Colin Pink & Daniel Goodwin’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament reviewed by Rennie Halstead
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament by Colin Pink & Daniel Goodwin. £10. Against The Grain Press. ISBN: 978-1-9997907-6-9
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament is a collection of twenty-one villanelles by Colin Pink. Each one is illustrated with a woodcut by Daniel Goodwin, inspired by the accompanying poem. The villanelle is a demanding poetic style. The rigour of the structure makes it difficult to create a poem that fits the form, conveys a coherent meaning and manages to flow without falling into the trap of fragmentation. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, W.H. Auden’s ‘Time Can Say Nothing But I Told You So’, and Dylan Thomas’s exquisite ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ stand out as beautiful examples of the form.
Colin Pink is setting himself an ambitious target to live in such company. Bishop, Auden and Thomas each produced a single villanelle, but in this volume Pink puts together a collection of twenty-one. He writes villanelles for the modern age, moving away from the personal and confessional, and tackling a range of subjects and themes and developing the form.
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament examines the idea of manipulation through the idea of a dummy whose ‘jokes distract you from immoveable cares, / Doubts that make you wish you had not been born.’ But this ‘blockhead’ slips in his blade ‘greased with humour, to pare / Away empathy for the displaced, degraded, forlorn.’ and suggests that the viewer may ‘think you’re immune to the saccharine nightmare / Of someone pulling your strings’ and repeats the question from the beginning, ‘Can you tell if I’m grinning or grimacing?’
‘Iceberg’ examines the issues of global warming through the image of an iceberg detaching itself from the ice sheet and drifting in warm seas. Pink examines the way evidence is manipulated by business and political interests: ‘evidence is dealt out by the hand of a cheat / Serving interests that set blood-red in the west’ whilst politicians ‘politely excrete / Lies wrapped up in rhetoric designed to impress.’ He concludes ‘Because we cannot act together we invite defeat / By our own hands’, whilst ‘The waters rise, our children grow webbed feet.’
In ‘Coastal Erosion’ the environment is personified as a woman attempting to fix the problems of the environment by ‘sewing a hole in the universe to hold it tight’ but ‘there is no thread strong enough to safely tie / Earth, sea and sky.’ The moon ‘is the size / Of a wafer on her tongue’ but in the end ‘The wind’s howl, hanging on a high note, rises high / Overhead, snatches her pleas away.’
‘Before the Wrecking Ball’ has a more personal feel, focusing on an old house and its history waiting to be destroyed. The first line engages us: ‘The old house still remembers all that took place.’ Here we have a history of birth ‘a fierce cry announces new life’ and in a darker moment ‘The woman hiding in the closet as soldiers deface / The building, searching for things to drag away.’ ‘Ancient webs become garlands of dust and grace’. The poem ends with the melancholy that people feel for the destruction of a loved home:
Scrub the floors, sweep the dust from place to place
Pointlessly the hand of time moves without delay.
The old house still remembers all that took place
All the lives pursued and lost have left their trace.
‘Reclining figures’, with a nod to Larkin’s ‘Arundel Tomb’, creates a sense of abiding love that transcends time. We are still as figures carved in timeless effigy / In companionable silence the story is complete. Here Pink picks up the theme of a perfect remembrance of love. ‘Love settled in and conversed in each heartbeat / Flexing its muscles and birthed us perpetually’ and ending:
Artisans of our history in colours no one can delete
Woven on a shared loom threads that blend destiny
Lying side by side, together, beneath a white sheet
In companionable silence the story is complete.
‘Ox Carcass’ (after Rembrandt) examines the famous painting in the Louvre, marvelling at the sense of power still remaining in the carcass. Pink reflects on the life of toil the ox endured and wishes it could be resurrected ‘And plough for us a different furrow in a new way.’ He draws the lesson that ‘fate’s sharp blades, whose wretched / Work we cannot escape, we can only for a time delay.’ The poem concludes:
[…] death hangs heavier than we pretended
But we must forge our path and not let it hold sway;
Though you hang from a rail your body suspended
I can still sense your life force, your power upended.
