Harry Clifton: Gone Self Storm • Rosie Jackson: Love Leans over the Table • Kathleen McPhilemy: Back Country • Omar Sabbagh: The Cedar Never Dies • Tom Sastry: You Have No Normal Country to Return To • Ken Evans: To An Occupier Burning Holes • Sharon Black: The Red House • Fiona Sinclair: Second Wind • The Book of Life, poems to tide you over edited by Grace Wells • Alex Josephy: Again Behold the Stars • Lewis Warsh: Elixir • Carl Dennis: Earthborn
Fabio Pusterla: Brief Homage to Pluto & Other Poems
Gone Self Storm by Harry Clifton. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-453-6
The cover image of Harry Clifton’s Gone Self Storm is Mark Tracey’s beautiful black and white photograph of Howe Strand, which shows a ruined building silhouetted between the running sea and the sky. The poems themselves are haunted by death. Parts One and Three are dedicated to the memory of dead women, the first being the speaker’s mother or stepmother. Part Two begins with a short sequence set in the Glasnevin cemetery, and most of its poems are elegies or addresses to the dead. What’s really distinctive, though, is not this elegiac subject matter but the way ideas of change and disintegration have been absorbed into its style and expressive procedures. Many of the poems slide like dreams between poles of fragmentary but extremely sharply focused distinctness on the one hand and uncertainty on the other. This is clearly deliberate, suggesting how ungraspable things become as they slip into the past. Moreover, the speaker’s uncertainty about things surrounding him extends to uncertainty about himself. The section dedicated to his mother begins ‘I was conceived, the story goes, / On a Dutch tramp steamer / Ploughing the Magellan Straits / Halfway to Buenos Aires.’ Later in the section, ‘Stepmother’ begins:
You were drafted in
At the moment of conception,
Filling an empty space –
And I learned to call you Mother.
Looking back to discover where he comes from, the poet finds:
A language all conditionals, subjunctives
In a land of might-have-been, where the cloudscapes thicken
Though the whole section is about this Mother, it isn’t always clear whether a given poem is about her or spoken by her about someone else. There are vivid glimpses of her story, but continuous uncertainty about how to thread them together. Throughout the book, poems are full of narrative details but their power isn’t in narrative development, it’s in the lyrical presentation of emotions arising from the poet’s never-quite-successful attempts to pin down elusive aspects of his and other people’s stories and in the probing sharpness of his intelligence as it flickers over and through them. Ultimately, I think, what the poems most continuously express is the sense that reality is fugitive, both because things change and because even in the moment of experience our perceptions are provisional and inadequate. Clifton often surrounds literal description or narrative with mythological associations that extend or dissolve the literal into a kind of penumbral suggestiveness that seems to carry the weight of the poem’s feeling. The sonnet ‘The Gravediggers’ opens:
Three of them slaking thirst, this Saturday
In the back-bar of the gravediggers’ pub –
A black and lightless realm, where to drink is to pray
Not to a soul in a mirror, a cigarette stub,
But to the millions gone before,
The city of the dead, on this side of town
The concrete detail of lines 1, 2 and 4 gives the poem a solid core. The poet’s lyrical reflections are expressed metaphorically in lines 3, 5 and 6. The life of the poem lies in the tension between the scene itself and the poet’s response. An extremely successful example of the technique is the short sequence ‘The Felling’. This involves several overlapping circles of reference – what a certain pine wood meant in the poet’s youth, and how he feels returning after long absence to find it cut down; memories of the life of the area long ago; old and now dead women, apparently the poet’s aunts; the flowers that they planted now growing wild. The beauty of the poem is in the way it develops by a series of dreamlike transitions in which one idea blurs into or becomes another, often by means of a mythological parallel. The pine wood becomes a metaphor for the aunts themselves and a focus for meditation on death. Near the start Clifton writes:
I came back, like rain on the wind,
From a great elsewhere, to the ruined Parthenon
Of trunks, the raped Arcadian grove
Once picnicked in by sisters, maiden aunts
Now shades of themselves, the lake shining through
In the distance, spread like a water table
With its own best silver.
There’s a magical shimmering between these images of bare pine trunks, ruined stone pillars, the raped Arcadian grove, and the picnicking ladies, now ghosts of themselves in age or death. Not only does each image reflect on the others, they shine through each other, as human social pretensions shine through the image of the lake spread with its best silver. There’s humour here, but the tone can darken dramatically, even nightmarishly, as when the thought of the old trees before their cutting down makes Clifton imagine:
Of old trees, leaning into each other,
Conspiratorial, whispering on every wind
The inside story… I have strayed
Into their circle. Dead, they stare at me,
Offer me cakes, cold tea, a place at a distance
From the human family.
But life is change, apparent loss may be transformation and renewal. The series ends,
Goodbye dears, and thank you. Everything
Has run wild again, but nothing is lost.
I stand in the long grass. Arcadia, Parthenon –
Everything that shadowed us has gone.
The way this poetry proceeds by metaphorical suggestions and lyrical declaration means that it’s equally able to suggest the sorrows and fears of what feels like loss and aspirations to a more buoyant embracing of changing life.
I hope my quotations have suggested how skilfully Clifton deploys rhythm and metaphor in a lyrical mode. It’s not his only approach, though. Urbane and erudite, even in the plainest language he’s a master of the arresting phrase whose ironies set the mind going in multiple directions. ‘The Has-beens’ begins:
You who managed your decline
So beautifully, who withdrew
At just the right time –
‘After the Barbarians’ starts:
Back then, I wanted to be
A heterosexual Cavafy –
Here, language and cadence are those of ordinary speech, heightened by their compact pointedness, the precision with which punctuation and line ending control emphasis, and the surefooted speed of their movement through ideas.
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.
Love Leans over the Table by Rosie Jackson. £10.99 Two Rivers Press ISBN: 978-1-915-048-07-3
Rosie Jackson’s latest collection is a remarkably compelling and readable autobiography of the spirit. It finds revelation and joy within (even because of) the pain of the poet’s hard-won experience, in a life ‘hungry, as we all are, for nectar.’
Her lived knowledge of the mystical tradition is a striking feature: the collection’s title is adapted from a 14th century love lyric called: ‘Blowe Northerne Wind’ and the opening section is titled: ‘Hearken, O Daughter’, from Psalm 22. But these poems are not rarefied or esoteric: rather, Jackson’s gift for storytelling is the first feature that strikes the reader. One of the first poems: ‘The Covenant’ starts with her father laid up in Pinderfields Hospital when two hospital visitors arrive ‘out of the New Testament, gleaming with / faith’ and imply a cure for his tuberculosis if he devotes himself fully to Christianity. His daughter, the young poet, catches a glimpse of that faith and grace, even the coat-tails of a miracle, as he recovers, and this bonds her to her father in all his: ‘holy loneliness…
And so I think of love like this, God like this /
infinitely kind, well-meaning, full of goodness,
but always on the back foot, not quite managing.’
Her adolescent rejection of God, recounted in: ‘Letter to Nietzsche’ leads her at one point to worship: ‘every secular giant’ and to scorn her parents’ faith. But the philosopher’s mocking certainties about the deceptions of religion are later seen by the poet as his defence mechanism: ‘how hard to say yes / to being toppled by tiny pebbles of love.’ The story of her spiritual evolution continues as she learns to live alongside worldly weakness and inner conflict. ‘The Day Meher Baba Died’ is a wonderful portrait of the seventeen year old Jackson: ‘I’ve lost so much / weight I’ve been struck off the hockey team…I’m a year away from messing up my life’ unaware of what a profound influence the Indian spiritual master will eventually have on her.
