Reviews: Spring 2023

reviewer

*****

Thomas Lynch: Bone Rosary: New and Selected Poems • Aidan Andrew Dun: Vale Royal • Tony Flynn: The Heart Itself • John McKeown: Ill Nature • Alwyn Marriage: Possibly a Pomegranate • Ness Owen: Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim • Disbelief: 100 Russian Anti-War Poems edited by Julia NemirovskayaThe Drunken Boat: Selected Writings by Arthur RimbaudNachoem M. Wijnberg, translated from the Dutch translated by David ColmerA Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, 1960-2015 edited by Wolfgang Görtschacher and David Malcolm Jacques Darras:John Scotus Eriugena at Laon & Other Poems • John Koethe: Beyond Belief

Further recent reviews published since the previous edition

Tara Bergin:  Savage Tales • D A Prince: The Bigger Picture  •  Jules Whiting: Folding Time • Maeve McKenna: A Dedication to Drowning • Michael Daniels:  Ravenser Odd • R.A. White: A Frame Less Perfect • Konstandinos Mahoney: The Great Comet of 1996 Foretells  Hélène Demetriades: The Plumb Line • Gareth Culshaw: The Memory Tree • Susan Taylor: La Loba Speaks for Wolf  Jane Draycott: The Kingdom Ian Pople: Spillway: New and Selected Poems Ruth Sharman: Rain Tree • Claire Booker: A Pocketful of Chalk • Tempo, Excursions in 21st-Century Italian Poetry •  So That the Butterfly Won’t Die, Selected Poems by Hatif Janabi • Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana: Sing me down from the dark • Penny Sharman: Catching the Heather Robin Thomas: The Weather on the Moon • Don Paterson: The Arctic Kim Moore: What the Trumpet Taught Me • Sarah James: Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic • Matthew Hollis:The Waste Land a Biography of a Poem • Diane Seuss: Frank: Sonnets • Ange Mlinko: Venice

*****

Bone Rosary: New and Selected Poems by Thomas Lynch. £14.99.  Bloodaxe Books. 978-1780376189. Reviewed by Martyn Crucefix

bone rosar

Few poets offer such variety of subject and tone as Thomas Lynch through the 40 years of writing covered in this book. His development is testament to an openness to ordinary experience (more than the transcendent) as what might offer us the possibility of being saved ‘from ourselves’. Lynch’s is a personal, idiosyncratic journey – perhaps more so (and hence less universal) than his admired Wordsworth, Frost or Heaney. This is partly down to his lifelong trade: as not only an undertaker himself, but the son of one, the father to others, it’s no surprise to find him, through six published books, much preoccupied with death. He is one of Larkin’s less deceived, an unlikely candidate to be taken in by the rosy tints of optimistic sentiment.

So Lynch’s early voice often has a fools-not-suffered-gladly tone, tending to the brusque, and finding a virtue in speaking hard words. In Skating with Heather Grace (1987), the wish for a sanitised view of death is acknowledged, only to be dismissed before the ‘witless horror’ of someone who simply ‘ceases measurably to be’ (‘A Death’). There is no airbrushing here: a widow, who has been a good wife for thirty years, after six months of grieving, discovers herself to be frankly ‘relieved’ at her husband’s absence (‘The Widow’). Even to the living, Lynch speaks his mind, perhaps most notoriously in ‘For the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of her Birthday’, in which the sardonic formality of the title is carried over into a lengthy demolition of the ex-wife’s character and habits. Protestations that no ill will is really wished only serve to sharpen the attack. The humour here has surely grown more uncomfortable with the years since its first publication, but the fact that Lynch later looks forward to the death of a pet, ‘this damned cat’ (‘Grimalkin’), with the same sort of barely contained rage, even savagery, suggests this is something characteristic of the poet.

Yet a poem like ‘The Grandmothers’ suggests something more complicated. The two old women sit on the patio and argue politics. One is concerned with things as they are (‘tend your own twigs’), while the other’s horizon is broader, she has ‘wings’ and ‘sings, and sings’. The poet muses: ‘Sometimes I think of them as parts of me’. Years later, Lynch makes a bone rosary by threading his dog’s chewed bones (the round O’s of the sawed thigh bones of cows) onto a length of rope to be hung on a lakeside dock. The bone rosary is both fact and metaphor. Lynch’s Introduction talks of his art as an effort to ‘connect the dots’, a decades-long trying ‘for metaphors, for a way to make it to the other side . . . from one being to another’. So, poetry, while not denying the brute facts of mortality, sings of linkage, of a ‘snake of fragmented thoughts . . . [that seeks] some connection to the slithering and elusive meaning of things.’

Through the 1990s, Lynch’s plain-speak goes on saying how things are, at the same time wrestling with connections, a making sense of those things. From 1994, ‘That Scream If You Ever Hear It’ is still driven by the desire to speak ‘raw’, to drop the ‘cutesy metaphor and bullshit’, though that inclination has now become more suspect: a ‘trigger-fingered sonuvabitch’. But the language voicing the critique here remains blunt, aggressively masculine, and the poor ex-wife features again in ‘Liberty’ in which her husband insists on the freedom to piss anywhere he wishes, in part because his (male) forebears have always done so. It’s true that sexual pleasure is a genuinely shared positive value in many poems but often there is a performative edge to its presentation: ‘ten thousand moistened nights like this’ (‘The Nines’). And again, though the oppression of women is recognised (in ‘The Lives of Women’), I find an uneasy macho relish in the telling of the numerous ways men control and destroy women’s lives in the suburbs.

Living and working in Milford, Michigan, for so many years, the theme of suburban small-town USA becomes one of Lynch’s most familiar. The poems seem to warm to the place as if the blunt ‘sonuvabitch’ with his brutal humour, repeatedly faced with the lives, deaths and burials of Milford, slowly acquires what John Burnside calls a ‘hard-won understanding’ of human limits and ambitions, or to put it plainly a greater compassion. The building of a bridge that shortens the journey to the cemetery, evokes this. Though a ‘decent distance’ is kept, death is seen to be closer to life, the bridge (those O bones on a rope) connecting all humankind and the dead, the latter ‘once our neighbours, [made] neighbours once again’ (‘At the Opening of Oak Grove Cemetery Bridge’). Rather than dismissing the town’s ‘prim, widowed ladies’, as we might expect, the poem ‘West Highland’ surprisingly expresses a grudging envy of their belief in heaven, in ‘saints and angels who come and go / with faces like neighbours and with names they know’.

It’s Robert Frost that Lynch comes more and more to sound like in his mostly iambic pentameter lines, cutting across the spoken voice, the recourse to irregular rhyme driving the poem forwards, binding it together (those bones on a rope again). The title poem of Still Life in Milford (1998) alludes to Frost while it celebrates the town with a quiet, compassionate acceptance (‘We have a book shop now. We even have / a rush hour’). This is also the book in which Lynch’s connections to Moveen in Ireland (from where his ancestors set out for America) become more central. The quietness of ‘An Evening Walk to the Sea by Friesians’ emphasises this developing tone. Gazing at the black and white cattle, the narrator is now more ‘[s]uspect of certainties’ and what once seemed ‘black and white goes gray’. ‘Neighbour’ becomes a key word. ‘The Moveen Notebook’ is a chatty, poignant record of Lynch’s returnings to Ireland from the 1970s on, especially his love (no other word for it) of his ‘darling Nora’, the aged relation he finds there, who is the repository of old stories, the history, of this small townland in Ireland.

Martin McDonagh’s recent film, The Banshees of Inisherin, inhabits a similar locale in the 1920s, evoking an ‘early-Lynch’ vision of rural Ireland: harsh, cramped, unforgiving. By the late 1990s, Lynch’s poetry is more inclined to a warmer celebration of communal closeness and generational attachment, elevating Nora into a kind of genius loci of the place, able to ‘set these lives and times into / Life and Time in the much larger sense’. In ‘Art History, Chicago’, those O bones on a rope are surprisingly re-imagined as pointilliste dots, assembled to become ‘the moment caught / . . . the life examined’ and, with the new millennium, Lynch’s examination of life celebrates the ordinary, the ‘Local Heroes’, those ‘brave men and women [who] pick up the pieces.’ Interestingly, Lynch’s coruscating anger is now reserved especially for politicians in a series of addresses to US President Bush and others (and against Trump and the MAGA mob in the later ‘Franchise 2016’). Daringly – given it is such a cliché – the phrase ‘Life goes on’ crops up frequently and the need to fill a life usefully (or at least not harmfully) is praised whether it is by making a long bow or carving a model truck (‘Euclid’) or making poems. The latter is central to ‘Walking Papers’, Lynch’s marvellous, Frostian, verse letter to Michael Heffernan, which can hardly be beaten for its clear-eyed, compassionate awareness of human mortality. Accepting death, time and the fundamental ordinariness of human life, Lynch prizes the carpe momentum: ‘The present moment opens like a gift’ (‘Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets’).

