Iain Crichton Smith: Deer on the High Hills: Selected Poems, edited by John Greening • Edna St Vincent Millay: Poems and Satires • Louise Glück: Winter Recipes from the Collective • Sheri Benning: Field Requiem • Hannah Lowe: The The Kids • Annemarie Austin: Shall We Go? • Tishani Doshi: A God at the Door • Myra Schneider: Siege and Symphony • Anne Ryland: Unruled Journal • Frank Dullaghan: In the Coming of Winter • Omar Sabbagh: Morning Lit: Portals after Alia • Michael Crowley :The Battle of Heptonstall • Robin Thomas: Hum • Barry Smith: Performance Rites • Sarah Watkinson: Photovoltaic • Hubert Moore: Owl Songs • Carole Coates: When The Swimming Pool Fell Into The Sea • Candy Neubert: privacy • Greg Freeman: Marples Must Go! • John Looker: Shimmering Horizons
Concrete Poetry, A 21st Century Anthology edited by Nancy Perloff
David Hackbridge Johnson • Sibyl Ruth • Kathleen Bell • Ken Evans • Patrick Roberts • Rona Fitzgerald • Alan Price • Ruth Sharman •Pippa Little •Janice Dempsey • Alex Josephy • Carla Scarano • Neil Fulwood • Lorri Pimlott • Kathleen McPhilemy • Stephen Claughton • Stephen Payne • Roger Elkin • D A Prince • Caroline Heaton • Ellen Phethean • Sam Milne • David Cooke • Colin Pink
Iain Crichton Smith’s Deer on the High Hills: Selected Poems reviewed by David Hackbridge Johnson
Iain Crichton Smith: Deer on the High Hills: Selected Poems, edited by John Greening, Carcanet, Manchester, 2021. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1800170940
From the gentle undulations of the Ochil Hills to the higher peaks of the Crainlarich Hills – those sharp backbones of Ben More and Stob Binnein – there lies a geography that seems to cry out for poetry. The flanks of the mountains bear myriad colours that change with the weather. Exposed rocks sing with minerals and the heather paints purple in shadows. ‘Look there are the deer’ – this from my good friend Iain Colquhoun, a former estate manager in this part of Scotland. I can’t see anything and need binoculars to spot the beasts – something Iain does with the naked eye. In truth I only see the suddenly magnificent and unmistakable stag when it moves. Did it lift its nose to the wind haughtily as if sensing the focusing lenses?
There is poetry for these hills and for the deer that patrol them – a wonderful example is found in the recent selection from the poetry of Iain Crichton Smith published by Carcanet – it is the poem that gives the volume its title: ‘Deer on the High Hills’. Whereas a tourist like myself, albeit a ‘Caledonophile’, might pen a few heady hymns to nature by way of contrast to the diesel soot of Tooting, Crichton Smith’s purpose is to view the deer from multiple perspectives – their survival ‘balanced on delicate logic’ , the sense of mystery we like to burden them with, their regal bearing – ‘like fallen nobles’ , and a beauty that can turn savage – ‘He might suddenly open your belly / with his bitter antlers to the barren sky.’ The deer is both real and emblematic in a poem that argues between the two – are the roaring deer by ‘the appalled peaks’ creatures for mythical loading, or is it ‘Simply a matter of rutting’? Despite this physical reality the poet can’t help investing the land with elegiac strains – ‘an empty country // deranged, deranged’ – but any hope of renewal through bardic nostalgia is ruined ‘by barbarous bones, / plucked like a loutish harp’.
The editor of the volume, John Greening, serves a generous helping of Crichton Smith, a poet he feels is lacking the status afforded to other Scottish poets of his time: Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig and the Orcadian George Mackay Brown. Although ‘Deer in the High Hills’ remains perhaps Crichton Smith’s finest achievement, there are many other magnificent poems and many are found here. Greening has attempted to cover not only work in English but also Crichton Smith’s translations of his own work in Gaelic – so we get lines such as these from the prose poem ‘Eight Songs for a New Ceilidh’: ‘But as for me I grew up in bare Lewis without tree or branch and for that reason my mind is harder than the foolish babble of the heavens’. The poet immediately shifts from the Isle of Lewis to Hiroshima and then to Belsen, dramatic and alarming swerves that posit Crichton Smith as no mere regionalist but as Greening is keen to emphasise in his ‘Foreword’, a poet of Europe. Like Sorley MacLean and like Hugh MacDiarmid, Crichton Smith can vault mountains and jolt perspectives.
However, Crichton Smith does return to Lewis frequently, if only to make stark contrasts by means of generous humour. No ‘revered Vermeer’ resides on the island but you will find ‘the constancy / of ruined walls and nettles’. And a fierce Calvinism is abroad: ‘I hear / a sermon tolling, for your theatre is / the fire of grace, / hypothesis of hell, a judging face’. These pithy recognitions of the harshness of upbringing are taken from Crichton Smith’s 1986 book, A Life – a work that is more an autobiography of observations that of personal confession. And how acutely the poet observes! Descriptive writing vies with flashes of speech – the corporal, ‘moustached, Hitlerian, ‘You play fair with me / and I’ll play fair with you. Otherwise….’. We get such rich juxtapositions as, ‘Pale girls at evening on neon roads – / the marble halls of Rome.’ Greening’s inclusion of these selections from A Life makes one immediately want seek out the entire volume; surely a credit to Carcanet’s enterprise in bringing these poems out once more.
In all these poems Crichton Smith evinces a refusal to paint easy landscapes of either earth or mind; if he feels the pull of islands despite a volatile muse activated by events from all over the world, it is not in the way of a quiet homecoming to Lewis, but to taste the reality of land surrounded by water: ‘There is no island / The sea unites us. / The salt is in our mouth.’ Within this unity of water Crichton Smith’s work abounds in variety. This selection of poems, together with Greening’s very useful and perceptive ‘Foreword’ and ‘Afterword’ should find readers for whom Crichton Smith is a new name and will reacquaint those for whom he is already a classic.
David Hackbridge Johnson began composing at the age of 11 and has written works in all genres. His works have been widely performed. and include 15 symphonies, 4 of which have been recorded on Toccata Classics. He is also a poet.nson
Edna St Vincent Millay’s Poems and Satires by Edna St Vincent Millay reviewed by Sibyl Ruth
Poems and Satires by Edna St Vincent Millay, £14.99 Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 80017 167 1
This selection of poems was unsettling in the best possible way. Too often I convince myself that I’m familiar with poet’s work – aware of their distinctive qualities – only to find out I’m wrong. Before reading Poems and Satires I’d thought of Edna St Vincent Millay as a rather outdated sentimental writer. This belief was based on few heavily anthologised pieces, for example the sonnet which begins:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why.
I have forgotten.
The piece goes on to describe how:
…….in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Lost love is what we expect women to write about, even though it’s not exclusively a topic for girls. ‘What lips my lips have kissed’ is a Petrarchan sonnet. Petrarch himself produced over 300 sonnets about his unrequited love for Laura.
Another error was to assume that the surface accessibility of Millay’s work meant it must, in some way, be confessional. (This isn’t to minimise the power of confessional poetry. Even a century later, isn’t there a frisson when a woman says she’s lost count of her lovers?)
Poems and Satires helpfully give the dates when each poem appeared in book form: ‘What lips’ belongs to a 1923 collection. This reminds us that even though Millay’s sonnets are worlds away from the innovative poetics of Eliot and Pound, her voice is a contemporary one. She might be seen as poetry’s equivalent of a Gatsby Girl, one of Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things. This impression may be reinforced by the book’s (rather gorgeous) cover which features a plate by George Barbier, the pre-eminent fashion illustrator of this era.
But the poem first appeared in a 1920 issue of Vanity Fair. Given that other work from this period – for example Millay’s Modernist play ‘Aria di Capo’ – reveals an anti-war stance, it seems possible that those ‘unremembered lads’ might be an allusion to the thousands of US servicemen who were killed and injured in World War I.
Tristan Fane Saunders’ introduction describes Edna St Vincent Millay’s rise to fame. The story is oddly reminiscent of today’s literary culture with its fevered disputes and discoveries of ‘hot’ new talent. In 1912 Millay, then aged twenty, entered her poem ‘Renascence’ into a competition. At the time she had a Cinderella-like existence-looking after young siblings in a poor part of town. Millay’s entry was longlisted and, after inclusion in an anthology called The Lyric Year, controversy over whether it should have won brought her to public attention. Barely a decade later, was Millay a celebrity – and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The first section of Poems and Satires is made up of Millay’s sonnets. Reading them is a reminder that, no matter what shifts in taste occur, the sonnet remains the ideal form for the poet who wants to pack lashings of virtuoso technique into a small space, But to pull off a sonnet sequence – where each poem forms part of a narrative – shows an even higher level of accomplishment. Millay’s ‘Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree’, which deals with a woman’s return to look after her terminally ill husband, is extraordinary.
And sonnets are versatile; they do not have to be sparkling or flashy. The sequence shows a kind of concealed skilfulness, a depth of insight. It nticipates those poems in which UA Fanthorpe showcases the voices of marginalised people. Here Millay considers how her protagonist came to marry:
Not over-kind, nor over-quick in study
Nor skilled in sports nor beautiful was he,
Who had come into her life when anybody
Would have been welcome, so in need was she.
In a subsequent sonnet:
The doctor asked her what she wanted done
With him that could not lie there many days
And she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways.
In passages like these Millay explores love and death in words that are bracingly matter-of-fact – ditching the conventions of celebration and elegy. Few other poets of that time were so clear about the limited options offered to women, and it’s noteworthy that Millay herself sought to evade these limitations.
Tristan Fane Saunders mentions that Millay was called ‘Vincent’ by friends and family. He also alludes disapprovingly to a 2018 Guardian review which characterised her as ‘a sexually adventurous bisexual’.Yet in his otherwise admirable essay, it’s Millay’s male lovers who bag all attention. Readers who would like to know about her relationships with women may wish to consult http://lgbthistoryproject.blogspot.com/2012/02/edna-st-vincent-millay-1892-1950.html
The book’s second and third parts are devoted, respectively, to Millay’s lyric poetry and her satires. There is a generous selection of poems from the 1930s, a decade in which her status had (unjustly) declined. Overall this lets us see just how many personas Millay deployed. Her work is complex, multiple, diverse.
Having worked through Poems and Satires in December, it’s unsurprising that I lingered over ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ whose climactic scenes take place at Christmas. Here Millay draws on traditional English forms and folklore
Men say the winter
xxWas bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
xxAnd food was dear.
A wind with a wolf’s head
xxHowled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
xxAnd sat on the floor.
Millay’s pen gives these traditions a distinctive American twist, perhaps informed by her own early experiences of hardship, and the Depression of 1920-21. The poem later reached a new audience, thanks to the singer (and balladeer) Johnny Cash. In 1959 he sought permission from Millay’s estate to write a musical backing for ‘Harp-Weaver’. This was granted and three different live versions are available on YouTube, as well as a recording on Cash’s 1963 album The Christmas Spirit
While this ballad – a narrative of magic, maternal love and sacrifice – shows Millay’s ability to work within poetic convention, the prose Satires emphasise her subversive side. There are a good few extracts from her 1924 collection Distressing Dialogues, short pieces written for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd. (I felt some distress of my own on learning this book is now out print.) An especial favourite was the spoof agony column entitled ‘Art and How to Fake It: Advice to the Love-Lorn.’ This is the opening of a letter from someone who signs herself LANDLADY:
Miss N Boyd,
I am a plain, honest woman, with a house in Waverly Place where I let Furnished Rooms to Artists. I have a lot of trouble with them. In the first place they are awfully careless about their Rooms, they never hang-up anything, there always dirty shirts on the floor, to say nothing of bread-crusts and rinds of ham bologna. I have an awful time with them
But the landlady’s chief gripe is the artists’ failure to pay rent. ‘Miss Boyd’ (Millay is neither plain nor honest) replies:-
There’s only one thing to do… Buy a tin bank and place it on the table in the hall. Above it tack the following placard:
FREE THINKERS! FREE LOVERS AND FREE BOOTERS!
If you have any Heathen Pity in your Heard Drop a Nickel in the Stot for the Starving Baby-Anarchists of Russia
WHO DOES NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAUSE OF ANARCHY IS MID-VICTORIAN
I think you will have no further trouble.
It is understandable that this kind of youthful esprit came to overshadow some of her subsequent work. Even so I think it’s is a late sonnet ‘I will put Chaos into fourteen lines’ that will live on my mind. Here Chaos is seen as masculine; it the female hero’s mission to subdue him in an act of ‘pious rape’. The concluding lines may serve as a metaphor for Millay’s unique artistry:
He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
Sibyl Ruth is a poet who also writes fiction and sometimes translates poetry. She’s a former winner of the Mslexia Poetry Competition. Her English versions of eight pieces from Heine’s ‘Buch der Lieder’ appeared on The High Window website in October 2021
Paul Dehn’s At the Dark Hour: Collected Poems 1935-1965 reviewed by Alan Price
Paul Dehn: At the Dark Hour: Collected Poems 1935-1965. Edited by John Howlett. £15. Waterloo Press. ISBN: 978-1-906742-99-7
Paul Dehn lived from 1912 -1976 and had three work identities. He was a poet, scriptwriter and spy, and hiding lightly behind those distinctive roles was Paul the gregarious Jewish gay man.
In the 1940’s Dehn wrote a spy training manual that’s still revered by the security services but espionage never became the subject of his poetry. Yet WW2, the cold war, and its apocalyptic consequences, the atomic bomb, did haunt his writing directly and covertly as an ominous reminder of the worst to come with Dehn expressing feelings of anger, unease and anxiety over the nuclear age.
You’ve only to read the first poem “An Explanation.” from his collection called The Days Alarm (1949) to perceive how mankind’s ability to destroy, many times over, the beauty of the natural world is poignantly apparent:
Then, if the desperate song we sang like storm-cocks
At the first flash, survives the ultimate thunder
To be dreamily misunderstood by the children of quieter men
Remember that we who lived in the creeping shadow
(Dark over woodland, cloud and water)
Looked upon Beauty always as though for the last time
And loved all things the more, that might never be seen again;
Dehn has been wrongly described by some critics as an apocalyptic poet (mainly because of a 1961 collection of clever and ruthless rhymes called Quake, Quake, Quake) which is an anti-nuclear blast. But we can drop apocalyptic for the word elegiac. Dehn’s poetry isn’t simply suffused with images of destruction but accompanied by a deep sadness and tentative hope for renewal. Even in the amazing poem The Sunken Cathedral (after Debussy’s piano piece) there’s a bleak form of resurrection as the cathedral’s bell, though it disturbs the very alien birds, and all is gone, refuses to be silent:
The rest you have heard: how, in the bronze light
Of certain winter dawns too cold for wind,
With a sound like thunder and the water streaming
From windows open to the terrible sky.
Then, among iceberg-tall
The cracked bells cry havoc and a white
Choir of gulls, not known on land,
Goes wailing among the aisles.
Poems such as The Sweet War Man is dead and Armistice are very much 40’s war poems. Yet their power to disturb and move hasn’t dated them. After urgent imagery about the renewal of life, and the land, Dehn fiercely pulls you up sharp, at the end of Armistice, to remember the dead of the war as now being ‘bread in the bodies of the young’ and that bread died screaming ‘Gangrene was corn, and monuments went mad.’ Armistice is an uncomfortable poem for a Remembrance Day service as its universal concern is for how we can so easily forget or mis-remember the casualties of history whilst tributes glibly and blindly mask the losses that occurred.
As well as a war-consciousness, that unlike some other 40’s poets, was never limited or held back by WW2, Dehn achieved a lyrical tone of voice most apparent in poems like Mourne Mountains, Fern House Kew, In the Spring and in the especially captivating At the Buca de Bacco:
Over and over, to-night
The pianist plays by the reef
In the sea-green light
Of lamp under leaf.
His fingers are fish,
The surf of a glimmering keyboard;
And over and over the drummer is keeping
Time, with the swing and the swish
Of waves on the seaboard.
But not all of his poems completely work. The flawed ones are those when the lyricism appears to come too effortlessly. Dehn never wrote a poem that wasn’t beautifully crafted yet sometimes he’s a little old fashioned, writing verses that sound a bit art-full, like he’s revisiting
Only a handful of Dehn’s poems can be called great. Armistice, The Sweet War Man, Sunken Cathedral and Romantic Landscape justify that claim. The book has been edited by John Howlett who finds the poem Romantic Landscape to be ‘a tour de force which deserves to stand as amongst the finest lyrics of the century and acts as an apt summation of many of the main themes found within this smallish body of work.’ I agree with Howlett and found ‘Romantic Landscape’ to be a small masterpiece.
At the beginning of the poem it appears to be ekphrastic. Yet the title of the painting or artist isn’t supplied (Hewlett thinks it’s Claude). It’s an Arcadian scene of a boy watching cattle near empty groves and an abandoned temple: all ‘doubly dead’ because the scene only exists in the artist’s imagination. It’s been seven years since the war and Dehn sees the painting as resembling the deadness of a bombsite outside of his window. A wonderful intersection of time, memory, cultures past, present and future decline is realised when the city (London) is in the future made rubble:
And a wingless Eros halts the silently darting
Traffic of lizards in a green Circus,
(For me that stunning image appears more applicable to climate change than nuclear Armageddon).