So far I have focussed on the poems, but the woodcuts that partner the poems also merit a mention. ‘Iceberg’ is striking, as are ‘Manifestations’ and ‘Coastal Erosion’. ‘Reclining Figures’ captures the image of the two lovers. ‘Ox Carcass’ and ‘Alder’ are simplified and stylised.
The volume is generously annotated at the back, and though most of the poems are perfectly capable of standing on their own, Pink makes sure he references other people’s work he has drawn on, and gives important background, especially for ‘Lyric Suite’ on Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and their affair and ‘To Hölderlin’ the poet who was declared insane and lodged in a carpenter’s tower house for thirty-six years.
Having unsuccessfully tried to write villanelles that are fit to see the light of day, I enjoyed this collection and have great admiration for the way Pink has experimented with the form and given it a new, modern twist, shifting it away from the essentially personal traditional format and bending it to take up political, environmental and philosophical concerns.
Rennie Halstead has been writing since he was eleven. He writes poetry and flash fiction. You can find his poetry on his ello site at: https://ello.co/bigren
Richard Williams’s Landings reviewed by Sydney Whiteside
Landings by Richard Williams. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435690
In his new collection Landings, Richard Williams creates a nostalgic, tender, and thoughtful poetic portrait of his well-loved home of Portsmouth. The collection brims with history, emotion, and quiet reverence, letting the reader in on personal experiences and observations of the seaside town with an intimacy that feels like the sharing of stories between old friends. It’s as though something important and private is being revealed over the course of the text, causing the reader to wonder which local shop, historical moment, or stretch of coast they will become privy to next.
Williams experiments productively with form, shifting between more traditional poems comprised of recognisable stanzas and more unconventional, paragraph-like prose poems. One such piece is the brilliant and compelling ‘It was only his second ever day of being seven’. Williams shifts between a father reading the paper and the changing colours of his son’s gob-stopper candy, comparing the different tones to natural images, sweets, and sugary drinks. The poem subtly contrasts the anxieties of adult knowledge with the innocent curiosity of childhood, creating a winding, story-like piece that shrinks and compacts like the child’s sweet. It ends with the wonderful lines:
What colour do you want it to be? It can be any colour you
want. You decide.’ The boy opened his mouth and held the
small globe of sugar on the tip of his tongue. It was white, all
colours and no colour, like a ball of light at the beginning of
time. The boy tipped back his head, swallowed it whole.
Many poems in the collection contain a prominent sense of urgency. ‘Lighting up the chimenea’ is self-consciously aware of the passing of time and its consequences, opening with the invitation ‘So come on over, pull up a chair, / let us turn our backs on the dying of the sun’. Over wine and the glow of the fire, youth slowly replaces grey hairs, worry lines, and aging bodies. Williams firmly places the poem in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, describing ‘this Hampshire chalk, these rolling fields’. ‘Spice Island looking back’ navigates years of south England history, from spice traders and Vikings to shopping centres and chain restaurants. The poems are at once nostalgic for lost years and accepting of the present moment.
One of the collection’s biggest strengths is its ability to blend the old with the new. The epic title poem ‘Landings’ leaves Portsmouth to travel to places both foreign and mythical. The poem goes from Brussels and Paris to Mogadishu to the River Styx to the moon, pausing at each to contemplate time, mortality, and the ‘many stories that won’t now be told’. It combines contemporary commentary on foreign wars, climate change, and social media with the mythological, natural, and historical. The form is precise and measured, the language languid and lyrical.
‘Bird in hand’ also blends the historical with the contemporary, juxtaposing Portsmouth’s two FA Cup wins in 1939 and 2008. Williams shifts between descriptions of ‘Waiting for the blackout to end, / as if nothing we did really mattered, / as if watching was all that there was’ in the World War II-era match and ‘my daughters and I in our Pompey shirts: / the final whistle on a perfect day’ from the speaker’s own experience. By merging the two occasions, Williams brings context to the contemporary win and accesses the timeless, inexplicable importance that a moment of joy can hold. The speaker recognises this balance between the fleeting nature of this moment and its unyielding gravity, however, concluding by noting:
And here we are on the journey home,
brilliant colours will fade to none,
as the flags we carry are furled away.
Like Tommy Rowe at ninety-two
leaving all thoughts in the dark.
So drink to the presence of greatness,
for everything you do really matters.
Enjoy each of your victories.