While the poem to Heffernan does flirt with ideas of ‘glimpses, inklings . . . apparitions’ of a spiritual kind, Lynch’s scepticism towards his ancestral, dogmatic Catholic faith is clear in 2012’s The Sin-Eater: a Breviary. The sin-eater lives by consuming (and hence taking on) the sins of others and comes to see himself as a church substitute, even a kind of everyman; a dead boy at one point being described as ‘only a wounded pilgrim like us all’ (‘He Posits Certain Mysteries’). The sin-eater doubts those who claim a clearer (more fundamentalist) insight into ‘the slithering [. . .] meaning of things’, so it is surprising that the 40 or so new poems concluding Bone Rosary swerve with more frequent conviction (or at least less reticence) towards God, treating subjects like the Nativity, baptism, the character of Joseph, the destination of the soul after death.

So ‘What Shall We Say?’ concludes: ‘Say who abides in love abides in God. / Say God is Love. Love God. Love one another. / Say grace is undeserved and plentiful.’ It’s true, these lines are prefaced by the more sceptical sounding, ‘Who’s to know’, but Lynch’s uncertainties are now more often replaced with a sense of approaching last things and of being ‘bathed in grace’ (‘To His Grandchildren as Dark Draws Near’). The poet’s hard-won acceptance of the gifts of the quotidian, his laying aside of the more anxious, angry critiquing of self and others, the pleasures to be found in listing details of a day in an ordinary life, are all clear in ‘Moveen Solstice’. This late poem achieves the settled calm of a Vermeer painting: ‘J.J. and Sonny talk silage and prices, / The shape of the weather, and Michael is / Whitewashing the garden wall and Maura, / Golden in late light, brings the dry linens in’. Lynch’s poetry is that of a working man, perhaps surprised to find resources of compassion and ‘neighbourliness’ in himself. Small town America and his second habitation in rural Ireland both seem to have facilitated this process of discovery and – though the shadow of death remains present – these late poems find a peace and contentment in the everyday, in the repetitions of an individual’s life and in succeeding generations.

Martyn Crucefix‘s  Between a Drowning Man will be published by Salt in 2023. Recent publications: Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019); These Numbered Days, translations of poems by Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, 2020. His translation of essays by Lutz Seiler, Sundays I Thought of God, is due from And Other Stories in 2023. A major Rilke Selected will be published by Pushkin Press in 2024. Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library. Blogging at http://www.martyncrucefix.com

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*****

Vale Royal by Aidan Andrew Dun. £10. Goldmark. ISBN 978-1-915188-02-1.                Reviewed by Liam Guilar

vale roiyal

The legendary history of Britain is an accumulation of facts, wishful thinking, and poetic hallucinations tracing the founding of Britain back to Brutus, great-grandson of that Aeneas who fled both Troy and Dido to found Rome. Exiled for patricide, Brutus found his way to Britain where he set up his New Troy, Troynovant, on the banks of the Thames. Later, a descendant, Llud, who had trouble with dragons, changed the city’s name to Kaer Lud, and by a series of improbable linguistic changes the city became London. First given coherent written form by Geoffrey of Monmouth at the beginning of the 12th century, the story ended with the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon rule in the 7th.

In Vale Royal, Aidan Andrew Dun extends the legendary history into the 18th century, creating a new, compelling story for the city of London and for Kings Cross in particular. Written in three line verses the author calls triads, Vale Royal is divided into four sections. A brief section at the start serves as introduction and invitation to enter the poem’s ‘forest of intricate hallucinations’ and then two numbered Cycles are followed by a section of Notes.

‘Cycle One’ begins in the specific geography of King’s Cross but slides into the 18th century, where William Blake is a small boy. This combination of specific geography and detail, with half glimpsed historical figures characterises the work. The second, longer cycle, revolves around an unusual version of the life of Thomas Chatterton, who becomes a focal point for the telling of the city’s cosmic history. Like the river Fleet, which plays a significant role in holding together the parts of the poem, the content floods and fades, meanders, eddies and flows. The poem risks obscurity, as any private vision must:

But the Perpetual Arch-Master of the Red Cross of Memphis
with counterweights of terrible prayers and vigils

Slows down the wheels and retrogrades the Millennium. (p.87)

However, the reader is carried along by the incantatory quality of the verse and Dun’s ability to create memorable images. The Morning Star ‘fell with the slow crash of galaxies colliding (p.54).’ The Roman army advanced into Boadicea’s forces:

The tight unit of his tortoise-formation
advances like a slow ship through a sea of gore
like a death-machine that sails by methodic stars. (p.61)

There are almost forty pages of notes. These are an integral part of the total work that is Vale Royal and their operation is fascinating. Some of the notes explain an obscure reference and some are enjoyably mischievous like the following with its carefully placed ‘it more is probable’:

Although Folk tradition would like Boadicea to be buried under platform 10 at King’s Cross Station, or even under the tumulus on the eastern side of Hampstead Heath, it is more probable that she lies in St. Pancras Churchyard. (p.119)

Throughout the poem there are references to ‘the city above the city’. The notes create a second poem above and to one side of the words on the page. You can read the poem without the notes:

Look, an old man is wandering at night
beside a river, through ruins of Troynovant.
See, there is a child the old man tries to destroy. (p.13)

However, the relevant note, which runs for twenty lines, identifies the old man as the Reverend Doctor William Stukeley, and then narrates part of his career drifting away from the text, opening new possibilities of interpretation that might not be obvious from the words on the page. In another, Chatterton is likened to Thomas the Apostle and a story about the latter’s fabled activity in India runs for almost two pages. Just as no one can map the limits of a connotation, the possible chain of allusions has no finite end. The notes allow Dun to position his text within a wealth of possible intertextuality without overloading the verse. Dun claims: ‘After seven or eight years of study and research, a first draft was written in 1981 (p.96).’

Even for such obscure knowledge, Dun’s version is idiosyncratic. Willows occur repeatedly, and lead in the notes to Robert Graves and his treatment of ‘Cad Goddau’. But arguing that Graves was wrong would be irrelevant. Pointing out that there never was a Troynovant for Stukeley to find would also miss the point. The legendary history was never homogenous and there never was an ‘authorised version’. As Dun writes: ‘Nothing here is real without belief (p.13)’ and his seamless integration of his material produces a coherent, haunting vision of the city’s past. This is most obvious in his version of Thomas Chatterton.

Current knowledge of 15th century English makes Chatterton’s forgeries seem far less convincing than they did to his contemporaries. But in Vale Royal, Chatterton is not a young man on the make, but an incarnation of ‘the Sunchild, the Mighty Youth, born with a vision and dying an early death (p.97)’ who writes about a previous incarnation in the language of that time. He comes to London and is involved in a shadowy conflict of cosmic significance. His enemies are the keepers of esoteric law, the Masons, and his death the result of their machinations. It’s a long way from the grubby realities of London journalism in 1770.

This is the second edition of Vale Royal. The first was published in 1990 and its launch at the Albert Hall involved Alan Ginsberg and Paul McCartney. The new edition carries praise from a range of luminaries including Jo Balmer, Derek Walcott, Michael Moorcock, and Ian Sinclair. Such packaging can be off-putting and the possibility of disappointment becomes very real. But whether you care about Kings Cross (London) or know the difference between a psychogeographical and psychoarchaeological investigation (Introduction p.8) this is a magnificent piece of writing. It might be the only modern long poem to take the idea of the legendary history and make a credibly new version. It is also enjoyable, entertaining, disturbing and as a bonus, comes with a link to a recording of Dunn reading the whole poem.

