Malcolm Carson: The Where And When • Nancy Mattson: Vision on Platform • Carol Coates: The Stories They Told Her • Kate Behrens: Penumbra • Jean Watkins: Precarious Lives • P.W. Bridgman: A Lamb • Patrick Lodge: Remarkable Occurences • Ian Humphreys: Zebra • Peadar O’Donoghue: The Death of Poetry • Richard Williams: Landings • Polly Roberts: Grieving with the Animals
Peter Riley: Pennine Tales & Hushings • John Foggin: Dark Watchers • Jane Lovell: This Tilting Earth • Dennis Tomlinson: Sleepless Nights • Rosie Johnston: Six-Count Jive • Colin Pink & Daniel Goodwin (artist): The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’s Lament
Neil Leadbeater • Carla Scanaro • Robin Thomas • Edmund Prestwich • Neil Fulwood • Sydney Whiteside • Daniel Marshall • David Hackbridge Johnson Ian Parks • Sara James • Colin Pink • Fiona Sinclair • Rennie Halstead •Rodney Wood
Malcolm Carson’s The Where And When reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
The Where And When by Malcolm Carson. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1912524310
Some books surprise and this one is no exception. Whether he is writing about an exchange of words in a Grimsby fish shop that trigger unexpectedly an account of the journeys of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a romantic relationship that is described in terms of a tennis match or the hushed wonder of discovering great crested newts under a lifted log, Malcolm Carson has a way of enthralling us with his delivery.
Born in Cleethorpes, Carson moved to Belfast with his family before returning to his native Lincolnshire taking jobs as an auctioneer and a farm labourer. He studied English at Nottingham University and then taught in colleges and universities. He now lives in Carlisle, Cumbria. ‘The Where And When’ is his fourth collection from Shoestring and is in memory of his brother, Timothy Joseph Carson.
The cover design is all about family and football. These concerns are mirrored in ‘Autographs’ which is ‘not so much [about] the signatures / but more the where and when’ for Carson likes to invest his poems with a sense of time and place. ‘Autographs’ is a kind of potted history of encounters through life, where descriptions of some of the signatures are quite telling: ‘my dad’s signed off like a prescription.’ This poem, with its link to the title and book cover, is placed about halfway through the collection and acts as the pivot to what has gone before and what comes after.
Taken as a whole, this collection of forty-four poems covers a wide range of subjects. With the exception of the sequence of poems that cover the four points of the compass, they are not grouped in any apparent order which means that they have the advantage of offering the reader the luxury of constantly experiencing a consistent degree of variety in terms of subject, tone and expression. Poems about the natural world are interspersed with poems about family and poems with specific literary allusions are juxtaposed with poems from places further afield. This display of eclectic interests is refreshing, especially when it is served up with Carson’s brand of wry humour which is amply demonstrated in poems such as ‘A Rural Symposium,’ ‘Deuce,’ and ‘Lincolnshire Orchids.’
The nature poems convey a sense of wonder and are atmospheric. The mere sight of butterflies, for example, can ‘trip remembrance’. Carson keeps a tight rein on his words. There are no rambling descriptions. What is said is just enough to convey the scene and this precision makes each piece all the more powerful in the telling:
How the robin sings
when day is stripped of light
and trees of leaves,
when boughs lace a sky
turned to ice.
Its clarity thrills
across an empty road,
while thrush and blackbird
hunker down, depressed.
Sing again, my beauty!
God knows we need you.
In ‘The Owl and George MacBeth’ Carson not only recalls MacBeth’s poem by quoting a line from it but also recalls the poet himself and his ‘too-soon death.’ In MacBeth’s poem, someone, perhaps a child, who is fascinated by owls creates a kind of spell to bring an owl into being. By the end of the poem he has become the owl. Carson weaves the same spell. It is almost as if he has become an owl himself when he writes ‘I stalked it / in the waking hours, ran through / an undergrowth, but off it skulked.’ His description of MacBeth giving a reading with his ‘round glasses’ also draws a parallel with the appearance of an owl’s face.
Carson’s use of wordplay comes to the fore in poems such as ‘The Importance of Elbows’ which begins in the classroom ‘in an age that seems the stuff of imagining’ but then transcends into the writer’s own imagining as he makes use of other terms that use the word ‘elbow’ to mean different things in order to demonstrate that the word itself has important connotations that go beyond a mere description of a part of the human anatomy:
Yet Belfast’s eligible elite were quite prepared
for employing elbows as they saw fit
to dispatch covetous rivals
for the match of choice, making sure
that they for one would not be out at elbow.
Others though gazed beyond the confines
of sound etiquette where careers
beckoned, giving the elbow to dependence.
‘Not That Godric’ with its reference to the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Malden’ imitates what we have left of the poem itself by opening with its suggestion of something that has gone before:
…forbeah – so Godric fled,
In the present context, this turns out to be the whole poem because Carson is here writing about the last line of the poem which is placed in its Old English original at the head of his poem. His short phrases, some alliterative, capture the flavour of Old English poetry.
Excursions into Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ – specifically, the character of Edgar – are related in several poems placed at random through the book, the last of which, ‘Edgar Revisits The Shore’ ends with a direct quote from Shakespeare’s play: ‘Ripeness is all.’ Each of the Edgar poems is written in the first person. In one of them, for example, Edgar addresses his chronicler:
Who are you who places me
in such odd circumstance,
in times incongruous to mine, allows me to speak in language
I couldn’t know?
and in another Edgar gives us his take on politicians:
I have seen them peeking out of holes, watching
if the land is clear before they utter
reckless things, draw back, and let the caterwauling
crowd take up their cry.
The sequence of poems on the four points of the compass are as pleasingly different from each other as the distance that lies between them. ‘East’ is grounded very firmly in the past tense. It is the place ‘where my life came up / slowly, uncertainly, in a seaside town.’ ‘West’, by contrast, is set in the present tense. Even though the mining villages are on ‘the wrong side of Lakeland beauty’, Carson feels at home in Cumbria and retains a special affection for the place:
Easy though to assume
that West is only where
the sun will set, or where
ambition fades. There’s something
to be said for being out
of sight, and simply getting on.
‘North’ is written in both the past and the present tense: once unknown, but now known territory. ‘South’ as in the phrase ‘down south’ is so far away, it is as remote as the south pole.
There is much to admire in this collection. Carson engages the reader with his variety and choice of subject matter and his finely crafted lines. ‘The Where And The When’ is worth returning to again and again.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages.
Nancy Mattson’s Vision on Platform 2 reviewed by Carla Scanaro
Vision on Platform 2 by Nancy Mattson. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1912524136
A collection of poems about memories, identity and making sense of being a woman, and an intellectual, are the compelling themes that Nancy Mattson explores in her new collection. She is Canadian with Finnish background, then moved to England for love and in love with the new environments she settled in. Her attentive observations and witty remarks develop in her verses, involving the reader in a journey through the Canadian landscape, Indigenous legends, metropolitan scenes and art. Her lines unravel in precise reasoning, sometimes ironic, other times sensual, and always captivating.
The collection is divided in three parts that are introduced by significant quotations which suggest the main thread of the poems of the section. The recollection of memories from childhood merge Indigenous mythology with voyages and life in the city:
Barefoot on a wide sandbar,
ankled in silt, flour gold,
mastodon bones puréed
by glaciers, I’m building
mudtowns with grandchildren
who capture minnows, float
canoe-leaves on the river
the Blackfoot people say
when God was a kid.
(‘Wading for Stones’)
Braids have purposes, they know
from the scalp, their source
that they will end
in flimsiness, a tail swish
as hair gives way
Life develops from a root of memories in an apparently orderly way ‘braided’ by ‘a steel/rat-tail’. But then there is an unexpected twist when the plaits dwindle and fade ‘like feather tips/ … //like the skirt of worn out/dancer, her ragged hems sodden/as she waded into the sea.’ Similar surprising angles are revealed in ‘Our House is called 5212’ where streets have numbers, which are less attractive than names like ‘Pine Lane’ or ‘Poplar Street’. The playground is a ravine where children pick up choke berries that taste sour, kauhea (awful) her mother says in Finnish. Eating them is a sort of test the children inflict on each other to be sure they will cope with the harsh environment or the dark side of life. This is revealed in the ‘black numbers’ tattooed on a neighbour’s arm and in ‘the photos of people’s bodies//piled up or stacked in rows on the ground/or in wagons.’
Reflecting on slow rivers, the poet looks for answers to the meaning of life:
Shallow and frivolous, braided rivers
spread and splay, beguiling me
flaunting uncountable channels
like floozies or boozers, long hair in tangles
silk robes floating open to negligées
gathering buttered crumbs on thighs
Lazy rivers have the leisure given them
by wide plains, the space to deposit their silt
like swept lines of sawdust in a gymnasium
Braided rivers say we have no need
to choose between water and ground
we can simply meander
(‘In Praise of Lazy Rivers’)
The rivers slow down, take their space, dwell, find their course unhurried. It is a wise conclusion that seems to be attained in a maturity that is both disillusioned and hopeful.
An alternative space, introduced by the famous lines from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s ‘Dark Pines under Water’, is investigated in the second section. It is an internal journey that speaks different voices such as characters of Finnish legends, an injured woodman, an abused woman, the poet’s Finnish grandmother and figures from Indigenous totems. Mattson shows her versatility in the use of different structures that surprise and intrigue the reader:
Meet me at the medieval bridge
where a red bull flies and grins, a violin
floats above canals and cobbled mazes
where dancers clap and horses draw carriages
full of wedding guests and flowers.
(‘Winter Anniversary in Bruges’)
You Asked God for a Dream
but He gave it to me: a baby spoke
in sentences, articulate and serious.
Only 15 months old but already a charmer
unaware of her beauty and power,
she opened her rosebud lips,
revealed the tips of her baby teeth
and delivered a disquisition to her mum.
(‘You Asked God for a Dream’)
Poetry’s all very well
but it rhymes and scans, its lines
strap you into carved Imperial chairs, tie you
to the headboard of a four-poster bed. What I need
is words that never sleep, a futuristic babble, glossolalia
ancient words that only unborn babies understand, pure sound.
(‘Drinking at the Stray Dog Cabaret’)
The lines reflect the voices of the poems in the skilful use of enjambments that unravel flawless reasoning, soaring in passion in the love poem, visionary in the dream and apparently unflinchingly rational in the Russian avant-garde discourse. This shows the well-read quality of Mattson’s poetry that combines life experience and intellectual knowledge, sophisticated words and colloquial language as in ‘Sunday Morning in Bergamo with Damon’:
My uncle told me of soldiers
picked off as they crept from trenches,
cut down as they ran in the wrong
uniforms, clotted with mud.
The poem echoes Andrew Marvell’s ‘Damon the Mower’ in a parodic way where Juliana, the bride, ‘gets to lie in bed/while I’m sweating and swearing,’ and the protagonist pointlessly tries to clean the garden and the grotto his uncle left him.
