Philip Gross: The Thirteenth Angel • Thomas Kinsella: Last Poems • Clive Donovan: Wound Up with Love • Nicholas Murray: Elsewhere: Collected Poems of Nicholas Murray • Harold Massingham: Selected Poems
The Thirteenth Angel by Philip Gross, 2022. £12. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1-78037-635-6 Reviewed by Jill Sharp
Philip Gross has form when it comes to angels. His 2009 T S Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table begins with a poem describing water surging through the gates of a lock: how it curves and feathers like an angel’s wings. Throughout that superb collection his interest in the qualities of water, transparency and indeed angels, becomes vividly apparent.
The Thirteenth Angel, his 27th book of poetry, is another refreshingly outward-looking collection, comprising a series of long, descriptive/contemplative pieces interleaved with shorter poems. Reading the whole book is a deeply absorbing, enlightening and thought-provoking experience. I greatly enjoyed Gross’s constantly inventive ways with form and language. This book, too, was nominated for a T S Eliot prize.
The opening piece, and first of the long poems, ‘Nocturne: The Information’, brings Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire to mind, as it’s an extended and detailed panorama of a city – this time London:
From my third floor window,
the park’s null, an amnesia amongst us
but for this
a petty funfair’s glitter
fidgeting, its garlands of bare bulbs
draped around a throb
from which only
the chittery wavelengths rise to here.
In taut, exact language, Gross describes the cityscape and our place within it, giving rise to insights about the observer himself, and his fellow city-dwellers: ‘We are the information./Bin lorry, police car, bus: their roofs coded/for the sky to read, and me, from here./A live flow diagram. The pulse of us.’
In the poem’s eleven pages, Gross explores the night-time city scene by scene – rough sleepers, van yards, rail embankments, high streets – in language that encompasses the physical and the metaphysical, and where acute perception and wit often raises a nod or a smile, as here:
Snooper, stalker, spook,
fly on the wall, pass-
over angel, we are abjected
by surveillance – the see-er as much as he seen.
Gross offers a comprehensive angel’s eye-view of ‘the flow/seen from a great remove (our selves as shoal,/as murmuration)/catching light, rippling through/these streets, this flesh, this temporary habitation…’
Smatter is the second of the extended pieces, this time a journey as seen by ‘the curator of the chaff of things and ‘one of the lesser order of recording angels.’ Here again are the pin-point apposite descriptions, many with social or metaphysical underpinnings:
Wind in the wheat field: it knows all
about big data: how we feature in it, me and you
as diminishing points…
and where ‘the road/is going nowhere/the road/is nothing but a going.’
Throughout the book, angels appear in a vast array of guises, and in ‘Scenes from the Lives of Stone Angels (Armagh Cathedrals)’ they represent a history of the place in which they are encountered. The third section, ‘Stump Angels’, fixes on the ‘unintended cross/left by the punching out/of windows’ where the stone angels have been worn down ‘till all that remains/is limb buds; their faces are blanks/to be filled. Aged to a place beyond/age. They could be waiting to be born.’
‘Paul Klee: the Later Angels’ is one of several poems responding to the work of other artists, from Dante to the sculptor David Nash. In this intensely felt poem, Gross sees Klee’s ‘finest, final angels/not as bodies at all./Nor ‘spirit.’ They are the intersections of things –‘
It’s difficult to extract a few lines from this wonderful poem, but in the very fine closing section, Gross imagines Klee with ‘his back to us, stiffening, bent close/as a tracker on the trail of, following, the pencil’s tip.’ In this process, ‘somewhere in the space between/our curiosity, his concentration, an angel occurs.’ But this is ‘the fine desperation of the man with one last chance -/ he knows he is dying –‘ producing ‘a flurry of angels – not/a host’ each ‘a motionless point around which the whole world/is a shuddering.’ But it’s not just his death that this anticipates. ‘The year, 1939. Now long now. / Now, the sterner angels come.’
