#Me Too, ed. Deborah Alma • Douglas Dunn: The Noise of a Fly • Oz hardwick: The House of Ghosts and Mirrors • Gordon Meade: The Year of the Crab • Kitty Coles: Seal Wife • #Pam Zinnemann-Hope: Foothold • Paul Sutherland: New & Selected Poems
Rosie Jackson • Stewart Sanderson • Wendy Pratt • Cathy McGrath • Melanie Branton • Stephen Boyce • Dónall Dempsey
#Me Too, ed. Deborah Alma, reviewed by Rosie Jackson
#Me Too edited by Deborah Alma. £10 (all proceeds to Women’s Aid). Fairacre Press. ISBN: 978-19110482993.
If it’s taken me longer than usual to review this anthology, it’s because it’s a book which escapes its covers; it felt impossible to read more than two or three poems at a time, such is their disturbing visceral and emotional impact. They remind us of what has shaped many of our female lives – sexploitation, abuse, rape, domestic violence, and the whole internalisation of women’s identity as second best citizens, here to service men in all kinds of ways. By the time I finished reading, nodding agreement to Alexander Pope’s description of good poetry as ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’, I felt impelled to note down my own parallel experiences, and ended with a long catalogue of abuse and harassment, major and minor, all too often repressed or dumped into silence, and I exclaimed repeatedly #MeToo #MeToo #MeToo.
The history of this wave of female protest is by now well chronicled. After Tarana Burke supported women of colour to resist abuse in Brooklyn, and Harvey Weinstein’s alleged misconduct in the film industry provoked a new phalanx of vocal resistance on the part of female actors, in late 2017 Alyssa Milano retweeted the phrase #MeToo and it went viral. Millions of women worldwide felt able at last to share their own experiences of misogyny without being accused of exaggeration, or feeling too isolated or ashamed to do so. And although one male reviewer locates the origin of most of the poems in this anthology in the 1970s, the widespread outcry they represent confirms that sexual abuse and prejudice are by no means neatly confined to history but continue in various forms in our contemporary world.
In a way, it might have been appropriate to make an anthology of poems on this subject anonymous, as the experiences are so archetypal; singling out individual names or poems feels somewhat anomalous. Not that there is any lack of literary quality here. I remember the publication of two volumes of poems by the Women’s Press in 1983 and 1985 respectively – In the Pink, and No Holds Barred, selected by The Raving Beauties (Anna Carteret, Sue Jones-Davies and Fanny Viner). These collections also foregrounded topics often held taboo in poetry – childbirth, abuse, women’s subordination and protests against it, with names such as Fran Landsman, Alta, Susan Griffin, Marge Piercy, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, and many lesser known ones. Without that ground-breaking generation of female poets, and the women who have come since – Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, etc, – I doubt whether the current, rich, unprecedentedly rich, tide of contemporary women poets would exist as it does.
The result is that many of the voices in the #MeToo anthology, able to sit on the shoulders of these forbears, as well as of the stunning poetry that has come from both genders in the intervening years, have a remarkably mature, confident and even (despite the subject matter) exuberant feel. Poems by Pascale Petit, Jacqueline Saphra, Kim Moore, Pippa Little, Helen Ivory, Helen Mort, Katrina Naomi, Wendy Pratt, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, are not the only ones to keep the standard high. Less well-known but memorable and impressive are Deborah Harvey, Jane Burn, Rachael Clyne, Sarah Miles, Rachel Burns, Abegail Morley, and many more.
Kim Moore’s ‘I have been a long time without thinking,’ ‘Body Remember’, and ‘When I Open’, are brilliant juxtapositions of physical and mental landscapes of abuse, able to draw on repetition and metaphor in a magnificently evocative yet controlled way.
… Remind me, O body, of the way
he moved when he drank, that dangerous silence.
Let me feel how I let my eyes drop, birds falling
from a sky, how my heart was a field, and there
was a dog, loose in the field, it was worrying
the sheep, they were running and then
they were still. On body, let me remember
what it was to have a field in my chest,
O body, let me recognise the dog.
Pascale Petit’s ‘Square de la Place Dupleix’ is chillingly oblique, building up to the implied story of being raped by her father.
