rather like Russian dolls, Price sees his identity locked in a case –
I followed by I
I followed by I
I followed by I
you get the picture
One thing this poem threw up, like several in the collection, is the use of the pronoun I in the lower case. The final line is ‘i will I replied’ and the idea of alter egos is bundled up with this i/I. However, on occasion I wondered if it was simply a proofing issue because the trick seems a little inconsistent.
I said that the paintings of Constant are effectively half of the book, but I have not addressed them. Constant is well regarded and much displayed, but I claim no insight into his work. The paintings are not the sort I would linger over, and so perhaps I’m thankful to Price for pushing me into a new direction. The piece titled ‘The Certificate’ is a midnight blue square with the outline of a bag depicted in the centre. One, ‘Bouch D’Ombre’ is a chocolate brown square with a dark brown square inside. So ambiguous are the images it is understandable that Price has been able to respond in liberal fashion – the art rarely points the way forwards.
The book, beautifully produced by Martello Press, comes with statements from both artist and poet, and there are supporting short essays from associates. I think the work will repay further reading, and very likely prompt new responses from the reader each time – but you need to give the work your attention and let go of expectations and thoughts of poems tied up with a bow. You need to be open to the possibilities of bewilderment.
Neil Elder’s latest work, Like This was published by 4Word Press in 2021. The Space Between Us was published by Cinnamon Press in 2018, having won their debut collection prize. His pamphlet Codes of Conduct was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. Other works include And The House Watches On and Being Present. Neil lives in Harrow, N.W. London.
Meg Barton’s I’d still have been annoyed about the plums
and Helen Reid’s A Field Guide to Wedding Guests reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
I’d still have been annoyed about the plums by Meg Barton. £7. Poet’s House Pamphlets. ISBN:978-1-7399748-1-7 A Field Guide to Wedding Guests by Helen Reid. £7. Poet’s House Pamphlets, ISBN: 978-1-7399748-0-0
These two pamphlets are the fourth and fifth from Jenny Lewis’s imprint, Poet’s House. As before, production values are high and the quality of the poems matches that of the previous collections. Helen Reid and Meg Barton have in common a wry humour which is also present in Margot Myers’ I Meant to Say. I don’t think this is a hallmark of Poet’s House so much as a characteristic viewpoint of older poets, particularly perhaps women, who are able to look at the world or back over their lives with a degree of ironic detachment. Meg Barton can recreate the struggles and delights of childhood, teens and work with an understated mild humour which makes us smile and then pause. ‘First Single’ speaks for a teen in the sixties, located in the specific by the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand’, but speaking for the inchoate yearnings of youth anywhere: ‘My generation claims me’ …”Full of a secret knowledge, I no longer care / I know there’s life out there.’ Similarly, ‘The Tree in the City’ is an understated recognition of natural forces experienced as a Wordsworthian epiphany: the writer sees a tree breaking through the tarmac pavement ‘And it seemed we were equal, / dizzily growing, no choice in the matter. / Part of the same / intent, but each as ignorant as the other / of what this might be.’ Unlike Wordsworth, however, Barton reduces the sublime to human uncertainty through a bathetic bump into tentative everyday language: ‘All of which surprised me really.’ Barton’s humour reflects a kind of diffident seriousness in her poetry, as she presents an oblique perspective on major themes. ‘Peace’ is a concise reworking of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique’ while ‘Please don’t send me home from Ikea’ is a gentle critique of late capitalism, consumerism and the influence of media images. This poem canters along in an anapaestic rhythm with a refrain in the last line of each stanza. The last line of the first stanza ‘Oh let me stay here in the light’ modulates to ‘Oh let me stay here in the dream’ while the poem finishes with the recognition of the impossible aspirations foisted on us by advertising:
Please let me stay here in Ikea
With the Ikea version of me.
This is a very funny poem which works so well because of its fluency but also because of the way in which it leaves so much unsaid. I think this is Meg Barton’s most singular skill: her ability to indicate the unspoken, whether in poems ostensibly funny or in those more serious, in language which is familiar but always precise. The short poem, ‘Snow’, says so much about brief encounters, kindness, wasted efforts, fleeting moments – all just hinted at in the opening line “When time was frozen…’ There are flavours here of Stevie Smith and Philip Larkin but Meg Barton’s voice is distinctively her own.
Helen Reid’s pamphlet is built around a series of portraits of wedding guests. These are often funny, often shockingly convincing images of different types of people and behaviour encountered at weddings and they act as a critique of British (English and Scottish) mores. Like Barton, Red revisits teenage years: in the sixth Wedding Guest poem, ‘Mr Tongue’, we are reminded what it was like to be a girl before ‘Me Too’:
He hissed some words, as he staggered off.
