Roy Fisher: The Citizen and the making of City, ed. Peter Robinson • Andrew McNeillie: Striking a Match in a Storm, New and Collected Poems • Penelope Shuttle: Lyonesse • Greta Stoddart: Fool • Dermot Bolger: Other People’s Lives • James Conor Patterson: Bandit Country • Grace Wells: The Church of the Love of the World • Robert Selby:The Kentish Rebellion • Stuart Henson: Beautiful Monsters • Pippa Little: Time Begins to Hurt • Kate Behrens‘ Transitional Spaces • James Peake: The Star in the Branches • Susan Castillo Street: Braiding • David Underdown: Jigsaw • Hubert Moore: Country of Arrival • Shanta Acharya: What Survives Is The Singing • Mary Ford Neal: relativism • Sidney Wade: Deep Gossip • Henri Cole: Blizzard • Dominic Fisher: A Customised Selection of Fireworks
Christine McNeill: Across a Sheet of Paper
Roy Fisher’s The Citizen and the making of City reviewed by Ian Pople
Roy Fisher, The Citizen and the making of City, edited by Peter Robinson. £14.99. Bloodaxe. ISBN: 978-1780375960.
The Citizen and the making of City is a variorum edition of Roy Fisher’s City. And what the book collects and publishes are seven different ‘versions’ of City. It also collects poems that Peter Robinson, this book’s brilliant editor, describes as ‘poems included in the various versions of City’ along with ‘related poems not used in any versions of City’.
City was, along with the long poem A Furnace, the text that really established Roy Fisher as one of the most important poets of his time. This importance was, in part, because Fisher was not an Oxbridge educated member of the London glitterati. What Fisher offered was a depiction of a post-industrial country, written in a modernist combination of prose and poetry that focused on both a landscape and its often working class inhabitants. City’s first ‘incarnation’ was as a 21-page pamphlet published by Michael Shayer’s Migrant Press in 1961. There was then a further edition of a 9-page pamphlet called Then Hallucination: City II published, again by Migrant, in 1962.
In part, City was the poem that established Fisher’s reputation because it was taken up by Donald Davie in his book, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. Fisher rather balked at Davie’s judgement, however, and commented, ‘I wasn’t aware that he’d exactly written about my work in that book’. However that might be, Davie’s chapter was entitled ‘Roy Fisher: An Appreciation’ and Davie’s fame as a critic was sufficient to boost general attention to his subjects.
In his excellent introduction, Peter Robinson quotes a letter from Fisher to his friend and fellow poet, Gael Turnbull, written in 1960 when City was in its infancy. Here, Fisher comments that he is, ‘writing like mad: an odd feeling,’ and that he is writing, ‘a sententious prose book, about the length of a short novel, called the Citizen. … a melange of evocation, maundering, imagining, fiction and autobiography. I’m doing all this so as to be able to have a look at myself & and see what I think.’ Robinson describes that text as, ‘more or less documentary accounts of alterations being writing to Birmingham at the time, observations fed by memories of his childhood and family, a comparing and contrasting of the old city and the new one, all of these placed alongside more feverishly narrative, sexually troubled, and hallucinatory sections. … which would eventually be seen as Fisher’s self-defining performance.’
I’ve quoted at some length from Robinson’s introduction because it sums up most accurately much of what City is. In part, the brilliance of City lies in Fisher’s sheer ability to sum up what was going on in the acts of post-war reconstruction of Britain’s industrial legacy. City is often unashamedly political. Fisher himself put it as, ‘It’s not meaning to make the social point but to assume the social point’. City describes that post-war reconstruction in fairly apocalyptic terms,
‘… when destruction comes, it is total: the printed notices on the walls, block by block, a few doors left open at night, broken windows advancing down a street until fallen slates appear and are not kicked away. Then, after a few weeks of this, the machines arrive.’
Fisher’s deracinated language with its passives and participles assumes the social point, which is that this destruction is not just of buildings but of communities. The communities are absent from this description and are kept absent. As he describes elsewhere, the people of Birmingham, i.e., Fisher’s own skilled working class, seem to skate around their own city, ‘When these people go into the town, the buses they travel in stop just before they reach it, in the sombre back streets behind the Town Hall and the great insurance offices…’ The Town Hall and the insurance offices keep themselves at a distance from the very people they are meant to serve. All this is brilliantly done. Its prose poetry narrative struck a new note in British poetry. Commentators immediately drew comparisons with William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, although Fisher stated that he only read Paterson after he had written City. The poem is both urban and almost ‘anti-London.’ It is an urban archaeology with a deep sympathy for the lives it excavates.
At the same time, as Robinson points out, there is much that is both ‘feverish’ and ‘troubled’ in City. There are attitudes to women which are of their time; although it needs to be emphasised that Fisher’s later explorations of what we might loosely call ‘matriarchy,’ particularly in A Furnace, are focused, poignant and celebratory. Another element that might be ‘troubled’ is the presence of what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’, those substances which we excrete from the body and which we do not wish to return. In Fisher’s handling, these become part of the very fabric of Birmingham and part of the air the citizens breath.
Peter Robinson also shows the hugely important part that Michael Shayer played in the organisation of the first published version of City. It appears that at one point, Shayer had ‘all the sheets spread out on the floor.’ Shayer then interleaved the prose and the poetry. Shayer first put together sections that had to do with ‘place’, then people, then politics, then finally a more concrete section. Fisher’s reaction in a letter to Gael Turnbull was that Shayer had ‘presented me in the last section of CITY. This needed doing to me, personally; I think it rather distorts what I was trying to do with the urban material.’ There’s clearly a tension here, between what Fisher feels is an intervention in him ‘personally, ‘ and with what Fisher was aiming to do in writing about Birmingham. Here, the writer feels impinged upon both in himself and in his subject matter.
What this text ultimately shows is how important Shayer’s interventions were. Although Fisher added to that first version with Then Hallucination, his own later versions of the text were buildings on the foundations that Shayer had laid. For those of us who have lived with Fisher’s masterpiece through to this fine definitive edition, Shayer seems to have both opened out and refined Fisher’s writing. Peter Robinson’s book allows us to view the complete process of both composition and assemblage of what has been called Fisher’s ‘small epic’, the early masterpiece that is City, for this we are in Peter Robinson’s debt.
Ian Pople‘s Spillway: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.
Andrew McNeillie’s Striking a Match in a Storm, New and Collected Poems
reviewed by Patrick Lodge
Striking a Match in a Storm, New and Collected Poems by Andrew McNeillie. £18.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 80017 233 3
If there was a literary equivalent of Desert Island Discs this collection would be one of my choices; more, it might well be the book saved from the inundating waves. Some “Selected” or “Collected” Poems, with a limited set of new work tacked on to show the writer is still alive and kicking, can have a musty, valedictory whiff to them, a mothball-y “greatest hits” that can disappoint. This New & Collected is not like that at all. They show McNellie – whose surname aptly derives from Mac an Filidh, the son of the poet – at his life-affirming best in the chronologically arranged selections from Nevermore of 2000 to Making Ends Meet of 2017. Better still the wryly titled Meanwhile section provides a strong affirmation in its abundance of new poems that McNellie’s observation, craft, delight in words and wry humour is not in any way diminished. His poetry is not something written to be offered up to the scrutiny of his reader but much more it is offered as a conversation with that reader who is invited into a poem where the subject, the poet, the words and the reader are all participants in drawing meaning and worth from the work.
McNellie, well into his seventies now, is a poet, writer, literary editor and founder of the Clutag Press which publishes limited editions of, amongst others, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill. Though born in north Wales he has connections in both Scotland and Ireland – where he once spent eleven months living on Inishmore. These connections are important – he himself recognised that the Welsh aspect would bulk larger in his self-perception. – “So living in that country always was / mysterious and never to be equalled.” Yet the Irish/Scottish heritage is clearly also a key part of McNellie’s sense of who he is and what his subjects might be.
But, like many writers, such a diverse heritage can provide less of a firm anchoring and more of a sense of being lost – “At Sea” as he entitles a section of In Mortal Memory McNellie, himself, recalls, “…the truth is I’ve always belonged nowhere, not even at home”. In the “from Glynn Dwr Sonnets” he references the idea of “cynefin” as an answer to the poet’s request to tell him in a word how you might express “…a sense of being that / embraces belonging here and now, / in the landscape of your birth and death, / its light and air, and past, at once…”. Cynefin, literally “habitat” can more readily be seen as referring to all those factors that make us, us in ways that we can never fully understand – this seems the core focus of McNellie’s pursuit in poetry.
It also impacts upon the way he writes – belonging nowhere means, in many senses, belonging everywhere and encourages an Isherwood-like “I am a camera” approach. Indeed McNellie once wrote that “I was and am merely a witness to what has passed for life about me”. Like so many of the birds he writes about, McNellie is a migrant himself in “gore-tex coat and over-trousers, / poking the road with a stick, / a rare vagrant passing through”. He hasn’t come simply for the view but “to see what the moment might discover” (“By Ferry, Foot and Fate”). But he is a witness with the ability to drill down to the detail that gives heft to his bigger pictures and concerns and locates his poems firmly. His marvellous poem ‘In the Midst of Life’, in homage to Patrick Conneely, locates the poem perfectly, “ the bay drawling, like a conch at my ear, / sea-spray and salt-wind whirling, and the dunes / whistling in a gooseflesh shiver of marram.” His descriptive eyes – and ears – remain undiminished throughout.
One of the constants in McNellie’s poetry is his close relationship to the natural world. Many poems connect with that world of land, sea and sky. Poems are not though simply about the seasons, landscapes, nature and place, they are those things as McNellie, while a precise observer of nature – of birds, trees, fish, environment – seems more to see himself as poet as an integral part of that nature, inhabiting it – as he put it in his autobiography, Once, “Vertical a poem is and I like the path that winds down the mountain to go this way and that”
Given that the collection covers the last twenty two years – years of rapidly increasing degradation of the natural world – McNellie’s poems are suffused with a sense of unease and loss. Here is a man who recalls growing up where “the hedges in the spring were full of songbirds”. In “Elegy” he asks the question, “Why are so many birds in the bare branches of your poems…” and answers it emphatically, “In the hope you might imagine a world without them”. This is something that McNellie clearly would find impossible as the collection is replete with poems and references to birds though he is aware of the constant pressure on the natural world, not least from the syndicates of builders on a shooting trip who kill thousands of birds, tolerated in the name of an island’s economy.
Of course once gone is forever gone – as ‘Lapwing’ succinctly puts it. “You can’t will them back” – and what is lost is the possibility of what Emerson called the sanative aspect of the land/nature. In “Port Sheania Revisited” he delights in the profusion of crows and cormorants and curlews and oystercatchers which “…goes on all day, all night, without human agency. / Why should that not console me?” More than that, as he notes elsewhere, his writing and the natural world both powerfully “sustain me against the abuses of the modern world”. Unfortunately it is the creeping silence that is most “heard” as species like the corncrake diminish – “But all I heard was a silence that grew / the more I heard it, until it drowned / everything…” (‘More: (v) A Letter Home: In Memory of the Corncrake’)
The sea and fishing too played a major part in McNellie’s imaginative life – feeding his “wide-eyed reservoir of dreams”. Again his craft as a poet and his pursuit of fish seem coterminous – it’s hard to tell where the poet ends and the fisherman begins, as poet are “…prolific in all they touched / quick to hook their lines into the rising / poems, whether at dawn, midday or evening”(“from Glyn Dŵr Sonnets: Owain’s Poetics”). Of course fishing takes the fisherman to the heart of the natural world – or more accurately the hinterlands, borderlines and margins pregnant with possibility, the “arrière–pays” ‘where sky and water wash ashore / And the symmetry of boats speaks of art / Within immensity, the sea…” (‘By Ferry Foot and Fate’). In his recollections of his youth, McNellie admits to an obsession with shorelines which were always hauling him back into childhood “solitude and unlonely loneliness” which was “myself in the making”. The sea and boats – often beached, rusted, carrying only memories – are a constant theme throughout the collection and again McNellie sees the symbiosis – “Boat or poem it’s all the same. / Both crafts demand a form of rhyme / port to starboard every time” and, vitally, keep working until “your efforts find an even keel” ((Meditations in a Boatyard’)
This is an excellent reflection upon McNellie’s craft – he has the skills to produce poetry that seems effortlessly written but is the product of hard work, and a self-effacing humility – “Even the best craft takes a lifetime / to turn around, into seaworthiness. / And on the way, many a drowned rhyme, / and many an SOS.” (‘Seaworthy’). His tribe, as he put it, were blacksmith’s and he is conscious of the distance he has travelled – “the iron age to the age of scribe, / blacksmith to wordsmith, mettel to paper” and now “…I toil and sweat to melt it down / and hammer out lines…”(‘The Blacksmith’s Order Centenary’) until they are just right, one might add. He is “A man who’ll tinker at a poem / until the kye come home.? ((‘Clutarch: (vii) For Great-Granny Elizabeth(nee McGarva)’). The work is also suffused with an engaging contingency, an approach which is designed “…To keep them wondering what / it is you’re up to, haunting the page at / the edge of sense, as if you understand / their dreams…” (“from Glyn Dŵr Sonnets: (vi) Owain’s Poetics”) and which challenges the reader to engage and understand.
McNellie is a poet who delights in words, rhymes, half-rhymes, associations, resonances. The poems are delightfully alive with much more than the subject-matter – McNellie achieves the “pre-meditated spontaneity” that Lloyd Frankenberg suggests is the poet’s desire. They can be both both moving and hilarious, as in “Lampreys” where the poet becomes engaged in a cumbersome dance with a lamprey suckered to his wellie but then segues into the memory of “…those dance-night girls / I knew by name but could only crave / as they shuffled to and fro, boogying together / until one beckoned with a look for me to ask her”. As Michael Longley once said, in conversation with Derek Mahon, “the message and the music are inseparable, which is real poetry” – by that definition McNellie’s work is real poetry.
There is no pomposity nor preaching in these poems – McNellie understands well that the key task of the poet is to interrogate not pontificate – “O what have I ever learnt / but that a question beats / an answer every time?” (“Sea-birds Crossed the Lens’). Here is a glass half-full realism, a simple common-sense optimism that takes rough with smooth – “…Though pleasure’s nothing without the long / Shadow to which it is the silver lining…”(‘More: (ii) Prayer for the Naomh Éanna.’. His search “to make / meaning of my lot now” (‘Allt’) is one we can all share in. In a world that often appears to be back to front, “The art lies in turning it front to back” (‘An Oriental Tale’). McNellie might see himself increasingly as “a redundant light-house keeper / striking a match in a storm’ (‘A Poet 21st Century’ but this collection suggests that the blaze continues to provide both heat and illumination and we can all happily get closer.
Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is of Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published widely in the UK and abroad. He is currently working on a sequence commemorating captain Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769. His collections, An Anniversary of Flight (2013) and Shenanigans (2016) both published by Valley His third collection, Remarkable Occurrences – will soon also be available from Valley Press.
