Derek Mahon: The Adaptations (1975–2020) • Helen Mort: The Illustrated Woman • Carole Satyamurti: The Hopeful Hat • Richie McCaffery: Summer/Break • River Wolton: Year • Mark Roper: Beyond Stillness
The Adaptations (1975–2020) by Derek Mahon. The Gallery Press, 2022. ISBN: 978-9-1133-8420. Reviewed by Sam Milne
One of Ireland’s finest poets, Derek Mahon was also one of her finest translators of poetry, as this book from The Gallery Press clearly shows. In a very interesting Afterword to the collection, published posthumously, Mahon writes honestly that in his ‘translations’ he has ‘taken many liberties, in the hope that the results will read almost like original poems in English’ (his emphasis), an openness that is not always acknowledged by poetry-translators (as is the case in Robert Lowell’s Imitations, for example). He reinforces this point by stating that the poems ‘aren’t translations, in the strict sense, but versions of their originals, devised, as often as not, from one crib or another’ (Mahon’s emphases again). He adds that he has aimed for ‘an imagined kinship’ with the originals, looking for ‘affinities of idea, shape and atmosphere,’ and that it is these very qualities that ‘dictated his choice of poems in the first place.’ The book, therefore, can be seen as an intelligible structure founded on a fellow feeling for the poems selected. How much freedom the poet allows himself in his translations is as much an ethical decision as an aesthetic one, it seems. It is not a question of authenticity (the poet isn’t translating facts, after all) but of interpretation. There is always an ambiguity, an ambivalence, a messiness, about the enterprise. The essential idea of verse translation (as Stanley Burnshaw has pointed out, in his Introduction to The Poem Itself, 150 European poems translated and analysed) is to offer an experience in English poetry, a journey away from the original to something different but still allied. Mahon ranges across European, Chinese and Indian cultures to highlight the universal emotions of humankind, as well as the philosophical traditions deeply embedded within them. This is an important point, for it is what makes the collection a coherent whole. The poems have not been selected simply at random, but are placed in a context of consonance and shared feeling. I can only look at a few examples here, but the basis of Mahon’s thinking (grounded in his own personality) is to find analogous spirits in the history of poetry, ranging from the Greek and Latin poets of antiquity, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, up to modern figures who continued this tradition, and to contemporary poets such as the French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq and the Hindi poet, Gopal Singh.
To indicate how good (indeed how excellent) a translator Mahon is one need only look at his versions from Houellebecq and compare them with others in English. He shows us how accomplished the French poet really is, and why he should be taken more seriously. The Adaptations moves us from the exaltation of man in Sophocles (‘Wonders are many and none/more wonderful than man’) to the anomie of the last century (prefigured to some extent in Mahon’s translations from such Ironists, Stoics and Epicureans as Aristophanes, Lucretius and Propertius) and today (‘Clearly this stupid world doesn’t inspire/anything now but an intense antipathy,/an urge to vanish and be done with it; you hardly dare pick up a newspaper,’ Houellebecq). The certainties have disappeared (this again is from Houellebecq):
Perhaps we should go back to the old home
Where our ancestors lived under the eye
Of heaven, and find the curious harmony
That sanctified their lives from womb to tomb.
It’s some kind of faith for which we yearn,
Some gentle web of close dependencies
Transcending and containing our existence.
We can no longer live so far from the eternal.
He translates from another poem by the Frenchman—‘With civilized discourse on the brink/and hope abandoned years ago,’ and from the Hindi poet, Gopal Singh—‘Now iCloud, cloud services/weigh on us like the void.’ The last line of the last poem in the book is from Singh’s ‘Up at the Palace’: ‘But what do we worship now the gods have gone?’
This note of defeat, of despair (‘we are thrashing in terror,’ Philippe Jaccottet; ‘a bleak reductionism,’ Gopal Singh; ‘our dubious paradise,’ Ivonne Bolumba; ‘Who dares to speak in the ruins/who sing now among/the black stones of disaster?’, Denis Rigal) is prefigured (and at times contrasted) with poets from the past. The harmony we associate with Lucretius, ‘The Bangor Antiphonary,’ and the poems of Li Po (‘To pledge eternal amity we gather/in cloud depths and in a river of stars’) is dashed by the time we get to Gérard de Nerval (‘the saint of the void’; ‘but there is no life in the galaxies’; ‘the dead world shrouded in eternal snow’) and Charles Baudelaire (‘Night takes them by the throat, their struggles cease/as one by one they head for the great gulf’; ‘for some of us have never known the relief/of house and home, being outcast in this life’). The soul is now exiled, in great despair, cut off from any sustaining roots (a theme that often recurs in Mahon’s own work). Even the joyfulness of sex lauded by both Propertius (‘What a great woman, what an amazing night—/so much ingenious turmoil in the bed’) and Baudelaire (‘a soul given new light/and colour by this bright/explosion of white heat/in my Siberian night!’) is now compromised (with a rather loose, slangy translation from Juvenal, which would have had Samuel Johnson screaming in his grave): ‘All anyone does now is fuck and shit;/instant gratification, entertainment, celebrity… you want to worship mere materialism,/that modern god we have ourselves invented’. This is a far cry from the love odes of Ovid (‘you entered in a muslin gown,/bare-footed, your thick braids undone,/a fabled goddess’), the love sonnets of Petrarch (‘The little bedroom, previously a haven/from daily tempests beating at my head,/is now a fountain of tears’), or the female Occitan troubadours (‘Great pain has come to me/from a young man I lost…/If he should come again/I’d clasp him with my thighs/until I grasped for breath’, Béatrice de Die).