Your eyes are too clever, he spat, too clever by far,
he missed the last stair but remained on his feet,
brayed to his pals at the bar while Ange wiped her mouth
and sighed, he slipped the tongue.
The Wedding Guest poems are probably the strongest in the collection; the poet is able to use this framework not only to caricature her subjects but also to comment on wider themes. The third, ‘Wedding Algae’ reflects the fatuity of conversations at this kind of event but also the hypocrisy with which so many of us approach environmental issues;
Is there no hope at all,
I enquire, but he swallows my question,
with a glug of the red, and cheerfully waves,
at his tiny doomed sons, who with dozens
of other small children, are swarming around
the sad slow dissolve of two love birds of ice.
The last line is particularly skilful in the way it reflects on the topic and comments on the durability of relationships, a theme which appears in several of Reid’s poems. ‘The First Wife’s Skin Cells’ is darkly malicious as a second wife triumphs over displacing the first. In contrast, ‘Press this Shell to your Ear’ celebrates love and loss in a poem which in its range of imagination make it the one which I would choose as my takeaway. The lover, ‘my silkie boy’ cannot endure the landlocked south, but when he leaves:
I woke up in a sweet dry bed and found the cowrie
on his pillow, so that now and then, on a stormy night,
or a spring tide, I still can share his distant rushing joy.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but has spent most of her adult life in England and now lives in Oxford. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent being Back Country, Littoral, 2022. She is currently hosting a poetry podcast magazine, Poetry Worth Hearing.
Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale reviewed by David Cooke
The Owl and the Nightingale, A New Verse Translation, by Simon Armitage. £16. Princeton University Press. (Bilingual Middle and Modern English). ISBN: 978-0691202167
For some fifteen years now Simon Armitage has been making the classics of Middle English poetry accessible to the general reader. With The Owl and the Nightingale, the fourth in a series which has previously included Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Death of King Arthur and Pearl, he has moved away from the alliterative verse which was one of the hallmarks of Old English poetry to a poem written in the rhyming octosyllabics that one associates with the French writers Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes. Although there is some uncertainty as to when exactly The Owl and the Nightingale was composed, it probably dates back to the late twelfth century and is certainly one of the first great poems in Middle English. However, linguistically, it is particularly interesting. Although the verse form is French, the language is still quite close to Old English and its vocabularly is certainly much less ‘Frenchified’ than the Middle English of Chaucer and Gower a century or more later. It is interesting to note also that throughout the text King Alfred is frequently quoted as an authority.
While such considerations may of course be of interest to scholars, it is only its value as literature that will gain it a modern readership. Essentially, the poem is an argument between two birds as to whose song is best. It is a formal debate which is shaped by the rhetorical conventions of the day and which is informed also by the scholastic traditions of the medieval universities. So what exactly did each side represent for its original readers or those who listened to it? More importantly, what might they have to say to us? The Nightingale would seem to exemplify the courtly ideal which was established in England by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the French Wife of Henry II. This was an aristocratic code which emphasised a more refined approach to living and loving. It is the ideal of fin’amors that we associate with the Troubadours. Against this, the Owl’s outlook on life is more moralistic and emphasises circumspection and traditional piety. Viewed in a more negative light, her outlook might be considered somewhat dour and pedestrian.
Perhaps this still smacks of literary history and seems a long way from our contemporary concerns. However, modern readers will soon be drawn into the debate, even before they have quite worked out what each side stands for, because the temperature heats up quickly. Everyone loves a good argument, especially when the language is colourful, barbed, and the attacks are frequently ad hominem, or, in this instance, ad feminam, as both birds are female. In fact, as I write this, the two contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party are engaged in an endless round of hustings which are not that dissimilar to the theological debates of the Middle Ages, while twitter spats are a daily occurrence.
Moreover, once the protagonists really get going, we do gain a clearer sense of two opposing outlooks on life. Inordinately proud of her gift of song, the Nightingale is freewheeling and artistic. She sees herself as life-affirming. She has nothing but contempt for the owl and her judgmental ways. From the outset, her antipathy to the Owl is based on aesthetic principles:
The Nightingale clapped eyes on her
& shot the Owl a filthy glare,
disgusted by that horrid creature’s
loathsome, nauseating features.
‘Freak, why don’t you disappear?
It sickens me to see you here…
As for your tuneless yodelling
It makes me want to spit, not sing.’