Inside the sandpit you are playing for your life. Your
bucket and spade that smiled all day long, like family
in your satchel, now work hard. Your material is sand.
Katrina Naomi’s ‘The Bicycle’ is another masterpiece of telling-it-slant understatement. Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘Spunk’, by contrast, takes on Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of a naked Adam with his genitals on full display (‘certainly not wilting’ noted the Guardian description of the piece).
Drunk on lust, pumped up with blood, he stands
broad on his plinth and howls for cunt.
Saphra also takes on the male viewpoint more directly in the first person in ‘To Hear a Mermaid Sing’, a brilliant retelling of the story of Odysseus and the sirens. But very few of the #MeToo poems move out of the female perspective. One of the others that does, Pat Edwards’ #Not Him, from the final section, celebrates a man who does not ‘pinch her arse or follow her slowly in his car… couldn’t bring himself to laugh at sexist jokes in work or down the pub.’ And this last section moves ‘towards the light’ in various ways – through the comfort of nature, reparation of various kinds, and of course through solidarity with other women. The final poem, ‘Spartaca’, by Pippa Little, captures this perfectly with her celebration of female togetherness: ‘we stand together…no longer silent or alone: each voice stronger.’
Perhaps the highest praise I can give this book is to acknowledge that its power in mirroring and telling the truth about female experience is such that had it existed forty, thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, I am confident my life would have taken a different, more empowered shape. As it is, it deserves the widest possible audience. It should be on every supermarket shelf and on the school syllabus for all teenagers.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of the launches of this #MeToo anthology in Glastonbury in March 2018, where many of the poems were read by three of the contributors: Ama Bolton, Rachael Clyne and Rachel Buchanan. The poems were even more powerful in the hearing, and Ama’s laconic rendition of ‘Peter and Jane go to the Shops’, the funniest poem in the book (in suitably large print, like a child’s reader), brought the house down.
But my personal favourite in #MeToo is a poem which gives restrained but eloquent voice to the wounded feminine – the pained but lyrical ‘Nightingale’ by Georgi Gill. (I have no idea who Gill is and if there is one thing missing from this fabulous volume, it is a list of notes on contributors, as this would, I feel, have honoured them more.) This is the poem in full:
They say arnica will heal bruises, trauma,
wounds – too little, too late, too far for you,
perched high above mangled tree roots.
You nestle in thorns, in sheet-like briars.
Feathered in subdued browns,
you have been put in your place, and muted.
But try. Hear other voices rise up
in Edinburgh’s meadows,
in Delhi’s fume-choked traffic,
in disbelieving Hampshire,
in ISIS slave-auctions at Raqqa.
Make another tongue rise up in you
and hew rough sounds of truth,
tee-rew, tee-rew, jug jug.
Rosie Jackson lives near Frome, Somerset and is a Hawthornden fellow, 2017. She has taught at East Anglia, Nottingham Trent and West of England universities, Skyros Writers’ Lab and Cortijo Romero. She is widely published. What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014) was followed by The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016). Prose books include Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, The Eye of the Buddha, Frieda Lawrence, Mothers Who Leave and a memoir, The Glass Mother (Unthank, 2016). www.rosiejackson.org.uk
Douglas Dunn’s The Noise of a Fly reviewed by Stewart Sanderson
The Noise of a Fly by Douglas Dunn. HB. £14.99. Faber. ISBN: 978-0571333813.
The Noise of a Fly, Douglas Dunn’s first full-length collection since the year 2000, takes its title and epigraph from a prose passage by John Donne, considering the “manifold weaknesses” which keep him from his prayers. Perhaps the irony is that, as these distractions are enumerated, they are also belied as such by the close linguistic and physical attentiveness which Donne the preacher brings to bear on God’s creation – beginning as he does so to move away from prose and towards poetic thought, which has itself sometimes been conceived of as a form of prayer. The first poem in the book, ‘Idleness’, seems to me to chime perfectly with this:
Can you hear them? The flap of a butterfly.
The unfolding wing of a resting wren.
The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost.
A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.
