Jane Draycott: The Kingdom • Ian Pople: Spillway: New and Selected Poems • Ruth Sharman: Rain Tree • Claire Booker: A Pocketful of Chalk
Jane Draycott’s The Kingdom reviewed by Kathleen Bell
The Kingdom by Jane Draycott. £11.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 800017 259 3
In a world so recently familiar with grieving and isolation, and alert to the dangers of environmental disaster, Jane Draycott’s poems in The Kingdom conjure a territory that hovers just on the edge of experiences we might recognise, offering us a half-familiar sense of strangeness and estrangement. For example, a message of longing in ‘Wyldernesse’ announces:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI have entered
a new wilderness, – randomly generated
ravines, sunless abysses in the heart
of the financial sector, sirens throughout –
xxxxxxxxxxand am alone.
. . . . . .
I have asked the few strangers I meet
which way is the surest road back
to summer but nobody not one person
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhas the first idea.
This seems to lie midway between the metaphorical and the real. The speaker may be searching for a real place – a village Eden – or a lost relationship imagined as a past summer. The two possibilities overlap and merge.
This uncertainty is the characteristic mood of many of the poems. It might also be defined, in accordance with the poem ‘Bartholomew: Four Things’ as melancholia:
within the mouth a taste of earth,
around the heart a closing in of sorrow
– as to the reason for this
baseless dread, no-one can answer.
While grief in the poems is sometimes for a single individual, as in ‘Calendar,’ in which the speaker looks through an attic for a last diary, chronicling ‘appointments, blood-tests, / drug-trials, anything to save the situation’, the epigraph from Derek Jarman – ‘Old age came quickly for my frosted generation’ – relates individual grieving to a wider situation which includes but might even extend beyond the generation to whom Jarman’s words refer: those who, like him, died from HIV/AIDS. The poem speaks not just of personal loss but of a ‘cancelled world’ in which the universe has ‘cracked away’ into a ‘a long white wilderness / …the ice moving steadily in.’
The world of these poems merges recent past with present and a possible bleak future. We may not know precisely who ‘Some Children’ are, in the poem with that title, but when we are told that they ‘would only sleep with the windows / wide open” and that they:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxcouldn’t settle except
with a breeze coming in (occasional
hailstones, stray bullet-fire, bricks)
the children’s vigil as they wait for adults to return seems horribly contemporary, reminding us of so many children today who might react in just this way.
Most of the poems seem to be in the voice of either a single narrator or a slightly more inclusive “we.” The book begins with a strange arrival, surfacing from a ‘world under water’ to an unidentified ‘brink or brim’ and ends with what appears to be a letter home, or to a group of close family and friends which may, by this stage, include the reader. But the poems in-between take a discursive journey which looks beyond the arrival point or voyages back through memory.
At one point, in ‘Behind Closed Doors,’ the speaker is waiting for admission to the National Gallery where chained Andromeda and exiled Callisto are visible only to security guards who will, in the morning, admit visitors one at a time, advising them to keep a safe distance. Outside, ‘contagion’s on the streets / again,’ and we as readers may find ourselves standing with the narrator in a place and experience some of us will remember. But the next poem in the collection, ‘The Little Car and the Attic’, with its epigraph from Apollinaire who died of the Spanish flu in the last days of World War I, sweeps us on a journey through time which is also the last journey of the unidentified ‘two of us’ at the centre of many of the poems, as they traverse a landscape haunted by war and disease:
By afternoon so many eras had passed –
in the fields a profusion of poppies, in the villages
swans the colour of charcoal, children
born with it in their bloodstream
playing at the crossroads, all the evidence
still hanging like rags from the branches.
These poems, especially when read in order in the collection as a whole, are deeply unsettling; yet there is love in them, and hope. There is also great tenderness and an awareness of a beauty that can still be valued in the fragility of the moment and the world. The final poem in the collection, ‘The Experiment’ advises those on the same journey ‘not to think / of the dark’ but to ‘take the boat and do the experiment’ suggesting that the experiment is a voyage with a partly-guessed destination. The poem ends with advice that is almost a promise:
Sleep is chalky now. Most of the underblue
has gone from beneath the bed. Only the light remains
and the roses wild and idle just as you will remember them.
Stay together whenever the times allow.
Kathleen Bell is a poet, fiction writer and escapee from academia based in the East Midlands. Her most recent collections, both published in 2021, are Do You Know How Kind I Am? (a lockdown pamphlet from Leafe Press) and the full-length collection Disappearances from Shoestring. From time to time she still teaches, leads workshops and gives readings.