For her, the owl is a social inferior who lives in squalor and has disgusting eating habits. At this point, the Owl resorts to a physical threat but, when this proves ineffectual, she responds in a similarly vituperative vein. As it is obvious that they are getting nowhere, they agree to submit themselves to the judgment of a well-known sage, who in the original text was Nicholas of Guildford, but who, in the updated version, has been wittily replaced by, yes, a certain Simon Armitage:
He’s skilled with words & worldly wise
& frowns on every form of vice.
In terms of tunes, his ear can tell
who makes a din & who sings well.
He thrives at telling wrong from right
& knows the darkness from the light.
However, the fact that they have decided upon this eminently sensible course of action, does not stop them continuing for another fifty pages of recrimination and point scoring that is well up to the standards of our contemporary politicians and twitteristas. The Nightingale associates the owl’s nocturnal habits with the powers of darkness and lends weight to her point by quoting King Alfred: ‘He slinks / away who knows his own bad stink.’ The Owl counters with another frequently used modern ploy: she proclaims her victimhood. Although she is a seemingly powerful bird she is constantly mobbed by flocks of smaller birds whenever she flies by day. Moreover, she keeps to herself and flies by night to avoid wasting time with fools. This time, it is she who quotes King Alfred:
‘Be careful not to waste your life
where strife and quarrelling are rife;
Keep well away from fractious fools.’
A wise Owl, I obey those rules.
By now, the debate has taken a turn that is more easily appreciated by the modern reader. The Nightingale accuses the Owl of having a negative outlook on life. ‘Crooning her miserable & gloomy tune,’ she is ‘a killjoy, a curmudgeon’. The Owl, for her part, suggests that the Nightingale sanctions adultery, an accusation frequently levelled at the Troubadours. For the Owl, the Nightingale is a creature of impulse and instant gratification, while, for her, life is a serious business and ultimate happiness is achieved by ‘doing the right thing.’
We know from our own experience that such polarised debates rarely lead to a meeting of minds and that scoring points is the name of the game. After this effective rebuttal from the Owl, the Nightingale seems desperate to reassert her ascendency:
Therefore, the Nightingale, though pressed,
stood poised to do her very best,
because the stresses & strains
had urged the bird to rack her brains
& stage the kind of argument
required by her predicament.
Moving on to the Owl’s territory, she claims that her song has a spiritual dimension. After all, they do a lot of beautiful singing in church, don’t they? And so it continues until, at the instigation of Jenny Wren, who has been discreetly eavesdropping, they do eventually fly off to receive the verdict of the aforementioned Simon Armitage, a man whom we learn in the poem’s closing lines has never received the rewards he so richly deserves. However, we can reassure him that his version of this classic poem is eminently readable and that he is to be commended for his efforts in bringing to life classic literature that is increasingly being dropped from university courses. Moreover, it might also be worth pointing out that far from being merely a relic from a bygone age, this comic gem is a timely reminder, in our post-Brexit era, of the way our native literature has often been enriched by continental influences.
Note: There are two versions of this text available in the UK. The version I have reviewed above is the American version which can be obtained via Amazon.co.uk. It contains the original Middle English text alongside the translation. There is also a monolingual UK edition which only contains Armitage’s version. It is published by Faber and Faber and is currently available as a hardback: ISBN: 978-0571357291. £14.99.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His latest collection of poetry is The Metal Exchange published by Littoral Press.
Umberto Saba’s 100 Poems, translated by Patrick Worsnip, reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
100 Poems by Umberto Saba, edited and translated by Patrick Worsnip. £14.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 80017 193 0
In his introduction to the FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry, Geoffrey Brock describes Umberto Saba as one of the three poets who were to leave the deepest imprint on twentieth century Italian poetry, the other two being Ungaretti and Montale. His reputation in Italy was apparently much slower to emerge than theirs and my impression is that he’s still much less well known in England. This is partly because of the nature of his writing. Like Ungaretti and Montale, he moved away from the highly rhetorical style that had dominated the work of the previous generation of Italian poets. However, from a formal point of view his writing was generally traditional, not aligned like theirs with the Modernist revolution in poetic technique. Moreover, and most crucially, his approach to poetry was highly circumstantial. Where they embraced Modernist ideas of impersonality in art, burning their poems down to concentrated lyrical essences of a kind one might loosely call symbolic, his writing gives weight to the life and mundane particulars out of which the reflections and writing emerge. As Joseph Cary puts it in his book Three Modern Italian Poets, ‘Saba is a personal artist if ever there were one, whose poetry, in the phrase of Giuseppe Ravegnani, “follows his biography like a shadow.”’ Such a statement implies that his poems only achieve their full resonance when they’re read all together, or at least in bulk. I’ve only read the poems in the present volume and a few others, but do very much feel that they gain by being taken together, as moments in an unfolding story. From this point of view 100 Poems is an ideal starting point.