This clear link for the poet between vulnerability and genuine revelation is very movingly evoked in: ‘The Night I Grew Old’ where she tells of the shock of conceiving a child at the age of nineteen:
‘…I knew / straightaway – don’t ask me how, an angel tore
aside the curtain – a new life had arrived inside me,
its invisible heft so huge, like a meteor trailing light,’
and then the ‘terror of uprootedness’ this invokes in her. Jackson’s tender maternal love expressed in: ‘After Reading Wendy Pratt’s When I Think of my Body as a Horse’ is made even more poignant by our then learning she lost her young son in a custody battle. Jackson’s unflinching look at her subsequent grief: ‘a riptide of grief maroons me once more in those nights / when I’d walk to red boxes to talk with him before he went / to bed…/ I never had enough coins’ shows her immense courage in bearing witness and turning towards that ‘holy loneliness’ in the midst of her pain.
At the end of this first section comes: ‘Let’s Call it Light’, a startling poem of Jackson’s true spiritual awakening and ecstasy: ‘caught inside an infinite benevolence’ of light that arrived unbidden one night as she prepared for sleep:
‘that wrapped me in something I’d never known, never imagined,
love, God, bliss, happiness, whatever the words are for that world
It is a testament to the poet’s skill and hard-won integrity that this poem feels utterly true as it bursts onto the page. She has led us to a place where such things are real and can happen to ordinary mortals. It beautifully captures a moment of revelation known to every age and tradition: the mystical union out of darkness with divine love.
The second section of the collection: ‘Better Than Angels’ does not open to a place of light-filled visions as one might expect but focuses on the world of other mystics, with a particular focus on the anchorite, whose voluntary imprisonment marks a lifetime’s devotion to whatever may lie beyond. In a stunning series of poems the poet’s uncanny skill to inhabit a whole range of voices in their ‘holy loneliness’ enacts a waiting in the dark which becomes an end in itself. ‘When I Wonder What it Was Like to Be an Anchorite’ is a wonderful modern take on this, the poet locking herself into her unfurnished new house and hiding like an anchorite whilst she listens to builders with their smutty jokes and sexist remarks as they work outside.
‘The Recluse Tells of her Love’ is another tour de force, its Middle English inspired by a 14th century text called ‘The Fire of Love’. The skill with which Jackson makes these voices of the past so compelling – raising questions about what we have lost in our secular ‘reality’ – had me reading poem after poem in fascinated succession. The life and metaphysical toils of John Donne are brilliantly evoked in poems such as ‘John Donne Dreams His Still-Born Son Lives’ and ‘Batter My Heart’. The ending of: ‘Tea With Simone Weil, Ashford, Kent, 1943’ made my hair stand on end and Jackson’s continuing pilgrimage introduces us to a whole cast: Sufi mystics; founder of the Quakers George Fox; Margery Kempe with her Boisterous Sobbings (commended in this year’s National Poetry Competition); Barbara Hepworth and Meher Baba. ‘A Piece of Cloth’ features the Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, defender of a woman’s right to remove a headscarf in public. Jackson shows us how these compelling characters are all sustained by a calling truer than their suffering.
The thread that runs through the whole book is the struggle to meet Love in all its questing and complexity; and to bear the radical, shocking demands of living as close to its truth as we can. The final section: ‘Among Mortals’ reminds us of how frail and flawed we are but also what humanity we share, caught halfway across: ‘The Chinvat Bridge’ or rowing on: ‘a vast lake’ seeking courage in the Sufi words: ‘God sees / a black ant on a black stone in the darkest night.’
Love Leans Across The Table is Rosie Jackson’s finest collection to date. The vision and craft of a poet at the height of her powers open doors to the seeker in all of us:
‘Love that puts itself in the balance, light
as a feather, yet muscled enough to carry the world.’
Graeme Ryan is a poet, playwright and teacher living in West Somerset. His debut poetry collection: Valley of the Kings (Coverstory Books) was published in 2022. A performance of his work: Dreaming of Hinkley Point was given at Alfoxton House in April 22 and How With This Rage Shall Beauty Hold A Plea? in January 2023. He read at Teignmouth Poetry Festival in March 2023. He is a member of Fire River Poets and Bath Writers and Artists.
Back Country by Kathleen McPhilemy. £9.00 Littoral Press. ISBN: 9781912412419
Back Country is McPhilemy’s fourth poetry collection and, as you might therefore expect, is a confident, thoughtfully constructed collection. It contains forty seven individual poems across ninety two pages. The last poem and final section of this five-sectioned book, ‘Days in April’, is a poem sequence of a further twenty three textually connected poems, all the titles of which are taken from the poetry of W.S. Graham.
The back cover blurb states: ‘Her poetry is firmly rooted in the domestic and the local from which she explores place and displacement in the personal, natural and political worlds.’ It is an entirely accurate and typically unfussy summation of the book.
On first reading, the poems, with their unembellished day to day language, come across as simple and uncomplicated, but these are understated poems of complex underlying clarity. Like ‘Back Country’, the poem from which the collection takes its name, simple local domesticity conceals: ‘What is not imagined’. In the case of the poem: ‘these half-known roads/ between the city and the sea’ is a liminal place where: ‘hard men step out’, taking us back to a time of the Troubles and the ongoing ripples that linger in their aftermath. Little is said. Little is known for sure, but you are left feeling that the worst probably happens.
The next poem in the book, ‘Home’ is a further, more personal look at the area: ‘between city and coast’. Now the narrator claims this in-between land as home, but it is a place where: ‘bad things are planned’, your background is known and silently judged and you discover yourself displaced from your own home before you are even aware of the judgement.
The poems in the first section of the book are overtly Irish themed. The second section appears to offer more of the same, but the loss and displacement explored take place on a broader, vaguer, international canvas, which could be anywhere, as in ‘Orestes’:
Everyone who has been in a war
even a small war, even at second hand,
knows it has changed their life.
Everyone who has been in a war
knows how doors close,
how borders are created and close,
how the phone goes
too late at night.
By the end of the second section, the often unnamed disquiet and a sense of personal displacement is located clearly in the time of the COVID pandemic. In ‘Catching Our Breath (Spring, 2020)’ the speaker is in a known, home environment, but: ‘Utterly strange and changed’. Doors are once again closed, concealing, this time: ‘extraordinary acts of courage’. For once, though, McPhilemy is more open about her political views and where she lays the blame (or at least the speaker of the poem is).
Section three of the collection sees a shift to images of birds and nature, but the underlying themes persist. In ‘One for sorrow’, the magpie is: ‘auguring this week’s sorrow’ as: ‘one by one all around’ humanity succumbs to COVID. In ‘Context’:
This budgie on the allotment
the dejection of his shoulders
show that he knows
he’s the wrong colour
We are once again contemplating displacement and being: ‘altogether out of place.’
The fourth, penultimate section of the book takes people and humanity as its overt subject matter, but the themes of loss and displacement and especially death, the ultimate displacement, are ever present. There is the speaker of “Disorientated’: ‘afraid to sleep then wake’ to find themselves old, alone and in a care home, the ‘elegant swimmer’ of ‘Hand in hand’ who has: ‘swum from the shore/threading the breakers till I see you no more.’ and the : ‘Blue girl/dancing on the rim of darkness’ from the poem ‘Blue Girl’, perhaps the most imaginatively abstract of the poems in the collection, that deals with the death of the subject and the impact on those she leaves behind.
The fifth and final section of the collection is the poem sequence based around words from the poems of W.S. Graham. Here language, or the loss of it, takes centre stage. For example:
I’m looking for the words
but all my words are hiding
disguised, are idle chat
from ‘The Hide and Seeking Streets’, or the opening lines of ‘Always Language is where the people are’:
But what when language fails us?
or do we fail language
like some terrible exam
that passes us as human?
And even when words are found, they have their limitations as in ‘Walk the Dead Water’:
How can words fix it? How can words
lift the rank stink from the meadow?
Words appear to be the: ‘silvery slippery shiny things’ described in the penultimate line of the final poem in the book, ‘Sleeping Alone Together’ – desirable, essential, but uncertain and always at risk of slipping from your grasp.