The selection, then, suggests a post-modern sensibility coming to terms with the fragmentation of unifying principles and absolute values. Although it is often seen now as a risible term, I would describe most of Mahon’s choice of poems as existential, the modern subject wandering lost ‘as if through an endless nothing,’ exposed to existence ‘in its most terrible form, without aim or meaning’ as Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it in The Gay Science, the individual crying out against the world, a voice not seduced by the logical rigours of structuralism or post-structuralism (‘the real subject is not the cognitive subject [but] the ethically existing subject’ as Søren Kierkegaard expressed it in his Concluding Unscientific Project). The ironist (and paradox seeker) Propertius finds a sympathiser in Tristan Corbière (‘the twisted pillow and night torture’; ‘Your fiery tongue leaves in the mouth/an icy taste of white-hot iron’) and in Jules Laforgue (‘I’ll start a new cult based on holistic books,/blithe and post-modern, for the post-pastoral folks’; ‘even with catarrh, life isn’t really desperate’; ‘Why don’t you go get something for your flu,/that will be a nice little walk for you’). These are the affinities (almost themes) Mahon has in mind throughout the volume. As I said earlier, however, there are also contrasts. He translates Goethe’s ‘Poetry and Truth,’ for instance, with its large ethical claims for culture, knowing that as post-modernists we are aware that Goethe was very fond of visiting Ettersberg, later the site of the Buchenwald Death Camp. Culture then, tragically, he infers, is as fragile as life itself (‘frantic creatures of an hour,’ Aristophanes; ‘the thick dust of the earth…short-lived souls as we are,’ Jaccottet) and must be saved. Although what he calls ‘ancient myth’ (Jorge Guillén) ‘vital with earth and song’ (Pier Paolo Pasolini) may be dead, it is still possible (at times) to call on love and hope. This is particularly true of his translations from the French of Philippe Jaccottet (to my mind the best poems in the volume, followed closely by his excellent version of Paul Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière Marin’). It is here I think the existentialist vision is at its fore, as Jaccottet in his work always eschewed abstractions (as did the French philosophers and authors Gabriel Marcel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir) in favour of the concrete facts, the observed reality, the precise similes, remaining open, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty expresses it, to ‘the adventures of experience’ (in his Phenomenology of Perception). It is this quality I think which attracted the Irishman to the French poet:
At the end of the shadiest paths
among brambles, you will find an anemone
bright and ordinary like the morning star…
All gentleness, of the air
or of love…
Fine Sundays have their price, like parties
that leave wine-stains on the table at daybreak…
…the deepening shade,
the final refuge of the exiled soul…
You are the light rising on cold rivers,
The lark sprung from the field…
Dust-destined, yes, but the dust glitters…
And the moving homage, the quiet hymn, to his father-in-law:
At the window with its freshly whitewashed frame
(to keep out flies, to keep out ghosts)
the white head of an old man leans
over the letter or the local news.
Against the wall dark ivy grows.
Save him, ivy and lime, from the dawn wind,
from long nights and the other, eternal night.
This is as good as one of Mahon’s own poems, and redeems much of the nihilism (an age ‘of steel and iron and blood’ as Jacques Prévert expresses it) in the volume. It looks back to a Spanish poem of the sixteenth century by Francisco Quevedo, ‘An Aspiring Spirit’, where we find the line ‘polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado,’ translated by Derek Mahon as ‘there will be dust, but dust glowing with love.’ It also brings to mind a few of the versions from Rainer Maria Rilke, especially ‘Even so, existence remains magical, Orphean,/sprung from so many sources, a pure flux/striking the watchful eye with epiphanies,’ the poet no longer viewed as a ‘deposed magician’ (see Rilke’s poem ‘Ariel to Prospero’) but someone playing a vital rôle in society. The tone is also there in Gopal Singh:
… the old gods live on —
not on the high peaks
perhaps, but everywhere day breaks
on water and a washerwoman
sings to her own reflection.
The poet, in Kierkegaard’s words, ‘takes delight in everything he sees,’ whilst challenging (and transcending) what Karl Jaspers, in the first volume of his General Psychopathology, calls ‘impassable, unchangeable situations.’
