David Harsent: Loss • Don Paterson: Zonal • Julia Copus: Girlhood • Vona Groarke: Double Negative • Róisín Kelly: Mercy • Martin Malone: The Unreturning • Theophilus Kwek: Moving House • Gerry Murphy: The Humours of Nothingness • Enda Coyle-Greene: Indigo, Electric, Baby • Gerard Smyth: The Sundays of Eternity • Anthony Caleshu: A Dynamic Exchange Between Us • Wendy Holborow: Shipwrecked • Paddy Bushe: Second Sight • Chrissie Gittins: Sharp Hills • Charles G Lauder: The Aesthetics of Breath • Deborah Harvey: The Shadow Factory • Jenny Mitchell: Her Lost Language • John McCullough: Reckless Paper Birds • Amy Kean and Jack Wallington: House of Weeds
John Wheway • Mike Farren • William Bedford • Neil Elder • Sheila Hamilton • Nick Allen • Kathleen McPhilemy • Ken Evans • Malcolm Carson • John Rogers • Rowena Somerville • David Cooke • Kathleen Bell • Daniel Bennett • Lucy English • Tom Bland • Benjamin Francis Cassidy • Sarah James • Pam Thompson
David Harsent’s Loss reviewed by John Wheway
Loss by David Harsent. £14.99 (HB). Faber. 978-0571290550
‘In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Crack-up’)
With his new book, David Harsent invites his readers to get lost. To get lost, that is, with his protagonist, an Everyman-poet, with whom we endure the ‘white nights’ of the book’s subtitle, as he sleeplessly witnesses the civilised world disintegrating before his eyes: ‘the worst already with us/dogfight politics barrel-bombs/children scorched faceless/deluge and wildfire.’ A world where we see ‘the puppet-clown virtuoso/of filibuster and farce./His teeth chatter with rage/and glee his eyes rattle/in his head’, a world where whores and demagogues are in the ascendant, in which ‘The young/are ransomed the unborn gone to waste.’
Each of the twenty sections of what is in effect one extended poem (the individual sections are numbered, and without titles) has a similar formal pattern, which perhaps might provide a haven for the reader through what is a harrowing and unrelenting exposure to the paradoxes of nurture and destruction in our individual finitude. There is a kind of prelude (in italics) in which the protagonist contemplates the city at night, and recalls fragments of a broken dream of a lone man in a white landscape. Then a fourteen-liner, (we are not granted the security of the sonnet form), giving us the man, followed by a longer segment in unrhymed short lines in which the man is addressed, or perhaps talks to himself; and to end with, a rhymed quatrain. Thus, formally, the sections are cycles of impassioned meditation returning again and again to the themes of disintegration, loss, the difficulties of love, the sense of having sinned (often by omission), the longing for redemption through pilgrimage and suffering, for meaning in a life in which the greatest loss might be the inability to make sense of things, especially of our own destructiveness.
Harsent’s ageing insomniac imagines what it would be like to live without whisky or wine, without music ‘and nothing to fill the hollow of your heart?’. There are the ‘Women of the house,’ benign figures, but somehow unavailable, leaving him to imagine ’bones drying under your skin, skin/pulling back from finger bones and cheekbones, bald at heel and toe,/your eyeballs gone to a crust, your arsehole a pinprick, all/for want of love.’
F Scott Fitzgerald describes his crack-up (quoted at the beginning) as becoming ‘an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality’. Harsent’s Everyman is going through something very similar. As the sequence continues, he recalls ‘Heartache presenting/as heartache a sense/of unease as if something/had shifted or spoiled standing/day after day before Bacon’s/Fragment of a Crucifixion that/and Bonnard’s mysteries/of domesticity’. On the one hand, Bacon’s violence and horror which is echoed so often in the imagery of the poems, on the other, Bonnard’s domestic scenes which seem to offer consolation, ‘as if forgiveness/ might be allowed and even now.’ Yet the horror seems to prevail: ‘death/squatting still on Yemen/its children given up/to fire (and fire it will surely be/fire now and fire hereafter)’.
Images of chaos and destruction recur in a steady crescendo. At times though, the religiosity that in childhood made him glory God in song seems to offer the hope that he at least might be saved through pilgrimage and retribution. As a returning pilgrim, he is sheltered in the presence of people ‘with open smiles’ who sing, ‘eyes lit by certainty a shine/to their cheeks’, but he is conscious of ‘endless/darkness underfoot/a shift in the floorstones/shudder of something/on the rise as might have been/the same pitch that defileth/as might have been/a disturbance among the dead.’ He can’t join them in their joy and certainty, is absorbed by ‘the naked/Saviour stock-still on the cross/gone deep into his sadness/a man of sorrows/and acquainted with heartbreak.’ At the end of this section, an apocalyptic quatrain in which every line-ending resounds with ‘fire’:
The desert prophet says things will end in fire.
Men of science too. Scribes and crystal-gazers, fire
the sure prediction. Red skies, the pitch and howl of fire-
storm, barrel bombs falling through it, fire feeding on fire.
Seeming consolation repeatedly gives way to something more mysterious, mixed with darkness. At table, women leave ‘a place among them for him as if it would always be that way’. The food is blessed and passed round: ‘The ritual calmed him to the point of sadness. He learned/that all food is sacrament’, yet later he watches ‘the way/a rabbit might be hulked and jointed, the way it spilled.’ The women’s ‘soft hands’ are ‘gloved in blood/the room is a black chapel then, the song, the sacrifice.’ While the dogged or perhaps obsessional search for meaning goes on, by the penultimate section, we read:
There is no true healing
not at the well of sorrows
not at the whipping post not
at the communion rail
(Christ’s firebreak) not in
the hall of mirrors where
you are set to rights
not in the basement bar
where you sit down
to a whisky-chain
and fall and rise and fall
back into a raw dawn light…
Nor is there final consolation in this poem. The final line mimics one in the opening prelude:
00:00 and the full of the night yet to come.
as if there can be no conclusion, the continuation of the cycle of suffering and the attempt to live with it.
It’s a difficult way to take leave of the poem, yet is in keeping with the poet’s unflinching focus on his Everyman figure, who like the rest of us, must search for a way to deal, hope against hope, with our human predicament,
‘Loss’ is poem of high ambition, and David Harsent brings all his lyric gifts to bear on the enterprise. The result is a book which, while arduous to read, achieves thrilling heights of eloquence. For our times, it is a necessary poem.
John Wheway’s poems have appeared in New Measure, Stand, Magma, The Warwick Review, Poetry Review, the Yellow Nib, Poetry Quarterly, the Compass Magazine, South Word, Agenda, the High Window, And Other Poems His flash fiction has also been widely published. Anvil Press poetry published his chapbook The Green Table of Infinity, and Faber published his novella Poborden. He has a Creative Writing MA from Bath Spa. His collection A Bluebottle in Late October will be be published by V Press in May 2020.
Don Paterson’s Zonal reviewed by Mike Farren
Zonal by Don Paterson. £14.99 (H/B). Faber. ISBN: 978-0-571-33824-5
According to Paterson’s introductory ‘Note’ for Zonal, (his sixth original collection, along with translations from Machado and Rilke), his starting point for the book was ‘the first season of the classic television series The Twilight Zone (1959-60)’. For some reason, the collection also reminded me of a meme doing the social media rounds, featuring a bookshop window notice to the effect that, ‘Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to the current affairs section’.
Fans of The Twilight Zone (or post-apocalyptic fiction) may object to my conflation but I feel Zonal takes a position between the pulp horror of the former and the more existential horror of the latter to produce a work that must have been zeitgeisty at time of creation – and has been rendered more so by events leading up to publication.
Paterson has the knack of being able to take off in entirely new directions – new subject matter, new forms, even a new tone – yet remain entirely himself. Zonal does all these things. For Paterson’s earlier preoccupation with ‘high art’ (Zurbarán in Rain, plus any number of poets and writers as well as Machado and Rilke) and his own musical niche (e.g. Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze – of whom more later), here we have late 50’s sci-fi. For the (mostly) formally constrained 40 Sonnets, there’s an expansive, long-lined, flexible free verse in play. As for the tone, there’s a laconic, hard-boiled aphoristic quality, in keeping with the collection’s source and the way the poems come at ‘big’ questions from odd angles.
Of Zonal’s connection to The Twilight Zone, Paterson notes that the poems ‘take their imaginative cue’ from the series. Mostly, my generation (the same one as Paterson’s) has perhaps always been aware of, but never immersed in, the series. Consequently, I can’t comment on whether the experience of reading is enriched by familiarity with the original. However, Paterson suggests, ‘They are, for the most part, experiments in science-fictional or fantastic autobiography and monologue, and take great liberties with both the source material and my own life.’ My suspicion is that most readers can treat The Twilight Zone connection as a MacGuffin for the production of these poems and for their concerns.
That notion of an autobiographical element, though, is something else with which to conjure as well as a bit of a tease. Familial and close personal relationships are continually interrogated and the presence (or otherwise) in ‘Poem for my Brother on the 29th of October’ of Scott, a brother who died as an infant, takes us back at least as far as God’s Gift to Women’s ‘Addenda’ in terms of Paterson’s thematic concerns.
Indeed, for all the novelty of Zonal, resonances with earlier work abound, the pool game in ‘The Higher Hustle’ perhaps even taking us back to the table in ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ in Nil Nil. Likewise, despite science fictional trappings, the impression left by some of these poems is close to that of an extended aphorism, linking them to three other works from Paterson’s oeuvre.
At the most aphoristic / philosophical end of the register is ‘The Deal’, where the Devil explains how he harvests souls, despite promising eternal life:
Without death, this place becomes the hell it is.
The place that only death was protecting you from.
The poem, like the rest of the collection, contains plenty of humour, with this particular Devil pulling himself up for sounding like H. P. Lovecraft and comparing souls that come his way to sub-prime mortgages.
This mixture of the theological with the grounded is carried through in other poems, such as ‘Lazarus’ and the astounding ‘A Crucifixion’. Here, the narrator mends (with glue) a broken crucifix, whose nails were originally painted on, only to find that an estranged partner had previously repaired it by hammering a real nail through the Christ figure. The many speculations about the implications of his and his ex-partner’s choices are rounded off by his saying:
Looking back, I am not sure you existed; I know you were
here only by the hole left in me,
the real scar left by the imitation of love I let you hammer
Zonal reaches its most Twilight Zone-like in poems like the opener, ‘Death’, a riff on the Death and the Maiden motif, with a salesman attempting to bargain a way out of the inevitable. ‘The Way We Were’, on the other hand leans more towards Black Mirror, with a vision of glitchy technology allowing virtual-reality access to memories.
There are very funny poems of poetic rivalry (‘You Guys’ and ‘The Old White Male Poet: an Allegory’ – the poet as fading gunslinger) and diversions into jazz obscurantism (‘The Death Mask of the Guitarist’) but the poem that best unites its source, contemporary relevance and emotional poignancy is ‘Feeling Things’. Starting with a dismissal of a particular episode of The Twilight Zone, Paterson adds:
I am genuinely grateful to now be living in the age
of superior television drama
…before going on to riff on various series, culminating in Anglo-French drama The Tunnel, which ends with a scene of sacrifice and devastating loss by which he is ‘run through’ as a foretaste of personal loss.
As for the form of the volume, Paterson used the elongated line to comic effect in his Forward Prize-winning ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’ but here it has an immediate naturalness that gives him the anecdotal and philosophical room to manoeuvre the poems need. It struck me that you could perhaps see Zonal as a small-screen counterpart to the cinematic quality of Robin Robertson’s The Long Take. If I missed at all the formal satisfaction of earlier Paterson collections, there was more than enough to make up for it in the well-maintained narrative voice here.
Like Paterson’s best work, Zonal is funny without being trivial, discursive without being undisciplined and entirely novel while being wholly characteristic. A quirky, tangential triumph.
Mike Farren’s poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies. He has been placed and commended in several competitions, including as ‘canto’ winner for Poem of the North (2018) and runner-up in The Blue Nib’s Chapbook Contest (2019). His debut pamphlet, Pierrot and his Mother (Templar) was published by in 2017, followed by All of the Moon’ (Yaffle) in 2019. He co-hosts Rhubarb open mic in Shipley, W.Yorks. Website: http://www.mikefarren.co.uk/
Julia Copus’s Girlhood reviewed by William Bedford
Girlhood by Julia Copus, £14.99 (HB). Faber and Faber. ISBN: 978-0-571-35106-0
In the ‘Acknowledgements’ to her new collection Julia Copus offers ‘thanks to the girlhood that is Iphigenia’, an allusion as suggestive as Eliot’s ‘Notes’ on Tiresias. Going further, the first poem, ‘The Grievers,’ begins ‘At length we learned what it meant to “come to” grief,’ yet goes on to celebrate the defiance – ‘But to find we were able -/that was the miracle’ – which is at the heart of Girlhood. And the defiance is not simply the poet’s:
And when I say we . . .
