Books under Review
Ruth Sharman: Scarlet Tiger • Adam Wyeth: The Art of Dying • Michael Crowley: First Fleet • Roy Fisher: Slakki: New & Neglected Poems edited by Peter Robinson • Peter Sirr: Sway • Gerard Smyth: A Song of Elsewhere
Claire Dyer • Emma Lee • Peter Riley • Keith Hutson • John Foggin • Kim Moore
Ruth Sharman’s Scarlet Tiger reviewed by Claire Dyer
Scarlet Tiger by Ruth Sharman. £10. Templar Poetry. ISBN: 9781911132103
Although there has been a twenty year pause between the publication of Ruth Sharman’s first collection, Birth of the Owl Butterflies (Picador, 1997) and Scarlet Tiger (Templar, 2016), what is striking is that in this second book there is the feeling that Sharman is continuing a conversation she started all those years ago.
And what’s more she is unafraid of repeating herself, using familiar motifs such as the frequent: butterflies, moths, flowers, birds, and the less frequent: lipstick, silverfish, her wedding dress and dusk, or of using her poems as tools in what seems to be an ongoing argument with herself about life, love and loss; an argument which is both refreshingly honest and spoken with a consistency of voice that says, ‘Know me, here I am.’
The three-part structure of Scarlet Tiger also mirrors the structure of her first book. In Part I we meet again her father and his moths and butterflies, and are made aware of his and their mortality. Foregrounded also is Sharman’s struggle with the distiction between knowing and being known. In Part II the voice, although resolutely the same, shifts a gear as the story moves on to marriage, motherhood and a different type of loss. In Part III the gaze moves to art, objects, photographs – tangible vehicles through which she, as poet, continues to explore the meanings of connection.
Sharman says that her poems are ‘hard won’ but they don’t appear so. They move down the page with a light tread, aided by her light touch with punctuation and use of white space. She also says that she sees poetry ‘as crystallising experience, imposing pattern and form on flux and change’ as if to enable her ‘to feel – for the briefest moment – as if I were standing outside time. There is a sense in which writing poetry feels like living life twice over – living it and saving it.’
This sense of living life and saving it is made evident in ‘Dancing’ with which she ends Part I of the book. In it she is bringing her lepidopterist father’s butterflies back to life. She, plus another, who could be her father or could be someone else:
… lean in close and breathe …
As carefully as you pushed them home,
we’ll pull out every heart-pin
and use our fingertips to smooth
each ruffled scale and shattered wing.
And then the colours and shapes reappear as the poem’s pace picks up to match heartbeat to wingbeat in a frenzy of freedom and return:
as we watch them flying in the last light
and can’t see the sky for dancing.
Towards the end of Part II comes ‘Tinnitus’, addressed to a ‘you’ who again could be everyman or someone very particular. In this poem Sharman balances our inner noise with the silence that stretches between people. She says:
We use the same words – sadness,
tinnitus, red – without knowing
if we mean the same thing.
Moreover, she tells us that between us is a ‘great gulf of air’, and it is this ‘gulf’ which travels the distance into Part III of the collection. Here, for example, in ‘Parable of the Sower’ Sharman’s preoccupation is with the paradox of change; Andrew Taylor’s chapel window at Great Chalfield serving as a reminder of the inability of man to halt change for, even in the permanence of the window and much like her father’s captured butterflies, there are, ‘… timely reminders / of all we stand to lose.’
It seems invidious to pick poems out for special mention as it is in their coherence and the strength of their argument that they emerge and meld. However, following closely to the ‘Parable of the Sower’ comes ‘Cézanne’s apples, etc’ and, as with many of the poems, the title here does just the right amount of work, giving enough and making suggestions without being insistent. In this poem Sharman returns to look once again at the painting of the apples and in so doing bookends what was before with what is now, whilst packing all that has happened in between into the collapse of years, so much so that the yearning to ‘to be there’, back in her childhood of ‘imagined butterflies, / painted sunlight, painted air’ becomes something almost physical.
Scarlet Tiger is at once a collection that is tender and elegiac as well as being robust, with dark veins of struggle and loss running through it. However, in poems that lift off the page like butterflies taking flight, it lays claim to a heritage which Sharman first began exploring in Birth of the Owl Butterflies and, in a collection well worth waiting for, stakes out a future still worth striving for.