The life that emerges revolves around small things, memories of the poet’s own childhood, his wife and daughter, street scenes, personal acquaintances, animals, his own career. He lived on the margins of great events – the First World War, the rise of Fascism – but they hardly register in the poetry, even though Saba himself was half Jewish and spent most of his life in Trieste, which was in the Habsburg empire when he was born and was only annexed to Italy in 1918. In her Preface to 100 Poems, Angela Leighton calls Saba’s poetry ‘an art of the commonplace, but the commonplace become new and uncommon by being put into verse.’
Gloom is recurrent; Saba was born into poverty in the Jewish ghetto, where his father abandoned his mother when the boy was still an infant, and he remained poor, as well as being frustrated in his hopes of poetic glory. The beginning of ‘Finale’ suggests almost Leopardian depths of pessimism as it evokes the remorseless progress of time:
Human life is dark and painful,
Nothing in it ever stands still.
In that poem, the poet says that he can only just find release in the art that lets him ‘make in myself out of many scattered / things just one beautiful thing’. Although he’s good at evoking others’ careless joy, he often makes it seem poignantly out of his own reach, as he does in the early ‘Glauco’:
Glauco, a boy with a shock of fair hair,
a smart sailor suit and an untroubled eye,
said to me, in the vernacular
of his birthplace, cheerfully:
Umberto, why do you waste your life away
without one pleasure, and seem to hide pain or
some mystery in everything you say?
Why don’t you come with me to the seashore? –
it’s inviting us to its blue waves.
What’s the unspoken thought that you conceal,
stealing you from us so suddenly?
You’ve no idea how sweet are the lives
of the friends you avoid, and how time flees
away from me, happy and fanciful.
It’s too long to quote in full here, but in ‘Morning Song’ a similar contrast is developed in a subtler, more richly ambiguous way, with clearly homoerotic undertones. In it, Saba watches and listens to a handsome young sailor singing on a beautiful, peaceful morning and wonders if his own sadness is a sin – presumably meaning a sin against the goodness of life. It ends not, as ‘Glauco’ does, with a sheer contrast between the sad poet and the unreflectingly happy person he watches but with the sight of another person’s spontaneous joy bringing the poet the more intellectual pleasure that’s appropriate to his own nature:
Still singing, the deck hand was in a rush
as he set off; and I thought: Is he just
a rough seaman? Or perhaps a demigod?
He suddenly went quiet, jumped in the boat;
a bright, sweet-tasting memory in my head.
The direct enjoyment of happiness, rather than its rueful contemplation in others, doesn’t seem to have befallen Saba very often. It can be felt in the poems he wrote about his wife Lina and his daughter in the early stages of his marriage. In the beautiful ‘To My Wife’, he compares his wife to a number of tenderly observed female animals. The first of these is the pullet, of which he says
She’s better than the male.
She is like all
females of all
the serene animals
close to God’s presence.
The poem vividly evokes the movements and physical presence of these animals as embodiments of different kinds or aspects of love, the love Saba attributes to Lina and the loving response she, like the animals, creates in him and us. It’s perhaps striking that this love seems quite asexual, maternal and protective rather than erotic (just as in ‘The Sapling’ he finds her ‘vast / maternity’ reflected in the sadness she feels at the way a sapling is battered by wind).
Protective. Battered by wind. Suffering is ever-present in Saba’s world, at least in the background. ‘The Nanny Goat’ is a famous poem in which he describes himself as speaking to a goat that bleats in the rain:
That steady bleating chimed
with my sorrow. And I answered , first in jest,
then because sorrow lingers for all time,
has one voice, does not change. The moan
of this voice I heard then
in a nanny goat left on her own.
And I heard lamenting
in a goat with a Semitic face
every other wrong, every other living thing.
Complementing poems like ‘Glauco’, ‘Morning Song’ and others in which his awareness of suffering separates him from young people beautifully absorbed in the happiness of the moment are many others in which shared subjection to suffering creates a sense of community or commonality. Feeling the fluctuation between the two ways of relating to others is one of the pleasures of reading the poems continuously.