Look out into the street – we are everywhere:
on bikes, at bus-stops, among the crowds
of those who have not happened yet on grief.
Girlhood is arranged in two parts. In the eponymous first part, life-changing experiences are explored using novelistic or filmic techniques. ‘A Thing Once it has Happened’ has a university tutor introducing a female student to Propertius’s Elegies, ‘the meekness he affects’ allowing him to translate ‘rumpat/ut assiduis membra libidinibus’ as ‘May his cock/be broken by insatiable lust.’ The ‘meekness’ is a pose to disguise his bullying, which the student recognises when she checks the translation and finds that it should more accurately read ‘Let his insatiate lust/break all his strength.’ In this exercise of power, the student is left feeling the ‘fungibility’ which in economics argues that individual units are essentially interchangeable. The incident is titled ‘During,’ the poem then going on to explore the ‘Before’ which led the girl into the abuse, leaving her desperately wishing ‘I want to go back, out of the bad stories,’ but knowing ‘A thing once it has happened/will always have happened.’
‘The Great Unburned’ has ‘the witches you forgot to burn’ haunting the nightmares of the ‘good, clean souls’ of the citizens who occupy ‘the city, the towers, the golf-course’. The music of the language here – ‘Ding, dong, bell, it’s lonely in hell/and only a fire will keep out the chill’ – reminds the abusers that ‘devilry skulks in the shadows’ where ‘the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead’ as ‘One by one we are gathering now, preparing to return.’ But there is no opportunity for a ‘return’ in ‘Some Questions for Later,’ where a ‘vicar-grandfather’ and a Stepfather lurk in a house where the child is ‘eight or nine’ and ‘None/of the clocks’ are turning, ‘(As in – What’s the time, Mr Wolf?/It’s NONE o’clock!)’ ‘What can I say?’ the narrator asks. ‘That bad things happened there./That they are happening still.’
For me, the longest and most powerful poem in this first part is undoubtedly ‘Acts of Anger,’ where ‘two twelve-year old girls’ decide to make a birthday cake to save themselves from the ‘ulcerated’ furies of ‘the Gaffer,’ the violent male dominating the house. The poem alternates between domestic scenes in the kitchen and quotations from Plutarch, Shakespeare and various anthropologists, theorising about the function of anger across cultures. The cake finished, the girls go to the shops to buy Smarties and ‘small jelly hands’ for decoration, but when they return, ‘the door gets sucked/back into’ the house and ‘Implodes.’ The ‘girls begin to protest’, but it is too late. The ‘air is already curdling/with the iron-tang of insults/and obscenities’. At this point, ‘a fissure appears in the story’, the girl who is the main victim remembering only a teatime party where ‘her eyelids were hot and puffy/from crying’ and everybody was singing ‘Happy Birthday, dear Gaffer’. She remains anonymous, like all the females in the story.
The second part of Girlhood is a thirty-five -page exchange between patient and analyst titled Marguerite. The patient is Marguerite Pantaine, admitted to Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital after her attempted murder of the actress Huguette Duflos. The analyst is Jacques Lacan, a trainee psychoanalyst whose notes on the case established his reputation. Copus’s introductory note makes the power relations clear from the start.
The poem includes extracts from Lacan’s Casebooks, poems by Pantaine, and Consulting Room records where they both speak for themselves: interestingly, Lacan always given his proper name, Pantaine always referred to as Marguerite. There are also occasional mentions of other anonymous ‘Inpatients,’ silent witnesses. A remarkable dramatization of an entire world.
But there is one clear diagnostic issue which highlights both Lacan’s obtuseness and Pantaine’s resistance. The clues emerge slowly, like pieces of evidence in free association. Lacan’s sense of the psychoanalytic process: ‘the long, precipitous hill and the climbing of it’. Marguerite’s sense of Lacan: ‘At times he drops his voice//and talks as you might to a small, slow-witted child’. Her abrupt talk of the arrival of a son ‘as he must,/in the wake of his poor dead sister’, followed by her memory of ‘the little head/I cupped in the palm of one hand’ during breast feeding. This seems to provoke an angry ‘Doctor, indeed!’ and the perceptive ‘His pleas are all to the good/but my words are buried deep and if they rose/each one would fail///the way a precious child will also suffer/exposed too long to the company of strangers’. This is a turning point, as Marguerite talks in agonising detail about the morning ‘the telephone sang out’ and instead of ‘my baby girl’s full-throated cry’ she hears ‘the midwife’s meagre Vraiment désolée’: I am awfully sorry.
The objective medical world now appears in the text, Lacan asking about ‘the birth of your daughter’, Marguerite refusing to answer, silently offering her own view of her doctor’s intentions: ‘He is assembling a theory/and I am the proof of it.//Because I will not speak.’ The final reality comes when we learn that Marguerite’s first child was ‘a stillborn daughter,’ Lacan believing that it was after the birth of her son that she ‘fashioned the notion/that certain people – specifically, certain/women – were intent on separating you/from your son’. The attempted murder of Huguette Duflos followed from this delusion.
As the ‘Acknowledgements’ suggest, Iphigenia is clearly a significant inspiration for the imaginative landscape of Copus’s Girlhood, but her own felt life informs every word of this remarkable, undaunted collection.
William Bedford’s poetry has appeared Agenda, The Dark Horse, The Frogmore Papers, Encounter, The John Clare Society Journal, London Magazine, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tablet, Temenos, The Warwick Review, The Washington Times and many others. Red Squirrel Press published The Fen Dancing in March 2014 and The Bread Horse in October 2015. He won first prize in the 2014 London Magazine International Poetry Competition. Dempsey & Windle published Chagall’s Circus in April 2019.
Vona Groarke’s Double Negative reviewed by Neil Elder
Double Negative by Vona Groarke. £10.50. The Gallery Press. ISBN 978-1911337607
A double negative, intended or not, will produce a positive, and Vona Groarke’s collection ‘Double Negative’ demonstrates this by exploring some bleak parts of life, particularly the feeling of ageing, but somehow finding there is often a softening of the hardships faced if one learns to notice things that can give comfort.
Time is ebbing away in these poems, and Groarke is conscious of the battle against being pushed out of one’s own story. Hence, I assume, the number of poems whose title is ‘Against …’. Rather than raging against the dying of the light, Vona Goroarke hits out at a spectrum of mindsets and emotional states, from ‘Against Anxiety’ to ‘Against Vanity’, via ‘Against Darkness’.
The poems meet the notion of growing older with a certain stoicism and defiant humour. A number of the poems seem haunted by thoughts of the past, in particular a mother figure who Groarke seems resigned to almost becoming in old age:
Then I stop coughing
And hearing my heartbeat whooshing
In my right ear,
Stop thinking I’m me
Before I was born
And I am in my mother now
And that’s the end of that.
(Poem with My Mother and Frank O’Hara)
It is in the details that the poems work most pleasingly, the way something small becomes the object, and it is this detail that one must cling to. In ‘Against Despair’, a poem where the past “sets you down” and impinges on the present, as with several others in the collection, there is the realisation that:
The best you can hope for
Is a warm day,
Good news of this or that
In a number of the poems days seem fuzzy with the movement between memory and present, but the cumulative effect of the work is a tone of quiet defiance; defiance against whatever age brings, so that the collection is curiously uplifting at points, and perhaps this note is best exemplified in the short poem ‘The Lash’ in which a grey eyelash becomes emblematic of age and ‘this little fucker is the future now / and it knows all about you.’
There are some lovely vignettes in here, and I particularly enjoyed the tale of moving house, putting items into storage, as told in ‘Self-Storage’. Opening with ‘I send my past to the lock-up’ the poem becomes a prompt for us to wonder how we allow ourselves to be defined by belongings so that once the house is empty Groarke is left looking into a room, empty but for a mirror, and ‘the mirror / has me in it, or what’s left of me.’ An interesting train of thought runs through ‘Stone Trees’ whereby objects that hold memory and meaning are seen to less certain than the absolute certainty that ‘Death, for all its pretty names and intricate patterns, holds us to a promise.’
The collection, and it is a densely packed collection, one that might have benefited from being shorter so that the good work is not undermined by a sense of having been in this poem before, ends with ‘Aftermath Epigrams’ a series of thoughts that are a mix of the whimsical and the weighty. Many, such as ‘I inhale the fumes of cars on the bridge. / Who says I live alone?’ feel relevant and nearly all feel like neat bows with which to tie together the strands that run through this collection whose opacity is shot through with some lovely observations.
Neil Elder’s The Space Between Us won the Cinnamon Press debut prize 2018. Other publications include Codes of Conduct (Cinnamon Press 2015), and Being Present (Black Light Engine Room 2017). His latest work, And The House Watches On has just been published.
Róisín Kelly’s Mercy reviewed by Sheila Hamilton
Mercy by Róisín Kelly. £9.95. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1780375007
It is always a pleasure to be introduced to a new poet and the advance blurb for this collection in particular had whetted my appetite, what with its mention of the poet reaching through her Catholic background to (implicitly deeper) pagan roots. The opening poem, which gives the book its title, sets this tone from the first stanza:
On the beach, I undress in the dark.
Naked and blind before the gods, below too many stars.
Here is my body, which I was told to never touch.
An Orthodox shrine glows red by the closed coffee truck.
But as the Aegean comes to my hips, rises within me,
my movements stir luminous plankton or algae:
bright opal specks in the water
that drift from my wrists, around my cold breasts.
They glow and swirl and die like shooting stars,
turned on by my nakedness. They are kind.
So, immediately, we have: sensuality and sexuality, the Mediterranean ( locus of several more poems), a first-person voice and, crucially, a collision of life-denying, puritanical, Catholicism with a softer, kinder paganism in the broad sense of that word: .not a specific god but gods, not a constrained set of codified-by-a-hierarchy experiences but a series of experiences personal to the poet as an individual. Straight after the first poem ‘Mercy’, we find ourselves in Ireland, the poet’s home (‘June comes to the sky above Leitrim’) but then, soon enough, are transported to several locales that are clearly elsewhere. Some are distinctly Mediterranean. ‘Pine needles make quiet the old Roman road’ we read in ‘Dominio Vale do Montego’ while in ‘Guarda”’there are wrinked plums, church bells, ‘a black-shawled widow.’ Ireland peeps through again but then we are back to the Mediterranean. There is a longing for gods in ‘The Cave of Melassini’:
Miniature temple with twenty white pillars,
what can I worship here?
And at least equally important as the longing for gods, there is the love of a specific human beloved who is rooted in such landscapes. In ‘Ithaca’, surely leaping off Cavafy’s poem, Kelly looks toward the future, wherever it may be, with the beloved:
Think of the cast-iron kettle, the small
painted jug filled with flowers;
the tabby cat unlike any other cat
because she will belong to us.”
The Irish-ness of the poet and the European-ness of the poet are two strong threads running through the collection. Of course, such identities can never be disparate, with each hermetically sealed off from the other, and so it is here: each identity interweaves with the other. This interweaving is most clearly seen in the poem ‘Tropical Ravine House in Belfast Botanic Gardens, a gorgeous poem that works on several levels. It is a love poem to the beloved (‘You are as rare as any shrub/or plant here, in which strange land did you grow?’) and also a love poem to the Botanic Gardens themselves with their “crystal house”and abundance of rare plants. The lovers themselves become as one with the glasshouse (‘We are as rich as the ferns’ and ‘shining/within our glass home’), become more than the sum of their parts, their everyday selves:
We have left behind the flags of two countries,
the cafes where each couple shares
a pot of tea and a bun, a wee bun.
I am feeding you such sweet crumbs
between the damp plants.
The first-person pronoun is used throughout the book and in a way which is clearly autobiographical: there are no personas here, no dramatic monologues. The poet sometimes speaks directly and without pretension to the reader, and sometimes to us via the beloved , and it is often an intimate voice, yet there is no trace of narcissism in the poems, none of the navel-gazing and self-absorption which characterizes so much English-language poetry at the present time and which is, to my mind at least, very limiting and unsatisfying once you go beyond the superficial tricks. Though many of these poems concern intimate life (the family, the lover, the home), they do not close themselves off from the wider world and the experiences of others.
In the poem ‘Tuam’ the poet, in Cambodia, is visiting Choeung Ek, one of the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ in which more than a million people were murdered by the Kymer Rouge during the 1970s. And in the poem, this infamous place, place of almost unimaginable horror (‘our guide points out/the sugar palm’s serrated leaves-/good for cutting throats.. .’) suggests and, up to a point, merges with another infamous place, the mass grave in County Galway which has yielded a large number of as-yet not-identified human remains which almost certainly are those of babies and small children sent to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home as part of Irish government policy up until very recent times. In times of rain, the Cambodian guide points out, bones and teeth and pathetic scraps of clothing sometimes appear in the mud; much as they might do in Tuam, we infer. There are even coloured bracelets attached to some of the Choeung Ek trees, much like the ones familiar to anyone who has travelled in rural Ireland and other Celtic places. “Our guide/says look, but I do not want to look.” Such subject-matter in the wrong hands could feel exploitative, even crass, but the poet here acts as (reluctant) observer and offers (modestly, without fanfare) an elegy for the faceless and the nameless.