When the poet turns from his reflections to face the canvass the sun is setting not just on the day but seemingly on the cultural achievements and progress, of his own time, where Elysian dreams now appear incompatible with, what is for Dehn, ‘our present hell’:
And I turn my face to the wall where, bright on the canvas,
The last light of England moves over Arcady
Two thousand years ago.
Dehn’s poetry was regularly anthologised (Poets of the Forties edited by Robin Skelton), Philip Larkin’s The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, collections were published in the fifties and sixties and Dehn was highly praised by The Times in 1952 for his lyric power. However in the last 30 years his name vanished from the poetry scene. Dehn fell out of fashion or didn’t fit the agendas of anthologists. At the Dark Hour is a remarkable collection that I keep on returning too. Paul Dehn needs to be re-appraised, beginning now.
Alan Price is a poet, short story writer and critic. His film and book reviews regularly appear on the websites Magonia and London Grip. He has published fiction, poetry chapbooks and three full collections among which are two published by The High Window Press: Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady and The Trio Confessions.
Louise Glück’s Winter Recipes from the Collective reviewed by Kathleen Bell
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück, Carcanet, £12.99, ISBN: 9781800171800
In her latest collection Louise Glück’s explores a liminal space that is at once strange and familiar. Ageing, bereavement and death are common experiences, in life as well as in art, yet however much we prepare ourselves, they are liable to arrive as a surprise which time or our own efforts may soften into the realm of the known. Glück’s poems, with their wondering, questioning approach, intensify the surprise by taking the reader into a place of estrangement so acute that some of the characters within them seem partly absent from their own lives, even as the poems themselves remain anchored in known and in recognizable worlds. For example the sequence ‘Autumn,’ about old age, takes place in what may be an old people’s home with benches set outside and a conversation takes place. Some of the conversation is practical, if sweeping: ‘Old people and fire, she said. / Not a good thing. They burn their houses down.’ Like many of Glück’s lines, the apparently direct language works on more than one level, suggesting without forcing a metaphorical meaning.
From another poet such familiar images as ‘The smell of burning leaves’ or ‘Stars gleaming over the water’ might seem banal and close to cliché. But in the strange surroundings and intercut with a conversation that can also address the nature of life, they have the potency of a sharp reality invading the slipperiness of a dream world. The images don’t stand alone but are part of an ungraspable world which forces reflection and questioning:
How heavy my mind is,
filled with the past.
Is there enough room
for the world to penetrate?
It must go elsewhere,
it cannot simply sit on the surface –
This may be about the sister’s mind, the poet’s, or, by extension, the mind of any reader.
As the poems in this collection deal with ageing, they often feel the weight of a past that must be revisited. Thus in ‘A Children’s Story’ the parents, who begin the poem as king and queen with a carload of princesses, make a return journey from countryside to city, understanding that:
Despair is the truth. This is what
mother and father know. All hope is lost.
We must return to where it was lost
if we want to find it again.
Those big abstractions – despair, truth and hope – work only because they emerge from the half-familiarity of children chanting in the back of a car and the vision of rural life lost (‘cars and pastures are drifting away’).
This use of the known and familiar is perhaps at its strongest when addressing – or skirting round – the theme of death. In ‘The Denial of Death,’ which takes its title from Ernest Becker’s book without addressing its political implications, there are recognizable elements: hotel, concierge, passport, postcards and so on. Yet the semi-abandonment of the narrator, the journeys taken and not taken, the brief messages and encounters blur the identifiably real with other events for which they might stand. The poem itself is so conscious of the potentially reductive nature of metaphors and artifice that it can allude directly to conventional literary devices only to question and undermine them:
I could hear the clock ticking
presumably alluding to the passage of time
while in fact annulling it.
Concierge, I said. Concierge is what I called you.
And before that, you, which is, I believe,
a convention in fiction.
Yet the strongest element in this poem is its sense of abandonment and personal loss. When a passport is lost and the speaker denied entry to a hotel – ‘a beautiful hotel, in an orange grove, with a view of the sea’ – they are left outside, on a blanket, sometimes fed or pelted with chocolates or in receipt of post. When the lost passport arrives its photo shows only a former self. And in the period of waiting time itself has ceased to move in a straight line but becomes ‘a circle which aspires to / that stillness at the heart of things.’
Two repeating themes in Winter Recipes from the Collective are children (present, absent or remembered) and the narrowing of life in age to something close to its necessities. The children in the first poem begin as simile:
Day and night come
hand in hand like a boy and girl
pausing only to eat wild berries out of a dish
painted with pictures of birds.
But as soon as they pause and eat from a very specific dish the comparison with day and night diminishes and they become plausible children, if not in the real world or memory at least in the world of the imagination. Like figures on a willow-pattern plate, the boy and girl recur, flying away then standing ‘on a wooden bridge’ and calling ‘How fast you go’ as the speaker falls through a multitude of worlds. This would be bleak if not for the tenderness of the speaker who at one point sings ‘as mother sang to me’ and concludes the poem with the stand-alone line ‘I touch your cheek to protect you –’
The four-part poem which gives its title to the collection offers a wintry life of hardship in which old men, with difficulty, enter a wood to collect moss which is treated by their wives so that it can be used in sandwiches when no other food is available. There is no delight in this moss; ‘it was what you ate / when there was nothing else, like matzoh in the desert, which / our parents called the bread of affliction’. There is courage in this diminished life, which may be a small sign of hope, but there is little comfort.
The cover of Winter Recipes from the Collective offers the reminder, in red print, that Louise Glück was recently a ‘Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.’ Such prizes often go to writers who are overtly concerned with the political issues of the day. Glück’s poems in this collection are, by contrast, quietly compelling as they suggest stories of sorrow and loss which are fundamental to our shared human existence.
Kathleen Bell’s first full poetry collection, Disappearances (Shoestring, 2021) is now available. She is also the author of two chapbooks: the lockdown sequence Do You Know How Kind I Am (Leafe Press, 2021) and at the memory exchange (Oystercatcher, 2014). Originally a Londoner, Kathleen is now an East Midlander by adoption. Since her happy escape from academia she now has much more time for reading, writing and reviewing poetry.
Sheri Benning’s Field Requiem reviewed by Ken Evans
Field Requiem by Sheri Benning. £11.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 9781800171510
‘Only dispossessed people know their lands in the dark’, wrote Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, and on a reading of Sheri Benning’s fourth poetry collection, one is reminded of ‘place’ as personal mythology in a poet’s work. Or rather than ‘place,’ perhaps a more accurate word for Benning’s sense of location would be ‘settlement’. ‘Settlement’ as in where an individual settles to live, but also referencing the collective, of group habitation; and as a pact between those who settle there and Nature; and specifically, between human activity and Nature as in climate and the current crisis.
In Field Requiem, Benning explores the lost world of those who farm on the land and live with the vicissitudes of its’ climate, its’ increasingly corporate industry of production, and throughout the collection, the pact between farmer and Nature is freighted with spiritual overtones. The poems titles, as well as many epigraphs, allude to Biblical parable and religious liturgy, such as ‘Viaticum’, ‘Vespers’ or ‘Extreme Unction.’ Farming is seen as vocation, as in ‘taking the cloth.’
‘Settlement’ here also refers to colonisation, for just as the multi-national corporates have forced out the small farmer in favour of large-scale, intensive farming, (50,000 small farmers have left the land in recent decades), so the first white settlers displaced the aboriginal land-dwellers, on ‘the cracked-open casket of the nation’s turn of the century bullshit-/promises…’
The small farmer, just as the original land-dwellers, have become deracinated. Benning writes movingly in ‘Great Plains Auctions’ of how farmers (like her own father) would bid extra at auctions to allow a fellow farmer to make their getaway from the land: ‘Sure, we were sad to see our neighbours go, / bid extra on their socket sets, air compressors / leftover five-gallon pails of hydraulic oil. / Sold! The auctioneer’s speakers / rattled in his truckbed… We told ourselves, if they could, they’d do the same.’
But ‘our place’ calls to us, in a sense we never leave it, and is a storehouse for our memories, and as in ‘Minor Doxology’ –
‘…because place calls to place /inside us, he is seventy in the kitchen, / even as he is twelve in the farmyard.’
Benning evokes this sense of place through an incantatory, accumulative use of detail that by naming, seems to sanctify the place, and make it ‘holy.’ To ‘speak the image’ not only draws us in as reader through the specifics of ‘naming’, but it also honours and memorialises the ‘thing’ spoken of. At times this has almost have the simplicity of a workshopped ‘list poem,’ but at its best it builds a picture by turns elegiac and angry, as Benning gains energy from her own ‘poetry of witness and warning’ (and ‘mourning’).
This method is established from the very first line of the opening stanza of the poem that introduces the collection, ‘Winter Sleep’, as ‘casks of cherries, plums, / boiled melon, beef tallow, pig bladders blown / and tossed by children / mothers stirring stock, / kidneys, hearts pressed with aspic,….casings scraped and stuffed, allspice, cloves,’ create a picture of busy-ness and abundance, of toil and produce, making and loss.
The repetitions are precise, the observation of the natural world acute, which means the litany of description never becomes bucolic, idealised. As a farmer’s daughter, albeit one forced from the land, Benning is unsentimental about how hard farming might be. In ‘Harvest’, there’s ‘thin smoke in the middle distance, / as though harvest was a war.’ And snow becomes a ‘cool chrism /on last season’s wounds.’ (My italics.) In ‘Vespers’, a January prairie is ‘a knife held to the throat.’ ‘Vespers’ has the hypnotic rhythm of a sung psalm, as ‘Infant skulls, allium bulbs, / pulp rich and sweet with utero-dreams / of silver light in birch leaves, / of grasses low suss.’
Benning has made a record and borne witness to a disappearing lifestyle, that is also her own personal culture of childhood – sweet, nostalgic, occasionally macabre.
There is an understandable tendency, given her history, to side with and celebrate the small, diversified farms and their farmers, while lambasting the multinationals as ‘land criminals’. I believe she draws inspiration from Wendell Berry, the US farmer-poet and the ideas of an ideal ratio of ‘Eyes to Acres’ (too many acres that you cannot see and feel – you do not ‘know’ in all its vagaries, moods and weathers – leads to bad, exploitative land practises and management.) The drive for food surpluses today, leads to a poisoned, reduced land in the future. In ‘Winter Sleep’, ‘I wake to 6000 acres, high clearance sprayers / with 140-foot booms. Sulfur, phosphorus, nitrogen, / potash. Harvest done by drone. Yields downloaded / into $750,000 air seeders.’ The accumulation of numbers gives a sense of the industrial mechanisation, just as the list of herbs and flowers and crops in other poems give a feel of natural abundance and variegation. Whilst this may be hard to disagree with, mechanisation often leads to cheaper food for the less well-off who struggle currently, for one example, to find the money for say, organic vegetables and meat, and not all small-scale farmers are productive, or always demonstrate good husbandry of the soil. And the toughest burdens of smaller-scale farming – what is hard relentless work, let’s face it – often fall on minorities, the women partners and wives of male farmers, and a cadre of the ’precariat’ – low-paid, seasonal, zer-hours contract workers.
However urgent the political debate underlying these poems of grief and rage, loss and lyric yearning, Benning’s skill is to elaborate these in most cases without overwhelming the poetry to didactic purpose, yet clearly delineating the sense of grief and outrage on behalf of the land and the people, the livestock and crops, and delineate what Benning sees as a more harmonious way of working with the land and Nature. A memoriam and augury for these troubled lands and sorrow for a way of life disappearing under increasing coercion from global forces – both natural and man-made – whose interconnectivities we are all having to begin to know and try and understand.
Ken Evans won the Kent & Sussex poetry competition In 2018 and Battered moons in 2016. Individual poems have featured in Poetry Scotland, Magma, Under the Radar, Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Lighthouse Literary Journal, The High Window, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House, The Glasgow Review of Books, and The Morning Star, as well as online.
Hannah Lowe’s The Kids reviewed by Patrick Davidson Roberts
The Kids by Hannah Lowe. £10.99. Bloodaxe. ISBN: 9781780375793
Ian Brown, late of the Stone Roses, once responded to the generic ‘What do you think people will think of your music’ question with the undeniably winning phrase ‘Trust the kids – I went to school with some of them’. While the pandemic and his swerve into anti-vaccine idiocy have sadly robbed us of trust in Brown, Hannah Lowe’s brilliant, strident new collection, The Kids (Bloodaxe), reaffirms and furthers our trust in a poet here proving herself as one of our best.
Lowe’s first two collections (Chick in 2013 and Chan in 2016) both enacted a wary eye to definition. This is not to say that they lacked, either in form or in achievement – both of them are remarkable books – but for this reader there was always the sense of something just out-of-sight that was being kept in reserve. Whether it was subject or form was unclear, and that was part of its beguilement, its mystery. In those books there was often the sense of Lowe sizing-up the arena or battleground, before bringing out the heavy guns of a formidable talent. The Kids is that reveal, that application.
The Kids is a book of sonnets, though Lowe’s engagement with and reinvention of that form seems limited when cast simply as that; this isn’t an exercise in formal dues-paying or of gilding the subjects frequently thought of as ‘beneath’ the sonnet or sestina. Where entire books of sonnets by poets achieve is where the poet has identified the form as specifically necessary for the book and subject in question (it’s the difference between wearing a parka because it’s a cold day, as opposed to a fashion statement). The subject here starts as the decade Lowe spent as a teacher in a London comprehensive, before widening to engage with her own younger self, the kid side to being a mother, and also the lost (kids and otherwise).
In fact, the lost give this book both a disquieting and richly infusing quality. Right from the start, the absences are as much a depiction of their importance as they are the missing parts:
My father was dead. I rode to work each morning
through Farringdon, down Charterhouse Street
and saw the same white dog – a terrier – licking
a puddle of blood, leaked by the morning meat
the butchers hauled across their backs to Smithfields.
He was dead, he was dead. Now what should I do?
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘PROLOGUE The White Dog’
The gory aspect of the blood does not rob the contrast of white and red of its brightness, a contrast fueled by the vanished, fresh meat bleeding, and that sense of the moving world and time – from the father’s death to the bike to the butchers – instills that final line with an urgency near-energetic: ‘Now what should I do?’ Others (the poet, even) might read that last line as despairing, but for this reader it rings of impulse and urging, a sense of awakening.
The first section of the book stays in the classroom and among the kids being taught and avoiding being taught. Three poems on ‘The Art of Teaching’ wryly acknowledge the near impossibility of fulfilling that title, but offer jewels nonetheless:
has a sound, it’s the voice of Leroy reading
Frankenstein aloud. And if we break
to talk, I know my questions are feeble sparks
that won’t ignite my students’ barely beating
hearts. There is no volta here, no turn,
just more of the same:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx‘The Art of Teaching II’
The nudging anxiety that flows through a lot of the teaching poems is evident here; Lowe is repeatedly struck by the role that she is playing in the moods and behaviours of the kids in the class (he wouldn’t be reading Frankenstein aloud if she hadn’t asked him ergo he wouldn’t be gloomy either). The fragility of the ‘barely beating hearts’ is palpable, as is the almost impatient dismissal of the supposed solution of the volta in kick-starting or surprising the reader or the kids. It’s not that Lowe worries of herself being the oppression in their lives, but her concern that that oppression is there at all is at times unbearably felt. This is in part because the kids betoken the ghosts of others, as starkly put in ‘The Unretained’\;
What happened in the end to Luke? So clever,
xxso always utterly stoned he walked like weights
xxxxwere in his trainers, until his massive ‘biftas’
xxxxxxput voices in his head that made him late,
xxxxxxxxthen didn’t let him out at all. […]
xxxxxxfive-months-pregnant, quitting for her boyfriend
xxxxand a flat, my cautions drifting off her
xxlike confetti as she strutted through the gates?
The powerlessness is clear in the importance of the shifting, almost spiraling shape of the poem, and a panicked sense of the control so easily applied in the classroom that evaporates once the bell has rung reads as a hair-shirt of its own.
One of the effects of the sonnet form on Lowe’s voice is a deepening of tone in this voice. Not because of any grand tradition of the form or academic nous thereto, but from the awakening, spurred voice of the Prologue poem to the concerns of those above these reflections and anxieties ring out in a tone sometimes psalmic, sometimes lamenting.
The second section of the book goes back to the poet herself as kid, as though the concerns and anxieties pouring over those kids in the first half have washed Lowe back to first principles. The dangers are more defined, here, the weapons to fight back more vital, as the second half of ‘Blocks’ makes clear
In that house of risk – unstable, unwell –
where often I was thrown like a paper jet
downstairs and hit the hard floor of the hall,
sprawled useless as a crumbled alphabet,
those drawings mattered. That name I wrote for myself,
over and over, standing up for itself.