Worsnip’s translations are as carefully faithful to the Italian as they can be while remaining sensitive to the fundamental difficulty of transferring formal structures from Italian, in which rhyming is so easy, to English, in which it is so much more difficult. Admittedly I didn’t often find his phrasing haunting or even particularly memorable in itself but it didn’t jar with my response to the content in the way a more determined search for formal equivalence might have done. Its virtues are plain transparency. Other translations of individual poems that I’ve seen – like several by Brock – produce more colourful effects, but at the cost of greater freedom and of seeming to move what they describe further from the randomness of life into the idealization of art.
Physically, the book is well produced, with generous white space around words and whole poems. Regrettably, proof reading let Worsnip down in two titles: the famous ‘Campionessa di nuoto’ (‘Women’s Swimming Champion’) becomes ‘Men’s Swimming Champion’ and ‘Autobiography (10)’ becomes ‘Tobiography (10)’.
Edmund Prestwich lives in Manchester and taught for many years at the Manchester Grammar School. He is the author of two collections and reviews poetry for several magazines.
Pietro de Marchi’s Reports after the Fire reviewed by Caroline Maldonado
Reports after the Fire by Pietro de Marchi translated by Peter Robinson. £12.95. Shearsman. ISBN:978-1-84861-798-8
In his previous publications of poets translated from Italian, Peter Robinson has concentrated on the north of the country, including collections by Luciano Erba (winner of the John Florio translation prize 2008), Antonia Pozzi and Vittorio Sereni – all from Milan. With Pietro De Marchi’s Reports after the Fire, he has chosen to translate a poet born near Milan who crossed the border into Switzerland, remaining in Swiss German-speaking Zurich after completing his doctorate, thus becoming ‘ a poet intensely conscious of displacements, language differences, and how they mark a person as inescapably connected to or not belonging in a place.’
Robinson provides the reader with an excellent introduction to this collection, situating the poet culturally within his literary traditions. He also gives an essential historical context. Poets such as De Marchi, born in the 1950s, faced a world when the industrial cities were in an uncertain period of transition after the second world war and before Italy’s ’economic miracle’. They did not share the values of their grandparents born into a nineteenth century agrarian economy or of their parents grown up under Mussolino’s fascism. Lacking the ideological certainty expressed by many of the poets of the earlier period, some turned instead to the use of irony, the domestic and small scale and ‘la poesia del oggetto’.
For this publication, poems have been chosen from three collections: Stunned Parables (1999). Replica (2006), The Orange Paper (2006) and a selection of uncollected poems (2021). Their tone, effectively caught by the translator, carries a lightness, is contemporary, sometimes ironic, occasionally humorous, often deeply poignant. The theme echoing through them is of the loss and recuperation, through place and language, of memory. Allusions through epigraphs, quotes and other references, recalling earlier poets such as Dante, Giovanni Pascoli and Primo Levi and poets writing in other European languages, Auden, Heaney and the German poet, Durs Grünbein, bring additional resonances and perspectives to the themes.
Personal ‘domestic’ memories are carried through character sketches, memos and letters. Animals frequently appear, such as in ‘Of a Horse and Cart’, in which children play cowboys on the miller’s cart. This poem appears more light-hearted than many but the miller’s horse wears black leather blinkers to stop it being distracted and in the context of the other poems suggests our own ‘blinkered’ vision and our focus on the present and immediate to the exclusion of the past. More often, the memory and the urge and the refusal to forget is darker, such as in ‘Crossing Poland’, quoted here in its entirety, where memory is held in the land and the book-reader wears (or attempts to wear) the blinkers. It opens with an epigraph from Primo Levi’s The Truce: ‘far off the belltowers of Cracow were reddening’:
Sheep, goats, horses.
In the middle of a field a man’s milking the cow.
Children who run to watch the passing trains.
We stop at a station.
There’s hardly time to realise it’s O.
Houses, satellite dishes, as elsewhere.
We set off again.
I return to my book-reading.
Nie rozumiem po polsku.
Polish I don’t know.
The notes provided at the back inform us that O is the first letter of the Polish word for Auschwitz.
That poem is followed by another, ‘Memo from a place of birches’, where the speaker runs to the window for the sight of ‘what remains of the smothered/outside’, a view of birch, meadows and flowers, and tries in vain to recall the landscape of the nineteen-hundreds :
But nothing more deletes that hair
shaved off, those spectacles of metal
those poor dust-coloured shoes:
what was neither ashes, nor smoke.
The smothered landscape of the holocaust must always re-appear and ‘The passing of trains/ rumble of wheels, of tracks’ (Funeral at Baar’) continue to run through the poems.