Liam Guilar has been studying the legendary history of Britain since the late 1970s. His most recent poetry books, A Presentment of Englishry (2019) and A Man of Heart (2023), both published by Shearsman, follow a 12th century version of the story from the prehistoric tin trade to the end of Roman Britain.

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*****

The Heart Itself by Tony Flynn. £10.00. Legal HighsPress. ISBN: 978 1 9162123 3 6   Reviewed by Steve Barton

The-Heart-Itself-cover adjusated

Reading Tony Flynn’s wonderful new collection is like watching Elizabeth Bishop’s sandpiper.  Flynn too is always searching, ignoring the extraneous, knowing every detail carries a world of meaning. The collection declares itself in the last poem: ‘Quatrain’

Something like a song it is
That strings the whole shebang together.
Reading Rilke is to catch
A fleeting bar of it.

Likewise, the book’s dedication to T.F. Griffin is realised in a poem only towards the end. ‘Elegy’, characteristically (by then) drawing us in with a broken conversational line – so we feel the shock even more strongly:

You know the way you walk
into a room, and switch the light on
without thinking, knowing all the while

the bulb has gone; so I
reach for you constantly,
hard-wired as I am that you’ll be there.

And ‘Reading You in Corfu Town’, a clever reading itself, allows the sun and unexpected snow to suggest: ‘…that shape: the poem / I’ve always loved the best’. And ends with the glorious ‘… And swifts / all about us inscribe / a whole sky.’

Flynn and LegalHighsPress eschew chronology for these deeper patterns and connections, not least the 40th anniversary celebration of A Rumoured City, New Poets from Hull (edited by Douglas Dunn and prefaced by Philip Larkin).

And so, back at the beginning of the collection wait Flynn’s signature family vignettes: ‘Below Stairs’, ‘Catholics’ and, of course ‘The Wireless’. Gentle, almost knockabout humour. Almost stand-up Larkin:

When all else failed,
he’d scramble up onto the roof
and thunder about like an angry Zeus,
brandishing the aerial

like lightning
in his massive hands,
determined to get the picture clear.

Beneath it all though is Flynn’s solid metaphysics. Lip-reading his grandmother:

it was anathema,
a curse of graven images
across the screen
when pictures make to tell us

what words mean.
Listening with her
to the wireless again,
I learned to love how words disclose
what does not correspond to anything.

In Section II Flynn goes on to explore his ‘… grandmother’s / silent Amen …’ moving into a deep European sensibility where he observes for us, and with heart-wrenching precision for himself, the struggles of a remarkable spiritual pantheon. Perhaps most of all: ‘Simone Weil’

As if the sinews
of her heart were strung
within a notch of breaking,

On which she begs her God to play
that she might be his instrument.

And: ‘Body Language’ where she has:
almost managed it,
almost already disappeared,

like the legible
ghost or impression left
that haunts the blank sheet underneath.

But even in Section II Flynn has fun, even fun with: ‘Aquinas’
Poor Tom, poor old, fat Tom,
hefting his huge bulk one rung
after another, ever

upwards, ever to scale
the ladder of logic
that’s been his life’s work…

-Heavenwards…

With perfect compassion and comic timing he, of course, allows Tom: ‘this stepping off into thin air…’  Throughout the collection Flynn’s dedications reflect friendship, respect and affection and, in his tender late style, love for his son Davin. In: ‘Prospero’s Ghost’: ‘… the little / mobile you must think my potent art.’ And poignantly in: ‘Against the Odds’

These wonderous years – You the wick
at the heart of a flame that skips and flares
where scant light was
before you were.

In the middle of the collection: ‘Avliotes’ centres the whole shebang. Blazing sun becomes spiritual light. Fine patient writing, the typical, almost sleight of hand elegance of his characteristic line and stanza breaks and his beautiful, unsettling juxtapositions. The successful demands he always makes on language.

Mid-afternoon, and the air ablaze
in the little church: each
stained-glass window flames
its reds and golds

on the flagstones below,

Flynn’s pared down narrative travels fast. In the six-line elegy for his mother: ‘Thaw’, he draws out the conceit in order to say something timeless and universal about how we must live our lives:

From her bedroom window we watched the snow
blossom bare trees against the pane,

a late Spring proffered out of time.
I weather alone the long slow thaw

and pray this weighted branch might lift,
weeping her brief season’s end as it stirs.

Or, robust and sensual: ‘The Mermaid Chair’ spinning through millennia from Cornish myth to the ambiguous net of Christian theology and Magdalene, who ‘…was having none of it,’ and, ‘slipperier than any eel, / astonishing our empty hands.’ and ‘delighting our tongues like new language’. The bravado of that word – ‘slipperier’!

Wherever you are in the collection there is craft, fearless experimentation and great, often self-deprecating, good humour. Like the unstoppable: ‘Natural Worlds’

Like being fluent in
both tongues…Not
confluent: the lick

& purl
and play in you of
each describes a

sweet excess

Or the relentless: ‘Lax Lyrical’ which, at the end even Lax himself cannot defuse. And the hilarious and/or profound: ‘Love Poem’ – perfectly blank verse part Montherlant, part Glynn Maxwell and, maybe, part John Cage’s 4.33.

We are left reflecting on Flynn’s perfectly asked, perfectly unanswered questions. Showing, not telling us how everything might, or might not, hold together. What stands out, walking around this collection again is the sheer scale of Flynn’s ambition both for our spiritual and our human condition.

Steve Barton is a happily retired public servant. He’s taking time to learn how to read, properly listen to and occasionally write poetry. His first published poem has just appeared in Acumen.

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*****

Ill Nature by John McKeown. £10. Mica Press. ISBN: 978-1-869848-30-9                                    Reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy

ill nature

After seeing the blurb for this collection, I was expecting eco- or environmentalist poetry, but as I started to read the poems, I began to feel that it was the first meaning of the title, ‘sardonic ill humour’ which predominated, a view reinforced by the Camus-style mugshot with the cigarette dangling from the nether lip.

However, as I read on, I recognised that the poet was doing something which his title accurately represented; he was writing about his own experiences and feelings using the natural world around him as the correlative to represent them. In a way, this is a version of the pathetic fallacy, where we think nature reflects our thoughts and feelings. This feeling of correspondence works well in the title poem, where a sense of malaise in Nature, ‘dead leaves in Spring’ is transferred to the human. In other poems, natural and human behaviours are contrasted, as, for example, in ‘Grim’:

It’s grim, the day, the world,
What we do, what we’ve done,
What we’ll do tomorrow, and the next.

The human, conscious of and guilty about the destruction he has caused, is contrasted with the birds ‘Singing like there’s no tomorrow’, regardless of their diminishing habitat, ‘the greening thinning wood’. The ironic play on a familiar cliché and the anthropomorphic adjective ‘thinning’ give way to what cannot help being a celebration of the blackbird, ‘His breast plump, beak a yellow crocus’ and a recognition, in spite of everything of the perennial hope of spring.

In poems as short as these, every word needs to pull its weight and sometimes McKeown achieves this. I liked the epiphany of ‘Twilight’ where he succeeds in expressing the inexpressible, ‘A voiceless insistence, / soft as air, on everything /being, already, perfectly here.’ This poem follows the form of a sonnet with two quatrains and two triplets, but unrhymed and with short lines. It achieves the turn between the octave and sestet and the lines are elegantly crafted. Another poem I liked which did not refer to nature but where the controlling metaphor worked perfectly was ‘Bookcases’ which describes a break-up:

But next year, finally,
I’ll have undone the last screw,
taken off the top and base,
slid out the shelves, removed the sides,
broken up this life.

This poem succeeds because the literal detail is so exact. In other poems, meaning and vocabulary choices seem vaguer. In ‘Tête-à-Tête’ he compares his situation with that of an octopus in an aquarium, ending ‘ …I stood, close to the glass, / transfixed, / in a more diffuse predicament.’ For me, the adjective ‘diffuse’ is not strong enough nor specific enough to earn its place in the last line. In other poems, the exact natural observations give way to a somewhat laboured transfer to a human application, as in ‘Empty Vessels’ where the pigeon’s nest-building declines into ‘people mak[ing] their fraying ends meet, / Empty vessels blown beneath.’