This is a fine collection.
Sheila Hamilton graduated from the University of East Anglia in 1989 with a degree in French and German, lived and worked in Hungary for two years, then in Scotland for several more years and currently lives in the North West of England. Her poems have been widely published. Her most recent full collection, The Spirit Vaults, came out from Green Bottle Press in 2017. Her most recent pamphlet, Lotus Moon With Blossom, was published by 4Word in 2019.
Martin Malone’s The Unreturning reviewed by Nick Allen
The Unreturning by Martin Malone. £10. Shoestring Press. ISBN-13: 978-1912524204
When the first part of your collection is called ‘Ghosts of the Vortex’ and the opening poem is called ‘Séance’, in which the writer says that he will ‘sit and reconstruct’ and ‘catch their words’, you have a good idea where this is going and Martin Malone doesn’t disappoint. The Unreturning is an accomplished act of reinserting a chorus of overlooked and forgotten voices into the song of the history of the First World War.
The opening poems have at their heart a sense of waiting but also of being unsure for what it is they are waiting. ‘Mrs. Mounter circa. 1914’ tells of the widow who has been letting the spare room to a variety of ‘types’, her life reflects England’s in its ‘certainty’, she sits ‘impassive as the teapot’, while:
Outside the world turns to mud, feeds its sons
to fire and lead and the names
you will hear for the first time:
Paschendale, Somme, Ypres, Mons…
The next poem ‘Let Us Sleep Now’ directs the gaze to Simmering, the cemetery at the end of the U-Bahn line out of Vienna and a ghostly young man heading that way. From here we are in the company of a variety of figures from across the continent, many of whom are artists, some of whom were active in the brief moment of Vorticism: Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Klemm, Pierre Jean Jouve, Paul Nash and George Mallory, among others.
One of the most intriguing being Charles Hamilton Sorley, a native of Aberdeen, shot dead at 21, ‘Lending yourself to the cross hairs’ in the disastrous action at Loos when 8,000 of the 10,000 men under Haig’s command, died in four hours. Only after his death were the cache of poems Sorley had written, found and published. Bleakly honest and unsentimental about the war, the collection was received with some acclaim. Sorley is contrasted with the professional soldier Julien Grenfell, remembered in ‘Phoebus Apollo’ who wrote ‘I adore war…One loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him’, of whom Malone writes, ‘you were never happier than on this big picnic, / chatting with the General when that shell struck’, before describing his ‘languid death’ from a shrapnel wound.
The hardship of those left behind, ‘the shrapnel of lost husbands’ is mourned in ‘The Turnip Winter’ as, ‘this weevil grief / that gnaws through the fabric of our days’. It becomes the demand to be allowed to play ‘their part’ in the ‘The 1st Women’s Battalion of Death’ which recognises the determination of the Russian female battalions, in doing so it echoes Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, while quoting Thin Lizzy.
A pause for existential reflection arrives with the eleven lines of ‘Untitled’, in which the subject is, ‘Unable to recall what it’s like / to have never killed a man’.
‘Bidden’ inspired by Mary Borden who served as a nurse in the war, deals unsentimentally with the “things”, the practicalities of her daily situation:
You pile blankets
onto his wasted body;
fetch jugs of hot water;
boil long rubber tubes
in wretched saucepans.
Before noting finally, ‘Release has entered the room’.
This section of the book concludes with ‘Dear Revisionist’ in which Malone restates his purpose in what has gone before: to repudiate the history book version of this war that we have been instructed in over the last century, the sending out ‘of the officer class to explain’ ‘this complicated matter’, by reintroducing histories as told by rediscovered voices from everyday life.
The second part of the collection, itself entitled ‘The Unreturning’, is an engaging exercise in applied modernity: containing 50 prose poems, coming in at a tidy count of between nine and twelve lines each, retelling tales from each of the five years ‘14-’18, making use of modern vernacular (titles include: ‘flash mob, ‘emoji’, ‘one laptop per child’), linguistic invention, as if all these ‘diaries of the deep-drowned ditch’ suddenly had access to social media. It is a brilliant idea, expertly realised.
The effect of the aggregation of these poems is such that it is hard to select individual pieces as they lose the context offered by the whole: I offer a couple of incomplete examples:
Each evening the real work starts, not at the front but in front of it: repair the wire, recover his guts, dig that sap, patrol or raid…The land itself has never been so intimately known, as you snout an earth flayed of its skin…Reduced from subaltern to silhouette, an eye narrows on the cross-hairs, somewhere on high a lark sings and off clicks the safety catch.
…communication is a problem. Best stick to the runner and keep it simple, cut down on the metadata, focus on the plan…We want speed, fitness, care of feet, a sense of urgency and comradeship in taking turns for dangerous runs…Please destroy upon receipt and do not share this :-(( [sad face]
Some of the poems in this section deal head-on with the modern-day after-effects of these lies we have told ourselves: ’38 Cold Call’ recalls the true story of the suicide of a 92-year-old poppy seller; while, ’39 Downturn’ eviscerates ‘the obsequious fetish of a national ghost’ before observing that ‘in times like these…we lap it up.’
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that the notes to the book are excellent, informative and dryly nonchalant: I particularly enjoyed 27 and 44.
Malone is an academic and it shows in the quality of the research that informs these poems, which does not mean that the language he uses is off-putting: academics should also be communicators and this fine collection is accessible, straight-talking, not without a sense of humour, but above all, it is illuminating.
Nick Allen‘s first collection, the riding, and his pamphlet, the necessary line, were both published by Half Moon Books, Otley. His recent collaboration with York based artist Myles Linley, between two rivers, was published by Maytree Press, Marsden. He helps organise Rhubarb at the Triangle , a spoken word evening in Shipley, West Yorkshire.
Theophilus Kwek’s Moving House reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Moving House by Theophilus Kwek. £10.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1784109639
Theophilus Kwek’s poetry is striking for its assurance and control. Yet despite the impression of ‘cool’, his work engages with the world, reflecting his life in Singapore and England An Oxford graduate and editor of Oxford Poetry, he returned to Singapore to do his National Service, an experience which is marked in this book; he is now, apparently, based partly in Singapore and partly in the UK. Still only 26, Kwek is something of a Wunderkind, with several successful publications under his belt.
Like his fellow Oxford poet and former co-editor, Mary Jean Chan, Kwek has had to reconcile his Chinese cultural heritage, in his case Singaporean, in Chan’s Hong Kong, with the traditions of English literature and poetry to which they have subscribed themselves. ‘Fusion’ poetry at the moment is nearly as popular as fusion cooking, but Kwek explores his relationship to different cultures, reflected in his title, in a way which transcends contemporary fads. The collection opens with a powerful meditation on the effects of observing a traffic accident: ‘a rupture/ in our time where past and present /futures meet, stop short. A living fault.’ The gravity is matched by the secure handling of sounds and line breaks. The second poem ‘Prognosis’, is highly ambitious:
The knowledge settles at the bottom of your glass.
What’s left clarifies, divides the light. Clean white,
which crosses the air unscathed, and this – water’s
half-true cataract. In its arc the table’s dry laminate
turns gold-dappled, warm, even tiles rise up to dance.
Like a prism it drowns the ward in colour, albeit
Of one tan shade.
The poet has handled his long line and tercets skilfully and the assonance and internal rhyme are subtle and unifying. Nevertheless, despite the wealth of detail, it is difficult to visualise what is being described and I am held up by the ambiguity of ‘cataract’ and ‘arc’. I rather like ‘albeit’ but it is a bit of a push for a rhyme. It appears that the subject of the poem is a photographer, which explains the focus on observed detail, but the accumulation of metaphor is somewhat bewildering: the clock ‘pilfering with gloved hands’, ‘the blood’s darkroom’, ‘rays unspool’, ‘listen/for coughs, how your engine lingers with lifted clutch’.
Kwek covers a range of subjects in this book and tries out a variety of forms. Sometimes he experiments with spacing; elsewhere, he moves between verse and prose. In some instances, he integrates footnotes into the poem. In ‘The Dance’ (for Grandmother, 1940-1917) I think this works, because the strength of feeling carries the poem as present and past are contrasted. He also includes sonnets (two poems from the point of view of Sophia, wife of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore) and a villanelle, which I find more problematic because it is a form which too often swamps its content. ‘Love Poem’ is about love, about poetry and possibly about the form itself: ‘a poem must love the thing it lives within’; although the repetition and rhythm are hypnotic, I feel it ran out of steam halfway through.
Some of these poems are clearly political, but the poet tends to approach his subjects obliquely. In ‘The Questioning’ an actor is questioned by the police after ‘he made allegations of racial discrimination during the casting audition for a film’. The interrogation in the poem moves into a consideration of pigment, colour and the graphology of race. The step away from direct presentation of topical issues avoids the danger of propaganda but can be perplexing, as in ‘Westminster’, a response to the Westminster Bridge terror attack. The poem reads as an immediate, almost moment by moment reaction and includes some horrifying images, especially that of an open wound in the second section; however, the sequence, perhaps appropriately, remains fragmentary. A more resolved and very fine poem addresses Singapore’s attempts to keep out refugees from South Vietnam in 1975. The poem uses an extended metaphor of water to point out that the island of Singapore has been peopled by refugees:
All through the years, we fell as rain
and though there was little to catch us then
gathered in every small indentation,
by always seeking out the softest earth
made each channel fit for a monsoon,
with time made the rivers and reservoirs,
made our children drink and not forget the source –
Kwek seems to have a poetic response to so much he comes across, whether it be snippets from the archives or newspapers, the experience of military training, travel in literature and real life which takes him to Ireland, Iceland and ancient Greece. Some of his finest and most moving poems are those which are closest to home, particularly those written for his grandparents. “Requiem’ marks the cremation of his grandfather: ‘With love’s red cloth covering the bowl, /we lined up one by one to send you home.’ The poem moves from family unity in mourning to a hope for the relationships between the living:
Teach me now to love, at their frayed edges
the left-behind, their washed and ashen fingers.
‘Nocturnal’, one of a number of grandmother poems, seems also to be a poem of mourning:
xxxxxxOver your shoulder an earthen bowl
xxxxxbrims with ash and laughter, as guests come
to sit with us awhile. Their children and yours
xxxxxare playing at the swing.
The tone here seems more accepting, even celebratory until the disquieting final lines:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxThese are our faces, that are turning
xxxxxxto salt. Our feet that linger and are now stone.
Perhaps the note of disquietude which runs through this collection is what gives it coherence and distinctiveness. Although in some ways it bears the marks of a very thorough apprenticeship, this is the work of a considerable poet and it will be interesting to see what direction he takes.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Northern Ireland but now lives in Oxford. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She has published three collections, the most recent being The Lion in the Forest(Katabasis, 2005).
Gerry Murphy’s The Humours of Nothingness reviewed by Ken Evans
The Humours of Nothingness by Gerry Murphy. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251645
‘There’s a divide in the poetry world. There’s the attitude that if you write you must be serious. But that’s not the case. It’s much easier to get your message across with humour’, says the poet. In this, Murphy’s eighth collection, the Cork poet does his best to continue the Irish mythic tradition of the ‘Amadan Dubh’ or ‘Dark Fool.’ Never more serious than when playing the jester, ‘Rebirth’ opens with the line – ‘Too drunk to speak/I left the pub.’ He takes a shortcut home through a graveyard, trips over a grave-diggers’ shovel and falls headlong into an open grave, to be knocked unconscious: ‘after a deep, cradle-sweet sleep,/I woke to birdsong,/a narrow rectangle of clear blue sky/and trickles of clay/playing over my face.’ In ‘Lullaby for Samuel Beckett,’ the grave is again the entire two-line poem, quoted here:
Your mother is singing a melancholy stave
as she rocks your cradle over an open grave.
This is an image for the human spirit played as tragedy, for comic effect, and presented as farce. Murphy revels in making the tall tale fill with powerful feeling, in mostly short, simple lines, as ‘a joker of his own tristesse,’ as critic Robert Welch labels him.