Claire Dyer is from Reading, Berkshire. Her two poetry collections: Eleven Rooms and Interference Effects, are both published by Two Rivers Press. She was the winner of the 2015 Charles Causley Poetry Prize and her novels, The Moment and The Perfect Affair are published by Quercus. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her website is www.clairedyer.com
Adam Wyeth’s The Art of Dying reviewed by Emma Lee
The Art of Dying by Adam Wyeth. Salmon Poetry. €12/£9.99. ISBN 9781910669594
Andrew Wyeth’s poems are cerebral, setting up a slanted look at a scenario and inviting readers to think around them. In ‘Girl with a Bag in Barcelona’, once the narrator recovers from the surprise of witnessing a thief run off with a handbag, his attention turns to the woman whose bag has been stolen, wondering if there was nothing valuable in the bag:
On the other hand, perhaps her stillness was a sign
that there were items of overwhelming cost:
legal documents, her great grandmother’s watch,
a diamond ring, a signed copy of Ulysses, first edition.
‘Should I call the police?’ I asked, sitting back down.
She gave a shrug that showed the futility of my question.
She seemed to have complete self-control,
I thought she might be a pupil of the mysterious
Tibetan school who acquire material possessions
only so they can let them go: to learn the art
of dying, slipping quietly away between
thoughts when no one is looking.
The rhythm follows the narrator’s moods with enjambment hurrying the rhythm when he’s busy with the need to react and then the caesuras fall more naturally at line ends when he picks up her calmness and is forced to focus on the crime’s victim rather than himself. Her lack of reaction seems to be the opposite of ‘the art of dying’. It’s drawn attention to her and provoked speculation. It also feels as if the narrator is intruding, a theme picked up in ‘The World’:
My mother’s kitchen was a sea of blue cupboards
and shiny surfaces, the door was always closed
or just ajar. Sometimes I’d peep in and sport her
dusting packets on shelves, or mopping the floor
smooth as an ice rink. A pot of wilting thyme
sat dying of thirst on the window sill, while outside
a bare hedge ringed our home, fortifying us
from next door. When I asked for water she’d startle
out of her cleaning waltz, spin on the spot, then
take a polished glass from the highest cupboard
and dash to the taps, I’d catch her twisted image
bending in its chrome arm, letting the gush of water
run cold before filling the glass. I’d stand at the door
wanting to break through its icy exterior – the sea
of glass – but knew if I did world would shatter.
The neglected thyme and leafless hedge contrast to the spotless cupboards and suggest the kitchen is a bolt-hole from everyday cares and responsibilities. A retreat where everything is in its place and she doesn’t expect to be interrupted. The kitchen is the mother’s domain, her escape into daydreams, a world the child is aware he can’t intrude on no matter how much he wants to share in it.
‘The Talking Tree Alphabet’ is a sequence, not a complete alphabet and not in alphabetical order, but a series of poems inspired by names of trees. ‘Pear’ looks at a father and son relationship:
In the orchard the son
asked his father where
everything in the world
came from. The father
plucked a pear from
a branch, broke its flesh
in half and gave his son
a seed, then asked him
to crack it open and tell
him what he saw inside.
The son bit into its husk
and said there was nothing
there. They continued
through the orchard without
a word between them.
It captures the awkward non-communication where things are assumed to be understood. The father gives an indirect answer which leaves the son to think about the husk and make his own mind up. When the boy gives an answer, the father doesn’t respond, leaving the son to assume he’s right. The father gives no sign that he understands the implications of the lack of offered reassurance. The reader can picture them walking parallel lines, as far as the trees will allow, trapped in their own thoughts. In ‘Birch’ Marilyn Monroe wears the dress she made famous in ‘The Seven Year Itch,’ standing above a subway grating:
But few know the story of when she first tried it on
saying she wanted to become
as the silver birch she sat under as a child –
the one that lit up like a maypole after rain
and had the sweet tang of bourbon.
Whenever she was lost she’d close her eyes and listen
to its whispers as it succumbed to the breeze.
Now she had become the dream, yet behind
her blithe smile was the studied model
directed to fight the updraught, just enough to show
trembling legs, but not to reveal anything else.