The dislocated identity between the thrown kid and the name on the paper (‘itself’), with the latter able to resist when the kid cannot, is sharply captured by the image of the paper jet thrown, just as ‘hit the hard floor of the hall’ hammers home the impact described in a piece of rhythm inescapable once said aloud.
Looming in this second half is ‘The Stroke’, the only poem in the book to go over the page, consisting of ten sonnet-stanzas employing both slant and straight rhyme, often over the same two lines. It is not the heart of the book – either spatially or in subject – but it strikes a jarringly (in the best way) halfway note, in this poem mainly concerned with an afflicted adult, surrounded by adults, but told through the eyes of someone unsure if they are young still, or if this is when the change occurs:
I didn’t go. Until I did. Some arrangement
for dad to drive and pick me up one night.
By the sign for Upney Tube, gas-blue fluorescent,
I waited, waited, until an hour late,
I dialled home in the blunt and pissy light
of the payphone on the hill, that slope between
the streets where I grew up, and the A13
While the poet will later admit to being ‘teacher, now, and mother’ as she cooks and cleans for her parents, it is in this stanza where the kid and grown-up collide; that brilliant fac-off between ‘blunt’ and ‘pissy’, or the differences in asphalt between ‘streets’ and ‘the A13’. Here two schools of description and ages stare each other down, and the rest of the poem’s lucidly curated dreads and realities emerge from the conflicted space between.
The book’s final third is freer of anxiety and concern (though not entirely), which surprises given that it is mainly concerned with the poet’s own kid, ‘My Rory’. Crucially, Lowe does not present this third and these poems about her son as a fix-all to the fears earlier spoken of and felt, but instead manages to convey a wonderfully new strain of both fearful joy and joyful fearfulness. The tension in these poems is adroitly balanced:
My Rory wants to scoot on his own, dammit,
to soar one-footed down the street – who cares
about red lights or buses or reckless cars?
While the rest of the poem envisages the small scooterer as menace to car and driver alike (ending with an image too cheering and fun to extract – read the poem), the slight freneticism in the ‘who cares…’ here lays just that right amount of parental worry, turned to wonder at the confident desires of the kid.
If I sensed a wakening, a starting, in the Prologue at the book’s beginning, there are new beginnings and departures in this final section, too. The poet’s concern, again, about the kids she taught, has even widened when she realizes how close they were to stopping being kids:
But the kids I taught, who came to me at the edge
of childhood – was it really, then, too late?
That ‘edge of childhood’ reads as much about the teacher as about her pupils, and the sense of the liminal is weighted elsewhere, too:
He’ll pick them up next week. Then I’ll spread
my books across, full up the empty shelves,
the way for eight months now I’ve stretched myself
across the new terrain of this huge white bed.
I stay up reading late – poems, poems.
Then in the dim gold light, I write about him.
The ‘new terrain’ and the ‘dim gold light’ meet as watersheds and exploration, but firmly in the poet’s grasp, in the way that earlier in the book the young, the novel and the unexpected were equally beyond their control. The section, and the book, end seemingly in a reply to the opening ‘My father was dead’:
But I’m not a master, just a pair of palms
which push or pull or loosen someone’s lines –
I still need kind and guiding hands on mine.
By the end of The Kids, this reader takes issue with that denial: Hannah Lowe is a master, and this is a book of mastery. Trust The Kids.
Patrick Davidson Roberts was born in 1987 and grew up in Sunderland and Durham. His debut collection The Mains was released in 2018 and he co-founded Offord Road Books in 2017. His poetry has been published in Magma, Ambit, The Dark Horse, The Rialto and on Wild Court and he reviews for The Poetry School.
Annemarie Austin’s Shall We Go? reviewed by Kathleen Bell
Shall We Go? by Annemarie Austin. £9.95. Bloodaxe. ISBN 978 1 78037 553 3
Annemarie Austin’s poem ‘Hole’, which comes half-way through her new collection, consists of just seven short lines:
A hole is defined
solely by what it is not.
The cave is a kind of
xxxxxxxBut no one
would have come
for just the cliff.
Like many of Austin’s poems this draws attention to something that resists easy definition. She is concerned with things that are hard or impossible to see, and objects and places that are either boundary-less, like an unframed picture, or whose boundaries, like the sea, change moment by moment. Even when she writes of something apparently static, like a photograph, what interests her most seems to be that which is hard to discern or which cannot be fully captured. In ‘The Misses Booth Photographed by Camile Silvy’ images of obscurity abound: ‘the mirror tipping its liquid darkness out’, ‘dark … seeping between my neck and earring’, the sweet ‘darkness on my cheek’. combined with hidden hands and a voice which is ‘difficult to hear.’ In this context even ‘the enormous plainness” of a crinoline seems to be part of a concealment adopted by both photographer and models.
Similarly the poem ‘Nijinsky Jumps’, based on an asylum photograph of the dancer aged 51, notes what cannot be seen:
one hand is a blur like a bird
up too quick for the shutter speed.
The other hand is lost in his double
This leads to a contemplation, in parenthesis, of how shadow complicates what we see. The poem refers first to an antique image of a Chinese execution in which a beheaded man’s shadow stays intact in the moment after the beheading, and then to Nijinsky’s shadow, cruciform on the wall behind him as he is captured mid-jump. Instead of dwelling on the present bleakness of the great dancer, confined, ‘obedient / but not emotionally involved’ the poem relates the captured moment of Nijinsky’s jump to a millennium-old ivory carving of Christ on the cross. Thus, in the photograph, Nijinsky also hangs forever ‘in a lonely place’..
Other poems too indicate multiple ways of seeing. At its simplest, in ‘Fruit,’ what appears at first to be a tiny berry is revealed as
a snail on a single thread
of spider silk
fixed by a bubble
of snail spit
or by the spider’s artifice.
Even with the precise observation which draws us nearer to the snail the poet be certain what is being observed – is the snail attached by its own action or is it the spider’s prisoner? Either way, the conclusion leads from the apparent promise of letting the daylight through as the snail rocks to the snail’s ‘dark small self’ inside its shell ‘shrinking back and back / very far indeed.’
Elsewhere both boundary and blurring seem like threats. In ‘Problem,’ the epigraph from Henri Bergson suggests that what is being investigated is a philosophical difficulty caused when ‘we separate out in space phenomena which do not occupy space.’ But the poem that follows takes a woman as the problem: a woman who is ‘not the one’ but who has to be put ‘somewhere she can’t / bump up against the rest whoever // they might be.’ But when separated from any background she herself becomes a place to explore in a discomfiting way: ‘her arms and leg bones pathways / and they come and go through her.’ Eventually her identity is disturbingly merged with or blurred into that of a house:
The grain of the floorboard
is growing through her cheek
her ear its imitation. She can hear
the knives in the drawer
the door remaining closed. Her mouth
is open as the window in the
gable end mortared with all
her hair stirred into the mixture.
Equally disturbing is the poem that follows, ‘Polly Vaughan – Variations.’ Taking a folk song as its starting point the poem offers three versions of the killing of Polly Vaughan by her lover, who, according to the song, mistook her for a swan,. The variations on the original story disconcert. The first, apparently in the voice of the lover, suggests that the young woman had ‘wrapped her head and her neck and / her shoulders in white laundry’, but the repetition of ‘and’ coupled with the seeming unlikeliness of wrapping a head in laundry, destabilises his account, as does his reminder that ‘Polly Vaughan rhymes with swan / and covered head rhymes with dead’. In the second variation another voice declares that ‘She wanted to be unseen / and no one saw her / for herself’ while the third variation offers a magical interpretation to explain the killing:
Some women like Polly Vaughan
transform at night to creatures
Customarily when darkness fell
she was swan on the black pond’
But what all three variations hint is that, according to those who speak of the event, a young woman, intentionally or not, brought her death by shooting upon herself. It is for the reader to note inconsistencies and improbabilities but though we may suspect we are merely the readers and cannot, even in this imagined world, be entirely sure of anything.
Perhaps the poem that most represents Annemarie Austin’s way of seeing and the connections she makes is ‘Cut Out’, in which a piece of corrugated cardboard reminds the poet of seeing a queen’s tomb on which the face was too high to be seen but the visitor could observe instead:
the stone petticoat
edges, winding in and out and
crowding with convolution
that space between
Once more there is a characteristic concern both absence and presence, the seen and unseen, as the poet recalls ‘the pleating / of air and darkness’ which indicate both complexity and depth.
Again and again Austin’s poems lead us towards the unknown. They drop hints but refuse to offer a solution to what we can’t quite see and can never fully understand.
Kathleen Bell is a poet and fiction writer from the East Midlands. Her most recent publications are the lockdown chapbook Do You Know How Kind I Am? (Leafe Press, 2021) and the collection Disappearances (Shoestring, 2021).
Tishani Doshi’s A God at the Door reviewed by Rona Fitzgerald
A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi. £10.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 978-1-78037-577-9
A God at the Door, is Tishani Doshi’s fourth collection of poetry. Doshi is of Welsh-Gujarati descent both of which she draws on for her work. She lives in Tamil Nadu. This collection is brave, brilliant and undaunted. It’s brave because Doshi writes about what is happening in India under the BJP and Narenda Modi from the response to protesters in Delhi to the story of a young woman walking home hundreds of miles during the Covid lockdown. It’s brilliant because the poems are tender and insightful, capturing so much inhumanity and inequality in a strong modern voice. The poems are woven like silk tread yet as sharp as a rock face. And, the collection is undaunted because Doshi tells the truth about pain, suffering inhumanity, hurt, imperfection and inequality.
Doshi’s voice is direct as she engages the reader using phrases like imagine or say – we feel invited in to her deliberations, her journey. And, while she addresses issues of searing emotional and physical pain, her voice is never judgemental. She remains matter of fact. Doshi’s skill is that she maintains distance for us and for her as the author. While there is a tension in many of the poems between conflict and renewal between despair and hope, Doshi engenders a fellowship. She manages to describe harsh reality along with offering comfort and solace.
Like many others, I came to Tishani Doshi’s poetry through her poem: ‘Girls are Coming out of the Woods.’ This poem has such resonance with me as an Irish woman facing up to the inhumanity in Ireland’s treatment of women and girls. In particular the undervaluing of females and the privileged position of males. For me as a woman, someone who has worked on politics and public policy for years and as a novice poet, this collection is wonderful, expressive and skilful. It encourages me to be more daring as a poet.
Many of the poems come back to what is happening in India – the need for purity and the sharp rise of Hindu nationalism. From the alphabetical acrostic ‘Creation Abecedarian’ written in response to the Indian minister of higher education saying that Darwin was wrong, that Indians are the descendants of sages, to ‘The Storm Troopers of my Country’. In The Stormtroopers of my Country, Doshi articulates what is happening with clarity and daring:
‘The stormtroopers of my country love
their wives but are okay to burn
what needs to be burnt for the good
of the republic often doing so in brown
pleated shirts and cute black hats with sticks…’
The poems are wide-ranging both in themes and geographically. While many reflect her views as a woman living in India, they touch on happenings in Kabul, Manchuria and the Philippines. If the poems have a world view, it is through the lens of shared humanity in particular Doshi’s experience of being a woman. ‘In Every Unbearable Thing’ we are invited to a journey through the life of woman:
‘say you begin as rib or clod
of earth say you are blossoming
until someone stares too long
at your shirt and leaned in
unbuttoned pushed forced
don’t mistake me this is not
a poem against longing
but against the kind of one-way
desire that herds you into a
dead- end alley and how this can
lead to a weakened epidermis
and despair and nights of howling
and who can you tell except
mother friend cat
while sky keeps on being sky
and street fills with danger’
Phrases like ‘cauldrons of hurt’ capture so much of women’s experience, the fact that for women there are perils in so many places and spaces as well as in so many different situations. All of the stories in the poems are written with skill, rhythm, beauty and energy. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Doshi is a dancer. Her poems swirl and surround me like Shiva’s many arms disrupting space and time. They are an incantation, neither judgemental nor despairing allowing a shaft of light into our responses. As if, by the naming of things, they are rendered bearable.
Notable in the collection are the titles of the poems. Who would have expected a poem about Pliny the Elder and mansplaining? In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Doshi described them as a step ladder into the poems. The titles draw us in as we try to imagine how the poems will flow. Not only to the titles offer the architecture of a poem but many are playful; ‘The Comeback of Speedos’ or ‘Why the Brazilian Butt Lift Won’t Save Us’ and as already mentioned ‘Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers’.
Alongside the invitation in the various titles is Doshi’s use of form. She takes risks across the page as well as using playful shapes to frame the poems, often while addressing serious issues. The poem ‘I Carry my Uterus in a Small Suitcase’ is artfully arranged to illustrate the shape:
I carry my uterus in a small suitcase
for the day I need to leave it
at the railway station
Till then I hold on
to my hysteria
and take my
The arresting titles, form and content allow a us a way into each poem. Her word choices and poetic daring – notably rhythm – carry us through. Each time I come back to the poems, I’m refreshed, enthused and charmed that her words can connect us with such sorrow yet offer such solace. The final poem ‘Survival’, Doshi acknowledges that ‘Hope is a noose around my neck.’ With all that she has shared with us, we know she endures because she writes, she dances, she mourns and rejoices in our humanity and frailty. Highly recommended.
Rona Fitzgerald was born in Dublin; she now lives in Glasgow. She has been a lecturer and a researcher in various Universities in Ireland and the UK. She began wiring poetry in 2011 and has had poems pub lished in The Stinging Fly, Oxford Poetry , the Blue Nib Magazine, Dreich Littoral Magazine and many others.
Myra Schneider’s Siege and Symphony reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Siege and Symphony by Myra Schneider. £9.95. Second Light Publications. ISBN: 978-0992708849
Myra Schneider already has fifteen collections of poetry to her name (plus several prose works and collaborations) and the poetry is still flowing as easily and fluently as it ever did, coloured by a fierce optimism and a joyful engagement with life. Such optimism and joy may not necessarily be “fashionable”, but Schneider is less interested in poetic fashions than speaking her own truth.
Central to this new collection is her preoccupation with the plight of our natural world, as the dedication “For Planet Earth” makes abundantly clear. What is also clear is Schneider’s refusal to despair. The poems, like the poet herself, are driven by an unstoppable energy. Although her body is “past its best” and she dare not risk a walk in the snow (“Today”), she finds another way to replenish her store of inner wonders by taking a virtual walk to the orchid house at Kew. And the tree that has been cut down, the stump set on fire, in “Resurgence” (the title says it all) is still putting out buds, prompting the poet to declare herself “moved by the resolve to live in this world”. Everywhere she finds evidence of this will to survive – in the butterfly that flies thousands of miles, navigating “as precisely / as an electronic system”, the seedling that “thrusts into a world of blue and green music”, the tomato plant that sprouts through the vent in a drainpipe…
And the miracles of nature give way to poetic miracles in a poem such as “Like Small Wishes” where the flight of four orange-tip butterflies drifting across a traffic-filled road takes us into a scene as surreal and unexpected as the vision of Stanley Spencer’s “newly-awakened dead emerging from swung-open tombs” – a kind of earthly paradise where the metal bodywork of cars morphs into butterfly wings, “tapestries of dusk and orange”, concrete frontages are crammed with flowers, “in a song of praise”, and the person to whom the poem is dedicated floats into the sky revelling in her newfound weightlessness.
These poems are a celebration, but they are also a call to arms. The insistence of the natural world is matched by Schneider’s own insistence that we need to act. She speaks plainly where plain speaking is required: of the distance-defying monarch butterfly in “Flying” she asks: “do we have the will, / the wit, to stop destroying its world, our world?” And the poem “Becoming Plastic” opens with that familiar experience of battling with plastic packaging – packaging which fits like a skin, “as smoothly as a seal’s” she notes, neatly introducing one of the ocean’s many casualties. Everything comes “cosied in plastic”, “swaddled”, even – in the poet’s dream – the baby extracted by the midwife from its mother’s womb, leaving us with visions of something akin to a shrink-wrapped chicken on a supermarket shelf. Conversely, the wind turbines in “Wind Farms” are described as if they were lovely living creatures:
…a ghostly species
tall as lookout towers, graceful
as long-necked cranes, grazing in silence
“Praise be for these magnificent birds,” the poet continues, in language that has a near-biblical ring:
let them inhabit sea, island and ocean,
let them multiply on hilltops and thrive in deserts…
That so many poems in the second and third sections of the book are a response to painterly, or other visual, stimuli is unsurprising for a poet so obviously in love with colour and light. A whole range of painters provide her with inspiration, from Hokusai to Van Gogh and Henry Moore to the exuberant Marianne North, surely a kindred spirit. Memory serves as another prompt and we have poems here recalling the moment when words in a book first started to make sense, recalling the beloved landscapes of childhood “where clock time is meaningless”, the exhilaration of gliding on a bicycle over the South Downs, gazing down on “the world’s quilt of mustards / and greens, its toy sheep, scribbled hedges…”. The last two stanzas of “Cropthorne Church”, meanwhile, sum up the poet’s credo and are worth quoting in full:
But why am I here? I’m not a Christian. My belief
is in the force which rolls through all things:
the light still reaching us from the early universe,
darkness splitting apart to let morning be born,
rain filling puddle and sea, the will to survive stored
in ovaries, love, minds mastering the beauty
of mathematics, this poignant arch which rises
in the silence beyond the leaning walls of the nave.