Derek Mahon tends to concentrate on humanist poems which stress the faithful, vulnerable and fragile elements in the human condition, and he does this with a keen, loving eye which catches, at the same time, the nuances of despair. It is not a question of conveying ideas only (as the New Critics seemed sometimes to suggest) but of embodying lives lived with emotion and feeling. Although Denis Rigal can write in his poem ‘Lines for Li Po’ that ‘the crescent moon is a frost-/bright blade to sever heads’ Mahon sensitively contrasts this brutality with the quiescent translation from Li Po himself (‘Sitting among flowers with a kettle of wine/I lift my cup to the bright moon’). It is the same peaceful voice we find in Propertius (‘Thrown naked in the sack / we two compose/a private Iliad’) and in Jaccottet, a voice which is ‘audible only to those/whose hearts seek neither possession nor victory’ (in his poem called ‘The Voice’). We find it in Pasternak also:
Which is why, in the spring,
Our friends come together
And the vodka and talking
Are ceremonies, that the river
Of suffering may release
The heart-constraining ice.
The alienated individual surmounts loneliness and despair, and finds freedom in the creative act. It is the kind of voice we need today in our strife-torn world, and it has been brought to us by one of Ireland’s finest poets, knowing, as he did, how hard it is to find light in an ever increasing darkness. The Adaptations enables us to share the poetry, and the experiences, of different languages and cultures in an interpretative undertaking which also illuminates the translator’s personality. David Cooke has written that ‘Derek Mahon’s verse has an intellectual breadth that is rare in contemporary poetry’ (see the Supplementary Post ofThe High Window for October 3, 2020) and that breadth is also evident in these excellent translations. As George Steiner has said, in his Introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation, ‘Without translation we would all live in arrogant parishes bordered by silence.’
Sam Milne is a Scotsman living in Surrey. He writes mainly in Scots but reviews regularly in England. His poems, stories and plays have appeared in Lallans magazine over the years. He is a regular contributor to Agenda magazine and to the Times Literary Supplement. He has a poem (in English) in the current issue of Stand magazine. You can find his poem, ‘The Desolate Shore,’ on the October 12, 2021 Supplementary Post of The High Window website.
The Illustrated Woman by Helen Mort. £12.99. Chatto & Windus. ISBN: 978-1784743222 Reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Helen Mort’s third full collection encapsulates and develops her most explored themes, such as the woman’s body in today’s social and political context and the phases of motherhood as well as the risks of being an independent woman, and a mother. She controls the lines in the same way that she controls her body when she climbs rocks, which are ‘an illusion’, she remarks in A Line Above the Sky, ‘an experiment in fear […] a gamble’. Mort is passionate and tender in her stories, exposing her life and her poetry to risks that might leave marks. This also gives her the stamina and the motivation to carry on and live her life in full, ‘love unwisely’ and ‘feel intensely’ like the heroines of the Brontë sisters.
Mort grew up in Chesterfield and is based in Sheffield. She won the Foyle Young Poets Award five times and was awarded the Eric Gregory Award in 2007. Her first collection, Division Street (2013), was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award and won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. The Illustrated Woman was shortlisted for the Forward Prize best collection. She is a poetry mentor and senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Her writing practice and intense scrutiny of her feelings are at the fore in her life; however, the poems in this collection focus on another important event in her life, that is, the birth of her son, Alfie. The collection is therefore multi-layered and extremely rich in themes and forms that suggest different unpredictable sides at each reading and fold out like the complex structure of Chinese boxes. The collection is divided into three sections, ‘Skin’, ‘Skinless’ and ‘Skinned’, that investigate the female body from the teenage years to adulthood, motherhood and finally ageing, which is examined via the figure of Mort’s mother.
The sequence of ‘The Illustrated Woman’ in the first section investigates tattooed women, their creativity that is expressed through their body and their wish to redesign themselves. In the mapping of their bodies, they express their dreams, affirm their identity and communicate their ideas. Female bodies become the natural means through which to convey feelings in a primordial way of sorts that is sometimes misinterpreted by men:
they believed the tattooed women
(the men well-known, the women lying
on their flat stomachs)
but because they believed the tattooed women
would be more likely to have sex
(well-known prominently displayed
on their lower backs)
more likely to have sex
on the first date
than their clear-skinned counterparts.
(‘A Well-known Beach’)
Tattoos can also hide scars, and although the process might be painful, the final result is worth it:
so we could both name it: a dozen
large blooms in grey and pink
leaves that could smother, white dot work,
the parts which are hardest to heal.
(‘First Tattoo by a Woman’)
The image is both real and symbolic, showing the skilful rendering of themes in vivid imageries that engage the reader in visual descriptions as well as in sounds. Mort evokes Betty Broadbent in her poem ‘The Tattooed Lady’. She was the most photographed tattooed woman of the 20th century. Her decorated body was like a precious painting where she exposed and concealed indelible pictures which were artificial and true at the same time. This concept is also remarked on in the poem ‘On Permanence’:
I do not think I long
to be natural, pure like the floors of airports,
like a blank expression, the aftermath of the avalanche
that buried your body whole. Each night in the bath,
my two-year-old tries to colour me with his pastel crayons,
finishing mummy’s pictures.