Gross takes a familiar, but brilliantly fresh, look at the Covid crisis in the sequence ‘Springtime in Pandemia’. Here he imagines the shared experience of lockdown, and the quietness that encompasses much of the globe, to have brought into being an otherwise unimaginable ‘state of All-Peoples: Pandemia./One citizenry, with our different dialects/of distance’ and asks ‘Could it have reached us any other way?’ There’s a subtle nod to that other recent ‘shock’, too, with –
all willed rifts, say,
between an island and its continent,
as the etiquette of an Archduke’s hunting lodge.
He surveys the deserted streets, the stalled cruise ships where the captain on the tannoy feels ‘a thousand miles away’; and adds a wry, four-line Aside reflecting on the early optimism that we’d all be different, better, when it was over:
Even the crisis has an adolescence
when it thinks it can change the world,
when it’s the only story. Then, like all of us,
the years of living with itself…
There are many superb shorter poems between these longer pieces, all with Gross’s wit, fine-tuned use of language and acute metaphysical observation. Once again, it’s so difficult to choose which to highlight. I loved ‘Disintegration loops’, which speaks of ‘the whisper-chatter/of us that’s spreading out, world without end, / spilling news of ourselves to the light-years listening ear.’
‘Moon, O’ is a wonderful address to our much-romanticised satellite, reversing all the usual human myths and notions, warning the moon:
Don’t let us think, not
for a moment, we can have you.
Leave those toddler-suited astronauts slack-dangled
in their old home movies,
like marionettes in the wardrobe.
Developing the negatives uses the old technique of photographic development as a meditation on negatives in general: ‘It’s in the/ shadow that the mass of things resides. Their secret life.’
The final long poem in the collection, ‘Thirteen Angels’, has an extract of a DH Lawrence poem as its epigraph, of ‘three strange angels who come knocking’ and the urging to ‘admit them.’ Of the poems in this sequence – again, impossible to choose between them – I loved the imagery in A Glassy Thing, where it ‘throws/us into long perspective, without warning;/we grow//microscopic.’ And also The Angel of the Slight:
Angel of the caught
breath, of the comma or the careful line break or
small word, barely bearing a meaning, that marks,
that makes, a change in the momentum of the world.
In these lines, full of Gross’s characteristic wit and linguistic brilliance, he sums up the power and significance of this truly magnificent collection.
Jill Sharp’s poems have appeared most recently in Acumen, Envoi, Prole, Stand and Under the Radar and online at The Lake and the Mary Evans Picture Library poetry blog. Her pamphlet Ye gods was published by Indigo Dreams in 2015 and she was one of 6 women poets featured in Vindication, an anthology from Arachne Press, 2018. Her poem ‘Cemetery Crow’ was placed joint-second in the Keats-Shelley Prize, 2020.
Last Poems by Thomas Kinsella. £12.99 Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 800017 335 4. Reviewed by Patrick Lodge
A few months before his death, W.H. Auden said that “you cannot tell fully about a thing until the man’s work is all there”. The publication of these last poems by Thomas Kinsella, who died in December 2021,aged 93, suggests that a judgement may now be made about this Irish poet. In fact such a judgement has already been made and this volume can do little but confirm it. On Kinsella’s death the poet, and Irish President, Michael Higgins, said that he was “one of…a school that sought an excellence that did not know boundaries”. Others lamented the loss of a major force in Irish, and world, poetry who had won many awards and honours and who, as the poet Denis O’Driscoll put it ,was “a true dissident: obstinate, inconvenient, discomfiting, essential”. Kinsella, himself, asks the question “Why should you take a pen and hold it so / And stare at twenty ruled lines on a page…” (Reflections of a Poet) and this collection is, like his whole corpus, the answer.
The book is slight inasmuch as it consists of poems from Kinsella’s five final pamphlets published by Peppercanister Press (set up by Kinsella in 1972) – pamphlets which were, themselves, collected as Late Poems in 2013 – with the addition of some new poems, revised poems and fragments. It is not slight insofar as the work is firmly rooted in, as he put it, his “continuing engagement with reality”, the struggle of the individual with the human predicament and the struggle of the poet to find some way of expressing it. If living was an experience of chaos, then the poet’s role, as Kinsella saw it, was to take it head on and provide some kind of “order”.