Irony is displayed in the poem that gives the title to the collection, in which the ‘vision’ of seven nuns in black attire on platform 2 under the sign ‘Seven Sisters’, an over ground railway station in London, inspires witty verses:
Above their heads the sign ‘Seven Sisters’
in ordinary railway font, sans serif upper case,
a photo-opportunity from heaven, a miracle
for all commuters save the nuns, their eyes
on bibles or fingers on beads. They didn’t know
that a Hackney cousin of Robert Doisneau
had captured them forever on his smartphone,
(‘Vision on Platform 2’)
A sense of celebration is in the poems connected to food: ‘Canadian Apple Elegy, or Looking back to Adanac’ and ‘Feast’. The Adanac apples (the name is Canada spelled backwards) are grown in Ontario and Saskatchewan ‘shipped around the world/in wooden crates adorned with painted/Rockies, grizzlies, Mounties, moose.’ Remembering them, the poet humorously and nostalgically goes back to her land rooted in the names of the apples: ‘Adanac, Cabashea, Fallawater, Grimes/Pomme Grise, Qinte, Northern Spy …’. Thus, language evokes, connects and shapes identities.
‘Feast’, the final poem of the collection, celebrates the blessing of the harvest in a real and in a symbolic way. It is a range of products from the earth and from nature as well as a ‘harvest’ of memories acknowledged and accepted in their richness and diversity:
For the Christmas feast: spice and bite
(grace fat gold leaf)
For sweetness on tooth and tongue
(breathe in breathe out)
For the soothness of Amen
Mattson concludes her collection opening up to life that comprehends some sure referents as well as unpredictable shifting sides. She describes her views in impeccable lines that always surprise the reader with witty language and engaging themes.
Carla Scarano obtained her Degree of Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. She self-published a poetry pamphlet, A Winding Road, and is working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood at the University of Reading. She and Keith Lander won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 with translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/
Carol Coates’s The Stories They Told Her reviewed by Robin Thomas
The Stories They Told Her by Carol Coates. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1912524365
Carole Coates’s The Stories They Told Her is one of three recent fictions – Robin Robertson’s The Long Take and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic – on the subject of violence and war from the perspective of ordinary folk (Robertson’s Walker is an ordinary soldier). Each is vigorous and visceral (perhaps reflecting the fact that while war and violence have always been with us, only in recent times have they become readily visible to all of us). What is different about The Stories They Told Her is that the events are seen through the eyes of a child.
For the child, and as adults tell her, troops are ‘giants’, propaganda leaflets dropped by aircraft are ‘letters’ saying ‘they want to be friends with us’. Shells and bombs are ‘noisy neighbours, the crash-bang boys’. Soldiers don’t steal, rather they ‘[eat] all the soap’.
This kind of language serves several functions: it’s pitched at a level a child can understand; it attempts to protect the child from reality; it serves to realistically render to the reader the mind of a child and at the same time point up the relentless horror of war by drawing attention to one of its most vulnerable and innocent potential victims; it puts the reader into the child’s state of unknowing so that the reader is left baffled just as any of us might be in the middle of the swirling torrents of war. Here is the child trying to make sense of it:
The giant’s gone south … which is like a story but not really one. She’s heard his steps and shouts in the air. All that noise, and look at the mess he’s made.
and imposing her own understanding on events, ‘they’ll be so dirty’ she thinks of the occupants of a car being used to evacuate them ‘moving very slowly full of babies and a coal cart’.
In addition to the unnamed child, the other main character, in the uncommented upon absence of the parents, is the grandmother, who willingly stands in loco parentis and is the final barrier between the child and disaster . The grandmother represents humanity at its best amongst it at its worst. She does her best to feed, protect, keep clean and reassure the child: nothing to worry about she says of an air raid siren; she takes the child to church even though the roof has been destroyed by bombing and the seats are covered in dust and glass; she bathes the child though there is no soap. One thinks of Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate ‘Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness’.
The story is told in a series of compact tableaux and brief narratives (titles are frequently used to supply key information which is not repeated elsewhere in the text). The present tense is used throughout, imparting a sense of immediacy. The story is set in an unnamed country, bounded only by ‘the north’ and ‘the south’, an ‘everycountry’.
This is a harrowing book: the ever encroaching violence, the uncomprehending witness of the child, the destruction of civil society, the way some take advantage of concomitant opportunities; in particular the ultimate disappearance of the grandmother and her replacement by her paedophile brother, all told in matter of fact, simplified and euphemistic language. The reader might hope for a happy outcome, but in Grossman’s terms, it’s the ‘great evil’ which is victorious.
Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. He has had poems published in a number of journals including Agenda, Envoi, Orbis,
Brittle Star, Poetry Salzburg, Poetry Scotland, Pennine Platform, Stand, Rialto and The Interpreters House. His pamphlet A Fury of Yellow was published by Eyewear in November 2016. His collection Momentary Turmoil was published by Cinnamon Press in 2018.
Kate Behrens’s Penumbra reviewed by Tom Phillips
Penumbra by Kate Behrens. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-46-3
Following its well-received predecessors, 2012’s The Beholder and 2016’s Man with Bombe Alaska (both also from Two Rivers Press), Penumbra is replete with the vivid, sometimes startling imagery, unexpected linguistic shifts and carefully patterned verbal dynamics which prompted Adam Piette to describe Behrens’ second book as ‘a haunting, emotionally fraught and entrancing collection.’ Here, for example, is the concluding poem of the first of the latest book’s five sections in its entirety:
AEROPLANE TRAILS AT DUSK
Nobody stands under those three lines.
One’s more a graze: static, orange, angled
strangely to the others. All enclose
us as we once were, and pared down
to fantastic optimism; the moon
we drew, slowly.
That ‘dusk’ in the title, of course, immediately puts us in the kind of penumbral half-light which shadows many of the poems in the collection, but any sense of this being a relatively simple response to the sight of contrails in the evening sky – with all the associations of travel and transience this image might conventionally conjure – is immediately tilted askew by the ambiguities spinning off that ostensibly straightforward opening line. On the one hand, of course, it’s probably true that nobody can really be said to be standing directly under the vaporous traces of high-flying aircraft. And, even if we allow ‘stands under’ a more approximate meaning, it’s also entirely possible that the poet is on her own or at least can’t see anybody else whilst looking at them herself. Then again, perhaps, she is an aeroplane looking down on the trails, rather than standing under them. Or is this simply a paradox – because if nobody at all is standing under or looking up at the trails, who is writing the poem? And who are the ‘we’ who make an appearance only a few lines later?
This, then, is one tiny example of how Behrens successfully engages in ‘making strange’ the apparently ordinary and in opening up ways to explore the emotional hinterlands – or indeed penumbras – surrounding often minutely observed details. Here, too, is a sonic precision – the sequence of sounds in ‘stands’, ‘graze’, ‘static’, ‘orange’, ‘angled’, strangely’, ‘enclose’, for example – and a capacity for deft and telling phrase-making which generates new energies around otherwise over-used or somewhat lifeless words like that ‘fantastic’ in ‘pared down/to fantastic optimism’.
In fact, ‘pared down’ is itself an indicator of Behrens’ aesthetic. The poems in Penumbra are brief (although not always so brief as the poem cited above), taut and written with an unfaltering economy which at the same time doesn’t exclude verbal exuberance: ‘I almost trip; riff-raff/tipped, punch drunk with death,/he tumbles out’ (‘Pigeon’) or ‘Dama dama: the human drama’ (‘Fallow Deer at Stonor’: dama dama being the Latin name for the eponymous deer as well as a distant echo of, perhaps, ‘dada’ and the ‘DA’s towards the end of ‘The Waste Land’).
Words and phrases we’d use in other forms of language-game to clarify, explain or merely join together disparate units of meaning don’t intrude, their absence and the resultant paratactical juxtapositions simultaneously serving to drive the poems forward, make the ‘making strange’ all the stranger and providing us with spaces – or, more accurately, gaps – by means of which we can engage with the poem and its penumbra or what I’ve called its emotional hinterland.
For a book called Penumbra, in fact, much of its contents are unusually sharp and vibrant. Yes, these poems are certainly overshadowed by loss and grief, by isolation and violence (the natural world here often has a Hughesian or Oswaldian ferocity to it – as exemplified in the line: ‘Unravelling un-souled guts/is rabbit machinery outed by kites’ from ‘On the Edge of the Field’). At the same time, however, many of the poems remind us that a penumbra is neither total darkness (the poems set at night are notable for their references to the splashes and bursts of light which counterpoint the darkness) nor abruptly sectioned from the unshadowed light beyond it. A penumbra, in short, is a liminal or Janus-like state – one can look inwards towards the deeper shadow and its cause or outwards towards the spaces beyond its margins – as, indeed, Behrens does in the poems placed in the later sections of the book, such as ‘Two Writers Walking’, ‘Girl on Motorway Bus’ and ‘From Watlington Hill’.
Never less than accomplished, never less than intriguing, the poems in Penumbra exhibit the kind of empirical and aesthetic care which distinguishes the best of the contemporary poetry written in the tradition that’s taken William Carlos Williams’ infamous remark ‘no ideas but in things’ as one of its key starting points. Some perhaps would take Behrens’ writerly tactics as essentially surrealist (‘blue pavements’ etc), but, looked at more closely, hers are, in fact, much closer to the strategies of realism – only a realism turned on the unique psychological and emotional experiences of the individual. As she writes in ‘Dead Tree Amongst Memorials’, her poems hang ‘like small banners, like meanings/allowed to drift towards dying/and reform.’
Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and lecturer currently living in Sophia. He is the founding editor of the annual journal Balkan Poetry Today, publishes Colourful Star, a weekly blog with the painter Marina Shiderova and was a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House in August 2016. He has published Recreation Ground, a collection of poems in English Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a bilingual collection of poems he wrote in Bulgarian and then translated into English.
Jean Watkins’s Precarious Lives reviewed by James Roderick Burns
Precarious Lives by Jean Watkins. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-41-8
Precarious Lives is a book of contradictions. On the one hand bristling with energy and commitment, fresh perspectives on the issues of the day – climate change, the migrant crisis, cultural appropriation – laid out in bold, vivid language; on the other occasionally losing steam, dropping focus or even sliding into cliché. This Jekyll-and-Hyde character occurs throughout, often within the same poem, and can make for a frustrating – if stimulating – read.
Take the issue of climate change. Watkins is an effortless poet of nature, and the intimate, surprising details of the natural world suffuse every comer of the book, so the theme is fitting as well as urgent. ‘Wasps’ – ‘ton-up boys’ with ‘ hostile hum’ – demonstrate in sharp, plangent and witty ways the tragedy of our impact on the world. The poem meanders in a carefully-drunken concrete pattern around the page, as if to demonstrate the insects’ disorientation. Its conclusion is devastating:
xxWhere have they gone?
No more bicarb
xxon stings, dead bodies
xxxxon the window-sills,
xxxxxxno drunkards on windfall apples,
xxxxxxxxpot-holes in the plums,
xxxxxxno flight path
xxxxunder the soffit
xxpapery nests in the loft.