The vulnerability of the body and the anxiety concerning being whole, or expressing oneself creatively, are our strength and our weakness, that is, what makes us human. Mort’s visceral relationship with her little boy, Alfie, is explored in the second section of the collection. She writes about him when he is in her belly, describes the dramatic experience of her delivery and comments on his growth as a toddler. Her delivery was not very easy because she lost a litre and a half of blood, had an episiotomy, that is, a cut that opens the vagina a bit wider, and the surgeon had to use forceps too. She thinks about the many women who have died in childbirth or just after childbirth in the past. She suffers but she feels lucky, as local anaesthetic and Entonox are used today to ease the pain. The experience is dramatic; it is comparable to climbing a mountain, because something wrong can happen at any moment. Despite all the difficulties, Alfie is finally on her breast, ‘a bundle of fierce life’, as she remarks in A Line Above the Sky and voices in her poem ‘Bear’:
From the day you came out of me
you were bear
musky and solid
shambling through your own world.
I looked into the dens
of your eyes,
you opened the cave of your mouth
and I knew I could not
call you mine
but I was made to guard you
lumber with you
in my new fur,
my loose thin skin.
A sense of freedom that is connected with nature also inspires Mort’s poems. Visiting and experiencing the outside is not only recreational and a way to keep fit, it is a significant part of our humanity. Nature is not outside us but part of us, according to Mort. Her relationship with Alfie is close and profound but also free, as she remarks in ‘Augmentation, VI Flight’ by referring to the famous quote by Khalil Gibran: she is ‘not the arrow / but the curve / of the bow, look at us / look at us now, / look how fast we go.’
The third section features poems about pornography in which women are repeatedly used and abused to the extreme; they are ‘broken’ by sex in a societal context that allows such behaviours. They are tough poems, hard to write and hard to read, and the barely controlled rage they convey is disturbing but authentic. The lines are neat, stark and unforgiving; they leave a sense of powerlessness and yet suggest a possible reaction, a change of mind, and maybe action:
Here I’m greening from a frame of blue, Ibizan sky.
Here is a woman with two men between her thighs.
Here I’m on holiday, freckled and sun flecked.
Here is a man with his hands around my neck.
Here I’m pregnant with my son.
Here is a body overrun.
(‘Deepfake: a pornographic ekphrastic, II How I Want my Blonde GF Used’)
In the ‘Notes to Poems’, Mort acknowledges that the poem ‘August’ was written in response to the death of a Canadian pornographic actress, August Ames, who committed suicide when she was only twenty-three.
In the last poem of the collection, Mort reconnects with her mother’s ageing body that merges with her own body. The fragility and scars of her mother’s frame become her own while she assists her to bathe and cares for her, just as her mother did for her when she was a child. The roles seem to be reversed and work in unison in an apparently simple routine that celebrates affection despite irreversible traumas, shocking revelations and looming dangers. Life is wild but resilience wins and relationships hold; this is a simple, true message that Mort conveys by using reasoning and strong language that reflect her experience, her studies and her wish to live life in full with passion and dedication.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Her first short collection, Negotiating Caponata, was published in July 2020 by Dempsey & Windle. She completed her PhD degree on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. Her second collection, Workwear (November 2022), is published by The High Window. http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/
The Hopeful Hat by Carole Satyamurti. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-653-0 Reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
This posthumous collection is a work of impressive artistry and depth.
It was written under the shadow of a terminal diagnosis of laryngeal cancer and after the removal of Satyamurti’s voice box and part of her tongue. Some poems refer to these things. The way in which they do so reflects one of the qualities that make Satyamurti’s writing so attractive. Whatever may have been the case for her as a person, as poet she approaches her situation in a way virtually purged of ego.
We see this in ‘Small Change’. It opens:
This must be the room of last resort,
this half-lit passage under the dripping bridge
where, on the only route to the Underground,
you pass four, sometimes more, rough sleepers
strung out at intervals against the wall,
the same, day after day, week after week.
The tone is masterly. The language is unemotive, almost prosaically plain, suggesting a pedantic concern for factual accuracy by the pausing over ‘four, sometimes more’. And yet from the first line the scene has the compelling resonance of symbolism and myth. And line 6 seems to ache with empathy, not through emotive language but because the effect of its repetitions is heightened by the stanza break. What’s involved is a very skilful use of poetic technique to make facts seem to speak for themselves. They’re made to feel immediately present (‘This must be’) and the reader is drawn into a direct confrontation with the sleepers (‘you pass’). Keeping herself out of the picture, the poet makes us face the horror without distraction. And what we see is how for these rough sleepers the real has taken on the extremity of myth.
The poetic ‘I’ appears later in the poem. Again, though, she does it in a very objective way, not making the poem about herself but putting her life into its presentation of other things. She becomes an Everywoman, wanting to do something, seeing that doing anything meaningful would demand more than she’s prepared to give, and guiltily aware of her own selfishness:
I want them gone. I want to be absolved.