Penelope Shuttle’s Lyonesse reviewed by Phil Kirby
Lyonesse by Penelope Shuttle. £12.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 9781780375540
In Lyonesse, a substantial collection arranged into two sections, Penelope Shuttle has achieved something remarkable: the creation of a poetic world in which it is possible to become completely immersed. From the explanatory Preface right through the ninety pages of the titular section, we are drawn into a mystical undersea world that has ‘swordfish patrolling / aisle and pew’, where there’s a ‘Church of the Crayfish Christ’ and in which Neptune gives a bad-tempered interview. It is a world that is both magical and moving in equal measure.
In the Preface, Shuttle tells us how she aimed to achieve ‘a balance, a pathway between mystery and clarity’ and that ‘Language is a serious and yet playful affair’, both of which are abundantly evidenced throughout. She adds that, although it ‘had historical existence’, Lyonesse also provides ‘an imaginary region for exploring depths’ and it is these explorations that give the collection its power, touching, as they often do, on the loss of her partner.
The opening poems have an enchanting sound and rhythm and those like ‘The Gownshops’ and ‘Our Cradle Sea’ draw us inexorably into the submerged land of Lyonesse. As we are going under, flashes of humour appear, as in ‘Kelpy’ which describes a storm and how:
its kraken roar rattled Lyonesse
like Rodin sorting through
his drawer of Legs and Hands
and by the time we reach the ‘flood-streets’ of the poem ‘Fortuna’, the richness of the language and imagination almost makes us feel we are beginning to exist in her underwater world.
But for all its magical qualities, ‘Lyonesse can’t get used to the darkness’. Amongst the sense of flood and inundation and loss, Shuttle broaches her own loss and loneliness in poems like ‘In the dark’ and ‘Saturdays and Sundays’, which seems a direct address to her late partner:
Then you travelled to where whales
are never watched, leaving the small change
of my spare time
and the shift from fantastical imaginings to the more personal is, at times, deeply moving.
‘An Account of the Submergence’, like a prose poetry essay which seems to act as a centrepiece to the section, explores what may have happened in Lyonesse as the inundation occurred. We are told how ‘Lyonesse the lovely fell to her knees, but kept knitting seaweed shawls for her newborns’, that ‘the undersea city was a scuttle of amber rooms’ and that even ‘the diamonds in the women’s ears regretted their watermarks’. But Shuttle then widens her concerns, considering how kingdoms and cities of the past have faded, been washed away by time, perhaps, and by the end we are left with two things: a stark warning that ‘the seas will go on rising’ and the haunting image of the many submerged eyes in Lyonesse as they perhaps ‘look up from the struck-dumb seabed theatres’ while we blindly go about destroying ourselves.
From here on, as the poems progress, we begin to feel a palpable sense of the poet coming back to the surface, so to speak, while at the same time encountering characters like the old salt who speaks of ‘clouds like sky-cloaked widow-women carrying harps of hornbeam and brass’ and ‘The Restorer’, who uses a ‘a palette / gorgeous with wine and woe’. More and more often, we encounter lines suggestive of Shuttle’s acceptance of the need to return to the real world, to ‘wherever daylight invites us’. There is also, perhaps, an acceptance of her loss and a need to find ways of moving on, as in ‘My Old Lover’, which finds her:
hoping for a last glimpse
of a lover
in some sea-hued basement bar
or hurrying along
wanting one last look
before he and Lyonesse
and in ‘My Own Volition’, she states outright, ‘I’m just visiting, / Lyonesse, / you cannot make me stay’. Indeed, the final poem in this section is titled ‘Goodbye’, and after so much interweaving of mythology, magic, elements of sea-shanties with linguistic exploration and inventiveness, we are left with a genuine feeling that our underwater journey is over.
The second, somewhat shorter, section of the collection, ‘New Lamps For Old’, is firmly rooted in a more familiar world, but one which is no less beautiful. After all the wordplay of ‘Lyonesse’, the pure simplicity of ‘cup of evenings’ is almost heart-rending and the sudden spareness of language in these poems somehow conveys the poet’s acute sense of loneliness. While some poems, like ‘Dusk coming on’ and ‘sevenfold’ read like observational notes, others tackle her situation head on, as in ‘some strange hour of night’, which opens:
all of night’s dark
into the silence of a few stars
and ends with ‘strangest of hours no lamp can light for me’. Her feelings of solitude are prevalent, of course, but there is also the occasional nod towards life needing to go on, since ‘things decide to continue’, which, though the fact that the ‘things’ have made the decision suggests she feels little agency in them continuing, conveys an element of resolve, or at least, a coming-to-terms. This is reflected in ‘break of day/this one evening’, when she writes, ‘imagine living without sorrow / I’d forgotten life used to be like that’ and in ‘glance’, in which she is speaking directly to her lost partner:
no, I haven’t forgotten you
but my life’s
had other things to do
The concluding poem, ‘In the mirror’, is suggestive of how the whole collection has been a reflection of her life and love, but for all the power of the work it contains, it all feels so small in the grander scheme of things.
At times demanding, at others truly enchanting, there is so much more that could be said about this extraordinary and beautiful book that it is difficult to do it justice here. Ultimately, the thing to do is get yourself a copy, hold your breath and be prepared to dive in.
Phil Kirby’s collections are Watermarks (Arrowhead, 2009) and The Third History (Lapwing, 2018). Poems have since appeared in Acumen, Poetry Ireland, Stand, The High Window and various UK and international magazines. He is currently working towards a third collection. As well as having run Waldean Press, he was an East Midlands Arts ‘New Voice’ and has read at The Cheltenham Literature Festival. Writing as P.K. Kirby, a teen novella, Hidden Depths (Applefire, 2016), is also available on the Kindle platform.
Greta Stoddart’s Fool reviewed by Jill Sharp
Fool by Greta Stoddart. £10.99. Bloodaxe. ISBN 978 1 78037 627 1
Reading and re-reading the spare, prosaic poems in this absorbing collection has been something of a quiet revelation. At first I felt a little disappointed by their very pared-down simplicity and realised I’d been hoping for more of what Greta Stoddart has achieved in her previous work. But this collection is a natural progression of previous concerns and leads the reader on what might be called a ‘fool’s journey’ in poems that take nothing for granted.
Stoddart’s epigraphs from Jane Hirshfield, and McCartney’s ‘ Fool on the Hill’, become increasingly relevant as the collection proceeds. The opening poem describes a ‘girl on a bench’ who has:
not a single word floating inside her
or even a thought that might want to try itself out in words.
The piece shifts between third and first person, from ‘So there I was/sitting on a bench’ to ‘fool that she was/for all that she didn’t know.’ The poems that follow seem to pursue a search, a quest of sorts, that is constantly probing reality, perception and language itself.
Many of the poems are concerned with our impulse to impose meaning. In ‘A glass of water’ the question posed is ‘Why look at a thing again and again?/What are we trying to get right?’
Then in ‘What is a question’, we’re in the Keatsian realm of negative capability:
will you let it grow
xxxxxxxwithout your need
to tether and train
xxxxxxxwill you remain just so
‘Three tulips in a milk bottle’ notes how a woman ‘couldn’t resist the urge/to pick them and bring them in’, and its final message couldn’t be clearer:
no thing has any inherent meaning
and perhaps we’d do as well to accept that.
The poems respond to and echo each other in an ongoing conversation, many beginning as if in medias res, like ‘Concorde’’s ‘When actually what I really want/to talk about…’ In this poem about a childhood accident, there’s no attempt to reconstruct memory, but instead a recognition of the impossibility and falseness of trying to do so:
I suppose she was looking after me
I suppose that is what she was doing
making me a sandwich or something.
This poem also touches – very lightly – on social issues, as some of the other poems do. Here, it’s the wealthy people on those Concorde flights, whom ‘we know in our hearts/we’d only ever be the ones to watch/and imagine.’
Several pieces are reminiscent of Hirshfield’s assays. ‘Consider the mornings’ is a poem where words and phrases shift between stanzas, altering their meaning as they do – or even suggesting that there ultimately is none. But alternatively:
Consider the eternal mystery
xxxxxxand how it might be
xxxxxxabsolutely devoid of love and yet
xxxxxxhow potential is that yet
Language is brought to the fore in different ways in the poems, for us to consider its possibilities and sometimes its hindrance to perception. This is particularly so in ‘Birds Britannia: Exhibition Catalogue’ where the names of birds are surrounded by the inane, superfluous verbiage of art reviews:
… the Magpie gathers objects that, while
accruing unstable symbolisms, act as physical
footnotes to an entire era.
‘Once upon a time’ is a poem about an unspecified word that has lost its significance:
It barely knew what it meant anymore
like it had collapsed from over-usage
Likewise, ‘Untimely’, a deeply touching elegy for a child, is also a meditation on time itself. The simplicity and honesty of this piece are striking. Its starting point is a photograph of the child, and the realisation that:
xzxxxxxTime has come to rest here.
It insists on what we cannot understand
so we look and look.
Throughout the collection runs the image of lying in a field. ‘School Field’ looks back to a moment in youth, one most readers will relate to, of looking to the future in the company of friends, and ‘what they don’t/know will never be known/so closely again.’
In the final poem, ‘Lie in a field on your back’, phrases blend into each other: ‘look/before you leap into your/mind/you don’t say a single thing more/for now/there is nothing’ as if to show how language itself propels us forward with its own seeming logic. But here it also draws us back to ‘what you think this is and/look/while you can you/fool/yourself you understand.’
What I take from the experience of this collection is that sometimes you need to find a new way of reading, a different set of expectations – a ‘beginner’s mind’ – in order fully to appreciate the value of what’s being offered.
Jill Sharp’s poems have appeared most recently in Acumen, Envoi, Prole, Stand and Under the Radar and online at The Lake and the Mary Evans Picture Library poetry blog. Her pamphlet Ye gods was published by Indigo Dreams in 2015 and she was one of 6 women poets featured in Vindication, an anthology from Arachne Press, 2018. Her poem ‘Cemetery Crow’ was placed joint-second in the Keats-Shelley Prize, 2020.
Dermot Bolger’s Other People’s Lives reviewed by Nick Cooke
Other People’s Lives by Dermot Bolger. £12.95. New Island Books. ISBN: 978-1848408432
The author of thirteen novels, eighteen plays and (before this) ten poetry collections, Dermot Bolger has also found time during his prolific career to play a huge role in Irish publishing, into which he broke with precocious brilliance, as an eighteen-year-old, in 1977, when he founded Raven Arts Press, a springboard for many future leading lights, including Colm Tóibín and Sebastian Barry. A universally popular figure, known for great depths of warmth, humour and humanity, he is the kind of person whose work one hopes, as well as expects, to like. Fortunately this eleventh volume of poems, a 120-page tour de force, does not disappoint.
Sparing in his use of what might be termed ‘classic poetic’ techniques, such as metrical mimesis and enjambement, he at times sounds deliberately prosaic, almost as if he has chosen to split up lines lifted from some form of memoir or biography into an appropriate length for verse. But far from bathos or flatness, the effect of this is to emphasise the humility and naturalness of his voice. There may not be much attention to rhythm or tempo in the opening of ‘The Valley Hotel, Woodenbridge, 1944’, about his parents’ honeymoon in Wicklow, but one cannot help being engaged by the ease and narrative skill with which he draws us in, by evoking powerful feelings from the outset, some of them intriguingly inexplicable:
August sunlight dapples the orchard behind the hotel,
Its proprietor so besotted by my mother’s bliss
That he insists on picking a bag of apples as a gift
For her to enjoy with her groom on the journey back,…
In ‘The Broken Bread Van’, the family retrospective goes back to his grandfather, who died just before Bolger was born in November 1959, and whose belatedly accelerating life only really started when he inherited a farm aged fifty, and went on to produce eleven children. In a vividly imagined biography compressed into four pages of verse, the key theme of life-as-journey establishes itself, as Bolger seeks affinities with his forebear. The poet’s unassuming nature, sense of perspective and complete lack of pomposity or self-regard, mingles with a respect for plain hard work, in a moment obliquely recalling Heaney’s ‘I’ll dig with it’:
… maybe you and I also possess some shared traits,
Both voyagers who have travelled mainly in our minds,
Even if the imaginative journeys that I embark upon
Might not fit your definition of an honest day’s labour.
He moves on to several poems based on telegrams and letters exchanged between his parents at the time of his birth and baptism. In these he sometimes hands over the authorial reins to his mother, some of whose words might have brought a smile to the face of the late Donald Davie, author of Purity of Diction in English Verse, as she revivifies clichés with disarming ease. Disappointed that husband Roger’s return to Dublin from his job in England might be delayed, the young Bridie Bolger writes, ‘Still where there is life there’s hope so I’ll keep up my heart’. The first phrase is normally used in the context of staving off despair, yet here the meaning is reverse, with ‘life’ not generic but highly specific, that of her infant son, for whom she has such hopes. And ‘keep up my heart’ replaces the hackneyed ‘spirits’ with something far more emotionally direct and powerful. It is typical of Bolger’s humble stance, and his profound appreciation of other lives, that he ends the poem with the admission that ‘For decades I have crafted poetry, slow draft after draft, / But I will never write a love poem as pure as her letter…’
Later family-related poems address Bolger’s loss of his wife Bernie, one of them (‘Never So Close’) exploring the sudden bond that this tragedy helped form between himself and his previously somewhat estranged father. ‘A father and his son conjoined in widowhood / With so much in common if we could only communicate.’ The next piece, ‘Sunday Walk’, further reveals Bolger’s honesty and emotional generosity, in a poem addressed to the widow of an older writer whom Bolger once telephoned in despair, shortly after Bernie’s death. Bolger uses the poem to, in turn, pass on to the advice given to him by this older poet who, ‘with wise compassion, assured me I’d make it through’. ‘Other people’ rather than himself take centre stage as the poem ends, with a kind of elegiac formality,
I wouldn’t wish to suggest you need any words of mine;
I merely wish to pass on his steadfast reassurance to you.
When Bolger turns his attention to attention-worthy figures from his and/or his country’s past, similar qualities of menschlich selflessness abound, in the portrayal of often unsung Irish heroes. There are some truly remarkable poems in the same compressed-life vein as the earlier celebration of his grandfather, including The Corporation Housing Architect, a kind of anti-epic homage to Herbert George Simms, who effectively re-designed the poorer quarters of Dublin in the 1930s and 40s, and eventually, at his wits’ end with exhaustion and depression, hurled himself in front of a train. The poem contains a felicitously ironic Bolgerian use of rhyme, all the more effective for its rarity, in mock deference to the self-congratulatory aristocratic world against which Simms spent his career labouring:
Paymasters had blocked your plans for more inner-city
Blocks of flats that families from adjacent tenements
Could be decanted into, leaving communities intact.
No more curved angles or such expressionist finesse
As befitted Corporation flats named after a countess.
There follows an equally impressive paean to an immigrant Jewish street photographer, Abraham Feldman, aka Arthur Fields. Despite becoming a well-known and admired member of his community, whose particular form of immortality was enshrined in the thousands of photographic images he’d left for posterity, Feldman ended his life feeling as marginalised as he had always been since arriving decades earlier from his native Ukraine:
The man on the Bridge who never appeared in any photograph,
But became an ever-present witness, on the fringe of everything.