Back Country is a subtle and well-crafted exploration of place and the loss of it. McPhilemy’s poems carry a punch in their apparent simplicity, but below the simple and the easy are darker complexities and questions that continue to interrogate the reader well after the collection has been read and put down.
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 https://www.jswatts.co.uk/
The Cedar Never Dies by Omar Sabbagh. £12.99. Northside Press Ltd; ISBN 978-1-4709-7740-5
The Cedar Never Dies has the subtitle ‘Scenes from Lebanese Life’, and that, essentially, is the spirit of the book, variously described on the cover as a ‘bricolage of verse’ (Dr Matthew Ingalls) or as an ‘eclectic biography of modern and contemporary Lebanon’ (Dr Sleiman El Hajj). There are dialogues, narrative accounts, retellings of incidents, and brief individual biographies, all from the history/ies of Lebanon, or representative of those.
Lebanon is a small country within the Middle East, situated between powerful neighbours, with complicated history and geography, and it has been repeatedly invaded or intruded upon by its neighbours and by world powers, over many centuries. It also has numerous religious and political factions within its own borders, hugely varying levels of personal wealth and poverty, and a complex history of religious/political rule. Not surprisingly, this has not brought about peace and happiness for its citizens, and ‘war-torn Beirut’ is, sadly, the long-time comparator for other cities and countries in periods of war, civil war, and/or suffering the effects of ongoing terrorism.
Omar Sabbagh is British, the son of parents who came to the UK as exiles. He has only actually lived in Lebanon fairly briefly, but the country informs his being, his family history, and his heart. A key piece near the start of the book is a dialogue between father and son, the father nearing the end of life and wanting to pass on his views and understanding of his country, the son seemingly recognising that, even if his own life has been lived very differently and not in Lebanon, still he must listen and will have to grapple with the weight of it all:
Like most sons, my first wish,
The way I was socketed, primed
To wish, was to feel
Balanced by the scale
Of his pleasure: was to feel
Of a sure-felt rhyme
To him, his eyes, here,
At close to the end
Of his burning, beating line.
In the piece ‘Serendipity Makes a Cynic’ he writes of a young medic in the late 1980s, presumably recently qualified as a doctor, and facing three choices – to leave the country, to join one militia or another, or to stay and fight ‘but in another way’. The doctor stays, but inevitably finds himself dealing with the results of the constant factional warring:
Where ‘blood’ of a different sort
Should’ve made the tail
Of their homely story –
More vibrant, more vital –
Between south and north,
Between the meaning of the mind
That knows its heart
And the meaning of the beast beneath,
Thumping its breast
Till all of heart has ceased.
This section ends with the doctor in 2019, driving his own son through Beirut streets, and telling him that the ‘black cloud’ will pass, implying that the son should have hope, but then immediately remembering his own mother saying the same thing to him forty years earlier, and recognising that:
But that Lebanon was now
Finished and polished by a kind of death
Like a thoroughbred lie
Whose dark pedigree
Was lain inside,
Clearly, the book is dealing with many terrible things, and optimism is in short supply, but its power does grip the reader, and the subject matter is so very striking.
Sabbagh’s style throughout is a mixture of the complicated and the comparatively simple (superficially), with rhymes, half rhymes, and plenty of repetitions or echoes of words. Oddly, given the subject matter, it reminded me a little of Betjeman’s ‘Summoned By Bells’, as a longish narrative told in a sort of free rhyme. In the Preface, Sabbagh says that the Northside commissioning editor had suggested that the book should be written in verse, ‘due to his mannered way in prose’, and I can imagine that, and think the result endorses that decision.
His playfulness with language is often easy to read at first go, and then you realise that you have to think your way through it, or, at least, I had to – but I found this worked well for me, prompting thought and a grasping towards understanding, most of the time. In ‘Women and War’ he says:
Some of the girls attending
Are veiled, some are not.
Some wend down
From families like liberal, opened knots,
Descend more slowly downwards
From your more traditional lot.
There are some words that he uses frequently throughout the book: ‘darling’ as an adjective, and ‘surd’ which stands out, because it is an unusual word. In UK English it is more usually used in its mathematical meaning – an irrational number (one that doesn’t quite exist but can be imagined for calculation purposes, like the square root of 15, say, or of a minus number) – but which Sabbagh uses to mean irrational in its more usual sense, or ‘absurd’. While the situation in Lebanon is clearly tragically ab/surd, I might have welcomed a few different expressions for this. I am also not sure why all lines are capitalised, for me this made it harder to make sense of some passages, but these are small cavils.
There is an epilogue, entitled ‘The 2020 Explosion: So Pity the Nation’, which includes the word ‘tragedy’, not much used in the foregoing pieces, and ends:
For crying Need
Cries the more,
The more and more
The finished dead become
Pity the nation.
However, while there is tragedy and pity, there is also some hope. The book’s title is The Cedar Never Dies which obviously refers to the famous cedars of Lebanon trees, as featured on the national flag, which are described in the bible as strong and durable, and apparently regarded as a symbol of nobility and incorruptibility. This book certainly made Lebanon and its complicated histories more real to me, not just a tired simile for endless warfare and horror, and this writer shows positive energy and strength, so all is not lost. Perhaps, like the young doctor written of above, Sabbagh is fighting ‘but in another way’.
Rowena Sommerville has written poems and made her life, the last thirty years of which have been lived in Robin Hood’s Bay. She has worked in a huge variety of community settings and arts organisations. She left full-time work in 2017, and is now freelance, both as a creative and as a project producer. She also sings with and writes for the acappella band Henwen which has been performing locally and nationally for a long, and harmonious, time. Shewas The High Window visual artist in residence for 2022.
You Have No Normal Country to Return To by Tom Sastry. £9.99. Nine Arches Press. ISBN 978-1-91-343734-3.
Thirty years ago, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced that humankind had reached the apex of its development; liberal democratic norms, coupled with free market capitalism, he said, had brought the West to what others have described as an ‘unsurpassable ideal’. That startling, plainly overreaching and dubious proposition appeared in Fukuyama’s treatise, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992.
Poet Tom Sastry is having none of it. Little wonder.
In 2023, pervasive economic and rights inequalities not only persist, the chasms have widened. We live in what is increasingly seen to be the Great Age of Untruth. Truth-telling—so long an unquestioned virtue and political imperative—has lost not only its moral pre-eminence but much of its popular sustenance. Far from being at its end, History is being shamelessly reworked and redefined to serve political and pecuniary ends. (New American school textbooks eschew the term ‘slavery’, preferring instead false and lifeless references to ‘black immigration’.)
Structural weaknesses in Western democratic institutions, coupled with the fatal allure of populism and its majoritarian agendas, have left minorities and the small-l liberal democratic values that are meant to protect them increasingly exposed. Their defenders are increasingly isolated and marginalised in the public square. While the puritanical fervor for book-banning in America edges back toward toward McCarthy Era levels, hopeful and principled voices like those of philosophers Michael Sandel and Michael Ignatieff can barely be heard over the dystopian din.
It is out of this swirling cauldron that Sastry’s You Have No Normal Country to Return To has been so skilfully conjured.
What is a poet to do? Well. Hold up a mirror. Acknowledge, record, reflect, reflect upon, examine, document, recognise, call out—all in artful and evocative language. By this (and almost any) standard, You Have No Normal Country succeeds admirably.
Sastry is not a political poet, per se. He is not a Jess Green or a Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. Yet, as they say, the personal is political, and the political is personal. Political forces buffet Sastry and toss him about as they do most of us, and their imprint is everywhere to be seen in his writing. Indeed, being a Briton of mixed Indian and Anglo-Saxon origins, he has experienced the degradation of already compromised institutions and norms of civility in particularly acute ways.
My father’s rather ordinary given name, Ernest, was not seized upon by my schoolmates as a whip with which to torment me. For Sastry it was different:
The boy asked for my father’s name.
I didn’t want him to have it
but couldn’t explain why.
He ran to the court
where Dad was playing, shouting
like he now owned a piece of him.