Note the ‘pot-holes’ and flight path’: far from coincidental aspects of disappearance, but included with the lightest of touches, and working to underscore the resonant loss of these delicate creatures as well as to condemn the authors of that loss.
Watkins is similarly skilful in a sequence of concrete poems about clouds, ‘Suffolk Skies’. Here the detail is sparing, but telling, the wit evident without ever veering into whimsy:
Cirrocumulus, too, has both an environmental and emotional impact:
(a) (mackerel) (sky) (seems) (so) (benign)
(an) (aerial) (spread) (of) (silver) (scales)
(but) (do) (not) (let) (its) (symmetry) (deceive)
(it) (is) (the) (mail-clad) (herald) (of) (a) (storm)
These are poems that joy and frolic in form, spinning tales of warning from tiny, precise details and the sweep of tone, built up line by line. For Watkins, too, can astonish by the word:
Life-water pulses through the gills,
fins fan pearl space shading to blue
stab the lawn, drag on elastic worms
(‘From the Kitchen Sink’)
She’d praise the girls who could project
the voice to resonate in their bony vaults
It is all the more surprising, then, when the poet tails away into dullness –’I expected eyes unfocused/not that gaze, blue violet –/the shock of it ran through me’ (‘Meeting Her Eyes’); cliché (‘our red raw hands’, ‘Fishwives’; ‘the pearl grey light’, ‘December Beechwood’; ‘Old men/still and inscrutable as the lizards sunning on town walls’, ‘San Gimignano’); or simply tired images which can feel almost phoned-in:
You have to imagine the wind
a cold spray slap in the face
waves level above you
salt smell canvas creak
clinking of rigging on mast
In a poem immediately adjacent to the old men/lizards, ‘In Tuscany’ (incidentally a cool, taut corrective to unthinking cultural absorption), Watkins wrestles the image back and boots it vigorously into the realm of originality:
We, mad dogs, walked out past walls
where lizards baked like cakes
This tendency to move away from supple, intricate verse into something more didactic seems to occur most often when the poet has a ‘big message’ to convey. The final stanza of a villanelle, ‘Warming’, is typical:
Are humans fated, like the dinosaur,
to face extinction in a vast meltdown?
Or the conclusion to ‘Our Dream’, a tale of desperate migrants making the Mediterranean crossing and losing a child:
So now we’re in a camp, a dreary life,
long queue for food, not knowing when we’ll leave,
my mother sick, for cholera is rife –
but still we have our dream, we still believe.
It is as though in seeking to make her arguments – with which no one could argue – Watkins loses sight of the medium, and its essential material, language, a material she handles so deftly elsewhere, in favour of underlining Points to Take Away. As when lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Inversnaid’ (‘What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left’) were carved into the concrete wall of the new Scottish Parliament building, poems raising urgent attention to an issue work best when the message is subordinate to the poetry.
Compare the opening of ‘After Sonnet 64, Shakespeare’ to that of ‘The Ruined House, John Sell Cotman; c. 1807-10’:
When I have seen how we have poisoned seas
with micro-plastics never to decay;
scarred landscapes, nuclear waste, the death of trees,
how hives collapse, song thrushes fall away.
What made him chose this half-abandoned house –
it leans, walls sag, the gable held together by a board.
End wall collapsed, supported by the timber frame,
it stands wide open to the weather and our gaze.
While both are poems, the first feels somewhat laboured, groaning under its message and the need to communicate. The second is lithe, evocative, painting the kind of decay the world has always witnessed and which is far preferable to the galloping destruction of industrial society. That both are the work of the same poet is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, and sums up the strange achievement of the collection as a whole.
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The North and The Scotsman. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.
P.W. Bridgman’s A Lamb reviewed by James W. Wood
A Lamb by P.W. Bridgman. CAN$23.95. Ekstasis Editions. ISBN: 978-1771712736 http://www.ekstasiseditions.com/
Modern poetry in English might soon be nothing more than to an expression of identity, race, and orientation, such is the current of interest in these aspects of any new poet’s work. The recent award of the UK Laureateship to Simon Armitage was greeted on social media with a “#poetrysowhite” protest, just one of several recent campaigns against various forms of perceived privilege. Such campaigns risk policing creativity to the point where artists write to avoid controversy – hardly a happy situation in any medium, let alone one as arcane and recherché as modern poetry.
Given this context, it’s refreshing to discover in the work of P.W. Bridgman a poet informed by so many different traditions that he resists characterisation – a resistance amplified by the poet’s use of a pseudonym. Even better, this poet emerges in transition from long experience as a prose writer, combining their knowledge of poetry with subtle, understated humour and the imaginative capacity to combine what Yeats described as “antimonies”, those apparent paradoxes of existence life offers us.
Bridgman’s technical achievement is to marry the narrative element of the short story with compression and imagery characteristic of poetry. If at times this makes his poems feel like chopped prose, then the capacity to deliver an emotional punch helps many of these pieces pass A.E.Housman’s “hair test” – that visceral response in a reader, expressed for Housman in the hackles rising, which tells them what they are reading really is poetry.
The best example of this in A Lamb, and perhaps the best poem in the volume, is “No Writers Were Harmed in the Making of This Whiskey”, in which Bridgman’s way with a story, his eye for telling detail and the compression of emotion and image, or within image, which is so essential to poetry combine to poignant effect:
With a mighty effort he reaches gamely for it –
His little diapered waist teetering unsteadily
On the fulcrum of the toilet’s white rim
Until gravity and the laws of physics that
He hasn’t learned to obey yet quickly combine
To pass judgement on his strategy and condemn him.
This passage also evinces the subtle music at work in many of these poems, rhyme deployed delicately and irregularly to emphasise meaning, dental consonants working in the second and third lines to convey the unsteadiness of the over-reaching infant. Bridgman’s humour, of which there is a welcome abundance, is dark, his vision tragi-comic – titles such as “I’ve asked the Iscariots Over for a Potluck and a Game of Bridge”, saying more about his approach than volumes of critical exegisis ever could.
If compression and imagery are central to poetry so, too, is music. From the Greeks onwards, poetry has been seen as the mother of all muses precisely because of that magical blend of the visual and the musical, the emotional and the rational, which the best verse affords us. That Bridgman is technically accomplished is not in doubt; poems such as “Vilanelle Moderne”, or, “I Am Only Temporarily a Tie Salesman” show his comfort with conventional forms. If there are pieces in this book that might benefit from closer attention to form, such as “Carrying On After the Carrying On”, or “Out of the Bar and Into the Black Belfast Night”, then that does not detract from the reader’s enjoyment of these pieces as they stand – simply that further shaping might help engrave their meaning in memory, as only the right music, images and metre can.
It’s interesting to note the thematic similarities between A Lamb and Bridgman’s 2013 book of short stories, the aptly-titled “Standing At An Angle To My Age”: memories of his childhood in Ontario, including his sexual awakening; his family’s cultural background in Northern Ireland and Scotland; and his profound love and respect for a wide range of cultures are all in evidence here, as in the former volume. When a first collection appears from such an accomplished writer with a long publication record to their credit, it’s wrong to speak of “promise”: and yet one can’t help but look forward to what’s next from a writer as familiar as Bridgman with diversity in the truest sense: wide ranging in his subjects, catholic in his tastes, and with a sharp eye for the witty aside that makes one think of a darker, funnier version of the American master Billy Collins.
James W. Wood is A Scottish poet who lives with his wife and son in Canada. His collection, Building A Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989 – 2019 , is published by the High Window Press and is available by following the link.
Patrick Lodge’s Remarkable Occurences reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Remarkable Occurences by Patrick Lodge. £12. Valley press. ISBN: 978-1912436279
In Remarkable Occurrences, Patrick Lodge’s third collection, the title relates to Captain Cook’s first voyage to the South Seas on the Endeavour, the basis for the sequence of poems forming the second part of the book, while the first is made up of a range of different poems that respond with alert sensitivity to a variety of twenty-first century experiences.
The wide-ranging nature of the subject matter has led the poet to provide helpful notes for both sections. I was particularly grateful for these in the Captain Cook section. Some poems in the first section seemed too obviously ‘occasional’ but many were powerful and moving. In ‘wonderland’ the horrors of austerity are presented in unblinking detail:
Two teenage girls pass by. One pushes
a pushchair, her festive headband wobbles;
a star blinks wanly, the other is lost forever.
I can’t get into Christmas no more, she says.
Her friend wears a stained T-shirt, “wonderland”
in fierce day-glo fights the gloom. No, she says,
It’s all crap and the food bank had no chipolatas.
‘Anaiya’ is a more personal poem welcoming the birth of a child. The contrast between the new baby and the poet’s journey towards old age and death is presented with unsentimental wit:
I’ll take my leave in old pajamas
or a baggy hospital gown, knowing less
than you do now and who knows
what draw I’ll be at the final curtain.
The movement from ‘knowing’ to ‘knows’ is skilfully handled as is the pun on ‘draw’ and the ironic reference to Sinatra’s My Way, ‘the final curtain’. The language moves with ease from the vernacular ‘it’s a drag’ to the scientific, ‘a million neural connections a second.’ The same alertness to language and its multi-layered connotations is evident in ‘Light Up, Caravaggio’. He manages to convey the quality of light in Caravaggio’s work and the intensity of his triptych painting without subscribing to the religious belief that inspired it. Indeed, the deliberately demotic language expresses the awkwardness non-believers experience in sacred places:
Paul, like us falls flat on his way
to righteousness. The world’s a horse’s ass
blocking the divine light that poked
out his eyes. He’s shafted; no reason in it.
Lodge obstinately resists the religious message of place and painting: ‘Unaltered souls, we’re out of this prison/ of devout darkness sharpish.’ Like Larkin, he is wrestling with our Christian legacy, but without Larkin’s ‘awkward reverence’.
‘Eastern Ghouta’, a shocking poem in its contrast of beauty and horror, presents the perspective of a Syrian woman expecting the imminent arrival of enemy soldiers. The use of third person creates a degree of distance between writer and the persona of the poem. Exploring the viewpoints of others can be fruitful but risks making overweening assumptions and appropriations.
This issue recurs in the second, section, a collection of poems or ‘songs’ in the voices of people and places connected to Cook’s voyage on the Endeavour. Lodge gives a voice to George Dorlton, a black servant, and to the indigenous peoples encountered by the expedition. The poet rescues individuals history has neglected. He makes skilful play with dark and light as he presents Dorlton’s life and death from hypothermia: ‘Now laid out in the snow, a shade cast/by no man.’ Even so, I have a lingering uneasiness about speaking for someone whose experience is so totally different. The ‘Song of Tupaia’ a high-ranking Maori who acted as an intermediary between the ship and the Maori tribes, takes a different approach. Here, the poet tells us what happened and allows readers to make their own judgement. However, perhaps the poem sinks under the weight of too much detail and while we tut in pity at what befell this ‘sage, an initiator into rituals, into lore’ we do not feel imaginatively close to him. The lament which ends the poem poses unanswerable questions, ‘Who sings for you, Tupaia? Who dances for you?/ Where are you going, Tupaia…’ but is perhaps too protracted. In other poems marking stages in the journey, the voice alternates between that of the crew and the indigenous people they meet. In ‘Song of the First Contact’ Lodge uses Maori tradition and belief to present a fresh and initially entertaining perspective on the arrival of the white men:
Bright colours, plumage,
in human shapes;
backwards, they come on
This quickly gives way to uncomprehending horror:
Te Maro raises a spear
in guarded welcome.