Allied to lost memories is the human desire not to be forgotten, acknowledged in ‘Graffiti’ by the speaker who, examining the hearts, arrows, insults etched by an elevator lift in Lisbon, overcomes his initial judgemental attitude and expands it to a more generous, inclusive recognition of ‘just people’ and their common humanity:
Only ignorant wall-scribblers, I was thinking,
Rude tourists, schooltrip kids, soldiers on furlough?
or these too just people, people
but all with inside them a dizzying
thought of not going away
without leaving a sign
we have been here?
As has been mentioned, an attention to language across borders is a characteristic of De Marchi, illustrated in this complete poem, ‘Languages in transit’:
They go across borders
with persons, they’re
light as air, as the breath
of those who speak them. They
pay neither toll nor duty and
no one can cage them,
can cast on them the lime or sand.
A relatively optimistic poem despite the reference to ‘lime’, a substance associated with dead bodies, a reminder or warning in the last line.
At the end of his introduction, Robinson acknowledges the value of De Pietro’s work ‘in a globalising world of accelerated change and ever shortening memory span, of information overload and chronic lack of time to think and feel truly’. Since the publication of Reports after the Fire, the war in Ukraine has laid waste the country and its people and continues to do so, and the helpless consumers of TV news in the West are asking themselves, how could this happen again. At such a time the poet’s lines from ‘At the Corner of Freiestrasse’ resonate more strongly than ever:
You think: time passes
history repeats itself or leaves traces.
Finally, a word on the translations themselves. This edition is bilingual, allowing the reader to pass between Italian and English, should they wish. Translation is an imaginative act, with similar skills and sensibility to those required for writing original poetry, and translations of the same work can differ wildly. Peter Robinson is an experienced translator who has thought deeply about the process and has published a book of essays on the subject, ‘Poetry and Translation: The Art of the Impossible (2010). He has also added to this introduction a ‘Note on the Translations’, to explain his own process. He quotes principles articulated by Pietro De Marchi that ‘whoever wants really to translate in a language cannot fail to take account of the tradition expressed in that language’. He also lays out his own aims as translator ‘simultaneously to attend to the poetic promptings of the second language, and as much as humanly possible, to cast the draft renderings of the originals into rhythmical units inevitably derived from experience of poetry in English’… and ‘I have attempted to enhance the poetic qualities of the translation even when remaining faithful to as many aspects of the original as I was able.’ Peter Robinson is to be congratulated for exercising ‘the art of the impossible’ and bringing another twentieth century Italian poet to an English readership, as is Shearsman for publishing it.
Caroline Maldonado is a poet and translator, living in the UK and Italy. Her poems have appeared in many journals, anthologies and online and have won or been placed in competitions. http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/carolinemaldonadobiog.shtml
Mario Martín Gijόn’s Sur(rendering) reviewed by Ian Pople
Sur(rendering) by Mario Martín Gijόn. £10.95.Shearsman. ISBN: 978-1848617049
e.e.cummings is likely to come to the mind of the English language reader coming to Mario Martín Gijόn’s poems for the first time. cummings was famous for his use of typographical changes to break up words, and ‘mix’ words and ideas together. cummings used these devices to create ironies and subterfuges. Such devices were mean to throw the reader’s immediate perception of the surface of the language. Sometimes, cummings’ technical ‘innovations’ were used to poke fun at or undermining ideas and people. cummings also wrested syntax in interesting ways. Often, however, cummings had a much more serious purpose. The typographical and syntactical changes emphasised a kind of melancholy.
death(having lost) put on his universe
and yawned:it looks like rain
and cummings used his technical play for a series of very poignant love poems.
The poems in Sur(rendering), Mario Martín Gijόn’s first book in an English translation, also centrally concern a love affair. cummings’ poems were sometimes guilty of a slightly skewed sentimentality, for example, ‘no one, not even the rain, has such tiny hands’. There is no sentimentality in Martín Gijόn’s poems. The back cover blurb to the book calls Martín Gijόn’s ‘play’, ‘linguistic recreation’, with its own pun on ‘recreation’. But the effect, time and time again, is to add not only the surface of the language but to the emotional complexity of the experience encoded in the language. It would be slightly simplistic to suggest that the result is a kind of cubism. But the melding of words one within another does more than turn the prism on an experience. This melding of worlds pulls the reader into and through experience.
