The High Window Reviews



Donald Gardner: New and Selected Poems 1966 – 2020 Christopher Jackson: An Equal Light  David Kinloch: Greengown, New and Selected Poems  Oisín Breen: Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems

New and Selected Poems 1966 – 2020 by Donald Gardner.  £22.92. London: Grey Suit Editions. ISBN: 978-1903006252. Reviewed by Derek Coyle

don gard

The cosmopolitan character of Donald Gardner’s verse was there from the start, a cosmopolitanism of location as well as of mind. The book opens with Mexico City, where we find the speaker a stranger in a strange place. As a white male he feels the need to apologize for Vietnam, ‘but not pay more than five pesos,’ noting ‘starving tenements’,

But taking a sudden corner
I give the driver all my change
and am not longer English or American.
I am the rain that beats my face.

In the poem ‘In Villahermosa’, the poet’s observational eye notices ‘three monkeys/in a cage like slaves/but with wildly lyrical tails.’ There is a delicate lift in the phrasing here and the humane suggestion that something in these creatures is still free. Another monkey seems to have the hands of a pianist as the speaker shakes his hand, but ‘was much more gentle.’ The monkey pats him on the head, ‘he might have been a priest.’ But he ‘lolloped away to pee./Why that’s my hypocrite brother.’ A poem with striking comparisons, domesticating the animal, making the human strange, ‘In Villahermosa’ is delivered in solid unrhymed quatrains.

The early poem ‘Passavia’, in contrast, consists of a jagged, stop and start form of free verse, with a varied use of blank spaces and longer and shorter lines. In the centre of the poem there is a segment consisting of list-like repetitions followed by a prose section in parentheses. So, a dynamic and energetic poem, formally speaking. And this makes sense as ‘Passavia’ means roughly ‘keep moving’ in Italian. And, by this means, the dynamic of the poem’s form matches its theme: the tale of a strange dog that foreign artists in Anticole call ‘Passavia’, as they keep hearing the locals who only say ‘passa via, passa via, passa via’ to it. A strange dog that couldn’t bark, didn’t appear to be successful in mating, but ate the finest ‘prime chop-steak’ thrown to it by the foreigners; at best ‘an elongated trotting shadow.’ Fed by the foreigners, it greeted those foreigners arriving off the bus, being something of an outsider in this place itself. This tale ends rather grimly as poor ‘Passavia’ ends up stoned to death by the villagers, like some bad omen. They told an unidentified Ida the story, who then passed it on to the poet. There is no judgement in the poem. This dark tale is relayed in a rather matter of fact tone.

Gardner was a teacher and translator for much of his life, living in the Netherlands many years, New York, and London. All of these places inform his poetry, as does the poetry of traditions outside English. His busy life might account for his book a decade after the 1960s: Peace Feelers (1969), For the Flames (1974), No Flowers for the Man-Made Desert (1985), Starting from Tomorrow (1995). Beginning in 2001, Gardner enters a prolific phase in his late career: How to Get the Most Out of Your Jet Lag (2001), The Glittering Sea (2006), The Wolf Inside (2014), Early Morning (2017), and then the generous selection of New Poems (2017 – 2020) that close the volume.

We find the poet in playful mood in the early 2000s in ‘Holy Mackerel’, punning on that colloquial expression in English as he tucks into his tasty fish. There are some witty puns, ‘the mackerel wears a keep him dry at sea.’ There is an interesting movement up and down the linguistic register in the poem. Words like ‘punk’ and ‘trendy’ feature alongside words like ‘reproachfully.’ The poem has a nursery rhyme feel, and, like the best of those, is slightly dark. The poem consists of eight lines of alternate rhymes: ‘sea’/’be’, ‘reproachfully’/’me’. Turning on the ‘but’ of line five, the poem might consist of two conjoined quatrains. A deft and playful piece, with some simple features that suggest the root of poetic pleasure in early childhood: strong rhythms, solid patterns, pleasing sounds that delight with their predictability’.