Kinsella was very much a Dublin poet – the critic, Maria Johnston, called him ‘unquestionably the pre-eminent poet of modern Dublin’ – and he had a strong sense of the locus of his poems. In “Wedding Service” the place is precisely evoked, “We approached the College chapel / along a gravel path by the old library / and across a wide private square in the heart of the city”. The simple act of entering a jazz club and taking up a table is transformed and made transcendent by precision of observation and expression which create a perfect sense of being there, where sings “…a dark contralto half bare / and serious in her shiny red shift, / little specks of silver alive all over her body”(Reserved Table). While Kinsella might be said to be always “in the heart of the city” his poetry has a much more universal appeal and impact. As Thomas Jackson wrote in his critical study of Kinsella, “address a self and you find a world”; Kinsella always recommended taking the way of ‘Joining the world’s centre to your fate” (Reflection of a Poet).
Kinsella’s poetry is not easy but nor should any poetry that asks hard questions and attempts coherent answers be easy. He is the elderly craftsmen at work – “At my worn workbench, in my bent body” (Elderly Craftsman At His Bench) – and he hammers out poems that take on vital themes. Kinsella once described poetry as the “ascendancy of the humane” but that victory is only achieved by the fullest understanding of the inhumane. In the “Man Of War” section he explores the propensity of humans to violence and destruction; a powerful survey of the evolution of the means by which humans have waged war and killed each other pulls no punches, from “axes hacking heads and necks asunder” to the increasingly more sophisticated, contemporary means of destruction (Retrospect).
The sequence highlights Kinsella’s continued teasing out of the tensions between the divine and the self. Though the poem suggests humans may have emerged “from the garden with the mark upon them” (Argument) and the survey of mankind’s violent preoccupations is concluded with a chilling vision of apparent joy in destruction – “…satisfied from on high / a raping angel with a playful name / wipes his wings above a bowl of flame” (Retrospect) – in the end human agency is the key, the inhumane can be triumphed over. There is no woolly humanism here though. The sequence was apparently sparked by a request to the poet to sign an appeal for the abolition of war and Kinsella vouches support for any attempt to “bring the human species / nearer its moral senses” and is happy to sign any petition or protest “…if I can find / where to send them that might have effect” (A Proposal). Not despair but realism rooted in those “moral senses” rather than exterior commandments or the systems of organised religion.
As befits last poems there is a meditative quality infusing the collection – both as human and poet. A discursive review of the development of organised religion (Joy Peace Love), prompted by a piece of eponymous graffiti, “white inside the white sign of a heart”, is structured by a sense of a falling away from the original power of the message as believers (and bureaucracy) expand “leaving a growing waste of ornament / between themselves and the Beginnings”. As early as 2006, the vision of a sunset prompts a valedictory, “In the face of God’s creation / our last doubts fall silent // fulfilled in acceptance / reflect and disappear” (Rhetoric of a Natural Beauty). Kinsella prays for a turning away from the inauthentic “toward the essence and the source” (Prayer 1) and this collection largely represents the result of that redemption.
It is the “Beginnings” that influence these late poems. A spiritual sense of the divine working with and through the self to the extent that they become indistinguishable seems stronger than any organised religion here – the self “is custodian of the First Cause” (Colloquy of the Carnal). Yet Kinsella seems always to be looking to express a sense of the unity of all – the self is not ego but merges into a greater unity. Less coherence than, to use the Christian theologian Charles William’s word, co-inherence, where all exist as innate components of the other within the spirit. Thus at an organ recital Kinsella, from his place in the dark, thinks he sees the Fat Master facing his “great machine” about to play a new fugue. The bass and treble notes fills the vault above – “A whole system assembles among the rafters” – and “Vital elements circle the centre / of their consenting selves / in the rhythms of ritual, / each in its place discovering / new affinities and new awarenesses / in the mathematics at the heart of the matter” (Fat Master).
Kinsella’s late understanding of his role as poet – “The coals are fading. My lamp glows; / My book rests open on a couch’ (Christmas Eve 1950) – is suffused with these meditative insights, with a strong sense that the work must go on and a stronger recognition of what the search in poetry has meant. It may be true that “we cannot renew the Gift / / but we can drain it to the last drop” (Belief and Unbelief). In so doing Kinsella will “…allow my arms / to fall open in resignation / desiring an understanding” (Songs of Understanding) but an understanding that is never completed and finished. Reflecting on himself and his contemporaries he writes of those “Drifting on the quick void / Where love and imagination / Colour the dark / Which is the nearest we might get to the truth”(Christmas Eve 1950).