Not just any piece
the one that wasn’t mine to give…
And staying with that poem for just a moment, other encounters experienced later during adulthood confirm and reinforce the sense of statelessness and estrangement that almost every son or daughter of immigrant parents must feel, even from their parents’ cultures:
Taxi drivers will correct me
in the pronunciation of my surname, say
you’ve never been to India?
as if India was part of my soul.
If it isn’t
I am the end of history.
All I begin is myself.
And there we have it, in those final lines. Fukuyama unmasked; Fukuyama turned on his head. Viewed from where he sits in 2023, ‘I am the end of history,’ Sastry says. ‘All I begin is myself.’
The political is personal.
This book of poems touches on race but it is not about race. It touches on corruption, greed and exploitation, too. Sastry sets eyes on many of society’s current ills, but his poems to do not comprise a rant, or a manifesto, or a well-meaning progressive’s didactic screed. Rather, Sastry has, true to his instincts, held up a mirror. You Have No Normal Country is a record of our troubled times, artfully expressed. Because it aims to do no more, it succeeds as art. Its success is not sullied or adulterated by the clumsy ‘messaging’ that so often mars contemporary poetic works of lesser quality.
Sastry confronts modern societal unravelling with a fierce intellectual independence. He is much more than an Anglo-Indian poet, just as he is much more than a political poet. Sastry is Sastry; his poetry is consummately sui generis. It treads the ground one would expect it to tread, given his background (self-describing as ‘brown, hairy, and English as toast’), but Sastry’s experience, wisdom and insights are multifactorial and they are his own.
While there are occasional glimpses of harsh life experiences, You Have No Normal Country to Return To also does not embrace the fashionable, contemporary obsession with trauma or the dictum that the lens of trauma is the only one through which poets ought now to view the world. Trauma is here in proper measure, by necessary implication, through indirection. Sastry shows where many modern poets stridently and awkwardly tell.
Tom Sastry is, among other things, a darkly comedic poet. Often, it is his defiant sense of humour that gets him through.
In one poem, we find ourselves in a chippy in Bristol where Jesus has just been rebuffed by another customer whom he has tried to assist. Troubled, Jesus eventually seeks the insights of a Buddhist whose voice is as ‘soft and unctuous as unsalted butter’. Jesus wonders whether, when he tries to give, his is truly just taking. The Buddhist offers little comfort. He urges him to ‘let go of [his] story and live’. But it doesn’t go well:
…You shouldn’t get over yourself if you are God in Man.
It does strange things to the weather. Also, you get
terrible dreams. [from ‘Jesus of Bristol’]
In another, Sastry describes feeling some pressure to rein in some aspects of his quirky individuality during lockdown:
…You swear off the old joke
which reminds you of laughter, and anecdotes
that bring people to mind. You banish
earworms and stop dad-dancing in the hall.
You are now less irritating and you listen more.
Your voice matters. It speaks, never just
brings into the present something only you need.
The hope is your improved people-skills
will make you less lonely, easier to keep
loving. For now, your head is a kettle
of silence, words condensing on the sides.
[from ‘Sharing a Small Space’]
Humour like this leavens a collection of poems that, unavoidably, sound largely in a dark register.
Like our times, Tom Sastry’s poems can be complex and sometimes seem even impenetrable. They are, by turns, fierce, tender, clever, harshly critical, despairing, wise and hopeful. As those in power gathered around him (around us) seek to ‘turn old boasts into scripture’ (his words), Sastry watches warily and records. He listens sceptically, portrays artfully and, occasionally, he lashes back at society’s urge to ‘be what we want to be / in somebody’s silence’ with withering force.
In one of the book’s closing poems, ‘Demolition’, Sastry refers to himself momentarily as a ‘heap / of stricken words / unable to form themselves’. No self-descriptive account could fall wider of its mark. You Have No Normal Country to Return To presents an articulate skein of words that are ‘stricken’ to be sure, but they are words that are beautifully chosen, arranged and formed. They are evocative and haunting words and together they form a true, trustworthy and unnervingly handsome portrayal of a distinctly unlovely interval in our collective history.
P.W. Bridgman’s third and fourth books—Idiolect (poetry) and The Four-Faced Liar (short fiction)—were published in 2021 by Ekstasis Editions. A novella-in-verse entitled Deliverance, 1961: A Novella in Thirty-Two Cantos is forthcoming from Pooka Press in 2023. Bridgman’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in, among others, One Hand Clapping, The Honest Ulsterman, The Moth Magazine, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Glasgow Review of Books, Skylight 47, The High Window, Litro, The Galway Review, The Canadian Poetry Review and The Maynard.
To An Occupier Burning Holes by Ken Evans.£10.99, Salt, 978 1 78463 270 0
There’s a difficulty in reviewing a collection of poems in which the perspective shifts between an ostensibly dispassionate survey of international crises and the intimacy of human and family relationships, especially when the poet also displays considerable formal variety in response to the themes he explores. Yet the world as it is now seems to demand our attention, while our nearest connections, if we are fortunate, draw out our capacity for warmth and, inevitably, grief at loss. Ken Evans’ new collection spans this wide range and a review can give only a small flavour of the variety within.
Poems engaging with the wider world often skirt round the meaning readers will take from them. In the poem ‘Bacchanal’ a military invasion is presented as an offer of a ‘largesse’ of alcoholic gifts:
The invaders send wine to sweeten us
They wave and stagger till they fall over,
red wine pouring from their throats.
Women jig crazily by open crater-holes,
children bewildering in the red spills.
but it is quickly clear that the bacchanal of the title alludes to a level of destruction and damage that is more safely addressed obliquely.
Elsewhere the sense of human damage is even less direct. ‘Anaesthetising Flies in the Lab’ offers an apparently literal account of an experiment on baby fruit flies who are held in a ‘glass dungeon’ where music lulls them to ‘the entrancement of sleep’ as they rest ‘with folded wings / like swaddling bands’. But while the fruit flies are keenly observed, the poem’s second stanza begins to address the reader as a god-like ‘You,’ who is encouraged to exert power over the flies. And at the start of the third stanza – the half-way point of the poem – we are urged to do damage: ‘Pull the front legs off as they sleep to see how / they will preen.’ The destruction may seem to be overcome because:
Front legs torn off, they adapt in forty-eight
hours, or eight years in human life, and start
to clean with their middle legs.
This comparison of fruit fly hours to human years turns the focus back on us in a different way. We may commit damage but we are also damaged and adapt slowly as though any harm we have suffered were normal. Nor is it as simple as that, the poem warns us, ending with the words: ‘This learning, / beyond all easy metaphor.’
But while some poems take us into a bleak world, there is also the warmth and intimacy of family life. In ‘Eclogue with Dad over Bradnor Hill,’ Dad recalls the ‘shy explorations’ of his courting days, when ‘Love was the pulp of a wet plum, our tongues / licking to find the stone before biting down’ and memories evoke the difficulties of finding enough butter and sugar to make sponge cake for seven wedding guests in a time of rationing.
An even greater intimacy is cherished in ‘Shortening Our Step,’ which takes intense delight in details (‘white sheets on a line, / a trellis of purple bougainvillea, the cat on a step’) as it describes a walk with a child to fetch breakfast from a Greek bakery:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxHe is four,
his dad indivisible from good even when wrong, and fast
forgiven. Strapping-up his jellies to walk with him,
I have never been gifted such privilege and looked after it
Yet the cost of family love is also a sense of loss as shown in the poems about the immediate impact of a mother’s death. ‘A Final Invoice from the Co-op’ begins by listing, as found, the invoiced items which include:
for care and preparation of the deceased prior to burial;
for provision of a hearse and three personnel;
for choice of a Simple coffin; a Doctor & a Minister’s fee;
for a non-witnessed scattering of the ashes.
Set against this are the personal recollections of the dead woman’s economies: we’re told that ‘she dunked tea bags twice,’ ‘saved her hearing aid batteries for birdsong’ and ‘would dance on her stick’ if she only knew that her death came VAT-free. By such details the dead continue with us.