She mentions “love” here, and many poems testify to the poet’s natural empathy, her generous wish to inhabit – however briefly – the lives and experiences of other human beings. She ponders on the “real Mrs Beaton”, her private sufferings totally obscured by the public persona, and wonders about the three women staring at the ocean in Peggy Somerville’s painting. What are they really thinking and feeling, these women who “only exchange nothings without a whisper / of selves”? She grieves for a dead friend whose fluency with words barely extended to expressing her own feelings and speaks for the voiceless, shadowy women of the past, those “secondary” figures.
The homeless too are in a sense “secondary” and the focus of several moving poems at the end of section three, while section four represents a sustained effort to enter the lives of others, making absolute sense – emotionally speaking – in terms of all that precedes it. This one long poem gives its title to the collection as a whole and draws on carefully researched material relating to the siege of Leningrad during World War II and the composition – and performance by an enfeebled scratch orchestra – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad” symphony. Schneider skilfully interweaves what read like journal entries juxtaposing contemporary London with early-1940s Leningrad, bridging the gap between her own life and the lives of those living through the siege, Shostakovich himself of course but also the likes of Persian scholar Aleksandr Boldyrev who “sorts the shrinking stock /of furniture and his books into: keep; sell; burn” and the schoolgirl Lena Mukhina with her typical teenager hopes and dreams, who notes in one desperate diary entry: “Mama died / last night, I am alone.”
Siege and Symphony is a collection of great humanity and commitment. An earlier poem, the curious and beautiful “Dredging the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea”, can be seen as a metaphor for the processes at work throughout this book – the salvaging of beauty and wonder in the face of crisis and threat. The poem, we are told, references an exercise in the ancient Chinese practice of qigong and this is how it concludes:
You will find the moon, small as a child’s ball.
Gather it in your arms, lift it gently to the surface
and watch it lay a silver path. Now raise it
above your head and in the sky a silvery queen
will emerge from the swirling cloud layers.
She’ll reflect on herself in muddy puddles, conjure up
streams of glinting eels in rivers and summon
passageways through every darkness.
Ruth Sharman lives in Bath and works as a freelance translator from French. She has published two poetry collections – Birth of the Owl Butterflies (Picador) and Scarlet Tiger (winner of Templar’s Straid Collection Award for 2016. Rain Tree, due out from Templar in 2022, charts the poet’s attempts to reconnect with the India of her childhood.
Anne Ryland’s Unruled Journal reviedwed by Pippa Little
Unruled Journal by Anne Ryland. £10.99 Valley Press ISBN: 978-1912436620
The deeply textured painting on the cover of Unruled Journal sets the mood and tone for all that lies within. A fishing boat’s prow rests at the sea’s edge in blue light which might be early morning or early evening, just before or just after a storm…the mysterious depth of the image draws you inside and then you meet the blues and salts of Ryland’s voice, the many layers of her poetic imagination.
This is a third collection, assured, wide-ranging, whose themes work subtly together to deepen and expand its concerns. I was struck by Ryland’s ability to evoke quite desperate situations (such as disability, ill health, death of parents) with a deceptive lightness and grace: grief and loss are met clear-sightedly, even made beautiful. I love how Anne Ryland’s voice can span ranges of feeling in a single poem, embracing gravity along with a deliciously strange wryness. One of my favourite poems, ‘The Finishing Work’ does just this, superbly.
Several of the poems are informed by Ryland’s work as a German scholar and translator having lived and studied in Germany. Her interest in the war and its aftermath for that country has led to ‘versions’ rather than translations of poems by a little-known Jewish poet from Cologne, Hilde Domin (1909 -2006) . These include stark, arresting lines: ‘I am homesick for a country/where I have never been’…’I throw my keys into the sea/on boarding the boat’ (‘The Word of the Clouds’). Other poems such as ‘Trummerfrau’ (about women who cleared rubble from German cities) and ‘Helga and the Handcart’ explore issues of homelessness and seeking of asylum, issues as pressing today in a different yet related context: refugees for whom ‘home’ has ceased to exist. She also works from two poems by the Polish poet Leon Zladislaw Stroinski, who died in 1944, to create the spare and very moving ‘Warsaw’ and ‘Year 1944’. While Ryland is to be commended for bringing to wider attention yet another uncelebrated woman poet and an ‘obscure’ war poet, these choices say something about her wide ranging sensibility. She is more than a ‘local’ or ‘regional’ poet.
Localities thread through the collection, though. She was at sixteen ready ‘to scramble out of East Saxon land – Essex -‘ to journey into Germany with a blue suitcase and eventually, to write from her settling-place close to the England/Scotland border. The final sentence of the last piece is: ‘Running, I become the border’. In many ways I think this book is an assertion that after a long, difficult and painful process of moving between different physical and imaginative spaces the poet has made it through: she has assimilated some of the contradictions and limitations she has experienced: through her newly freed, running, supple body the ‘border’ is now lithe, alive, some contradictions synthesized: in middle age possibilities open, expand.
The poignancy of this ability to move, to go exactly where the poetry wants, comes partly from other poems earlier in the collection about the poet’s mother and aunts’ disabilities. My absolute favourite poem of all here is ‘Poppy Run’, where the ‘I’ is running ‘faster than my muscles/and bones have given me permission’, and remembering ‘the sisters unable to walk or wave goodbye’ but who ‘shooed their daughters out/into the world’. It goes on:
‘The anguish of leaving a mother stranded,
the yearning to be gone.
The contract, the stretch.
The keeping going while breaking down –
doggedness, wrought into dignity.’
‘as I pass and pass –
this lifelong overtaking.’
The family past also echoes: in one poem, ‘A Daughter Returns’, Ryland goes back to the small Scots town where her mother was a baby and in ‘Before the Pencil-trail Disappears’ she over-writes the fading script of a letter from her grandmother to her daughter. Letters are a recurring theme, from the strange, unsettling ‘Letter from Uncle’ to ‘My Mother Writes a Letter’, exploring how sometimes more can be said through being unsaid, and the ways that old-fashioned ‘rules’ of letter-writing brought unsettling undertones to the seemingly ordinary.
There is a lot of joy in Unruled Journal. I loved the poems which celebrate a return in later life to the freedom and speed of running and which take the collection off into a heady new direction. I also enjoyed very much the sequence of poems about Mr Millar’s desk, with its brass plaque from 1908, bought by the poet in an auction. Ryland has a lot of fun exploring roles and gender from the starting-point of this symbol of masculine gravitas, and her relationship to it as a woman poet and its new owner. Her feminism is clever and sharp, mordant yet subtle. In a surprising twist, most of the poems in this group are in the voice of a ‘surplus woman’ from post-World War One. The desk is where she writes in her ‘unruled journal’ – without lines or paths to follow, she must make her direction by herself : ‘Now I write the heart’s path’.
This collection evokes a hard journey, unequivocally female while being at the same time vitally human, of a life working through grief and loss to emerge in a flowering. It’s a triumphant assertion of the power and range of Anne Ryland’s poetry yet it also speaks for (and to) a whole other tranche of (typically ‘invisible’) women whose later years also see this ‘coming through’, who have learned how to ‘pass and pass’ – and keep going. Ryland is an extraordinarily gifted poet who should be much better known. I recommend this book highly.
Pippa Little is a poet whose work has appeared in Poetry Review, POETRY, Magma, The Rialto and other magazines. She has a poem in the latest Bloodaxe anthology Staying Human. Her third full collection Time Begins to Hurt comes out from Arc Publications in 2022.
Frank Dullaghan’s In the Coming of Winter reviewed by Janice Dempsey
In the Coming of Winter by Frank Dullaghan. £9.99. Cinnamon Press. ISBN: : 978-1788641111
The word that came to mind when I finished my first reading of ‘In the Coming of Winter’, Frank Dullaghan’s third poetry collection, was ‘fearless’. For there is fear in these poems — of the dark, of plague, of old age and the final darkness, death, but it’s fear confronted, examined and contained. A kind of fatalism sustains the poet.
But on subsequent readings, I became more aware of Dullaghan’s motive in his collection. It emerges in several of the poems as a need to ‘bear witness’. He states it clearly in the first poem: ‘Witness’, in which he sees an apparition of his dead father. Throughout the collection are poems of meditation at the transitions between night and day, on the shores of lakes. ‘Witness’ is set at dawn by a lake, peaceful at first light, but anxiety intrudes:
the sun has stalled
under a hood of cloud and the lake dulls.
And the squawking of the early birds sounds anxious.
But the ghost has nothing to say to his son; he is simply ‘there’:
the world happening as it always did
with no special purpose for him or me
or any of us, beyond bearing witness.
And in the final poem, ‘Flying South’, he sees himself
as a witness, as the swallows fly south,
of the way endings can feel like beginnings,
if you come at them from the other direction.
Between these two end-pieces, Dullaghan takes us on an emotional journey set geographically between his homeland of Ireland and the hot, far-away places where he has earned a living: two very different climates and landscapes. Above all, it’s his inner landscape that we get to know in the four sections of the collection.
The title poem of the first section, ‘Farewell Lovely Nancy’, is subtitled ‘A folksong for Covid 19 times’. He grieves:
“Farewell lovely Nancy, the world has closed its doors
and it makes no odds at all how the wind lifts and roars,
there is no going back to what we had before.”
The raw realities of life and death are revealed in a parody of a childlike rhyme:
“Love is not an answer, we’re no longer that naïve.
Death’s become a hammer and there is no reprieve.”
‘How Quickly the World can Change’, The first poem in this section, is a dream-like image: at first an idyllic scene out of a Rousseau painting, a child left unprotected surrounded by jungle creatures: “creatures and baby making a silent tableau”. But when the parent returns the dream becomes a nightmare: “The animals /watch you now: anticipation of what /will happen next ticking between them.” Human civilisation is fragile in the face of nature.
In more literal images, Dullaghan records his fears for his brothers and friends in Ireland, during the first year and more of lockdowns and restricted social activity. ‘Crossing Over’ is a bitter reflection on the loss of his brother, and on the fragility of life: he thinks of the many unpleasant ways to die “in these vicious days”:
“smothering as their lungs clog: this new,
black death which we try to lock out.
“What I have learned from my brother:
maybe in the end it’s the simplest thing—
here then not here. Over.”
Cut off from his family as he works in the far and Middle East, Dullaghan is forced to accept that his sister Mary may also die. In ‘Walking the Mile Road’ he recalls “It’s a long time now, sister, from your confirmation white” and the feelings of being “high on the innocence and zeal of our recruitment”. From the children walking optimistically towards their future, the poem moves quickly to Mary’s illness from Covid, while her brother can only call her daily, cut off from Ireland because he works abroad. Mary’s survival is expressed by another, shorter journey, from her door to the garden gate. “That is enough” he says, stoically.
‘The 2019 Coronavirus’ bears witness to the pandemic’s presence in Kuala Lumpur in February 2020, and the helpless fear that it inspired.
“…A great tempest of fear
is approaching. We will be up
to our armpits in its squall.’
This first part of the book is full of anxiety, including stress at the international political level (“In America, they are waiting for a president /to finally act like a president”) but it closes with a glimpse of personal salvation:
‘Life is filled with noise.
But there is peace
if you make space,” (‘Simply Meeting for coffee’)
‘Dingle in the Coming of Winter’, the section from which the collection’s title comes, is full of darkness and anxiety, with little to lighten it, but these are powerful poems. ‘Darkness, the opening poem, is a catechism of fear, a profile of the dark that makes it a concrete, evil, deceptive being waging a personal vendetta on mind and body. It ends with chilling lines:
The way it claims to be your mother
and you are just going home.
The prose poem ‘Hope can be a Burden’ is a monologue on ‘Another day when I’m looking out my window, shivering a little, the sky trying on its makeup’ in early morning. Financial fears that he is not being paid for his work here where “even this early, the heat is unbearable” fill his mind, interrupted by loneliness as he cannot help hearing mechanical sounds of lovemaking from the room above and “my mind wants to add small gasps, love sounds.”
This part of the book catalogues the feelings of futility that he feels at work (“Already, people have begun to look through me / I have been moved to a smaller desk that is easily passed” — ‘Transparency’) and the sense that he is struggling for equilibrium, expressed very strongly in ‘Tightrope’, a poem about a half-dreamt, half waking experience.The poem toggles between the disturbed dreamer tossing and turning in bed, and his dream:
“I hold the long pole in my hands.
It’s supposed to keep me steady. I wonder
if I should get up, read maybe. I sway …”
Another source of anxiety in this section is set out in ‘They are Running at Bullets,’ ‘Sons of Guns’ and ‘Lebanon August 2020 (for Z)’ — poems that refer to killings in Palestine, the NRA’s power to prevent gun control in America, and personal grief when Lebanon was wrecked by a bomb in 2020. But again there are poems that pinpoint a mood of hope, or at least philosophical acceptance. ‘Greyhounds’ is a memory from 2018, of a glorious day in Dubai. ‘Stunt’, another poem set at change of light, this time at dusk, accepts and looks at the fact of mortality
“There will always be a last time:
a last walk, a last meal, the burnt
hours sliding away, that sublime
self-regard tossed aside. that stunt
when you breathe and then you don’t.”
‘Dingle in the Coming of Winter’, the poem that gives this section its title, is another bright spot in the section. Seemingly written on a visit home to Ireland in 2017, this is a portrait of Ireland as a refuge for the narrator. He describes the fishing village, with loving clear-eyed detail, including “a murder of crows/revelling in their Dark Arts”, though he admits “So much of it is memory”. And
“Cold has found its way into bone.
I came here, feeling the need to drown
in the untamed weather, escape, be
In Dingle in the coming of winter, Understand
that this is just the way of things:
land trying ot outlive the sea …”
Janice Dempsey is an editor and writer who originally trained as a fine artist. She lives in Guildford, in the south of England. With her husband, the poet Dónall Dempsey, she is the joint owner/editor of Dempsey & Windle/VOLE Books and the host of their monthly online poetry events, ‘The 1000 Monkeys’. She has self-published one collection of her own poems and is preparing another. Websites: dempseyandwindle.com and janice-dempsey,com
Omar Sabbagh’s Morning Lit: Portals after Alia reviewed by Alex Josephy
Morning Lit: Portals after Alia by Omar Sabbagh. £10.99. 978-1788641272
Omar Sabbagh’s third collection with Cinnamon Press reads like the next instalment in a life story, intertwined with a continuing tussle with identity. In this story, the poet sets out full of hope and dread, intending to discover:
a different planet
spinning on a different axis
and finding ‘A Teetering Place’:
the brittle arrows
you’ve always parried,
you’ve always known.
Interestingly, Sabbagh’s poems open one’s mind to the idea that both joy and grief can provoke instability and lead to a passionate quest to rediscover meaning. Within the book’s pages a baby, and a father, are born. Sabbagh meditates on his relationship with his own father, the raw emotions that surround a birth, and the thousand natural shocks and wonders that bewilder new parents as they find their way into parenthood. There are sections interspersed where Sabbagh reflects on his life as a scholar, and as the daughter begins to grow, there are poems on the painful business of investing hope in a child, and of seeking to protect her in the world into which she has been born. The final section charts the agonising stages of a break-up (or perhaps an estrangement?), a new wave of readjustment, and an ongoing search for understanding.
‘Morning Lit’ is an intriguing and appropriate title. Sabbagh is nothing if not a literary poet. He references other poets and writers throughout, starting with no fewer than three epigraphs (Henry James, Lawrence Durrell and Joyce), placing his work in the wake of Modernism (though not Postmodern, and not averse to a touch of Romanticism either, in my reading). ‘Morning Lit’ also carries echoes of a poet’s ‘morning pages’, the words that come to mind first thing and fresh from dreaming. And it reminds me, too, of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, another lyrical poem in honour of a daughter. A new child, a new day; it’s a title full of aspiration, but morning is also only a beat away from mourning. For openers, though, to be ‘Morning Lit’ is to be bathed in light, and the majority of these poems are indeed lit up by the poet’s love for his child.
The collection has a complicated structure, being composed of sections within sections: ’Author’s Notes’, ‘An Introductory Note’, ’Prologues’, ‘Deliverances’, ‘Ad Hominems I’ and ‘II’, ‘Wishful Thinking’, ‘Broken Thoughts’ and ‘Epilogues.’ I hope I’ll be forgiven for thinking initially, ‘when does the collection actually start, then?’ This was before it dawned on me that the opening epilogues, ‘notes’ and ‘prologues’ serve as multiple gateways (portals even) into the main thread, the poems that clearly flowed prolifically after the birth of Alia. To me they convey the impression of stepping cautiously through the defences and self-conscious doubts that surround Sabbagh as he gathers the courage to present to the poetry-reading public the inside story of his heart. Sabbagh himself says in his ‘introductory note’: ‘A poet or creative writer can sometimes produce his worst work where his heart is most engaged or invested. The wrong kind of distance between him and his work can wreck the best intentions, preventing that kind of reflexivity that should be like a bodyguard to successful work.’