Turn on the lights and sing out,
for living is all that there is.
Landings gracefully articulates anxieties about the future, though these fears are balanced by an uncompromising sense of hopefulness. Williams grounds philosophical musings in brilliant, concrete detail. He evokes the history and topography of Portsmouth with confidence and honesty. The poems in Landings champion the power of memory, uniquely and powerfully reimagining the intricate city Williams calls home.
Sydney Whiteside is from Navarre, Florida, and currently lives in Cardiff. She is in the final year of her English literature degree at Cardiff University and has been writing poetry throughout her time at university. She loves travelling throughout Wales and the UK and hopes to continue publishing her poems in journals and magazines.
Polly Roberts’s Grieving with the Animals reviewed by Daniel Marshall
Grieving with the Animals byPolly Roberts. £9. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435928
The Anthropocene poet, ecologically tuned to the grizzly death-throes of the planet, must attempt to discover some meaning in our current madness if they are to have any hope of reconciling the degeneracy that has allowed this to happen with a more enlightened outlook that goes some way to being part of the solution. Polly Robert’s debut poetry collection Grieving with the Animals published by Dempsey & Windle is such a book: authentic, earnestly moving, and aware of the tradition it belongs to. Polly writes an eco-poetry that evades the dangers Terry Gifford outlines in his book Pasotral:
‘The danger that green literature becomes didactic in a simplistic way is really a danger that it loses its power as art and becomes reductive propaganda or vague right on rhetoric. There is a point at which green literature can become a contemporary form of Leo Marx’s ‘sentimental pastoral’’. Polly doesn’t stray. The polish of the poems is contemporary but rooted in a tradition that utilizes archetype, dream, symbol, to give the natural world its importance. When a poem is archetypal, it becomes part of the unconscious, it is, as Northrop Frye explains, ‘a symbol which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience.’ In short, it becomes part of ‘poetry as a whole.’
Admittedly, if this were not a deeply personal collection, it might have less impact becoming solipsistic and limp. However, because it is personal, the use of archetype and symbol is not only grounded in the personal, but extends to the global through an interpretative, interactive reading. Polly is from Devon. These poems, when they move into the autobiographical, find Polly living on a houseboat, on the River Avon near Bristol. Carrying the world’s weight like an anchor, wrapped around her heart, she looks into the natural world for a metaphor to stave off the hurt from a tragic loss.
The collection is divided into twelve sections. Each page is used as breathing space, sometimes a single line’s gravity pulls us into orbit around its emotional weigh: the heaviness of the meaning, the grief of the poet, pulling the reader in as the poet is pulled down by grief. To countervail the grief, the poet turns to nature for culture, a crutch, to both discover meaning and to compensate for the loved one. In the natural world, the space to turn the urban into wild symbols, aids the articulation of grief. The opening section Animals in Communion foreshadows the theme of grief explored throughout:
I came home
to find him
Could do nothing.
Sat on the sofa
lost to the world.
I have some bad news
The terse lines build up the tension. There is an urban ennui to the action taking place. On the following page, centered, is the line ‘I’ve been seeing ghosts. Birds on water.’ a line that is repeated throughout the book. An anchor line, reminding both reader and poet of the implacable flux of life, the metonymy of the ghosts into birds, which is the change of the dead into constituent parts of atom, molecule, cell, reintegrated back into nature in death. Later, we discover these birds are ‘Two yellow wagtails’ that ‘float by on a log.’ A memory shared with someone who is now ‘light. Carbon released.’
The natural world is sometimes mystical, portentous, giving the poet an opportunity to foresee tragedy. Nature signals to the poet, if they have the interpretative ears to hear, and eyes to see, what will come:
The day before I received the news, two swans flew low
over my head. Their wings thrummed like a helicopter.
Eyes turned to watch the rescue vehicle, and instead saw
Time is squeezed. The swans and helicopter are analogous, the former a sign from the past, the latter, the event, the tragedy. We get them superimposed, as if grief has abolished time from the griever. The tragedy will force the poet into an interior world of archetypal symbols:
Returning to my boat, a shadow shifted on the river
bank. A furry creature –small, sleek – edged its way
through the grass, took a moment to drink, then slop,
The ‘shadow’ of the ‘furry creature’ is the grief that will haunt the poet, a grief that will submerge itself into dream and the ‘subconscious serial’, rising as these perception-events, in nature, taking on fresh meaning, becoming poetry. There will be, perhaps for the entire life of the poet, this oscillation back and forth between worldliness, and the submersion of self into the underbelly of existence. Apperception of this oscillation installs meaning into the world.