‘In the Vondelpark’ is a fine observational piece. The unusual light of the August sun one afternoon generates an unseasonal wintry effect: the water on the pond is ‘glassy and still,’ as if this sun ‘had covered it with a veil of ice.’ There is a deft suggestion of personification as the willow leaning over the pond is apparently ‘fishing’ with its arm, a branch leaning into the river, as if searching ‘for something it dropped there yesterday.’ In the middle of this quiet scene, ‘a flotilla of ducks’ float by, but they seem to be zipping open the surface of the lake. This is a striking and unusual image, very memorable, all suggested by the unusual verb choice ‘zips’. And then, as the ducks move across the lake, forwards and backwards they are ‘like notes of music on a bar.’

So, it is fair to say, then, that Donald Gardner is a poet of some range: of location, of preoccupation, and of formal means. The poet we encounter here is a thoughtful man with a quirky and mischievous sense of humour. He has read widely: Brecht, Pessoa, amongst the moderns; Dante and Shakespeare amongst the classics. After roaming widely around the world he has ended up near Donadea in North Kildare, Ireland. In the late poem ‘In Donadea’, we mind him outside on his terrace, observing his old cat, sheep in late evening sunlight, hearing ‘an orchestra of birdsong,’ while the light breeze

is reading the folder of poems in my lap
at a fierce lick,
strewing my pages across the flagstones.

Hasty critic,
no time to waste.

Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, The High Window and The Stony Thursday Book. He published his first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow in a dual-language edition in Tranas Sweden and Carlow Ireland in April 2019, and it was shortlisted for the Shine Strong 2020 poetry award. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s, Ireland. His second collection, Sipping Martinis under Mount Leinster is due in 2023.

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An Equal Light by Christopher Jackson, £11.99, The Black Spring Press Group. ISBN 978-1-915406-27-9. Reviewed by Merryn Williams

equal light

I first became aware of this poet in 2020, when I asked for some poems about the lockdown and got this one, which appears to be about something else altogether:

I think of those who fell bizarrely silent:
Sibelius grand and speechless in Jarvenpaa,
who descended so quietly towards the grave:
decades-sedentary, in private tinker
with an outline. He would rest considerate
of the truer music which lies always at the gates
of the ear. Neither timid nor brave
he was suspended in the shape of an endeavour.

The next two verses consider Rimbaud and Shakespeare, both of whom also gave up their life’s work, and the final verse relates this to the ‘silence’ which fell over the world in the plague year:

I think of all these as our silence lasts
and augments, and changes as it grows:
I think of the power lodged in restraint,
how the high deed is always juxtaposed
with waiting, the huge wonder of a pause.
We need not always have a claim or a cause –
but may stand at death’s foothills without complaint
and discharge in peace the burdens of the snow.

What this poem says is that the cessation of normal activity actually gives us a welcome chance to reassess the way we live. (‘After Aeschylus: The Firm’ describes frenetic activity in an office where workers run around like rats. Many people are happy never to go back there). This collection by Christopher Jackson, his first, is described as ‘a landmark moment where English poetry regains its spiritual and formal force’. He is certainly an accomplished formal poet; ‘spiritual’ is less easy to define. I’d call him a meditative poet, one who constantly looks for the unexpected meaning.

A grandfather’s watch has stopped permanently, but he keeps it close ‘The Watch’). A Facebook friend with the same initials dies; he thinks it important to honour his life (‘Elegy for a man I never met’). Wordsworth and his wife plant daffodils to celebrate a lost daughter (‘Dora’s Field). ‘Seagull caught in shop-window’ is another lockdown poem:

‘Around that time, we took note of the birds ….
Everywhere we turned, there was taking heart
At what ailed humankind’.