A stick is raised back;
it roars, he falls…
The poet is largely successful in imagining this experience from an alien perspective. Leaving aside the issue of cultural appropriation, we might ask why the poet has undertaken this project and what is its value. Such an exploration of history can only work if it speaks to our own time. Remarkable Occurrences achieves this by recovering Cook’s voyage and bringing it to life so that we recognise injustices of the past and reflect with greater understanding on our post-colonial present.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but has lived in Edinburgh, London and now in Oxford. Shehave published three books, three pamphlets and had poems in anthologies and magazines.
Ian Humphreys’ Zebra reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
Zebra by Ian Humphreys. £9.99. Nine Arches Press. ISBN: 978-1911027706
Ian Humphreys’ Zebra has come out to a deluge of praise and it’s easy to see why. Above all this book leaves you with the impression of his uninhibited zest for life, his high spirits, humour and resilience. Singing what it was to be gay and of mixed race in the eighties, he can briefly touch rueful, even bitter notes, but they’re soon absorbed in the prevailing exuberance. This even applies to two elegies which I suspect may be for people who died of AIDs. The first of these, ‘Clear-out’, is grim in its setting and prevailing imagery but celebrates the dead man’s art in a way that makes it also a celebration of his courage and whole-heartedness:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe removal man squelches
down the path to the van face-hugging a huge red canvas.
Tommo’s eyes burned with pride when he told me
he’d mixed in his own blood with the acrylic paint.
The poem ends with what strikes me as an implicit metaphor for independence and energetic self-affirmation in the face of adversity:
skies, a child rumbles past, pulling his own pushchair.
The other of these two elegies, the fine ‘Stickleback’, expresses defiance in a more obvious way with its reference to a warrior’s funeral, but makes it lyrically beautiful. After describing the pain of his subject’s last two years Humphreys ends:
I’m with you on the beach
near the old quarry. Sunrise
twists waves into flames, a warrior’s pyre.
You swim in light, dive
into the salt-sting of morning.
Admittedly death by AIDs and the shame it brought in the eighties form the theme of the book’s last poem, ‘Return of the discotheque dancers’. Sadness at the sheer finality of death is sharpened by the thought that the people the poem addresses missed both the medical advances that would have saved their lives and the relative sexual enlightenment of our own times. My father used to say that ‘too late’ were the saddest words in the English language. It’s fitting that such reflection should come at the end of the book. There, it counterpoints the prevailing exuberance without undermining it.
Both the sadness and the celebration will have particular force for members of the gay community. However, we can all take pleasure in Humphreys’ celebration of courage, meeting prejudice and adversity with glitter, humour and light, and can enjoy the exuberance of his language, the sharpness of his wit, his sensuous alertness, his gift for metaphor and the animation of his style. His writing seems to focus on verbs to an unusual degree and it’s striking how often it’s the verb that detonates the charge in his metaphors.
Describing a woman in a train carriage:
A woman in a striped a acrylic blouse
A man on the Rochdale Canal towpath carrying what at first seems to be an electric guitar:
As he floats into focus, his guitar
xxxxxxxtransmutes into a swan.
A cow breaking out of her electric-fenced field (addressed as ‘you’):
xxxxthe grass on the other side is emerald green
and you ease into the long grind of breakfast. Later,
slumped, restocked and flanked by horseflies, you wait
for the gentle scratch of rain. Blink at a dry-stone wall.
Here, description is mostly achieved by the past participles of verbs: ‘slumped’, ‘restocked’, ‘flanked’ and the nouns ‘grind’ and ‘scratch’ are nouns referring to actions.
Finally, a woman summoning a cab in New York:
Outside P. J. Clarke’s a woman’s whistle
lassos a yellow cab, hoists it kerbside.
Jean Sprackland, quoted on the back cover, says the material is often emotionally risky but that Humphreys’ confidence with form enables him to control it. No doubt that comes into it, but I think the question of confidence goes deeper, that it reflects the poet’s enviably strong and confident sense of who he is and what he thinks. This enables him to draw strength from the mixed heritage and sense of otherness that might have brought vulnerability and uncertainty to a different personality. I was struck by the deft humour and detachment with which he skewers the memory of a homophobic teacher:
Mr Brigham assured us
he had nothing against
they stink of shit because
when you deal in shit
you stink of shit. That
was the first and only time
a teacher at my school
acknowledged the existence
of gay people so I suppose
in that respect Mr Brigham
was ahead of the curve.
I’d like to quote one other short poem, this time reflecting Humphreys’ Chinese heritage, to illustrate his fine sense of comic timing and also what I think is a special gift of his position between cultures, the ability to shift adroitly between perspectives
DIM SUM DECORUM
She who pours tea
for her elders
will see a thousand moons.
He who takes
the last prawn dumpling
if anyone else wants it,
will see stars.
In short, I found Zebra very easy to get into, moving, thought-provoking and at the same time full of sheer fun. It didn’t seem to me that there were many lines in it that had been carved into the kind of memorable shape that makes them sing in the head, linger in the imagination and radiate a force beyond that of paraphrasable meaning but I thought most of its poems showed a fine sense of form and timing on the larger scale and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye.
Peadar O’Donoghue’s The Death of Poetry reviewed by Neil Fulwood
The Death of Poetry by Peadar O’Donoghue. £10.00. Poetry Bus Press. ISBN 978-0-9576903-7-0
For the most part, reading a poetry collection feels like reading a poetry collection. Which might sound like a stunningly obvious thing to say, but bear with me. Pick up your average poetry collection, start reading it, and you’ll get 50 or 60 pages of work that might stimulate you intellectually, move you emotionally or do neither; it might amuse you, bemuse you or just plain bore you. Read enough contemporary poetry, particularly with a reviewer’s hat on, and a sense of ‘much of a muchness’ can settle on you with the weary inevitably of ants and midges turning up at a summer picnic. Read the stuff voraciously and in significant amounts and it’s easy to form the impression that many poets produce safe, unchallenging manuscripts designed to gel with publishers’ house styles. Peadar O’Donoghue has a beef with such poets, and with the insular and cliquey poetry establishment that not only permits but rewards such behaviours.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was talking about how, much of the time, reading poetry feels like reading poetry. In the same way that reading genre fiction comforts and coddles you with a specific set of narrative tropes. Crime fiction, for instance. Outside of poetry, crime fiction accounts for most of the hundred or so books I read each year. And I enjoy it. But a point can easily be reached where it all becomes interchangeable. P.J. Tracy, James Patterson, David Baldacci … all much of a muchness. Then you pick up a James Ellroy and it’s like you’ve had your synapses shoved into an electrical socket and nitroglycerin injected into your blood stream. It’s visceral and unflinching and it goes to some pretty dark places. And by God you feel alive as you read it.
Reading Peadar O’Donoghue’s The Death of Poetry is less like reading a poetry collection than sticking on a punk album in the car and cranking the volume and driving round the back streets of your home town at three times the legal limit with an open can of beer in your hand and zero fucks given if the cops pull you over. It’s less like reading a poetry collection than going to a Sleaford Mods gig and feeling sorely tempted to quote a tranche of their lyrics at the office team meeting tomorrow. It’s less like reading a poetry collection than sitting in a pub with a mate and getting progressively drunker and progressively louder and using choice language as you put the world to rights, the staff and the other patrons periodically shooting dirty looks at you but nobody actually coming over and making something of it.
The Death of Poetry pretty much takes its jacket off during the acknowledgments page and asks the poetry establishment to step outside: having thanked the virtuous, O’Donoghue rounds on the less so, lambasting ‘all the … editors, poets, and media types who … black-balled me or our magazine [and] never failed to surprise and disappoint me in so many shocking and fundamental ways’. To further the pub analogy in the last paragraph, I strongly suspect that the poetry establishment’s response will be to shuffle further into a tight circle around its table and pretend it hasn’t seen or heard anything even as it drinks up a bit faster and thinks about going somewhere else.
O’Donoghue addresses establishment clannishness in ‘The C Words’, a poem short and blunt enough to merit quoting in full:
See You Next Tuesday.
(Bring a second.)
He follows it up with a sequel (several of the poems in this book have sequels, while one presents as a triptych), ‘Caveat’, subtitled ‘More C Words’:
Beware the cheek
of the cheek of the same arse.
One nest of vipers is pretty much the same as another,
they may hiss a different tune …
O’Donoghue has some pithy words for Irish poetry in particular, made more caustic by invoking one of Ireland’s most famous sons. ‘The Death of Poetry part 657’ (subtitled ‘Irish Poetry, a Poet foresees its Death’) begins:
I know that it shall meet its fate
somewhere below the clouds above;
the poets I fight I do not hate
though they defile the one thing that I love …
He’s just as scathing about Irish politics. ‘Background info’, written in response to the Irish elections in 2016, opens with this litany:
God bless them, God bless them and
the inside pocket of their own trousers.
God bless us for turning out, and staying at home.
God bless the farmers, God bless the GAA.
Elsewhere, O’Donoghue sticks it to racists, fascists, intellectual snobs, the media, the “arty” crowd, the upwardly mobile, the Catholic church, performance poets and people who run workshops. But it’s not all venom and rolled-up sleeves. He writes with hard-earned pragmatism of ageing and the shadow of death, and when he looks back to his youth the results are lucid and avoid the easy pitfalls of nostalgia. But then again, anyone whose writing references The Clash, The Fall and X-Ray Spex is hardly likely to be a rose-tinted-glasses merchant.
Throughout, O’Donoghue utilises a style that makes virtues of accessibility and concision. Only two of the 50-odd poems spill onto a second page, while many are distilled into just a few lines. ‘Late Fragment’, a heartfelt homage to Raymond Carver, is a notably effective example of this technique. Like Carver, O’Donoghue’s writing comes directly from life, rather than a filtered and/or intellectualised concept of it, and the results are raw, outspoken and more than likely to get hauled off to the cells for anti-social behaviour. Contrary to the collection’s title, poetry isn’t dead, it’s just bolshy as all hell.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.
Richard Williams’s Landings reviewed by Sydney Whiteside
Landings by Richard Williams. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435690
In his new collection Landings, Richard Williams creates a nostalgic, tender, and thoughtful poetic portrait of his well-loved home of Portsmouth. The collection brims with history, emotion, and quiet reverence, letting the reader in on personal experiences and observations of the seaside town with an intimacy that feels like the sharing of stories between old friends. It’s as though something important and private is being revealed over the course of the text, causing the reader to wonder which local shop, historical moment, or stretch of coast they will become privy to next.