In the second part of the collection there are several poems about women and love, or, as the blurb puts it, ‘the inescapable allure of the opposite sex.’ As a member of the opposite sex, I found some of them a bit creepy. ‘Wishbone’ seems to describe a casual and brief encounter, perhaps in the street:

As I pass her it’s her breastbone I note
moving softly beneath the pale skin.
in that instant she is the perfect mould
into which I could pour every damn reserve.

And I fancy she knows it,
and something passes between us.
There’s a snap as of a wishbone,
a fusion, a recognition;

as our bodies pull quickly apart.

There are a lot of male assumptions, even male violence in these lines. It opens with the observation of the woman’s breastbone which by the end has become a wishbone, to be snapped. Even in the first stanza, the woman is a passive ‘perfect mould’ into which the male wants to ‘pour’ himself. The middle stanza rehearses a version of sexual coition, justified by the notion that there is a relationship which the woman wants, without evidence of any kind. Again, it may be that the poem is just too short to convey what the poet wants to say. However, the ‘ill nature’ of the book’s title is consistent throughout. For the most part, these are not happy poems. The ‘sardonic ill humour’ bubbles up as misanthropy in poems like ‘The Great British Sunday’ and, I would argue, misogyny in the later pieces. So, while I admire McKeown’s undoubted skill in shaping many of these texts, I cannot say that this is a book I enjoyed.

Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but now lives in Oxford. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent being Back Country, Littoral Press, 2022. She also hosts a poetry podcast magazine, Poetry Worth Hearing.

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*****

Possibly a Pomegranate by Alwyn Marriage. £9.99. Palewell Press. ISBN 978-1-911587-61-3 Reviewed by Sue Kindon

Pomegranate front cover

‘Fatty / passion pussy / sexy seed bed / and eternal mother’. The opening lines of the poem entitled ‘Venus of Willendorf’, startling as they are, serve as a pertinent introduction to the subject matter of Alwyn Marriage’s latest collection (although, I must confess, I resorted to Google to discover the identity of the Venus in question).

This poem, hiding towards the end of the book, for me exudes pomegranate, a fruit which has long been symbolic of fertility and abundance on account of its plentiful seeds. Written about by poets as diverse as D H Lawrence, Kahlil Gibran, and Eavan Boland, it is a fruit associated often with love and fecundity. And of course, there is the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, in which Persephone is bound to the underworld for certain months of the year because she has eaten of its pomegranate seeds.

The enigmatic title of the 94-page Possibly a Pomegranate is as rich as the colour of the fruit, carrying as it does all these associations, and the poem of the same name takes us back to the Garden of Eden itself. The female figure in these page is often unclothed, with glimpses of breasts, and sensuously textured hair and skin.

‘Celebrating Womankind’ is the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin subtitle. Many of the poems have appeared previously in a wide array of magazines, e-zines, and anthologies, so some seemed familiar, and I was pleased to be reacquainted with them.

The first section, ‘SOMEWHERE A CHILD’, opens gently with poems about childhood / motherhood. The first poem, ‘Saturday’s Child’ embraces a span of ages:

Somewhere a child leaps from bed, remembering
just in time to open eyes
before tumbling into morning.

Dozing, an old woman tries to shift position; wracked
with pain, she rolls and groans, surprised, and none too pleased
to see another day.

and concludes:

I feel the first faint flutter in my womb.

The poems in this section speak of the poet’s childhood and schooldays, including the traditionally rhymed and self-critical ‘The Cruelty of Schoolgirls’:

We mocked you, Looney, for your far-fetched claims
that your brother was a pop-star and your father rich,
but I’m sorry that I used to call you names.
The memory of what you must have suffered shames
me into realising I was a schoolgirl bitch.

Sometimes the child is a daughter or granddaughter, so various relationships are explored.

Section two is ‘PRIMROSE TIME’. Poems of adolescence, going out into the world, discovering physical love; not without humour, as in the (mistaken) speculation on the meaning of the name of the restaurant called ‘La Matelote’.

‘WOMAN IN THE MIRROR’ reflects on the female body, clothed and unclothed, including a beautiful poem entitled Menses, and, written in the specular form, ‘Speculate’ , which muses about ageing, a theme that haunts this collection throughout. After all the experiences she had weathered in life, the woman in ‘Childproof” discovered that:

…what finally drove her to distraction,
persuaded her that she was old and feeble,
was the inability to open jars and bottles.

Similarly, in ‘Un-naming’, a friend feels no grief for her elderly mother’s death until she unpicks the name-tags from the no longer required clothes. Little things which might seem trivial take on huge significance.

‘CRISS-CROSS THE LABYRINTH’: This section starts with an amusing tale about visiting a Henry Moore sculpture (several poems feature sculptures) in Dumfries and Galloway, then progresses to well-observed pieces about dementia, loss, old age, and death. In ‘Lost Scents’, AM wonders, in a moment of heightened awareness:

Is it possible
that joys restored are wafting over you
in a dimension I can no more see
now, than you could smell then.

‘WINDS OF HISTORY’ presents a gallery of strong women, some better known than others. Cleopatra rubs shoulders with, among others, Hildegard (von Bingen, I presume), Lot’s wife, and a probably fictitious female pope. I had a happy half hour researching the back story for Elizabeth Prettijohn of the ‘Pebbles at Hallsands’ poem, a poignant lyric narrative of loss ending in a wonderful image:

and I will hold this stony outcrop
in solitary bitterness
until salt water bleaches
my bones white,
tell the story to the gulls and fulmars,
spread my indignation like a cormorant’s wings
drying in the relentless winds
of history.

‘RP RIP’ is for Rosa Parks, and the rebellious spirit is also commended, earlier in the book, in Nancy, rebel of the primary school classroom, and in an imagined Tracy Emin as a teenager refusing to make her bed. There is bravery in the accounts of a handicapped skier, a refugee, and Grace Darling,

These are accessible poems that benefit from being read aloud. Most are in free verse; a few take a concrete form, where appropriate rather than for the sake of it. Marriage shows us that she is at home with the villanelle and the sonnet, and I’ve already given an honourable mention to the specular or mirror poem.

Alwyn Marriage’s take on all things female is an honest one. It isn’t a battle cry for strident feminism, more a sensitive observation of the nature of women in all their flavours, and an appreciation of their achievements, great and small. Seeds of the pomegranate.

The last lines of the final poem, ‘Whale’, could be seen as a replete summing-up:

…What can I share

with a life so unimaginably huge?
– a vulnerability to wounds,
red blood that drains a life away,
the joyous instinct
that nurses the fruit of our bodies
with the tenderness of milk.

Sue Kindon lives and writes in the French Pyrenees. She recently gained French nationality, but does not intend to forsake the language of her birth. She was Runner Up in the 2021 Ginkgo Prize (for Eco-poetry). Her latest pamphlet is Outside, the Box (4Word Press, 2019).

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*****

Moon Jellyfish Can Barely Swim by Ness Owen. £10. Parthian Press.                                        ISBN: 978-1-913640-97-2. Reviewed by Fiona Owen

ness owen

It is perhaps no surprise that poet Ness Owen, of Ynys Môn (Anglesey), an island at the very top of Wales, has written a collection of poems that draws on the tides, currents, beauties and dangers of the sea – the Irish Sea, to be literal, but in Owen’s hands, sea becomes metaphor, as do the creatures who abide within – significantly, the moon jellyfish of Owen’s title poem. Here, the poet asks us to ‘imagine the weight of / that secret when you live / amongst the swimmers / shrinking to survive …’ .

Before reading these poems, I must admit I had never heard of moon jellyfish. I remember being stung by a jellyfish when I was about twelve, and this has resulted in a lifelong apprehension when in their proximity. However, in this collection, Owen’s second, moon jellyfish become luminous creatures of the imagination. Useful notes are provided, explaining how successful these creatures have been over 500 million years at surviving, adapting and thriving. Made of 90% water, they are unable to swim strongly, so must largely drift and ‘go with’ the currents of their element. An increase of these jellyfish to our shores, here in the UK, acts as a ‘message in a bottle’ suggesting too much ‘overfishing, ocean warming’ and/or ‘pollution’ in our seas; this has an impact on the predators of these jellyfish, thus providing ‘a more favourable environment for this species’.

One of the key themes of this collection is our human impact on the natural world. In ‘Not Another Sea Poem’, the speaker lists the things the poem ‘won’t tell / you’ (my italics), such as:

It won’t worry you with
sea levels, storm surges,
oceans taking up heat,
the glaciers’ retreat.
In this witty way, the poem culminates with:
… Between
these lines you won’t hear the
breaking wave scream stop
dumping your shit in the sea.