Ian Pople’s Spillway: New and Selected Poems reviewed by Jonathan Timbers
Spillway: New and Selected Poems by Ian Pople. £15.99. Carcanet Poetry.
ISBN: 978 1 80017 022 3
Pople is a Christian existential poet whose deceptively simple descriptive style conveys a complex deeply personal inter-action with the world around him and the metaphysical. He acknowledges the influence of the twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth, who emphasised God’s unknowability. In his philosophy, God is transcendant rather than imminent. There is no way to Him other than through acceptance . This creates a dilemma for a Christian poet like Pople whose subjects are meticulously observed.Throughout Pople’s work there is a tension between the seen and the unseen. That may take the form of personal events existing at a distance from the poems themselves, suggested in the half-light of implied damage or longing, for example:
he wanted to run out amongst the shining cars
rain beating on him from all sides
‘The Tree Line’
The pestle resting in chaff
and uncrushed grain, she
waits for the veil to rend,
rend to the last tatter.
‘An Occasional Lean-to: 5’
Or in the strikingly beautiful:
.…. I thought of your
new intentions and how the rails
spill on until they touch real presences
God, as a figure or entity, is usually absent in the poems, but religious objects and rituals are scattered all over them reaching out through their metaphors to the ineffable. They permeate the physical world so that even: ‘ Winter is a sacrament’. God, in other words, is only directly present for us through His alchemy, transubstantiating things of our world into His self. We are left trying to commune with His presence through religion: Where / mystery decays / to belief. ‘An Occasional Lean-to: 5’
An early poem has God’s blood flowing through Manchester. This rather fanciful divine intervention is uncharacteristic of his work. However, the poem’s sense of sorrow and its observational sweep are more typical:
Gospels shake out their umbrellas.
The blood of Christ mingles with
rain and mixes with the detritus from
the city in the onrush to drains
‘The Big House’
Pople’s early poetry seems very engaged with place: often poems are set in England and in particular Manchester and the North West as well as distant locations like Sudan, China and Thailand. Perhaps these poems are in part explorations of how places are constructed by human beings and history (including our imperial history):
a system of differences in the idea of land
‘For Jon, Pam, Tom and Katie Up In The Air’
This sense of place encompasses the poet’s own self-conscious awareness of his identity as a product of the working class North West:
xxxxxxStuck as I was
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxin the town
I came upon the thing that I was
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxa gull, speckled,
xxxxxxxxxxxxfacing the closed door
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof the bingo hall
Ultimately, as with many people who have escaped working class provincial identities through education, there is a sense of exile, of unreconcilable difference:
As instructed by my teachers, I turned
my head away..
‘ Humber Doucy Lane’
At times, he seems to dislike himself and feels rejected. Perhaps he has a deep sense of sin and personal inadequacy:
…. as though repulsed
by himself, aghast at the
rulings of the spirit, showing
how far betrayal has proceeded
in him, the masculinities
distorted and mottled.
Even the way he breaks up clauses and sub-clauses with commas suggests ‘a system of differences’, of fissures, in every relationship he encounters, even linguistically. For example, in ‘The Clay Pipe’ the subject ‘like a human body’ ‘appears, over time, / to a milder, seemingly / less confrontational position, having had / its right to be, contested, / as the air reaches to a horizon that pulls / away from the sea’. The effect of this over punctuation is to make the reader question how links are made in our experience, the dizzying potentials of disconnection
Dizziness is in fact a recurrent subject – literally, when the poem’s narrator is, for example, in the sky parachuting downwards or, metaphorically, considering the potentialities of perspective:
It is raining from the corner all the way
to the horizon, to where the ‘no’
is divided from the ‘yes’; and beyond
to that transfiguration, and to you,
old aerodrome among fields, runways
among grass, broken frames, Nissen huts
that rust among the silver birches
He manages to contain this overwhelming abundance of ideas and perceptions through his exacting, graceful style. In its observation and precision, it can almost at times be epigrammatic:
Continuation is both waiting
and surprise, as if he stood to see
both beermats and moorland heather
in the wall mirror of the pub
He seems to have an innate feel for the weight and balance of language across a line of poetry or stanza. Throughout this volume, there is pleasure to be had through reading the poems aloud. They manage to be both highly wrought and lucid.