Loss, however, makes more painful practical demands than paying the cost of a funeral. The apparent emptiness of a room in ‘Tracks’ holds reminders of a bodily presence:
A glass door throws what light there
is on the carpet, naked and pinker where divots
from what was chair legs puncture the fibres,
the hollows suggesting how she faced one way
so many long unfurling days, the pile threadbare
where her slippers marked the apex of a star
Not all sorrows are so peaceful. In ‘A Yellow Finger’ the dead mother seems like Nemesis, ‘finger-wagging from the heat of the pyre’ as a storm breaks and ‘The dark sky rolls-up in her fist.’ Grief has its anger too, and its blame and its absurdities in a poem which deals with the rawness of hurt and fury.
The ordering of this collection means that, if the poems are read in order, its themes resurface in different forms. This may feel unsettling but life is full of varied themes and our most intimate feelings co-exist with an inevitable awareness of the wider world.
Kathleen Bell is a poet, fiction writer and escapee from academia based in the East Midlands. Her most recent collections, both published in 2021, are Do You Know How Kind I Am? (a lockdown pamphlet from Leafe Press) and the full-length collection Disappearances from Shoestring. From time to time she still teaches, leads workshops and gives readings.
The Red House by Sharon Black. £10. Drunk Muse Press 2022. ISBN: 978-1-8384085-7-2
Reading Sharon Black’s latest collection is like taking part in an exuberant party in the Vallée Borgne, the area of rural France where she has lived for over twenty years. People of the Cévennes mountains come and go in the poems, some of them drawn from contemporary life, others imagined or conjured from exhibits in the Maison Rouge museum in St Jean du Gard. Through their stories, Black’s account of joining a French mountain community and her musings on Cévenol dialect, culture and history, a powerful sense of place sings off every page.
On a first reading, I was captivated by ‘Song for the Cévennes’, a praise song to local artisans, farmers and other neighbours which unfolds in a compelling flow of images, each long line rich with sensual detail and word music. I’m especially enchanted by the goatherd:
…with her stick and dog, her grass-stained
xxxxxpaperback, her rows of moon-white pélardons
fresh from the moulds…
My favourite character though is ‘Julie-who-knows-everything’, a canny woman who ‘sails around in pantaloons’, and whose areas of knowledge tell so much about Cévenol life:
the dark drips on our fireplace
are tannin leaked from burning oak.
That the hunters are all pissed on pastis
on the Col de l’Asclier.
These women seem almost mythical, but Black never strays too far from the mundane realities of rural France. There is a beautifully grounded description of ‘locals born and bred’ in ‘De Souche’, a word for a coppiced tree:
the workers cradling amber pints;
the women at the lay-by every Tuesday
waiting for the market bus;
the gravel pitch where chasseurs, pêcheurs,
pastis drinkers play pétanque.
As a Scottish writer herself, Black is conscious of resonances with R L Stevenson’s travels through the Cévennes with his donkey Modestine, including them in the first poem, and emulating Stevenson’s spirit of adventure and enquiry throughout the collection. She finds poetry in his solitary endeavour, musing on his surviving camping gear which includes an egg whisk carried across mountain passes:
fanciful, unused, maybe it reminded you
of something, someone.
The legacy of the silk trade threads through the museum exhibits and the poems (the Red House, I’ve discovered, was the last silk spinning mill in France), and through this Black explores social and political history with a light but persistent touch, subtly undercutting the romance of a place that might seem to exist at a remove from the present day. In ‘Cocoon’, a young girl sits among ‘stinking vapour’, ‘teasing out infinity’ from cocoons, ‘to be dispatched to Lyon’, enriching ‘a few men,’ and leaving her sick and scarred.
Time is moving on, though, as the museum demonstrates, and twenty-first century life impinges here as it does everywhere. The local mayor puts up an ironic notice to warn noise-averse tourists:
Beware: French village, enter at your own risk.
We have bells that toll, cockerels that crow early…
farmers who work to provide you with food.
Despite or alongside these themes, the collection retains a dominant sense of wonder and delight in discovering a dialect, a culture and a (so far) surviving geography and eco-system. As a poet who has lived between two cultures myself for the past fifteen years, I was intrigued by the fluency with which Black integrates these joys, so that the tongue-pleasing French words she introduces us to:
…run through conversation like
the streams that foam down calades
after rain; fast-tongued tributaries
whose patois swells the Gardon…
Forces of nature are a constant presence, not to be taken lightly: the water that arrives in torrents in ‘the annual épisode cévenol’, causes chaos and once ‘swept the mill boss to his death.’ It is also highly valued, the ‘source’ tended through a harsh winter, the provenance of mountain water described as if on the edge of miracle:
To drink it was like drinking clouds
with undertones of quartz and granite
as if the sky itself
were pouring from our taps.
Worms, a grass snake, wolves and other creatures also join the party, adding moments of strangeness and connection. They become part of domestic life, the poet’s children thrilled by a wolf encounter. A rescued animal lives with the family for a while, ‘smelling of forest and leaf mulch and wild.’ I was reminded of John Burnside’s assertion that wild creatures can’t and shouldn’t be pressed into human comparisons; even when dependent on human help, Black’s animals exist on their own terms.
The poems also acknowledge traditional beliefs, without making judgments but with a kind of emotional recognition. Bees are notified of a keeper’s death, and there is a ‘fire healer’ who helps a sick neighbour in a ritual he himself doesn’t claim to understand.
(He) clasps whatever magic
fizzes in his fist then with a flick
of fingers, makes a red silk hankie
The penultimate poem ‘Wooden Statues from Friends’ is striking in this respect, and for me it works so beautifully because it hovers just outside any specific spiritual belief, in a space I feel I know very well. These statues of the Virgin Mary, placed in the poet’s garden, fade and start to fall apart:
with their lacquer and their infants
holding on regardless,
catch the eye from the clearings
where we place them, they are
the strongest and most fragile things.
I recommend this collection for its finely balanced language and tone, for its mountain air and all it has to tell about a little-known corner of France, and for those moments of held breath that make poetry so ‘negatively capable’: so marvellously inexplicable.
Alex Josephy lives in Rye, East Sussex, and sometimes in Italy. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and has worked as a teacher and university lecturer and as an NHS education adviser. Her most recent collection is Again Behold the Stars, a Cinnamon Press pamphlet award winner, 2023. Other work includes Naked Since Faversham, Pindrop Press, 2020. White Roads, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK, Italy and India. You can find out more on her website: www.alexjosephy.net
Second Wind by Fiona Sinclair. £10. Vole. ISBN: 978-1913329662
From the perspective of a milestone birthday, the poems in Second Wind by Fiona Sinclair resurrect memories of family and friends and the impact of Covid, which included the decision by Fiona’s partner to buy a motorbike. Through an eclectic mix of topics, this collection offers insight into the experience of life, with all its complexity and emotions. The title poem refers to the shift in balance when one half of a relationship retires from work and finds free time for their interests, while the other continues to follow the same daily routine.
At Aintree, your black Crombie with a flash of red shirt
draws You look cool man tributes from booted and suited lads,
and your trademark hair, splendid as a crest,
has older men, smoothing bald-pates and saying Nice cut mate.
all I could throw together
is beige shift dress, dun coat, grey hat,
a pheasant hen’s dowdy plumage.
Then Covid happened. The virus is neatly introduced in ‘Forfeit year’: ‘This is a year where ordinary life is mothballed.’ Many people found themselves with time on their hands and ‘Rush’ tells how Sinclair reacted to her partner’s purchase of a motorbike.
And jealousy abrades
at this old passion rekindled,
as if I have reluctantly agreed to an infidelity,
because I have nothing comparable in my past
to give me this Woo Hoo!