Transience and change are familiar themes in poetry, and they are present here, too, where childhood experiences by and in the sea mix with glimpses of relationships with schoolfriends and family. The poet’s Nain (grandmother) ‘limps through my dreams’ and, as she ages, becoming more unsteady, so does her town, which, though unnamed, I take to be the port of Holyhead:

Town quietens
shops shut, chapels closed, factory finished
Janglo, mwydro, hel clecs, rwdlan, malu awyr
Town says yeah, town says no
Bechod, cwilydd, mynadd
Hush, hush, hush
(Quietness is what we do best)

Welsh is Owen’s first language, a theme explored in her first collection Mamiaith (2019), meaning ‘mother-tongue’, so switching between languages is normal for her and is a feature of various poems. Translations are provided as notes at the end of the book, such as:
Janglo, mwydro, hel clecs, rwdlan, malu awyr – jangling, moidering, carrying tales, talking rubbish. Bechod, cwilydd, mynadd – pity, shame, patience.

The Welsh language, a little like the moon jellyfish species, is a survivor, alive today despite centuries of pressure against its flourishing. Some of these pressures have been intentional, such as use of the ‘Welsh Not’ in some Welsh schools, predominantly in the nineteenth-century. The Welsh Not was a piece of wood branded with the letters WN that was hung round the necks of children caught speaking their native language, as a mark of humiliation and a corrective. In one poem, ‘Notes on a Vowel Hungry Language’, Owen uses ‘found quotes about the Welsh language’, some older, some recent, juxtaposing these with her poem about why a language matters, for after all, ‘What is language more / than a window to a world?’ where you can still remember ‘hearing / your grandmother’s prayers / protecting’, for ‘words grow into worlds if / only you’d let them’. The list of found quotes is pretty hair-raising, but I recognise quite a few of them from various mouth-almighty types that have sounded off on social media, TV or in the press. For example:

An ugly pointless language … native gibberish … appalling and moribund … cat-walking-across-the-keyboard … like someone trying to get phlegm out of the back of their throat.

One of the aspects of this collection, though, is the way this poet handles adversity. For example, in ‘How to Protest’, she writes:

Sometimes the bravest
thing is to hold your
oppression above your
head like a trophy
burnt with letters
already branded
on your tongue.

Though it ‘takes practice’, such oppressiveness and negativity can be transformed, in the way that lead is alchemically converted to gold, hate to love: ‘we’ll carve love / spoons from / their Welsh Nots’.

Owen often writes in first person plural, identifying herself with ‘us’, ‘we’, like a bee, with a keen sense of being part of a collective: ‘Everything must be for the hive’ – for working together cooperatively matters, and can bring about change. In ‘Gathering Blooms’, Owen uses jellyfish – not as individuals but as a ‘swarm’ – to show how ‘even the smallest creature / can change the world’ if it gathers with others:

A simple creature, drifter, survivor
daring to imagine power is in connection,
a shared intention, collective luminescence.

The poem works as a meditation on how change happens, starting ‘at the fringes … places / where hope begins to grow’. The speaker acknowledges that ‘Good ideas will always be battles’ but, she says, ‘wisdom is in the struggle’. Once the breadbasket of Wales, Môn is more recently known, apart from our picturesque beaches and landscape, and second home pressures, for the nuclear power-station Wylfa. While this is now in its decommissioning phase, the site holds the potential for the building of a new nuclear power station and there are mixed views about this among locals, with many against. Owen, in this poem, tells us in a note that ‘Of all the potential mishaps that can cause a nuclear plant shutdown … the one that you might least expect is a swarm of jellyfish’, thus endorsing the power of the many.

The struggle of the suffragettes, too, feature in this volume, where a woman ‘walks, runs, / drives to the polling / station, patiently / waits for her turn …’ because, in the background of this ability to vote today, there is ‘the cell door … the pain / of hunger, the choke / of feeding tube, the // sting of a slapped cheek, / smell [of] vomit in her hair’. The speaker knows that she is at the cutting edge of a long revolution involving the sacrifice of others, and, as she ‘catch[es] the shape // of her shadow on the / ballot box’ she knows that ‘strength / lies in the linking of arms’.

This collection has me wanting to tug at people’s sleeves, to share extracts, to say ‘Look at this!’, ‘Listen!’ It’s a book of word-wonders, memorable to the last. It has head and heart, and wisdom (yes, that). There is a keen care for preciousness under threat, where the Welsh language is imperilled, just like the natural world’s rich diversity. Yet, all through, there is a quiet, firm resistance against the crass forces that would obliterate our natural and cultural inheritances, along with a hope that comes from joining with others.

Ending aptly, the final poem ‘Da Bo Chi’ (Goodbye) brings us a poignant vision of Voyager 1 that has been ‘travelling through our solar system since 1977 and is now right at the edge of it with its batteries running out. It carries a golden record with information about Earth and humanity, which includes a greeting in Welsh’. In the poem, where this earth-made vessel, so very far from home, ‘splutters into silence’, it is as if the Voyager takes one final look back. There we all are, together on:

the smallest blue speck
in a magnificent beam
of scattered light.

Fiona Owen (not related to Ness!) has had four collections of poetry published, the latest being The Green Gate (Cinnamon Press); her next collection is forthcoming in Spring 2024. She writes and records songs with Gorwel Owen, and they share their home on Ynys Môn with two collies, Mabon & Beca. Fiona retired in September 2022 from twenty-four years of teaching creative writing, literature and other arts/humanities subjects for the Open University. http://www.rhwng.com
https://fionagorwelowen.bandcamp.com/album/releasing-birds

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*****

Disbelief: 100 Russian Anti-War Poems edited by Julia Nemirovskaya, Smokestack Books
£ 9.99. Reviewed by Merryn Williams

russian war

That was quick. Eleven months after the war started, here is a bilingual edition of one hundred poems by seventy poets, translated by various hands. Of the seventy, forty live outside Russia; some emigrated only in the last year. A few are based in Ukraine, where both languages are understood, but where it’s now considered a patriotic act to speak only one of them. Hostility to Putin often becomes hostility to Russian people:

No matter what about: an ice cream float,
the weather on the beach today, carnations –
I’ve lost my right to have a voice, a vote,
0r even mingle in the conversation ….

Jump off the globe, move somewhere far remote!
In Europe now the price of April’s crushing.
I’ve lost my right to have a voice, a vote:
I’m Russian.
(Eugene Kluev)

I don’t know Russian, but do know what it feels like to live in a country involved in a war which you utterly oppose. Those who haven’t emigrated write about people acting normally all around them, women in church praying for ‘our boys’, the ubiquitous letter Z. Andrey Grishaev is a widely admired poet, who still lives in Moscow. I liked his poem (written, like several others, in strict verse forms which must be hellish to translate) about his pet hedgehog, which will die if he is taken off in handcuffs. Trivial? Not at all; that is exactly the sort of thought which nags powerless people when world-shaking events are going on. Whereas Nina Kossman in New York looks at the big picture in her poem about the ‘little man’:

I am that ‘little man’. I don’t want to be more than I am.
And although I live far away and only my dead connect me to Ukraine
(there are more than thirty of them – my dead in her land,
But I have only seen pictures of my great-grandparents and their grandchildren,
who, for over eighty years, have lain in execution pits
near Lutsk, Nikopol, Krivoy Rog, Rovno and Chudnov –
my dead roots in the soil of Ukraine from which nothing grows),
I don’t blame the Ukrainians living today for the death of my family.
They lived in their time and we live in ours ….
my dead are on the side of the living.

Several poets remember grandparents who experienced earlier wars. Anna Halberstadt in ‘Again’, recalls how her Lithuanian family survived World War 1, but did not all survive World War 11, and now too, when it seemed that/ the pandemic was the one trial/ our generation was fated to undergo,/it turned out that we were also meant/ to witness scenes of a massive destruction in Europe,/ such as the one whose remnants/ I had seen in my childhood. Galina Itskovich’s aged mother can’t understand why a war is happening now because her mind is back in 1941, ‘War is a Train’. Vita Shtivelman’s grandfather was killed, perhaps at Stalingrad, in the days when ‘death came from the west’:

Now, rockets hail down on those parts again,
just like in ’41.
I’m glad that grandpa David’s not around
to see it. And that grandma’s gone.
(‘David’)

Others who impressed me were Polina Barksova (‘City’), remembering St Petersburg from far away in California, and Tatiana Voltskaya, who contributes a really chilling poem:

Instead of the body, the doorbell will ring, a polite
Army captain will bring the ashes in a neat package
And place it silently on the bookshelf, right
By the photo of a brave soldier with demob patches.