Shall I give some coins to each of them?
If it were only one… Or just one day…
If she started moralising or breast-beating at this point the poem would be corrupted by egotistical self-regard. The purity and truth of its dramatisation of a common experience would be lost.
A good poem keeps moving us to new places intellectually and imaginatively and this certainly does that. In the last line there’s a total surprise:
What has a poem got to do with this?
Sheer unexpectedness would be enough to make that conclusion send out shockwaves and ripples of reflection. It’s also deeply ambiguous. Read one way, it suggests that poetry is irrelevant to the problem of homelessness. Read another, it suggests that poetry is morally compelled to do something with it – that poetry becomes irrelevant or shirks its responsibility if it doesn’t take this kind of reality on board. The ambiguity of ‘got to do (with)’ forces a confrontation between the two ideas.
The first stanza of ‘Small Change’ shows how much can be done by sparing use of figurative language. Satyamurti’s natural gift for metaphor is abundantly illustrated in contexts where a focus on metaphors themselves is appropriate, as in the second stanza of ‘Solitude’:
To be alone
is to taste existence,
its small choices
brushing me like moths.
Interestingly, the poem’s weight is felt more through the colourless metaphor of tasting existence than the more arresting one of the moths, and comes not from the metaphor itself but from our knowledge that the speaker’s time for tasting existence is running out. The fact that this isn’t stated in the poem itself allows the poem to speak equally to and for people whose tasting of existence has less urgency.
I said some poems do confront the poet’s situation directly. Some of these ponder the value and point of poetry. Others focus on mortality, or what our knowledge of it means for our sense of the value of life.
Again, what I find impressive isn’t just the precision and economy with which these poems are written but the stance they take, the direction of their vision. Instead of asking us to look at her own situation, Satyamurti looks through it at other people’s experiences and broader human meanings. The second half of ‘Glossal’ goes:
What prudent torture it was,
to cut out dissident tongues,
knowing that the subtlest manoeuvres
of this most potent sixty grams of flesh –
this truth-teller, this incendiary organ,
this evolutionary achievement
as vital to the human core of us
as the heart is – can shift the world.
Such breadth of perspective is continually present. The last poem – ‘Solid’ – ends on a note that brings together the cosmic and the personal:
For nothing goes to waste
no atom is destroyed
And the molecules here now
were here when time began –
no animals, no man –
and Earth was wilderness.
But there’s no denying
one day you will be dead
and where do the colours go
when the carpet fades?
Here, the brevity of the lines and the hint of interrupted song in their rhythm create a tone of musing inwardness. Their spare style allows subtle shifts of tone, register and mental focus to make themselves felt both quietly and deeply.
The poems I’ve quoted use similar styles of reflective speech. I should mention some in different modes. ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ (the title a quotation from Marx’s Communist Manifesto) brilliantly parodies the speech of hotshot City slickers, gaining depth both from the way the title invokes mortality and from the shift to a more rueful tone at the end. ‘Requiem for a Death Foretold’ and ‘The Climate Game’ both supplement Satyamurti’s skill in creating a speaking voice with typographic devices of an ‘experimentalist’ nature.
Altogether, this is a book I’d warmly recommend and expect to enjoy over many years.
Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa, studied English at Cambridge and Oxford, and taught English at the Manchester Grammar School. In retirement he spends his time playing with grandchildren, reading, writing his own poetry, and reviewing other people’s. He has published two collections: Through the Window and Their Mountain Mother.
Summer/Break by Richie McCaffery. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN:978-1-915553-03-4 Reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
When I received this book, I was slightly irked by the title, which seemed a little tricksy. However, I soon realised that, aside from the obvious pun, the title neatly reflected the structure of the collection which tells the story of a relationship which has flourished and then failed. The first section, ‘Summer’ shows us love when it was happy, while the third ‘Break’ laments the break-up. The second section, ‘/’, steps away from the love affair, goes off in a tangent or a slant and is as oblique as its heading. The volume is book-ended by two poems in italics. The first, ‘Out of the Blue’, works in some senses as a spoiler, because it tells us very clearly that the relationship which is being celebrated has ended, in a series of images and metaphors which gracefully lament what has happened but reinforce the possibility of poetry:
She left me and I walked down the garden path
for the last time, all confettied with blossom,
the petals like plectrums as if one day
I might learn to make music from all this.
The poet has succeeded in making music because even though many of these poems are fairly miserable in their content, the poet’s joy in language, in place, in things and in people shines through. The power and importance of joy is underlined in the final poem, ‘Sermon’:
My father attends service here.
I asked him what the sermon
he just sat through was all about.
He’d already forgotten. His brow
in a furrow until it came to him.
It was about joy.