It says a lot about Marilyn Monroe’s talent that she could make an image, that would have been repeated numerous times to get just the right feel, look spontaneous. It also says something about the natural of glamour that in order to achieve an iconic image, she had to go to a happy place rather than be focused in the moment. The flickering, short-term nature of breeze through leaves could stand as a metaphor for her life.
The final section, ‘The Hedge’, presents a ‘he said’, ‘she said’ scenario with two voices giving different viewpoints of a scene with readers picking out clues to figure out where the truth lies.
That’s primarily what the poems in The Art of Dying do, explore how truth can be coloured by viewpoint, how communication relies on context and non-verbal clues and the liveliness of people’s internal worlds in contrast with the mundane everyday routines they undertake.
Emma Lee’s most recent collection is ‘Ghosts in the Desert’ (IDP, 2015). She was co-editor for ‘Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge’ (Five Leaves, 2015) and ‘Welcome to Leicester’ (Dahlia Publishing, 2016). She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com
Michael Crowley’s First Fleet reviewed by Peter Riley
First Fleet by Michael Crowley. Smokestack Books. £7.95. ISBN 9780993454721
Modernism disabled narrative poetry by outlawing all the means of creating it. In The Cantos when the documentation comes in the poetry goes out, only really seen again in spasms of cultural nostalgia and yearning, lost-world imagery, and pastiche of ancient forms, apart from a kind of segmented and indiscriminate ‘Cantos-poetry’ that Pound wrote himself into. The ‘narrative’ of The Waste Land is buried, subliminal, lost sight of in global sacredness and mystical typologies.
A lot of more recent poetry, Modernist or not, will not stand for these restrictions at all but yet finds the mechanics of real narrative poetry unreachable. (‘Real’ here means extended, retailing significant events from beginning to end, and in some way, however tentatively, in touch with the concept of the epic, which means encompassing an entire history.) It is as if the world-view which is large enough to contain poetical narrative is lost. But there remains a sense that the single short (possibly ‘lyrical’) poem is not enough. So poets write sequences in which the narrative is subliminal, verbal, or purely notional, like Jack Spicer’s ‘serial poems’, strong and beguiling constructs of pseudo-narrative in which the story is a gloss on pre-modern narratives (The Holy Grail etc.) or disappears into a putative subconscious, for lack of anywhere else to locate the sequentiality. Meanwhile the great majority of poets write poems as if they were episodes of novels: narrative is reduced to anecdote; we never view the whole story. Both forms of renunciation of narrative and of the causal understanding that should motivate it, seem to have arisen in a growing climate of political secrecy through the 20th Century, increasingly from the 1980s onwards to the present crisis, where identity politics and populism together abandon the history of common humanity in favour of exclusive versions of experience.
Anyway, for whatever reason, most poets don’t have a story to tell. But Michael Crowley does. It is the story of the fleet of eleven ships that sailed to the first British penal settlement at Sydney Cove in Australia, in 1787, reconstructed from surviving journals, mainly by marine officers. It is a narrative only the bare bones of which have survived in documentation, and the task is to realise it as experienced event. Crowley’s avowed purpose is to give voice to a whole range of people involved, mainly convicts and marines and some of the higher military and administrators, and the Aboriginal people displaced and damaged by the new colony. There are 33 poems spoken by 16 people and chronologically arranged so that in the repetitions of events and recurrence of persons the life of the colony for some eight or nine years is covered, seen piecemeal through individuals, each telling their own story.
The ‘voice’ given to these people is only individuated to a degree by occasional dialect terms or spoken grammatical contractions. Basically everyone from governor to convict or native, speaks the same language, which is the language of the poem, and as such it is a dignified, direct and clear language, sufficiently formally conceived to establish its poem status, with or without rhyme or part-rhyme, and with traces of foot-measured lineation, sometimes flowing across line and stanza breaks, but without the violent enjambment of the angry Modernist. Indeed the emotional overview of this history, much of it shocking, is generally calm and condolent, possibly fatalistic, without any suggestion of complacency. You couldn’t call the poems ‘plain’; they can be quite rich in metaphor whoever the speaker, but the principal poetical quality lies, I think, in the succession of telling details that are rhythmically compelling with not a word wasted. I’m also struck by the way the last line of the poem generally avoids any kind of consummation or inflation, and signs off with a minor detail, carefully set in the poetics as a cadence. All the things we are told of, the floggings and executions, the deprivation and perseverance, the mutual incomprehension of white man and native, they are all normal; it is going to continue like this, and so often the poem-speeches acknowledge this in their casual but decisive endings. Here is the latter half of a poem spoken by ‘Bennelong of the Eora people’ when taken prisoner:
They have sunk canoes, hunted the kangaroo.