Once over the threshold, though, these concerns seem to melt away, and while Sabbagh never quite abandons his trademark uncertainties, there is a newly invigorated quality to these poems, written from beyond the portal of his daughter’s birth. In ’On Digging’, a sonnet addressed to his father (and alluding to Heaney, of course), there’s a touching sense of resuming contact now that they are in one way more equal, despite the fact that his father: ‘passed many years ago’. This continung conversation with a missing parent, facilitated by the experience of becoming one too, rings true to me: ‘The years since have lifted the curse / And I feel better speaking to you now.’
I’ve returned most frequently to the two sections devoted to Alia: ‘Deliverances’ and ‘Wishful Thinking’. They chronicle a kind of delirium that will be familiar to many parents. Sabbagh does idealise the process of birth, the perceived beauty of his child (I’m sure she really was beautiful, of course!) and the experience of fathering, but he also homes in on the gritty detail. At his daughter’s birth he exults:
I can’t find a straight, untethered line
Like this except in her, the unchained sounds
Of my future– the night is white with a girl…
At one moment he calls her: ‘a golden child’. Then in ‘The Princess Gospels’, which contain ‘The Art of Shit’ and other poems, he achieves a lovely combination of eulogy, disrupted attempts to philosophise, and self-parody:
We await that wetted load of crocodile and brown on preened tenterhooks. In fact perhaps it’s truer to say that it’s us, my wife and I, who are the truer new-borns in this luminous scenario: naked, bawling, purple, wet…
Formally, ‘Morning Lit’ is interestingly varied, prose poems and free verse rubbing shoulders with more traditional forms. I particuarly enjoyed the sonnets that punctuate the whole sequence. These contain and give scope to the adoration he seeks to express, for instance in the beautiful ‘Waiting for Alia’:
…the grammar of your waking, the quick
language by which you gabble and make your way
through the incoming, humid light, watering the face
of the world with your syllables, lips, a fig-coloured breeze –
From the later section, ‘Wishful Thinking’, I was struck by ‘Letter To An Innocent In A Time Of War’. Not quite terza rima, but composed of interlocking tercets, this poem expresses the protective passion evoked by a child, and feels timely too:
Meanwhile, my love, the world’s aflame – as the world forgets,
Once again, to dowse what has always burned here: blood-red ringed
By more. But you are Jerusalem for us, less the sadness, the millennia of sins.
There is much to discover alongside Alia’s besotted father; she takes her first steps, pronounces her first words, is compared (favourably of course) to silk and satin. She learns to desire chocolate. Is there a danger of sliding into sentiment, or even into pomposity on occasion? Yes, but then the poet’s witty, self-deprecating humour comes to the rescue. Are there absences? Of course and inevitably. The mother’s experience is a shadowy presence; but to be fair, this is avowedly a very personal exploration from the point of view of a father. Despite the darker tone toward the end, the whole collection is uplifting and engagingly open; one senses that Sabbagh has taken Henry James’s advice: ‘The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have… (So) live!’ The thrill of participating at the start of a new life, and the way in which in those early days the world is turned upside down, are generously lived and celebrated in these pages.
Alex Josephy lives in London and Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy. As part of the Poetry School Mixed Borders scheme, she has been poet-in-residence at Rainham Hall, Essex, and in Markham Square, London. Find out more on her website: www.alexjosephy.net
Michael Crowley’s The Battle of Heptonstall reviewed byLorri Pimlott
The Battle of Heptonstall by Michael Crowley. £7.99. Smokestack Books. ISBN: 978-1838198824
In 1643, Heptonstall, a Yorkshire village and a centre of the wool trade, was the scene of a small but bloody battle when Royalist forces led by Sir Francis Mackworth attempted to take the village from the Parliamentarians, commanded by Colonel Robert Bradshaw. In his powerful sequence of linked poems, The Battle of Heptonstall, Michael Crowley has used this episode of the English Civil War as his starting point for reflecting on the fracture lines that have opened in our society in the present. It seems apt. As Crowley suggests in his introduction ‘it is strange how some themes remain unresolved four hundred years later, how questions refuse to lie down’.
The book is in two parts, one set in the time of the Civil War and the other in the present. The first part, which forms a cohesive narrative, had its beginnings in a community play about the battle which Crowley wrote some years ago. In an age when poetry often views the world through the prism of the poet’s inner life, self is almost absent from Crowley’s work. He chooses to use his strong narrative gift to show the ways in which the civil war affected and sometimes destroyed the lives even of those who were not directly involved.
The voices of characters drawn from the play, some historical, some imagined, take the reader through the days leading up to the battle, revealing how their individual needs, feelings and beliefs intermesh with complexities of the conflict unfolding around them. Whether they have a direct role in the war or are destined to be collateral damage, Crowley allows his characters to speak for themselves, without passing judgement on them.
The book opens with the thoughts of John Cockcroft, a weaver, whose family is central to the narrative. His life is subsumed in his work and neither he nor his wife Alice, a spinner, have much involvement in the ideologies that are fracturing their world, although his words in ‘Weaver’, the first poem in the book, might be a metaphor for the unravelling of the social order which is taking place around him, and which will eventually upend his world:
All else depends on warp and weft
that the tension be right and be even,
or the coat unravels from the back.
Cockroft’s detachment from the conflict is noted in the poem ‘Billet’ by the parliamentary pikeman, Sergeant Leach, who is lodged with the family:
The weaver’s life is small, his God a tailor
he does not look up from his loom to the war
but speaks in corners to his wife
Cockcroft’s detachment cannot save his livelihood, nor the life of his naïve young son, Joseph, who is drawn into active involvement in the defence of the village through his love for Rose, an orphan girl. Ironically, Joseph is killed by a rock thrown by another defender. The Parliamentary Commander, Colonel Bradshaw, also eventually succumbs to his wounds, and dies questioning whether he fought for his God or himself:
I am ashamed of what I had to do
somewhere there are warmer days, greener trees.
I went to war against my King for you
In ‘Visitor’, the last poem of the sequence, a woolmaster revisits the village and finds it silent and almost empty.
The cloth hall is closed
merchants fled like larks
the village an empty loft, a lonely maypole.
‘Aftermath’, the second half of the book brings us forward into our own time. In the first poem, ‘Cursed’, the gap between the past and present is bridged by introducing the Leveller, Thomas Rainsborough, whose famous words during the Putney debates are quoted on the frontispiece of the book – ‘I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he’. Crowley imagines Rainsborough contemplating the Parliament he wished for, as it is now in the reality of the present.
I walk the corridors of my dream
Members talk as masters of the kingdom
when they were sent here as its servants,
they crave the peoples’ love yet think them imbeciles.
The second poem ‘Sealed Knot’ again connects the present to the civil war era, while making a sharp point about class. A pikeman in a civil war battle re-enactment is disciplined for slapping a horse and ‘sending the toff on top’ into a hedge. The dry humour of this poem strikes a different tone to the previous poem, but the wryly knowing words of the pikeman, who proclaims himself ‘a true Leveller and a Lilburne man’, echo Rainsborough’s perception of the gulf between the powerful and those they rule but despise:
It’s a crush inside the block of pikemen
the cavalry circling, mocking my regiment of foote,
to them we are nothing but a brutish multitude
fit only for driving taxis and shielding musket men from riders.
Many of the other the poems in the book are vignettes, in which narrative and character are deftly sketched in against the background of a divided and troubled country. Crowley has an ability to empathise with those whom many exclude from their sympathy, such as a sleazy pub landlord, ex-squaddies who:
‘talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland’
or the Brexit voter in ‘Firebug’ who feels he has become a social pariah:
Now people have stopped speaking to us,
they don’t let on when we are walking the dog
they’re so angry
you’d think we’d been keeping slaves in the shed.
Although great events such as the Manchester bombing, or Brexit, the great divider, are alluded in the poems, the backdrop is the sense of loss felt by people who are alienated and bewildered by the changes in a country they feel they no longer understand:
‘The old trees
are an afterlife from a country
we cannot bear to grieve for,
it is wrong now to go against concrete and tyres.
‘The Battle of Heptonstall’ is worth reading just for the spare precision of Crowley’s language and his unjudgmental empathy with his characters. For me, however, the voice he gives to people whose views and feelings are often peremptorily rejected without any attempt at understanding is its outstanding quality. I hope that it will be given the wide attention it deserves.
Lorri Pimlott’s poems have appeared in several anthologies, but she prefers reading them live to any audiences who are kind enough to listen. She also works in a variety of prose forms, from short stories to travel writing and memoirs.
Robin Thomas’ A Distant Hum reviewed by Neil Fulwood
A Distant Hum by Robin Thomas. £9.99 Cinnamon Press. ISBN: 978-1-78864-107-4
Is it an odd point to lead off with that Robin Thomas makes a virtue of concision? It almost sounds like a too-obvious thing to say. Poetry is concise by its very nature, surely; a distillation of form and subject? Only too often it isn’t: several collections I’ve read recently have been hampered by verbosity, poems far exceeding the word length for the average flash fiction call-out, unspooling over multiple pages. At least two T.S. Eliot Prize winners of recent years have offered content that felt more like unedited first drafts than finished, properly crafted work.
Craftsmanship, like accessibility, is too often considered a dirty word in the frequently “safe” environs of poetry criticism (this reviewer has more than once been taken to task for his opinions by some who see reviewing as an exercise in merit-badge platitudes). So I say again, shouting it from the heights: Robin Thomas makes a virtue of concision.
Not to mention craftsmanship.
The best crafted poems are generally those which don’t draw attention to the mechanics of the form or the polish of the poet’s technique but hyperlink the reader to a landscape or mindscape.
Here’s ‘No. 29 Bus’, quoted in full:
On brick wheels,
emerald green, cerulean blue,
vermillion, carmine, smalt.
upright, whole proud,
No. 29 sallies forth
If one knows the Eric Ravilious painting to which this poem both alludes and responds, the canvas explodes into the mind as if conjured by the flick of a wand or a drop of potion. If one doesn’t, the imagery remains rich and evocative, and a journey of discovery awaits the moment the enter key is struck on a Google search of Ravilious’s art.
A Distant Hum is structured around responses to works of art. Thomas ushers Ravilious into an art gallery-cum-imaginarium also populated by Caspar Netscher, Frank Auerbach, Dosso Dossi, Quiringh van Brekelenkam, Walter Sickert, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Diego Velásquez, Morton Schamberg and Alexandre-Francois Desportes, an exhibition that whirls the reader/viewer from the Renaissance to Baroque to modernism, from portrait and genre painting to figurative to magic realism.
A veritable “Who’s Who”, then, of art history. Forming, as they do, the collection’s thematic backbone, these pieces could cumulatively have proved too specialist, too erudite. And this is where Thomas’s clarity of language and easily worn accessibility come into play. Some examples:
Moon hands down judgement
in despair. Heaped with
with ashes, earth rains
rivers of tears.
‘Head of Leon Kossoff’ (Auerbach)]
The seated woman. The servant girl
offering the white flesh. The solid chairs,
the clock, the picture in its gilt frame.
The man in the doorway who may not enter.
[‘Interior with a Lady Choosing Fish’ (van Brekelenkam)]
Gold and white clouds
in a cobalt sky;
a sweet, solemn face
with downcast eyes;
soft abundant hair; folds
in a glowing silk gown.
The conception immaculate.
The delivery flawless.
[‘Immaculate Conception’ (Velásquez); quoted in full]
If these art poems hark back to distant eras (the oldest is the Dossi at c. 1524, the most contemporary the Auerbach from 1954), the sense of looking back is reinforced by other poems which reference, variously, steam locomotive the Flying Scotsman, a specialist jazz shop that closed in 1980, a wartime operation led by the flamboyant Patrick Leigh Fermor, and musicians Coleman Hawkins and João Gilberto. But traces of the contemporary are scattered through A Distant Hum’s pages, often in the acknowledgment of how Thomas’s subjects reverberate through the years and toll their relevance in the here and now.
And there is also a poem – ‘The Project Manager’ – whose eponymous narrator, having “created execution plans” and “walked around construction sites looking important and knowledgeable” and “been bad tempered under pressure”, almost seems to presuppose the beleaguered Prime Minister of contemporary “partygate” headlines: a chancer, a self-obsessed wide-boy who should have no place in high office but who nonetheless ends the poem shrugging off his transgressions with a half-hearted excuse for an apology.
A Distant Hum is a terrific collection, rewarding and infinitely re-readable. It is beautifully understated, an aesthetic reflected in its cover art of a simply drawn face modelling a curious expression – although I rather think that the expression of the reader, having finished the collection (or picked it up again, already considering it an old favourite), would be more in the region of a satisfied smile.
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.
Barry Smith’s Performance Rites reviewed by Janice Dempsey
Performance Rites by Barry Smith. Waterloo Press. £12. Waterloo Press. ISBN: 978-1-906742-95-9
Barry Smith’s debut poetry collection is a cornucopia of his rich artistic and life experiences. These poems draw on his life as an educator, a theatre director, a music lover, the director of the South Down Poetry Festival, and co-ordinator of Chichester’s summer arts festival, a curator of the poetry element of Blakefest, and as a long-established resident of Sussex and walker of its footpaths and beaches.
Accompanying Barry Smith on the page as he rambles on the Downs, visits village churches and walks on the shoreline becomes an intense learning experience, for he will digress naturally and casually to meditate on historical events that took place in those same places: in ‘Bosham Harbour’ he is fully aware of the present, where “the clutch of anchored craft /bob and balance in the harbour […] ‘limbering boys /with gleaming eyes skim pebbles” and “High-stepping oyster-catchers […] pick their prey with neat /economical dabs” while simultaneously reminding us of the fact that “on another day /when the light splintered /gold and grey on the water”, King Canute demonstrated to his fawning courtiers the limits of his power to hold back the tide. Typically, Canute’s name doesn’t appear in the poem — the reader is expecteds to remember the legend and guess that it was set in Bosham. I must confess that I had to use google to make sure I’d guessed/remembered correctly.
Smith achieves this balance between lyricism and didacticism again and again. He succeeds because he is intensely aware (and appreciative) of the details of the natural environment, and of the way that humanity impacts upon it. Simultaneously his experience of the places writes about is coloured by his wide and deep knowledge and awareness of history, English and local.
Barry Smith’s poems about flowers show his painterly appreciation of colour and texture and also his love of language — the technical language of the horticulturalist and botanist is clearly relished as he lists all the roses in ‘Rose Garden’. and in the wild he names and details the plants and creatures along the way.
Smith’s anecdotal and narrative poems occur at intervals throughout the book. Encounters with strangers, or accounts of their interactions with each other, are observed with compassion or humour or simply set out for the reader to enjoy. In ‘On the Rise’ the narrator is sure he “met Elvis on the rise at Brighstone /tending the frisky black-faced Shropshire lambs”, recognising him as Elvis from his hair, despite his blue overalls and horn-rimmed glasses. In ‘Off your Trolley’ a waiting room full of men waiting for medical treatment are heard and seen by the narrator, in all their anxious, wisecracking, fearful reality.
Barry Smith’s work in theatre and spoken word inspires several poems in which he explores life as a construct and people as players of roles. His evident enthusiasm and first-hand knowledge of directing, acting and taking shows to festivals is infectious. I enjoyed being blinded with theatrical lighting jargon and travelling up to a muddy campsite and encountering damp Edinburgh Festival streets snd entertainers in ‘Inflatable Floors’. I loved the troupe’s satisfaction after the Shakespeare play they presented —they realise ”we have stared together into the dark /just for a moment we let out a breath //and transcend those inflatable floors.” (The joke is, we don’t find out what “inflatable floors” are — we have ignored a tout urging us to come into a show and see them.) These poems may be metaphorical in intent, but they can also be enjoyed as vivid descriptions of theatrical life at this level.
And there are other poems of memoir: a first girl friend is remembered as the person who told him that Kennedy had been shot; in ‘My Father’s House’ he speaks of his father’s experience in WWII and how he dealt with his memories; Smith’s enjoyment of the work he did when presenting jazz and poetry at the Chichester Festival is expressed in a breathless recounting of the dialogue among team-mates on the day.
Then there are the ekphrastic poems: I particularly liked ‘Framed’, about Howard Hodgkin, whose paintings I myself enjoy. Smith comes at his subject from an appropriately slanted direction and clearly knows and understands Hodgkin’s methods. ‘Framed’ sent me to Google again, with its epigraph After Howard Hodgkin and Errolyn Wallen. When I saw that Wallen had tweeted about “stepping through my magic door” to compose music about a choppy sea, I thought I understood a little better why she was included in the epigraph.
A section headed ‘On the Rocks’ comprises poems about the dark side of being human. ‘Elizabeth, Pregnant’ is in the voice of a woman whose husband has died fighting in the First World War. She speaks out of stoicism and grief. The last lines pun on Shakespeare’s line Once more into the breach. “…his farewell gift, my last little one, //slipped squirming into the breach.