This mixing of words is clearly a considerable challenge to the translator, in this case Terence Dooley. And it is clear that Dooley has made discrete versions of Martín Gijόn’s poems. By this I mean that Dooley makes typographical changes where the original does not. And these are changes which create poems which have an independence and resonance in English that slavish translations of the originals would not. Thus Martín Gijόn and Dooley seem to collaborate on the poems in this book. Sur(rendering) is less a book of translations than a book of ‘recreations’, indeed.
salvation from the void
forgiveness of the given
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhere I swim
in the hopeful
(l)over and (l)over
of hour abs(c)ent
Here, the poem centres around the effect of the absence of the beloved as portrayed in the motion of the sea. In the ‘recreation’, Dooley actually inserts brackets and slashes where there are none in the original. So we can see that the poem’s attempt to mimic both physical and emotional turmoil. In a sense, too, one has to buy into the effects of, for example, ‘w(o/hi)rl[e]d (l)over and (l)over’. There is a kind of hiatus for the reader while they disentangle the words compounded here. Where that disentanglement is more complicated, e.g.’ w(o/hi)rl[e]d’, the reader may be asked to do more work than the slightly ‘simpler’ ‘(l)over and (l)over’. The payoff is that the investment is, as I’ve suggested, rewarded by both the sense of linguistic distancing and the deeper emotional depiction. The surface of the poem is cool but that contains a great nuance and involvement. The poems avoid sentimentality by showing relationships in their complexity. The reader may be made to work harder, but that’s what the poems do.
Often the poems begin with their first line and there is no orthographical introduction to the poem; ‘salvation from the void’ is one such. Others have a title without capitals but the first line is printed in bold, as in ‘bearing the w(a/e)i(gh)t’, which I will quote complete:
of this forbearing
to where you were
Dooley’s ‘recreation’ of the poem contains the typographical play in the title, where Martín Gijόn’s ‘original’ does not. The body of Martín Gijόn’s poem contains typographical play where Dooley’s ‘recreation’ does not. The entanglement of ‘wait/weight’ in the title is reinforced with the first line. That ‘wait/weight’ demands (the original Spanish of the title ‘padecir’ is often translated as ‘suffer’) forbearance. Forbearing in turn might involve distancing where a, perhaps hoped for, imminence and presence is lost to negation and doubt. The pain of that loss is borne with a silent unhappiness which precludes a return. The poem turns after line seven to the stepped lines ‘or never / turn / again’ which are pushed out away from the rest of the words and enact their own isolation. That pattern is initially turned back to the where the lost ‘you’ was. And that stepped pattern reoccurs at the end of the poem. The poem ends with the word ‘wait’ which brings the whole jagged pattern so lacking in imminence back to the beginning.
In the final, fourth section of the book, Martín Gijόn uses German phrases from Celan. These phrases are not translated on the page by Terence Dooley, but English translations are given in notes at the end. The phrases do not have a gloss on the page in the Spanish originals, either. The effect is further distancing for the reader; well, for this reader, certainly. The English translations in the notes show that the phrases are almost all to do with sight and eyes. Martín Gijόn and Dooley gloss this in the notes as serving ‘as trigger or echo of similar feelings of the “blindness and insight” that love and passion offer us.’ Martín Gijόn’s fine poems in Terence Dooley’s astonishing ‘recreations’ offer a wonderful mimicking of those feelings of ‘blindness and insight’. The poems show how it is possible to be both emotionally and linguistically intelligent in ways that amplify and extend both.
Ian Pople’s Spillway: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.
Bijan Elahi’sHigh Tide of the Eyes reviwed by Jenny Lewis
High Tide of the Eyes by Bijan Elahi, translated by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, £13.52. Operating System. ISBN: 9781946031556
As Kayvan Tahmasebian says, in his note on translation, it would be hard to overestimate Bijan Elahi’s importance as a translator of world poetry into Persian and he draws our attention to the ‘convergence of many styles gathered together from many parts of the world’ in Elahi’s own poetry. This expansive polyglotism is one of the most compelling qualities, for me, of this exceptional book. The list of Elahi’s translations includes Frederico Garcia Lorca, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Hallaj, Henri Michaux, Arthur Rimbaud, Constantine Cavafy and Friedrich Hölderlin (among many more) and his own poems are to a greater or lesser degree coloured by his experience of translating these world poets. In one of his essays on translation at the end of the book (‘From Elahi, Translation in Every Words’, 1985) Elahi quotes Eliot who says ‘cultures rely on each other to enrich themselves and they must do so’. He goes on to discuss ‘free’ as opposed to ‘bound’ translation and cites Ezra Pound’s genius in reaching ‘through philological veils, the seed at the heart of the foreign poet’. Elahi was born in 1945 in Tehran and was first a successful painter before turning exclusively to poetry where he became the leading figure in a circle of young poets who developed the Other Poets movement which was to transform Iranian literary modernism during the 1960s and 1970s. His later years were spent immersed in Sufism when he neither published his poems nor appeared in public. He died in 2010 and has been highly influential to younger generations of Iranian poets inspired by his innovative and experimental style. Elahi’s poems were published posthumously in two volumes: Vision (2014) and Youths (2015). This bilingual edition gathers together twenty poems from these two collections.