These are just two of many memorable historical pieces, some of them dramatic monologues, several focussed on the 1916 Easter Rising and its bloody aftermath. They mainly deal with isolated figures, reminiscent of the working-class protagonists of Bolger’s novels, such as two elderly men once caught up in a devastating act of political arson ordered by Michael Collins, and the Protestant-born widow of a famous Irish Nationalist poet executed by the British, subsequently struggling for financial justice and craving recognition from her late husband’s arch-Catholic family. But Bolger does not allow his essentially uplifting collection to conclude in bitterness or regret. The very last piece, ‘The Dancers in a Wicklow Field’, joyfully and appositely recalls ‘a makeshift dancefloor outdoors’ in which the young poet and his love ‘waltz with no need for lanterns or music / Making our own magic by the light of the first evening star’. As deserving of readers as it is of awards, this collection certainly makes its own magic, one very characteristic of its admirable and wonderfully evergreen author.
Nick Cooke was a c contributor to the inaugural High Window Journal edition in 2016 and has published many poems and reviews elsewhere, along with short stories and several articles, in a variety of outlets. One of his poems has won first prize in a Wax Poetry and Art competition. He has also completed a number of novels, stage plays and film scripts, as well as two memoirs. He lives in West London, where he works as a language teacher and teacher-trainer.
James Conor Patterson’s Bandit Country reviewed by Malcolm Carson
Bandit Country by James Conor Patterson £10.99. Picador Poetry. ISBN: 978 1 5290 9277 6
The blurb for this extremely enjoyable first collection talks about it being ‘a rollicking, hyper-literate [whatever that means] and at times deeply troubling account of a young man’s navigation of the semi-lawless borderlands between the north of Ireland and the Republic.’ Now this would lead a reader to imagine a series of poems about border patrols, ambushes and Irish identity in an area of Ireland that has seen some of the most ferocious and devastating violence, and while that is true for some of the book, it gives only a partial insight into a joyful celebration of someone enjoying the chaos of a life lived against what has happened. Of course, the Troubles are there, how could they not be, but they do not predominate.
Patterson is originally from Newry, Co. Armagh, and writes in a hybrid dialect from his home area as well as Standard English, with bits of Ulster Scots thrown in. But the most interesting aspect of how he relates his poems is the way he replicates how he would speak. Take, for instance, the opening poem bambooland (Patterson on the whole eschews capitals):
as one put drunk intae the back of a parent’s car-
seized, it’d seem, by the adolescent desire
to be remindeda one’s failins – this mornin
saw me retorn t bambooland near john martin gardens.
i went alone – sporred as i had bin in previous years
by the cousin who supplied the sprite-bottle lung, the beer,
the suitea cobbled forniture pilfered outa skips…
back then wid sit fer hours atop broken doors & pallets…
As someone whose parents were from Belfast and Cullybackey, and who went to school in Belfast for a couple of years, I loved reading that aloud. He conveys beautifully the accent, the elision of some syllables, to give the reader a voice as well as a story. I have tried a few of the poems where Patterson writes in such a way on readers who have no Irish connections. The results, very unscientific, were mixed. One or two simply couldn’t get past the way he writes whereas others just enjoyed the fun of trying.
But to dwell on this would be fruitless as there are so many features of the collection to enjoy, such as altnaveigh:
what was the namea that aul neighbour’s house?
the one who claimed to’ve to have welded pipes in the harp
factry in Dundalk where he saw rats
simperin headlong over the tops
of mash tuns, yeast fermenters
& copper kettles built for sturrin beer mix.
The old man lives a disintegrating life with his ‘james last on vinyl, tricolour, harp’ and his relatives circling like rats, until he is in a car collision. Patterson keeps the ideas of the brewing process running through the poem. We all go to ‘foment’ in the same place, he says; the relatives could find no use for his harp which goes in the skip, close to where he lies working in an iron lung instead of a yeast fermenter. The use of ‘foment’ as opposed to ‘ferment’ does pose a difficulty, however, having a completely different meaning. Do we all go to ‘stir up trouble or violence’ in our last days? Rats infest his home as they had done the brewery. He asks for a taste of harp but with only a laugh of scorn as a reply.
The poem is beautifully brought together with a tender yet detached portrayal of the old man ‘where even his memories fail t take him home…’
Patterson goes well beyond the boundaries of bandit country in a number of poems. the disappeared, for instance, tells of the plight of someone, rather like the unknown soldier, who has paid the price of resisting Peron in Argentina but who now looks on as ‘civility can rise again’, and ‘with these things when they come, / they wrap me like a present. sometime / close to dawn – with an oil rag in my mouth / and a bloodstained pillowcase wrapped / around my head…’. The images are simple and powerful, the writing disciplined and to the point. And as if to stress that the disappeared aren’t just in foreign parts, they might also be the result of ‘four converged headlamps on a quiet country road.’
At times I found myself being puzzled by an ending, despite my best efforts. The otherwise excellent bar story, for instance, depicts him looking back at his origins, with his father on the ferry back to Warrenpoint throwing overboard his memorabilia and one by one his contacts with old girl friends – erasing his past till he meets the mother ‘in a sawdust dive on francis street’. This is recounted to the narrator much later as they meet up in a bar:
am noddin an shakin my head
intermittently, listenin to my da’s advice,
an tryin to imagine bein more
than just the unintended consequence
of two kids who took to marriage.
So far, a lovely story, beautifully recounted, but then the very odd, for me at least, ending:
… an as his story plays out,
someone does an accent, someone else a face,
and when the punchline finally arrives
we laugh, as naither one of us is talkin.
But there is no ambiguity about the terrific on meeting an influence at a book signing.
abrasive. swishin moscato like a plug
of masticated chaw, he spat, name?
then eyed me like I was there t flog
his signature all over ebay. james,
I replied, before slinkin off in a fume.
He then addresses the famous writer, saying that although he knows he’s unlikely to read this poem, if he did by chance, he needs to reflect he’s as nothing to James’ dead grandfather ‘who fabricated steel for a livin’:
for fuck’s sake! he’d say, weldin part of a gate.
why are ye here if ye can’t hold it straight?
It would be wonderful if the said influence were to read the poem and realise what a talent was in front of him, and the lasting effect, positive, then negative, he has had on him. Too much to hope.
Some of the most powerful poems deal with that ‘uneasy’ relationship between Ireland and England. In a continuous piece of prose titled ENGLAND, Patterson describes how a sixteen year-old coped with life in East London as a labourer and how he would:
… scour the firms at blackwall yard & masthouse pier fer a job in which he no longer had t put on a cockney accent…
The narrator has a calling back home unlike his friend ‘t make the pied piper’s spit valve seem permanently stopped with motor oil….’ The pathos of the economic diaspora is beautifully evoked with his friend who ‘under an assumed surname and wi digs on the bottom floor, ad sometimes take his prayr card out an lean t wards the door.’ A great final image.
INTERNMENT too is a cleverly written piece with the sparsity of image and line length accentuating the bleakness of a life without hope:
clegs & fuckin
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxblue arsed flays
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxstun themselves flatly
agin the tobacco
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxabove my door
out on derrybeg drive
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa couple of kids
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxare draggin a roll
of chain link fence
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxoff a concrete post
Patterson does provide a glossary of some of the words that might pose difficulties, ‘clegs’ for instance, and some notes. He also gives us acknowledgements of the numerous people and funding bodies who have helped and supported him, including his dog!
This is a super collection. My initial reluctance to accept the lack of capitals, ee cummings was enough for me, was soon overridden when I read the poems aloud. Do buy it.
Malcolm Carson was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. He moved to Belfast with his family before returning to Lincolnshire, becoming an auctioneer and then a farm labourer. He studied English at Nottingham University, and then taught in colleges and universities. He now lives in Carlisle, Cumbria. He has had four full collections: Breccia in 2006, Rangi Changi and other poems in 2011, a pamphlet, Cleethorpes Comes to Paris in 2014, and Route Choice in 2016. His latest collection is The Where and When in 2019. All are from Shoestring.
Grace Wells’s The Church of the Love of the World reviewed by Richard hawtree
The Church of the Love of the World by Grace Wells. €12.50. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1-910251-96-6
This compelling new collection from Grace Wells opens with a bold address to the reader. In the first poem ‘Vestige’ she aims at: ‘mending the world between endpapers // in such a deep entangling way / as to make you part of the woodland’. Such entanglement becomes, for both poet and reader, a central theme in the crafting of these poems and in the structure of this book. ‘Leaving Glenaskeogh’, for example, reveals a poetic voice charged with the power of nature, place, and history at work in the Irish landscape:
But how to extract yourself from the land
when its spring-water runs in your veins,
and your lungs are the pale lichens
that grow in the larch trees.
The land, with its lichens, spring-water and larch trees, lies at the heart of this collection. In ‘Naiad’, a poem that recalls the work of Alice Oswald in its evocation of an ancient genius loci, we look on as: ‘the river runs thick with scum, / the naiad of the Inagh drowns again.’ Yet such destruction is balanced by the potential for healing, an end to entanglement, as the poet draws comfort from an enigmatic saying of St Brigid:
I carry my sorrow to St Brigid’s well,
once more take refuge in her plainsong,
Everything tangled shall be unraveled.
In many of the poems in this book Grace Wells presents herself, very much in the tradition of the Romantic poets, turning away from the pomp of human achievements towards the simplicity of nature. In ‘Charm bracelet’, a poem about one of Ireland’s most important ecclesiastical sites, she declares:
And me being me, I go all over Cashel’s Rock
looking for signs of nature – clergy and kings not
having half the potency of meadow flowers.
A couple of stanzas later we see the poet in action:
The higher you build, the closer you come to heaven
the guide said, but I bent low to the ferns
in the walls, searching the cracks of history […]
Such close attentiveness to the natural world is elegantly expressed in beautiful poems about the wild grasses Wells encounters in both Ireland and Italy. In ‘Grass’, we find her relishing the vibrant sound world of specialised botanical language: ‘of spikelet and seed-head, // soft, blowsy, tufted, / florets and anthers and awns.’ The rich sequence ‘She Gathers the Wild Grasses’ offers: ‘another agriculture’:
white-rooted, rhizomed, mycorrhizal,
all things in their connection.
In ‘Indigenous’, this focus upon the earth becomes explicitly archaeological as Wells explores her childhood memories of a visit to Fishbourne Roman palace in Sussex. Here, the artistry of an ancient mosaic prompts powerful reflections on rootlessness and cultural displacement. The poet finds herself: ‘No longer native of anywhere,’ and asks ‘what lay beneath that floor – a Celtic inheritance, / the sacred names and nature of place, a lost linguistics.’ From these potent relics, Wells uncovers a whole ecology of meaning:
Leaves build like tesserae to make a tree,
bird is an opus of feather, beak, eye, and more.
As the reader moves through this collection, such miniature epiphanies assume an acute urgency. ‘An account of that year in fragments’ confronts the experience of serious illness with unsentimental precision. The botanical playfulness of the earlier poems gives way to a rush of medical terms:
The gynaecologist reeling off at me hysterectomy,
Oophorectomy, salpingectomy, trachelectomy.
Yet even in this sudden arena of suffering, Grace Wells never loses her caustic and supple wit. Here she is eviscerating the patriarchy:
and men cutting down forests, men spraying fields,
men around board tables, men shaking hands,
sugar-barons, cigar-moguls, oil tycoons,
(‘What the Body Holds’).
The Church of the Love of the World is an accomplished and elegantly produced collection. It is, therefore, frustrating that a number of misprints distract the reader, diminishing the authority of these finely crafted poems. In the book’s final text, ‘Cill Ghrá an Domhain’ (‘The Church of the Love of the World’), Wells invokes the celebrated Gobnait, an Irish saint closely associated with bees:
Gobnait, if I could do anything at all, I’d brave my arm
into our dark, the way prehistoric women once put their hands
into the bees-nest bole of trees to draw out honey.
In The Church of the Love of the World Grace Wells braves her arm, taking creative risks to produce work of technical dexterity and emotional force. These poems retain their sweetness, without losing their sting.
Richard Hawtree’s poems have appeared in literary journals including: The Stinging Fly, Banshee, The High Window, The Seventh Quarry, Nine Muses Poetry and The Honest Ulsterman. His collection The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey was published by Dempsey & Windle in 2019. New work is forthcoming in The Stony Thursday Book and Black Bough Poetry.
Robert Selby‘s The Kentish Rebellion reviewed by Neil Fulwood
The Kentish Rebellionby Robert Selby. £10.00 Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-86-0
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously observed that the past repeats itself, prompting Karl Marx to add the equally famous caveat “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Were the ghost of Marx to take a good spectral look at the here and now, he might consider amending to “farce” to “something utterly beyond satire”, but that’s by the by.
Robert Selby’s book-length sequence takes a specific and – in terms of its dramaturgy, cast of characters and Grand Guignol set-pieces – surely Hollywood-ready episode from the English Civil War and approaches it via a torn-from-today’s-headlines aesthetic. Indeed, his opening gambit is gleefully ananchronistic:
We interrupt this programme.’ A helmeted
xxx reporter crouches behind a wall, finger to earpiece.
Tickertape: Flames in Kent. Many dead;
xxx fierce house-to-house fighting; bodies in the street.
Brockman, Sir William – from the Downs’ southern lip
xxx above Eurotunnel’s freight check-in, Kent’s
High Sheriff until, pelted with runnel-shit,
xxx ridden through London’s streets to jail, now bent
on avenging himself and Dering (his brother-in-law) –
xxx receives a dispatch at HQ in the High Street,
above the Carphone Warehouse …
It’s a splendid statement of purpose, both in terms of Selby’s poetics and his commitment to narrative pace. This is history made urgent; poetry as breaking news; then thrust into incendiary conflation with now.
Superficially, Selby’s heads-down-see-you-at-the-end approach can be rationalised as a method of racing the reader through a tangle of personalities and affiliations not necessarily uppermost in their socio-historical consciousness (Google “Kentish rebellion” and the first hit is Jack Cade, catapulting you two hundred years ahead of Selby’s subject matter), but there is something far more impressive going on here. Reading The Kentish Rebellion, I was repeatedly put in mind of the genius of James Ellroy in transporting his audience back to the Forties and Fifties without any loss of contemporary touchstones in his LA Quartet, or that of Neal Stephenson, employed with arguably even greater elan, in evoking the Restoration for tech-savvy modern readers in his epic and freewheeling Baroque Cycle trilogy.
Which is to say that Selby is a writer of piercing intelligence and grandstanding craftsmanship; moreover a writer so confident in his skill and willing to trust his readers’ intelligence that he doesn’t need to overload the work with exposition, spatter the text with asterisks and footnotes, or write umpteen thousand words of annotation to contextualise or ploddingly explain events.
Not sure who Sir Edward Dering or General Fairfax are? No matter: trust to the poet to bring them to life; and if you need any more background, that’s what Google’s for.
Full admission: I’m no student of history. Via the ubiquity of American popular culture, I probably know more about Buffalo Bill, Doc Holliday and the Hatfields and McCoys than I do about the major historical figures of my own country. I specifically asked the High Window’s editor if I could review this title because I thought it would present me with a challenge.