Four lines; four silent sounds, each inaudibly louder than the last. Or three definite articles followed by an indefinite, unwritten poem, one of many. I keep coming back to it and just noticed how “resting”, “exhausted” and “ghost” are ringing changes on one another. The scene is detailed obliquely but precisely: a garden – late summer, with the occasional butterfly flittering by as the light fails and the wren retires to its nest – where a poet past the middle of the way ruminates on life and loss. Like the fountain pen in line four, the fountain of youth has run dry. Nonetheless, like Donne’s sermon, this poem undercuts its negations. In a small but enduring way its words break the silence and the answer to the question posed in line is, in a sense, yes.
Silence and the imperceptible are recurrent concerns in this book, played off against various barely audible or perceptible phenomena. One sees this in ‘How to Write Verse without Anyone Knowing’, as well as in the Hamlet-inflected ‘Wondrous Strange’, which begins as follows:
Now it can almost be heard. But not quite
Almost. Still on the far side of nearly,
It is the melody of a floating feather.
In the “dark garden”, a spider’s web tickles the speaker’s cheek. A briar catches at his clothes. The softest of breezes sifts through his hair. He smells sandalwood and fenugreek, though “that’s impossible” and senses “the scent of one who is no longer here.”
Shakespeare and horticulture meet once more in ‘An Actor Takes up Gardening’, which sees a dissatisfied thespian planting “musk-rose,/ Cowslip, primrose, woodbine and eglantine, thyme,/ ‘nodding violet’, rosemary […]”. In the final stanza of this poem the speaker thanks “God for gardens./ The solitude of toying with the earth./ The tiny dramas of recurrence.” And there is certainly something cyclical about this book, in that it sees Dunn returning to familiar subjects – male solitude, a wary affirmation of culture’s goods, the contemporary pastoral and the state of Scotland itself. The latter comes through most clearly in ‘English (a Scottish Essay)’:
I didn’t choose you, nor did you choose me.
I was born into a version called Accent.
I haven’t lost it, nor could it lose me –
I own it; it owns me, with my consent.
In this poem Dunn asserts what is, I would say, by now inalienable – his right to the English language – taking MacDiarmid’s oft-quoted slogan “Not Burns, Dunbar” and converting it into “Not nationality but language.” At the end he comes back to gardening, writing that in his particular flowerbed “Most plants and shrubs aren’t native […]”. For the moment
[…] let my lilies flourish in
This land and tongue of rain and cloud-shadow.
Lilies and roses, too, are of this nation.
As we are said to say in Scotland, lang may yir lum reek.
Stewart Sanderson was born in Glasgow in 1990. In 2015 he
received an Eric Gregory Award. His first pamphlet is Fios (Tapsalteerie,
Oz hardwick’s The House of Ghosts and Mirrors reviewed by Wendy Pratt
The House of Ghosts and Mirrors by Oz hardwick. £9.99. Valley Press. ISBN: 978-0571333813.
The House of Ghosts and Mirrors gazes from a distance at things past, things present, and is a voyeur into a life coming to an end. The life is that of a childhood home rooted in the middle of everything with the world of the narrator circling slowly around it indefinitely. When we leave our homes, when they no longer physically belong to us, we do not leave them in our minds. Everyone is always living in their childhood homes, everyone is always aware of the feel of woodchip walls or the squeak of a particular floorboard, the exact pitch of a boiler, the grumble of the radiators. We are impressed, like geese, by these brick and mortar guardians. It makes strangely moving experience; to return and revisit, to look at it as something with a definitive beginning and end, a story captured in the structure. Oz handles this with incredible care, he manages to create that feeling, somewhere between nostalgia and a more clinical memory assessment, without the schmooze of sentimentality or the hand wringing existentialism of desire to remain. If anything, and here is my critiquing, I felt that there was room to let go a little bit, to be enraged, to be more primal over the emotional content of the book, but perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. The current trends for poetry tend to be entirely instinctive and emotion led and maybe that is something to be wary of, without the structure in which we keep emotions, how can we tell what is important?