Serious topics like religion, politics and family are raucously and alternately satirised, decried and lovingly realised. ‘Light’ verse can often be an interchangeable term for ‘comic.’ Murphy’s poetry may be comic but it is rarely purely light. Or rarely any one thing at all, but reads with a trickster’s delight in wrong-footing the reader and tying us up in second-guessing his intention. It’s Roger McGough on crystal meth. But Murphy can rarely be accused of gentle English understatement or wry, ironic distancing. There is an unmistakably dark Irish spirit presiding over these poems. In ‘Cannibal,’ fighting, aged ten with his brother, the poet claims to have taken a chunk of flesh from his sibling’s shoulder, ‘a piece of which/probably gristle/got stuck in my teeth. Howling and gnashing ensued…’ Here Murphy piles it on, as if the mere fact of cannibalism being alluded to isn’t sufficiently shocking-macabre, it has to be his own brother’s flesh and blood, and more than that, as if this doesn’t compound the shock-value sufficiently, he goes on to describe its’ appearance as, ‘a sizeable chunk’ and worse, its’ taste, as ‘gristle.’ But there is always the killer end-line, that when his mother sends him to bed without his supper for fighting – ‘hey, I had already eaten.’ This build-up of the grotesque, only to undermine it with a final, comic one-liner, typifies the constantly maverick, alert and shifting mind behind these poems.
Aside from political, religious and personal violence, often with a backdrop of death or the grave, another recurring image in this collection is of the poet in, or taking, a ‘backseat’, as in a ‘Brahms High’, where the poet, along with two large mates in the back of the foreman’s car, ‘in our cement-spattered clothes’, suddenly have a spiritual epiphany brought on, the poet thinks, either by being so squashed up on the back seat, where ‘We are beginning to get high/from lack of oxygen’ or because when the Brahms’ piece comes on the radio and the sound is cranked up, ‘…I am away,/out of the car, out of my body,’/soaring into the late afternoon air/above Parliament Bridge,/to the rousing strains of Gaudeamus Igitur.’ This poem seems to perfectly encapsulate Murphy’s poetic ‘take’, being at once earthy and absurd, and heavenly, intoxicating and powerful.
Enda Coyle-Greene’s Indigo, Electric, Baby reviewed by Ken Evans
Indigo, Electric, Baby by Enda Coyle-Greene. £11. Dedalus Press, 202. ISBN: 978-1910251690
There is an intense attention to sound, music and light in this collection, riffing on variations of the colour blue. At the core – literally, in the middle of this collection of 64 pages, starting at page 32, is a dozen – eleven short lyric interludes and an ‘Intro’ poem, all of thirteen lines each – again all drawn from a wide variety of song. Schubert and Puccini feature as well as Sixties’ pop like the Beach Boys, Carole King, The Supremes and Beatles, and on to relatively recent acts like Arcade Fire and Tori Amos.
This sequence Coyle-Greene calls ‘The Blue Album – Eleven Small Self-Songs,’ echoing album titles by Joni Mitchell and Weezer, among others. Leaving aside the coyly ‘cute’ sub-head of ‘Small Self-Songs’, this sequence has an almost synaesthesic quality, where ‘notes/found somewhere’ are ‘earthed/in breath.’ ‘A piano played/the way a stream plays/over stones, a flow through/the notes like poetry.’ ‘A broad bench’ has ‘a shine/as high as C.’ Elsewhere, ‘the light seems/buttered as the vowels I taste/when I say California.’ In the Puccini based poem, No. 4, a man ‘is listening as we all would/were we able to hear air,/or defer to a moment before it’s gone.’
Light gains its own mini-sequence of three, nine-line poems – four couplets and an end-line – in ‘Friday, Saturday, Sunday, City.’ These seem about perception and the way light transfigures what we see. Glass is the perfect prism for exploring these fleeting variations as ‘strangers/only inches away/beyond the glass,/gone as soon as they arrive/on the pavement outside,’ describes the kinesis and play of light on people passing a window in front of the poet, all ‘in their own strange lives.’ The pane of glass as a barrier to knowing, as well as a prism, casting light. Or we see ourselves, ‘ghosted/in shop windows,’ having conversations ‘in the brittle glint of spring.’ There’s the Sunday melancholy of ‘in the rain/you hail a taxi, my lift arrives,/and I look back at you through glass/the wipers can’t quite dry.’ There is something passive is the passenger leaving in the taxi, rendered and ‘fixed’ in the light, and no wave or farewell kiss, just the light dividing the couple – intransigent and unassailable. The short lined, short poems here seem to ‘breathe’ more fully because of their brevity in the middle of the white space of the page, which almost seem to embody the light the poet is rendering, both powerful and emphatic, but also brittle, slight and elliptical, a fleet passing of brightness and shadow.
Ken Evans’ work has been longlisted for the Poetry Society’s National Competition (2015) and was highly commended in the 2015 Bridport Prize. His debut collection was shortlisted in both the Bare Fiction First Collection Competition and in the Poetry School/Nine Arches ‘Primers’ selection.
Gerard Smyth’s The Sundays of Eternity reviewed by Malcolm Carson
The Sundays of Eternity by Gerard Smyth. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 9781910251713
The title of the first poem, ‘ Riddling the Ashes’, epitomises the majority of poems in this excellent collection. Nostalgia features heavily throughout. In the first section, ‘The Street’, it is exploited with beautiful effect:
The first sound I heard was anarchy when the herdsman
and his cattle passed on their way to the cattle ships.
And then in the second section:
It was where I wore my sheriff’s star,
my Robin-of Sherwood hat, where I saw the hearse
and funeral cars taking forever to pass.
So, no apologies here for looking back at where we come from, and why should there be? However, there’s a difference between nostalgia and self-indulgence, and Smyth has the wonderful ability of standing back from his past and expressing it with discipline and musicality. Look for instance at ‘Chesterfield Street’:
That summer was a scorcher,
denim danced with corduroy.
In the gallery we got to know
the portrait painters, the landscape gazers –
their Dutch skies, their idea of the sublime.
That last line takes us beyond the moment to when their lives were enriched. Notice too the gentle rhythm of the lines, something that is evident in the bulk of these poems.
In ‘Our First House of Marriage’, Smyth hints at the wider political scenario where their lives were lived:
I think of the days in our first house of marriage,
in our country of clouds that were black
like shadows on shadows, when hope and history
seemed to hang in the balance
between the bomber and the assassin.
In ‘Room to Room’, he beautifully conveys the life of a house:
In the house of bygones
everything has been kept:
crystal, lace, table linens,
the book of recipes for family dinners.
There’s a room for every purpose –
a room of hush, a room for the shouting match,
a parlour crammed with pilgrims’ gifts –
souvenirs dusted once a week.
There’s a room for hiding shame,
for sorrow and celebration.
The marriage bed shows its age.
It is as old as the marriage itself.
A young bride’s face, dulled by time
is pressed to the glass of a photo-frame.
The melancholy here is expressed with fine constraint, just as in the beautiful poem dedicated to the much-lamented cellist, Jacqueline du Pré:
Even in death, she touches us,
especially in that moment on the gramophone disc
or hissing cassette, when the orchestra stops,
sits dumb and she’s alone: no first violins or second strings,
no woodwind or brass assembly, only her cello
like the lyre of Orpheus at its most transcendent. (Cello Girl)
Smyth’s employment of pared down language and his exercise of discipline is further developed in ‘Burning the Manuscripts’ in which he describes when ‘My first manuscripts vanished in the fire…’:
The blaze was exuberant, it consumed
the whole songbook of my youth…
A lesson for all who imagine that everything they ever wrote is wonderful.
Smyth makes a lot of dedications to his poems, and writes beautifully of friendships. One such is ‘Nights at the Round Table’ in which ‘we are like seafarers in the harbour bar…’ where they have their ‘nostalgias for songs half remembered…’ Despite ‘A sign of age… when we keep forgetting / names from the morning roll call / but not the faces…’ there is little sense of regret, rather a celebration of the richness of life together with its attendant weaknesses.
There are poems where Smyth shows a restrained anger towards the destruction of our wider environment, as in Idolatry:
In the gap where the cinema used to be
instead of plush red seats there’s a garden of weeds,
a wall of graffiti where the big screen titles
once appeared in the dust of wild stampedes,
heroes and heroines in their close-up scenes.
In ‘News from Aleppo’, Smyth describes how:
In a city drained of all its colours
there is no trace of sisters and brothers:
they have vanished or departed,
daring to sail in leaky vessels.
The anger emerges when:
No one says Come in.
If they drown on the shores of Europe,
they rise again in fishermen’s nets.
And in a powerful diatribe dedicated to Thomas Kinsella, Smyth attacks the city planners for the destruction of communities and their histories, including the hiding places and escape routes of the ‘Rebel Irish’, and the places of those who sought refuge in our society, notably the Huguenots. His ire then finds its resting place as it becomes more personal, but no less emphatic as:
…[they] left no trace of the picture house
where the patrons paid half-price
to see Jim Hawkins sail in search of Treasure Island. (Taken)
‘The Rain in Armagh’ is a beautifully understated lament for what is likely to happen with the catastrophic Brexit shenanigans. In the likely event of the re-imposition of border controls, he describes how seamless his journey is at present, and has been in the recent past, moving between the Republic and the North of Ireland.
The green of the North
looked like the green of the South.
No shade of difference between them.
Slieve Gullion was as mystical
as the Cooley Peninsula,
the route of the Táin.
Accepting that a border exists, and is likely to exist for the foreseeable future, Smyth at least asks that it be as invisible as possible, just as the sparrows never have to stop think ‘Where are we now….’
Smyth, however, reserves his real anger for the monster across the Atlantic in A Remake who ‘has no answers from the heart… .’
The mask he wears is a Florida tan, his gang of sycophants
say O My Captain every time he croons his claptrap.
There is so much to savour in this wonderfully varied collection. One of the joys of reviewing is coming across someone whose work you didn’t know, and who you regret not knowing about before. Gerard Smyth’s is just such a one for me. A joy to read.
Malcolm Carson was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. He moved to Belfast with his family before returning to Lincolnshire, becoming an auctioneer and then a farm labourer. He studied English at Nottingham University, and then taught in colleges and universities. He now lives in Carlisle, Cumbria, with his wife and three sons. His two previous full collections, Breccia in 2006 and Rangi Changi and other poems in 2011, and a pamphlet, Cleethorpes Comes to Paris in 2014, were from Shoestring Press. Route Choice, published in 2016, is also from Shoestring.
Anthony Caleshu’s A Dynamic Exchange Between Us reviewed by John Rogers
A Dynamic Exchange Between Us by Anthony Caleshu. £9.95. Shearsman Books.
Anthony Caleshu turns to the prose poem in A Dynamic Exchange Between Us, to explore a stimulus to change, presenting the speaker’s struggle through the later stages of married life. The chameleonic form seems appropriate for Caleshu’s new work, which weaves in language from several sacred texts as the searching voice lays bare his limitations in the fight to salvage love.
The two characters at the heart of the work are never quite in equilibrium. The first-person speaker often laments his lack of agency, and his thinking is influenced by metaphysical concerns. Therefore, we experience prose poems such as ‘I am weary (and must rest awhile)’, which draws on the Gospel of Buddha. In scripture, the Blessed One calls on Ānanda to lay out his robe, so that he can relax on it. But the speaker in Caleshu’s work cannot find comfort on such ground. There is even the suggestion of betrayal when he turns to his distracted spouse: ‘Question: when does the world not travel with us?’ Their private moment is broken by ‘what you have hashtagged on these granite walls.’ and foreshadows the growing distance between them.
And so, the book oscillates between expressions of love and pain. Even in the most tender reflections, frustration hounds the speaker. Caleshu’s character has an urgent voice, which brings a form of dynamism to the table. When the speaker’s restless activity gives over to quieter moments, as in ‘Anno Domini’ though, a reader sees him cling tight to autumn’s offering: ‘Under the boughs, we hold pinecones to our chests, as if the young of our own species.’ This imagery might be romantic, but the march of time is an immediate threat to the couple. Sentiment turns to sadness in the plain first line of the next poem where ‘Our children are starting to feel sorry for us.’
Caleshu has successfully presented love’s challenges in this one-sided depiction of married life, and while this book is in some ways a clear stylistic departure, in others it is not. His previous collection, The Victor Poems (Shearsman Books, 2015) comparably put a voice in conversation with a silent ‘You’, albeit that book featured a narrative quest for the eponymous character. Both combine the familiar with the farfetched, which is perhaps why the reading experience of A Dynamic Exchange Between Us doesn’t all hang together. The writing is often disorientating, in ways that are unhelpful, and in spite of, Caleshu’s prefatory warning, in which he quotes Emily Dickenson:
Wonder – is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not –
However, a reader could be forgiven for lacking the mental agility to shift between ‘exemplary brain surgery’ and symbolic octopuses, between ghosts and burnt-oblations.
Nonetheless, and to quote The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (2019), Caleshu endorses ‘order and chaos’ – as many questions are generated as answers are given. Those wanting neat closure where the speaker is transformed will be disappointed. ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’, for example, is more horrifying thought than vow renewal, even though the speaker seems to have come closer to accepting his lot:
‘At dinner, we’re reminded that we are the reason endings get written slowly […] We plan to stay awake until bed, where we’ll perform with just the right amount of duty and neglect.’
Ultimately, Caleshu isn’t afraid of projecting the mundane and he manages to do so with impressive energy and heart.