One of the conditions was for Sionclair, fast approaching her 60th birthday, to learn to ride pillion. A non-biker, with teenage memories of ‘being …warned against rough biker boys who were as dangerous as their machines.’ Her partner was undaunted by this lack of experience, as described with great humour in ‘Menage’:
So, you construct a mock-up with stool, chair, sofa arm; instruct me in
the protocol of mounting. I sit astride. Would you feel comfortable on that?
I nod, forgetting this cycle simulator is not moving at 80 mph.
Covid and the new motorbike also impacted preparations for her 60th birthday. In ‘New Tricks’, the birthday outfit is replaced by ‘biker armour, donning the deadweight jacket…all fingers and thumbs with the helmet.’ ‘60th birthday’ describes how the day itself was celebrated:
With a blast down to Margate,
for ships and ice cream on the seafront, is gift enough,
because you’re coaxing me, at 60,
on the back of a motor bike is the new adventure,
every bit as exotic as my eyes scaling
the great pyramids, and still part of you,
pivoting my life 360 degrees.
Sharing a motorbike requires confidence and trust on both sides, as well as the ability to cope with the reactions of others. ‘A chorus of disapproval’ shows how quickly some people critique decisions they don’t understand, but the final lines give the poet the last words.
Although I confess that on curfew quiet country roads
I dare myself to outstretch arms, then squeal as you join me,
and we motor along in bird flight simulation.
The style of this collection is free verse with the subject matter taking a Realist approach. Each poem is like a mirror. They reflect life in non-structured, conversational tones, and the more familiar I became with this poetic style, the more I was attracted to her voice.
Some poems revisit childhood, where the reader is introduced to friends and family members. ‘Connoisseurs of Comedy’ describes the father as a comedian, making fun of the neighbours and watching comedy classics on TV:
his appreciation of a particularly good sketch
acknowledged with a smile,
while Mum and I cackled throughout
until we got stitches, hiccups
In a later poem, there are hints of all not being well. ‘Daddies’ Girls’ addresses the differences between being an adored daughter and an unwanted one;
Yet, for some fathers, ‘It’s a girl’ means the sour taste
of disappointment at no son to kick a football with.
So, a cursory look into the cradle
And these daughters will take as norm
their joyful ‘Hello Daddy’ answered with a nod.
Fiona’s poems observe a range of topics. In ‘Bold as Brass’, an urban fox ‘trots onwards in Titian pelt and black accessorised glamour’ while ‘In our faces’ follows a street lady who pushes her ‘found’ supermarket trolley down Canterbury High Street.’ There are travel poems with references to the Adhan in Egypt and Istanbul. ‘Call’ reminded me of my own first experience of the ‘full-throated Adhan’ that repeats throughout the day;
But the frequency of this call
interrupts shopping mall racket, social media gibberish,
and summons up my devout atheist’s soul
as I close my eyes to listen.
‘Nile’ begins with a view overlooking the river, listening to ‘a cacophony of Adhans’
I appropriate, for the duration, a river-facing sunbed,
where holiday reading must compete with the west bank,
that is an infinite frieze of crops, minarets, palm trees,
painted in a Dulux colour chart of green.
‘Still’, set in Istanbul, takes the reader to the Suleymaniye Mosque with images created through the everyday conversational style which is the hallmark of this collection.
Suddenly, the mosque’s Adhan rings out,
triggering hundreds of others that peal across
both banks of the city like human bells,
the sound taps on my soul’s shoulder,
and tears openly dribble down my face.
Second Wind, published by Vole, is one of many collections written by Fiona Sinclair. These include The Time Traveller’s Picnic and A Talent for Hats. After reading Second Wind, I’m now looking forward to discovering more of Fiona’s poetry in her other collections.
Sue Watling is a writer and poet living in the UK. Follow Sue on Twitter @suewatling and subscribe to Sue’s blog about poetry and bees at suewatling.com
The Book of Life, poems to tide you over edited by Grace Wells. 2022. Dedalus Press. €12.50. ISBN 978-1-915629-07-4
The poems gathered in this anthology are drawn from the wide range of books published by the Dedalus Press, Ireland. Principally, the poems are from contemporary poets writing in Ireland today both in English and in Irish. This includes poet, playwright and novelist Leland Bardwell, who died in 2016. Bardwell along with three other poets, founded Cyphers Magazine in 1975. In addition, the anthology has poems in translation from across Europe and the Far East. The variety is considerable, each one a companion for stages and situations in life. There are poems of joy, of wonder, and of tragedy. The poems are drawn from titles in print.
The anthology is presented in nine parts. Each part begins with a poetic epigraph setting the mood for the poems in the nine sections.
Reviewing The Book of Life, presents a challenge to demonstrate the range of talent represented in the collected poems. In her introduction the Editor, Grace Wells sets out her view that while poems narrate a particular life view or experience, their rendering on the page touches the soul of the reader. All human experience is here; my short selection represents a glimpse of the variety and craft contained in The Book of Life. In her ‘Poem for a Birth’, Grace Wells captures beginnings:
In her arms stars appear,
and deep in her winter earth
the seedlings stir and waken green.
Everything broken can be remade
And her child is ever a source of wonder.
Enda Wyley’s poem ‘Home’, uses the familiar idea of traveling back to savour home and all it means in nurturing and sensitising her young self:
If I could go back, it would be there –
Early summer and I would be barefoot,
The line of hot tar in the middle of the road
bubbling under my toes, the tree’s blossoms
a spread of pink below our bedroom window.
Theo Dorgan’s poem ‘from Orpheus’ charts a later stage of beginnings in the yearnings of a teenager. The last stanza captures fear and despair as well as hope:
And that was me at seventeen, some grey twist
in my head, shot through with fires of rage and hope,
gambling for my salvation on the one cool
glance I feared to miss.
As mentioned earlier, poems in translation include a number of language groups.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poem ‘Solace’ is translated from her poem in Irish titled ‘Sólás’.
Each version captures loss and longing, echoing the view in Irish folklore that souls of dead infants were believed to return as sledge warblers to comfort their mother with song. The poem’s sparse phrasing beautifully captures loss:
Listen: in midnight
moon – mist, in snatches of lost music,
I’ve hear her return from the distance.
Little visitor, your birthmark looks so familiar.
Small warbler, listen, every night I’ll wait,
awake, facing north, until the last star-light fades.
Find me child, I yearn for your return.
Ní Ghríofa’s sparseness is shared by Chinese poet YAU NOI in his poem ‘The Map’. (here in translation by Liu Xun and Harry Clifton). His short stanzas draw us in:
The map of my heart,
If you read it right,
Is full of canyons, sorrows
Crows in Autumn
Lighting and ashes,
Skylines blackening, growing clearer,
The anthology provides a variety of poems, these are poems to savour, to come back to again and again. Fittingly, the final section focuses on endings, with poems on death, burial and loss. Matsuo Takahashi’s, ‘The Olive Tree’, translated from the Japanese by Mitsuo Ohno and Frank Sewell, offers a beautiful ending for the anthology. The last stanza touches on the inevitability of death yet offers hope of renewal:
One of these days, death will pay us a visit,
And we’ll join the serried ranks of the dead.
Siphoned – in by slender roots, we’ll be reborn
And flow out of the shimmering leaves as light.
That much we know.
In this compact anthology, Dedalus Press has given us poetic companions for our life’s journey.
Rona Fitzgerald was born in Dublin; she now lives in Glasgow. She writes poetry and prose.
Highlights include The Stinging Fly, Oxford Poetry and the Blue Nib Magazine. She was a finalist in the Lonely Voice short story competition in 2011 and the 20 words for Twenty/Twenty in 2020.
Again Behold the Stars by Alex Josephy. £4.99. Cinammon Press. ISBN 978-1-78864-138-8
Written during and after the pandemic from Montalcino, an Italian hill-top town, this historically based narrative of fragments from a 16th century siege resounds with contemporary resonances of our own lockdown, while transporting the reader to a small town under siege caught in a power struggle between European powers. It is a beautifully produced pamphlet with its midnight blue cover, showing a scorcio, a narrow opening with an indication of city walls and a glimpse of stars. In an introduction Alex Josephy describes the poems themselves as scorci, glimpses into that reality, distant in time and geography from our own. The title is a quote taken from the last line of Dante’s Inferno, at the point where Virgil is about to lead Dante out of Hell and into Purgatory.