Something that struck me when reading the collection is the beautiful collection of things, they are trailed behind the narrator, waiting to be enhanced by the significance of a voice, a song, an event. Oz has a knack for making the seemingly mundane significant. In the wonderfully moving poem Archaeology, it is the souvenir clothes brush which his ghost father dusts himself down with, which lodges like shrapnel, makes it hard to see the individual items with which we surround ourselves as anything less than dangerous, as anything less than dangerous to remember.
… he lay,
oil under his nails, ten No. 6
and a brass lighter packed in his shirt pocket,
stretched on a crucifix of chimneysweep’s brushes.
The mixture of the of small and big, of gaps that one might fall down and doors that once opened into one room but now lead back into painful memories is magnetic. This is a book to circle round on, like revisiting a home town that you’ve not lived in for years. There is pleasure in it, yes, but the nostalgia is always slightly tainted, slightly tinged with the darker memories of home.
Such is Oz Hardwick’s book: dark and beautiful and gentle and threaded with music. Not surprising since as well as being a lecturer, a poet and a photographer (the photo on the cover is taken by Oz himself and depicts the mirror in his mother’s bedroom, in the room where he was born) , Oz is also a musician. The music acts like glue between and inside the poems and between and inside the narrator and the other characters, mapping a way forward, or backwards, depending on which point in time the reader, encapsulated within the poems, is being transported to. Another theme to note is that of magic, magical thinking, magical potions, magical substances, all embedded in a long legged, youthful dream-time in which love is osmotic and the world is not as it seems, all things are malleable; lovers are renamed worlds are reformed as in Tristan on the Midnight Road
I slipped away, guided by the gull-eye moon,
navigating lanes banked with guano.
We’d drunk too much, gulped potions,
a backstreet Tristan and Iseult.
And always the movement, always moving forward and backwards as if home is a not a solid state, not somewhere to rest, but an exhausting place of constant revisiting, a realty that is difficult to hold on to and through which everyone is slipping, Alice in Wonderland style, like stars or sand. In Oz’s world, one gets the feeling that everything is spinning on and on, and we are part of the detritus that can mean so little or so much.
Gestures appear young and easy,
but there are no reactions to these neutrons,
white dwarfs, black holes. These shapes map
my first memory, and in the years between,
light has travelled 3,233,174,989,935 miles.
Wendy Pratt is a poet and freelance writer, living just outside Filey in North Yorkshire. Wendy is widely published in journals and magazines and has won or been highly placed in several well respected competitions. She is in her third year of a PhD at Hull university. Her latest collection is Gifts the Mole Gave Me (Valley Press. 2017). It will be reviewed in the spring issue of The High Window.
Gordon Meade’s The Year of the Crab reviewed by Cathy Morrison
The Year of the Crab by Gordon Meade. £10. Cultured Llama Press. ISBN: 978-0571333813.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Meade is on a religious pilgrimage, given the first two title sections of his observations in The Year of the Crab . St Bartholomew, however, appears to refer to the London hospital where he first received treatment for cancer and St Monans, the Scottish village retreat where Meade goes to pause, to consider. It becomes apparent soon enough though, that whilst Meade is evidently on a journey, he doesn’t believe in God; what he does appear to believe in is the powerful healing nature of water, the sea and the redemptive, sheltering power that familial love offers.
The poetry is stark, pared down. Meade’ emotions surface like the dead seal in ‘Coastal Erosion’. At times his anger and pain simmer under the tidelines; just as the seal’s ‘otherworldly vitality’ is evident twice a day, so too does Meade’s raw vulnerability inevitably twist and turn as he faces the possibility of his own death.
Life and death, truth and lies, love and loss are recurrent themes. Meade sets out his stall, early on. He would ‘always plump for the truths’ he declares in ‘Truth and Lies’ and he is determined to face up to his diagnosis, to affirm the ordinary, as if events such as eating ‘what might well be my first ever / fresh apricot’ reassure him that enjoyment can still be had, that holding on to and relishing the minutiae is within his power even though having cancer so clearly is not.