Joy wins in this book, even though two poems earlier the protagonist has been contemplating suicide: ‘one desperate day he got to the sea, / set on throwing himself in, … ‘but the beauty of the place waylaid him.’ It is the openness to the world which engages the reader, although the celebration is never unalloyed, even in the first section, which we have been forced to read through the prism of the introductory poem. It is with a double perspective, similar to that of the ‘experienced’ reader of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, that we react to the optimism of poems like ‘Anchor’ or the enjoyment of ordinary happiness in ‘Circadian Rhythms’:
The cat sat on each of our laps. We went
to bed together, both asleep within minutes.
It was one of the best days of my life.
The fact that we already know the relationship is doomed, does not invalidate these poems; it makes them more precious.
Section 2, ‘/’, begins with a poem about a donkey, or a portrait of a donkey by his grandmother, and this is possibly the most ‘Eeyorish’ part of the book, presenting, in a number of poems, a character who is inherently unsuccessful. It’s difficult not to feel that the persona is identifying with the ‘spavined cuddy’ of the portrait. In other poems, the protagonist always comes last in School Sports Day races, fails to live up to early promise –‘the once bright / meeting him dulled’, in his ‘mid thirties’ is ‘lost again’ and envisages himself reconstructed of ‘lignum vitae’, ‘the only wood / on earth / guaranteed to sink.’ ‘The Fork’ uses a brilliant extended metaphor to convey feelings of shame and disappointment. The speaker receives an invitation to a school reunion while clearing a clogged gutter with ‘the best tool for the job / … a sharp-pronged Georgian cutlery fork / with a tapered deer antler handle.’ In another expression of failed promise, he identifies with the fork:
When the Georgians made the fork long ago,
I imagine they never expected it would end up
here in my hand. Before them, it was the deer
that never expected to be whittled to a hilt.
The poem brilliantly but subtly moves from ‘poor me’ to a reflection on mutability and the transitoriness of things, with the implication that the wheel keeps turning and can move from sorrow back to joy:
But we know where the blackbird
likes to perch to sing
when the blackbird’s silent
and not there.
Thus, although the third section of the book is largely occupied by sadness and even despair following the break-up, there is still that ability to observe the world and exploit observed detail in order to express emotion as in ‘The Stag’ and ‘The Fence’ and the enjoyment of language that allows him to use the etymology of his own name as a way of exploring what has happened in ‘The Jockey’.
McCaffery has been compared to Wordsworth, perhaps a rather far-fetched comparison, but he does share the ability to write in the ‘language really used by men’. His poems are pellucid, with an economy and precision which disguises their artfulness. He excels in drawing on his surroundings to discover meaning, often in the last couple of lines. The poet usually avoids portentousness but occasionally teeters on the edge, as in ‘Northumbrian’ which moves from pheasant-rearing to end: ‘Our love fattens itself daily / unaware of greater schemes at play.’ McCaffery could be described as a poet of the countryside, but his poems are very much concerned with thinking and feeling humans in the landscape; this is a delightful and uplifting collection, where the poet’s determination to ‘make music’ out of experience and suffering succeeds in dispelling gloom.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but has spent most of her adult life in England and now lives in Oxford. She has published four collections of poetry, the most recent being Back Country, Littoral Press, 2022. She is currently hosting a poetry podcast magazine, Poetry Worth Hearing available on Google, Apple and Audible podcasts and would welcome submissions. See https://www.poetryworthhearing.biz/
Year by River Wolton, illustrated by Emma Burleigh. £14.99. Smith/Doorstop ISBN:9781914914362. Reviewed by Hilary Hares
Beautifully illustrated by Emma Burleigh in smoky grey-toned watercolours, everything about this collection is a delight. It’s a volume to grace any elegant coffee table and is likely to appeal as much to those interested in wellbeing and spirituality as it will to hard-core poetry aficionados.
The collection takes the form of a journal, inspired by the poet’s New Year resolution in January 2020 to write a poem a day centred around the Buddhist philosophy of Metta. This embodies the concept of kindliness which treads carefully as gentle way to approach life: ‘6 January’ – I try not to hurry to the next thought / but offer what I can / to the soul. These are as much musings as poems, slow-paced and thoughtful and, at times, thought-provoking.
When the idea was conceived, the Covid pandemic was no more than an alarming news item but, when the poet succumbs, and goes on to develop long Covid, it becomes a key driver. Rather than take central stage, however, it is a low hum running in the background. When life is restricted detail becomes magnified and the pandemic affords opportunities for close observation. Its intrinsic power is apparent from the outset – the collection is dedicated to a brother, neighbour and friend who all died around the time of writing.
Meanwhile, outside this cocoon the world still turns: Donald Trump, Marcus Rashford and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are each given a walk-on part. Nature, and in particular birds, is given a much larger role: ‘3 February’ …held wherever I turn / by a cradle of birdsong, and: ’11 June’ – above all / birdsong got me through.