I was prepared for a tranche of references I would need to read up on; a parade of names, dates and geographical particulars that wouldn’t necessarily mean much; a dip into the waters of archaism that would show up my ignorance – all of which I offset against (a) the enjoyment of a challenge, and (b) the more than likely possibility that I’d emerge from the exercise knowing more than I did before.
And thanks to Selby’s authorial panache and command of his material, none of my negative expectations came to pass, while the enjoyment of engaging with the work and the pleasure of learning from it were fulfilled in fine style.
Earlier in this review, I used the terms “Grand Guignol set-pieces” and “Hollywood-ready”. I’ll leave you with a passage from Selby’s denouement, just prior to Fairfax launching an attack on Maidstone during a storm of Biblical proportions:
Dawn. Still the rain. Everything a dull hue.
Fairfax, first up, kicks the sentry boy
to wake him, only to find him stiff, face blue,
hair silver with overnight dotage. Rain destroys
all perspective: at first, he sees the giants deployed;
his eyes attune on yews writhing in deluge.
He steps in up to his knees, boots cloyed.
He staggers, barely able to make sense.
Then something surfaces in his turbulence.
Bobbing, turning slowly to him: a human skull.
Father in Heaven, in the name of Jesus. He wades
back. As his heart slows, his brain cycles
and realisation reaches him like a brotherly wave:
the swollen water table under the graves
has disinterred the dead back into the light
for the leapt brook to deposit them where once they prayed …
I know exactly which director I’d pick to bring this to the big screen, who I’d cast as Fairfax, the composer whose works I’d plunder for the soundtrack. Your choice might be different. But I’m prepared to wager – assuming the “you” in question as a discerning and enquiring reader of poetry – that The Kentish Rebellion will act as powerfully and viscerally on your imagination as it did on mine.
Neil Fulwood was born in 1972 and is still alive. He lives in Nottingham and works as a bus driver. He has published three collections with Shoestring Press: No Avoiding It, Can’t Take Me Anywhere and Service Cancelled, as well as a volume of political satires, Mad Parade, with Smokestack Books.
Stuart Henson’s Beautiful Monsters reviewed by John Greening
Beautiful Monsters by Stuart Henson, Shoestring Press, £10, ISBN 9781915553164
Perhaps when poets are older, their books wear purple jackets – but it’s not only the arresting cover image of Beautiful Monsters that alerts us to something new in Stuart Henson’s latest collection. To begin with – or rather to end with, since these conclude the book – there is a high proportion of translation, from the Latin and the French, with impressive versions of Gautier, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. But there is a boldness throughout, a touch of the Yeatsian wild old wicked man taking delight in unlooked-for inspiration, especially in the irresistibly titled homage to Mallarmé, ‘L’Après-Midi d’un Phone’.
The thoughtful placing of poems is one of many admirable aspects of Beautiful Monsters, with subtle leitmotifs recurring throughout (‘Clouds’ on p.3 is followed on p.28 by ‘Clouds’ 2; the book’s first section begins and ends with bees) and a refreshing variety of form and line-length. Another impressive quality is the refusal to indulge in nostalgia, with only the occasional glance back (to childhood games of marbles, for instance, in ‘Ballbarians’). This not-quite-old man is determined to be an explorer, as T.S.Eliot advised. Like the honey bee in his opening poem, ‘Wants Out’, the poet refuses to spend his later years ‘butting the double-glass’. Significantly, it’s a sheet of A4 paper he uses to release the insect ‘into the inexplicable vastness of liberty’.
The liberty offered by free verse is less in evidence than in some of Henson’s earlier work, although the effect can be magical when he does use it (as in ‘The Book Left Out’): nor is he in thrall to a particular poetic form. I don’t recall reading many sestinas in his earlier books (‘Long Island Trains’ was one outstanding example in The Odin Stone) but ‘Superstore’ plays brilliant games with its six ‘rhymes’: clear, choice, British, care, fresh and love. And has he written a poem before about his beloved Beautiful Game? Here, there’s a superb account of ‘Factory Girls Playing Football’ – a vividly captured, thoroughly contemporary multicultural scene, where ‘Hijab’s no barrier’ and which ends with a clever twist: one girl watching from the canteen feels her baby join in the kicking as if she’s keen to get out there and play.
There have always been gentle rumblings about class in Henson’s work (think of ‘Bridge’ from his 2011 collection, which tells how his craftsman grandfather was ignored by local grandees at the opening of the Chinese bridge he had designed and built) and ‘The Elephant That Sits on Your Head’ faces the issue with as much formal savagery as Tony Harrison – though rather more subtly and musically (his Martial is undoubtedly the equal of Harrison’s). Henson is a fine satirist, which might explain his recent interest in the Latin poets. His late discovery of the epigram – as opposed to the Longleyesque miniature, which he perfected long ago – is no doubt connected with this. The collection draws to a close with a lively group of them: ‘In the Colosseum’.
As a poet of the natural world and rural life, Stuart Henson is hard to better (the title poem itself is an appreciation of nature’s dense layers) and those hoping for more of his writing in this vein will not be disappointed – the swallows visit Brickyard Cottage, a hen harrier ‘quarters the moor like a satellite scan’, blackbirds are ‘duellists/in their frock coats’ and Rimbaud’s rooks ‘sweep in/from the skies on crepe wings’. There is some rather Georgian honeysuckle, a lush pastoral scene at Baiae (after Martial), a crown of sea-holly for Kevin Crossley-Holland at 80 (deftly echoing the octogenerian poet’s style) and several watery miniatures – some ‘Sea Interludes’ and a particularly impressive sequence of ‘River Polaroids’, which makes one wish he had written more about his childhood beside the Ouse in Godmanchester. Trust Henson to surprise us, however, by also offering a poem about a ‘Dung-heap’. That other poet, who once lived just across the same river in Huntingdon, William Cowper, would have approved.
Henson has most often been a poet of melancholy and minor keys, yet he generally conveys mystery rather than tragedy, and he knows how to enjoy himself (even the doleful Cowper had ‘John Gilpin’s Ride’). The sheer pleasure he takes in the metrical ingenuity of ‘Tunes for Bears to Dance to’, for instance, is infectious, as are the fun and wit of his satires. There’s so much relish in life’s physicality in this book, so much joy in the observing and recording of it all, not to mention the ever-present (but always understated) possibilities of the spiritual. It’s hard not to be won over.
John Greening has published over twenty collections of poetry, most recently The Silence (Carcanet), The Giddings (Mica) and Omniscience (Broken Sleep) plus a book of essays: Vapour Trails (Shoestring). He has won the Bridport Prize and received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors. He has edited Blunden, Grigson and Crichton Smith. His anthology of country house poems, Hollow Palaces, co-edited with Kevin Gardner, appeared from Liverpool UP in 2021. A new Selected Poems will be published by Baylor UP in 2023.
Pippa Little’s Time Begins to Hurt reviewed by Adrienne Silcock
Time Begins to Hurt by Pippa Little. £10.99. Arc Publications. ISBN: 9781910345283
Step into this collection and you’ll discover a challenging and varied landscape. It feels dark. It feels intensely personal. Yet here are essential spaces where each of us can connect, which force the reader up rocky slopes, across valleys vast and desolate, and on.
Take the poem ‘ West Acres ‘, for instance, where the poet herself uses place and landscape. ‘ Unlit passage ‘ , ‘ scorched plain between volcanoes ‘ expose the cruelties of the adult world to the child, the extreme suffering and rejection, as well as mental scarring which takes so long to heal. The tone of the language is heartfelt and deeply empathic, catapulting the reader out of any complacency to which they may have been inclined.
‘ Burned World ‘ has a similar effect. The writer begins with the childish pleasure of ‘ four pandrops knotted in a hanky ‘, placing the poem in a time past , and following a childhood quest for adventure, something with which many readers will be more than familiar — a rite of passage, if you like. Scenes of rats, dirty pillows and rubbish which has been torched, leave both writer and reader to rejoice in an ugly but real escape by the ‘skin of our teeth ‘. The language is spare, yet strangely rich, each image precise.
The theme of burning occurs elsewhere. For instance, in the first poem in the collection. (Not a coincidence. The ‘Time’ expressed in the title weaves through the book. Time burns, it changes things. Inevitably ‘ time begins to hurt ‘.) ‘Cinderellas’ is a poem for women, especially perhaps for those ‘who don’t even know they are angry ‘. A woman sits in a lounge. She’s ‘ barricaded in by nicotine and hairspray’s acetone and lipstick fats ‘. She has a bad foot, wears black slippers, smokes a cigarette. The image is vivid, plain as a photo. Then the poem moves on. The poet puzzles over spontaneous combustion. How it happens. Will she be next? But there’s an additional darkness – the notion of the poet’s mother on the periphery. A burning of time. A strange guilt perhaps. It feels like secrets nagging. We aren’t privy to them, but the language to describe them is brilliant – ‘ tapping at me with meaty fingers ‘ . And, thankfully, not without a touch of humour.
Poems such as ‘For Refuge’ urge the reader on. There is so much in such a short poem. It swells with imagery and yet it’s not over indulgent. The poet uses beautiful phrases such as ‘Learn the wind’ , asks the person seeking refuge (and isn’t that all of us?) to: ‘ Trust the earth/with your bandaged feet,/the pockets sewn shut by your mother. ‘ For me, these are astonishing lines with much resonance. She finishes the poem:
Carry only such things
as snowflakes, eyelashes,
for the future may not make you out.
It’s a collection about grief and loss, the loss of the beloved through death and illness, the loss of people who are still dear but geographically distant, the slipping away of the positive aspects in a relationship. But not all is grim. ‘ The Wife as Jug ’ is smart and witty, as well as bearing a wry perspective on marriage. Inevitably, perhaps, some of the poems refer to the coronavirus outbreak, the effect it had on all of us. Comforting at least, and touching.
But then we’re lead across the landscape. The poet takes us to both North Korea and Holy Island, passes before the works of Italian painter De Chirico in a mini series of ekphrasis and listens to an imagined chat between the poet and the artist Joan Eardley in ‘Mrs Red Wallpaper’ in lovely sparks of fun.
Form varies too. From the villanelle of ‘ The Light and Shade Sisters ‘ , saying goodbye to the beloved, to the sonnet ‘ First Three Words of a Wish ,‘ expressed in a macabre playfulness with aspects of today’s world, Pippa Little displays a mastery of craft whilst free verse is diligently and musically connected by internal rhyme and consonance.
In the reading many of these poems are to be worked at, and there are some useful notes at the end of the collection. But the effort pays back more than the cost in terms of both emotional and intellectual experience. From inner life to the outside world, these poems tackle the gamut of what it means to be human. An important landscape indeed.
Adrienne Silcock’s writing has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She recently published her collection Of Gardens and Witches with The High Window Press (2022). Her first pamphlet was Taking Responsibility for the Moon (Mudfog Press, 2014), she is a featured poet in Vindication ( Arachne Press 2018, six women poets). She has also written novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2009) , Controlling Aphrodite (shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009) and The Kiss (for Kindle).
Kate Behrens’s Transitional Spaces reviewed by Sue Watling
Transitional Spaces by Kate Behrens £9.99 Two Rivers Press 978-1-909747-94-4
Transitional Spaces is Kate Behren’s fourth collection. It was the first one I’d read and now I’m eager to discover more. Kate’s poems are deft, with the lightness of touch which comes from confident editing. Many images felt unique, and the vocabulary was broad enough for me to learn new words like phocine, susurrus, luciferous and hispid. ‘Ecliptic light’ (‘Elective Surgery’) is described as a band of sunshine through comet dust, while col legno (‘Veils Failing’), the musical term for striking the instrument with its bow, was a perfect choice for the repeated tapping of a twig. The poems reached the edge of my personal language skills and when this happens, it always leaves me a little bit excited at the stretch of my own knowledge; one of many rewards this collection has to offer.
A palette of colour runs throughout; red, green, blue, black (lots of black), Ucello’s darks and the pairing of off-white, French blues and glow-worm green with ‘fields hispid with lit shoots…like sodden bridal veils.’ in ‘Hints from Colour’ while ‘The Colours of Paris, 1984’ includes pearl, tabby, phthalo blue (blue on the green side) umber and transparent. I was intrigued by the idea of transparent as a colour. The ‘yelling vitrier with his barrow of glass’ suggests clarity but glass can be stained, so maybe transparent is any colour pale enough to see through. Kate’s words and phrases often sent me off on unexpected tangents and I love collections which do this.
Birds and animals inhabit many poems, alongside an abundance of trees and flowers. The elements are present, especially air and water, while many poems show the poet’s keen observation. ‘Wind-bullied trees gather’ in ‘Waking Reflection’, the ‘thrown-sand sound of rain’ falls in ‘Anniversary poem’ while ‘Chalkland’ has ‘transitional spaces / where only skies mark’ and ‘the faecal-honey smells / from a lit field of rape’ – a perfect description of the distinct stink of oilseed rape once it’s coming to an end. In ‘Pushing Through Sultry Days’ the sound of buzzing flies surrounds ‘the thickened silence of the dead’ while one of my favourite poems, ‘Deep Winter’, describes how trees ‘shed a strange ice / like colourless kaleidoscope / glass’. The reference to death in this poem stayed long after I read it: ‘What remains, challenges, / from so high above us / is an unreadable language…the thought returns: / we’re fortunate / to be here.’
Many transitions imply benefits. Liminal places like stations and airports contain the hope for new experiences while birth, career change or new love, are often welcome. However, transitional loss, such as a breakup or death, nearly always bring grief and tears. Finality and loss are infinite. These are transitions without end. This collection has a sense of a poet dealing with the aftermath of death. ‘Weightlessness’ is ‘To the memory of my father’, ‘Your Sister’s Tapestry Cushion’ ‘i.m (in memory) my grandmother, Culler and her sister, Den’ while ‘Anniversary poem’ is ‘i.m. of my twin, Sophie Behrens’. The latter contains lines which might refer to the often-reported final dream where a loved one reappears. Always unsettling, the experience can temporarily feel like they have returned after a long absence:
As a face appears
clearer than it has,
from imminent proximity
the afterlife of love
wakes us as survivors,
yet each unclear breath
struggles out from buried love.
For me, this poem had particular resonance. Death-grief is best understood by others with similar experiences, but – in one way or another – we’re all survivors, and touching those with similar darkness can be one of the great comforts of poetry.
I also identified with the final stanza of ‘Colours of Paris, 1984’. This poem deals with age as transitional:
Where did it all end, where did we belong?
Our youthful hearts:
not padlocked to bridges but cast adrift on an onrush of moments.
I liked the eclectic style of this collection. ‘Elective Surgery’, ‘Neck Traction’ and ‘The Tree Surgeon’ all emerge from practicalities while ‘The Naked Seventies’, ‘Reworking’ and ‘Shoppers in Mayfair’ offer glimpses into different lives. Yet, regardless of the topic, all the poems have a depth which often sent me back to re-read and experience it again.