‘The Last Jew of Vinnista’, in this section, is perhaps my favourite poem in the collection: a short, stark, factual description of a photograph taken the moment before a fascist ‘execution’; this is the last stanza:
“there is a photograph
he is the subject
there is a pistol at his head
there is a man in uniform holding the pistol
and there is another man holding the camera.”
This is a substantial collection which is presented in four sections, each named after one of the poems in it. If the book has a flaw, this, in my opinion, is its only weakness. The sections interrupted the flow of the poems for me. I found myself trying to work out why some of the titles had been included in the section where they were placed and not in another. The collection would be equally coherent if the section breaks didn’t call a temporary halt to the reader every nineteen pages or so. It coheres because Barry Smith’s mind and voice echo clearly on every page, whether he’s narrating an anecdote, ruminating on a historical or existential parallel, celebrating a moment of sensual visual pleasure or recording horror at man’s inhumanity. His language can be vividly painterly, musical, or colloquial. He has a great deal to say, and he has written a book that will speak to a great many readers.
Janice Dempsey is an editor and writer who originally trained as a fine artist. She lives in Guildford, in the south of England. With her husband, the poet Dónall Dempsey, she is the joint owner/editor of Dempsey & Windle/VOLE Books and the host of their monthly online poetry events, ‘The 1000 Monkeys’. She has self-published one collection of her own poems and is preparing another.Websites: dempseyandwindle.com and janice-dempsey,com
Sarah Watkinson’s Photovoltaic reviewed by Kathleen McPhilemy
Photovoltaic by Sarah Watkinson. £9.00 Graft Poetry. ISBN 978-1-999878-7-2
Sarah Watkinson is a poet who inspires trust. By profession a plant scientist, she brings to her poetry the scientific knowledge and perspective her training has given her, but she never attempts to blind us with science. Rather, she uses her knowledge to explore the difficult relationship between humankind and other inhabitants of the natural world. These are topical, even trendy, concerns in what has come to be called the Anthropocene era, but Watkinson casts a cool, analytical eye on some of the more popular tropes of eco theory. In ‘Have I Spoiled the Birds’, number 5 in a series of six villanelles, she devastates the term ‘non-human’:
Beings ‘alive-but-not-us’, ecocriticism terms ‘non-human’.
How brazen, such reductive othering of the rest of creation!
This poem is a powerful, almost agonised, questioning of herself and her relationship to the rest of creation which derives from the argument as to whether God gave Adam dominion or stewardship over the animals. The first implies an anthropocentric and exploitative approach to creation whereas the second suggests a ‘sacred trust’. Watkinson considers the problems of the well-meaning steward through an exploration of her own practices of gardening and bird feeding. Her title is ambiguous as, on the one hand, it implies that she is harmlessly overindulging the birdlife in her garden, but, as the poem develops, we realise that human intervention may actually threaten avian populations: at worst, through disease. ‘My abundance of bird-seed is perhaps too sudden/disease could spread through this earthbound murmuration’; less fatal, but equally problematic, is the semi-domestication and altering of habit bird feeding encourages in previously wild creatures:
I want the variousness of wild companions
undiminished by domestication.
Will the nuthatch still crack shells in my dominion?
At my door, the robin’s glance seems all too human.
I am persuaded by the use of the villanelle for this poem; it serves to contain and structure a complex argument in which the repeated end word ‘dominion’ knells guiltily throughout. It also lightens the poem and allows a playfulness absent from the ecocritical writing which it comments on. Moreover, the rightness of the language and the long, overflowing lines diminish the predictability of this familiar. verse form.
The poet is clearly very interested in traditional poetic forms and uses this first collection to display her prowess in them. There are several excellent sonnets, perhaps an overdose of villanelles and a sestina as well as other forms I have not mentioned or may not have recognised. Occasionally, the poet seems to treat her chosen form like an unruly horse she is determined to control, so that sometimes she tugs too hard on the bit or delivers an unsubtle whack on the rump to coerce the recalcitrant verse into line. However, such lapses are rare and redeemed by the freshness of the language and the exact choice of vocabulary. Sometimes this is common currency used to convey precise observation: ‘Among flailed twigs – a flicker of blue-sky crown, a pale breast;/ your movements like the flap and pause of a late bramble leaf/ turning over in the autumn wind’. This sighting of a blue tit is followed by the scientist’s explanation, which could undermine, but instead validates the description: ‘Mimicry, the protective conduct of hedge birds – presumably/ perfected on former edges of wild understorey, still serves you well’. Elsewhere in the same poem, ‘Conversations at a Distance’, the language is uncompromisingly scientific: Curlews// understand air as an open system, adiabatic, chaotic’. I had to look up ‘adiabatic’ and I still don’t really understand it but I completely trust the poet to have used the right word.
Most appealing to me, is the humanity of this collection. This is obvious in family poems like ‘Maternity Leave in the Age of Giorgione’ or ‘My Father’s Bear’, but also there in poems which could be described as ‘eco’ but which do not attempt to renounce or disparage the human condition. Despite her scientific background, she is not afraid to anthropomorphise, not in a sentimental way, but in a manner which conveys kinship with fellow creatures, cats, horses, dogs, trees. She does, confessedly, struggle with the elephant. ‘Why can’t I conjure the feel of using my nose as a snorkel, or a hose’ she asks; ‘Where is it from, the otherness of his huge friend…?’ And then, because, she is a scientist, she provides an evolutionary answer:
We found the key to his shape and soul in DNA: forebears like manatees
browsing boundless seagrass meadows, made him peaceful with muscles
that must dream swimming. Time has grounded him. Think of him free,
afloat on the tropical swell, rolling his grey bulk in play, like a whale.
This beautiful passage is rendered tender and reflective by the long vowel sounds and repeated ‘l’s – ‘soul’, ‘swell’, ‘whale’. Watkinson is not afraid of the word ‘soul’, unlike some more materialistic scientists; her poetry suggests a Christian, perhaps Anglican heritage, which she challenges but does not denounce. This is particularly noticeable in the first poem which alludes to the terrible crisis of faith experienced by many Christians in the nineteenth century, following Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species:
Surviving progeny of long-gone castaways –
Or God’s a joker.
For proof, he shoots and packs more specimens.
Fitzroy reads the collect of the day.
‘Darwin in the Galapagos’
The irony of the last lines is intensified by our contemporary context of climate change and the extinction of species. The second poem in the book, which was the title poem of her earlier pamphlet, ‘Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight’ also questions Christian anthropocentricity in the voice of the dung beetle who uses religious or spiritual language to celebrate the workings of Providence in his particular universe: ‘every blessed night miraculously/ precipitates new turds for me to find.’ This poem also displays the sense of humour which makes this collection so enjoyable. Although Watkinson clearly cares passionately about the environment, she can still be very funny and has an eye for the quirkiness in the world, as seen in ‘The First Green Human: The Observer interviews Clorinda’ or more grimly in the word play and satire of corporation-speak in ‘Corporate Q and A.’
Sarah Watkinson is a quester; she does not shy away from difficult topics and she is ever open to trying out new ways of writing. This is a serious and most impressive first collection.
Kathleen McPhilemy grew up in Belfast but now lives in Oxford. She has published three books of poetry. Her poems appear widely in magazines in print and online. She is currently hosting a monthly poetry podcast magazine, Poetry Worth Hearing available on anchor.fm and Google.
Hubert Moore’s Owl Songs reviewed by Stephen Payne
Owl Songs by Hubert Moore. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978-1-912524-82-2
I own several of Hubert Moore’s books and pamphlets. I know already, then, that he has an admirable knack of finding and conveying interesting associative layers and emotional content in mundane scenes or episodes. His latest book is unusual in that it is so formally homogeneous. It contains 53 thirteen-line poems. The lines are rather short too; I’d say that the modal length is 3 or 4 beats. So, each poem is considerably shorter than a standard sonnet, despite the tease of thirteen. The book is printed in a small format (c. 3/4 the height and width of a Bloodaxe book), which saves blank paper and makes the whole package seem pleasingly modest as well as environmentally sensitive.
None of the poems, that I noticed, have any regularity of rhyme or metre; all are in well-formed sentences. Line breaks are at phrase boundaries, or else are used to create a slight momentary question. There is also an aesthetic of minimising within-poem variance in line-lengths. There is additionally some thematic consistency. The poems are arranged in 6 sections which range from six to sixteen poems each; the sections are thematic, though naming the clustering theme is harder for some sections than others.
Enough of generalities! Let’s turn to some notable poems and show their particulars.
Section 1 contains poems about poetry, or perhaps about the way poetry can change the way the world is perceived. The very first poem, ‘Moon-Work’, seems like an exception, however. It describes the charming cover illustration (a painting by Haymanot Tesfa, we learn from the Acknowledgements). The description is accurate and acute, and employs some figures to good effect but it doesn’t go much beyond the pictorial details:
In the blue of your picture
you have painted a full white moon.
Someone has left a needle and thread
up there, the needle plunged
into the stuff of the moon
like a spade in a vegetable patch.
Perhaps the point then, is less the poem than the picture itself. Or to put it another way, perhaps the poem is a thank-you gift to the artist (it’s addressed to her after all), and invites readers to look at the cover as an artwork in its own right, rather than merely, or mainly, a cover. What a generous way to begin the book!
Poems about poetry are often viewed negatively, but I enjoyed this section, including ‘At Lurais’, in which the poet’s inspiration grows on trees, and falls from their branches:
When in France I sometimes
use a willow by the Creuse
as shade. It isn’t tears
the willow weeps, it’s insects.
What they covet,
weep for, spatter for, must be
that next to them are
other creatures wriggling
into meaning on a page.
Section 2 has particular physical details acting as metaphors for life’s travails and joys (and Section 3 seems to me similarly oriented, though the first subjects are more episodic.)
I especially enjoyed ‘Inside Knowledge’, in which olive trees offer inspiration for dealing with misfortune and grief:
First-hand we don’t know much
and yet who hasn’t known
in aching limbs, in the white
clench of their minds
the rootedness of olive trees
in rocky hillside soil?
Section 4 contains politically motivated poems, about refugees, immigration and justice. The thirteen-line constraint really comes into its own here, forcing compression and elision that make the poems non-obvious, spare and hard-hitting. The first poem is entirely metaphorical, with the author listening, through the open doors of his balcony and privilege, to waves, and ‘the little scuttle of stones / which must have thought / this time they’d get away’.
In Nibbling, ‘Someone…took a day off work / to be there for his friend and flatmate / at the immigration court.’ In his pocket is a field mouse nibbling at oats, which the poem explicitly likens to a gradual eating away of principles of justice.
This theme, and this despair, returns in one of the poems for friends and family that make up Section 5. ‘Lighting a candle’, imagines Moore’s friend Eric ‘standing up / in court and pleading guilty / as you’ve been advised.’
… Back here
on this English winter night
we’ve lit a candle in a small
red tea-glass. We’re burning
for justice, burning you’re alright
and things will change.
The effectiveness of these poems, as I hope the extracts show, lies in well-chosen details and images; the plainness of the language and form lets the reader linger more on the meaning than its expression. The impression throughout is of a tender regard for the poems’ subjects and of a generous invitation to the reader to ponder the writer’s concerns.
After all, we readers, like the writer, rejoice in the identity of ‘Rare Bird’ poetry enthusiasts, as a poem in the final section has it. We recognise the moment when
…the check out girl says,
“Poetry? On the third floor.
The stairs are dodgy though,
And we’re reassured to have learned, after reading this book, that Hubert Moore will.
Stephen Payne is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, where until September 2020 he taught and conducted research in Cognitive Science. He lives in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan. His first full-length poetry collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, was published by HappenStance Press in 2015 and shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year. His second collection, The Windmill Proof (September 2021), and a pamphlet The Wax Argument & Other Thought Experiments (February 2022) were published by the same press.
Carole Coates’ When The Swimming Pool Fell Into The Sea reviewed by Roger Elkin
When The Swimming Pool Fell Into The Sea by Carole Coates. £15 Shoestring Press. ISBN: 9781912524778
The title of Carole Coates’ fourth Shoestring collection intuits the catastrophic collision of the ordered world of contained domesticity with the elemental force of Nature. What is at stake is the place of the individual within the wider cosmos. Subsequently the poems chart an exploration of the interface between private and public worlds; the overlapping of the past and the present and the tensions they place on the future; and the relationship that personal memory has within artistic craft.
Carol Ann Duffy’s back-cover commendation of Coates’ tri-partite collection, dedicated “In memory of John David Coates 1943-2020”, credits the collection as “both reincarnation and elegy in a visceral exploration of illness, bereavement and widowhood”. The focus of the collection is further intensified by the use of the dedicatory Latin word, “umbratilis”, which translates as “private”, “indoor”, “remaining in the shade”, and “contemplative”: features which are explored both factually and stylistically throughout the collection. Additionally, the use of personal, biographical, and autobiographical referencing tackles the central act of artistic/poetic creativity in the forging of the intimacies of private, personal relationships into works that have an essential public quality; and explores the melding of the world of the ego into the externalities of the id.
Given the subject matter and the process of coming to terms with personal loss, and the almost cataclysmic suggestions of the title it is surprising that there are no verbal pyrotechnics: the register and diction in the main are drawn from the world of domesticity with occasional reference to medical terminology. A similar objectivity is evident in matters of stance and tone: while there is plenty of sentiment, there is little sentimentality. Conversely, emphasis falls on presenting an almost factual account of events, both personal and wide-ranging. Consequently, the free verse is clear, unambiguous, questing and questioning; and has an honesty that is disarming. A feature is the use of blank space as replacement for punctuation, including line-endings, and which serves as vehicle for conveying the hesitancies of awareness and understanding, and the uncertainty of events. Most intriguing, inviting and even alienating in their precision is the framing of lengthy titles, as in the title-poem and elsewhere, e.g. “I Talked with a Young Woman Yesterday who’d never heard the word Convalescence”; “Let Us Now Praise Women who should be much more Famous”; “That Afternoon in Crete When I Went Down into the Earth”: “Hostilities on a Train Travelling through Yugoslavia, August 1973”; “Coming Back Unexpectedly You Look through the Window at your Own Room”; “The Woman in the Red Dress goes Upstairs to look in the Mirror”. In addition, there are three moving sequences: in Part I, “Crazy Days” (11 poems) and “I Can Tell You Now” (5 poems); and in Part II, “In the Resuscitation Room” (3 poems). Such is the intensity of the exploration of events with the extremes of hurt, loss and tender moments that this review will concentrate primarily on the first of those sequences.
However, a necessary starting-point for the entire collection is the consideration of the opening poem, “We were Talking about the Painter who Destroyed his Work because it did not ‘trap Reality’ but merely illustrated it” (an endnote identifies the painter as Francis Bacon). Coates uses the poem to delineate and celebrate the relationship between the author and her memorialized dedicatee (her husband). Unlike the painter, Coates both identifies and insists on
this is the thing itself
this room and us and now
The use of italics in the capturing of the “talking” between author and husband emphasises that perceived reality. Subsequently, the poem opens out to present closely-visualised detail and nuanced references to both place and time – features replicated throughout the tripartite collection:
the western light on the old bronze Buddha head
the long case clock that’s stopped
your coffee mug with loping otter
your legs stretched out
my book and all the quiet afternoon
However, the surety of the domestic harmony is challenged by a further insistence on reality in the poem’s concluding lines:
and I remember when you were so ill
so horribly ill the past leaned in to us
an old reality trapped in your head.
That was the thing itself returned
and how it burned us. How it sent us mad.
The repetition of “so ill”, and the inner assonance of “returned” and “burned” impart a quiet but disturbing dignity to the lines, as emphasis falls on “the thing itself”, and the suggestion that the couple are “trapped” in the reality of the instance. The poems that follow explore sensitively and bravely the “old reality” of their trapping, while simultaneously drawing on illustrations of the events and feelings.
The significance of these details is intensified in Part I of the collection by the sequence, “Crazy Days” in which the reader is gradually and incrementally allowed knowledge of the shared experience of the illness affecting both husband (the “You”) and author (the “I” of the poems). Of importance is the fact that this awareness is not presented chronologically, so the sharing has an almost incidental/accidental nature that lends the learning process for partners and reader an intimacy that is both powerful and moving.
“Crazy Days 1” reveals the husband’s fear of “the great pit / in the bed” which forces the author “away / to the attic bedroom”; “Crazy Days 2” sees him “a six foot child looking for sweets”, his “wounded brain … craving sugar”; “Crazy Days 3“ recalls “when you went away in your head / from yourself and our whole life”; “Crazy Days 4” reveals “when spasm after quivering spasm / shook the bed”, “But now we realize they were only rehearsals”, “practising for the big one”
to which you added all the required and necessary features:
clenched jaw, pink froth, glittering sightless eyes, rigidity;
“Crazy Days 5” records memory loss as, watching “the rolling news”, “You weep at a small girl lost, / her parents desperate. An hour later … / at the news of a small girl lost, her parents desperate.” The repetition of lines and phrases is mimetic of the processes of the illness which becomes ultimately “Our circular numb life … / – again – and then again – and then again – again”; “Crazy Days 6” emphasises the close bond between author and husband, as covering him while he’s sleeping, she is aware
My body is as sensitive to yours as years back …
… I watch you
with something like obsession –
my hearts and brain and blood alert, attentive.