John Rogers is an MA Creative Writing student at Nottingham Trent University. He studied BA English at the University of Hull and was awarded the Joseph Henry Noble Scholarship in both 2012 and 2013 for continued performance. He achieved a PGDE in secondary education in 2016 and maintains a keen interest in providing English Language and Literature tuition.
Wendy Holborow’s Shipwrecked reviewed by Rowena Somerville
Shipwrecked by Wendy Holborow. £12. Lucy Quieter Press. ISBN: 9798602156300
This collection, the author’s tenth, is entitled Shipwrecked and and features one of her own paintings, with the same title, on the cover. That word, and the imagery of the painting, suggests disaster, turmoil and fragmentation, and the dedication is to ‘family and friends who have died’. However, the poems – while many address heartbreak and the loss of those who are loved or admired – are instances of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (as Wordsworth deemed poetry to be) and speak of the survivor’s sadder, wiser strength, keeping on keeping on, in the face of life’s turbulence. The poems of loss of love acknowledge the love that was, the poems in memoriam offer a heartfelt and sometimes celebratory valediction; the collection is a testament to survival, rather than a cry from the wreckage, so reading it is essentially uplifting, whilst acknowledging the reality of grief.
The poems have been written over a number of years and, of course, subjects and styles are varied, but the fragility of love is a recurrent theme – whether that love be romantic, familial or of friends. Sometimes I found that rereading a poem which I had first assumed to be addressing an errant or lost lover, revealed that it might equally be exploring the loss or betrayal or the diminishment of some other kind of relationship – the ‘you’ might be any significant other, might even be the poet addressing herself – the stereotypical pattern of thought had been entirely mine.
I have become your whole life’s bane
as once your belief and trust I breached
so I readily bask in your disdain.
All protestations have been in vain
you spit in spiccato, enunciate, preach
that I’ve become your whole life’s bane.
Pour yourself an ouzo,
clink ice to cloud the drink.
You are sitting outside your house,
writing those eternal lists of things to do,
staring at tomorrow’s date
then scribbling with intent.
The in memoriam poems speak strongly and warmly of those lost. In the poem i.m. Mark Montinaro she says,
So, I am having imaginary conversations with you
and I hope you can hear me when I say
the world is a much more dismal place
without you in it.
but let me bexxxas clear as a mirror
that reflectsxxxxxx nothing
I had a good lifexxxnoxxx a great life
and I was afraid of deathxxxxbecause
xxxxxxxxxxxxI had a life worth living
Several poems address the final stages and eventual deaths of her parents, her father passing first,
Only in the last months of his life
was my father aware of the trees
near his window.
the changes, from spring green
to autumn fall.
His lungs a dry crackle,
his death quicker
than the last fall of leaves
She speaks warmly of her parents’ love for each other,
Their love was loud and boldly spoken,
the years danced by so fast
and of her place in the family history,
By giving me life, my parents
have condemned me to a certain death and sometimes, fuck is
just the right word.
xxDa Capo al Fine.
Wendy Holborow has evidently travelled extensively (her collection ‘Janky Tuk Tuks, set largely in Africa and India, was originally published by The High Window Press in 2018) and her writing has an alert wider world view. Her poetic vocabulary is enriched by other European languages (as above) and by classical allusion.
In that primrose light I am Melissanthi for a while, you, Apollo –
I can almost hear the lyre you play,
tinkling across the hushed unbridled white horses of waves
in that nectar sea where I believed my heart was whole.
Her vocabulary can be challenging. Sometimes this is acknowledged, as in the poem ‘Sesquipedalian’ which uses (and explains) the subtitles: Anthocyanin, Crytoscopophilia, Deipnosophist and Paraskevidekatriaphobia. My computer required me to add these words to my dictionary (demonstrating the limitations of Microsoft), but she uses these (defined) subtitles cleverly, and each of the poems clearly exemplifies its subtitular definition.
Elsewhere I found some of the rarer words rather a barrier to my initial enjoyment of the relevant poems (eg acheiropoieta, ecdysis, plouter) but once I had discovered their meaning, I could honestly say that they genuinely were the best possible words in the best possible places, so the poetry gods had been well served, and I had learned something worth knowing, so who could complain?
One of my favourite uses of an unusual word was not of a word that I didn’t know, but of a word I knew but generally had encountered only in scientifically appropriate circumstances. Here it is used in an unexpected but very descriptive way (I think most of us will have seen this mechanism in practice at least once) –
I kept away this time
asked friends politely
how is he?
distanced, detached because
I did not want you to
leave me heaving on the shore
of the osmotically insane.
Shipwrecked contains poems of loss and grief, but for the reader the experience is not painful but rather that of fellow feeling, of being alongside someone exploring their own sorrows with honesty and clarity, whose poems can help us examine and survive our own jagged feelings, our own stormy seas.
Rowena Sommerville has written poems and made things all her life, the last thirty years of which have been lived in lovely Robin Hood’s Bay. She has worked in a huge variety of community settings and arts organisations. Having left full-time work in 2017, she is now freelance, both as a creative and as a project producer. She also sings with and writes for the acappella band Henwen which has been performing locally and nationally for a long and harmonious time.
Paddy Bushe’s Second Sight reviewed by David Cooke
Second Sight by Paddy Bushe. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251676
Paddy Bushe’s To Ring in Silence, New and Selected Poems, published by Dedalus Press in 2008, was a welcome opportunity to catch up with the work of an Irish poet of wide-ranging interests and meditative depth. Since then, he has publisahed two more collections of his poetry in English, the latest of which, Peripheral Vision, is published simultaneously with Second Sight, his selected poems in Irish. This consists of forty-nine Irish-language poems which the poet has translated himself or, in effect, reworked into his own English poems. Most Irish poets make a decision to write either in English or Irish. One thinks of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill or Cathal Ó Searcaigh, for example, who write exclusively in Irish. Famously, of course, there was the case of Michael Hartnett who agonised over his ‘farewell to English’ and then ten years later returned to it. Bushe, however, who has published three collections of poetry in Irish seems more relaxed and, like Beckett, has found a way of accommodating his two languages. So, whether or not one has any competence in Irish, Second Sight is a useful and substantial addition to Bushe’s published works.
The book is divided into four sections which seem to be organised thematically rather than in any strict chronological order. In the opening section there are poems dedicated to fellow poets in Irish and its sister language Scots Gaelic. However, this should not be seen as an indication that Bushe’s concerns are parochial, far from it. In ‘A Postcard from the Himalaya’, we see him engaging with the Buddhist culture of Kathmandu. In ‘Fairytale’, he hints at parallels between Celtic and Eastern mysticism: when a change in the weather suggests the foul mist of a sly witch, a darkness that has to be dissipated by the forces of good:
The truth will loosen, and dark will turn
Towards the light once more in Kathmandu.
In ‘A raucous note to Cathal’ he notes the similarity between ‘cág’ and ‘kaag’, the words for ‘crow’ in Irish and Nepalese. Already in this opening section we see the first of several poems informed by ecological cocerns. In ‘The Green Goddess of Orsay’, the subject of the poem is a tutelary deity of the natural world:
See, poet, she comes towards you,
xxxxYour own woodland deity, moist
xxxxxxxxWith the wood’s mossy greenness.
In ‘Homage to Sorley MacLean’, he emphasises the poet’s close connection with landscape and the history associated with it:
Nettles and briars felt a stirring
In the ruins their roots encircled,
As bardic utterance awakened
The spark in dormant embers.
In ‘A Quick Trip into Screapadal’ he acknowledges the historic reality of the Highland Clearances and then touches upon more recent waves of materialism: ‘The swagger of wealth and the pillage of the markets.’ In ‘Stranded’ his bleak vision reminds one of the early Derek Mahon, warning us that one day we may ‘subsist again / On dogfish, scrapings from shells.’
The second section opens with a delightful narrative about a Buddhist Monk who guides a flock of ducks back to water after they have lost their way. Again, there seems an affinity between Buddhism and the traditions of early Irish monasticism with its hermit poets who celebrated nature and expressed their love for all God’s creatures. In the next poem, however, this idyll is set against the nightmare of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, when the voices of individuals, like ‘Thousands of giddy bamboo flutes’…were drowned out by by ‘One enormous brass trumpet’. ‘At the Bridge Made in Heaven’ is a poem underpinned by the Buddhist’s search for wisdom and the importance of transcending artificial barriers: ‘There will be no severance. In spite of borders, / Travellers, you have arrived in the realm of bridges.’ ‘Translating Buddha in der Glorie’ is about Bushe’s attempts to recreate Rilke’s poem in both Irish and in English, the results of which can be found in To Ring in Silence. This is followed by some engaging evocations of the natural world: ‘White Egrets’, ‘A Tale of Horses’ and the marvellous ‘Actic Hare’ until, in ‘Out of the Blue’, Bushe strikes a more admonitory note:
The new flood will surge, godless, out of the blue
From the northwest, a all our own.
Our treachery will turn on us, late or soon.
The third section opens with ‘Easter Proclamation’. As it was for Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, it would seem that history is a nightmare from which our poet is also trying to escape: ‘In the name of God and the deadly / Dead generations, / Enough is enough;’ while ‘Badger’ is a remarkable anthropomorphic poem which describes a certain kind of self-defensive mentality that cuts itself off from everything that makes life worth living:
Badger likes not those who like wine or poetry
xxxxFor fear an unauthorised torch might illuminate his tunnel.
Subsequently, however, this is balanced by the positive energy and optimistic vision of the poems that follow it. In ‘Surprised by Joy on the Isle of Barra, the poet comes up with a lovely Wordsworthian equivalent for ‘geit athais’ in the title of the original. Evoking a flock of oystercatchers, the poem’s conclusion is exhilarating:
I stayed awhile watching them,
Sifting for a word to encompass
The serendipity that infused the air
And land and water. All at once,
My heart piped up, and away it flew.
‘Night Prayer with its tone of unassuming domesticity is a wise and heartening celebration of everyday normality life: ‘I offer up thanks for the miraculous day I have just passed.’
In the final section Bushe returns to Celtic myth and, in particular, the early Irish Book of Invasions. Having adapted the famous litany of Amergin he moves on, in ‘ÉarannánSpeaks’, to evoke his brother, who first glimpsed the island of Ireland but was turned into a rock before he made it ashore. The poem is a tour de force in which mythological figures are bodied force with passion and energy, yet reminding us, notheless, that that natural world will persist long after all trace of us has vanished:
I go back farther than race memories,
Barely here on Carraig Eanna. But listen:
There is mettle in the rock, day after day,
Not found in the longest of long-lasting words.
Equally memorable are his evocations of female presences in the landscape, such as the ‘Wailing Woman, Skellig Michael’, a grieving women who, like a Irish counterpart of the Greek Niobe, was transformed into a rock. And yet, for all her sorrows, the conclusion, as so often in Bushe’s work, is serene and optimistic: ‘I value the innocence of morning light / More than the dearly bought knowledge of evening darkness.’ In a review directed primarily at the monoglot English reader, there is no space to explore some of the ways in which Bushe has found ways of recreating in English the music of his originals. Nonetheless, Second Sight contains a substantial selection of Bushe’s work in English and is a welcome introduction to one of the finest poets writing in Ireland. It is well worth the attention of English readers.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection, Staring at a Hoopoe, was published earlier this year by Dempsey and Windle.
Chrissie Gittins’ Sharp Hills reviewed by Kathleen Bell
Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins. £9.99. Indigo Dreams. ISBN 978-1-912876-17-4
This review should have been written months ago, but life intervened – and then came Covid-19. When I returned to Chrissie Gittins’ Sharp Hills under lockdown conditions almost every poem took on a different slant and demanded a fresh look. I ditched my old ideas and started again. It was a helpful reminder that poems change according to the circumstances in which they are read and that any reader’s view comes from their own circumstances and experience as well as from what the poet has to offer.
In the Spring of 2020, mostly confined to a small flat, I want to know that there is a world beyond. I am also learning to look afresh at details with much more care and, from a window, I often marvel at the surreal incidents of everyday life in the street below. Imagination has become a key means of escape. Chrissie Gittins’ book feeds into this new, constrained way of living in a way I never expected when I first read it last winter.
Sharp Hills begins with a sequence in which Gittins as she travels to parts of India where her father was stationed during the Second World War. The poems combine her own observations with haunting images from the past; a damaged 11th century statue of Parvati in a museum becomes a frame through which she can see crashed fragments of a fragile aeroplane and then her father, at ease, listening to Glenn Miller:
… yet to hear about the fuselage in the glade,
the bamboo leaves stroking the rudder,
his pals the pilot and the navigator,
who sat touching, side by side.
But the India Gittins visits – and the one her father knew – is not primarily a place of tragedy; it provides encounters with inequality and the relics of imperialism but also with kindness. Members of hotel staff ‘sleep on blankets covered in sheets/ on the floor of reception’, fellow train passengers share food while in the tea plantation there’s a reference to the estate ‘planted by our men,/ before they left their bairns behind.’