They are a lost people, fallen from the wrong sky
To make a disease. Days and days
Of ceremony for the dead,
I am too tired to weep.
My dream said they would never leave.
They have weapons I can steal,
Hatchets to fight the Cameraigal.
I will eat more turtle, drink the strong drink,
Cut my rope and run to the trees,
Back to my wife, Barangaroo.
As in many cases, it seems unlikely that there is any substantial documentation behind such a poem, sometimes, as Crowley says, only the name and the sentence. This void, a human life, is ‘occupied by poetry’. Jane Fitzgerald, after receiving ’25 lashes for disobedience’—
Women are separated from the men now.
We have our own fires and places.
But William, he nurses me.
His narrow fingers, soft as water make me sleep.
I dread the flies, that’s all. Footsteps along my wounds,
The shiver of their eggs.
William is no soldier. His uniform hangs off his shoulders,
he is young, taunted and ordered by all others.
But he brings me the healing leaves,
Sets down his musket, reaches for me.
I will sew his torn sleeves.
What is at work here is imaginative empathy, and poetry might well be its best home in the modern literary climate. The result is not exactly narrative poetry, though it comes close to it. It deals with effects rather than causes, but proposes forcefully a belief in human resilience and perceptive fidelity. I think the delicate crafting of the poems just off the edge of Modernism serves these purposes well, since the directness of the message is indispensible for such a work, but the complacency of strict traditional forms would be disruptive.
After First Fleet there are 25 miscellaneous poems, of which those detailing the Welsh landscape are particularly fetching. In this section most of the poems centre the self, and I’m struck by the fact that this seems to encourage a poetry of concealment, the exact nature of events screened from us (to a greater or lesser extent) by those common poetical habits of obliquity and figuration or other forms of verbal masking, whereas First Fleet, from which the ‘I’ is absent, is direct and clear without loss of poetical texture.
As a reviewer I feel obliged to utter criticism, which is that the page numbers are set deep in the lower inner corners of the pages, and easily disappear into the gutter when you open the book.
Peter Riley was born in Stockport in 1940 and recently retired from Cambridge to Hebden Bridge. He is the author of fifteen books of poetry, and some of prose concerning travel and music. His most recent books are The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet 2011), a book-length poem, Due North (Shearsman 2015), which was shortlisted for the Forward Best Collection Prize in 2015, and Pennine Tales (Calder Valley Poetry 2016).
Roy Fisher’s Slakki reviewed by Keith Hutson
Roy Fisher: Slakki: New & Neglected Poems (edited by Peter Robinson). Bloodaxe Books. £9.95. ISBN 9781780373225
Readers of this journal will, no doubt, be familiar with Roy Fisher’s work – he has been around a long time and is greatly admired. Fisher is now in his 80s, and Slakki has been edited and prepared by his friend Peter Robinson. It comprises three sections: new poems, and uncollected (‘neglected’) poems from the 1960s and 1950s. There is also an essay by Fisher on the nature of neglect.
Slakki is an Old Norse word for a shallow depression among hills. Roy Fisher defines it as ‘not much of a valley. A Slack’. The blurb on the back of the book calls this ‘typical self effacement’ but I’m not sure why – he’s just describing what a slakki is.
To the poems:
I prefer the new ones. ‘Signs and Signals’, the first poem in the collection, is one of my favourites. It describes an incident in the First World War: ‘When the trench wall came away without warning / and exposed the singularly tall / German officer, set upright in the earth / as if in a raised niche …’ The German officer is dead, but ‘…For Lance-Corporal Fisher W., Royal / Fusiliers, it would be the most splendid figure of a man / he’d ever see.’ Fisher’s line breaks sometimes puzzle me, as do many poets’, but this poem has intensity. It contains a stark image that would remain with the soldier for life: an image of death looking perfectly turned-out, dignified, masterful, among the carnage.