It is a poetry of conservatism and entropy that (uncomfortably for me) references ‘our racial history’ and more uncontroversially ‘parish boundaries [that] widen / every year’. Towards the end of the collection, there is a poem called (not unexpectedly) ‘Entropies’ which encapsulates the onrush of observations, ideas and existential pain that characterises much of Pople’s work. This is its vertiginous opening:
In our skin, what we might always be
is like the wash of cloud that layers
and unfixes, in the pronounced body,
in death, in clouds
This is a volume has much to offer the sensitive persistent reader: the product of a self-questioning but energetic mind, with an Apollonian sense of style and beauty.
Jonathan Timbers has been a teacher and lawyer; he’s worked in a tank factory, a prosthetic limb factory and the last cloth cap making workshop in Leeds (at the time). He helped organise and gave evidence. to the UN inquiry on the impact of austerity on disabled peoples’s rights in the UK. He was once the mayor of Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd and thinks that Ted Hughes is England”s greatest war poet. He occasionally publishes poetry and reviews; otherwise he lives a life of complete self indulgence, with his cat, Polly.
Ruth Sharman’s Rain Tree reviewed by D.A. Prince
Rain Tree by Ruth Sharman. £10. Templar Poetry. 2022. ISBN 978-1-911132-58-5
Ruth Sharman’s third collection, Rain Tree, builds on poems in Scarlet Tiger (Templar Poetry, 2016) in which she records the slow, painful dying of her much-loved father. He had shared with her his knowledge of Indian butterflies and moths—the Scarlet Tiger is a moth—and this was a strong bond between them. Now, six years later, it’s as though his death has freed her to look, alone, at her version of the past and how their shared love of the heat, people, vibrant colours, energy, and geography of India shaped her.
A return to the family’s former home in Chennai—Madras, when her family lived there—provides the overarching shape to the collection. However, the collection is much more than a record of her travels. It’s a journey into personal and emotional memory, where contemporary Indian life is juxtaposed with the India she recalls from her childhood and in which she explores her family life. Notes at the back give brief geographical details plus outline information on ritual and festivals but it’s a strength of these poems that the notes are supplementary. Reading the poems in order—and because it’s a journey at every level this really is the way to read them—it’s also the workings of memory that engage us.
Sharman’s warmth of tone carries the reader with her into what ‘returning’ means. Some poets clutch their own memories so tightly that the reader feels excluded, almost a voyeur on the poet’s private terrain: not so with Sharman. She is conversational, using questions that are both self-focussed and also anticipate those of the reader. ‘Arriving in Chennai’ opens:
What am I doing in a hotel
where soup is poured from a teapot
and the houseboy flattens himself
against the wall to let me pass?
She sketches the rubble, advertising hoardings, the four lane highway she sees from a height of fifteen storeys. This isn’t the India of memory outlined in the previous poem (‘India’), recalling what India ‘was’ to her: a rich mix of chickens, caged monkeys, smell of the tannery, chips in chilli sauce, the giant centipedes, and ‘all the colours of Holi’. That poem is a mosaic of the senses, written in couplets—a form that underlines the fragmentary, random details that memory supplies.
And building temples with Jacinta,
piling petals and seeds beneath the garden seat,
Jacinta never re-appears: she stands for all the childhood friends and games with which memory is stored—though I doubt many readers have ‘temples’ to feed their imaginations.
Encountering her parents in a photograph, ‘Covelong?’ Sharman adds that question mark to touch on uncertainty. They are like strangers: the flower her mother clutches is ‘a sprig of something too small to identify’, and their faces ‘… are smooth as a bud and unbearably / young …’ She handles her line breaks effectively and here she lets it suggest, lightly, the inevitable unknown of the past. In ‘Tamil Nadu’ she makes her intentions explicit:
I’m searching for reminders
written in the landscape,
as if the past were still present
but the writing hard to read.
Direct statement and simple language take us to what is not simple, not clear; she acknowledges this at the end of the poem: ’And I feel sad and a little homesick. / But for what? And for where.’
Place names anchor the poems, of course, but a map per se isn’t enough. What Sharman is seeking is: ‘this stab of recognition / no bigger than a heartbeat’. (‘Shell’). In ‘Dharga Road’ her memory is confronted by the reality of the present:
And at No 43 there’s only a board to show
where the tannery once stood,
while next door the old Tannery Bungalow
will soon be little more than rubble and firewood.