Everywhere Meade looks there are reminders of his reality. Otherwise ordinary observations become metaphors for the horror that he is facing. His initial enjoyment of watching woodpeckers in ‘The Family Name’ leads to the discovery that their family name is ‘descent’; it is obvious that everything is tainted. Meade is confronted with his own mortality and unable to escape his spiralling thoughts; it is his refusal to pretend but his decision to catalogue daily events through the lens of fear that makes this collection brave and unflinching. The medical lexical field that coats Mead’s verse is not romantic: palliative care, catheters, oncologists, warfarin, radiation, radiology, chemotherapy – the pages are littered with vocabulary that the reader balks at. And this is exactly the point. Just as Meade has had to adapt bravely to a strange new world of hospital visits and hormone therapy so too does he force us to address our own distaste, our own deepest fears. Meade realises early on that he is ‘more than likely to bleed’. And bleed he does, literally and through the words that seep into the final section focussed on ‘Ninewells’, the hospital where his suffering plumbs new depths and there is a sense of barely veiled hysteria, a crescendo of despair, a heightening of tension as he faces gruelling treatment.
‘My Second Wind’ offers the first suggestion of hope, of a future that Meade had clearly begun to doubt was possible and references Eve Ensler, one of the writers who inspired and influenced Meade’s attitude to cancer. When he thought he was ‘finished’ he discovered he still had the ability to ‘take that other step’. But there are no saccharin happy ever afters. Nearing the end of the collection Meade meditates on the word ‘survivor’, preferring to see himself as a ‘winner’ instead. However, in victory he is not victorious, and ‘Compound Interest’ deals with the attempts to return to his former life. He tries to ‘force’ himself to be ‘interested’ but can’t simply shake the ‘mind-/numbing trauma’ of the treatment process. In so doing he identifies with every sufferer who has been irrevocably changed by their experience and struggles with ‘not being moved’ by former interests and passions.
The final few poems in the collection are like breathing out after being underwater for too long. ‘For Granted’ acknowledges the transition from suffocation to the heady joy of being able to ‘roam free’. Meade returns his focus, his linguistic choices, back to the ‘ordinary’ to the everyday. His relief is palpable. The title poem, ‘The Year of the Crab’ takes a more philosophical tone, with Meade musing on his childhood preference for that zodiac sign, lightening the tone, distancing himself from the disease.
It is the penultimate poem though, ‘The Care Team,’ that moved me most in this collection. As Meade acknowledges the silent suffering of his family during his treatment, his wife: ‘one night, crying in the kitchen’ and his daughter ‘afraid’, we as readers are reminded that so many people are affected by cancer, not just the sufferers themselves and that it is the ‘nurturing and non-invasive love’ alongside medical treatments that give people the oxygen they need to survive.
For his finale Meade, of course, returns to the sea, but now it has ‘turned autumnal’. He is aware that everything is ‘more threatening’, the colours no longer white but ‘grey and black’. Meade no longer reads the earthbound signs to know that he has passed his summer season, but acknowledges that it is from the unpredictable, unchained:
Sky above us, by the birds that fly
around us and, mostly, by the sea’
that we can tell ‘everything’. Life is constantly swirling, swooping and scudding by. Meade encourages us, with a warning, to embrace the elements.
Cathy McGrath lives and works in Yorkshire. She teaches creative writing skills and poetry appreciation. Currently working on her first novel ‘Defective’, she draws inspiration for her writing from the natural landscape of the North York Moors.
Kitty Coles’s Seal Wife reviewed b y Melanie Branton.
Seal Wife by Kitty Coles. £6.00. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN 978-1-910834-57-2
Seal Wife, the debut pamphlet from Kitty Coles, like much that emerges from Indigo Dreams, is steeped in mythology, folklore and fairy tale. But there is nothing twee or fey here: there is a grounding juxtaposition between the Grand Guignol and the everyday, as when the vampire in ‘Life Undead’ complains that supernatural longevity forces you to ‘fudge your CV,’ and Coles writes with a highly original voice and vision.
Metamorphosis and the conflicting claims of two worlds are at the heart of this collection, as when the selkie in the title poem attempts to resist the call of her suppressed nature:
in the chill that presses
itself under the door,
an insinuating ghost.