As I made my way through the collection, I realised how poetry itself contains multiple transitions. Readers come to a new poem without knowing what to expect and by the end, they’ve often experienced a different way of seeing or being. I found much in Transitional Spaces to identify with. Whether it’s the honesty of ‘I tell him my body is ruined’ in ‘Dream Lover’ or how experience is best when it doesn’t drag but tugs …for something / you’d been deaf and blind to…’ from ‘Inside the Poem’, the Kate’s fourth collection strikes at the heart of human experience.
For me, ‘Untitled’ best summed up Transitional Spaces. The reader is not sure who is being referred to and, as in many of these poems, it doesn’t matter because the words and images are enough. The closing (unpunctuated) lines of ‘Untitled’ offer echoing advice which also provides a perfect closure for this review:
we have no story to tell
alone each is fiction
the whole untellable
let the poem
unravel on its own
Sue Watling is a writer and poet living in Hull, UK, where she has an allotment, keeps honey bees, and has been published in a range of journals and magazines. In 2022 a chapbook titled Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers was published by Dreich, while Thetis, a poetic narrative retelling the Trojan war through the eyes of Thetis, mother of Achilles, will be published by Esplanade Press in Autumn.
James Peake’s The Star in the Branches reviewed by D.A. Prince
The Star in the Branches by James Peake. £9.99. Two Rivers Press, 2022. ISBN 978-1-909747-95-1
The Star in the Branches is a deceptively lyrical title for a collection which examines the existential workings of memory, interpretation, and loss. Framing three central sections—and this is where the title poem sits— are poems about two individuals. While I would normally choose to read a collection in order I found Peake’s poetic focus is best illuminated by considering these two poems—their similarities and differences—together.
The collection opens with ‘The Angel of Unsustainable Complexity’, a sequence of ten poems centred on the losses of a parent (his mother?) to dementia and physical frailty.
They brought you to brightness with MRI,
made legible the sealed interior,
rainbowing storms of pure thought and feeling,
a language of colour like medieval glass.
The neurologist is rightly proud of what he shows,
points out detail with a bitten pencil.
Staring into images of his mother’s mind Peake is looking at both her memory and his own, aware of how private the space of her inner memory is. Losses are multiple: her loss of recall, his loss of connection with her in the present, a growing sense of the loss of his own past. The ‘bitten pencil’ is stark reality, the present—for now. But then—
What mirrors broadcast, a flash
of canine or a dilated pupil,
each accident of appearance given back,
belonging instantly to the past.
The virtual record becomes as fragmented as the ‘real’ one, along with the devices we use to access that area of memory. There’s resonance in the observation ‘The guy who mended this screen/ said no two breakages are the same’. Peake in reality is not the same as Peake on the virtual plane—
The unholy mess of my digitised self,
a wake of fragments representing me
in which someone else controls the rights.
References to his mother slip in and out of this poem, mirroring the way memory inevitably loses its grasp on facts. Its surface texture changes—
Take shadows, solidified
unfrozen to an incoherent mind,
the fallacy then of imitative form
applied to dementia, gaps in the text,
glitch, non-sequiter, the elapsed
awareness of a fridge when it stops.
The poem has moved from the ‘brightness’ in the opening line to a blur of deletion. And the Angel? Is it some guardian of what can never be kept (sustained), the complexity of memory where the past is simultaneously accumulating and lost? Peake moves from an apparently accessible opening towards a balancing of abstraction, where we are ‘both happening and object but wholly neither’.
The sections appear uniform, with fifteen lines each—unless you look very closely. One is only fourteen lines and I wonder if this is another of Peake’s way of showing how the immediate/real world slips imperceptibly from our grasp before we realise. It’s a controlled poem, tightly worked: a sentence may be only two words—or five lines, but rarely more.
The final poem, ‘The Way out is through’, is centred on the unravelling life of a university friend. Its appearance suggests constraint, the three-line stanzas extending through four and a half pages to a final couplet. It may look neat but the content argues the reverse: the sentences are long (twenty-one lines for the opening) and crammed with detail. They replicate the hectic, headlong, drug-and-music driven life as it spirals out of control, another ‘unsustainable’ way of being. It opens—
This terrain of images again, deranged city
of youth, changed and nowhere a latch,
no survivor from which to spiral out, it
almost pushes back, the city won’t cede
to a single brain, the one eight millionth,
less, of a sum never held as a whole,
The external world has ‘the non-stop to Heathrow’, a supermarket carpark with ‘chained trolleys’, ‘a pop-up carwash’, ‘a brimful skip, hardboard and skirting board’. It’s like a rapid train journey through London suburbs, the details seen and passed at speed, the mundane existence that leads up to the full stop. Then comes the abrupt shift of tone: ’And the drugs/ are many times stronger, the music more complex’.
The unnamed friend has been steadily disappearing into loss (his own and that of others)—
I text the group about him but if there are scraps
I don’t already have they are withheld,
I don’t push it and he hovers unlinked,
character character without a script, actor on the wrong set
for whom there’s no way back or forward or across,
The paradox is that loss makes him more visible through the poem and his music, his New Age spiritual searching. The verbal energy of Peake’s sentence structure, clause after clause, and the stanzas tipping over, ignoring the breaks, mitigates the inevitable death.
Peake’s shorter poems are grouped in two sections, separated by ‘Kouros’, a sixteen-section poem placed centrally in the collection. In this the lines are short, pared back to single words or short phrases, impressionistic and allusive. Is this the core of memory? I wondered at times if too much had been erased, leaving a final text that excludes the reader. The poems of travel—for example, ’A Berlin Evening’, ‘The Resort’, or ‘Temple Meads’—may appear short but they have substance. ‘The Star in the Branches’ draws them close as it poses its own question—
What guarantee do I have of the journey?
I began and ended this way.
Did anything result, like a star?
That ‘guarantee’ is what Peake has worked with in the longer poems, questioning its existence and always bringing the reader back to the idea of what, if anything, is sustainable. He may skirt round the question at times but it is ever-present, anfdhe knows it. These poemst ake the familiar and holding it up for examination in the cold light of experience: they are dense and complex.
D.A.Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her second full-length collection (Common Ground, HappenStance, 2014) won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. Her third collection, The Bigger Picture (also from HappenStance) is due in November 2022.
Susan Castillo Street’s Braiding reviewed by Sue Hubbard
Braiding by Susan Castillo Street. £13.21. Kelsaybooks.com. ISBN:
Susan Castillo Street is something of a polymath and internationalist. An academic, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita of American Studies at Kings College London – a poet, a prose writer, a mother and grandmother – she grew up in Louisiana, variously making homes in Portugal, Scotland and England. In Braiding, her fifth collection, her credentials are laid out on the table from the start. ‘My Life in Cars’ traces, with light-hearted humour, her personal history from southern American upbringing to her present life in Sussex and London, through the cars she has owned.
My first car, a yellow Mustang.
American, smooth, zippy. I didn’t name him.
He definitely was a boy.
This jazzy vehicle is replaced in the final stanza with a sensible, middled-aged, silver Skoda, of which her partner’s “got a twin.”
Braiding, as the title suggests, plaits together multiple life-strands, entwining the poet’s different stories. Childhood and adolescent scenarios, with their mildly dysfunctional cast of characters, are lived out in Blanche-DuBois-style white-porticoed houses in the deep American south, a taste of which is given in ‘Haunted House’:
Still, my grandparents endured,
wedlocked for forty years in silence.
Please ask your father to pass the salt.
Please tell your mother I’ve gone out.
This dramatis personae: the grandmother with her beautiful grey hair, ‘people always said she might have Indian blood’, her English teacher Mrs M, who ‘walked in front of the class,/fondling cleavage, lips pursed, bubble-gum pink’ and her date for her Prom Night “a rice farmer in a stiff linen jacket”, who brings her “a corsage of pink roses” while she gives him “a pink boutonniere” – (“redneck royalty”) are woven into a rich tapestry that conjures an almost lost world of servants and hired hands. In Louisiana Garden, we encounter the poet as a child eavesdropping behind a bamboo hedge. What she hears is that their gardener, Hay, has stabbed his wife Corinne, after catching her with another man. The child’s response is to line her dolls up against the wall and wonder “who will cook our dinner.” In this tightly regulated community, emotional escape is suggested in the poem ‘Crawky Murray’, where an invented a doppelgänger, a fearless, imaginary pigtailed friend “feared nothing, while her “teeth glowed” protectively “in the dark,/snarled at marauders.”
Rebellion to this repressive hierarchy is there in the poem ‘Mack’s by the Tracks’. Macks “a low dive/in Jackson Mississippi,” was definitely on the wrong side of the tracks. A place that mothers warned their daughters was “Not the sort of place for Nice Girls.” Of course, like any sensible teenager, Castillo Street and her friends made a “beeline” for the place with its “motorbikes leaned against the porch,” its “billiard table ringed by shady men” and juke box that “summoned up Full Frontal Elvis.” There they “jitterbugged, twirled and danced slow jives.”
Roots and gardens are themes that run through this collection. Castillo Street enumerates the gardens she’s created as if to map her life: “a garden by the sea” in northern Portugal, another in Skye, in a crofter’s cottage where she planted “two giant trees”, a city garden near “a black heath/where plague victims were interred,” and a Sussex garden where she “cloaked the house in roses./Grew grapevines./Filled it with memories, children’s laughter,/learned to live with darkness.” Life, she seems to be suggesting, is a series of ‘nows.’ Nostalgia is one thing, but “Nothing lasts forever./My mother used to say, Bloom where you are planted.”
The collection is organised into three sections. The second, written through lockdown, not only reflects the angst of that strange time when we stood in our “Genteel, Victorian sedate” and leafy London streets clapping (it now seems rather absurdly) for careers, but it touches on other historic moments of plague. The different names given to the Plague Saint, Rocco in Rome, Roque in Spain, Roche in France and Roche in Ireland are explored in the poem of that name. While the prose poem, ‘Cotswolds’, describes the uncanny sight of walking around a middle-England market town where masked Japanese tourists buying “tourist tat” pass far apart in an “intricate plague minuet.” In a time of collective stress, Castello Street gives thanks for life’s little pleasures in ‘Comfort Food’. For good white wine and ice cream, “salted caramel if poss”. Doritos and Cheese. Ending with a playful: “Elasticated waistbands”. A reminder of the dangers of lockdown indulgences. “There are poems, here to her ‘Neighbours’, to nine-year-old Ben” boing boing boing” on his trampoline and to his Mum who “when food was hard to get/…would go out to the shops/and bring us things.” Feeling overwhelmed by “mad politicians/children in cages/plagues, climate meltdown” the poet finds herself scrolling through images of “cuddly puppies, fluffy bunnies and cats being cats.” In so doing she comes upon a white raven which, in the First Nation indigenous tradition, is a Bringer of Light and a possible sign in dark times that “we’ll be borne skyward on translucent wings/fly triumphant toward the light.” In this section there are poems to Lazarus, whom the poet imagines coming back from the dead “whiffy/cloaked in tomb perfume…” to enjoy a “sunlight Sussex pub” and another to the new kid on the block, Omicron.
In the third section we meet Saint Barbara and sup at Emmaus with two disciples who encounter Christ as a stranger on the road. Suddenly, blazing bright, this otherworldly vision reveals “how it can be that boundaries between dimensions are so porous,/how divine beauty/can transcend the night, shimmer……”. Elsewhere there are other chimeras. The Dark Ghosts of slaves “packed head to tail to maximise the shipper’s profit,” whose voices can be heard echoing in the wind. While in Sky, the poet examines belief and faith. Poking the firmament like “wet blue cardboard” with her finger, an angel with the look of her high school principal, falls through the gap to ask: “What the hell are you doing?” She explains she simply wants to know if there is something up there that makes sense. To which his answer is a dismissive: “Silly girl.”
Encounters with Mr. Morpheus, with Selene the moon goddess and angels in Visions, after William Blake, “I don’t talk about it much./Straightjackets do not suit me,” all weave through the final section, and the poet goes Fairy Hunting with her grandchildren. (Significantly, only the youngest can see them.) There is defiant talk about ageing in ‘Uninvited Guest’ where the unwanted intruder has to be held off with champagne flutes and foreign holidays, though the collection ends on a tender note with an appreciation of her partner: “When I make lists of all the blessings in my life/way up there at the very top/ is you.”
Throughout Braiding the poet’s erudition is woven into a web with a series of colloquial voices. But it is her recollections of the Deep South that are the real strength of this accessible and human collection.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her fourth poetry collection, Swimming to Albania was recently published by Salmon Poetry and her fifth God’s Little Artist on the life of Gwen John will be published by Seren. This autumn, a stone-carved version of her poem Eurydice, commissioned by the BFI and Arts Council for the Waterloo underpass, will be placed in the crypt in St. John’s Church Waterloo. She has published a collection of short stories. And three novels. Her latest, Rainsongs, by Duckworth. Her fourth, Flatlands, is due from Pushkin Press in 2003.
Jigsaw by David Underdown. £9.99. Cinnamon Press. ISBN 978-1-78864-126-5
Jigsaw by David Underdown. £9.99. Cinnamon Press. ISBN 978-1-78864-126-5
Like all jigsaws, we start and finish David Underdown’s latest collection with a complete picture, while enjoying the activity in between. In the excellent opening poem, Psalm, an index for the collection’s passions and themes are presented in a catechismal yet pantheistic listing of wonders:
I have swarmed with locusts and in the
murmurations of starlings, woken snug
within the pellet of an owl, stitched tight
between the bones of mice.
These are just three of the poem’s twenty-plus startling images contained in the poem’s six stanzas. I could have chosen any. Not the least these further two from stanza four: “I was brother to plankton / and through the soft gauze of a moth’s eye mapped the desert stars.”
David Underdown’s home, both literally and metaphorically, it seems, is in nature. Re-located relatively recently from the Scottish Isles to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire (from scoured seascapes to valley clefts, woods and moors) his passion for the natural world (and therefore life itself) permeates his poetry. (See the launch YouTube clip of him reading from the collection in situ – i.e, his home in Hebden Bridge.)
In an impressive opening sequence of bird poems, an owl’s: “ CCTV monitors woodland traffic” (‘Some things I cannot know’); a dead “ fledgling Robin” is described as a “watch unsprung” (‘Still caught tight’); a Treecreeper, observed in its repetitive endeavour, “Cantilevered halfway up / the oak’s shady side”, winkling for grubs, is a “dainty Sisyphus” (‘Treecreeper in Crow Wood’); a woodpecker’s “randy percussion” makes the poet “laugh out loud” (‘Woodpeckers in Falling Royd’) and a swarm of lapwings are memorably depicted as “the sky’s calligraphy” (‘A deceit of lapwings’).
As well as celebrating the natural world, the poet’s inward gaze is as arresting, too, in insightful poems that chart the mind’s activities. In ‘Mind Loop’, gratitude for hearth and home shines out as the poet imagines himself adrift at sea: “squirming down a telescope” to see his “yellow lamplight at the fireplace wall / the chair, the empty cup”. In ‘Sixth Sense’, kinship with the animal kingdom is pointed up in the unknowable urge to move onwards as we share with: “an eel’s writhe and squirm / to cross an ocean,” this “insistent itch”. In the poem ‘Not dropping off’, we are treated to several terrific images which describe the drift into the unconscious state: “the mind has its compass”; “the brain’s Hadron Collidor”; “a gentle peristalsis to oblivion.” Splendid!