The pamphlet holds 25 well-crafted poems, some with 14 lines loosely modelled on the sonnet, others with inter-locking stanzas that echo the interweaving voices of the madrigal. Josephy has drawn on her own experience living in Montalcino, together with research and stories told by friends and neighbours about the constant sieges through history that such small towns have been subject to. The stories, some mythical, some historical, some imagined, are passed down the generations. The panorama is wide but the focus is domestic. The epigraph is from St Catherine of Siena: ‘Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring’ and the perspective is of the women, emphasising the much-overlooked role they play in wars, and the risks they run:
A girl is always under siege,
always under guard, her own or others’ (‘Siege Girl’)
The naming of plants and foods, birds and animals, gives this short collection an intense physicality. All senses are alive: sight, touch and sound.
While outside the town walls the war roars on:
she tries to sleep, covers her ears
against the brutal thud, thud:
boulders, hurled against the walls
from a wooden jaw… (‘Wakeful’)
Inside the walls the girl admires an abandoned nest:
with a fingertip: softest chalice, laced
skeleton leaves, twigwork overlaid
with a cling of moss, ghost-green
and felted by a blackbird’s nest. (‘Nests’)
Nests with their metaphorical associations recur in the sequence.
A fictional family is created around the siege girl, with its everyday rural and small-town activities. There’s nonno, who carves a plough that looks to his granddaughter like an angel with tilted wings fallen outside the town walls, the nonna, and the bisnonna who in the poem ‘Great Grandmother’ introduces another sense of siege: ‘She’s besieged by a body/That has weathered eighty winters’.
The extra, unacknowledged work taken on by women in the absence of men during a war
is described in ‘Mulework’:
She carries two leather buckets
to and from the pozzo
at the ospedale; it’s her trusted task
now her father’s gone. The weight
drags her shoulders, drains
the pride from her neck. She groans,
sulky sister to the ox and the mule.
And how the family makes do without food is illustrated in the poem ‘Water Soup’ in which Zia Carlina ladles ‘Bowls of water/seasoned with last year’s leaves’.
The other element that makes this short collection a joy to read is the handling of language. As can be seen from some of the excerpts above, it is rich in detail and peppered with Italian words. There are earthy tones, such as in this terrific description of the enemy with its Chaucerian echoes:
Ha! According to Silvana
the Florentines’ faces are whipped arses!
Their heads are boiled-dry saucepans
crowned with cuckold horns.
‘Yes, and their broken balls flap
in the breeze,’ trills Ofelia
whose voice is like a throstle’s (‘Chorus’)
Yet it also reaches for the sublime, drawing on the town’s religious or mythical stories, such as in the poem ‘Turn’ with its epigraph of Dante’s 4 lines from which the title is taken. This poem is written in tercets with an unrhymed suggestion of Dante’s terza rima and contains the lovely image of the Virgin throwing a blue protective cloak around the town. The last poem ‘Straws’ is less spiritual and more human but nonetheless holds hope for the future: ’There’s no good news from the watchmen’ but the women are choosing names for a new baby, and the image of the nurturing nest re-appears. Again behold the stars is a beautifully achieved collection and an immensely enjoyable read.
Caroline Maldonado is a poet and translator from Italian. Her four poetry translations were published by Smokestack Books (2013-2022) and her own poetry by Indigo Dreams (2014), What they say in Avenale, and Vole Books (2022), Faultlines.
Lewis Warsh Elixir, £15.00 Ugly Duckling Press, ISBN9781946433930;
Carl Dennis Earthborn, £17.99 Penguin Books, ISBN 9780525508533
Lewis Warsh is described in the publicity that accompanies his posthumous volume, Elixir, as ‘a key poet of the second generation New York School and … a significant figure in New York poetry communities. Anne Waldman’s contribution to the publicity comments that ‘[Elixir is] a Kulchur lexicon’, using Pound’s famous spelling of the word ‘culture.’ That said, Warsh’s poetry is, most of the time, less set in the Pound/Olson wing of poetics. The interest and energy that drives the poems is one that arises from Warsh’s quirky perceptions of the way lives are lived. And, also, the kinds of juxtapositions that Warsh employs. Warsh might be linked to the New York School, but his world is very recognisably human. This is the Schuyler/O’Hara wing of New York poetics rather than the dandified surrealism of Ashbery; more Whitman than Stevens.
Carl Dennis, too, is a practitioner of narrative. That narrative is often of a first-person kind, where the narrator seems to be very clearly Dennis himself. At first blush, however, Dennis comes across as the more lyrical of the two poets. Earthborn is divided into six sections which usually contain eight poems, although one section contains nine and another, the final section, contains seven. Such pacing might also imply a sense of the rhythmic possibilities of the book as a whole. And this is slightly reinforced at the start of the poem, ‘Winter Gift’ from section one. ‘Once the seasons were gods, immortal beings / Whose decisions were final. It was up to us / To bring our schedules into line with theirs: / To plant in spring, harvest in fall, / And then spend weekends splitting and stacking / cords of hardwood that we hoped would last us / To the end of winter.’ Dennis is not afraid of a kind of argumentation in his writing; that genuflection to ‘the seasons’, followed by the ‘It was up to us,’ suggests a of positioning the writer, the poem and the reader. The ‘It was up to us,’ is then followed by the ways in which it was up to us, the obligations under which ‘we’ fell. And the address of these lines portents the qualification which inevitably follows, ‘Now the seasons / Seem to be wards of state, like bison.’ Dennis’ arguments are also couched in their physical consequences, the working with the hardwood, but also that final image of the seasons being ‘wards of state, like bison.’ The seasons might be protected, in that sense, but also hemmed in by regulations and control derived from anonymous others, and at the same time, still oddly solid like bison.
In the era of climate change, ‘Winter Gift’ ironises the sense of the winter as a set of traditional expectations. Dennis wonders when Thoreau’s notations ‘on early blooming / In the woods near Walden are again reliable.’ In the era of climate change, Dennis suggests that many generations will need to pass before ‘spring / [is] willing to wait its turn while winter / Takes its own good time before departing.’ And yet, all in not pessimism ‘to those who have learned / How to look for a lone example [of blooming], / One fleck of colour in a field of snow.’ I’ve quoted this poem at length because it not only shows how Dennis’ sense of argumentation is bound to a far more tangible sense of the world. It also shows how Dennis crafts the rhythms and cadences of his lines, how the line endings followed by that capital at the beginning of the next, propel the wash and flow of his writing. Dennis’ writing is always very involving in this way. The reader is caught up in it. The poems are not only structure but also heft and adroitness.
Warsh, too, has passages of striking lyricism. The long sequence, ‘On the Western Front’, its title embedded in its own kind of rhetorical tradition, is dedicated to the performance artist, Katt Lissard. It begins, ‘A feint to the left and he was / out in the open court, where / anything was possible, morning / till midnight, and then it was’. Warsh is not afraid of the lyric as enigma, the identity of the ‘he’ hidden, the ‘court’ left deliberately ambiguous, the opening out of the ‘anything was possible’ and the stanza break creating a cliff-hanger. That cliff-hanger is followed at the start of the next four-line stanza, by ‘time to stare at the moon / and stars and thing of people / in the past tense only, because / that’s where they are.’ Warsh’s juxtapositions are not only allied to the lyrical construction of the regular four-line stanzas. They are also quite wily. Set at the start of the sequence as they are, they beg more questions than they answer. And so, they create expectations for the reader that may or not be fulfilled. This section ends on the line, ‘no questions asked.’ Or answered perhaps.