Sometimes the focus is on the severing of the umbilical cord, from the mournful parents of ‘The Doe-Girl’, who catch only occasional ‘glimpses’ of her since she metamorphosed into a deer, to the overtly sexual ‘The Seeds Of The Pomegranate’, where Persephone tells Hades:
My mother scours the city
as we lie here. I am lost to her light.
My mouth is full of your gift.
Unhealthy, possessive, coercive relationships put in plenty of appearances, from Isis in ‘Osiris’, frustrated that she cannot possess her husband’s heart (‘That little red thing has hopped off / with a mind of its own’) to Bluebeard describing his ability to ‘differentiate from other paleness / the paleness that wants to be darkened’ and ‘the paleness that wants to be darkened’ of willingly blind victims who collude in their own abuse becomes a recurrent motif.
The eponymous heroine of ‘Snow White’ owns, ‘I have feared the body, its unmanageable reds’ and those fearsome, ‘unmanageable reds’ are ever present in this collection. Kisses ‘scald and mark’, The Butcher’s Wife tells of how her husband’s hands on her body ‘smell like blood, a rusty vehemence / infecting the heat of the bedroom,’ and, yet, ultimately, the terrifying riskiness of carnality is shown as being what makes us truly alive: in ‘Peter, The Wild Boy’, the men who have ‘never heard their own blood / ticking, ticking’ are ‘ignorant / men like children’.
Coles is a doyenne of the oxymoron and uses them to great effect to present desire and disgust, eroticism and danger, love and abuse, as inextricably entwined: a pomegranate (and, by extension, a woman’s vagina) is a ‘grisly mass of jewels’; Persephone thinks of the ‘cysts beading’ her body; the self-deluded third wife of Bluebeard boasts of ‘bruises the colour of doves, / the size of petals’.
On first reading, it was Coles’s quirky, Gothic imagination that had me, but on subsequent reads the subtlety of her crafting and the high standard of her technical control increasingly impressed. Never formulaic or metronomic, these poems are nonetheless written with expert understanding of traditional formal structures and the decision to deviate from them is always a clearly thought through artistic choice, not the lazy ineptness of someone who unthinkingly reaches for free verse as a default. The regularity of the pentameter quatrains which she chooses for ‘Morrigan’ creates an appropriately claustrophobic sense of intensity, in combination with heavy use of consonance and syntactic parallelism, while the erratic line lengths and jerky rhythm of ‘The Doe-Girl’ convey the subject’s nervy skittishness. The rhythmic structure of ‘Black Annis’ is eccentric and complex, but each stanza follows the same non-conventional pattern, as befits a dramatic monologue from the viewpoint of a mythical bogeywoman whose monstrous lifestyle has its own internal rationale.
Sound patternings create distinctive texturing, as in the guttural, Norse-heavy diction of ‘Homunculus’:
Your words are scraped from gutters, dregs of bottles.
You strut like a cock on a muckheap, crow and cackle.
You’re red of wattle, feet scabby as a pigeon’s.
This tension between the maverick, crackpot originality of Coles’s subject matter and the rigorous discipline of her crafting is what gives this chapbook its driving nervous energy.
Melanie Branton lives in North Somerset and has worked as a teacher, an assistant theatre director and a full-time carer. She has had poems in a variety of journals, including The Interpreter’s House, Prole and Obsessed With Pipework and her first collection of poetry, My Cloth-Eared Heart was published by Oversteps Books in 2017.
Pam Zinnemann-Hope’s Foothold reviewed by Stephen Boyce
Foothold by Pam Zinnemann-Hope. £9.99. Ward Wood Publishing. ISBN 978-1-908742-65-0
Time spent with Pam Zinnemann-Hope’s new collection, Foothold, is time well spent. At first sight domestic and personal, these tender and unshowy poems unfold gently and at leisure to reveal the poet’s deep affection for the landscape and culture of West Dorset (Hardy, Eggardon Hill, Lyme Bay), and for her “long lived love”, composer husband, Peter.