Without catharsis, without the essential, aestheticizing of experience, the challenge of processing grief becomes inexorable. The processing of personal grief through the discovery of symbols within the environment encourages the extension of metaphor to that of nature itself. Nature is never italicized, it is an existential nature, not a romantic pastoral nature; this is not a return to a natural world, the natural world is continuously present. These poems are ecological. If the poet is grieving with the animals, then the animal/human dichotomy is broken up. We become through archetypes, akin to one another in our emotional spectrum. The animals can as much grieve with us as we can grieve with them. This only makes sense if the poems are both personal and ecological, because our shared grief is the loss of our habitat. Therefore the lost loved one the poet grieves for, by dying & being reborn as something in nature, is something the poet can search for; in the section The Sea They Came from we discover:
If one looks to nature, they will find anything created by
man. Accordion bellows, helicopter propellers, flutes,
Where do I look to find you?
The subconscious is automatous. But the poet wants the sensations of the subconscious to rise, filtered by the subconscious mind, to aid the conscious self in remedying the ever-present, amorphous hurt. There are snatched moments of insight, where the poet alights on an answer:
That night, I dreamt the answer to the universe.
It was blue,
inside a conch shell. Spiralling
in and out of crystal moments.
In and out of images of the hospital bed,
and these dreams.
The ‘answer to the universe’, are understandably, a means to grasp the mysteries of life and death, which bring with it meaning. Perhaps the blue is emotion, perhaps it is the realization that life is tinged with pain. The conch shell’s spiral is the same downward motion as the shadow of the furry creature, they both move in the same direction, being symbolic of the poet’s own movement within. The egg here is a created safe-place, it is Kim Seung-hee’s dalgyal sokeui sheng (‘life within an egg’), a shell ‘for the sake of our life…as sturdy/as a wall that stands cold and/will never collapse’, full of the yolk of life, new generation. In this shell, the poet writes poems from an experience of loss, with all the multitude of considerations that attend this: memory, love, nature, self, experience, motion, grief; these poems hatch their attendant themes & we enter into a relationship with the poet. Later the poet will ask the question ‘Was the world all snail?…Will life be found inside?’ Suggesting that the invitation to vertiginously delve (think Yeats’ gyres) was always there; is always there & it can be discovered in numerous things.
The poems from In Conversation with You pair human response to grief with an animal, thus becoming animistic, mythic:
I caw like a crow.
I wail like an elephant.
I moan like a cow giving birth.
I yelp like a puppy.
I sniff like a mouse.
Words no longer speak for me.
Words and language are no longer accurate means of expressing that which is seemingly inexpressible. The poet has begun the metamorphosis into the animal, or rather, begun an aesthetic metamorphosis. The human and animal are distinguished by their means of communication, except in grief, where the expressiveness is onomatopoeic. There is poetry here and poetry has no trouble being the expressive medium of the animal. Grief becomes, ironically, organic through simile. Between the symbol and dream lucid episodes appear throughout, reminders that these processes start from very real, existential beginnings:
In and out of images of the hospital bed,
and the sensation of my body.
Every part alive.
Eyelids drawn back,
pupils darting and dilating.
Mind alert, ears open.
Chest stretched as it breathes
in and out of images of the hospital bed.
The hospital bed grounds us in an uncomfortable reality. It is the existential bed on which human fragility is cradled. Even in this most unlikely of places, the poet is able to forage hope that ‘The world is alive. Every colour, every shade, every blade, every beast.’
This is a book of hope. Out of oppressive grief comes the search for expression. Though this grief is shared with nature, it is only humans who articulate grief in a way that can be shared. This is why I take the personal trauma to be co-extensive with the ecological trauma taking place. It is to discover ‘universal tongues’, an indelible connection with ‘the trauma that keeps [us] human’ a journey into things as a journey into self, a journey underwater where ‘Grief momentarily slips away’. Maybe it’s time to grieve with, rather than for, the animals if we are to reverse our ecological impact. What Polly teaches us is that loss is similar between the example and the precept, so that microcosmic examples refer to macrocosmic precepts: the personal loss is the global loss.