The natural cycle of the year forms the backbone to the collection and, as the months unfold the poet’s mood turns and turns again. On 6 April: I’m Zoom-sick and on the 23rd she celebrates: the eight o’clock samba band / of neighbours saucepans. By the time 12 May arrives, however, she has become: Nostalgic for lockdown … and by November, the soothing effect of nature has taken on a different dimension:
A simple joy slips into finger-holds and crevices
builds from many sources – long-tailed tits
wittering in silver birch, clusters of nitrous
bonnet-caps, a beech limb rippling
with curtain fungus, light filtered
through a lace canopy – I let it grow,
keep out the news, keep in new knowledge
that the acorns underfoot are raining down
from oak trees everywhere. Plentiful A mast year.
In terms of form, short poems with short lines give the collection a contemplative feel and, thanks to the excellent design work of Francesca Romano, each one is given ample space to breathe. The result of this is a set of poems which are both centred and centring and which the reader can enjoy dipping into or reading as a whole. As the poet herself says: ’28 July’ – In the seeing only the seeing.
Although it is apparent that the fatigue of long Covid makes it difficult at times to focus on the year’s goal of giving and seeking out kindliness, it’s found in day-to-day activities: ‘7 February’ The kindness of the dentist / and the dental nurse, and in a precise focus on details. On 7 July: she counts her blessings: a customer’s smile, / a blackbird chattering up the path, / a hot-water bottle. / Small things adding up, / pointing the way.
There is also little doubt that the constraints brought about by the pandemic impact the poet’s mood which, in places, swings like a pendulum. In February she is upbeat: ‘22 February’ – An old friend phones, despite / a thousand challenges all’s ended well. / [ … ] Delight like a heaped plate / shared under a gentle sun. By 8 June, however, she warns us: Never under-estimate the mind’s capacity / to construct mountain ranges / from the dust of worry, / gravel of assumptions.
This extended period of reflection also affords the opportunity to consider the world’s bigger questions: ‘8 May’ – VE day and what is the pandemic doing to war-children …?, and ‘3 June’ – grief rises at centuries of racist killing / oceans of young lives lost / the lie that it only happens ‘over there’. This thoughtfulness is taken even further on:
Why years of austerity
when billions are (so it seems)
pulled from thin air?
Ideology makes for fools
In conclusion, this is a journal which becomes a journey. Despite the ups and downs of illness and circumstance, as the collection draws to a close, hope starts to come to the fore and the mood lifts: ‘5 November’ – and I vow to believe the impossible, / the end will come soon enough / why not dare love to occupy each cell.
Taken in the round, the collection radiates a kind of zen tranquillity. These are glimpses into a day, a season, a life and the way in which they all intertwine. It encapsulates the vagaries of feelings and moods which we can all relate to and which, when pulled together as a whole, become greater than the sum of their parts.
Hilary Hares’ poems appear widely online and in print, most recently in Acumen and Mslexia. She has also won or been placed in a number of competitions, the latest being Cannon Poets 2022 Sonnet or Not Competition (2nd prize). She has a Poetry MA from MMU and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon supports Winchester Muse. Her latest pamphlet, Red Queen, Marble Poetry, is available from her website: http://www.hilaryhares.com
Beyond Stillness by Mark Roper. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN 978-191562903. Reviewed by Ross Thompson
To describe Mark Roper as a nature poet alone would be reductive but then he does write nature poems that are very fine indeed. A successor of the likes of John Clare and Thomas Hardy, but without the inherent sadness and pessimism of the latter, Roper is renowned for producing work that is hallmarked by impeccable precision and insight, and for his observations of, to quote C. Day Lewis, “the small, the scorching / ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.” Roper’s oeuvre is populated with moments of reflection on those everyday encounters that others are too busy or out of touch to notice. Take, for example, the following lines from ‘The Robin’, which first appeared in the chapbook The Home Fire (Abbey Press, 1998’):
For days it kept tapping at the window,
a spent coal trying to regain a fire,
a little glowing boat beating against
a wall of surf, a frozen sheet of spray.
or this stanza from ‘Swallow Holes’ from The Hen Ark (Peterloo / Salmon, 1990):
Like so many pegs on a line
hanging on a wash of song
they’re bunched up on the wires
sensing it’s time to be gone.
The exactitude of Roper’s language and the vividness of his imagery is at times astonishing, hitting a number of poetic targets at once. Yes, he is exceptionally gifted at capturing with his lens the intricacies of nature but there are other things going on at the same time. In the first extract, the reader can both see and hear the titular bird pecking and prinking (to borrow a colloquialism from the aforementioned Hardy), its jittery, head-twitching rhythm emphasised by the choice of iambic meter. Similarly, the inclusion of catalectic lines in ‘Swallow Holes’ conveys the urgency of the birds getting ready to migrate, and the reader can clearly visualise them congregating between telegraph poles. But then metaphor is ushered in: the robin transforms into a “spent coal” and “a little glowing boat”; the swallows become “pegs on a line / hanging on a wash of song”, a sequence of words that is both beguiling and deeply satisfying, propelling the mind into a new world of sensation and understanding. If you were looking for evidence of the alchemy of poetry, there are worse places to start.