Despite her protestation that his is a “world of sound / I cannot enter”, this is a collection that ripples with musical references, giving substance to what Thomas Hardy describes as “…the voice that I heard, / In the full-fugued song of the universe unending.” (From In A Museum which Zinnemann-Hope quotes in full at the outset.) Everything, it seems, has its own song, its particular sound. We become attuned to a world in which “a wren’s call tsipps, like a tiny silver axe”, “you groan like the strained hinges of the door”, “snowdrops chant” – music and nature fusing when
an arpeggio descends like a small waterfall
(‘Listening to Liszt’)
or when it becomes apparent
… how Beethoven’s soul
has entered the lark, backwards;
how it’s speeded up.
(‘The Musicologist And The Birdwatcher’)
Music, birdsong, the sounds of rain and rivers, are a constant counterpoint to the everyday events and personal interactions, the observations of a turning world, that are the raw material of these poems. As a consequence their nuances are often more vivid, they resonate with recognisable truth. In fact, sounds appear to map the contours of life, help us locate ourselves emotionally, like the pianist Alfred Brendel:
… a man who, blindfold,
could find his way through the landscape
by the sounds of the rain on its surfaces.
(‘When Brendel Appears at Plush’)
And the life described here is one in which the natural world frequently occupies the foreground. Swallows, bees, snowdrops, birch trees all abound. The shifts and turns of the seasons accompany, even prefigure, the small movements of the heart: the arrival of a grandchild, stargazing, a visit to the doctor. The collection cycles through the seasons, beginning and ending in snow.
Nature is also the much-desired source of “magical thinking…a light to keep / in the pocket” (‘Perseids’), so that in ‘Crab Apple’ the tree becomes “a brief god, / waving to us, with a blackbird on his shoulder”, and, in ‘Central Heating’, even the plumber has “an incantation / for every room he plumbed”.
The progress of life is, like the hawthorn, shaped by the wind. And yet the connection is a fragile one. Zinnemann-Hope is torn between the urge to “be intrepid”, to “crack on”, and the need to acknowledge the vulnerability that is also present:
the trees shake a little
and the river roars,
to loosen our foothold
The process of ageing, of observing the passage of a mature and loving relationship, cannot be denied and is conveyed in unflinching yet tender detail as well as a certain understandable wistfulness, for “autumn has shifted the light” (‘Blown Loose’), and
… each heartbeat’s
measured in creases of flesh.
(‘You’re Almost Facing Me’)
Though the uncomfortable realities of frailty and mortality are brought to mind with touching candour, there’s nonetheless a quiet fortitude derived from the constant presence of nature:
standing up to weather became a way of life.
The mood is at times resigned, though not morbid or mournful. There is dancing, too, and in ‘December’s Reckoning’ a “need to sing out / the wasting year…”, to let
the first notes hold us,
carry us …
The familiar features of the West Dorset landscape and its history – Lulworth, Eggardon, the Jurassic Coast, Hardy’s Cottage – are both backdrop and armature to this collection and acknowledged with the same affection as husband and grandchildren. The voice of Mary Anning, pioneering fossil collector and palaeontologist, is evoked, as is the sound of Thomas Hardy’s, whose ‘In a Museum’ provides the apt entrée to the collection. And at Eype, where the ageless rocks serve to emphasise our temporal and universal insignificance,
The incoming tide turns us back
till we spy an endless ribbon,
shining above the shore line…
and what turns out to be a shoal of whitebait becomes a gift of nature in the here and now.
There’s nothing flashy about these poems. Their mainly free verse rhythms are easy on the ear, mostly unconstrained by formal conventions, conversational, as befits the often intimate tone:
the tenderest of dances
a clustering of notes …
(‘3 Liszt Études’)
Set within the “known geography of hereabouts”, Foothold presents a reassuring affirmation of the pastoral and the way that elements of nature continue to suffuse, govern and reflect the patterns of human life and relationships.
Stephen Boyce lives in Dorset and is the author of two poetry collections, Desire Lines (Arrowhead 2010) and The Sisyphus Dog (Worple 2014), as well as the pamphlets In the Northland (TegArt 2011) and Something Persists (TegArt 2014). He is a founding trustee of Winchester Poetry Festival. www.stephenboycepoetry.com
Paul Sutherland’s New & Selected Poems reviewed by Dónall Dempsey
New & Selected Poems by Paul Sutherland. ££20. Valley Press. ISBN 978-1908853776
Reading this book is like watching those films where a seed grows up before you in slow motion and becomes a flower in sixty seconds. One watches in amazement as a man unfolds petal by petal and turns to the sun and we see that in time he will learn that “love survives each era’s wreckage.” In these poems the poet journeys within himself as his thought evolves from decade to decade. One can feel the heft and texture of his thinking. He works so that “compassion might prevail.”