The fist poem, ‘I Believed’, from Youths has, for me, the distinctly troubadour flavour of an aubade, or alba:
Before the cocks crowed
opened dawn’s book.
Your mouth held for me
laughter warmer than the unrisen sun.
Already the images and associations crowd in. Who is the beloved addressee? Is it the fair lady, or domna, the love for whom ennobles the lover? Or is it the more spiritual concept of the soul or a higher form of existence? Elahi’s deep engagement with Ezra Pound’s work as well as his 30 year absorption in Sufism and the work of such writers as Rumi and Hafez is evident here. The final lines remind me of the alba’s ‘watchman’ who alerts the lovers to the encroaching dawn (or to the husband coming home): ‘Only the cypress betrayed. / It was courted by every season.’
The cypress here is too busy with its own seductions, perhaps, to sound the alarm.
‘Tasseography’ is a sequence based on telling fortunes from coffee grounds from upturned cups. The first little poem is both cryptic and cautionary:
A small mouse
in your hand,
a pretty mouse
with bright eyes.
(A bit later
you will be heartless).
In ‘I Laugh For You’ the cup becomes more metaphysical:
The air is a cup of the spirit
of a burning and witnessing moth
between a thousand suns and a thousand shadows of you.
and the poem becomes almost hallucinatory:
The water beasts
went to sleep quietly
and each of them touched
your clean blood
in their dreams.
In the long poem ‘Five Scenes from Icarus’ we hear Eliot’s voice ‘In the room the women / are talking of Icarus’. In the fifth section, ‘From Icarus and the Bondsman of the Deer’, which is representative of the referential complexities of many of the poems, Elahi says ‘I wish that poetry could mix the two legends together’, referring to another legend, that of Imam Reza (766-819) who saved a deer from being killed by a hunter.
The poems from Vision, include ‘Dissecting an Onion’, from which the title of the book is taken. This is followed by ‘Dupin Detects’ about a fictional character based on an Edgar Allan Poe detective story and ‘Douleur D’Aprez Doyle’ which contains a Sherlock Holmes reference. Then ‘For Two Weeks I Have Been in This Palace. Nothing Has Happened’ offers a poetic retelling of a story in Arabic from the A Thousand and One Nights. I particularly liked ‘What You Have Read So Far’, a series of apparently unrelated incidents which have the inconsequential nature of a dream. In this, and ‘Song of the Moon Hanging Over the Fields of Damascus’, which puns on the meaning of the word ‘mu’llaqā’ (hanging) and its significance to the Muʻallaqāt, or seven Arabic poems hung round the Ka’ba in pre-Islamic Mecca, I found echoes of much contemporary Arabic poetry, including that of the modernist Iraqi poet Adnan Al-Sayegh. With ‘Wild Grass’ we get a strong flavour of Lorca:
In memory of green
it is green.
Never say it is green.
The grass greens to say
it can green.
In the fascinating and important notes on translation at the end of the book, Elahi shows himself to be, in his translators’ words, not just a great poet and critic but ‘an original theorist of translation at work dissecting literary texts and probing their philosophical implications’. Elahi, they say, considers translation to be ‘a re-creation even more difficult than the original’ adding that, in Elahi’s words ‘if creation is viewed as dance, translation is a dance in chains.’ In the preface to his translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations (Ishrāqha, Tehran, 1984), Elahi says ‘The translator’s relation to the text is that of a director to the play, of a filmmaker to the script, and of a singer to the song…’ but what has to be judged, ‘whether a success or a failure’, is ‘a poem in Persian.’ Gould and Tahmasebian should congratulate themselves on successfully bringing the work of this influential poet, with its often ‘sophisticated and estranged’ language to an English-speaking public. Just as importantly is their transmission of his ideas as a ground-breaking theorist on translation and the role of the translator which to my mind have not been articulated before by any other literary or academic practitioner.
Jenny Lewis’s recent work includes Gilgamesh Retold (Carcanet, 2018) and Let Me Tell You What I Saw (Seren, 2020), her translation, with the poet and others, of the work of the Iraqi poet, Adnan Al-Sayegh.