In these poems about India the landscape is often at a slight distance. The ‘sharp hills’ which give the volume its title are ten miles away and also linked to the past, when Gittins’ father photographed then in 1942. The blending of past and present in the poet’s journey, which necessarily combines observation with both a known and an imagined past, makes relationship with place primarily a means by which human relationships can be explored.
Elsewhere, however, the details of place are in the foreground, even when the subject of the poem is wider than those details. In ‘Noss,’ for instance, the very sound of the words invites the reader to appreciate the texture of ‘the spongy sphagnum moss’ underfoot while wide vowel sounds conjure a tremendous image of how ‘To the east great skuas pose,/ flagging their high striped wings’. Those skuas are both majestic and dangerous; a line later we’re informed that ‘They’re keen to feed on newborn lambs’ – and that word ‘keen’ suggests a little more deliberation than mere instinct as well as reminding us that nature at its most sublime is never actually friendly.
In ‘The Unseen Life of Trees,’ the final poem in the book, the trees observe human life but from their own arboreal perspective. The poem begins:
When the fraying skeins of silver birch
sway in the wind they think of
lulling water in the floating harbour,
the dried out plants on a deck,
the bespoke barge door cut to close
on a trapezium
and ends with oaks climbing the hillside ‘dragging children by the hand’ as they whisper:
canopy to canopy.
‘There will be time, before
all our leaves stretch out across the frosted ground.’
That final stanza seems to recall another theme of the book: children who may be lost, dead or unborn – or merely imagined. Poems with titles ‘So You Think You Killed Your Daughter,’ ‘There’s a Baby on my Compost Heap’ and ‘Your Unknown Sister’ suggest that the question ‘Where is Freya?’ – the title of another poem – has a tragic answer. The speaker of the poem looks for clues in ‘the surface of the trampoline’ which may hold ‘the imprint of your sole’ and also finds Freya ‘in the rain that comfort brings.’
Different in mood are poems where the poet’s imagination takes a surreal turn as in ‘The Apology Lab,’ ‘How to Sell Your Soul on eBay’ and ‘W.H. Auden Got Married in Tesco (Ledbury)’ which reimagines Auden’s 1935 marriage of convenience to Erika Mann (providing her with the British passport that protected her from deportation from Switzerland back to Nazi Germany) taking place not in Ledbury’s registry office but in a modern Tesco store, with the registrar asking:
As we stand here between Meal Deals and Price Drops
wilt thou have this Ripe and Fresh woman to thy
wedded wife, even though you’ve never
set eyes on her before in your entire life?
It’s hard in a review to do justice to the range of poems in this collection from the delightfully scrambled and often entirely logical sayings in ‘No Salmon is an Island’ (‘A drowning man will clutch at a saw,/ A fool and his money are soon to open a joint bank account’) to the surprise of the woman survivor in ‘Clifton’ who starts by telling us ‘I owe my life to the moon.’ But perhaps the poem that offers most – to me, at any rate – in these locked down days is ‘The Man Who Moved from Shetland to Glasgow’, which has the dedication ‘for Bruce, who opened a window in Glasgow and wondered where the wind was.’ Many people now are aware of places they are missing and thinking of landscapes that are out of reach. This poem ends by evoking a lost landscape:
Where is the wind?
It’s lashing the cars on lonely roads
where heath is cut with peat-black wounds.
Where is the wind?
It’s flattening the cotton grass to red,
It’s flipping leaves on strained branches,
it’s whipping up white lace shawls on slate blue sea.
I have never been to Shetland but this conjuring of a distant landscape through the lens of loss offers me a sense of a world waiting to be relearned when lockdown ends and when we are free once more to move beyond confinement and watch, in wonder, the beauty and strangeness of the world.
Kathleen Bell set up De Montfort University’s undergraduate joint honours degree in Creative Writing.
Charles G Lauder’s The Aesthetics of Breath reviewed by Daniel Bennett
The Aesthetics of Breath by Charles G Lauder. £10.99 V. Press. ISBN: 978-1916505216
History blends with family in this engaging and impressive debut collection by Charles G. Lauder. An American poet who has made his home in England, Lauder offers us insights into the tension of his dual status throughout the course of the collection, but nowhere is this played out with more of a sense of scale and invention than in the opening poem, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh of Bexar County, Texas’ By turns wry and fantastic, the poem uses the figure of Raleigh (‘magus explorer buccaneer spy’) to play with idea of trans-Atlantic families:
what should I confess? That I stood naked in a circle
about the fire handfasted to a daughter of Mercia
calling forth spirits of the forest…
These sly winks to Britain’s ancient mythological past are reminiscent of the work of another American abroad: The Book of The Green Man, by Ronald Johnson. Raleigh isn’t the only historical figure who waves back at us from the pages of the book. Albert Einstein, Heinrich Himmler, Napoleon, the American union organizer Emma Tenayuca (La Pasionaria de Texas): all are presented at liminal, halfway points, cut out from the surroundings we might imagine for them. In ‘Finding Time’, Albert Einstein is viewed as a family man in Bern, working on his scientific calculations between the tram home from work, and time spent with his family. His escapes ‘to the alcove filled / with flitting sums products caught and pinned’ representing a neat avatar for a poet trying write amongst similar time pressures.
Rather than being presented at the peak of military splendour, in ‘Napoleon In The Bath’ the Emperor of France is glimpsed in the intimacy of a domestic scene, bathing while ‘servants slip through the room like shades/ steal away his boots jacket tunic trousers’ Emma Tenayuca becomes the central character in ‘A Short History of San Antonio’ not only re-claimed as a founding figure of the city, but also as an emblem of America’s radical leftist past, which is too often forgotten due to the purges of McCarthyism and the triumph of the freemarket.
In ‘Heinrich’s Advice on Healthy Eating,’ Lauder offers the reader a slanted insight into the mind of Heinrich Himmler, through a neatly composed found-poem based on letters from the infamous Nazi. The tone is didactic, almost fastidious (‘Hot meals, at least three times a week/ five times in winter’) and the piece achieves a kind of grim comedy by focussing on dietary advice from one of the twentieth century’s most infamous monsters. A willingness to explore themes of violence and evil runs like a dark seam through the collection, through such poems as a memorial for the attack on the Bataclan, and ‘The Nature of Killing’, (which in its functional approach to life and death echoes ‘How to Kill’ by Keith Douglas). These poems have a laudable sense of adventure in daring to avoid hackneyed ‘poetic’ subjects. In particular, ‘Surviving’ offers a grisly and surrealistic scene of a stretch of river becoming home to a collection of corpses. Cinematic and curious, with a great sense of narrative, the poem could almost be a treatment for a short film: ‘one could be my family but I’ll never know.’
Ultimately, it’s the complexities of family life which offers the unifying subject for the collection. In particular, poems on family narratives occupy a decent portion of the collection, such as the dialogic ‘Family Legend Has It’ and the ‘Note To Self’ which explore the anecdotes that all families tell one another, and how these unreliable narratives blur into commonplace inventions that define our perception of our personal histories. Even one of the love poems ‘The Art of Eloping’ examines the beginnings of a marriage by framing actual events through the prism of romantic illusion. Fantasy is never far from realism in Lauder’s approach and, in fact, those presented as being close to the poet are viewed as as enigmatic as the historical figures glimpsed elsewhere. The theme is never explored more fully than in the final, long poem which gives the collection its title. ‘The Aesthetics of Breath’ moves us through family history, dark imagination of disease, Google Earth, and the security of a family home. It’s a pleasingly various work, by turns personal and grand, with its capacity of placing family life in a more elevated, magical context reminiscent of the work of Dennis Nurkse, particularly evidenced in this description of the narrator’s role in the family home:
each morning to ignite this house,
let it breathe and reason amidst
a deceiving land of shadow,
a beacon for the inhabitants’ return
In some ways this manifold debut— taking in, as it does, historical figures, family lives, the problem of evil, and how an element of fantasy and danger is never far from our perception of those we treasure and love— might strain at the edges and become less a sum of its parts, and more of, well, a collection. What draws it together is the consistent awareness of a sense of self. ‘Between lives no light defines us / no mirror reassures us’ as Lauder presents it in ‘Incarnations’: how we are different people in different contexts and how we remain enigmatic and unknowable even to those closet to us. This necessary blurring of character is, ultimately, what charges the writing, exploring the simple, everyday doublings wherein lie ordinary hypocrises, dreams and nightmares, as well as betrayal and infamy. The lies we tell, the love we offer, and the poetry we read: all are the aesthetics of breath.
Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives and works in London. His first full collection West South North, North South East was published by The High Window in 2019. He is also the author of the novel All The Dogs.’
Deborah Harvey’s The Shadow Factory reviewed by Lucy English
The Shadow Factory by Deborah Harvey. £9.99. Indigo Dreamss. ISBN: 978-1912876204
The Shadow Factory was a factory in Patchway, Bristol, which was demolished in 2009. It was also the enigmatic end destination of the 75 bus. In her title poem she reflects on the disappearance of such an apparently nebulous building:
Perhaps it retired to a sunlit meadow,
sat itself down by a puttering stream
far from the whine of lathes, the scream of Harrier jump jets
The desire to find a place which is ‘not a leisurely stroll from the ice cream van,’ is a strong theme in this collection. She comments on the natural world as if this, and not human life is the greater force. The dead man forgotten in the undergrowth is ignored by:
You lot driving past/ after tiles for your bathroom, this week’s fashion/ upgrades for last year’s mobile phone
Wild animals are ever present even on the periphery of vision; feral dogs, hares, starlings, red kites and larks. Even plants take on animal qualities. The Aconite doesn’t ‘drift through gardens in sapphire silks’ but ‘you bundle about your business with diffident squirrel glances’. Landscape, animals and birds have an intrinsic beauty which she describes with care: ‘ Only something looking closely sees a greenfinch deep in leaves, feathers mossed with yellow edges, barred by shuttered sun.’
The people in this collection are more problematic and create, for Harvey, deep feelings of unease. A relative turns up unexpectedly and is less a person, more a collection of unwanted fragments. He is also sinister, ‘signs his name in the mist on the window his breath doesn’t leave.’ In the sequence of poems, ‘Bad seeds’ about the death of her father there is a suggestion that his death may not be ‘natural’; ‘my father said he finished his mother off gave her half the tincture in the phial from her doctor, flushed the rest down the toilet.’ In ‘Nature Notes’ Harvey reminds us, by the stark details of women killed by men , that it is people who kill people and those who survive human violence are never free from it:
of those who escape, but scathed
like hares chased so hard their blood runs to bubbles.
My favourite sequence was the one about wallpaper. She takes us through stages in her life via the patterns in the various bedrooms. Here I felt Harvey at her strongest; drawing our attention to the simple unnoticed details. The 1990’s Blown Vinyl in red, gold and white, can’t even stay attached:
It peels straight off
Underneath, the thin plaster is spotted
with damp from a crack in the render
and the six-petalled flowers
embossed on the paper
have reproduced themselves
like mildewed ghosts of masons’ marks
Here again the natural world, in this case, ‘the creeping mould’ is a source of comfort and respite, ‘its curious spores trap our nightmares in the walls’.
The collection ends with the delicate poem ‘October’ and its message of trust and hope. Oaks shouldn’t be growing here , but they are, ‘looping roots around heaped rocks’ and the narrator wishes to meld with the landscape, ‘until my skin grows green with moss / my tongue bleeds sap,’ and become truly part of it.
Lucy English is a Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her most recent project is, The Book of Hours, a reimagining of a medieval book of hours in poetry film format. Films from this project have been screened at many international poetry film festivals and the whole project was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2018. She is researching the placement of spoken word in poetry films. The poetry from this project was published in book form by Burning Eye Press in 2018
Jenny Mitchell’s Her Lost Language reviewed by Daniel Bennett
Her Lost Language by Jenny Mitchell reviewed by Daniel Bennett. £8.99 Indigo Dreams. ISBN 978-1-912876-19-8
The weight of history and its eventual impact on family provides the over-arching theme of the debut collection, Her Lost Language, by London-based poet, Jenny Mitchell, joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. Invoking voices marginalized and erased, Mitchell positions herself as the conscience of after-empire: resilient, haunting and implacable in her accusations.
Mitchell’s focus is on reclaiming the stories of the victims of British slavery, with family represented as at the cutting point of the effect of this history. The lives resurrected within these pages are often offered to us with their hopes, dignity and dreams briefly intact, set against the way those lives played out. Mitchell is a talented performer, who at readings will recite her work from memory, but, crucially, the poems on the page retain that sense of breath and measure, of a voice. The character escape the silences that have been imposed on them, the treatment reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop as they speak to us with intimacy and violence. This, from ‘Before The Silence’:
‘They were not my parents when they first held hands,
Pushed up against a corrugated shack,
Her breathless with the shock: his body,
A hard shape pressed to her floral waist.’