Joy and delight are his time signatures, stained with a certain sadness. These poems “…preserve signs of defeat, a crack across a window, a shooting star’s path crystallized into an eternal needle-line. Imagine looking up at trajectories of the fallen. A pick-up-sticks of light. Dome of space scratched with irremovable routes of disgrace fates.”
New and Selected Poems is constructed as an emotional autobiography in which the poems are interwoven with prose and prose-poems linking them into an integrated whole. There are sub-plots, for instance, “Ben Nicholson Miniatures” sequence, a delightful minimalist sequence that forays into works of art where the paintings challenge him to describe them. Moreover, the poet’s career as a museum curator allows him to question and handle the past itself as various objects bring up the ghosts of the people who once possessed these “artifacts” as part of themselves rather than as mere ‘displays’
Nature “impassions” him and he can swing from the Frost of “The Tuft of Flowers” to an Edward Thomas forever “In Pursuit of Spring”. He can be at once philosophical or just delight in nature’s riches. He doesn’t see nature as the great “out there” but as an intrinsic part of himself….his human landscape merging with the “landscape’s mythical breathing.”
Such subtle touches of beauty, captured with such a delicate fragility. He is the master of the “ring-bright phrase”:
and as if revered
a curlew’s lengthening cry
draws a frontier
But one of the outstanding sequences in the book is “Finding a Blue Door in Oxford” when he moves gracefully from haiku and haibun to poetic meditations before coming to rest on the grace note of a startling haiku:. “… we have only language, replicas for the day that actually happened…our day…passing away unrecorded as a boy’s punting down the quagmire river.”
Sutherland’s approach to death manifests in poems of great tenderness and infinite caring. In “Washing Your Corpse”, for example, his capacity for intense observation, at once objective and profoundly meditative, produces lines like these:
… ease my flannel round off-colour eyes,
a yellowish moss oozing from these ovals –
is this what tears over a lifetime become?
“The Beloved” is a moving elegy to those left behind, those who grieve, and those who have to bear the loss, with an amazing conceit that somehow captures the impossible sense of not being able to die along with the loved one:
…her senses burst toward the open
to take her immortalitas, before she journeyed
on as one that’s dead and he
was dropped, in between here and there –
a gatherer of life’s emptiness.
Paul Sutherland is at once: “Child-soft, age-timid/ jumbled in elementary orders:/ one quiet masterpiece.”
All these synapses of self…moments of awareness in which we also catch glimpses of ourselves. It always feels as if Paul Sutherland is writing us, as he traces himself back in time to what it meant just to be human….the ordinary extraordinary moment of being…a brother…a son…a child…the man. All these tributaries of self, flowing into the vast sea of who he can be. A glass menagerie of who he was…who he is…before he can “rage into being.”
“By the Grave of Naheebahweequay” is the poem where he comes of age and finds his own poetic voice… by pure serendipity, a blue butterfly helps him locate the lost First Nation grave. And offers him the voice which is his alone:
Can this long uncared-for site be an image
for a voice that continues without echo …?
Let’s acknowledge the past. All of us,
we possessed it.
Paul Sutherland really comes into his own as a grandfather. The final poem reflects him back to himself through the eyes of his granddaughter. One can see all the tributaries of self now flow into his grandchild’s future. He expresses the bond in striking images:
Sometimes my shadow
was bold then it faded
but stayed attached to me.
Sometimes I jumped into yours
to see what happened then.
In this book, Sutherland shape-shifts from one Paul to another…sheds a skin. One is able to see a long line of Pauls…over four decades of them all arguing over who has the right to be the man himself before he blossoms into the light and becomes Abdul Wadud with all the fierce gentleness that is his hallmark. He is a living palimpsest…now we see him and now…we see him clearer. He is a poet descending a staircase.