‘Lock Lines for Two Locations’ gave me great enjoyment. It’s a short poem so I’ll print it all:
Lock Lines for Two Locations
held captive for a while
then sluiced away to join
the world’s other waters again
be lifted safe
with words at your back
these doors make depth
power to sink your boat
bodily into the land
and let it go riding out
step at a time a river
down through the town
There’s no need for deep analysis from me about this poem. It’s a delight. The lack of punctuation serves the flowing feel of the poem, and there isn’t a wasted word.
‘While There’s Still Time’, another new poem, is my firm favourite. In it, Fisher lets us know that he does not want to come back as a cat, but ‘ … in the form of a nut-brown silver-banded / bassoon. …’ cared for and played by ‘ … a woman with good lungs and long smooth arms’. Then, he says ‘my voice will be heard once again, / and as never before.’
From the second section, poems from the 1960s, I particularly like ‘The Discovery of Metre’, which describes an ‘ …old man / walking downstairs / three steps // And a pause / still talking / pleased to be // Talking and / still making it / downstairs.’ Some might be touched by the inclusion of a poem, written in the poet’s younger years, that describes him as he is now, but I think that is a sentimental bridge too far. This poem is a beautiful piece of economy and music, and stands up for itself in these less emotional terms.
The 1950s section has a poem called ‘Neighbours, We’ll Not Part Tonight!’ (The Demon Knitters of Dent)’, which stands out for me, for its joyous narrative, cast of incredible characters, and choruses.
This collection is a great starting place for readers new to Fisher, because it presents poems from across sixty years, but Fisher devotees will also enjoy his trademark simplicity, honesty, heart and craft.
Keith Hutson has written for Coronation Street and many well-known comedians, as well as running a large landscaping business. His poetry is widely-published in journals including The Rialto, The North, Magma, Stand, Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Salzburg Review and he has won a Poetry Business Yorkshire Prize judged by Billy Collins. He delivers poetry and performance workshops in schools for The Prince’s Trust, and hosts a monthly poetry/music event, WordPlay, in Halifax. He’s a former amateur boxer.
Peter Sirr’s Sway: Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition reviewed by John Foggin
Peter Sirr: Sway: Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition. The Gallery Press. €12/£11. 978 1 85235 687 3
Before you read the review, you could do worse than get a taste of the poems, and also an introduction to the work in September’s special feature. Use this link:
While you’re at it, you might like to consider these extracts from John McAuliffe’s review in the Irish Times:
Peter Sirr’s fluent, lyrical poems have a natural affinity with the medieval troubadours he translates in his new collection, Sway. These Occitan poets developed courtly love as a subject and their songs were formative for vernacular poetry across Europe. They are still so much part of our vocabulary, in pop songs as well as love poems, that the poems can sometimes slip by too smoothly and easily.
This is a book about that eternal sub-genre, the lovelorn, and when the poems yoke together the contemporary with the original arcana, Sirr’s distinctive, jagging imagination finds real purchase: ‘dull ministries monitor’, he writes in ‘Road Songs’, ‘the inputs of light / the outcomes of flowers. / Birds of the new dispensation / submit for their supper / their triplicate wit, the trees apply for leaves.’
I wouldn’t normally start a review or an appreciation of a poet’s work by sending you off to read someone else’s review, but, like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.’ Let me qualify that. For ‘have’ read ‘had’, and for ‘clever’ read ‘ill-qualified’. A number of obstacles, real or imagined, arose when I came to read Sway for the first time.
For one, I wasn’t sure whether I was dealing with translation, or adaptation, with homage or pastiche. I persuaded myself that maybe the reader needed to be steeped in medieval French, and the conventions and traditions of courtly love; that s/he was familiar with the history of the troubadour tradition. In other words, I was convinced that these were poems for folk who knew more, and better, than me.
Who are these poems for? Scholars of Old Occitan, or of the courtly tradition for instance? Or the common reader? Why this should be an issue is worth thinking about. Why should it be a problem, if reading, say, The Iliad or The Metamorphoses, or Beowulf in translation is not? Am I making some kind of unconscious judgement about cultural influence and status?