There is a marvellous and consoling sense in this collection of a poet who has come to know precisely what it has all meant and is fully content in that knowing. Kinsella understands that, in the end, the poet’s task is simply to accept “…out of the past / The gift of the offered good,” add to it “…all of thine own best / And offer the Gift onward” (Songs of Understanding). He has certainly done that, and done it with skill and humility for what he has been able to add:
“I pray You to remember me, as I retire
homeward across a darkening Earth
still curious at my contaminated conception;
not convinced that my existence
might ever have been of relevance;
and doubtful of any usefulness
in my awareness of my condition;
but thankful, on the whole,
for this ache for even a minimal understanding” (Reflection)
Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published, anthologised and translated in several countries and has read, by invitation, at poetry festivals in the UK, Ireland, Kosovo and Italy.
Wound Up with Love by Clive Donovan. £10. Lapwing Publications, 2022 ISBN 978-1-7396447-6-5. Reviewed by Patrick Lodge.
Stephen Spender, part of whose line is used as the title of this book wrote that “great poetry is always written by somebody striving to go beyond what he can do”. It is not clear how much Donovan has strained to go beyond what he can do in writing the thirty plus poems that make up this collection – published by Lapwing Publications, the print-on-demand publisher based in Belfast – but, in the end, he has written a passable snapshot of a love affair from beginning to end. If you read the collection straight it can seem a little creepy and overdone in places but read it as an somewhat overblown laugh and it becomes amusing… and creepy.
The opening, and title, poem is a lament for the apparently lovelorn’s need for love – ‘Why is it so hard to find love? / Who will give it to me?” bemoans the narrator before slipping into a somewhat surreal mediation where a “crowded host of hearts” seem to be searching for somewhere “to wallow in a love swamp”. Here the narrator will answer his own questions by, in language that some might find inappropriate, waiting “to harpoon one of those hearty trekkers; / Pulling it in, drag-netting it in, / Drugging it if necessary with sex”.
Why the narrator is having trouble attracting love is unclear though it may be connected with a tendency to choose rather odd images which can detract from the poem in which they appear. Occasional couples “absorb” love’s “unretractable claw” (Love’s Claw) where “absorb” seemed a strange choice of verb; the “crêpe wedge of a shoe creaks” (The Untame Night) left me thinking whether such a material actually made that sound (I had a headteacher who wore crêpe-soled shoes, the better to descend silently on malefactors – we called him “creep” not “creak”). There may be nothing wrong with such images except that they call attention to their appropriateness rather than to the poem itself.
At times, too, some poems seem overwritten – “Deep in the labyrinthine tabernacle / of my sunken soul, / There is a blue flame burning” (Introspect) oddly described as “blunt” and “sturdy” which don’t quite fit. It may be simply that the poems have to be read as intentionally OTT. At one point the narrator seems to have scored and waits in anticipation: “ The warm wine, the cold wine, the sweets / and bitter chocolate in ruby bowls. Sandal smeared on wrists, musk between toes, / I am swooning in mists of pleasure” (For Thee). Sadly the anticipated innamorata doesn’t show leaving the narrator, again rather creepily, “to the sterile barracks of my bed / And stain the sheets and eat the stupid flowers”.
What joy when the narrator actually finds a girlfriend. The transformative nature of love in a new relationship is well-expressed as “Bright, bright, the world was revealed so bright!” (Kiss). The poetry is lighter and more-focused and Donovan indulges in some excellent word-play and irony. The narrator seeks to impress his new love with poetry, appropriately and intentionally awful – ‘Orange sherds collapsing into the abyss” – though the desired effect is achieved, “…how poetic, she says /swooning and practically disrobing herself”.