A bird trapped behind the glass – as we were all trapped in those days – reminds him of Bede’s sparrow, a metaphor for the individual human life, and asks ‘that we also, in our brief day, soar’.
Another standout poem is ‘Diary Clash’, about how he had to miss a book launch for Clive James, no less, and realised that this was no great disaster because ‘success can be a dreary sight’. There is something false about throwing parties for famous writers, good or bad (and Clive James was extremely good). The creation matters; the publicity machine does not.
He can also be very funny. ‘The Bag’ describes how a dove crawled into his sports bag, in among the old clothes and chocolate wrappers, and couldn’t be fetched out. The bag is certainly a metaphor for ‘the untended life’, and the bird, like other birds, is significant, but it still made me laugh. I hope we shall hear more of this poet’s unique voice.

Merryn Williams lives in Oxford. She has published five volumes of poetry, and a pamphlet, After Hastings, will appear from Shoestring Press this spring. She translated the Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca (Bloodaxe, new edition 2021), and edited and introduced The Georgians 1901-1930 (Shoestring, 2009), and Poems for the Year 2020: Eighty Poets on the Pandemic (Shoestring, 2021).

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Greengown, New and Selected Poems by David Kinloch. £15.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978 1 80017 279 1. Reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy


David Kinloch’s Greengown, a collection of new and selected poems, cannot be read at speed. The poet places all sorts of traffic bumps in the way. There is the Scots, particularly in the earlier poems, together with the wide range of allusions often startlingly juxtaposed, which ensure that the reader’s journey is far from smooth. These difficulties are not the product of a random wilfulness on the part of the author but of his development of a queer poetics which deracinates and liberates his writing.

Always present is the emblematic and shape-shifting figure of Orpheus or Dustie-fute.. I am proud to own the Vennel Press pamphlet, illustrated by W.N. Herbert and published in 1992, where I think Dustie-fute made his first appearance. Like the pamphlet, this collection opens with ‘Dustie-fute’ and contains some of the same poems, including ‘Dustie-Fute in Mumbles’, ‘Gurlie-Whurkie’, “The Love that Dare Not’ and ‘Needle-point’. However, the figure of Dustie-fute or Orpheus persists way beyond the ‘one last time’ of ‘Felix, June 5th, 1994;’ the book closes with a lament by Queen Margaret of Scotland for the ‘Long ago person found’ also known as the Canadian iceman, an ancestor of the Southern Tutchone First Nation people of the southern Yukon. These two extraordinarily disparate characters re-enact in the poem their own version of the Orpheus story. The middle prose section of the poem is book-ended by two lyrics which seem to have ekphrastic origins from miniatures of this Scottish queen/saint. In the centre section however, Margaret displaces the poet as she recounts the discovery of the mummified body of the iceman, anachronistically gleaned from the Reader’s Digest. Identities are further blurred as Kwädāy Dän Ts’Chíni becomes Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, king of Scotland who died on the battlefield. Margaret apparently died of grief shortly afterwards. In a painting, probably familiar to Kinloch, by Joseph Noel Paton, Margaret is shown with Malcolm who wears a hat very similar to that discovered with the Canadian iceman. However, like Orpheus, the iceman’s body was separated from its head:

His head seems to have moved down the slope, with the
hair freezing into the ice. It may have been carried away in
meltwater streams that run across the ice surface like rivulets
through sand.

We are back with Orpheus and sure enough, the head begins to sing, but as it does so there is a further blurring as the ice man, Malcolm and Margaret blend together in death:

He falls, my Malcolm, with all the little words of
snow he does not understand. ‘Hin, hin, hin, toc, toc, toc, gog,
magog!’ He walks. He is. He falls. The snow covers us. The ice
presses us tight. The words congeal. Our right arm, our left,
our head…

Like the iceman, Margaret is ‘Long ago person … lost / and found and lost again’. The verse coda of the poem is a loving memorial for lost lovers but also a defence of poetry:

A little rhyme helps hold back
the ice the storeyed letters float

This final elegiac poem echoes the achievement of the earlier work where Orpheus/Dustie-fute is both the lover and the beloved, both the mourner and the dead love, representative of all the dead loves who perished in the AIDS tragedy. Kinloch’s poems are among the most effective and moving writing about the deaths of all those young men that I have read. Poems like ‘Needlepoint’ (p.27) or ‘Felix, June 5th, 1994’ bring me to tears. Kinloch comments in the prose addendum to that poem ‘The fact is that I was caught by that era; I would say ‘branded’ almost, in all senses of that word.// And there is a sense on which everything since the early 1980s has been a strange kind of ‘afterlife’. No doubt Kinloch has moved on, but the trauma or mental reconfiguration of AIDS remain at the centre of his poetry as does the recurrent story of Orpheus, the dismembered poet whose head still sings and who, in one version of the myth, turned from women to the love of boys.

Kinloch, of course, does write about other things. His sequence, ‘Some Women’ is based on women from the Bible whose stories he retells from a feminist perspective. The first time I read these I didn’t really appreciate them. They are a slow burn, but on rereading, I recognise their power to subvert and to shock. Indeed, ‘The Levite’s Concubine’ drove me back to the Bible where I discovered the story was just as horrific as Kinloch had presented it. As others have noted, this is a poet who can be tender, playful, sarcastic. Many of the later poems in this collection are ekphrastic, some serious, some, like ‘Toby’ more light-hearted. This is a poet who lives in art and in the world and moves between different realms as easily as the pedlar, troubadour, ‘dustie-fute’ who is the presiding spirit of his work. From his earliest books, Kinloch has seemed a profoundly European poet, not least in his celebration of the ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France. In these new poems he reaches further. While his feet remain on the Scottish ground, his head is all over the place. He is not an easy poet, perhaps an acquired taste – but a taste very much worth acquiring.

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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Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems by Oisín Breen £5.99. Beir Bua Press. ISBN: 9781914972577. Reviewed by J.S. Watts


Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems is a vibrant, musical, pamphlet-sized collection from the Irish poet Oisín Breen. Beir Bua publishes ‘avant-garde poetics’ and describes itself as a publisher of ‘thrilling and innovative Post-Avant poetry’. It should therefore be no surprise that Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems is experimental in nature. Even if the reader was unaware of Beir Bua’s track record, the one page introduction provided by Breen at the start of the book makes explicit the nature of the six poems in the pamphlet. Indeed, it does some of the factual heavy lifting that often falls to the reviewer. The first long poem is experimental: ‘detailing from several perspectives and multiple temporal instances the wholeness of a life of a mother figure as she is seen by others in youth, age, and death.’ ‘The second piece in the manuscript is a sonic and formally experimental work addressing love.’ The pamphlet ends with: ‘four shorter works’ addressing ‘Donegal migrant labour, and potato farming in Scotland … a group of psychologically traumatised ducks …an anti-love poem … (that) details an affair that did not happen’ and a poem ‘which describes the experience of watching puffins play, from the view of a boat.’

So, there you have a factual summation of the pamphlet, but what of the poems themselves? This reviewer found the collection to be dynamic, dramatic, challenging and strikingly Irish in tone and content. The title poem uses the traditional Irish tales of Étain, a woman who managed to be born twice over a thousand years apart and created some complicated extended family dynamics in the process, as a framework. There are allusions to the myth throughout the poem and direct references to it:

Here, Ailill Angubae, brother of Eochu Airem split himself into
sherds to leave a portion of himself always watching over their
mother, she who died of grief and memory lost after the
burning of her second son.

Here, Ailill still stands vigil too, and once,
When I went to the crematorium, I saw him,

but with Étain being used within the poem as a timeless, universal mother figure, a knowledge of her story is, perhaps, not strictly necessary, though an understanding of the myth behind the poem certainly adds to its echoes and resonances. This is poetry with many echoes and resonances, both internal and external to the poems.