Williams experiments productively with form, shifting between more traditional poems comprised of recognisable stanzas and more unconventional, paragraph-like prose poems. One such piece is the brilliant and compelling ‘It was only his second ever day of being seven’. Williams shifts between a father reading the paper and the changing colours of his son’s gob-stopper candy, comparing the different tones to natural images, sweets, and sugary drinks. The poem subtly contrasts the anxieties of adult knowledge with the innocent curiosity of childhood, creating a winding, story-like piece that shrinks and compacts like the child’s sweet. It ends with the wonderful lines:
What colour do you want it to be? It can be any colour you
want. You decide.’ The boy opened his mouth and held the
small globe of sugar on the tip of his tongue. It was white, all
colours and no colour, like a ball of light at the beginning of
time. The boy tipped back his head, swallowed it whole.
Many poems in the collection contain a prominent sense of urgency. ‘Lighting up the chimenea’ is self-consciously aware of the passing of time and its consequences, opening with the invitation ‘So come on over, pull up a chair, / let us turn our backs on the dying of the sun’. Over wine and the glow of the fire, youth slowly replaces grey hairs, worry lines, and aging bodies. Williams firmly places the poem in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, describing ‘this Hampshire chalk, these rolling fields’. ‘Spice Island looking back’ navigates years of south England history, from spice traders and Vikings to shopping centres and chain restaurants. The poems are at once nostalgic for lost years and accepting of the present moment.
One of the collection’s biggest strengths is its ability to blend the old with the new. The epic title poem ‘Landings’ leaves Portsmouth to travel to places both foreign and mythical. The poem goes from Brussels and Paris to Mogadishu to the River Styx to the moon, pausing at each to contemplate time, mortality, and the ‘many stories that won’t now be told’. It combines contemporary commentary on foreign wars, climate change, and social media with the mythological, natural, and historical. The form is precise and measured, the language languid and lyrical.
‘Bird in hand’ also blends the historical with the contemporary, juxtaposing Portsmouth’s two FA Cup wins in 1939 and 2008. Williams shifts between descriptions of ‘Waiting for the blackout to end, / as if nothing we did really mattered, / as if watching was all that there was’ in the World War II-era match and ‘my daughters and I in our Pompey shirts: / the final whistle on a perfect day’ from the speaker’s own experience. By merging the two occasions, Williams brings context to the contemporary win and accesses the timeless, inexplicable importance that a moment of joy can hold. The speaker recognises this balance between the fleeting nature of this moment and its unyielding gravity, however, concluding by noting:
And here we are on the journey home,
brilliant colours will fade to none,
as the flags we carry are furled away.
Like Tommy Rowe at ninety-two
leaving all thoughts in the dark.
So drink to the presence of greatness,
for everything you do really matters.
Enjoy each of your victories.
Turn on the lights and sing out,
for living is all that there is.
Landings gracefully articulates anxieties about the future, though these fears are balanced by an uncompromising sense of hopefulness. Williams grounds philosophical musings in brilliant, concrete detail. He evokes the history and topography of Portsmouth with confidence and honesty. The poems in Landings champion the power of memory, uniquely and powerfully reimagining the intricate city Williams calls home.
Sydney Whiteside is from Navarre, Florida, and currently lives in Cardiff. She is in the final year of her English literature degree at Cardiff University and has been writing poetry throughout her time at university. She loves travelling throughout Wales and the UK and hopes to continue publishing her poems in journals and magazines.
Polly Roberts’s Grieving with the Animals reviewed by Daniel Marshall
Grieving with the Animals byPolly Roberts. £9. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435928
The Anthropocene poet, ecologically tuned to the grizzly death-throes of the planet, must attempt to discover some meaning in our current madness if they are to have any hope of reconciling the degeneracy that has allowed this to happen with a more enlightened outlook that goes some way to being part of the solution. Polly Robert’s debut poetry collection Grieving with the Animals published by Dempsey & Windle is such a book: authentic, earnestly moving, and aware of the tradition it belongs to. Polly writes an eco-poetry that evades the dangers Terry Gifford outlines in his book Pasotral:
‘The danger that green literature becomes didactic in a simplistic way is really a danger that it loses its power as art and becomes reductive propaganda or vague right on rhetoric. There is a point at which green literature can become a contemporary form of Leo Marx’s ‘sentimental pastoral’’. Polly doesn’t stray. The polish of the poems is contemporary but rooted in a tradition that utilizes archetype, dream, symbol, to give the natural world its importance. When a poem is archetypal, it becomes part of the unconscious, it is, as Northrop Frye explains, ‘a symbol which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience.’ In short, it becomes part of ‘poetry as a whole.’
Admittedly, if this were not a deeply personal collection, it might have less impact becoming solipsistic and limp. However, because it is personal, the use of archetype and symbol is not only grounded in the personal, but extends to the global through an interpretative, interactive reading. Polly is from Devon. These poems, when they move into the autobiographical, find Polly living on a houseboat, on the River Avon near Bristol. Carrying the world’s weight like an anchor, wrapped around her heart, she looks into the natural world for a metaphor to stave off the hurt from a tragic loss.
The collection is divided into twelve sections. Each page is used as breathing space, sometimes a single line’s gravity pulls us into orbit around its emotional weigh: the heaviness of the meaning, the grief of the poet, pulling the reader in as the poet is pulled down by grief. To countervail the grief, the poet turns to nature for culture, a crutch, to both discover meaning and to compensate for the loved one. In the natural world, the space to turn the urban into wild symbols, aids the articulation of grief. The opening section Animals in Communion foreshadows the theme of grief explored throughout:
I came home
to find him
Could do nothing.
Sat on the sofa
lost to the world.
I have some bad news
The terse lines build up the tension. There is an urban ennui to the action taking place. On the following page, centered, is the line ‘I’ve been seeing ghosts. Birds on water.’ a line that is repeated throughout the book. An anchor line, reminding both reader and poet of the implacable flux of life, the metonymy of the ghosts into birds, which is the change of the dead into constituent parts of atom, molecule, cell, reintegrated back into nature in death. Later, we discover these birds are ‘Two yellow wagtails’ that ‘float by on a log.’ A memory shared with someone who is now ‘light. Carbon released.’
The natural world is sometimes mystical, portentous, giving the poet an opportunity to foresee tragedy. Nature signals to the poet, if they have the interpretative ears to hear, and eyes to see, what will come:
The day before I received the news, two swans flew low
over my head. Their wings thrummed like a helicopter.
Eyes turned to watch the rescue vehicle, and instead saw
Time is squeezed. The swans and helicopter are analogous, the former a sign from the past, the latter, the event, the tragedy. We get them superimposed, as if grief has abolished time from the griever. The tragedy will force the poet into an interior world of archetypal symbols:
Returning to my boat, a shadow shifted on the river
bank. A furry creature –small, sleek – edged its way
through the grass, took a moment to drink, then slop,
The ‘shadow’ of the ‘furry creature’ is the grief that will haunt the poet, a grief that will submerge itself into dream and the ‘subconscious serial’, rising as these perception-events, in nature, taking on fresh meaning, becoming poetry. There will be, perhaps for the entire life of the poet, this oscillation back and forth between worldliness, and the submersion of self into the underbelly of existence. Apperception of this oscillation installs meaning into the world.
Without catharsis, without the essential, aestheticizing of experience, the challenge of processing grief becomes inexorable. The processing of personal grief through the discovery of symbols within the environment encourages the extension of metaphor to that of nature itself. Nature is never italicized, it is an existential nature, not a romantic pastoral nature; this is not a return to a natural world, the natural world is continuously present. These poems are ecological. If the poet is grieving with the animals, then the animal/human dichotomy is broken up. We become through archetypes, akin to one another in our emotional spectrum. The animals can as much grieve with us as we can grieve with them. This only makes sense if the poems are both personal and ecological, because our shared grief is the loss of our habitat. Therefore the lost loved one the poet grieves for, by dying & being reborn as something in nature, is something the poet can search for; in the section The Sea They Came from we discover:
If one looks to nature, they will find anything created by
man. Accordion bellows, helicopter propellers, flutes,
Where do I look to find you?
The subconscious is automatous. But the poet wants the sensations of the subconscious to rise, filtered by the subconscious mind, to aid the conscious self in remedying the ever-present, amorphous hurt. There are snatched moments of insight, where the poet alights on an answer:
That night, I dreamt the answer to the universe.
It was blue,
inside a conch shell. Spiralling
in and out of crystal moments.
In and out of images of the hospital bed,
and these dreams.
The ‘answer to the universe’, are understandably, a means to grasp the mysteries of life and death, which bring with it meaning. Perhaps the blue is emotion, perhaps it is the realization that life is tinged with pain. The conch shell’s spiral is the same downward motion as the shadow of the furry creature, they both move in the same direction, being symbolic of the poet’s own movement within. The egg here is a created safe-place, it is Kim Seung-hee’s dalgyal sokeui sheng (‘life within an egg’), a shell ‘for the sake of our life…as sturdy/as a wall that stands cold and/will never collapse’, full of the yolk of life, new generation. In this shell, the poet writes poems from an experience of loss, with all the multitude of considerations that attend this: memory, love, nature, self, experience, motion, grief; these poems hatch their attendant themes & we enter into a relationship with the poet. Later the poet will ask the question ‘Was the world all snail?…Will life be found inside?’ Suggesting that the invitation to vertiginously delve (think Yeats’ gyres) was always there; is always there & it can be discovered in numerous things.
The poems from In Conversation with You pair human response to grief with an animal, thus becoming animistic, mythic:
I caw like a crow.
I wail like an elephant.
I moan like a cow giving birth.
I yelp like a puppy.
I sniff like a mouse.
Words no longer speak for me.
Words and language are no longer accurate means of expressing that which is seemingly inexpressible. The poet has begun the metamorphosis into the animal, or rather, begun an aesthetic metamorphosis. The human and animal are distinguished by their means of communication, except in grief, where the expressiveness is onomatopoeic. There is poetry here and poetry has no trouble being the expressive medium of the animal. Grief becomes, ironically, organic through simile. Between the symbol and dream lucid episodes appear throughout, reminders that these processes start from very real, existential beginnings:
In and out of images of the hospital bed,
and the sensation of my body.
Every part alive.
Eyelids drawn back,
pupils darting and dilating.
Mind alert, ears open.
Chest stretched as it breathes
in and out of images of the hospital bed.
The hospital bed grounds us in an uncomfortable reality. It is the existential bed on which human fragility is cradled. Even in this most unlikely of places, the poet is able to forage hope that ‘The world is alive. Every colour, every shade, every blade, every beast.’