I let myself become bothered by academic debates about the ethics of translation, too. Statements like this, for instance:
The translator, as he makes his translation, searches for literal equivalents which ‘work’ to ensure that the translation is ‘true’ to the original. In those instances in which the effect of the literal is not adequate to the translator’s eye and ear, or if the literal seems actually to detract from the new poem, ‘affective equivalents’ must be found which, when substituted for the literal, work to ensure that the new poem is self-sustaining and does not ‘sound like a translation.’
How could I know, for instance, whether Sirr’s poems are ‘true to the original’, or that his ‘affective equivalents’ cut the mustard? Perhaps I could take comfort from this:
The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, ‘becomes’ the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.
That seemed to resonate with what Peter Sirr says in his splendidly helpful – and reassuring – Afterword: I hung on to this ; he says he began the collection by a combination of fluke and compulsion:
‘It was the lines in what we now call Old Occitan that I couldn’t get out of my head. The opening gambit ‘Farai un vers de dreyt nien’ (I’ll make a verse out of nothing at all’) leapt from the page, seeming to arrive fully-formed in its self-confident flourish and strut… playing …with the idea of poetry and the role of the poet’
He goes further: ‘These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image’”… ‘Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past.’
I could go along with that, as with Clive James’: ‘A real poem? A real poem is ‘Well separated’. You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ (I love that!). Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. The message is simple enough. Read the poems as poems. Listen to them. Ask if they have that kind of force. So far so good.
But then another ‘obstacle’ presented itself. These are translations or adaptations of verse that was written to be sung, and with instrumental accompaniment. Sirr is upfront about this:
‘Music plays a big part; this was a performative tradition – the poems sung by joglars who sometimes themselves became trobadors.’
What about the music that the reader can’t hear? Do the words stand up in their own right? It’s a question we might want to ask, not because the troubador songs are 900 years old, but because we would reasonably ask the same question about Dylan’s or Cohen’s songs of love and separation. I reckon we might be fairly selective about deciding which bits of what they wrote stand up as poetry separated from the counterpoint of rhythm and tune. I have no problem with:
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem
but I’d be less sure about
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.
Because in listening to the song, we don’t linger to consider the individual images and phrases; the music moves on and fills the spaces. In the end, I decided that it would be fruitless to let myself get bogged down in the argument. The thing to do would be to put it out of my mind and simply read the poems as poems on the page. They would have to work for themselves.
There was just one more thing to clear out of the way…the conventions of the 12th C courtly love tradition, the whole business of the lovelorn, separated by class, or wealth, or convention, or distance. It comes with the baggage of history, and the unavoidable fact that the new-minted art morphs inevitably into cliche if it’s visited often enough. As Sirr says, in his Afterword:
The poetry of courtly love ‘sometimes resoves itself into a slightly cartoonish image of lovelorn poets and idealized love, a sort of medieval Hallmark of romantic gestures.
I remind myself that it’s alive and well in contemporary popular music, and always has been. It’s not much of a reach to read: no one compares. The paragons / the most beautiful ever, take them /they are not worth a glove in ‘When the sweet air turns bitter’ and think of Sinead O’Connor. That can only be because, in both cases, the words speak to something unchanging in the human condition.
And so you finally come to the poems. Maybe you, like me, expected something courtly as in ‘decorative’ or ‘finely wrought’ in the way of a minature by Nicholas Hilliard, or the mannered verse of the late medieval English court, Henry V111’s pretty stuff. What you get is closer to Thomas Wyatt. Not the plaster confectionery of late Gothic Decorated, but the honest, sinewy early stuff with the marks of the mason’s chisel everywhere. Sirr’s translation/adaptations come in with a heft and a swagger, and a contemporary accent, right from the first poem, ‘Nothing Song’:
Hard to know if I’m asleep or awake, please
knock on my door and tell me..