There are pleasing resonances and echoes of other poets, too. In ‘Furrow’, watching the “ploughman at his share” recalled, for me, “… those lumbering horses in the steady plough…” from ‘Horses’, the Edwin Muir poem. And in the lovely poem ‘My Heart’, the poet’s declaration for his heart’s truth: “I would rather share it with my friends” is linked to his home “for that’s / where it belongs, my heart” – I was reminded of the Frank O’Hara poem of the same title. In ‘Heart Strings’, also, witnessing the tender departing scene of a young family, the poet bravely shares his emotions, as he watches: “ the father wait, the child’s wave, / the mother turn to go;” cleverly using the images of a “cat’s cradle” and an antiquated dumb waiter, one of those “contraptions” where a bell rings when “someone yanks a cord”, to illustrate his heart’s unwitting undoing. Set in a railway station, too, the poet’s train: “side-tracked/ to half-forgotten places” could be Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” – although the poem works entirely on its own merits.
Not surprisingly, in such a holistic collection, mortality is addressed, yet always in a clear-eyed and affirmative way. In the poem ‘And afterwards’, bodies at a “burning ghat” are recalled, and while: “knowing that our winding cloths / are fabric we have woven for ourselves” some of them being “plain or nubbly, drab or dyed”, others are sometimes “shot through with glinting filaments.” And again, memorably, in ‘Ghosts might be like this’, a man “In his final blindness”, is absorbed into the universe, laying: “beneath the stars / knowing precisely each fleck of starlight on his face.” Ageing, and the end of life, are also addressed in ‘The Burying’; ‘ More’; Passing Voices’; ‘ Fragment of a bas relief of the Final Judgement’; and, in more prosaic settings, in ‘Bone scan’, ‘Zugzwang’ and ‘Torchlusspanik’.
The collection closes with a section entitled ‘Fragments from a family album’, inspired by the poet’s discovery of a small ‘suitcase of unsorted photographs’ when clearing out his mother’s house, according to the ‘Notes’. The poems are enjoyable, skilfully achieved and pictures in themselves. Take these examples, for instance: “Sun worshippers…suffering their pleasure” (‘Weston Super Mare’, 1938); “The pram in the garden like a boat on wheels” (‘The War’); “And for these two minutes I will bring you two to life.” (‘Mrs. Bryant’, 1960).
But, perhaps for me, one of the greatest delights in this life-affirming and compassionate collection,
is the surreal sensibility at play, in several of the poems, which give them – and therefore the book – an extra dimension of depth and enjoyment. In ‘Potato Digger’, for example, the poet muses, after studying a painting (by the artist Paul Henry), that: “…if once you are done for the day / you might turn for a moment to look /”, which suggests a surreal sense of the subject coming alive and exercising an autonomous life of his own, in the empty gallery, which is both powerful and inventive. Also, in a tender elegy to his mother, recounting visits to her house when she was on her own, the family sherry glasses, filled commemoratively with: “Bristol Cream / to try to help your feeling blue…”, act as vessels of transfiguration, when: “held to the light / their facets break the room apart / and re-assemble it,…’’.
Jigsaw successfully celebrates, and pieces together, those disparate parts of a life which we can all recognise – whether happy, sad, or rapt in nature – encouraging us not just to be grateful for living but, indeed, that we’re here at all.
As a fitting conclusion, the previous poem’s memorable final stanza is worth printing in full:
And today, a silent toast: to you,
refracted beyond the window
where in the garden’s splintered jungle
you’ve gone to catch the sun.
Mike Di Placido’s most recent collection Alpha (Poetry Salzburg, 2020), was submitted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Previous collections are Crow Flight across the Sun (Calder Valley Poetry, 2017); A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press, 2013) and Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009). A judge of (and winner in) several Poetry Competitions, his work has been translated into German and Romanian and performed on both British and European radio. For further information please see: www.mikediplacidopoetry.co.uk
Hubert Moore’s Country of Arrival reviewed by J.S. Watts
Country of Arrival by Hubert Moore. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 9781915553058
Country of Arrival is the twelfth full poetry collection by Hubert Moore. The poems in it are divided into five sections and subtly explore interconnected concepts of home, domesticity, homelessness, migration, asylum, the pandemic and, ultimately, compassion and related aspects of humanity.
The blurb on the back cover states: ‘His poetry is in the street. There is no pretentiousness.’ I’m not sure about, ‘in the street’. To my mind, that has modern urban resonances that are absent from these poems, many of which have rural or coastal settings and none of which contain any of the verbal idioms associated with modern street culture. Moore’s language is, however, deceptively simple and domestic and without unnecessary embellishment. He is not one for additional flashy similes or metaphors. Instead, he often uses the poem itself as the image or metaphor to be explored with subtle, but impactful effect. The superficial simplicity of Moore’s language disguises and /or juxtaposes the depth and emotion of the underpinning subject matter.
The first section of the collection, ‘Splash off backwards’, is concerned with images of home, beginning with the poem ‘Chimney Piece’: when ‘something falls struggling upward/ down the chimney’. From there on, there are further poems of apparent domesticity and domestic routine, with the thread of home working its way from chimneys, through rooms of the house to water and writing.
The second section, ‘Incomers’, more overtly considers the subject of refugees and taking refuge. The water images of the first section become broader – seas of hope, struggle and despair, as in the poem ‘Crossing Blind’:
they’ve nothing but a sea
of little chasms behind them
opened like mouths, like wounds
closed over now,
and underneath their boat
a sea of stillness
to be paddled through.
The third section, ‘People get rarer’, contains poems about the pandemic, but thoughts of those seeking asylum are never far away. In the poem ‘All the Difference’:
A man we know
knows all the difference
difference can make. Iraqi Kurd
trained as a paramedic in Iraq,
refugee to Britain, carer,
Care Home Manager now.
The poem contrasts his arrest and almost deportation: ‘handcuffed from a cell in Colnbrook’ to the positive and compassionate steps he took in advance of lockdown to protect his Care Home residents: ‘not one became/ infected, not one died.’
Section four, ‘Almost Spent volcano’, consists of poems that look at the aftermath of seeking refuge: detention, deportation, repatriation, leave to remain, the UK’s treatment of those who choose to live here and those who return to their home country to rebuild their country or to be killed. Here the juxtaposition of the domestic that Moore has explored expertly in previous poems contrasts strikingly with the experience of those returning. The poem ’Slippers’ begins with the eponymous, these days somewhat clichéd and cosy, Christmas present and ends:
Did you shuffle off to bed
that evening the night before
they shot you in Darfur?
The final section of the collection, ‘Field of vision’, initially struck me as looser and less themed than the other parts of the book. There are poems on diverse subjects such as a heart operation and hearts in general, school days, domestic neighbourliness, refugees seeking a place of safety, grief, cricket, sight and vision. Ultimately, though, the poems are about perspective, how we see and feel things and write about them. For example, the poem ‘The Only Place’:
The only place of safety
is the poem itself. You flee
from speechlessness, white spaces,
and if you’re lucky the city
of sanctuary takes you in.
They are a reflection, perhaps, on all the poems that have preceded them and a further consideration of humanity, compassion and what it is to be human, themes being explored throughout the book.
All the poems in this thoughtful collection are more than capable of standing by themselves, but there is a meditative quality in the flow and repetition of themes and ideas from poem to poem, as ideas grow and coalesce. It is genuinely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and the sum of the parts is excellent to begin with.
The minutiae of domesticity we are frequently presented with contrast strikingly with the plight of asylum seekers, while the simplicity and hushed nature of the language amplifies the horrors so many have faced both before and after becoming refugees. The brevity and often understated style of these poems permits the inherent drama and pathos of the subject matter to emerge unadorned with striking effect.
Country of Arrival is an expertly crafted, thoughtful and thought-provoking collection that should not be overlooked because it conveys its ‘amazement and alarm’ at humanity and what we are capable of doing to one another, and to those who come to us seeking help, without undue over-statement. Poems that whisper can be louder than those that shout.
J.S.Watts is a poet and novelist. Her poetry, short stories and non-fiction appear in diverse publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America and have been broadcast on BBC and independent radio. Her published books include: Cats and Other Myths, Songs of Steelyard Sue, Years Ago You Coloured Me and The Submerged Sea (poetry) and A Darker Moon, Witchlight, Old Light and Elderlight (novels). For more information, see her website https://www.jswatts.co.uk/
What Survives Is The Singing by Shanta Acharya. £9.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-912876-21-1
What Survives Is The Singing by Shanta Acharya. £9.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-912876-21-1
Born and brought up in India, Shanta Acharya won a scholarship to Oxford, where she was one of the first women to be admitted to Worcester College. After completing a doctorate on the American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had a strong interest in Asian culture, she continued as an academic, before switching to investment banking. (She must be one of the few people to have published books on asset management as well as poetry, fiction and literary criticism.) What Survives Is The Singing is her seventh poetry collection and the first since Imagine: New and Selected Poems, which HarperCollins, India published in 2017.
As might be expected from this, she is not an easy poet to categorise and probably would not want to be pigeonholed. She writes about public issues as well as personal anxieties (juxtaposing the two in the final poem in the book, “Lethological”, about a CT-scan) and can be by turns meditative and down to earth, mystical and witty. She writes poems about her childhood in Cuttack and about London, which she has now made her home. Ageing and the passage of time are among her themes, as is the poetic process itself. Above all, she is not afraid to say directly what she means rather than writing obliquely, as so many poets do.
The four epigraphs she has chosen (from Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Elizabeth Jennings and Brecht) concern the fragility of the world to which we try to give order. The first poem, “Strange Times”, takes its title from Plato (‘Strange times are these in which we live –’), as her notes helpfully explain (the poem also alludes to Adrienne Rich, Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen). The times are indeed out of joint with references to Tiananmen Square, refugee deaths and the Twin Towers, ‘Yet humanity never lets go, will not give up the ghost. // It’s taken too long to get here …’
It is followed by poems about specific injustices – authoritarianism’s denial of individuality, violence against girls, prostitution, honour killings and female genital mutilation, as well as knife crime and bull fighting. There is a danger when dealing with such heavyweight subjects that the poems could become preachy, but Acharya roots hers in specific events, putting some of them into the mouths of those directly involved. In doing so, she uses images or phrases appropriate to the narrators, even at the risk of seeming hackneyed (‘her life and dreams snuffed out like a candle in the wind’ or ‘Can I do anything? I asked, aghast, / thinking there but for the grace of God’). Other images are related to the girls’ own experience (‘Life stretched out like an endless dirt road’ or ‘A butterfly with its wings severed, I survived’).
When she speaks in her own voice, Acharya is often witty, as in “The Devil In You” with its riffs on phrases that use the word ‘Devil’. I liked the description in “London Eye” of it ‘Rising up the arc to the zenith, / twice as fast as a tortoise sprinting’. Addressing God ‘In every city I visit, in every cathedral or mosque, / pagoda or temple, gurdwara or synagogue –’ she says:
Don’t know why I presume you might listen
more carefully to my entreaties in a foreign land?
I am the one on holiday, not you –
“Days Depart” plots a modern life governed by machines and missed messages, choreographed with the precision of a Whitehall farce.
But underlying the wit there is sadness. Personal poems meditate on relationships, loneliness, exile and the passage of time. Flux is the natural state of affairs:
Nothing is, especially the illusion of permanence.
Nature is always in a state of becoming something else.
. . .
Adrift in my world, searching for myself,
I stepped inside myself, met my many selves –
“Exile” speaks of:
A state of mind that grows irrevocably,
seeds of grief sown in a past life, unknowingly –
In “Parallel Lives”, ‘Life bears no resemblance to what it might have been, / you simply play a part, an actor on screen’. One poem, “Possession”, describes in a very concrete way the need to unburden oneself of material possessions:
When I lost something valuable,
I gave it a name, inscribed it on a pebble,
piece of wood, paper, cloth or shell,
placed it in my handbag, let the words settle
in with the rest of my losses defining me –
keys to my anxiety and loneliness,
and my bag too heavy to hold my dreams,
complains this is no way to treasure
hard-earned gifts enriched by dispossession,
awaken to the true nature of being,
no longer be defined by this or that.
Other poems deal with the natural world. “Changing Itself”, a poem about water with no main verb, mimics the fluidity of its subject. Nature may be employed to describe relationships, as in poems such as “Continental Drift” or “Friendship”, which use geography and geology to create metaphysical imagery. Other poems (“Woodpecker” or “Spring In Kew Gardens”) celebrate nature in its own right. “Infinity Of Red” – a reworking and expansion of “Red”, one of the new poems in Imagine – takes delight in some wonderfully divergent thinking about the colour.
Acharya has reached a stage in her life when thoughts of ageing rise to the fore. “Indian Summer” is a witty title for a poem describing hot flushes, with its nod towards Donne’s flea: ‘no lover within the cover, only a blood-sucking mosquito, dead.’ “Art Of Ageing” (‘Growing old gracefully is no simple task’) reads like a response to Jenny Joseph’s famous poem, “Warning”, about growing old disgracefully:
. . . Develop a sense of the absurd.
Wear your heart on your sleeve if you please,
but don’t just stick to purple. Try all the colours
that make you swing; mix and match, do all the things
you never dared, be the centre of your world.
As if taking her own advice, she includes a number of humorous poems. “Just Wanted” describes a friend fending off what they take to be an imminent protestation of love by the poet, only to find it’s the expression of something more mundane. “Testing the Nation” uses common misconceptions (such as about the length of the Hundred Years’ War, or the origin of Chinese gooseberries) as ironic justification for:
then waht is rong if r chilren
canot reed or rite, lak comun sens,
tink egs do not gro in Grate Britun
and potatos r milkt from caus?
In “The Art of Losing”, she parodies Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, “One Art”, to satirise the Brexit debacle.
Of poetry itself, she believes not only in inspiration:
They wake you up, your bed of words,
without warning – wild, wicked words, whirling
through waves of astonishment
but also craft: ‘… Creativity does not // come easily, cannot be bought or sold. / It’s a skill to be honed, a gift to be earned’ (“The Best Is Yet To Be”). More specifically, “Less Is More” ‘Is more or less the case. / A true poet will swear by such a hypothesis – // weed out adjectives, embrace / the energy of verbs, the wholesomeness // of nouns. Even homeopathy teaches / us the power of diluted doses.’ (You don’t have to believe in homeopathy to get the point.)
The reason “Why Some People Write Poetry” is ‘Because you know already if you didn’t / you’d be lost when the world is too much with us – ’. The reason “Why Some People Read Poetry” is ‘Because you know already if you didn’t / you would have to make that appointment / which means you would have to spend a lot / of time talking, not to mention money you do not / have, to someone who will not be listening’. One suspects that the meditative pieces towards the end of the book would be of particular benefit to such readers.