However, the instance is broken by italicised conversation, this time with the ambulance service,
and in the poem’s final lines
… put your hand on his chest.
Say NOW when he breathes in.
NOW I say … and NOW … NOW … NOW …
the repetition is used to illustrate the immediacy of the emergency.
“Crazy Days 7” rehearses the instances of memory-loss, the “short-term world of no conclusions”, as visiting the Museum Coates is aware how “every tableau, … each notice” “will be / forgotten … be erased, before you leave.” The diagnosis of the condition as possibly “Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease” comes in “Crazy Days 8”, and the poet’s startling vision of it as “a featureless dark plain / continent-wide and no-one there but us”. This is mirrored in a recollection of a mourning woman who refusing all other mourners “sat in the church alone”:
It stayed with me:
that there were two of them and then just one.
The stages in the realisation of this pending isolation underpin the tangled emotions of the hospitalisation of her husband as relayed in “Crazy Days 9”. Facing her husband there might be publically-expressed hope in the written note she leaves “You’re ill and the doctors will make you better”; but at home the reality dawns
I said you were doing fine, having lots of tests and they’d soon
find out what was the matter. And I was fine, thank you.
But it wasn’t soon and I wasn’t fine and the only day I cried
I was like a burst main and I drove on the flooded roads
through the rain in a car full of tears.
The bald statements, and the unfussy detail show a committed resolve, emphasised by the fact this is the “only day” of downbeat emotion: the poem concludes with the confirmation of hope
Stay here, I said, They’re going to make you well.
“Crazy Day 10” reveals the effects on her husband of “the medication / … the cannulas … / … the hospital and all the drugs”. He has become a “steroid monster” “afflicted in a new way, not absent / but someone else / manic, angry, grandiose, / all your gentle ways and manners gone.”
Now he orders “crates of wine / hundreds of books”, and works out the extent of their wealth “on a thousand scraps of paper … strewn all about the house”,
And all the time you talked. And talked. And talked
a feature which is emphasised by the fact that this line is repeated. The cataloguing of medication, the listing of events with their increasingly-exaggerated numbers and the repetition indicate the depth of frustration, and the conflict between the outer world of public acceptance and the inner world of uncertainty and grief. While other folk express pleasure at his return – Isn’t it great that he’s back – she privately insists “This isn’t the man I knew”; and to their delight Isn’t it great he’s better? she exclaims, “Yes but I don’t like him now.”
The final poem of the sequence, “Crazy Days 11”, starts with the directly-expressed assertion that the “antibodies that attacked your brain / have been repelled”. However, all is not positive, for though “Officially … cured”, “those creatures your body loosed on you / have eaten away at both our lives”. The full disturbing effect of this is evident in the description of the husband’s new discovery of self:
now that you’ve found out who you are
and that took some time – building a self –
yourself – from the facts of the old self
which is you really – someone you are now inhabiting,
trying yourself on and checking the fit
and it’s such an urgent thing
that you don’t have time for the details
or the photos of our time in Venice.
The sentence length with its emphasis on the stages of “the long slow mending” is confirmed by the directness of the writing. The absence of adjectives other than “old” and “urgent” places attention on the conflicting tensions between former and present self-hood. Particularly effective is the use of the cataloguing of present participles – “building”, “trying”, “checking” – and the full desperation for both husband and author captured in the awareness that the use of the term “inhabiting” demands. Despite the husband’s urgency, Coates takes refuge in her description of the “last day” of their time in Venice, “a day of no photographs”. The precise visual detail, and the remembered intimacies of experience create a moving testament to the relationship between author and husband. Simultaneously they confirm the poetic craft of not just illustrating but being “the thing itself”. It is necessary to quote at length from the poem’s final verses to convey the lucid ease of Coates’ achievement:
We walked along the Zaterre
in a brilliance of water and light
from the deep moorings where the big ships are
to the white domed church by the San Marco basin …
… and the glittering deep sea channel
where a huge cruise liner moved dead slow with tugs
and its passengers, higher than the campanile,
waved down at us.
It was merely a small fragment of living
transfigured by light.
As I hope this exploration of elements from only part I of the collection has indicated, this is a big and important book. Such is the close focus and detailed responses to events that the 39 poems transcend the personal to become a moving testament to love and survival. This book has to be read.
Roger Elkin lives in the Staffordshire Moorlands. His poems have won sixty-two First Prizes in (inter)national Poetry Competitions; the Sylvia Plath Award for Poems about Women; and the Howard Sergeant Memorial Award for Services to Poetry (1987). He organized the Leek Arts Festival International Poetry Competition (1982-1992); was the co-Editor of Prospice, the international literary quarterly, (issues 17-25); Editor of Envoi 1991-2006, (issues 101-145); and poetry tutor at Wedgwood College, Barlaston. He has published thirfteen collections of his poetry.
Candy Neubert’s privacy reviewed by D.A. Prince
privacy by CandyNeubert. £10. Shoestring Press, 2021. ISBN 978-1-912524-83-9
This collection opens with the title poem and the opening line is ‘I have come home’. A sense of place and possession of this place is at the heart of this poem:
This room is my room
and the wind, restless outside,
driving the sea hard against the shore,
and the salt smell
driving into my nose, mine,
—yet the place is never named. Nor is it named in the rest of the collection and for me that is its strength. The small handful of place-names that do appear pass lightly through the poems, not weighing them down.
Neubert leaves space for the reader to bring the details of their own particular, tangible ‘home’ to her framework of a secure room, the sea and shore, the elements. In writing about the core feel of ‘home’, that most private place, she transcends the distraction of surface detail and specific geography. Yet this never makes the poems impersonal; instead, I found the lack of names brought me closer to them. It might seem a paradox to write that her privacy makes them more inclusive but that is how this collection works.
Sea, islands, harbours; these are key elements along with a sense of travelling lightly. This lightness is carried through into the titles; all are lower case and frequently only a single word. There’s a self-effacing quality to this simplicity that has something timeless about it. There’s nothing fashionably attention-grabbing here, only its opposite. A few examples—‘burial’, ‘plank’, afternoon’, ‘long back yard’—stand for the rest. Yet the poems are far from simple. They are stripped back to the essentials, the spine of the poem, so what is complex is then exposed; often it’s the way there is no single word or explanation for a state of mind.
Take ‘ferry’, two stanzas about a journey that could be anywhere, and finding a seat as far forward as possible—‘making the crowd disappear, an old trick/ from way back.’ The ‘we’ of the first stanza disappears into the ‘I’ of the second:
Always this engine
purring up my spine, always
these little fish. I sit
on the slatted locker gummed with salt,
bare feet on the rail, ready for spray,
ready for the rise and wallowing
which make some sick and me the opposite;
that other thing.
I can feel and smell this ferry but what is ‘that other thing’ of the last line? It’s physically the opposite of travel sickness but the short line and its placing at the end of the poem give it more significance ; it’s a combination of travel and excitement and being alone and looking forwards, and, I imagine, much more.
This deliberate lack of focus on the mundane specifics of daily life is effective in making a state of mind not only clear but familiar. The opening of ‘shed’:
Whatever I have done in the kitchen,
however wrong I am in the bathroom,
—covers all the domestic failures that are part of shared living. It’s the private space of the shed that provides sanctuary; it’s a shed we can all see in our minds eye although each will be different. Neubert’s shed stands for a whole world of private safety:
— whatever I have done,
a miracle has forgiven me here
as I pull open the door of the shed,
the crows on the rise into the branches.
‘shed’ is a fourteen-line poem, a length Neubert frequently chooses. It suits her scale although she can handle longer poems with equal ease. ‘the harbour’, three pages in length, is the longest in the collection. Again, she doesn’t specify a location but all her elements come together: time, the tide, stone, surrounding houses, boats, the noises, and the sense of leaving. Neubert’s harbour is a composite of all the harbours I’ve known; I can ‘see’ it although I know in her inner eye the landscape will be different. The poem addresses a ‘you’, a listener; this is not a self-reflexive ‘you’, as the opening lines make clear, and there is an urgency in her need to convey how the place matters to her. ‘Important I explain’ she writes in the first stanza and she returns to this with a repeated ‘Important you should know’ to open the two last stanzas:
I have been watching at the harbour
since a child, and since before that time.
Within her privacy, this is something to be shared. While there are people in her poems they generally appear only as pronouns; they keep their own privacy.
The final poem, ‘morning’, draws many of her motifs together. ‘Here are the great stone steps you know so well’ recalls ‘the harbour’, as does the shape of a person sitting, knees drawn up— the ‘you’ here is self-reflexive. It’s sonnet with a turn so quiet you hardly notice it but it marks the shift from the past into the present:
This is the old town beginning to stir.
Come in here; the wooden doors stand open
to the street and he sits at a table
reading a newspaper. Morning, he says.
He says your name. Want coffee? And you do,
you can, and most incredibly, you’re safe.
Travelling through the poems has brought the reader full circle, to a safe place that is ‘home’. This is an absorbing collection about how it is possible to share privacy but give nothing away, how to have a light footprint in the world, and how to live.
D. A. Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her poems and reviews have appeared widely in magazines. Her second full-length collection, Common Ground, HappenStance, 2014, won the East Midlands Book Award 2015. A pamphlet, Bookmarks, also from HappenStance, was published in 2018.
Greg Freeman’s Marples Must Go! reviewed by Wendy Klein
Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman, £10.00, Dempsey & Windle, ISBN 978-1-913-32950-1
Before I had started to read Greg Freeman’s wise and quirky collection, I wondered what the man had against Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. I had much to learn, not only about Ernie Marples and other cultural references. From the outset Freeman challenges our perceptions of all sorts of things from children’s television programmes to the idyll of childhood innocence itself. In the opening poem, ‘The Flowerpot Men’, he notes:
The strange figure with squeaky voice
they occasionally met in the wood gave
and in closing:
Everyone remembers a Bill and Ben
Perhaps all those benders caught up with them.
The many possible meanings of ‘benders’ offers so much scope for interpretation!
This collection, while unashamedly memoir, is an eclectic mix of history/politics/current affairs and personal anecdotes, some with deep emotional undertones. It was refreshing to read poems that are clearly in the author’s voice, a strong, demotic voice that doesn’t miss a beat. In’ Free School Milk’, with its inklings of Margaret Thatcher, the poet remembers his first job, shifting milk crates, how he loved it:
You needed strength
to lift those crates.
I can’t recall the name, but
some Killjoy put a stop to all that.
In the witty title poem Freeman takes a ‘slogan daubed on a motorway bridge’ referring to the political villain, Ernest Marples who, with a ‘pecuniary interest in motorways’ was
more to blame than Beeching
for the vandalism of the railways,
He goes on to mention other miscreant politicians including John Profumo, and Dominic Cummings’ infamous Covid journey:
The M1 peters out north of Leeds,
merges with the A1, a much older road
(turn left for Barnard Castle,
if you can read the signs).
Freeman’s relationship with pop music over time offered me the pleasure of revisiting Bob Dylan in a poem that is a wry take on the BBC getting to grips with 60’s pop. In ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, he recalls in the closing line that
a character called
Mr Jones was there
a reference to the tragic death of Brian Jones, the most rock and roll member of The Rolling Stones, by drowning in a swimming pool. Jagger himself is pictured in the following poem,‘The Weekend Starts Here’, his eagerness to shine, a strange urgency.
… concentrating more on his moves
than on his miming,
holding it all back on Little Red Rooster
‘Top of the Pops, where the weekend started Thursday evenings and a host of familiar stars, were inexplicably forced to mime their songs is captured delightfully.
Freeman supplies the precise details required to evoke characters like the secondary school English teacher who ‘turned up pissed, fresh from the pub’, but who could evoke the wonders of Hardy, Owen, Larkin, and Hughes for adolescent boys:
His lesson was this:
bards, booze, cigs and blues.
That this poet evokes the world of journalism with all its highs and lows is no surprise, given his background. He begins on ‘The Local Rag’ with its
Crashing typewriters bashing out
wedding details, film previews,
In ‘The Overmatter’, which is the term for copy that cannot be printed due to lack of space, he closes with the ironic quip:
Just lead it out, to fill the space.
All the news that fits, to print.
Freeman wears his politics on his sleeve boldly. Evoking the catastrophe of Brexit and the characters populating the period running up to it, he even takes personal responsibility in a real or imagined incident where he fails to run down a certain prime-minister-in-waiting, crossing at traffic lights in 2009 (‘How I Failed to Stop Brexit’).
…What if my foot had slipped
on to the accelerator? What if I had
ploughed down the politician
and his children, ruining my own life
as well as ending theirs?
Many good poems start in the ‘what if’ frame, but this one rings with contemporary truth echoed again in ‘Return of the Daleks’.
Hideous inside their boxes,
of others not of their kind.
ending with the strident message:
Don’t hide behind
the sofa, England!
Come out and push them
down the stairs!
For me this collection is made particularly engaging through the way Freeman intersperses anecdotes of personal and family history, family pride, with emotion finely judged, a held-back sentimentality. In ‘Expats’ he watches his daughter out-do the Spaniards dancing the sevillana:
the chicas guapas rubias (blonde young girls)
stamping, clapping spinning,
reminding locals at the feria
just how the dance is done.
Post Brexit, ‘The Morning After’, the poet observes his granddaughter in a plaza in Marbella beside a fountain sculpture reflecting …’civic pride, / what might have been.’ There is poignant hint of what may now be lost.
‘O’Rafferty’s Motorcar’ (a poem for my granddaughter), illustrates all the joy of the poet’s experience of grandparenting. Of course, I had to listen to song to get it, and to understand how the tune sung on long car journeys with her mother, returned to him to sing his granddaughter to sleep.
I never thought I’d feel this way again.
O Alba, when next we meet
will you still have time
for this old man’s tired routine?
A powerful connection to humanity shines through all of Greg Freeman’s poetry whether he is musing on the death of the MP, Jo Cox (‘Clacton’)
where my brother found a sodden fiver
beside a breakwater and my mother
dried it, spent it on a pair of jeans
or mourning the death of Amy Winehouse (‘Our Amy’)
singing in the rain,
hitching up her trousers, tottering
off stage briefly in her heels
or even commenting on Sean Henry’s striking sculptures in Woking in a poem which offers a political context from the outset with the title of the Beatle’s song, ‘All the Lonely People.
In his closing poem, Freeman muses again on his grandchildren, growing up ‘on Facetime in Spain’:
… Joy of a family lunch
in Benhavis, lockdown blurted out after we flew to Spain
my determined wife vetoing my fears …’
Vetoing the fears that they might never go home! It is the interweaving of the personal and political, that makes this collection particularly compelling. Greg Freeman has pulled the combination together with wit, energy, and huge warmth, a rewarding read.
Wendy Klein’s most recent pamphlet Let Battle Commence (Dempsey & Windle 2020), is based on her paternal great-grandfather’s letters home when he was serving as a Confederate soldier in the US Civil War. A Filmed version is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be /L2JlbpAdUcU Previous collections are Cuba in the Blood and Anything in Turquoise from Cinnamon Press, Mood Indigo from Oversteps Books (2016), and Out of the Blue, Selected Poems from The High Window Press (2019). Her poem ‘Lute’ won second prize in the Poetry Space Competition 2021, adjudicated by Rosie Jackson.
Concrete Poetry, A 21st Century Anthology, edited by Nancy Perloff
Concrete Poetry, A 21st Century Anthology. Edited by Nancy Perloff. £25.
Reaktion Books. ISBN: 978-1789143683
Concrete Poetry blossomed into a movement in the UK, Europe and Asia during the 1950’s -70’s. Its star shone brightly with musique concrete – another post-war phenomenon. Both were a reaction against an impasse in classical orchestral music and the political abuse of language during the war years. They were a revolutionary assertion of “the new” yet drawing inspiration from the shock of visual, literary and aural modernism that occurred at the beginning of the century. The Russian Futurists, The Italian Futurists, German Dadaists, Stravinsky and James Joyce made a visually radical and sonorous poetry possible. Especially Joyce whose late prose became increasingly musical, exploring the material nature of the written word: giving us the term “verbivocovisual” where the form of a work of art is equal to its meaning.
Concrete Poetry is a difficult movement to describe or pin down. Editor Nancy Perloff admits that ‘An essential principle of concretism – ‘that language has a visual dimension’ and that the actual “look” of a poem on the page determines at least in part, its meaning and therefore
‘became central to visual poetics…’Semantics also plays its role in concrete poetry. Perloff references the American poet Rosemarie Waldrop’s definition, ‘Concrete Poetry is a revolt against the transparency of the word. And it ‘is a poetry that makes the sound and
shape of words its explicit field of investigation.’