The mother signs a receipt for her son’s ashes while his younger brother stares at the box thinking it will be his turn next. Then there is Olya Skorlupkina, still in Russia, describing how a woman who speaks up for peace is likely to be treated, and Borys Khersonskyi, who lives in Odesa and writes in both Russian and Ukrainian, about refugees:

Winds of war tear us like leaves off our branches,
so we wait our turn at the train and bus stations,
startling when someone nearby speaks our language.

There will be – probably already are – thousands more poems in various languages on the same subject, but this is a very fine anthology and a good place to start. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has read it in Russian.

Merryn Williams was the founder and first editor of The Interpreter’s House. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently: The Fragile Bridge: New and Selected Poems (Shoestring Press 2019). She has edited two anthologies, also published by Shoestring, The Georgians 1901-1930 and Poems for the Year 2020.

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*****
The Drunken Boat: Selected Writings by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Mark Polizzotti, £14.99, New York Review Books, ISBN 978-1-68137-651-6. Reviewed by Tom Phillips

rimbaud sel

Running to more than 300 pages, translator Mark Polizzotti’s selection of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems and prose poems rendered into English alongside the original French is nothing if not compendious, supplemented as it is by letters written by Rimbaud before he abandoned literature altogether, a contextualising and biographical introduction, translator’s note and a comprehensive section of notes on individual texts. It may only include “about half” of Rimbaud’s prodigious output, but it is, nonetheless, a major piece of work, both in terms of translation and scholarship.

A seasoned translator from French with more than 50 works by the likes of Flaubert, Duras, Breton and Roussel to his name, Polizzotti clearly takes a scrupulously thorough, but also refreshingly realistic approach to the job. There’s no worrying about translation being impossible or the poetry being what’s lost in translation because, as he writes in his ‘translation manifesto’, Sympathy for the Traitor: “If we think of the source text, not as a defined, monolithic whole that can never be replicated adequately, but rather as a zone of energy, always in flux, endlessly prone to different assimilations and interpretations, then we begin to understand better the work of translation, which, like any communicative act, shows itself to be not only possible but dynamic.”

In Rimbaud’s case, Polizzotti identifies what he calls “the durable effect and potency of his writing” with “the constant tension between a kind of pernickety meticulousness and a nonchalance and spontaneity so extreme that they bang shoulders with automatic writing” – qualities which are also evident, it seems to me, in much of the work other European poets writing within the broad scope of what has generally come to be known as symbolism, from Rimbaud’s lover-mentor Verlaine to the early work of the Romanian Tristan Tzara and the Bulgarian Geo Milev. This is the tension that generates their particular “zone of energy”, as Polizzotti has it in his manifesto, and indeed the peculiar challenges of rendering their work into another language. If nothing else, when translated, the often vertiginous leaps in imagery, language and ideas these poets perform can sometimes make it seem as if the translator must have misread some particularly knotty part of the original and simply made a mistake.

As a bilingual edition, Polizzotti’s The Drunken Boat effectively intercepts that problem (at least for those who read French), and although that also gives those with a taste for “pernickety meticulousness” the opportunity to wave their flags of pedantic disapproval at passages in the translations they don’t agree with, it also means bilingual readers can appreciate the extent to which Polizzotti has achieved what he says he set out to do – that is, “to create English poems that sound to my inner ear like Rimbaud’s French”. This doesn’t result in a precise replica of the original sound patterns, of course – that would be impossible – but it does mean that much of the energy in Rimbaud’s work that derives from his attention to the sonic qualities of language also courses through these translations, albeit in different forms.

The first stanza of ‘Tortured Heart’, Polizzotti’s rendering of the 1871 poem ‘Le Coeur supplicié’, for example, fizzes with an energy deriving from its assonantal collisions, full but earthy rhymes and the rhythm generated by its being nearly entirely made up of monosyllables:

My sad heart slobbers at the poop …
My poor heart glutted with shag:
They pelt it with spurts of soup,
My sad heart slobbers at the poop …
Under the jeers of the troop
Who laugh and rag,
My sad heart slobbers at the poop,
My poor heart glutted with shag!

Translating Rimbaud, however, also requires being able to communicate other, more reflective poems like the much-anthologised ‘Le Dormeur du val’ about the young soldier who lies – in Polizzotti’s translation – “mouth agape and head bare,/His neck bathing in fresh watercress blue” and with his “Right side pierced by two crimson holes”. And, indeed, the hallucinatory qualities of both A Season in Hell and Illuminations with their characteristic (for Rimbaud) interleaving of autobiography, trance-like imagery, Baudelairean spleen and symbolist drive, such as at the beginning of ‘After the Flood’ which Polizzotti translates as:

Once the idea of the Flood had subsided,
A hare froze in the clover and wavering bellflowers, and prayed to the rainbow through                  a spider’s web.
Oh, the precious stones that hid! – flowers already peeking through.
Market stalls sprouted in the grubby main street, and rowboats were dragged to sea, layered       at the top as in bookplates.
Blood flowed in Bluebeard’s castle – in slaughterhouses – in circuses, where God’s seal blanched the windowpanes. Blood and milk flowed.

A translator, of course, doesn’t necessarily have to understand why Rimbaud might have come up with this particular chain of associations, any more than any other reader does, unless they are particularly interested in trying to work out how Rimbaud might have got from the idea of the Flood to a hare to precious stones to market stalls to Bluebeard’s castle and so on. Polizzotti, however, does seem to have gone through this process – at least as far as anyone can – and it is perhaps this attentiveness to the essentially associative nature of Rimbaud’s work at both a conscious and subconscious level – its combination of meticulousness and nonchalance – that contributes to the sense that The Drunken Boat succeeds as both an introduction to the mysterious world of Arthur Rimbaud and an opportunity for those who have already ventured into the sea of his poetry he alludes to in the eponymous poem to reconsider its energies and re-engage with it through these vibrant and insightful translations.

Tom Phillips is a UK-born poet, translator and lecturer currently living in Bulgaria. His poetry and translations have been widely published in magazines, anthologies, pamphlets and the full-length collections Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016), Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Burning Omaha (Firewater, 2003). He teaches creative writing at Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski and is a former translator in residence at Sofia Literature and Translation House.

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*****
Nachoem M. Wijnberg, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, New York Review Books $18 ISBN 9781681376523. Reviewed by Donald Gardner 

wijnberg

There was a movement in the theatre of the 1960s known as the theatre of the absurd. I remember ‘One-way Pendulum’ by N.F. Simpson, but there were many other examples. Pinter and Beckett were on the edge of this trend and Edward Albee cut his teeth as a dramatist with absurd one-act dramas. These plays were visionary in their undermining of normal logic. I picture Nachoem Wijnberg’s poems, written much later, as belonging to this tradition. His output is prolific, with twenty collections over a period of thirty years and yet the basic tenor remains the same – to baffle our expectations and undermine common sense. These are amusing and provocative texts, reminding me of someone who sees tracks in the snow and scuffs them out as he follows them. The marks that remain are the poem.

Wijnberg also belongs to a type of poet whose work is driven by a philosophical vision. He has found a seam of thought that has enabled him to write consistently and fluently. I think of poets such as Fernando Pessoa or Wallace Stevens. They are poets of ideas, or else of an idée fixe, in contrast with those others – perhaps the majority – who tend to rely on inspiration or occasions, for whom every poem may feel like a new departure.

This poetry is also a via negativa; by the pursuit of what something is not, you end up with the one thing that it has to be. Wijnberg himself once described his poems as ‘machines of meaning’. His translator, David Colmer, displays a cool, almost nerveless mentality, as he leads the English-speaking reader through this labyrinth of thought subverting itself.

Having described Wijnberg’s work a little, I could do worse than give a few examples of his playful science. Here is ‘Out of Reach of My Hands’ (p.52), from the collection ‘Gifts’:

I heard that you wouldn’t be mine much longer
A light woman, in the air
not easy to approach.