This is a book of hope. Out of oppressive grief comes the search for expression. Though this grief is shared with nature, it is only humans who articulate grief in a way that can be shared. This is why I take the personal trauma to be co-extensive with the ecological trauma taking place. It is to discover ‘universal tongues’, an indelible connection with ‘the trauma that keeps [us] human’ a journey into things as a journey into self, a journey underwater where ‘Grief momentarily slips away’. Maybe it’s time to grieve with, rather than for, the animals if we are to reverse our ecological impact. What Polly teaches us is that loss is similar between the example and the precept, so that microcosmic examples refer to macrocosmic precepts: the personal loss is the global loss.
Daniel Marshall has recently returned to England from Korea. He is currently studying for a MA in English & Environmental Studies at Exeter University. His poems have appeared in many places, including The High Window, Riggwelter , Underfoot Poetry, Smithereens Press, Isacoustic & The Wagon Magazine.
Peter Riley’s Pennine Tales & Hushings reviewed by David Hackbridge Johnson
I first came across Peter Riley’s work in connection with Nicholas Moore’s poems. Riley’s advocacy of the unjustly forgotten New Apocalyptic poet resulted in among other things his editing of the selection Longings of the Acrobats. The poems in that volume made me not only eager to track down as many of the original Moore slim volumes as I could (only The Glass Tower with illustrations by Lucien Freud remains beyond my budget) but curious also about Riley.
Often searches of the internet for poets reading their own work proves fruitless but with Peter Riley I was in luck, coming across a short reading on YouTube. Among the powerful poems some lines particularly stood out: ‘Jeremy Prynne I wish I could play the archlute / to your physical ear.’ The imagining of this scene was irresistible; at first it made me smile. When I teach Renaissance or Baroque music to my students there is often much amusement if I show them film of the archlute; only the even larger theorbo elicits more delight. These smiles soon turn to rapt attention when the player begins to play on either of these noble instruments, perhaps a prelude by Robert de Visée. But then I rushed from Riley’s ‘wish’ to an instant scene of a recital where his wish is granted even though ‘wish’ might imply that Riley isn’t a practitioner and desires to be so. And ‘to your physical ear’ might mean a recital given by Riley to the audient Prynne, or more likely an accompaniment. But an accompaniment to what? Not a musical instrument but a ‘physical ear’; the instrument of perception itself. I take ‘physical ear’ to be a reference to Prynne’s concept of thinking with ‘mental ears’. Now Prynne emphasises this concept as being somewhat provisional in his article Mental Ears and Poetic Work , due to its extensive use of abstraction and ‘crucial obscurity’. Perhaps Riley’s archlute is a musical plea for a less internalised concept, something sensual like ‘a walk together / over the dark moorlands’. But then the punchline that brought me full circle back to humour: ‘believing in something / I don’t know what.’ A killer enjambment especially as there is no comma after ‘something’. I shan’t continue with this close reading of this one poem or the whole essay will stall, only I might say that Riley’s imaginary walk with Prynne across the moors remains a wish in the poem, so is ‘mental’ rather than ‘physical’; in any case one should ask whether Riley takes the archlute with him to accompany the walk, an awkward prospect. Then there is the subtlety of ‘believing in something’ – a desire for belief but where those things worthy of belief perhaps remain unknown or have been known and abandoned. Much ambiguity is at work here.
That I am able to make quotations shows that, after a brief enquiry to the poet, I managed to find out in which volume of his the poem resides. Pennine Tales is the first of two Riley volumes published so far by Calder Valley Poetry. The ‘archlute’ poem is no. 12 of 24 poems in the book, each with 12 lines, although the poems are not numbered or titled. At first glance I thought they were sonnets and they do have the sense of containment redolent of that form and there are occasional hints of a volta. I’ve prefaced these remarks with the wished-for moorland walk with Prynne since it combines what appear to be some of the cycle’s concerns: journeys, or waiting for journeys to begin (often at night and by various modes of transport), the companionship of fellow poets, and nocturnal thoughts on the Yorkshire moors: these seem to be threads running through Pennine Tales.
Firstly, transport. Train spotters and bus spotters might like to make a check list. I’ve done it for them, although there are no numbers. The first poem (p.7) has a mini bus and a train. The next poem mentions a bus shelter and a station forecourt, the next, the ‘last train for Leeds’. There is ‘turbulence on the platform’ (p.14). Much waiting for buses is endured; their appearance usually consoling (pp.15, 16 and 27). Goods trains pass through (pp.22 and 28). I think I am right in saying that Riley is never in any of these vehicles; the journeys, like the one with Prynne, are wished for or imminent. We hear of the ‘lighted vehicle’ (p.15) and the ‘bright chariot’ (p.27) which instil a sense of the bus as saviour; on cold nights no doubt it is. There is a sense in which the poet might at any point become stranded, as if the walks or pub visits might end in difficulty. Alternatively, buses trundling up the road might be signals that the poem and the tenor of its argument can be artificially ended, the journey home putting a stop to the ruminations. And yet the very first poem gives a fearful image of a bus journey that goes wrong: ‘…But they have caught / the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,’ (p.7). After this the reader might not trust the ‘bright chariot’ to take the correct route. The idea of last buses or last trains brings to mind the idea of a last resort; that missing the last means of getting home strands the poet in the poem.
The ‘goods trains passing through’ sparked a memory flood for me; my grandparents on my father’s side lived on Pedder Street at the corner with Weston Street in Preston; a site dominated by two things: the huge spire of St. Walburge Catholic Church, and the railway line that followed Pedder Street behind a tall brick wall. In the attic it was possible to see over the wall and watch the trains, many of them trundling freight on innumerable bogeys. Memories of my brother and I, setting up Grandad’s model trains on a trestle table in the attic, waiting for the real trains to come before we moved ours … these evocations set off anew by Riley’s mere mention of such movements. The goods trains that people ‘check their watches’ to (p.28), speak of transport as something moving in the night and giving signal to sleep with the feeling that the machines of society are working as we dream – a potent association that ‘reaffirms presence’.
A gentler means of transport is touched on in the poem on page 10, as the poet takes a walk near the river with its canal boats and ‘dark towpath’. As with the last buses and trains this is a night journey. The canal is revisited on page 16 where it illuminates a scene which ‘is increasingly not a nowhere’, as if some hope remains and that in ‘rest we remain in transmission’ – a feeling that there are connections that can be passed on. Perhaps there is an appeal to slower means of getting about, early industrial means of transportation, albeit now only for pleasure cruising. This change of use, or redundancy of old modes of journeying, is important for the book as a whole as we will see.
Prynne is not the only poet whose company Riley seeks; indeed, as the two friends ‘tremble between beliefs’ a whole phalanx of fellow walkers are brought to the task: Wordsworth, Clare, Shakespeare, Hardy and ‘Sometimes hundreds’ – and at this point the moorland becomes ‘the tired dark page’ – landscape becomes the very page where belief is sought. Perhaps Shakespeare has the answer but he ‘repeatedly disappears’. Apart from brief references to Branwell Brontë (p. 9) and Ted Hughes (p.12) it is fellow poet Michael Haslam who appears in Pennine Tales as an actual not merely wished-for presence; we see the two poets at closing time waiting for the bus in ‘a dark nowhere which encompasses the world’ – Haslam alights at a cancelled pub in the next poem, the pub an indication of another ‘nowhere’ conspiring to erase a former sight of communal drinking and life. These dispersals into nowhere are given the quick sting of topicality at the mention of the Calais refugee camp – Riley slips this in not in a polemical way and the reader gets the point without strain within the fabric of the poem.
I see now that by pursuing these threads of buses and fellow poets I’ve performed a kind of botched autopsy – but the poems are alive to so much else that I haven’t touched on; really I’ve only dwelt on the means of conveyance leaving out the gist of the thoughts and feelings conveyed. But in a way these mechanics of movement are tied to the themes of personal and societal journeys. The first poem sets up some of these ideas: the minibus is heading ‘for the tops / full of ghosts’ and they want the poet back ‘in the peace and jubilee / of diurnal normality’ – yet as mentioned earlier in this piece the ghosts are on the wrong bus and they can only welcome him to ‘the nothing of death’. The poem has images of an ‘abandoned chapel’ and ‘demolished mills’, reminders of industrial and spiritual decay. These images hint at the slow journeys to eventual degenerated states, while buses, trains and canals still ply the old arteries but perhaps end in the ‘dark nowhere’ of the poem on page 15. These old routes allow a kind of touristic survey of once thriving towns, long victim to a ‘capital aristocracy’ (p.24) – day trips for industrial archaeologists. Journeys might form the infrastructure of the poems but quietly one realises that this infrastructure is part of what the poems are about; the way people move for life and work, how new routes replace old but vestiges of movement remain in forgotten sidings, canals, buses to cancelled pubs with echoes of communal conviviality now lost. Then there is Riley walking and thinking; on page 20 the walk takes him to a scene ‘all washed up’ and where ‘water flees to the town’ – and at this point a volta – a rhetorical shift as if the immediacy of the trod land forces the thought into open statement: ‘Until society and economy / are brought to support each other…/ there are badly swollen people among us.’ This alarming idea of an inundated population left beached on the ‘earthen bank’ glimpsed at the start of the poem is perhaps the most urgent emotive force that Riley expresses in the cycle; this poem being its key point; a diagnosis of social economy in a blasted landscape, its stones and rain remnants of the exploited earth and its inhabitants.
In 2017, (a year after Pennine Tales), Hushings was published. The structure is similar to the earlier volume: 18 poems of 12 lines. There are continuities between both books: landscape is ever present and always discovered in the sense that although ‘there’ it is read in different ways as Riley surveys with poetic eyes (and ears), buses (now to the delight of the bus spotters, actually numbered!) idle at bus stops, music is another common thread – we hear a motet by Brumel, Grieg’s Solveig’s Song sung by a man to an audience of sheep (what a beautiful picture!), Handel’s Dove sei, amato bene?, some folk songs, and a band plays Set Me Free. I think the political voice is more prominent in Hushings; the directness of ‘Here we wait, as if waiting / for the return of truthful politics.’ (p.11), and ‘Politics crying out for a moral imperative,’ (p.14) testify to this. This last quotation is worth exploring since it debates in mocking ironic tones the possible purpose of poetry. A fuller quotation: ‘Politics crying out for moral imperative, / and it’s not poetry’s job. Poetry can wait / like an old minibus in a garage while / we sleep, slightly losing oil.’ I think it’s clear from the tone that Riley would prefer a rather less decrepit engagement than the one offered by an aged bus. The image seems to be about power and lack of it, both in poetry and in daily life and how they can be conjoined. Auden’s ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ might lurk in the background here.