The central theme is played out through the historical reclamation of ‘Emancipating Ancestors’ ( ‘The love I have for them/ will be a nursery rhyme / with hushing sounds, / and promises of home) and the poignant social history of ‘Caribbean Service’, with its portrait of a young Jamaican woman working in the National Health Service, from the ripe opening lines ‘Ever since I first taste words/ none as succulent as England,’ and its wrenching conclusion:
‘Cried alone in my bed-sitting room,
Haunted by the ghost of paraffin.
Burn marks on my legs;
always edging closer.’
The stanza illustrates a technique used throughout the collection: of removing the agency from the sentences at key emotional moments. The characters seem to absent themselves from the words they speak, as though surrendering to how they have been robbed of identity and the ability to shape their own narratives and histories. It’s a subtle device that hints at the importance of ownership of our own stories, particularly when set against the malign legacy of the ownership of people.
And, of course, as the title makes clear, this is a collection focusing on gender as well as race. The theme reaches a high point in the triptych ‘Eve’s Lost Daughter’, ‘Dark Sisterhood’ and ‘The Healing’. Remarkable for their capacity for blending myth and dream, they reminded me of Shivanee Ramlochan Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting for their imaginative range. In ‘Dark Sisterhood’, a woman’s corpse undergoes a strange transformation, ‘pressed beneath the dirt so long, / her body turned to glass – clear shapely / as the burial ground was murky flat.’ The dead are returned to us, offering their tale of injustice and violence: ‘she spoke, so crystal clear/ but in a long-lost tongue.’ In the Bible, Eve’s nakedness is a state of innocence and grace, yet in ‘Eve’s Lost Daughter’, a past of violence and abuse is heightened as ‘her mother stripped her nightly, imprisoning in shame.’ The lost daughter is instructed at the end to ‘Steal back your clothes and scale the wall/ or be part of its fabric.’
It’s an idea we return to throughout the collection, in such poems as ‘Someone Thank The Tailor’, ‘The Veil’, and the vibrant and potent ‘Black Men Should Wear Colour’, not to mention the titular poem ‘Her Lost Language’ (where ‘English mouths are made of cloth,/stitched pulled apart with every word’): how dress and clothing become a signifier in personal language, that badges and protects us, but also emphasizes our differences and consequently identifies us for attack. In the ‘An Unfurling’, a stranger reaches out to unwind the narrator’s headscarf, an ugly invasive act that is responded to with imaginative grace and energy, the headscarf becoming an act of language, running free and wild:
‘A woman rode past on a bike just as the headwrap billowed
Dipped close to a bridge the water shining dark green fish
Jumped to the surface as more cloth trailed along […]’
In the age of social media, we’re accustomed to communicating when, perhaps, we don’t have much to say. Everyone does it; it’s the currency of our time. Probably, this has influenced the way we think of poetry, where words are spun out of dilettantish poses, lacking reference and tangibility in their attempts to offer a perspective. And, why not? Poets have propagated their egos long before Twitter and Instagram came along. Still, Mitchell stands outside of this instinct. These are poems that exist out of a sense of duty and fury, giving back weight and breath in their desire to offer language back to who have been muted and ignored, not only forgotten but never really considered. This is a raw collection, filled with lashed hopes, bitterness and pain, yet haunting in its capacity for resilience, beauty and redemption. Read it and listen
Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives and works in London. His first full collection West South North, North South East was published by The High Window in 2019. He is also the author of the novel All The Dogs.’
John McCullough’s Reckless Paper Birds reviewed by Tom Bland
Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough. £9.99. Penned in the Margins. ISBN:978-1908058638
Charles Simic has a wonderful line, ‘Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.’ John McCullough’s book, Reckless Paper Birds, has this sense of the poetic:
Someone left a dictionary on the wall outside my house:
a gift, a threat.
The poem continues:-
The dictionary’s mislaid its spine and cover so, when shut,
might be mistaken for a block of ice. Each word’s retrievable,
could lead to magic. The decline of the jellygraph …
One of the things I loved about this book is McCullough’s ability to open up an idiosyncratic mythology that draws on queer culture with all its hidden entanglements and rituals:-
So we stroll down Kings Road, past the thumping beat
of a drag queen at her sewing machine. Lines of stitches on rayon
structure her illusion…
Language creates the reality of the poems: it is surreal in its perceptions and even occupations. McCulloughs’ surrealism is sometimes conscious, and other times drifts as if it’s utterly integral to reality, as integral as the roundabout outside my window, the one with the tree, which at the present moment, a man stands next to, shouting into his phone. Reckless Paper Birds is a very unique collection and I recommend taking a ride through its ‘vomit and blossom.’
At times, I would like a little bit more darkness – a disturbance in the sudden appearance of the uncanny – but the reality of the underworld (the real world) is always there:
Have you got a cigarette
will lead to Give me your wallet.
And in another poem, the line – ‘her eyes black as an addict’ – makes this a collection worth having in your hands when you can return to the otherwise appalling ride to work after the quarantine, after the madness, which never really ends, always for a chance to flash before your eyes.
Tom Bland’s The Death of the Clown came out with Bad Betty Press in 2018. His next book, Camp Fear, will be out in 2021. He edits the online magazine, http://www.spontaneouspoetics.co.uk.
Amy Kean and Jack Wallington’s House of Weeds reviewed by Benjamin Francis Cassidy
House of Weeds by Amy Kean and Jack Wallington. 8.99. Fly on the Wall Press. ISBN: 978-1913211158
‘The world needs the weeds to define what it means to rise’, is a perfect place to begin to think about this collection as a whole: what it means, why it was written, and in turn who the poet is and what they’re all about. The phrase runs over three lines, near the start of the first poem ‘Ricinus communis (Castor Oil Plant)’. As well as the music of the line acting as an incantation, a chant to individuality and creativity. More than an accompaniment, the illustration of this poem draws on colour and connectivity, with person and stem one and the same. The theme is set, and the journey is about to begin.
Tensions of opposites are often what make for good poems. And Amy Kean knows this, skilfully utilising the concept. The seemingly simple opening line of the second poem ‘Anagallis arvensis (Scarlet Pimpernel)’, reads ‘Gluttons for punishment love the Gemini’. Always, every word in the line matters, as well as the sentence as a whole. This statement at first reads as a plain declaration, but scrutinising brings out not just the duality of the Gemini imagery, but the greed for what is thought to be bad for one, that thing proscribed. At the end of the same poem it’s revealed that ‘ it’s easy to be tricked into thinking Gods and Monsters are the same thing’. The magic in this relatively short poem is all that lies between the two lines, that allow the beginning to become the end. Phrases like ‘rubber mask’, a covering but one of a pliable material show the intelligence of the work, and the careful planning of each choice made. Many poets are afraid of using simple terminologies; for it to work everything else has to, too. It does, here.
Further into the collection Kean shows her prowess at shaping the poems. Sometimes criticism overlooks the simple fact that how the poem appears on the page is the very first thing we see, and it may even impact upon how we receive it. The lovely little lyric poem ‘Dipsacus fullonum (Teasel)’ mimics the shape of the subject, with the sentences creating a winding down effect, and each shorter than the rest. Why it works is that every word, including crucially those that appear in their own lines, count. The bold feel of victorious/misted/muscles/standing/ground (last five lines) as you say them contrasts that which is disappearing to the memory of them that remains, long after the stalks have vanished into the Earth. Just like people who’ve lived proudly as themselves and are no longer walking and talking, the memory of them remains if we make it do so, by actively remembering. We bring them back into existence, through refusal to let them die.
The final two poems here show that this volume as a whole has been considered. Tones of death and re-birth are weaved through the whole thing. In the penultimate piece ‘Oenothera biennis (Evening Primrose) this idea is explicitly spoken in the opening line, as the narrator recalls that ‘I remember the first time I died. The opener to the second stanza is ‘By the morning, I was resurrected’. And there you have it: women don’t get three days to resurface. They have to learn to do it overnight. It shouldn’t be, but for women and so many others, simply living has to be an act of fighting to survive. Kean closes off, choosing ‘A rebellious life is one well-lived’ as her final line of the work, in the last piece, a short but packed prose-poem, ‘Campanula poscharskyana (Bellflower). A ringing piece of work, that invokes the funereal imagery of the title (the knelling of goodbye . . .), but of course sets it off against the melodic chime of her florid language, always conjuring up the very essence of being alive.
The illustrations are reminiscent of some of the late Leonard Cohen’s pencil sketches. Faces are the common motif of the artist responding to the poems. The way they’re drawn carves latent emotion onto the page (many faces are blank, but the bodies ‘talk’ as they are captured in motion), leaving just enough space to add what you will in. As a response to the poems (it’s clear the artist knows the poems well) this couldn’t be any more apt; after all, that’s what poetry does – suggests and lets the reader do the rest. On that note, some works appear so esoteric that they alienate readers. These don’t. The titles contain both the Latin terms for weeds used as conceits, and the English (common) terms. They want to include the reader, remaining accessible.
Themes within the poems are deep and complex, with eroticism there, mysticism and many other aspects of humanity (mingling and overlapping), in all its glory and rawness; layers, carefully placed and inviting discovery. The writings are songs, not just of the spirit, but for the spirit, too. Like all good poetry they are for reader as much they are for the author. The author, whether intentionally doing so or not (I suspect so) evokes the likes of William Blake. The interpreting of divinity fused with the ability to see like only a poet’s gaze can. Kean’s able to recast Blake, so that injustice and discrimination prevalent in today’s societies standout. The ever-present threat to the feminine, both in the scared sense and the everyday attacks on women, simply for being women. These poems call to the dispossessed and forgotten. In a world where so much gets overlooked, so many people and their voices are marginalised, either deliberately or through apathy and lethargy, this collection shouldn’t be. It needs not to be. Read it. re-read it. Respond to it, anyway you want to. Write, sing, dance, paint, scream, make love . . . even if you think you do any or all of those things badly. Do them and love doing them. They matter, and most of all, you do too. That’s the take-home from this wonderful new work.
Benjamin Francis Cassidy was born in Blackpool, in 1982. He lives in Manchester with his cat, Lucy, where he gained his Degree, from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2018, in English and Creative Writing. Non-fiction work includes publishing by Louder Than War, Sci-fi Pulse, Mad Hatter Reviews, and Fly on the Wall Press’ Blog. He appears in two new writer anthologies by Comma Press. Ben writes poetry, too. All his work attempts interpreting what he feels is a very strange world.
Majella Kelly’s Hush by reviewed by Sarah James
Hush by Majella Kelly. £5. Ignition Press (Oxford Brookes University)
As the title Hush suggests, sound and its absence are important features in Majella Kelly’s pamphlet from Ignition Press. Section headings might include song, but that this is not the soft ‘hush’ of a lullaby tone quickly becomes apparent. In the second of the three sections in particular, it is an enforced silence.
This section is dedicated to the revelation of a mass grave in the disused sewage system of the former Tuam Mother & Baby Home, even these children’s deaths being absent from burial records. Kelly reverses this by listening to unheard mothers and babies, and giving voice back to them in her poems:
To go into The Home was to be given
your voice on a spoon and told: swallow it.
When they shaved our heads, our voices wilted
on our tongues like cut nettles in empty cups.
I have come to listen for the lost voices of the children. I know they are here. […] The only sound is a bicker of bones as rats in its pitch-black; the brittle sound of a fleshless kind of darkness.
This darkness is further heightened by the beauty of Kelly’s poetry in a way that almost mirrors what she describes in ‘The Art of Keening’ with the “whetted hush” and “[…] how transcendent pain can sound | when it throbs inside a song’s hollow vaults.”. The difference is that here the vaults aren’t hollow. What Kelly achieves is the exact opposite – a series of strong, haunting and memorable poems.
There is violence throughout the first two sections of this pamphlet, as there is in the world. But there is also beauty and transformation in the way that Kelly handles it. Even in the opening poem, ‘Funeral’, death becomes: “[…] White as a plume || of his bones made ash, fluent on the cold | air as a gannet […]. The poem’s indented shape on the page embodies this. Elsewhere, a churchyard cortege is like an umbilical cord. In ‘Portrait of the City with Mastectomy’, the landscape again merges with the human body, this time the city’s destruction and re-development merging with the mother’s scars:
[…] organs and tissue
which are dumper trucks, piles of runnel and a team
of men in hard hats and high visibility vests.
Nobody should be able to see right though
the lungs of the city like that, […]
One technique that Kelly handles strikingly to reinforce this is her use of line breaks, particularly across hyphenated words:
Look, Ma, mermaid tears! he says, hands over
-flowing with seafom, cobalt and honey
– amber glass fragments, […]
(‘Sonnet for the Glass Blower’)
This breaking of the usual linkage, with the hyphen only apparent on the next line, creates an unsettling effect. But, simultaneously, it also transforms by opening up two readings that are both possible, the one with ‘over-flowing’ combined and the one with ‘hands over’ and ‘flowing with seafoam’.