Of course it’s serious and you don’t like it
when I imitate you:
high kicks, split leaps,
which fail of course,

without the required body
of light and air.

No show for me, practice required.
Do not imitate!
Doing a somersault
with a cigar in my mouth, the nonsense that drives me.

There is a madcap virtuosity about these lines, as if the poet is determined to prove that poetry, in order to convince, has absolutely to retain the loosest ties with reality without ultimately letting go altogether.

And from ‘One Day’ (p.180):

‘… It’s your farewell game,
what good will it do you
if it gets cancelled? That little game. As if what can only
be said about you
will be erased,

as if you’re already taking a shower, not in the locker room
but in your own house…’

And from ‘Is this what a Shallow Loss is?’ (p. 182)

‘… like when you don’t want to see others naked,
because you’re scared
that you won’t want to see others naked afterwards either.
How to make a lost game
something like a victory too; yes, that’s what you’d like to know,
proud as you are of how fiercely, and then no longer, you want to know something.’

These poems might seem to lead you nowhere; or else they focus on something entirely separate from what would seem to be the issue involved, giving great importance to that which is only of incidental or background interest. Yet, if you take a second look, Wijnberg is actually saying something important about impermanence and about putting our aspirations and achievements in perspective.

David Colmer has offered us a generous selection of Wijnberg’s expansive oeuvre. I mentioned Pessoa and Stevens earlier, but Stevens is the poet whom he most reminds me of. It is probably a coincidence, or else a matter of comparable temperaments, but Stevens, the insurance executive, was in love with the exotic, and Wijnberg, who is a professor of business at Amsterdam University, takes us on a guided tour of another reality that is equally colourful and decorative.

‘Now a story about three bears, one of whom did what it could, that wasn’t much, shaking hands for just a moment.’ Looking at this sentence that closes one of Wijnberg’s prose poems that aren’t really prose, I think of two pieces of thin paper, almost stuck together so that you need a paper knife to separate them: the poem and Colmer’s fine translation and the difference between them. Precious little.

And sometimes, in this wood of images, you find a gem, something that is exquisite, pure poetry. Here is ‘Song’: ‘I listen to a song / I listened to / in the house I no longer have / to make them each other’s. // As if depth were not needed. / Dark green shrubs, / a golden bird walking past, / the days and nights part of each other.’ And that’s the whole poem.

David Colmer is a colleague in the vibrant world of English-language translation in the Netherlands. I admire his patient talent for adapting himself to whatever text he is translating, for taking on, in each case, the voice of a different person. It is a special skill, similar maybe to that of the actor or spy, and it deserves emphasizing, because poetry in translation is a vital part of the world of English-language poetry; it is an essential reminder that elsewhere is also a place. Apart from that, I see Wijnberg’s dry, almost metaphysical, but always playful humour as very Dutch. I also can’t resist comparing his poetry with the work of the graphic artist Maurits Escher with his galleries and stairs that meander as in a dream.

Donald Gardner is a poet and literary translator, who has been writing since the 1960s. He has published two collections of the poetry of Remco Campert, for which he won the Vondel Prize in 2015. In 2021 his New and Selected Poems (1966-2020) was published by Grey Suit editions.

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*****
 A Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, 1960-2015, edited by Wolfgang Görtschacher and David Malcolm. £135. Wiley John Wiley and Sons Ltd. ISBN: 9781118843208.  Reviewed by Belinda Cooke

wolgang book

In spite of the scope that the weighty Wiley Blackwell Companion series provides, a comprehensive survey of British and Irish poetry is a daunting task. The editors in their Preface set out their stall, pointing to the free reign they gave their contributors noting how some ‘do not bow to established pieties’ (p. xvii) and with respect to their own choices, how they opted for individual essays on those they feel have been neglected rather than big names. Not surprisingly, therefore, subjectivity is a rich seam running through the research papers which lie along a spectrum from traditional to avant garde. As a result, read in parts or consumed whole, the Companion gives us a Pandora’s Box where poetry is hi-hacked onto a battleground of competing political manifestos, anthologies, and genre definitions, all to the backdrop of elitist, back scratching allocations of large Arts Council funding, or power grabs of key journals or presses. If you got into poetry just because some catchy line popped into your head one morning, you might end up feeling like Hardy speaking to Laurel: ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ Time may lead one to accept that this is the nature of the poetry beast though, and this text – many years in production from researchers who know the minefield inside out – will certainly show you what you are up against.

Though not demanding it of their contributors, the editors promote a stylistic focus to the book. They begin by critiquing the lack of such rigour in a range of recent poetry studies before telescoping down to their own analysis of twenty poems by well-known twentieth century poets, carried out in the style of the New Criticism. Here I felt, in places, that it was a little like the Top Gear or Wheeler Dealer presenters enthusing about what’s under the bonnet when one still wants to be able to luxuriate in the smooth lines and sleek look of your Alfa Romeo. This said, they do follow this with a counter-balancing broader discussion on the poems’ shared content, before concluding with what they see as their remit for the Companion – acknowledging what an impossible task it is:

‘So let this be our story about British and Irish poetry since 1960: technically complex in its working of order and disorder; engaged often in a disruptive and ironic fashion, with literary and social traditions offering demotic and marginalised voices and focuses; permeated by motifs of impotence; and fascinated with history.

But these are the generalities. the engagement with the individual text and collection, and their attentive reading (on several levels), is the thing.’
(p. 25)

From here we move to Section Two, ‘Contexts, Forms, Topics and Movements’ which forms the bulk of the book, dividing broadly in two parts. The first takes us through the practicalities and politics of the poetry world – competitions, journals and presses and all the shenanigans that goes on behind the scenes. The second covers genres and the various poetry movements that have developed from the sixties. Görtschacher, as a specialist in the field of Little Magazines and small presses, gives us insider knowledge useful for aspiring poets wishing to break into what Causley describes as ‘the tough and only school.’(p. 31) This first part is impressively thorough, if a little depressing in its cynical account of the vast dichotomy between what Arts Council Funding big presses and journals get compared to little ones struggling to stay afloat. Some of the quid pro quo that goes on is so shocking that one feels there should be closer auditing given the amounts involved. David Kennedy, who sadly passed away before publication, provides an equally exhaustive survey of anthologies tracking the social and political agendas behind the various editors, evidencing his general view that ‘they are not really concerned with poetry per se but with poetry as a mirror of the nation and its moral life.’ (p.63). Juha Virtanen’s ‘Who Reads Modern Poetry?’ takes Jeremy Paxman’s comment that poetry has ‘connived at its own irrelevance’(p. 88) as his starting point to revisit the perennial discussion about poetry as a minority interest. Virtanen draws widely on critical theory to unpick the multiple ways a reader may engage with a poem though the upbeat conclusion about the healthy state of poetry in the market place seems a little optimistic, ignoring the fact that it is still more easily read poetry that sells.

Part two covers genre and poetry movements. Daniel Weston’s essay on manifestos is very entertaining in illustrating just how unwelcome manifestos are for many poets. He takes the reader through familiar debates, such as craft versus creativity, and sound versus sense. He gives Anne Stevenson the last word to resolve the paradoxes he has posed, with a magic observation: ‘The ideal poem of the [21st] century will […] lbe written by a very rare person – a poetry in thrall to nothing but poet’s weird tyranny and ungovernable need to exist.’ (p. 104) Gareth Farmer then takes us into the very dangerous territory of poetry anthologies where poets align themselves along the spectrum of traditional, modern, modernist and post modernist approaches, not prepared to give anyone quarter. Each new anthology is described as, ‘a series of reactions and counteractions in a petri dish.’(p. 110) Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996) promotes the most avant garde as he explains: ‘The work I value is that which seems remote, alienated, fractured. I don ‘t claim to understand it but I like having it around. Farmer’s sympathies clearly lie more with Sinclair’s experimental preferences, seen in his in-depth look at Fiona Sampson’s Beyond the Lyric: a Map of Contemporary British Poetry (2012). While acknowledging her efforts to include ‘an admirably wide field of poetic practice’ (p. 114), he notes how innovative poets are underrepresented. The most vicious exchange, though, results from Don Paterson’s introduction to his and Charles Simic’s New British Poetry (2004). Acting as a mainstream evangelist his vitriol against Postmodernists – ‘their monotone angst…effete and etiolated aestheticism…and joyless wordplay’ (p. 111) is strongly countered by Andrea Brady in a letter in Chicago Review where she condemns the: ‘violence of its assault on all nonconformist practices, bundled into print.’ (p.111) ‘In general this essay, along with Kennedy’s, is excellent for giving a comprehensive survey of anthologies published to date.