The second long poem of the pamphlet, ‘The Love Song of Anna Rua’ further references Irish myth: ‘Cú Chulainn of the waves’ being an example, and interweaves Gaelic into its accumulative soundscape. The poet also uses phonics, rhythm, sound echoes, repetition, prose, capitalisation and stream of consciousness in his technique palette, to the extent that sections of the poems reminded me of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

Another tone in Breen’s technical spectrum is direct speech using what struck me as borderline ‘oirishisms’, though I guess it is acceptable if you are Irish:

‘And sure, the last picture I have of my uncle,
he’s dolled up like Napoleon Bonaparte,’ I says.

‘And sure, the hard ceramics of the endless
stacks of the dead give me shivers,’ I says.

Over all, the language is vibrant, intense and impassioned, driving the poems rhythmically forward. The locations and imagery of the poems are also very much within the Irish tradition, with specific named places in the island of Ireland, and with unnamed landscapes and natural images having a distinctive Irish feel. The poems are lyrically rich with the flora and fauna of the Emerald Isle.

Along with repetition of sound, word and phrase, Breen threads his poetry with repeated and evolving concepts; the pervading themes seemingly Freud’s fundamental drives of Thanatos and Eros. Breen brings them together in the title poem where death: ‘And I have been dying for such a long time’, is interwoven with love and lust: ‘It is October, and we are drinking from each other, and it is impossible to stop.’

The petit mort of sex and the final death are congruous:


Shared and echoed images of thirst, heat and desire can be found in ‘The Love Song of Anna Rua’ and ‘A Chiaroscuro of Hunger’, Breen’s anti-love poem, while death swims ever present alongside the extended family of ducks of ‘At Swim, Two Pair’. In ‘Even Small Birds Can Render Planets unto Ash’, the heroes may be the humans on the boat with: ‘our salmon leap’ and its echoes of Cú Chulainn, but it is the puffins who have the potential to destroy worlds and: ‘render even planets unto ash’.

Another ever present theme, both in terms of technique and content, is the musicality of poetry. For example, in the title poem, poetry or the act of death (or maybe both) is described in the following terms:

This too is a choral reliquary; a continuum in three parts:
Repetition, and a long harsh residue of sweetness and light;

In ‘The Love Song of Anna Rua’ one of its repeated mantras is: ‘All poetry is songliness’, with variations on the theme: ‘And all poetry is songliness-’, ‘all song is poetry’ crescendoing to:

And all poetry is song-


Song is strongly present in ‘A Chiaroscuro of Hunger’:

It was ten years ago, when she asked me
To serenade her

and in ‘Six Months Bought with Dirt: the Bothy Crop of Arranmore’:

Their children kept the beat on water and lowland, too,
Singing of Baiden Fhelim,

In the title poem, the musicality struck me as almost meditative. I heard echoes of the old sagas and was drawn into its mesmerising soundscape. I was less engaged by the more overtly experimental ‘The Love Song of Anna Rua’ because of its in your face experimentation, in particular the repeated sonic passages where sound takes precedence over meaning:

Ha-ra-hao- Ha-ra-hao- Rah-Hao- Ha-ra-hao-
Ha-ra-hao- Ha-ra-hao- Rah-Hao-

I am guessing the phonics relate to aspects of Gaelic, as well as a phonic echo of Rua, but as a non-speaker it is difficult to know. I found the experimentation to be a thing more of head than heart. I would, however, love to hear the poem read aloud. I suspect the experience would be more visceral than intellectual.

Lilies on the Deathbed of Étain and Other Poems is a must for collectors of experimental poetry and those who like their poetry cerebrally technical, but there is also much to admire for lovers of the lyrical beauty of traditional Irish poetry who want their poetry to flow with impassioned words and the pounding life blood of the heart.

J.S.Watts is a poet and novelist. Her poetry, short stories and non-fiction appear in diverse publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America and have been broadcast on BBC and independent radio. Her published books include: Cats and Other Myths, Songs of Steelyard Sue, Years Ago You Coloured Me, The Submerged Sea, Underword (poetry) and A Darker Moon, Witchlight, Old Light and Elderlight (novels). For more information, see her website

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