The path of love is never smooth, however, and the relationship seems to collapse which provides the impetus for some of the best poems in the collection. Donovan cleverly identifies the strength of emotion that is part of the initial attraction and also powers the collapse – “ Now every word I say upsets you. / We have established a rhythm of sorts, / A scary beat of words that slash and slice / To make sushi of our flesh”(Words of Upset). And, indeed, the willingness of lovers to wound, “We pass the hot sharp knife / Back and forth / Passionately rehearsed / Yet longing / Dying to come back home”( Burning White). Where Donovan’s writing is focused and sparse, the best poems lie. The “long, deep goodbye” may begin over coffee and love may retreat, in a striking image, “To the complex gargoyle reflection sunk / In the deep polished bowl / of this gleaming spoon” (The Long Deep Goodbye) – such distortion of perspective where all that was positive becomes negative, all that was beautiful becomes ugly is neatly done. At least until the emotion subsides and, in a neat and reflective poem, the narrator notices the ex-lover’s photo amongst all the other “worthless items” on his desk; “He sighs and slides her vaguely back, / To drift among his jots and lists” (She Smiles Among His Files).
The idea of writing the progress of a relationship from beginning to end has been done many times. Joni Mitchell’s 2007 album, Both Sides Now is probably one of the best examples in song. The co-producer, and ex-husband, Larry Klein, wrote in the liner notes that the album was ‘”a programmatic suite documenting a relationship from initial flirtation through optimistic consummation, metamorphosing into disillusioned, ironic despair and finally resolving in the philosophical overview of acceptance…” Donovan attempts something similar in this short collection and there is enough there to encourage the reader to “swipe right’ at the close.
Patrick Lodge lives in Yorkshire and is from an Irish/Welsh heritage. His work has been published, anthologised and translated in several countries and has read, by invitation, at poetry festivals in the UK, Ireland, Kosovo and Italy.
Elsewhere: Collected Poems of Nicholas Murray, £12.99 The Melos Press, ISBN 9781838170196
Harold Massingham Selected Poems, ed. Ian Parks. £12.00. Calder Valley Poetry. ISBN 9781838275532. Reviewed by Ian Pople
Again, in this series of double reviews, I’ve placed together two poets who are almost contradictory. Nicholas Murray is a widely published biographer and publisher in his own write of the estimable Rack Press. He is also the writer of a wide range of urbane, meditative poems with a subject matter ranging from areas of modern-day Greece, through to biting political satires on the current Conservative government. His ‘A Dog’s Brexit’ is characteristic of Murray’s ability to skewer suitable subjects. And his ‘The Migrant Ship’ is a deeply moving elegy for those lost trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Harold Massingham was the product of a working-class upbringing in South Yorkshire. He attended Mexborough Grammar School at the same time at Ted Hughes, although two years below him. He studied English at Manchester University and went on to be a creative writing tutor there. His first book Black Bull Guarding Apples catapulted him into a kind of instant literary celebrity, which, a little like that of Barry MacSweeney was never really fulfilled. Like Murray, however, Massingham had a second career as a noted crossword compiler, under the name ‘Mass’; once being named the ‘crossword compilers’ crossword compiler.’ In contrast to Murray, though, Massingham’s poetry has a spikey density, that he learned from his study of Anglo-Saxon verse. And this new Selected Poems contains Massingham’s translations from the Anglo-Saxon, of which a number are reprinted here. His own original writing is powerful in ways that does perhaps emerge from his study of Anglo-Saxon. But this was a poet who was able to publish in the august pages of The New Yorker.
Nicholas Murray is quite a ‘situated’ poet. Many of the poems in his Collected refer to aspects of history, or there are a number of poems here that respond to Greek mythology. As noted above, Murray is clearly a Hellenophile. The final group of poems, ‘Greek Letters; a sonnet sequence for the Greek Bicentennial, 2021’ describes a range of Greek locations. These range from Skiathos with its museum for the story writer Papadiamantis, to Kalavryta set on the north coast of the Peloponnese, reachable up the most spectacular funicular railway, and the site of a war memorial to a massacre of local men and boys, which twins it with Coventry, and other sites of atrocities. The final poem in this sequence is ‘Arcadia,’ that ends; ‘The Greece that’s here and now, not dead, / contends with the imagined past, new sights // displace the old – until a goatherd on a hill / recalls Theocritus, a world that could be living still.’ Such reference to Greek literature and its ancient world studs Murray’s Collected from the start. An early poem on Daphne, and ‘How [she] ‘might have felt / as she ran from the breath Apollo’ ends, ‘I felt in that nightmare of pursuit / one is always destined to wake from.’ Or not, the reader might feel.