There is, more generally, an appetite these days for poems that engage directly with the world’s problems and people’s emotional lives and Acharya’s very accomplished poems would meet this need far better than the banalities of Instapoetry. What Survives Is The Singing is an interesting and diverse collection by a highly intelligent poet. Although she already has a reputation, Shanta Acharya deserves to be much more widely known.
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.
relativism by Mary Ford Neal. £9.99. Taproot Press. ISBN: 978-1-83808-006-8.
relativism by Mary Ford Neal. £9.99. Taproot Press. ISBN: 978-1-83808-006-8.
Scottish poet Mary Ford Neal’s second collection is focused on relationship, identity, community, the value of experience. Never does it bend, as such poetry might, towards the insidious work of the ego. Rather, the writing asserts itself lastingly, quietly, without melodrama – proving itself time and again to be a communication as humane and principled as is it emotive and observant:
‘come to me all you who are
busy overplayed out of tune
you with the symphonic inner life
you who have agonised over the meaning
of a look or a word’
Perhaps a potent, rich, and meaningful poetry collection like this represents none other than the sharing of an intriguing ‘symphonic inner life’. relativism is tonally diverse, and it moves between bright and dark themes and modalities, but it always achieves that essential harmony of clarity and depth. It offers honesty, wisdom, and accessibility in a gratifying combination.
The collection is at once flowing and intense; each poem bursts with tight, resonant lines (‘Jane shapes the town to herself’). Characters are granted dynamic, engaging life:
‘[She] vaporises priests with a raised eyebrow.’
The book very much feels as if it is populated by sentient people, not ciphers – individuals who also have their own ‘symphonic inner life’. An undertow of empathy carries us through, even when the poet’s pen sharpens and digs.
The author employs searingly vivid sensory detail, as when she describes the ‘[t]angerine seethe beneath coal crackle’ of firewalking. Often we are left physically affected – a catch in the throat, an out-loud laugh – by a poetry that seems both tangible and spirited.
Mary Ford Neal understands there is power in restraint; she creates poems that are brave in a manner that is persuasive, nuanced, unHollywood, whether she is contemplating male abuses of power, the death of a child, the damage inherent in over-familiarity, or the sheer contingency of time and illness.
Grace, brutality, compassion, wit, separation, empathy, sorrow – they’re all here, not for their own sake, but because an intelligent mind has lucid and profound things to say about them. Craft pulses, unshowy but luminous, within these poems, manifesting in, for example, the adroit use of assonance, punctuation, enjambment. Typically, the lines are neatly cadenced, the writer’s ideas by turns moving, provocative, enlightening.
Grim, small-town images of debris – sectarian graffiti, ‘empty glue bags’, ‘broken bottles’, and ‘crushed cigarette boxes’ – are balanced by insight, a questing spirit, at times an ‘eager, thoughtless joy’. There is also a deliciously mordant humour:
‘Husband, this will be hard to hear
but you’re dead, and I hate your ghost.
You died in such small increments that I think
you may have missed your own last breath, but even so…’
That knowingly droll tone is not the only element of the book that exudes a certain Scottishness, for we also meet that signature Caledonian harnessing of opposites, a contronym of the psyche, a cleaving of and to that which cleaves.
‘…and it is also true that although to you I
may look like someone capable of great happiness
and abandon, I am not, as a matter of fact I was
both assassin and gravedigger to my own joy, I carefully
took its pulse before throwing in the first shovel of dirt,
just to make certain that I had left no flutter of life,
and this was some time ago now, and I must surely be close
to getting used to it, and although I feel convinced that
I cannot endure a life in which we don’t belong to each other,
I also know that I will.’
This is a poetry that has both immediacy and subtlety. Lines unfold, enticing and unpredictable. Mary Ford Neal rarely takes a misstep in these smart, sincere, hard-to-resist poems. relativism is the sharpest and most impassioned collection by a Scottish poet since Alison Whitelock’s and my heart crumples like a coke can (Wakefield Press). This is an uncompromising literature with benevolent objective.
‘She fixes herself to the spot; she pitches tents for the lost.
Are you lost?
She is a compass, pointing.
And then she moves away.’
Those lines could almost sum up our experience of reading this restrained, astute, purposeful book.
Kevin MacNeil is a novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter, born and raised in the Outer Hebrides. His most recent novel, The Brilliant & Forever, was published to considerable critical acclaim. MacNeil has written half-a-dozen books and edited a similar number. He has won a number of prestigious literary awards. Kevin MacNeil lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. Website: www.kevinmacneil.me
Sidney Wade’s Deep Gossip reviewed by Ian Pople
Deep Gossip: New and Selected Poems by Sidney Wade. $19.95. Johns Hopkins Press. ISBN: 978-1421437873
Sidney Wade’s Deep Gossip selects poems from seven previous books, and offers twenty seven new poems. The title, Deep Gossip is taken from a remark by Liam Rector that ‘Poetry is deep gossip’. Clearly, this is an interesting variation on Pound’s dictum that ‘Poetry is news that stays news’. Gossip might have a private function and news a public one. But such definitions are clouded by the second epigraph to Wade’s collection, from Sylvia Plath, ‘All around us the water slips / And gossips in its loose vernacular, / Ferrying the smells of dead cod and tar.’ This quotation suggests that gossip might carry the taint of the abject. As a practitioner, Sidney Wade sits slightly askew across the divide between the formal and free wings of American poetry. There are poems here, particularly but not wholly from Wade’s earlier volumes, which have an adherence to both rhyme and definite rhythms. And the simplicity they gesture towards do not always offer the intensity that Wade might hope for.
In an early poem, such as ‘The Church and the Steeple’, Wade plays deft, realistic detail against the the old children’s hand rhyme. Her imagery includes ‘Here is the grave of the suicide, / set apart from the others. /If it could speak, it would tell us nothing.’ Here the simplicity of the diction drives the pathos of the imagery. The ‘it’ that might speak emphasises the distance between the person in the grave and the attitudes of those observing it channelled, as it were in the ironic perspective of Wade. Later, Wade comments, ‘Here are the fields settling casually into place / and the moon that covers its tracks as it rises.’ There’s a calm, warm rhythm to these lines which emphasises that lovely ‘casually’ in the first line and the implied personification of the moon hiding itself. This writing offers psychological depth that, in general, permeates a lot of the poems in this book.
The poem that follows ‘The Church and the Steeple’ is ‘The Combine’. It’s narrative form gestures towards Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful poem, ‘The Moose’. The protagonists in the poem are gathered in a car, ‘driving to a shower / celebrating the engagement / of a second cousin.’ The poem, like Bishop’s, describes the drive through countryside. And in the course of the journey, the aunt and grandmother make comments about the people who live in the houses they pass. Again, like ‘The Church and the Steeple’, Wade deftly describes the countryside, ‘The complexion of the noon- / day fields is metallic -/ a weather-beaten grain / glanced at by the sun.’ Wade’s powers of description and the neat extracts of gossip create a full and rewarding portrait of a family outing.
Wade’s bouncing off other models occurs in the new poems, as well. And there are nice ‘homages’ to Stevens and Auden as well as Edward Hopper and Richard Wilbur. Over the last decade or so, however, Wade has developed a way with rather thin long poems, where the couplets consist of two beat phrases. These poems allow the thought to be concentrated and the imagery lingered over in a way that shows what a sharp and deft observer Wade usually is. Often these poems describe birds, and her last stand-alone book is called Bird Book. Just occasionally, these are list poems, or a kind of unadorned description of a particular bird’s attributes. The best of these, though, combine the observational skills honed on the birds, with the empathies shown in Wade’s poems ‘about’ humans. ‘Skin’ is a profoundly unsentimental account of the last days of her mother: ‘she lay // naked / shaved // bed-bound / and drowning // in her body’s / watery // conjugations / of the verb to die // she declined / in spirit // she swelled / in form // betrayed / by the welter // of assaults / on her frame // she called / on god // to come / and get her / great beached / weight’ If some of this seems so direct as to feel almost cruel, what Wade seems to be doing is confessing how her mother’s decline affected her. The directness couches the difficulties that the daughter faces when a loved one’s decline is such that it is almost impossible to respond. And it is this lack of response that the poem is brave enough to witness.
Ian Pople‘s Spillway: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.
Henri Cole’s Blizzard reviewed by Ian Pople
Blizzard by Henri Cole. £20.85. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.ISBN: 978-0374114381
Henri Cole’s tenth poetry collection is filled with the unrhymed sonnets that have characterised much of his recent poetry. In these, Cole often writes the kinds of poems about animals that he, himself, describes as actually being examinations of what it means to be human. These two things, the sonnet form with its connotations of being love poems, and the animals which, in theory, form the focus of the content, show Cole’s trademark concentration on the emotional life. Cole has suggested that in writing about animals, the animals and the writing acts as a mask for going deeper into human behaviour.
In ‘Departure’, the narrator sitting in the seat of a small plane taxiing down a runway sees two deer grazing to one side. The narrator suggests that ‘She seems to be only partially certain / he cares for her as she cares for him.’ Of course, this may be a ‘simple case’ of projection on Cole’s part. And there are obvious dangers to such anthropomorphism. But Coles seems to be suggesting that, yes, he is projecting his own experience of insecurity onto the deer. What this projection does is allow a truth to be seen in the lives of other, perhaps ‘simpler’ creatures. But that truth is more real than truths that are evaded with the human contention that ‘It’s complicated.’
Elsewhere, the natural world is seen in the context of the destruction wreaked by man on man; and it is usually men in Cole’s world. But Blizzard is a more overtly political book than Cole’s earlier books. So, the natural world in these poems tends to witness conflict and destruction. The natural world carries on but its very dispassion contrasts with the abhorrent wilfulness of humanity. In ‘(Re)creation’, a man who seems to have been a hermit is captured and executed by the Taliban;
Still, whatever the faults of life,
the merriment of it was only partially erased
by the curious flies of Allah investigating
the carrion hanging in the public square.
It was as if this had not one been a man at all,
but instead a white-winged dove,
its solitary neck and breast washed lightly with pink.
The extraordinary irony of the second line here is moved into lives of the flies who settle on the man in much the same way as they might settle on a dove. There is, it is true, a certain obviousness in calling the hanging body, ‘carrion.’ Cole is able to emphasise the loss of humanity in the corpse by showing not only the flies relation to the body of the man, but their relation to the putative body of a dove. The doves reappear in the final two lines of the poem as, ‘On takeoff, they produce, with their wings, / a subtle, unearthly whistle.’ Even the doves, it seems, are part of the disturbance that surrounds the dead man.
Although this slight sense of the unnerved observer runs through the poetry here, as I’ve noted the overtly political plays a large part of this new collection. Those two elements converge in the poem ‘Mud or Flesh’, which, unusually for Cole, is a first person narrative. ‘Mud or Flesh’ has a slightly Kafka-esque feel to it. It appears to be set in a cell in a prison, in which the narrator ‘soon he forgets the taste of his own lips. / He is just number 15, / on the 11th block, pressing his ear to the vent, / getting up on the gate to listen to fighting, / eating, moaning, and laboring.’ At the end of the poem, the final three lines declare that the narrator ‘feels the airways in his chest tightening, / as his soul-animal huddles with others / in some final agglomeration.’ The title of the poem comes from the question the narrator asks himself, ‘Am I mud or flesh?’ This question is part of the way in which this particular self is stripped of identity by the institution. In particular, the way the self is stripped of flesh; the way the precious sensual identity is lost. Here, too, the fly is a witness to this process, ‘believ[ing] / he is meat in a refrigerator locker, a fly / that doesn’t mind bare walls and recites / for the benefit of his senses: / “Am not I / A fly like thee?”’ Thus the fly has a kind of natural freedom to have his own senses when the prisoner does not. The temptation here might be to interpret the poem as the fate of the gay man in the institutions of contemporary society.
Elsewhere, the political becomes quite explicit. Trump occurs although not named; his is a world of ‘mansplaining and lies’ to which the repost is ‘Can’t you see your one thousand dogs / are not greater than our / one thousand gazelles?’ However, there is an irony as the poem on the opposite page comments, ‘They said one man in a long black car / can’t ever really empty out the fullness.’
It is this fullness that Cole’s poems celebrate. If there is a somewhat wary note to this collection, that wariness is couched in just the sensual, natural world that Cole sees as the fullness of the world. His calm, collected writing has what E.M. Forster suggested of Cavafy, it is the poetry of someone who stands ‘at a slight angle to the world.’ Coles shares with Cavafy an open, warmth towards the world even where it is cautious. That warmth is a striving for a world that is accepting and welcoming even against the odds.
Ian Pople‘s Spillway: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.
Dominic Fisher’s A Customised Selection of Fireworks reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
A Customised Selection of Fireworks by Dominic Fisher; £10.00; Shoestring Press; ISBN 978-1-915553-01-0
This is Dominic Fisher’s second collection, and he also is a member of poetry performance group ‘The Isambards’ and co-edits a poetry magazine, so he is an experienced wielder of words. The collection’s title is ‘A Customised Selection of Fireworks’ and, while he does write about light and actual fireworks, for me the charm and skill of the poems was more to do with deftness and subtlety of thought rather than bravura sparkle – and I don’t mean this as a criticism.
The first stanza of the first, and title, poem says:
It’s the sequence that really matters
xxxxxxxxxcolour rhythm flow
which isn’t something the lay person
xxxxxxxxxgets right every time.
Cautionary words for pyrotechnicians and for poets!
He writes well about nature, particularly about insects and other minibeasts, and there is a recurrent discernible unease and awareness of environmental harm and occasional individual damage done. In ‘Moth in a bath’ he says:
Yet as the wet wings
trailed vainly across
the rim of the bath
what green-gold came off
what a slick of grey
and purple scales
were revealed that way.
‘Wasp mid air’ opens with:
In the black and yellow plates
of your waisted fuselage,
and your gyroscopic
you are neat as a samurai.
‘True beetles’ celebrates a rosechafer beetle (‘a box of clockwork’) and references the collapsing populations of many insects in the age of the anthropocene, hinting at the obvious causes. The poem ends with:
We’ll watch as the world flickers and flashes
in now too deep perhaps in any case.
A clockwork beetle rumbles through the air.
I particularly liked his poem ‘Solstice Fish’ – I had to reread it carefully to establish (my interpretation of) its phrasings, and/but I liked its allusiveness and lament. It begins:
It’s night now in blobs and patches
and our houses’ eyes are glazed
with peach and nectarine
though the doors are wide awake.
And it ends by addressing the midsummer fish (‘like deep-sea seraphim’):
May they save us all before
our heavy metals drown us
or we forget our santeria
of wings and scales, of finches
willowherb and meadowsweet.
The poet is not only moved by the plight of struggling nature, but also includes poems of feeling and of empathy. In ‘Making Words for Bread’ he describes encountering a man, presumably a refugee, and apparently begging and homeless, with poor English. Later he imagines how the man has ended up in this situation:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe trade and war
streets now like shattered bone,
that we have no father guiding us
and stars know nothing but themselves.
But still I got here though it was
to beg outside a bakery
without the words I need for bread.