Which brings us to Beyond Stillness, which sees Roper further honing his craft in a cohesive, rewarding collection that he has described as a series of “hymns and psalms in relation to the natural world.” Yes, there are more paeans for the birds and creatures of our shared environment, such as in the gentle ‘Otter’, whose rhythm lilts like the river in which the poem takes place:
Nothing so wet.
even when dry.
Elsewhere, we are treated to “a charm of goldfinch”, the starlings who “wait in the wings of their wings”, “a wagtail’s ballet”, and in the wonderful ‘Pebble’, this surprising description:
Little orphan of the shoreline,
coin of an unknown currency,
The fact that Roper picks out one specific pebble from countless others is emblematic of his approach to poetry. He is gifted with an innate ability to focus on small, often microscopic details, as if pausing to hunker down and peek at dirt, dew and grass through a magnifying lens (the artwork of the miniaturist Willard Wigan springs to mind), mirrored by the visual appearance of the poems themselves: the frequent use of tercets and couplets, often arranged in short lines and succinct phrases. However, like the most sublime writing, Roper’s poetry pushes beyond the merely literal. As in the work of the great Emily Dickinson, external observations become metaphors for internal experience. Note how ‘Pebble’ becomes more than a sensory description:
I want to say that in the quartz
striping your red skin I can see
and hear the waves that formed you
Beyond Stillness is full of moments of peaceful stock-taking and “forest bathing”, to use the parlance of our times, yet beneath the surface there is a search for greater meaning and ecstatic truth, in this case how a pebble is a reminder that each of us is a mere blip on the timeline of our universe. However, on another level there is a recurring motif of ecological anxiety: the “psalms” that Roper mentions are in fact laments of despair for the damage that we continue to collectively wreak on our shared planet. The poem ‘More Than Ever’, arguably the catalyst for the entire collection, is dated March 2020 – a clear reference to the arrival of the spread of the coronavirus. The enforced dislocation brought on by the pandemic gifted time and space to observe even closer the natural world that we have neglected and pillaged. Roper’s response is typically kind and gentle:
Now, more than ever, swallow,
is the time to come, up the river
and over the field.
Primrose, please, keep sketching your soft circles.
Above a still lake of bluebell,
unfurl, beech tree, your tender leaf.
The repetition of the refrain “more than ever” and the inclusion of imperatives and the pleading “please” conveys the urgency of the situation: this is a clarion call for rebalancing the equilibrium of our aching world, and Roper vocalises it with convincing sincerity.
Which is not to say that ‘Beyond Stillness’ is a heavy collection. As the title suggests, the poems therein are by and large calm and refreshing. For example, ‘San Ignacio Lagoon’, which is representative of the geographical diversity on offer here, recounts a whale-watching trip:
Over an hour, she brings her great body to bear
around the small boat. Quick as a lizard dives,
disappears; resurfaces right beside us,.
In her own way, playing like a kitten.
The juxtaposition and bathos of the whale with the kitten is graceful and generous, and handled in such a delicate manner that no other comparison would feel more correct in its place. Yet, as we all know, great poems contain inner conflict, and here Roper’s mind is tugged back to his own mortality. “I am sixty-seven years old,” he says, with startling succinctness. “I haven’t died / too young.” The repeated references to vulnerability and illness throughout this collection leads back to the title itself: “beyond stillness” comes from the Latin “metastasis”, a word that is guaranteed to strike fear into anyone with a beating heart. In the title poem, capturing a conversation with a consultant, Roper speaks bravely and honestly about his own diagnosis (and subsequent successful treatment) of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma:
He leaves you to ask the questions,
his answer to each a gentle Yes.
You’ve heard it all before, in print,
on screen. You stop being you.
This perfectly captures the surreal, detached sensation of suddenly being rendered impermanent – and being acutely aware of that impermanence. However, what is most noticeable in these light-feathered poems is the dignity, humour and positivity. In ‘Coum éaga’, the statement “I came here when told I hadn’t long / to live”, where the hard-hitting final phrase is emphasised by the line break, is shortly followed by “What survives is Spring.” In nature’s take and give, to reverse the wording of another C. Day Lewis line, there is always the comfort of a new beginning.
In this light, the title Beyond Stillness offers a different meaning. The notion of a place beyond stillness – beyond anything, for that matter – is an impossible scenario, of course, particularly in our increasingly hectic world. Nonetheless, the prospect of a state of “blissful solitude”, to quote William Wordsworth, is tantalising. This quite lovely, affirming collection is driven by Roper’s instruction: stillness can be found if we allow ourselves the liberty to search for it, and to be alone in nature does not necessarily mean being lonely.
Ross Thompson is a writer from Bangor, Northern Ireland. His debut poetry collection Threading The Light is published by Dedalus Press. His work has appeared on television, radio, short films and in a wide range of publications. Most recently, he wrote and curated A Silent War, a collaborative audio response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is currently working on several projects including editing a second full-length book of poems.
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