These lines from the start and finish of this book suggest that Murray is a writer who came to verse almost fully formed. His is carefully paced and controlled writing, but whose care and control never subpresses a range of empathies and emotions. And there is a careful, genial voice. Murray’s 2013 volume, Of Earth, Water, Air and Fire is a sequence of poems that respond to animals. There is a similarity, perhaps, to his near namesake, Les Murray’s book Translations from the Natural World, but Nicholas Murray’s poems are gentler, more distanced perhaps. Nicholas Murray’s poems locate the animals in a ‘human’ context, perhaps, view them from the outside. The orang-utang has ‘eyes that plead / as if I held the keys // that could release you / from this narrow cage.’ Hedgehogs are ‘small spiked balls in the maternal field,’ and lambs are ‘Teenage gangs, rowdy at the field’s corner.’
Massingham’s world is spikier, more demanding. Massingham’s empathies are often more focused and channelled. In ‘Graveside’, he mourns the early loss of his mother thus, ‘Frost has fixed my hair like setting lotion:/ … But though death’s paring my mother, / Though he switched out the sunny street in her head, / Though he ordains black ties and is a bigot – / to talk with him’s to flatter, negotiate or groan –.‘ This is might be confessional verse per se. It is certainly angry. But what it also does is to present that emotion in a way that is as controlled as Murray though in a very different way. Although Ian Parks’ introduction picks up on a ‘typical Yorkshire bluntness,’ Massingham is ever conscious of the complications of his situation. As he goes on to write in this poem, ‘man; / Who stuffs stags, nightingales and angel-sharks; / Who don’t know what to do with the seventh day. / I leave her mound, and my ankles ache. / I don’t think I have breathed for two minutes. / To blame death is a convenient vanity.’ Such writing might be ‘blunt’ but that bluntness both acknowledges and couches the complications of Massingham’s situation. Yes, the poem is focused on the boy who’s breath is taken away by the emotions of his situation. But he can see that he is one amongst many, who can lose their way, who can take the lives of animals ranging from nightingales to sharks, and who can complain of their ankles aching as they mourn.
Massingham’s Mexborough can also be a place where nature exacts its price. In his second book, Frost Gods, Massingham writes poetry that often seems to defer to the open form of an American influence like Charles Olson. That open form couches a poem such as ‘Barnborough Lane’ which begins, ‘Rain had siled it down / For days. // For days tractor dunlops and cattle // Had churned the land to clay-slip. // Now tree rain / Fell like Isaac-Newton apples.’ Later, Massingham writes, ‘And one suddenness of sun-out / Flashing, beyond Morality, raying mud- // Track, sweating-tree arable Barnborough. // Stupefied, / Elated by neither law nor discipline/. If this is intoxicated, it is also exhilarating. The reader is immersed in the forces of nature around these fields, the writing is almost mimetic of the way in which both man, beast and rain churns up the landscape and churns up the language. Massingham might not use the kinds of alliterative devices of Anglo-Saxon writing, but his coinages such as ‘sun-out’ or ‘sweating-tree arable’ are pushed up against Latinate polysyllables such as ‘stupefied’ or ‘discipline’ to create writing of great absorption and power.
As noted above, Murray and Massingham are poets who look at the world in somewhat diverging ways. Murray, particularly in his satires, views the establishment with a suitable distain; he pricks its pretentions and shows just how its inadequacies work. Massingham, the son of a collier, goes out into the countryside around his native Mexborough and shows how it is part of a natural world which reaches back to the Anglo-Saxon world and beyond. The two writers offer two ways of being an ‘English’ poet at a time when such a description can be rather suspect. And they do that with whiplash intellect and great technical panache.
Ian Pople‘s latest collection, Spillway, is punlished by Carcanet Press.