With voice and song comes words. Words and song in an invigorating, hopeful, joy-filled form are most evident in the third section’s ‘love song’ poems. The poems here are also especially sensual and transformative.
In ‘This Is Not a Proposal, but Maybe It Is’, both the narrator’s mouth and the nature of ‘The Word’ totally metamorphosize through a range of stunning painful metaphors until:
[…] All of a
sudden my whole mouth is the forest
floor. My tongue sits with petrichor.
“It diffuses from the base of my throat.
The Word is a raindrop on a porous surface
after a dry spell. […]
Meanwhile, in ‘Anadromous Vocabulary’, three wilted clammy words dropped into the river like mayfly eggs are taken by a fingerling. We follow the fish’s beautifully evoked nature-filled journey until she is about to reach for the fisherman’s fly that the loved one has tied. Then she will open her mouth for the words to emerge:
and polished in her gullet
the way waves mend sharp edges
of sea-glass. […]
As all my quotes hopefully demonstrate, Kelly’s precise imagery, her metaphors and the music of the lines are exquisite. Scent is also especially used to great effect. In the second section, the home’s unpleasant smells contrast with the nuns’ chamber pots in a painfully revealing juxtaposition. Meanwhile, in the third section, drinking jasmine tea has a far more wonderful evocative effect:
snow-white blossoms spoon-tight at sunrise;
that gasp of petals as they part in the dark
which signals a readiness for scenting:
There are many other aspects of Hush that I could focus on, such as religion and the notion of sinning (or not!). But, for me at least, these are an inherent part of the background and setting from which the main features then unfold and transform. By this, I mean poems of loss, lust and love, and also the natural world (with its own different ways of living/rules). Past suffering can’t be undone; the sharpness and pain will always be there. But here, hushed, hidden and forbidden voices are given song and transformed into something that is also unforgettably, unignorably, beautiful.
Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Her latest titles include How to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Poetry Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press), both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards. She was delighted to be The High Window Resident Artist 2019. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk.
The winners of the 2019 Poetry Business pamphlet competitionreviewed by Pam Thompson
The Odds by Emma Simon. £6. SmithIDoorstop. ISBN: 978-1-912196-80-7
It is probably usual more than not for poetry pamphlets to have an overall theme. Emma Simon’s The Odds expands on a bookies’ term to reckon with what chance will bring in life; what probabilities, good or bad. There are no easy answers of course but the poems interrogate chance, both autobiographically and socially. Hilary Menos’s poems in Human Tissue circulate around emotions involved in the harrowing experience of donating a kidney to her son, and of its subsequent rejection from his body. Nick On’s Zhou uses the name of a dynasty and of a common patronym in China to reflect on the lives of his father and grandfather, and himself in relation to them. Each of the pamphlets is accomplished and distinctive.
Emma Simon has won both the Ver Poets and Prole Laureate competitions. Like her debut pamphlet, Dragonish (2017, Emma Press), The Odds is a vibrant, enjoyable read. The poems run with the them via an impressive array of layouts and forms. Simon is good at adopting different perspectives – in ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’ a fax machine (‘I was the future once’) comes to life, ‘I jerk awake some nights, jabber in tongues / of space-age dolphins …’ There are lovely imagistic touches, ‘A curl of white paper blooms – like winter / roses under glass” and “as grey smoke ghosts of secretaries pass’. We find this machine’s counterpart at the start of the title poem set in a bookies, ‘ … fizzy hisses…the intermittent bleeps / from the fixed-odds machine: a white noise / looped on repeat through Saturday’s hubbub’. It’s a strong start to a poem, not just because of surprising and apt figurative language (‘A hand / passes a betting-slip over the counter crackles with it, / like a bulb about to fuse.’), but also the way that vowels and consonants chime together – not to mention a sure sense of the line. In ‘A Glass Half Full of Snowdrops’ we weigh up our own stance along with the poet, about whether we consider a glass to be half empty or half full and, in making the choice, reveal ourselves as either pessimist or optimist. Several of the poems, like this one, fall into fourteen lines. Although she is adept at all forms, I think that Simon has a particular sonnet sensibility: each couplet is worked seemingly effortlessly to balance contending recognitions. The poem contains the poet-speaker and her mother, the ‘we’ being signalled in the third couplet, and a key event in the fourth:
My mother after her appointment at the hospital
cuts a handful for the kitchen sill.
This makes us re-read what has gone before in another light: the ‘first thaws in memories’, ‘Green shoots like tongue tips reaching for a name’. There’s something both heart-breaking bang up-to-date about ‘Their handmaid heads nod quietly’. The poem concludes with a bitter-sweet take on the saying alluded to in its title. So much here about memory, memory loss, ageing, all in the deceptive calm of a domestic interior: the shifting borders between hope and grief. Next to it, appropriately, ‘Ghost Flowers’, where every other line is indented to mimic the growing patterns of the now-absent flowers:
Their absence waves from street signs.
Mulberry Way: once a twisted trunk
that edged the forest track, now leads
to the mosque and chicken takeaway.
The poem moves with grace towards its devastating concluding image, ‘the tied up, dried up bouquets / hung from railings, marking out the other side.’
The contexts of Emma Simons’s poems are continually original, recognisable and poignant: Lady Macbeth on a psychiatric ward, ‘I laugh, or rage / at their limited ideas of madness’ (‘Lady Macbeth’); the use Anglo-Saxon kennings and conventions of layout in the wonderful ‘Dissolution of the Libraries’, ‘Gone all the idlegold: the glimmerings / on paperthick and parch’; the present-day eco plaint of ‘Mayday’, influenced by Robert Herrick, ‘Gather plastic bottles while you may ./ from overflowing hedgerows.’ She couples the real with the surreal, bringing predilections of the 21st Century up close. Her personal history spins through the poems to appealing effect, ‘Tonight belongs to ageing goths and scrawly love songs / Nothing has altered. It all remains the same.’ (‘A Pindaric Ode to Robert Smith of the Cure’)
Human Tissue by Hilary Menos. £6. SmithIDoorstop. ISBN 978-1-912196-78-4
Human Tissue is the second winning Poetry Business pamphlet for Hilary Menos . Her first collection, Berg (2010, Seren) won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in the same year. Her second collection, Red Devon, was published by Seren in 2013. The subject of the pamphlet is outlined in a prefatory note from Hugo Williams. Menos’s son, Linus, who suffered from kidney failure, had a seemingly “successful” transplant, aged 17, of one of his mother’s kidneys. The premise of this alone is unbearable as a stark devotional gesture of love, sacrifice and terror. There is an apparent ‘success’ as the kidney took quickly and functioned well at first. Williams continues though that ‘Aged 19, Linus had a massive rejection episode’ and ‘They had to remove his mother’s kidney and he is now on dialysis.’
Knowing these bald facts led me to wonder in how the poems would present them to us. Even before we get to Hugo Williams’s introduction, the title of the collection has already alerted us to the body and its vulnerability; to the detached, clinical terminology of doctors. There is no real evidence of the central premise until a few poems in although the first poems give us a sense that the speaker seeks to give offerings in any direction that might bring hope. The Mud Man, for instance, is a recurring elemental deity of sorts, brought to us vividly in the first poem:
Close up he looks like old cake
his shoulders shedding crumbled chocolate,
his face a slipped scree of icing …
(‘The Mud Man’)
‘We must feed him every weekend, says my son’. The idea of giving the Mud Man tributes is extended in ‘Oblatory’:
All year I am appellant, devotee, suitor,
appeasing and wooing him with the copse’s fruit
and he is my journey’s end, my talisman,
my worry beads, rabbit’s foot, saints bone.
It is an intense faith and merges with the onset of both pilgrimage and penance, ‘I walk from tree to tree, station to station’, themes picked up in poems in which the speaker is one of the ‘Pilgrims’ – yet although she and her partner, are present they remain on the outside looking on as they walk the Camino del Santiago with its yet unknown privations, ‘No-one mentions the last leg, the rocky road to Finisterre…’ (‘Camino’). Menos’s focus is kept on the refreshingly non-spiritual as she watches penitents in their “satin glory suits”:
Some bag and sag at the neck, which reminds me of elephants,
except the ones in white, which remind me of lynching.
One pulls back his hood and suddenly becomes ordinary.
The pivotal concern of the pamphlet comes mid-way down ‘Petition’. Leading up to it the reader’s ear is seduced by repetitions; by questions and answers:
What do we pray for in the third petition?
We pray for a normal childhood for our child.
We pray for, basically, a normal childhood. //
… A donor GFR of eighty per cent or more
and easy plumbing. A surgeon with good hands.
The mother donates a kidney to save her son. The emotional freight of that act and finding means of expression to convey it could derail the writing but never does. In ‘Danish Palaces Egg’ Menos guides us through the ‘facts’ – the mother’s donation the kidney – by means of spare couplets, details, precise and tender, “a space / the size of a fist … It holds your kidney / which I am keeping warm”; figurative language renders the kidney both precious, ‘Like a Faberge egg’ and ordinary, ‘squeaky / like a dinette booth cushion …’ In the unusual juxtapositions of metaphor and syntax and under, rather than over statement, the emotive impact is all the more intense. Such are the qualities of all the poems in this exceptional pamphlet. The final poem is about making sloe gin but each couplet says so much about the stages of one more comforting ritual; small acts, both sustaining and hard-won:
Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense
and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous,
reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn, and the hard push.
Zhou by Nick On, SmithIDoorstop, £6, 978-1-912196-79-1
Zhou is ‘one of the legendary Three Dynasties of Ancient China’ and ‘the tenth most common surname in mainland China’. The poems are topped and tailed by helpful notes and a prefatory photograph of (I think) Joe On, Nick On’s grandfather. The collection is dedicated to his memory and that of On’s father, Barry On. The prevailing question behind the work seems to be how does one place oneself within these fragments of history as son, grandson and poet? The first poem, ‘Yellow Bird’ provides a direct immersion into the grandfather’s story:
the yellow bird stops
on Navigation Street
where my Chinese grandfather
dropped dead … //
he left his laundry
and a medal
from Chaing Kai Shek.
On performs his excavations in formally diverse ways. ‘Fragments of Zhou’ is both narrative and lyrical. Italicised titles of each section appear as other fragments, of words or voices from a family member or family members, who try to piece together the story of the grandfather who was driven from China to England to escape the strictures of a tyrannical regime. As a boy, people sought Zou’s calligraphic skills even though he wrote was never of his own free will:
The boy is the hole in the mouth
the useless dragon of spring
who must learn the line –
the un-correctable line –
by the numbers and the lists.
(‘people came to him with letters’)
Eventually, the resolution:
I will learn just enough
to keep a ledger,
but not to lie in ink and cover facts in blood.
(‘we do not know why he left’)
In parts, the lines are brief, insistent and incantatory. The grandson places himself with his grandfather, fishing, ‘I sit with Zhou in his small boat … // The children cry for food. / Zhou’s nets have no fish.’ Zhou emigrates to provide a better life for his family, remaking himself as a conjurer, forging a different identity but never quite leaving the past behind:
his capacious trunk contained
his conjuring equipment
his flowing robes of silk
his old opinions
(‘he came as a conjurer’)
On’s method is palimpsestic. ‘Canto I’ and ‘Canto II’ recall Pound’s varied and frequently fragmentary Cantos. They include extracts from Chinese poet, Li Po, reinforcing a direct line through from the past to the present. On must have wrestled with the question of how to tell his stories and include portions of history without being too prosy and or too linear. Much can be done in two Cantos, to tell the story of “The Exceptional Zhou who became the ordinary Joe” (Canto II): short sections with short lines, or lists which provide other layers, like the story of Bi Cuide, who ‘signed the coolie contract’ and was shipped to Europe to labour for the war effort:
and learned in English – NO CHINESE
and wrote a letter home:
forget our quarrel the day I left
take care of our parents
when I return I will bring
money to support them
the rest of their days
and was set to clear the field of mines
and stepped on one.
Nick On moves to reflection on his father in last few poems. The linguistic gift is passed on from On’s grandfather to his father, the copywriter, and is taken up by the poet himself. This coalesces in ‘Ghosts’, a sequence of six poems where On’s formal virtuosity is showcased. The poems, moving in their specific details and their questionings, are again evidence of the indelible layering of generations.
The little fingers of my father’s father
bent inwards from the top joint
and so with his
and so with mine
and so with all our progeny.
Pam Thompson is a writer and lecturer based in Leicester. Her publications include The Japan Quiz ( Redbeck Press, 2009) and Show Date and Time (Smith | Doorstop, 2006) and Strange Fashion( Pindrop Press, 2017). Pam has a PhD in Creative Writing and is one of the organisers of Word!, a spoken-word night at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. She is a 2019 Hawthornden Fellow.