In ‘Your Swimming Towel’ he addresses his son, remembering that son’s weekly swimming lessons, and the progress made from the first 5 metres to the eventual swimming ‘beyond badges’. I don’t know if the poem’s ending is a hymn of praise to the son’s aquatic prowess or if it alludes to something much more tragic, but I really hope it is the former:
I’m sorry we haven’t been swimming lately
but I’d only be floundering behind you
with the other dads while you swam,
your beard full of fish, like Neptune
out among whales, dolphins
and all the other constellations.
One small thing that I would query in this collection is punctuation – some poems are fully punctuated, and some are not punctuated at all, except for some capitalisation where new poetic thoughts begin, and I can live with either of those, but some poems are to my mind, half punctuated, with capitalisation and full stops but without phrase-dividing commas in between, or at least without some of those commas where I think they ought to be, including at line endings. This is by no means unique to this poet, and I am sure that I will have ‘finished’ poems in this manner myself in the past, but I do seem to be going through a phase of ‘punctuation puritanism’ now. It doesn’t spoil one’s enjoyment of the poems, but sometimes it slightly impedes the act of making sense of what is being said, interrupts the smooth inner vocalisation of the words.
The end of the book finds the poet in meta-literal mood – the penultimate poem ‘Walking Through a Half Open Book’ says:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAnd I became
a ghost to myself as the scripts of trees at the margin blended
into the fog of this January afternoon.
And the final poem ‘This Page Has Been Deliberately Left Blank’ ends with:
For the avoidance of all doubt
doodling or descent into labyrinths
please leave this page now
Thank you for your co-operation
So, before we descend into any labyrinths, I thank Dominic Fisher for creating this collection of poems, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future – a future in which I hope the insects he so appreciates will still be humming and hatching. I leave the page now!
Rowena Sommerville is a writer, maker, illustrator and singer and she lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for many years, both as a creative and as a project producer. She has published several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to children’s and adults’ anthologies and magazines. Her first adult collection – Melusine – was published by Mudfog Press in September 2021. She also writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen. She has been delighted to be the 2022 Artist in Residence for The High Window.
Richard Skinner’s Dream into Play reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
Dream into Play by Richard Skinner; unpriced; Poetry Salzburg pamphlet series; ISBN 978-3-901993-82-4
Dream into Play is a slim volume of allusive, elusive, laconic poems by a well-established writer, who clearly knows what he is doing. I will confess that I myself didn’t always know exactly what he was doing, and I did have frequent recourse to Google to enrich my understanding, but, despite and/or because of that, I enjoyed the collection and would now like to read more of his poems and books. I was left with a powerful sense of having encountered a clever, provocative, disciplined and ludic writer, who challenged me to consider and interpret the images he evoked – no easily accessible emotional slop here!
While the overall tone of the collection is not generally directly personal or emotional, the first poem in the pamphlet is ‘The Green Capitals’, which is about his mother and an occasion of hearing ‘her truth’, which – my interpretation – may have been news of a serious health issue. He speaks of the effect of her words on him and on ‘the catacombs’ of his heart:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlike her words
echoing in the room
that everyone carries inside them.
And the second poem – ‘Fourscore’ – is subtitled On the occasion of my father’s 80th birthday. He describes his father’s footprints in the snow:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI have spent a life
chasing after those traces but, in you,
I see a better design.
There is an abiding awareness of frailty, mortality – in the poem ‘Atropos’ he seemingly speaks in the persona of Atropos, one of the three fates or Moirai, whose role was to cut the cloth of human life when her two sisters had spun and allotted it, hence her attributes of inflexibility and finality. He says:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBut I hold my tongue and,
when the time comes, I measure twice,
One of the pamphlet back cover ‘endorsers’ refers to this proverbial advice (usually for carpenters and tailors) and likens it to Skinner’s admirably ascetic poetic practice. For me there were a few occasions on which he maybe cut a bit too much out, or where I found the references too unfamiliar, and might have welcomed a little more information, or more easily graspable emotional signposts. Still, that whole process, of not immediately comprehending everything and working towards meaning/s, can be very bracing!
In ‘Shoji’ (a Japanese wood and paper screen or room divider) he seems to be haunted, by memory, perhaps by a ghost:
2.35am and you’re here again, dressed
as the day you left, your face
pressed up against the see-through paper
door that I get up to open.
In ‘Ars Poetica’ one of two poems after Andrea Gibellini, he says:
It’s an ink drawing on which
tonight I just don’t want to
add names to things
and forever say goodbye.
It is not easy and it can be done
but in my poetry
I don’t want any theology.
There are poems inspired by other writers, artists, and films, and several poems which play with lists, or swapping (significant) words like ‘mother’ and ‘tears’ (‘Crocodile Mother’), or ‘poem’ and various body parts (‘Poems in the Restroom’), leading to some interesting results.
The final poem ‘Life in a Oncetime’ evokes the stream of life, of consciousness, of spiritual teachings, of disordered repetition:
This isn’t the same ocean
flowing as a beautiful highway
that comes into this house
behind me where there is
the wheel of a lifetime
that is ever flowing
In ‘S+40 Sonnet’, subtitled from Criticism and Truth by Roland Barthes, he (and/or Barthes I guess) says, ‘The critic is nothing other than a commentator’ and ‘To go from reading to criticism is to change desires’.
I read these poems with the desire to encounter and to enjoy, and my comment is that I did both – Desire into Play is a stimulating read.
Rowena Sommerville is a writer, maker, illustrator and singer and she lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for many years, both as a creative and as a project producer. She has published several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to children’s and adults’ anthologies and magazines. Her first adult collection – Melusine – was published by Mudfog Press in September 21. She also writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen. She has been delighted to be the 2022 Artist in Residence for The High Window.
Kathryn Bevis’s Flamingo reviewed by Rosie Jackson
Flamingo by Kathryn Bevis. £6. Seren. ISBN: 978-1781726938
For some reason, I read the title poem, the final one in Kathryn Bevis’ debut pamphlet, first, then went backwards from there. It was an exhilarating, hypnotic experience. The last few poems especially are shot through not only with astonishing affirmations of life, love and beauty in the face of a cancer diagnosis, but just as notably a fantastic surreal humour and imaginative flight that makes the heart dance and the spirit soar. (The cover painting, of four pink flamingos astonished to find themselves displayed in a ceramic vase, is fabulous too).
The first verse of ‘Flamingo’, for example, which is a love poem to Kathryn’s husband:
My love, when I die, I’ll turn flamingo:
fall asleep, faced tucked in on the pillow
of myself. Even as you cry, I’ll be stepping
from the bed, feeling plush, pink tulle tutuing
from my hips. My legs will telescope, grow
thin and rosy. I’ll sense my feet web, feel
a new itch to stamp and stir, to suck up
larvae from the bottom of the lagoon.
The masterly way this metaphor is sustained through the poem, with craft and confidence but without contrivance, suggests this is a poet who has a great control of form, language and imagination and is now putting these to exemplary use in talking about mortality, separation and loss with no clumsiness or manipulation of feeling.
The earlier poems in Flamingo confirm this suspicion, ranging in form and subject as they do, from the cleverly wrought irreverent feminism of ‘Wonder Woman Questions her Status as a 70’s Symbol of Female Empowerment’ to a brilliant prose poem (its subject inevitably reminding me of Hannah Lowe’s The Kids) which give us a trainee teacher crying in the loo as she thinks of all the school kids with no future, some self-wounding, others unable to read, or on the ‘school-to-prison-pipeline.’ So much implied narrative is packed into such poignant and evocative lines, the heart-breaking social realities behind these poems evidence of Bevis’ working life in mental health and prison settings.
But serious though the subjects are, these poems are never dark. An impulse towards humour and a beautiful lyricism are always breaking through, woven into the fabric of these varied, inventive poems. In the earlier poems about family, such as ‘Knitting Nan Nan,’ I felt I could detect the influence of Jonathan Edwards, and his own wonderful collection My Family and Other Super Heroes, so it was no surprise to me to discover Edwards quoted in the Acknowledgements as a colleague and mentor. Bevis shares with him a vibrant and delicious attention to detail, to everyday specifics, as well as an awareness of the sad changes that time brings. Her poem ‘My Grandparents Pose on the Steps of Saint Matthew’s Church Sheffield, Boxing Day 1942’ juxtaposes a photo of the grandparents in black and white with a memory of the grandmother in her final days, ‘cast adrift in a soft and slack-mouthed sleep’, in the same way that Edwards deftly charts family history through photos, fine observations and memories. And I feel they share too a similar delightful playful tone, never merely superficial, but able to maintain a lightness of perspective and vision even when tackling the most tragic subjects.
Perhaps such influences, along with her own poetic and emotional maturity, are what enable Bevis to create such rich, exact, moving, deep, radiant and compelljng poems in response to her cancer diagnosis. Along with the title poem, my other two favourites are the ones that precede it: ‘My Cancer as a Ring-Tailed Lemur’ and ‘How Animals Grieve.’ Like many excellent poems, this one taught me much I didn’t know, and left my heart wrenched, yet also, by the end, lifted by the evidence of love that such grief evinces.
These are the opening two stanzas of ‘How Animals Grieve’ – so contemporary, so how it is, so how we do things now – (and how did I never know my brain weighs three pounds?):
We Google it. Laid on our backs in bed
together, cursed by our tired, three-pound brains,
we search our phones’ blue light for wisdom, become
voyeurs of YouTube clips on other creatures’ pain.
For seventeen days, a mourning orca
attends her dead son’s corpse. She sinks
and hauls the weight of him as if to fetch
the breath back, have him suckle once again.
We hear of similar morning rituals for chimps and elephants, then this unforgettable conclusion.
Like us, giraffes and housecats, dingoes, horses,
dogs forget to forage, forgo sex and sleep. Like us,
at burial mounds, they pace and yowl and keen.
So why should it surprise us, Ollie, – us
who matter most to one another, us whose marriage
is as deep as marrow – why is this loss
unthinkable: me without you, you without me?
At the side of such a love poem that is also an expression of all our loss and mortality, any critique needs to take off its shoes. This is poetry of the first order. I only hope that Kathryn Bevis has many more equally sublime and nurturing books to come.
Rosie Jackson’s recent collections are Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about Stanley Spencer (with Graham Burchell, 2020), Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird (with Dawn Gorman, 2020) and Light Makes it Easy (2021) which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Love Leans Over the Table will be published by Two Rivers Press in 2023. Her many awards include 1st prize Poetry Teignmouth 2021, 3rd prize Kent and Sussex 2022. www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Christine McNeill’s Across a Sheet of Paper reviewed by J.S. Watts
Across a Sheet of Paper: A selection of German poems translated by Christine McNeill. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 9781915553003
In an ideal world, I realise a review should only be about the book and maybe the author who wrote it, but normally not the reviewer. With apologies, therefore, please bear with me while I tell you a little about my own limitations, because they will place my response to Across a Sheet of Paper in context.
First, though, may I state the obvious? Across a Sheet of Paper is a selection of German language poems by assorted German speaking poets writing in the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The poems have been translated into English by the poet Christine McNeill.
Next, I need to confess that I do not speak or read German and am not familiar with most German poets, other than, perhaps, Rilke. In other words, in reviewing this poetry selection I can only comment on the poems as presented and written in English. I am not able to assess or comment on the skill of the translation and whether the style of the poems is faithful to the originals, or is an extension of the translator’s own style. Although, the tonality of the poems is so consistent that I suspect I am hearing the translator’s word music as much as that of the original poets.
Across a Sheet of Paper, as I read it, is an anthology of poems in English by a diverse collection of poets writing across a period of approximately two hundred years. Some of the poets I have previously come across: Rilke, Nietzsche, Hesse, Brecht and Goethe, for example. Others, including Busta, Celan, Gerstl and Zweig, I had not previously heard of, let alone read. Helpfully, for the ignorant such as myself, there are brief biographical notes provided on all forty-six poets whose work is included in the book.
According to McNeill’s introduction to the selection, the poems were chosen because she was “attracted to particular poems, first by having heard them recited and the spoken word making a strong impression on my mind, and secondly studying them on the page.” Once she had “a sizeable collection” of poems she ordered them “into themes that appealed to me and that I wanted to explore.” The poems are divided into: “Poet and Poem”, “The Child”, “Soul and Spirit”, “Spring” and “Reflections on Ageing and the Final Journey”. The number of poems per theme is not uniform, giving greater weight to some themes over others.
So, what of the selection? As with many anthologies, there were poems I liked, poems I did not like and others that I was ambivalent about. It’s time, therefore, for another confession from me. I tend to enjoy anthologies that I can dip into now and then in order to read or research a particular poet or poem. I am rarely bowled over by anthologies if I read them straight through from cover to cover, as I did for this review. I was, however, very pleased to have been given an opportunity to read some poems that resonated with me and to discover poems by poets I would not otherwise have come across, especially Nelly Sachs, whose poems I found impactful.
My personal tastes may not be the same as McNeill’s and Across a Sheet of Paper strikes me as a very personal selection. After all, these poems have been selected because they especially “attracted” the translator.
I shall therefore conclude this review with extracts from poems from each of the five sections to provide an objective flavour of the whole.
“Poet and Poem” considers creativity and the work of a poet, as in “Entry” by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), from which this is an extract:
Whoever you may be: leave your room
in the evening in which you know everything;
the last object before the horizon is your house,
whoever you may be.
With tired eyes that can hardly free
themselves from the well-worn threshold,
you slowly lift a black tree
and place it before the sky: slender alone.
The shortest section of the book, entitled “The Child”, considers differing viewpoints of childhood:
“To A Child” by Elisabeth Borchers (1926-2013)
If we wait long enough,
then it will come.
Today, the child asks.
Today or tomorrow. A ship
you have to know, needs time.
Vast and wide as the sea.
Then you will be grown up.
Then we can board
and make the journey.
Together. Us two.
And each in our own way.
“Soul and Spirit”, as one might imagine, explores spirituality and religion:
“A Dream” by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)
A dream, a dream is our life
Here on earth.
Like shadows on waves
We float and fade
And measure our sluggish steps
In space and time;
And are (not knowing it) amid
“Spring” is a seasonally themed selection of poems:
Extract from “The Woods Are Silent” by Erich Kästner (1899-1974)
The seasons wander through the woods.
One doesn’t notice. One reads it only in the leaves.
The seasons amble through the fields.
One counts the days. And counts the money.
One longs to escape the noisy city.
The final themed section, “Reflections on Ageing and The Final Journey”, is just that, and here I shall briefly quote from a poem by Nelly Sachs, a poet whose work I now want to read more of, having been introduced to her by this selection. Indeed, the value of Across a Sheet of Paper is surely in introducing a diverse collection of German poets to English readers who might otherwise not have come across them:
Extract from “World” by Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)
World, don’t ask those snatched from death
where they are going,
they are always going to their graves.
J.S.Watts is a poet and novelist. Her poetry, short stories and non-fiction appear in diverse publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America and have been broadcast on BBC and independent radio. Her published books include: Cats and Other Myths, Songs of Steelyard Sue, Years Ago You Coloured Me and The Submerged Sea (poetry) and A Darker Moon, Witchlight, Old Light and Elderlight (novels). Her new poetry collection, Underword, will be published in winter 2022. For more information, see her website https://www.jswatts.co.uk/