Section two then moves into calmer waters and a chance to return  to the poetry – which is what it is supposed to be about – with essays on specific forms such as the elegy, the sonnet, open and closed forms, along with lyric versus narrative poetry. From here it takes us through a chronological account of key twentieth century movements: The Movement, Liverpool Poets, the British Poetry Revival, Poets of Ulster, and the Martians. It also includes more experimental approaches as we move to the present day. Finally Section three is where the editors have previously unapologetically noted they were deliberating avoid big name chapters on, say Larkin, Auden or Heaney to touch on poets they feel need wider foregrounding. Here the choice is totally personal but with a clear attempt at inclusion.

Certainly this text fits the Blackwell Mode of producing substantial texts on a chosen topic, by way of contributors who are well-researched in their chosen areas. and if one accepts that they are attempting the impossible and define it as a Companion as opposed to a History, it is is a vital source of reference on the broad shifts and poetry politics that has gone on since the sixties. And if there are those that feel it misses out on any of the most recent poetry goings on then, this is because, as with politics, yesterday’s news happens very quickly and it takes time for poetry to reveal what is enduring.

Belinda Cooke completed a PhD on Robert Lowell’s interest in Osip Mandelstam in 1993. She reviews widely and has published many poetry collections: Resting Place (Flarestack, 2008); The Paths of the Beggarwoman: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, (Worple Press, 2008); (in collaboration with Richard McKane) Flags by Boris Poplavsky, (Shearsman, 2009); Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov (Kazakh National Translation Agency, 2018); Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva and Stem (The High Window, 2019). She recently published a memoir on her mother’s life: From the Back of Beyond to Westland Row: A Mayo Woman’s Story (The High Window, 2022), and her latest collection Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists is forthcoming in 2023 from Salmon Poetry.

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*****

John Scotus Eriugena at Laon & Other Poems by Jacques Darras, trans. Richard Sieburth. £16.60.  World Poetry Books.ISBN 9781954218048.

duns scotus

Beyond Belief, Farrah by John Koethe. £21.32.  Strauss, Giroux £21.32, ISBN: 9780374604332. Reviewed by Ian Pople.

At first blush, there is little connection between these two very significant poets. Jacques Darras, whose name was completely new to me, is characterised in the blurb for this book as a ‘theophanic nature poet’ who has reached ‘across the Channel to the burly, material poetries of Bunting, Hill, MacDiarmid and Hughes.’ As far as I can gather, this is the first edition of Darras’ poetry in English. However, somewhat tangentially perhaps, Darras is known in this country as the 1989 Reith Lecturer. John Koethe, pronounced ‘Katy,’ is known, in American anyway, as ‘America’s philosopher poet.’ Koethe was, for a long time, a professor of philosophy, and has written about scepticism and Wittgenstein. His poetry has a long-limbed, discursive feel that involves a constant searching that we might associate with the study of philosophy. And Koethe has commented, slightly acerbically, ‘an overly narrow view of [poetry’s] range and possibilities, one that insists on the concrete and particular and proscribes the abstract and discursive … strikes me as pernicious…’ As a manifesto, its premises are quite clear. Darras, too, has set out a kind of poetic programme. In his essay, ‘Beyond Romanticism’, Darras writes of a need, ‘to impose new territorial definitions, new maps, and new frontiers on the ground. Would that be enough? Would the nonrational part in us—the “Romantic” part—be totally happy? Certainly not. We would want an invisible link to bind us in a much tighter, corporeal way.’ Although Darras seems to suggest that poetry might suggest new delineations ‘on the ground,’ as though the world poetry ‘lives in’ might need new kinds of demarcations, these demarcations are clearly not enough. We might wish to work the world in new poetic ways, but we might also need to make this poetic work tighter to us, more bodily.

For Darras, that project has involved an ongoing eight-volume epic entitled La Maye. The Maye is a small river rising in Picardy and running into the Bay of the Somme. However, La Maye, the poem itself, also traces and embraces the courses of three other rivers that rise in Picardy: the Somme itself, the Meuse and the Escaut. In a very useful afterword, Darras’ superb translator, Richard Sieburth comments that La Maye, adheres to Pound’s description of an epic as ‘a poem containing history.’ This is a history can contain both Victor Hugo and Schumann. However, this selection pulls out Darras’ dialogue with the theologians, St Augustine and the title figure of the book, John Scotus Eriugena, the Irish Monk who travelled to Laon at the invitation of Charles the Bald to translate the important early Church father, Pseudo-Dionysius, from Greek into Latin.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Darras and Koethe differ, then, in the need for the spiritual in poetry. Koethe’s writing veers quite strongly away from William’s dictum of ‘no ideas but in things.’ And Koethe is a great ‘talker through’ of situations. If Darras is shows us God in things, the theophanies, for Darras we need first to see the things as clearly and pellucidly as possible. Thus it is perhaps that Darras has felt the need to translate Bunting, Hill and, perhaps even more astonishingly, David Jones’ Anathemata into French. These three writers represent three particular kinds of Christianity: Bunting Quakerism, Hill High Anglicanism and Jones’ Catholicism. But as poets, the three write about a spirituality which is deeply connected to things and lives lead amongst things, and history.

In the title poem to his collection, John Koethe traces his movement away from church going to what Koethe suggests is ‘like lust, this urge for something / more than what there is.’ He writes,

I was brought up Catholic,
With all the superstition that entails. Then we became
Lutheran, which was worse, since it was supposed to be
More literal, which only made it more intense.
And then sometime in high school it all just fell away,
Leaving me with that vague sense of spirituality
You wrestle with in poems, without knowing what it is.

For Koethe, this might lead, as it led his mother, to a kind of Emersonian transcendentalism, ‘It’s a different sort of religion, one without doctrines / Or sacraments, although the danger of delusion is the same, / The temptation of an inarticulate form of knowledge / Gathering in the life that hides behind your name.’

We can see something of Koethe’s procedures here: the life as a background narrative, but providing both that story and the context for the real struggle to find ‘knowledge’ as worked out in the writing. For Koethe, that struggle can also tempt evasion, ‘Instead of insight, / Knowledge and relief from care, it becomes a voice, the voice / Of someone talking to himself that he begins to think of as his own.’ Thus the poetry is also, ‘just the face of the continuous confusions of the inner life / It hides, and that no matter how inevitable it sounds it isn’t true.’ Koethe is very conscious then, of the way in which the inner and outer voices seductively offer a feel of the inevitable. Here, Koethe offers his own version of Darras’ warning against the way ‘the nonrational part of us’ wants to impose new territories. Koethe’s ‘voice’ is a way of the life grounding its beliefs into a particular sound; the rhythmic pulses and cadences of that voice grounded on the page. Whereas, Darras’s grounding seems to be in new, yet ambivalent, physical delimitations. It is noticeable that Darras’ essay is called ‘Beyond Romanticism’, as Koethe’s book is called ‘Beyond Belief.’ Both writers are looking out from the limits of the certainties such ideas might provide.

One final note on Richard Sieburth’s translations of the Darras. There are a great variety of forms in the Darras Selection; from the prose poetry of ‘St Augustine; On Paradise’, to the repetitions, the anaphora of ‘Sea Choirs of the Maye.’ It was, however, the title poem that really caught my eye. It is almost as if Darras through Sieburth is channelling that spirit of David Jones’ Anathemata, as I hope this extract might suggest,

Fallen from fire. Autumn’s pure light
whitens the mount, the tufa
reverberating the radiance
of a Cyclades isle, here mis-

place, high above these plains,
by some error in translation.

Both these writers are great thinkers in the medium of poetry. Their approaches, different as they are, are also completely different to the approaches of much contemporary British poetry whose eye on the local can sometimes feel like an eye on the provincial. Thus both Darras and Koethe offer models of what it actually means to reach through and beyond.

Ian Pople‘s Spillway:  New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.

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*****

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