Daniel Marshall has recently returned to England from Korea. He is currently studying for a MA in English & Environmental Studies at Exeter University. His poems have appeared in many places, including The High Window, Riggwelter , Underfoot Poetry, Smithereens Press, Isacoustic & The Wagon Magazine.
The Blue Nib Chapbook Four reviewed by Rodney Wood
The Blue Nib Chapbook Four . The Blue Nib. £7.50. ISBN:13: 978-1072089568
This collection follows on from a competition for emerging and established poets, one of whom at least will be a debutante (with no chapbook or book published previously). Part of the fun in reading this book is deciding who’s who because no biographical information is given, which is probably fair enough as the emphasis should be on the poems themselves. The Chapbook includes poem sequences (of eight poems) from each of the three winners of the Winter/Spring Chapbook Contest 2019 as chosen by Helen Mort.
She comments that all of the entries were outward-looking and refused insularity, self-pity and narrow focus. Pat Anthony (first prize) “each voice is convincing and urgent, Memorable, exact and Compelling.” Mike Farren (second) “Alert and attentive writing, poems suffused with an original language for memory” and Sharon Flynn (third) “Visceral and haunting, unabashed and sharply observed, full of found material curated with skill and emotion”. Interesting for all the words she didn’t use like unique, risky, edgy, socially conscious, abstraction, challenging, extravagant and so on.
The winner, Pat Anthony, has used his or her travel to write compellingly about places and people. So you have poems like ‘Waiting at the Base of the Mountain’, ‘Along the Masnzanares’ and ‘El Tajin’ where there are:
There are the unforgettable people like the bird man who ‘pedals day into night’, the reclusive accordion player who’s ‘arpeggios [are] / are scrawled across her face’ and a wonderful description of street food in ‘La Tortilleria’:
how strong this woman to heave heavy bags
of cornmeal, lifts buckets of water, mix and form perfection
between her palms and how fast she stacks the rounds
accepts coins places bags of warm tortillas in waiting hands
my footsteps keeping rhythm as I move on slap-slap
There was, quite rightly I think, a lack of punctuation in the poems (but most ended on a full stop) which seem to indicate how picture-like the poems are and how everything really happens at once.
Second place poet Mike Farren is writing about home and are place in the world in a language that is attentive and confident. As in his first poem, ‘Antlers’, he suggests we should plug antlers from the forest floor to the sides of our heads so we can reconnect with nature, and nature appears in so many of his poems. ‘Like Midsummer/Midsomer’ where:
Summer smells of money here: it whispers
in trees too high to see over, hisses
out of sprinklers, stretches on lawns
A word of warning of the effect of climate change comes at the end of ‘Heat’ where we are:
enjoying the comfort
of our lives, spoiled only by the sirens
and the smell of the city, burning.
Third Place Poet, Sharon Flynn, has discovered a rich vein of poetry to explore. The first poem, ‘Receipt for the Somniferous Sponge of Ugone de Lucca’, is a recipe (of opium, ivy, henbane, mulberry, hemlock and, mandragora used to put a patient to sleep before surgery commences. Other poems about medicine (the soothing effects of lavender, removing a lump in the beast, the use of cocaine and laughing gas). My favourite of hers is ‘Researches Chemical & Philosophical, Peter Mark Roget 1799’. The poem is based around found material and is exhilarating:
Only thoughts were
real and all was new – untried, untested,
fresh, unused – and all of it was ours.
The laughter leapt – soared, sprang,
hovered, flew – between us until the
very air was full – brimming, brimful,
sonorous – with wild, ballooning, multi-
By the way, I know the suspense must be killing you. Pat Anthony is a she and the debutante is Sharon Flynn, not for much longer I hope.
Rodney Wood’s poems have appeared recently in The High Window,
Orbis, Magma (where he was Selected Poet in the deaf issue) and Envoi. His debut pamphlet, Dante Called You Beatrice, appeared in 2017.He is joint MC of the monthly open mic nights at The Lightbox and is also the Stanza Rep for Woking.