Hushings contains personal memories too; the first poem has Riley going to school for the first time in 1945 and I assume the ‘five-year-old mounting for the / first time the stone steps that lead up to the / assembly hall,’ (p.13) is Riley too. These recollections don’t pull the book into autobiography since they are imbedded in what the poet of today is experiencing and they act as a springboard for further thought; perhaps a key passage being the one that begins in the poem on page 19: ‘you find some place to live and you move in. / Once the door is closed and voice gains in strength / and proposes a self…’ – this self is then shown to focus life through a long list of institutions, institutions that appear to be threatened, hence ‘The shrivelling’ that concludes the list. This proposing of the self in communal organisations is one potential answer to Auden’s pessimism. Indicting the causes of the shrivelling might be the very least of ‘poetry’s job’. Riley’s ‘appeals for volunteers’ indicate the level of state withdrawal from services and he posits a return to self-help in the face of such emptying out of governmental responsibility. The poem on page 17 finds a place ‘split by failed / hopes galore’ and mentions ‘the collapsed mills and closed libraries.’ – communal life hollowed out leaving the poet to take ‘the stony road’ with a hint that the stones are those of the dismantled or neglected buildings. This landscape wants repairing.
What is left in this reduced world? For one thing, ghosts; these appeared in the very first poem of Pennine Tales, getting on the wrong bus, and they appear many more times in Hushings: ‘family ghosts’ (p.14), ‘Whisper to me good ghost’ (p.19), and ‘Such a spectre orders regional ghosts’ (p.20). Although all ghosts might be lost, in limbo, only partially accessible, they are present reminders of the past and Riley wants to commune with them and the ghosts are ‘not / illuminated but responding, accepting the offer.’ – here Riley includes lost voices into his art in a way that avoids sentiment and makes a bridge between ages.
A word about the title. Hushings, Riley tells us in his brief notes, are exposed cones of limestone formed when water is released from a reservoir so that revealed ore may be more easily extracted. There might be a metaphor at work here; a traumatised landscape will always leave a remnant, inundations will devastate but expose the workings beneath, a product of damaged earth; I think it a most convincing way to frame some of the themes Riley touches upon.
Both of these books are beautifully designed and typeset (using my own favourite font: Garamond) by Bob Horne. I find I can read the poems individually but also as part of a large sequence that really flows through both books; the connectedness of the themes gives a structure that paradoxically points to the decay of connectedness around the poems’ concerns – and this is not to say that irony is the tool of such a paradox; rather that the poet observes and charts the process of his thought in the landscape traversed. There is a Wordsworthian element here; it is surely no accident that Riley evokes the solitary reaper on page 8. Now Wordsworth, having been transfixed by the reaper’s singing, walks on and has an indelible memory of the song: ‘And, as I mounted up the hill, / The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more.’ – yet I think Riley hopes to speak as if part of the reaper’s experience, not merely as an observer: ‘you are my word in the world and together / we’ll walk through fear and cold weather…’ – there is a chain of evolving meaning here from Wordsworth to Riley with a strong hint of Hardy in between and in this way Riley underlines the community of poets both dead and alive that was seen in Pennine Tales. This is surely one of poetry’s long-term aims; something that might indeed make something ‘happen’. One might paraphrase the epithet of E.M. Forster’s and say that Riley reveals a decaying world where ‘only disconnect’ holds sway, yet there is hope, not only in the very remembering of the past but in what it might teach us (in the least didactic way) to preserve; that all this and no doubt more is achieved through a quiet but incisive voice is a testament to the subtle power of Riley’s poetry. I should say that the cumulative effect of reading both books one after the other is that of a slow gathering of emotion and power; the final poem of Hushings with its murmuring choir’s ‘moan for the world’s departure’ is both moving and vital. And we are left with the unforgettable folk song ‘Shallow Brown’.
‘Shallow Brown, you’re going to leave me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown,
‘Shallow Brown, you’re going to leave me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown.
Shallow Brown, don’t e’er deceive me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown,
Shallow Brown, don’t e’er deceive me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown…’
David Hackbridge Johnson began composing at the age of 11 and has written works in all genres. His works have been widely performed.
John Foggin ‘s Dark Watchers reviewed by Ian Parks
Dark Watchers by John Foggin. £7. Calder Valley Poetry. ISBN 978-1-9160387-0-7
In 2013 I edited an anthology of contemporary Yorkshire poetry called Versions of the North. Since then, occasionally, I’ve encountered a poet who, if I’d known their work at the time, I would have included without hesitation – and this is one of those occasions. John Foggin’s work stubbornly resists categorisation; it exists on its own terms, arising from the life, observations, and emotions of the writer and, as such, is a timely antidote to the rise of the career poet. It is radical poetry in the most fundamental sense in that it refuses to bow to current fashions in poetry and the literary trends that precipitate them. Instead we have a poetry which is about something, that is at once engaging and challenging, that deals with the questions surrounding what it means to be human – and to be a finite, politicised individual cast adrift in the middle of existence, making sense as and when it can through language and a certain rootedness to the landscape. The landscape, of course, is Yorkshire – and something of its ruggedness finds its way into these sculpted sinuous poems; so much so that I’m constantly reminded, when reading them, of the work of Henry Moore. It is no coincidence to find that Dark Waters carries no dedication to a single person but to the 1945 Labour government of Clement Attlee which ushered in the National Health Service and the democratisation of the education system from which I, and I assume John Foggin also, benefitted.
John Foggin lives in Ossett, West Yorkshire. All the virtues found in his last pamphlet collection Advice to a Traveller – his ear for the colloquial, his unerring instinct for rhythm, and his almost plain-speaking poetic voice – are very much in evidence in Dark Watchers except, in the new collection, they intensify. The intensity serves a purpose. ‘Every thing’ as Foggin announces in the title poem ‘depends / on everything else’ – and it is precisely this sense of interconnectedness which drives the individual poems and the collection itself forward through a series of outstanding pieces such as Rambling, The Bright Silences, Brief Encounters and culminating in the final poem But I Know You, Orion which is short enough to quote in full:
the three bright studs of your belt,
how you swing past my window,
going west, which is to say you stay
exactly where you are, while
I and my window, the garden, the motorway,
the and the plains of silt and the sea
all tilt to the east and the sun come rising.
Watching you, I grow dizzy, as though
this bed slides like snow to tumble
off the edge into where there is no
falling or anything to measure it.
Nothing in this poetry is far removed from the actual – window, garden, motorway, plains, and sea – and yet it manages to communicate a numinence which lies beyond the material world as we perceive it, an underlying reality that can only be touched (and expressed) adequately through poetry. And so it is this piercing quality that permeates so much of Foggin’s work that I want to draw attention to here. Once seen and assimilated the reader begins to notice how it occurs everywhere, underpinning the abstract philosophical ideas with a generous slice of realism. No poetry except in things, to paraphrase Coleridge, might well prove to be Foggin’s mantra too.
Bob Horne at Calder Valley Poetry should be congratulated for adding this outstanding collection to his enterprising list. As Greta Stoddart observes ‘the image and spirit of the material world’ finds full expression in a poetry that is ‘deeply thoughtful’ and ultimately ‘metaphysical’. It is also a poetry that challenges our perceptions of the material world in which we live. It operates, as it were, on more than one level as all true poetry should. It offers us a glimpse of an underlying reality inhabited by ghosts form the past and the Dark Watchers themselves who act as ever-present and yet invisible witnesses (in the Biblical sense) to the unravelling of our lives. In the short poem Call It Dust Foggin begins by suggesting that when ‘death arrives… / we’ll be looking somewhere else, / the wrong way, thinking wrong thoughts’ and goes on, in the second stanza to speculate that perhaps ‘love comes like this, too’ cementing the age-long connection between love and death. And yet, as Foggin himself is acutely aware, we are limited to our perceptions and to what he calls ‘the falling short of language’. Poetry operates between these two poles: the falling short of perception and the falling short of language. True poetry will seek to reconcile those tensions through itself; and true poets will always be fascinated by the interface produced by this effort of reconciliation. John Foggin is a true poet and I for one eagerly await the publication of another full-length collection in which these preoccupations can be explored more fully. What we have already is a remarkable thing.
Ian Parks was born in 1959 in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. The son of a miner, he has taught creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, Oxford, De Montfort and Hull. His many collections include Gargoyles in Winter, Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009, The Exile’s House and The Cavafy Variations. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and runs Read to Write in Doncaster. His most recent collection is Citizens (Smokestack Books. 2017).
Dennis Tomlinson’s Sleepless Nights reviewed by Colin Pink
Sleepless Nights by Dennis Tomlinson. £2. Stevenage Writers Group. ISBN 978-1-911377-09-2
Sleepless Nights is a highly compact poetry pamphlet designed to easily slip into your pocket. It’s a hip flask of poetry you can carry around with you and take a dram now and again to fortify your spirit.
They say that good things come in small packages (diamonds for instance) and that certainly applies in this case. And there is something diamond-like about Tomlinson’s short, highly compressed and witty poems. For instance Bicycle:
My father’s bicycle
knew every pub
from Welwyn Garden City
the Cowper Arms, the Horns
Such a clever machine!
Tomlinson is a member of the British Haiku Society and even when the poems are not strictly in the haiku form there is something of the same brevity of expression, emotional restraint and quirky perspective one associates with haiku. For instance, in a sequence inspired by the changing appearance of a garden ornament in different conditions:
robin on his head
the stone lion
Many of the poems trace journeys that are both geographical and psychological. The sequencing of the poems means that they build up over time and it allows the reader to follow the connections that link together the chain of insights and memories.
Tomlinson is especially adept at precisely capturing the texture of everyday experience in the urban environment:
cold rain is melting
the last slush in town
against a grey sky
in our warm house
you await me
In another poem a neighbour’s overflowing bin bags constitute ‘a family of rubbish’. Each individual poem carries its own small charge and read together they build, like a chain reaction, into something surprisingly powerful. In ‘Crow Light’ the poet observes how the crows carry on their lives, in parallel with his own, spotting them on the rooftops and lawns of the suburban environment. As the poet drives into a car park a crow, feasting on road kill, reluctantly steps aside to allow the car to pass then immediately returns to the carrion:
Despite the rain
and the cold wind
we are both happy.
Colin Pink is a poet and art historian. He has two collections published: Acrobats of Sound 2016 from Poetry Salzburg and The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament 2019 from Against the Grain.
Rosie Johnston’s Six-Count Jive reviewed by Fiona Sinclair
Six-Count Jive by Rosie Johnston. £10 . Lapwing Publications. 978-1-910855-92-8
There are many ways of writing about mental trauma. Some writers choose an explicit series of revelations. Yet sometimes this can prove rather overwhelming for both poet and reader. However, Rosie Johnston has chosen a subtler way of dealing with traumatic events and their emotional aftermath. This is largely down to her skill as a poet. In Six-Count Jive, the poems are comprised of 17 syllable stanzas. They may be small but do pack a punch because such syllabic discipline is a way of distilling emotions and ensures that events are revealed piecemeal. The result is a sublime exercise in, less is more, where traumatic events are often inferred. On one level this works as means of self- protection for the writer ensuring that she reveals only as much as she wishes to share with the reader. Moreover, beneath their brevity there is a wealth of meaning. Johnston in this way gets her readers to mine the verses for details and piece together the wealth of meaning that is subtly layered. Consequently, the poems bear frequent re- reading.