The ghostly half-rhymes in these quatrains echo the instability of the past. When the security man won’t let her on to the site, Google Earth will. Even so, the past is still tantalisingly out of reach.
Sharman’s need to connect, to find clearer answers amid all the vivid squalor, beauty and confusion of contemporary India that makes these poems compelling. In ‘Breaking in’ Sharman does exactly that, only to find the past is not as she remembers: ’nothing makes sense.’ The stairs are in the wrong place and there’s: ‘No potting shed, no palm tree.’
It’s not solely the place but people she’s seeking and the closing poems focus on her father. ‘You’d never wanted to go back, / afraid of what you’d find, or not find’ (‘Talking of India’) and in these final poems she returns to his life and passion for butterflies. She concludes ‘Last visit’ with imagery that combines the old bungalow and the human :
beams and brickwork jut
through the plaster like bones
through skin … as if the house were dying,
derelict certainly. Time
to let it go and move on.
Will Sharman leave images of India behind? They have shaped her senses, her feel for intense colours and heat, her love of people and languages. The collection ends on a note of ambivalence, looking towards the future. This layering of time plus her recognition that memory is imprecise and fallible raise these poems from the personal to the level of enquiry we all confront. Rain Tree is a beautifully structured, rich collection.
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) was published in November 2022.
Claire Booker’s A Pocketful of Chalk reviewed by David Pollard
A Pocketful of Chalk by Claire Booker, Arachne Press, 54pp £9.99 ISBN 978-1-913665-69-2
This little volume is about so much more than its title suggests. It thrills with what poetry is really about – love, death, creativity all dressed in the lightest of fabrics which are discarded as the humanity beneath comes slowly to the surface. There is the question, basic to a poet, of creativity itself. A horse, for example, is ‘the pivot of creation’:
Let there be life, I said
and life awoke
to my touch: a white horse . . .
I never tire of setting it free
into its wilderness
of lines and stippled paper
Again, keying in to the poet’s most fundament problems:
Inevitably words let us down
Things have a certainty that the word lacks:
I’m sick of weighing the word xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI want
A Marbled White to burn my eyes with its
impossible exactness 
Is this not Blake’s ‘minute particulars’?
Booker is obsessed with creation and creativity. She lives on ‘the earth’s teeming belly’. ‘Bringing in the Fruit’ is a paean to creativity both in nature and in the womb:
embryos, green and hard, take up position
and begin to swell. They are like children
to us now.
And children are forever. A fisherman’s daughter writes referring to the nets her father who ‘was an artist with the needle’, used to repair for fishing:
Once the little ’uns arrived, I knew
There’d be no hole big enough to wriggle through.
Fish don’t know how to go backwards
That’s how it works 
A telling cross-reference that stays with you. Booker uses metaphor brilliantly. For her
slowly and magically, like the new baby
on its way 
And, of course, there is love which itches its way through so many of these poems. Along with the love of language is the love of mother and child, the ‘imprint of the weight (also that of language)
xxxxxxxxxxin white sand, her steps walk through every mother –
A fierce, unflinching love that won’t rub out.
Love is under every stone, and in our quiet breathing.
And there are, of course, the language of poetry: ‘the sea’s still beating out / thunderous footsteps; ‘a waft / of wild garlic’; ‘wind-herded squall’; ‘As light bleaches the stars away’; ‘A kestrel unpleats / in a patch of violet sky’; ‘Light filters the carousel of aimless leaves’; ‘The air-splitting resin of marigolds’. I could go on. Every page has a flock of these ‘beauties’.
This is an astonishing little volume full of compacted lyric masterpieces, profundities dressed in dissimulations which make you catch your breath as they are revealed. I can’t resist quoting one piece in full so as to show how brilliantly this process works:
Here on the fell edge,
ripping up your letter, there’s an infinity
of words to let go.
Shreds of paper writhe
like white snakes, life from my fingers
of feral currents. Your promises,
plucked to the bone,
are lost to the pull of True North. Words crash
into ledges, scree, fists
of earth, lie disjointed on briar
And blackthorn, like divorcing couples asking
Did we ever love each other?
15p a poem and a bargain.
David Pollard has taught at the Universities of Sussex, Essex and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he was a Lady David Scholar. His doctoral thesis was published as: The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience (Harvest and Barnes & Noble). He has published seven volumes of poetry, including Three Artists (Lapwing) and Finisterre and Bird of Oblivion (Agenda Editions). He divides his time between Brighton and a village on the Rias of Galicia.
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