Well that was it. I don’t know
who I was singing for
It sets the tone and the rhythm for what follows. Laconic, tough-minded voices; individual voices even though they come filtered through Sirr’s particular idiolect. They use the familiar tropes of the genre: those of season and weather, (Spring and Autumn: being born and dying) and also of birds (larks especially) like the ones in ‘The hawthorn branch’: ‘Now the season’s new/ and woods come into leaf / now the birds try out / in their different tongues’ but what’s unexpected is the frankly fresh-sounding turn:
God grant I live till my hands reach
under her cloak again
These are grown-up voices:
let them boast of how their love grows
and never knows any strife
and let them remember
we have the loaf
we have the knife
And it’s interesting, the spin that Sirr puts on that line, the stage direction of the split line. I realised that moments like this drew me in to listening, cleared away all the obstacles I spelled out in detail at the beginning. I like the swagger of it all, the way the expectations of ‘courtly love’ are subverted by the idiom, as they are in ‘The worst of times’
When leaves fall…/ when birds stop singing …
is when I come in, all / flint, tinder and steel
the world is skewed: / a lord in every peasant’s bed
Sirr is an artful handler of the understated form, the slant rhyme. The ‘love’ and the ‘loaf’, as well as the ‘knife’ and ‘strife’, the run of ‘fall/all/steel’; the rhythm set up by those repeated ‘d’ sounds..’world/skewed/lord/bed’. I think this is the key to reading him: stop looking ; read aloud, and listen.
There are poems by grown-up women, too, like this, whose superficially plain speech I like a lot:
‘How I’d like him’ (Beatritz de Dia 13thC)
My tender beautiful cavalier
when will I have you for myself?
For one night only
naked in your arms
if you could only take
my husband’s place.
There are, inevitably, self-dramatising voices, like that of ‘A stolen body’ (Clara d’Anduza): ‘Such a rage I’m in, such anguish / that I can’t see you /that all that’s left of singing / is keening and complaint / and even then / these verses won’t bring you back’ but they’re more than balanced by the down-to-earth, look- the -world-in-the-eye-poems, not least ‘A busy man’, a rumbustious list poem of trades, real and nefarious:
I can make walls sew sleeves
falconer hawkspotter I shot
a hundred birds and cooked them
a songmaker a poet
oh I was a quare one
with nowhere to hide
a man gets busy
and the world is wide
And there’s one line that tells you exactly where Sirr is coming from, in more ways than one: ‘oh I was the quare one‘. I think this was the moment that I realised that one way to listen to these poems was to imagine an Irish voice; that dialect and accent were probably the key to imagining these 900 year old voices, written before the idea of French (and Standard English and R.P.) existed. Which brings us nicely to the last section of the collection: the ‘Coda’, the sequence of poems called ‘Road Songs’.
Sirr writes his own love songs that joyously plunder everything that has gone before and he stitches himself a new shirt from fragments of the ancient songs he clearly loves. Not ‘translation’ or ‘adaptation’ or pastiche’. Homage:
Guillem’s birds are in the hedges
Bernart’s branches tremble
his undone snow
the cold heart’s summered now
The 21st and the 12th centuries elide in one lovesong. I tried to think of a song that would convey the flavour of this last lovely sequence. The one that came to mind was Patrick Kavanagh’s Raglan Road.
The final stanzas set down their own stylistic and imaginative links with the poets of the Occitan:
I stand on a stile
inhaling field, inhaling seaa
close the gate
where the goats bleat
and old cars rust in the grass
boreen to mountain
dunegrass to sea
my geography of desire
the poem steps before me
crossing a stream
climbing the stony path
I tried to avoid this review. Translations of 12thC Old Occitan love songs. Really? But the longer I spent with them, the more I listened, the more sense it made. Just one suggestion. Try reading the ‘Coda‘ aloud a few times before you go to the early poets. And then you can read the Afterword. I recommend it. It’s a labour of love that is anything but laborious.
John Foggin lives in West Yorkshire, writes a poetry blog: the great fogginzo’s cobweb . His poems have won first prizes in competitions judged by three different Poets Laureate. He has authored four pamphlets and chapbooks. A prize winner in the 2016 Poetry Business Book and Pamplet Competition, his first full collection, Much Possessed was published by smith|doorstop [November 2016]. A joint collection, Gap Year [Sentinel] with Andy Blackford is due out in April 2017 .