The poet chooses to use a third person narration. This works well in terms of giving the work distance for the poet and allows the subject matter to become universal. In the first poems the origins of the trauma that drives the work is darkly hinted at, ‘ Spills tears like a glass knocked flat.’ The ‘He’ and ‘She’ characters are presented with a lexis of violence that suggests a toxic relationship particularly evoked with the line ‘That week- old bruise. ‘ Here economy of words and indeed judicious selection of vocabulary is excellently deployed. Yet in lines such as ‘’She decided out walking to die’ horror is presented in an unsentimental way, but its effect is powerful in its understatement. Whilst the narrative implies violence and trauma, that leads to a court case, the economy of words shows there no place for self-pity here but instead great courage in the female protagonist.
This vocabulary of violence is strategically tempered by more graceful and gentle language ‘Lie soft, gentle winged creature, roped and dazed;’ as if the female character is determined to survive this trauma not just physically but also mentally. As the narrative progresses and the female protagonist is physically freed, a struggle begins to address the PTSD that is the lasting mark left by the trauma. Here again Johnston’s skill is to define in a few simple words how:
Trauma throbs its savage
wreckage in that small-hours bed.
The poet is adept at using punctuation and within the confines of the 17 syllables it often does the job of words, for example:
Up she flowed-a dove high above
watched her own body slumped, splayed.
Here the hyphens suggest the grim events left unsaid that perhaps are too traumatic for the narrator to be fully articulated. Again, the reader is invited to mine for meaning.
Metaphor and simile are used throughout to infer the horror and pain the sufferer of PTSD goes through. They are original and hit the mark each time. One particularly effective metaphor used to describe the isolation of mental illness, that is often self- imposed as a means of self- protection, comes in the simple line. ‘She lives in a glacier.’ This sentence is isolated on the page reinforcing the sense of being sperate from the world. Again, the poet is deploying her skill here by using structure to reinforce meaning.
The search for recovered mental health leads to an actual physical movement to the seaside. Initially the lexis reveals the protagonist’s need to feel safe, to lock herself away from the outside world. This reinforces a need to feel safe. Thus, we have words that suggests a new home that is a ‘seven-locked keep.’ Yet as with the rest of the collection there is always a combination of grim phraseology mixed with beauty that suggests a character who despite the horrors of events hints at hope and gives this collection a sense that even at its worst, life can be repaired.
After the move to the sea, there is a distinct change in vocabulary as the protagonist ‘plaits thick skeins of seclusion and calm.’ Here the uglier phrases lesson and are replaced by beautiful imagery of nature and the sea, that reflects the healing within the woman. Although recovery is not linear, and there of course setbacks but, nevertheless we see the protagonist find her way back to better mental health.
The final poem is the antidote to the first. The narrative reveals that although not perfect, with some way to go still, the woman’s mental health is much improved. For the imagery in this final poem is glorious, and reveals a renewed lust for life where:
Laughter waltzes with garlic prawns,
Jives with olives,
Pirouettes with wine.
Here the language of dancing and music nods to the title of the collection and playfully references a return to enjoying life. The final stanza allows emotions to be set free. ‘Love.’ previously kept under lock and key is a possibility again, it is:
On the doorstep. Kissing its
warm till she lifts the latch.
The stanza is beautifully lyrical with a charming use of personification.
This is a superbly crafted piece of work whose language is at times sublime. The narrative is gripping because it takes us through the protagonist’s process back to happiness. In its deliberate brevity it invites us to mine for layers of meaning and rewards constant re-reading. Its back story and message of survival are life affirming but significantly, this is not an exercise in therapy, instead, Six-Count Jive is a work of art.
Fiona Sinclair is a widely published whose most recent collection, The Time Travellers’ Picnic, was published by Dempsey and Windle in 2019.
Triptych by Korliss Sewer, Fran Lock & Fiona Bolger edited by Peadar O’Donoghue
Triptych by Korliss Sewer, Fran Lock & Fiona Bolger edited by Peadar & Collette O’Donoghue. £10.00. Poetry Bus Press. ISBN 978-0-9576903-8-7
Edited by Peadar and Collette O’Donoghue and released under their Poetry Bus Press imprint, Triptych brings together three pamphlet-length collections by three poets with very different voices but a shared and vehement rejection of pretentiousness, flim-flammery and ocular accoutrements of the rose-tinted variety. Pugnacity is at work in each section, and none of the punches are being pulled.
Unlike, say, Take Three – the recent Soundswrite Press collection showcasing the work of emergent women poets from the East Midlands – the poets in Triptych are established, having between them racked up publishing credits that include Culture Matters, Delhi, Salt, Salmon Poetry, Out-Spoken Press. Nor is the project defined by geographical parameters. Lock is London-based, Bolger is Irish, Sewer lives in Pacific Northwest. Bringing their work together seems less like the O’Donoghues were searching for parity than going all out for raw power.
Lock’s section of work, entitled ‘Everything Burns’, opens Triptych. The title is apt. Lock uses language chosen for its incandescence. These are poems of loss, rage, and urban and social realism – or rather hyper-realism, since everything seems, not exaggerated, but more brightly saturated. Perhaps the key to Lock’s style lies in the second poem, ‘a revenger’s tragedy’ where “pain sits prising tiles from a church roof … / beserks an extravagant sorrow under a mario / bava moon”. The reference to Mario Bava, a director of lurid but stylish giallo thrillers, his aesthetic comparable to that of Dario Argento, is deliberate and specific, even though Bava’s work isn’t exactly mainstream or embedded in the popular consciousness.
The Grand Guignol of Bava and the giallo movement is a good match for Lock, though. Take these lines, from the same poem, where the poet’s response to a suicide is rendered in lines so intense and furious that they seem to burn on celluloid rather that sit in neat delineation on a page:
a grief that isn’t soluble in gardening: the thumb,
that little numbgineer, anaesthetist in pale green
scrubs. it will not work, this tedious ethic of roses.
pervert the turning earth with salt. this poisoned
soil, these halting sites. the rocks we sow, the stones
we hoe and rue. ours is fire, the soft machine we
feed you to. and twist my gimmel ring until
the index finger bleeds …
So many barbed and brilliant turn of phrase, so many scalpel-like images packed into these lines! And isn’t ‘numbgineer’ a splendid neologism?
In ‘nothing could be worse than that which you imagine’, Lock deals with a different kind of aftermath: the lack of closure, the eternal enigma, that follows a disappearance. Rejecting the anodyne assurances of officialdom (‘a uniform with folded face / explains how absent isn’t missing isn’t lost’), the poem instead describes the onrush of fear and paranoia, while simultaneously trying to reclaim as much of the missing person as possible. It’s such a precisely constructed piece that trying to isolate a four- or five-line excerpt is pointless. Buy the book: read the poem. I guarantee it will stay with you, as will much else in Triptych.
Fiona Bolger’s section, ‘Loose Threads’, is just as uncompromising and emotionally resonant, but Bolger attains her results via a linguistically starker, almost minimalist approach. Compare Lock’s two- or three-page poems with the distillation of Bolger’s ‘Threat’, here quoted in full:
I expect some words
a fair exchange
I gave you some
charged with energy
you have them in your head
this is no empty threat –
That ‘concentrated’ and ‘volatile’ each occupy their own line is nothing less than a statement of intent. ‘Dark Materials’, a list poem that suggests a chilling narrative, consists of just 39 words partitioned out across 20 lines. It’s the kind of poem that has a physical effect on the reader. Several times during ‘Loose Threads’, I set the book down, took long slow walks, thought about violence and how it is directed according to gender, race and ideology. ‘Numbers’ bears the dedication ‘i.m. Yussef Mohamed, died 2013 aged 11 in Aleppo’ and begins:
we’ve stopped counting the bodies
the doctor said at the start
but now the medics can be counted
on one hand
and children whose ages are barely
double-digit, are nursing the injured
Another elegy, ‘Sathya Sutra’, its title a reference to the virtue of truth, boasts a similarly plaintive opening:
it is in the details
put side by side by side
that we find the truth
the whole picture
sharp and clear
The rest of the poem makes good on this promise and, like Lock’s ‘nothing could be worse than that which you imagine’, doesn’t really lend itself to being excerpted. Again: buy the book, read the poem.
And then read the slabs of deconstructed Americana that populate the closing section, Korliss Sewer’s ‘Urban Grace’. If Lock’s work keys in to an explicit cinematic imperative, the first line of Sewer’s opening poem, ‘Great Suffering Urban Mothers’ – “This town’s a death sentence” – put me in mind of Bruce Springsteen (“born down in a dead man’s town”; “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap” – from ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Born to Run’ respectively). The masculine obsession with cars and a freewheeling lifestyle that categorise early Springsteen obviously has no place here, but the small town reality of shit jobs, economic depression and precious little hope for the future – also mainstays of Springsteen’s lyrics – is scoured into Sewer’s work. Also from ‘Great Suffering Urban Mothers’:
… I’m in love with this dying city.
I bask in winds which pull smoke and profanity southward.
I dodge plastic tumbleweed cups that litter potholed streets.
I dance in the insignificance of the common man.
‘Big Little Rock’ is a finger-on-the-pulse evocation of how community and economics are intertwined with immigrant labour. The poem darts like a drone or a documentarist’s camera from the ‘Koreans … harvesting greens / from drainage ditches’ to the Russians and Koreans who ‘harvest crops for the old country’ even though ‘neither group speak to each other / as they trawl side by side along dirty, oily roads’, while ‘the bruthas … swarm like fruit flies / … buzz around the remains of our community’. Throughout, there is one constant:
Razor-thin third world immigrants marvel at American excess:
At how everything is over-the-top.
How we eat and drink too much
without considering how the rest of the planet is starving.
American indolence is nailed satirically in ‘Happy Birthday, America!’, a poem set in the kind of city where ‘electric trains roll like clockwork / along roads lined with anorexic houses’. Against the Fourth of July festivities ‘an Uncle Sam impersonator / searching for a place to piss’ becomes a stand-in for the national psyche in the age of Trump. Granted, Sewer never mentions the presidential ogre’s name, but the hangover of his grotesque brand of post-truth politics seeps through the poems. Which is how it should be. Poetry is an art form with a particularly robust set of literary tools and a commitment to the truth. Take these lines from ‘Shit for Tuesday’:
Tonight, we will fill our empty picture frames
with life and movement:
know that to the homeless,
there’s a certain comfort in hunger.
Or these from ‘The Dead Man’s Suit’, in which the poet stops for’a lukewarm Coke’ at what turns out to be a militia outpost in the Nisqually Valley and grows apprehensive at
a foreboding display
painted on the broad side of the building
of an American flag and weaponry.
A long drive for a short distance
down anyone’s two-lane highway.
‘Urban Grace’ adds up to a portrait of an America where ‘Elvis has indeed left the building’. Sewer’s voice is as vital and direct as Lock’s and Bolger’s. These three poets are well-matched. The O’Donoghues are perspicacious editors. Future Poetry Bus Press publications of this quality are to be anticipated.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.