Section three of ‘On the Western Front’ starts, ‘Even I agree we have to improve our intelligence / capabilities. I don’t mean our ability to spy on other / people or intercept phone conversations. It’s one / thing to train a telescope on the windows of your / neighbours as they emerge from sleep or follow / the woman next door as she enters the corner grocery‘. There is a range of this plain speaking address in Elixir that aligns his writing with other figures from that second wave of New York poets, Ann Lauterbach, for example. Here the poetry can consist in the sheer unexpectedness of the motif as presented in a ‘poem.’ This is not quite conceptual art in words, but there is an element of that; and with it the sense of defamiliarization that Russian Formalist criticism led us to seeing. Section three ends with, ‘Flowers on the windowsill, / flowers in the dust. A confluence of random /particles, off-shore turbulence, // and flood warnings.’ The end of the poem almost mimicking those phrases. It has to be said, however, that Warsh’s writing is very much not ‘a confluence of random particles.’ Warsh is a powerful practitioner who moves between the lyrical and the plain narrative with adept control. The rhythms of Warsh’s poetry might not have the clear immediacy of Carl Dennis. And Warsh’s juxtapositions may offer more defamiliarization than lyrical inevitability. But Warsh, too, wants to pull the reader in to a rich and vibrant world. Warsh, too, wants poetry to be poetry; there is as much of the metaphysical about Warsh as there is the post-modernist.
Ian Pople ‘s latest collection Spillway, New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.
Brief Homage to Pluto and other Poems by Fabio Pusterla, selected and translated by Will Schutt. £16.99. Princeton University Press. ISBN: 978-0691245096
Brief Homage to Pluto, translated by Will Schutt, is the second substantial gathering of poems by the Swiss-Italian poet, Fabio Pusterla, to be published in English. With little overlap, it dovetails into and updates Days Full of Caves &Tigers, an earlier selection translated by Simon Knight with an introduction by Alan Brownjohn, and published by Arc in 2012. As ever, Princeton University Press is to be congratulated for adding another bilingual edition to their excellent Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, so that even readers whose grasp of the language may be limited can still gain some sense of the originals. For those who can read them more fluently and have some knowledge of the great canon of Italian poetry, there is the added pleasure of gauging Pusterla’s place in it.
Like many of his illustrious predecessors, Pusterla’s work is rooted in a specific locale. One thinks of Montale’s Liguria, Quasimodo’s Sicily, or Saba’s Trieste. Born in 1956, Pusterla grew up on the Swiss side of the Italian border, an Alpine region of small towns, which the poet has described as:
A backwater with an economy that ran on gas, watches, and cigarettes, on contraband and freight traffic, dominated by the checkpoint and the railroad, politically blinkered, culturally set in its ways.
However, from an early age it was literature and the pursuit of poetry that enabled him to transcend the limits of his place of birth and, like the poets just mentioned, he is far from being a merely a regional voice. To quote from Schutt’s introduction: ‘Pusterla seems, at times, equal parts homebound and boundless.’
In the enigmatic poem which opens this selection, ‘To Those to Come,’ one senses the ghostly presence of Dante, though this is less apparent in Schutt’s English:
To Those to Come
meaning you, who’ll turn back
and look at us from the peaks
of your brilliant age, like one who scans a valley
he can’t recall having crossed:
you won’t see us behind the screen of fog.
The opening line in the original: ‘Allora voi, che volgerete’ is much closer syntactically to the ominous words inscribed above the gate into Dante’s Hell: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.’ However, the Dantean trope of an earthly visitant observing lost souls in the underworld is turned on its head, since here it is one the lost souls who senses the visitors as vague presences. Evoking the shallow materialism of his ‘lost souls,’ Pusterla also reveals an affinity with the Irish poet, Derek Mahon: ‘We’d close the door / behind us, leaving behind / our sumptuous homes, / and, picking up the path again, drift on.’ This is not too far removed from Mahon’s own Dantean vision in ‘Leaves’:
The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood …
Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.
Throughout this selection, which ranges across a quarter of a century, there are other poems that hint at lost worlds inhabited by elusive presences, as in ‘Up and Down the Steps of Albogasio,’ ‘where the living and the dead / brush past one another, mumbling their hellos’. In ‘Valley of the Dead,’ he imagines ‘a narrow valley that presses forward. / No one knows where it leads / or whether anyone / ever passes through.’ Sometimes these presences come into clearer focus. In ‘San Mamete, with Morris: in Memoriam,’ he remembers school friends who, unlike him, did not find an escape route through education or literature, but drifted into crime. In ‘Students,’ he considers the various destinies of those he has taught over the years: ‘Some shy, / others obnoxious. And the burnouts, / the ones who lick the dirt.’ However, in ‘Woman at Café’, there is a counterblast against defeatism:
“They’ve forgotten how to laugh
They don’t laugh the way we did, always moping,
mopey as the weather
and that sky.”
In ‘Sketches from Scagliola’, a loose sequence of brief poems, he creates a particularly effective polyphony, from its desperately sad depiction of a mother estranged from her daughter to the difficulties experienced by immigrants, who have already had to escape their own ‘crippled countries.’ In its sixth section there is a glimmer of hope:
The voice that speaks expects no hearing
yet hopes its soliloquy is not in vain,
that a door will silently open
to offer light, a branch of forsythia.
The most powerful poem in which Pusterla expresses his solidarity with those who have sought refuge in his country is ‘Testimonies,’ a stark account of various reactions to the death of a migrant by her abusive partner. It is a powerful representation of a fractured society, where neighbours and acquaintances, however superficially kind or considerate, seem unable to cross over the thresholds of private lives, even in order to avert a tragedy.
Another concern that Pusterla shares with Derek Mahon, is our neglect and destruction of the environment. ‘Landscape’ is a typically forlorn example of the poet’s take on ‘junk culture’:
Beside the canals,
tadpoles, dark cans. A suitcase
turned to tar.
A string of oil drips
over the gravel. Above, cement.
Scratch the earth and you get rubbish,
Shards of brick, rabbit teeth …
… Plus the chicken coop. Things with no history.
Or outside history. A pushcart
without wheels …
In ‘Irrigation Canal,’ we not only find another description of the poet’s native terrain, but also a good example of his freewheeling and loosely associative style. From its initial description of a neglected landscape, he moves on to a memory of smoking outdoors in his youth and the particular brand he favoured: ‘Parisiennes,’ which, in their turn, evoke the louche glamour of Pigalle and the French actress Jeanne Moreau. It’s a poetic style that can sometimes seem abrupt and dislocated, but creates a sense of unease, leaving little room for trite answers or anything approaching a certainty. It must be admitted that Pusterla’s vision does frequently seem close to despair which, at best, ‘abates / and gives way to the mild high / of apathy.’ However, it is surely not for the poet to give specious comfort, but to depict the world as he sees it. For Pusterla, any quest for certainty is bound to end in disappointment. And yet, there are brief moments of more positive epiphany, as in the touching vision of ‘Ghosts at a Terry Blue Concert,’ where the poet imagines his own dead father listening to his, Pusterla’s, musician son: “The kid can play, / and looks tough, happy to be here, / right where he should be, I think;” while in ‘Two Herons,’ he creates an avian equivalent for the striving of Montale’s eel:
This one shoots across the lake like a dark arrow
knowing where to go and what for –
gray heron, morning cinder, filament
always emerging from the thickest fog in the west,
from the night, and flying due east,
drawn that way by a dim light.
As with Leopardi, in spite of the poet’s despair, it is the poetry that brings its own consolation. No doubt Pusterla would agree with W.H. Auden that, as a poet, all he has is a voice or, to quote his own beautifully cadenced and defiant words at the end of ‘Landscape’: ‘E le parole: nessuno adesso me le ruberà,’/ ‘And words: now no one will rob me of them.’
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. He has published nine collections of his poetry. His Collected Poems has recently been published by Littoral Press in anticipation of his 70th birthday. Copies available on this website via ‘The Editor’s Spot’
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