Gerard Smyth’s A Song of Elsewhere reviewed by Kim Moore
Gerard Smyth: A Song of Elsewhere. . Dedalus Press. 2015. £10. ISBN 9781910251072
From the title, you would be forgiven for thinking A Song of Elsewhere is a collection of poetry that concerns itself only with looking outward to other places. A quick glance down the contents list would support this assumption – there are poems about Cambodia and Russia, not to mention a long sequence at the back of the collection called ‘A Midwest Postscript’.
Gerard Smyth’s relationship with these ‘elsewhere’ places is often one of the outsider. In ‘Red Star, Black Gates’ he writes ‘From a window near the sky/I survey a city so vast/it confounds the eye/and the heart.’ In the aforementioned sequence ‘A Midwest Postscript’ he writes in ‘10. Train Ride Through Wisconsin’:
From the window of the train I saw Wisconsin:
the undressed beauty of its fields.
The poetic eye here seems always to be stepping back to take in the wider view, and observation takes place usually from the outside looking in.
However, throughout these poems, the song of elsewhere isn’t just a song of place, or a song of travel. The elsewhere also refers to memory, the elsewhere that we can’t physically visit. The poems in the collection circle around this theme again and again. Many are concerned with the passing of time and how we document it.
One of the most striking poems in the collection is ‘The Memory Stick’, the first poem in the book. Scenes from a life and a marriage appear one after the other, presumably to replicate the flicking through of an electronic photo album. There is a sense of life passing too quickly, and a feeling of disturbance right from the first line when we read: ‘One day we were school leavers, / out the gate and gone in a hurry’ before jumping in a few short lines to:
When our wedding meal was over
we rushed away from the long high table
to the honeymoon shore of pebbles and sand.
This tone of elegy or regret and of life being slightly out of control is one that Smythe circles back to in later poems.
Smyth is at his strongest when he uses objects to explore memory or to describe a place or people. There is a hard won wisdom in ‘The Things We Keep’ when he writes
The things we keep are not the things we need:
the red flag and the porcelain horse.
A calendar out of date since John Lennon was shot.
The accumulation of a series of seemingly unimportant objects add up to a sum much larger than their parts, creating an untold story of a life that exists in the gaps between these objects. We are left wondering what were the things that were not kept. That first line reads like an aphorism or a proverb.
There are many poems that employ anaphora in this collection, and these were some of my favourites in the book. Poems like ‘Chant d’Amour’ with its repetitive phrase ‘You lay’ conjure up what at first glance might appear to be a loving relationship. The use of the past tense gives it that elegiac tone, that air of regret which seems to haunt so many of the poems in this collection:
You lay with me in a high room in Manhattan
and in a draught-riddled caravan.
You lay with me and made me laugh
by the riverside in Glengarrif
The other thing that struck me when reading these poems is the number of poems that are written ‘for’ someone else. There are the poems for other poets – an elegy for Dennis O’Driscoll called ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by James Wright’ and the ‘Homage to Nick Drake’ which says underneath the title ‘for Sasha Dugdale’. There are also poems to presumably friends and family, including ‘Poem to a Granddaughter’ which, rather hard-heartedly, I thought was the least successful in the collection. There are some lovely images in this poem – the most successful is the image of the speaker in ‘the library where I tiptoed among the books’ and the ‘garlands of light/the streets were wearing’, but I found myself longing for some sort of surprise linguistically by the end of the poem. He does this really well in many of his other poems – poems like ‘Mountain’, an apparently simple praise poem to a mountain near his home, where the speaker laments that he ‘never stopped to look’ but the poem twists away from what is expected of it, finishing with:
That same old street
where I took a thousand steps
and met my first enchantress
In the poem ‘Poetry’ the figure of a Grandmother tells the speaker:
(…)not to look for poetry
in the stars but out in the mucky yard
in the murmuring of the sally branches,
among the nettles and in the henhouse
This instruction by the figure of the Grandmother to look for poetry both close to things, but also in tangible ‘real’ things is a aesthetic that runs strongly throughout Smyth’s work. The strength of his poetry lies in his commitment to looking, to searching out ‘the elsewhere’, where ever it might be found.
Kim Moore’s first collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015. Her poem ‘In That Year’ was shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Published Poem. Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2010 and a Northern Writers Award in 2014.