Words fly round the page, group themselves into formations or create new patterns and colours. Some on sheets of white paper, cardboard cubes, cardboard cubes, scraps of newspaper, scrolls and computer screens. Verse forms are abandoned for a visual freedom. Latin America, Japan, Germany, France, the USA, UK, Switzerland and Japan are concretised with an emphasis on CP pioneers, Augusto De Campos, Gerhard Rohm and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
One of the delights of the book is the inclusion of Japanese poets.Their aesthetic being the ideograph. I loved the charm of Sei’chi Nikuni’s Window (1968) River or Sand-bank (1966) and especially Rain (1966).
The four dots round the character, on the bottom line expressing shelter are for me as subtle and effective as the use of silence in a play or the appropriate use of a capital or comma in orthodox poetry.
Ian Hamilton Finlay intrigues, frustrates and tantalises with a concrete poem called homage to Malevich (The radical Russian painter of the famous 1915 painting The Black Square).
Locked in BLACK or blacked in a LOCK really wanting to be captured on a totally black surface when all around you is an imprisoning white page? That’s my question for Finlay. My interpretation.
Augusto de Campos is one of the great pioneers of Concrete Poetry. In 1980 Augusto experimented with his poems to realise them in digital form on video. The poem SOS, from
1983, was chosen for the front cover of this anthology of Concrete Poetry and also exists as a video on YouTube.
You can watch SOS, in motion, and being read on YouTube.Or scroll back to the beginning of this review to see the book cover. I have included the book’s translation of the text to
accompany film and image.
We alone after
What shall we do after
Without sun, without mother, without father
In the night that becomes night
We shall wander without voice
There are a few poems in this anthology whose seemingly linguistic and visual absurdity may stretch your patience but not SOS which is for me a masterpiece of the genre. Witty and metaphysical.
It’s a haunting gem of concretism comparable to the playfulness of the calligrammes of Apollinaire and relatable to the abstract work of Canadian filmmaker Norman McClaren.
Now the reason as to why, according to Perloff, ‘concrete poetry has not yet received its due, especially in the English speaking world’ is, for me, only partially answered in her introduction. She says that this poetry’s layout looks simple and easy and superficially resembles advertising. That readers can regard it as a game or a craft ‘rather like Scrabble or finger painting.’ I agree with her when she says that the best is visually and sonically compelling. Whether accessible and direct or difficult and complex, concretism is a poetic expression worthy of close and careful readings. The minimalism of these poems is deceptive. They wait to be carefully unpacked by the eye and tongue. Surveyed, read aloud and pondered on (as if an abstract painting) to experience their energy and potential meanings.
I have no problem with Perloff’s defence of concrete poetry. But I felt it was an incomplete defence. I would have liked her to analyse and elaborate more on a chosen example poem in her introduction, and then given me a basic, even tentative, critical method, or tool, to keep in mind whilst reading the anthology. Instead what she ably does is to supply a tag to each individual poem, translating keywords (especially if it’s a foreign language) and provide a personal exposition of what she thinks is happening in the form of the poem. These are not exactly explanations more helpful and guiding suggestions.
Concrete Poetry, a 21st century Anthology is a beautifully produced hardcover costing about £25. If the cost deters you then I hope large regional libraries and the Southbank Poetry Library have purchased a copy for their Reference section. Whether you leap in and buy it or consult a library copy I think its well worth your time. A book for poets, readers and art lovers. Your own formally composed verses, on the still white page, ought to be ruffled, alarmed, and if not fully
converted, at least have the “look” of them excitingly challenged.
Alan Price is a poet, short story writer and critic. His film and book reviews regularly appear on the websites Magonia and London Grip. He has published fiction, poetry chapbooks and three full collections among which are two published by The High Window Press: Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady and The Trio Confessions.
Rosie Jackson’s Light Makes It Easy reviewed by Caroline Heaton
Light Makes It Easy by Rosie Jackson. £6.00. Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021. ISBN 978-1-912 876-63-1
Rosie Jackson’s body of poetry has been interrogating the opposition and correlations of light and dark since her first substantial pamphlet What the Ground Holds, published by Poetry Salzburg in 2014, and this, her fifth poetry collection, has only deepened that enquiry. But immediately I write ‘interrogated’, I want to unsettle the word, just as she unsettles expectations and assumptions in both meditative and robust poem after poem: it is too arid a choice to introduce a poetry which is both spiritually questing and profoundly felt, yoked to powerful experience which communicates itself strongly to the reader.
Appropriately, Light Makes It Easy opens with a poem, which employs pilgrimage as a metaphor. Titled ‘Lockdown as a Kind of Pilgrimage’, the poet characterises the
difficult months of seclusion as ‘a time of elegy /of quiet reckoning’ and invites us to question with her where meaning can be found in a time of bewilderment and suffering, which she boldly suggests can feel ‘holy’, if we are attentive:
Surely, we’re being asked to go inwards,
deeper, beyond shale and sandstone,
below hidden blocks and habit patterns
of our living to the deepest source. Why else
are the usual sites of blessing closed –
Lourdes, Mecca, Jerusalem’s holy sepulchre –
unless to remind us we must find love here,
in our cells of seclusion, or not find it anywhere?
If there is anything daunting in the suggestion, it is mitigated by Rosie Jackson’s own generosity and courage: it is spoken in the form of a question which gently challenges, even as it offers a bridge and pathway to the reader to accompany her on the voyage. And reading and re-reading the collection, I was struck by a very particular kind of poetic tact and delicacy. The first poem announces with confidence, but no bravura that the poems will engage with profundities – with, as the blurb alerts us, – ‘loss, mortality, transience, (and) talk openly of death and what might lie beyond, go deep in search of beauty, meaning and love.’ However, individually, the poems begin time and again with some simple act of observation, recall or scene-setting, recounted often in an engagingly conversational and sometimes robustly humorous, tone, which immediately draws the reader in and places them alongside the poet:
I planted them while you were at work … Galanthus nivalis…
My new man’s watching birds through his binoculars
– black cap, fire-crest – as they crisp into view
along with seas of a nearly-ripe moon …
(‘A Drop in Temperature’)
Yesterday I lay in the hot garden
trying to unsee everything that wasn’t blossom
or leaves …
(Under Every No)
This grounding, together with the precisely observed natural details, prepares the
reader for the frequent bold flights which follow into the human pain of the pandemic, with which the collection is much concerned, but which it is clear is only an intensification of the ‘lacrimae rerum, the tears OF things,’ which the poem, ‘Of Tears and Things’ expresses as the sympathetic response objects in nature feel for humankind in ‘the sea of grief in which we were learning to swim’.
The poet first encounters the phrase in a Latin lesson, where the teacher who is
equipping these young ‘grammar girls’ with much more than the rudiments of an ancient language, has lost her fiancé in the war, and conveys that in future years her pupils will have to negotiate a masculine world – another form of warfare – with a suggestion from the narrator-poet too that the literary immersion in the sorrows of the old heroes of the Aeneid anticipates both personal challenges and twenty-first Century woes to come.
But it is telling that the poem concludes that the ‘armour of Latin grammar would/guide us safely through the darkness…the repeated sound /of… Sunt lacrimae rerum – our chorus/ of compassion in any suffering to come.’
‘The young poet-to-be sitting in the classroom has privileged a translation (‘tears OF things’) which animates the ambient and sentient world of ‘apples, stones, trees’ over the alternative translation possible, the ‘tears For things’. Her sense and desire to believe that everything in the world has a soul felt to me the sympathetic obverse and correspondence to Rilke’s injunction to the poet to honour and ‘speak’ the things of the world, both poets concerned with relationship, with deep connection:
‘Are we, perhaps, here for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window,
possibly: Pillar, Tower? … but for saying, remember,
oh for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.
Duino Elegies: ‘The Ninth Elegy’. (Translators: J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender)
The poems in the collection take us on daily journeys, full of lovingly observed details, whose sensory richness is both a pleasure to read and strengthens and equips the reader to contemplate journeys of the soul. Vivid spots of colour, whether, ‘rhododendron buds sprouting pink’ (‘A Talk with My Imaginary Sister’); ‘… mustard fields/that flashed their triangles of gaudy yellow light…’ (‘Under Every No’); ‘…an estuary of light/ breaking its banks, creamy white, top-of-the milk/white, clouds I don’t know the name of turning/from grey to apricot and orange.’ (‘Getting my Bearings’); shine on the page, nature offering spiritual consolation and sustenance to offset griefs.
Light is woven with dark, dark with light inescapably throughout the pamphlet, the one informing the other, as in a poem placed two thirds of the way through the pamphlet: ‘Because these Days are Dark’, a form of defiant plea, which summons birds in an exuberantly alliterative listing and invokes heightened sensation to challenge an absence of touching and a litany of loss:
anywhere with shells or feathers, turn up
the sound of the gulls, the sea’s pull, give me
gorse and grebes, godwits, gannets, guillemots.
I’ll glut on all that is brackish, samphire,
laverbread. I’ll kneel before anything
the light touches. But lift me from landlock,
deliver these months of grief to the tide.
Light Makes It Easy both gives the collection its title and leads us to the final poem, where the clarity that light, both literal and metaphorical brings, is the clarity of relinquishing in a collection which has maintained a fine equilibrium between the joy of holding and the pain and peace of letting go. This is a collection readers can return to again and again, finding a compassionate guide in Rosie Jackson as she takes us on an extraordinary journey, full of spiritual challenge and consolation, with something of the promise of the ‘viriditas’, or ‘greening of the spirit’ which she evokes in a beautiful short poem, ‘Hildegarde’s Remedy’ towards the end of the book.
Caroline Heaton has co-edited two anthologies of short stories, Close Company – Stories of Mothers and Daughters (Virago) and Caught in a Story – Contemporary Fairytales and Fables (Vintage Press). Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies, as well as in a collaborative pamphlet with photographer Carlos Ordonez: The Bone-House (Bear Flat Press/Photo|Bath, 2016). She has worked with classical composer Malcolm Hill, who has set her poetry in choral works performed in Bath and Bristol.
John Looker’s Shimmering Horizons reviewed byStephen Claughton
Shimmering Horizons by John Looker. £3.99. Bennison Books. ISBN: 978-1-9997408-8-7
Like his two previous books, The Human Hive (2015) and Poems for my Family (2018), John Looker’s new collection of sevednty poems is based on a theme—‘a broad theme of the Journey, the Quest, the Odyssey’, as he says in his Foreword. The book is carefully structured, being organised into seven sections, divided by short poems or ‘milestones’ and bookended as a whole by two poems, both called “The Travellers”, which describe the beginning and ending of journeys made under sail and on horseback. This puts us on notice that we will be travelling through time as well as space. (The epigraphs for each section are drawn from sources as diverse as Malory, Elizabeth Bishop, Coleridge, Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin, Captain Cook, Jackie Kay and Homer.)
Part I (“The Galahad Call”) presents a young, modern-day protagonist on a chivalric gap-year, undertaking such acts of contemporary derring-do as rescuing a girl from the unwanted attentions of customers in the bar where he works, or seeing off a group of vandals in a subway. Most of the poems deal with the Arthurian parallel in a light-touch way, but the first poem, “The Point of Departure”, attempts a more ambitious fusion. The opening conceit works well enough:
This was a journey without a horse or armour,
sans sword, sans shield or squire, and yet
there was a sort of Lady’s Favour: her young face
smiling warmly from the home screen on his phone.
But later details sound more like stage props in an historical drama:
… Even his friends seemed
comfy with the old contentions. Did they never question,
but daily thump their tankards on the greasy board,
singing the same old songs as the torches guttered?
“The Naturalist” in Part II (“Songs of Early Life”) travels more smoothly through time. Of ‘a boy turning over decaying logs’:
He might have been a young tribesman
kneeling in the tinder-dry grass of the prairie
keenly setting traps
or huntsman fingering fresh prints
on a wet jungle track, his pulse quickening,
and wondering, calculating.
In evolutionary terms, it implies, there is no difference between us and our hunter-gatherer forebears. The same poem describes a goldfinch as ‘a spark from the Cretaceous’, which I liked.
Looker is clear-eyed about the cruelty that children can inflict:
You see – for the first time clearly –
you see what you have done
to another: it was you, little sparrow,
who cheated or bullied or lied,
who reduced another to tears
or got them into trouble.
However, it’s always hard to write about children without the risk of sounding sentimental and not all the poems in the section seemed to me to escape that pitfall. Despite some alarmingly graphic imagery (‘And hearing too, your mother’s heart and lungs / thundering like a mill or an engine house’), I found “Newborn” a little cloying—so too “Esther Expounds her Theory of Cognitive Linguistics” and “Little Flo’s Riposte to Descartes”, despite their archly highbrow titles. Nevertheless, there are nice touches, such as the description of a little girl riding on the poet’s shoulders:
swaying like a maharani
gaily riding her elephant under the sun,
sailing like a look-out at the mast.
(“Little Flo’s Riposte to Descartes”)
Part III (“Into That Silent Sea”) comprises poems about journeys made by historical or mythological figures, some well known (such as Marco Polo, Helen of Troy, or Pocahontas), others less so (the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, Admiral Zheng He, or the Malian Emperor Mansa Musa). To my mind, the best of these are “How Mansa Musa came to Timbuktu” and “The Death of Pocahontas”. They go beyond simple narrative and description by creating a tension between elements of the poem. Mansa Musa’s well-documented and successful journeys overland are contrasted with the ill-fated sea voyage of his brother, Mansa Qu: ‘So much less is known of Mansa Qu, the brother / … // who embarked with warriors and bards, with ivory and gold, / whose expedition vanished unrecorded: / how far did the winds and currents carry him?’ Pocahontas, ‘confined to her bunk in fever’, leaving London on the Thames (‘Gravesend, they said. / Not a name that augurs well’), returns in her delirium to the homeland she’ll never see again, itself a kind of journey: ‘Even the snow goose, / appearing on the lakes of her native land each fall, / travels merely in time and space.’
In Part IV (“Songs of Midlife”), we move to a modern, urban world, in which the journeys are figurative (a wedding, a birth, a failed marriage and the prospect of hospitalisation) or else small-scale: a country walk and journeys from the shops or into work.
After this, there is the more expansive Part V (“The Great and Little Endeavour”) about the first of Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages. For me, this was the most vivid of the sections, incorporating material in the form of log extracts (printed in larger, bold type). Looker gives as his sources The Journal of Captain James Cook and The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks. However, these aren’t diary extracts in the normal sense (indeed, the first poem, “We Set Sail”, contains references to both Cook and Banks in the third person), but rather¬—I understand—textual tesserae taken from the journals and rearranged to create new entries in the form of mosaics. Centos rather than found poems, they are cleverly done and give the poems considerable immediacy:
Our Ship in Deptford Yard, where the Thames
Turns away from London towards the Sea.
And so at last we become acquainted
With His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour – a small thing
Among the great Stores, basins & dry docks
And the deep-draughted Ships with their high masts.
(“We Set Sail”)
And so we came to Tierra del Fuego.
The Albatross were larger here but sadly
The Sea too rough to take a boat to shoot them.
And through the Rain & Hail we thought we saw
Out to our west the shape of many Islands,
Though oft through freezing Fog and indistinct.
(“Rounding the Cape”)
It’s ironic that while turning the prose of the journals into poetry, Looker links the ‘extracts’ with a verse commentary that can seem a little prosy. I would have been happy with just the journals.
Part VI (“Songs of Later Life”) is—like Part IV—another low-key interlude, describing foreign trips made in late-middle or old age (postcards from countries such as Denmark, Greece and Switzerland or cities such as Lisbon, Budapest and Helsinki), before we reach the final section, Part VII (“The Return of Odyssea”), which concerns the wanderings of a present-day, female Odysseus. The start of this is unashamedly epic:
Imagination, help us to see the woman wearing fatigues
on her return from wars in Mesopotamia and the Levant:
her cropped hair and short unvarnished nails, her eyes
restless, her muscular arms: resourceful Odyssea
and quite the opposite of domestic (‘She’s not yet ready for breakfast TV, the grocery run, the family.’) Here the wanderings are caused by inner demons rather than vengeful gods, her return postponed by Odyssea herself, who is suffering from PTSD. In his Foreword, Looker says that making her female provides ‘complementarity of gender’ with the Galahad figure in the first section. However, I wonder if it doesn’t have a more functional role: distancing the poems from their model and the poet himself may help make the character more distinctive. The parallels with the original are, too, more skilfully handled. In “How the Dead Spoke to Odyssea”, rather than visiting the underworld, she buys a delayed replacement for her phone and receives a flurry of out-of-date text and voicemail messages:
Then at last in a rush her new-bought phone was filling with messages,
flooding with chatter, with ads and offers, with holiday snaps
but mainly texts tumbling in with news out of sequence, and voicemail:
voicemail bringing the presence of those she loved and missed.
Then the unforeseen, the visceral shock: reports of comrades
who had died in combat, who were dearer perhaps than her own family.
With the voices of those who were dead speaking even now in her ears
she was lost in a world beyond place or time, that was incorporeal
Elsewhere, there’s even a nod towards the Homeric simile, when Odyssea loses her luggage in a ferry shipwreck:
and in that moment all she believed, all she confessed
about who she was and where she was going, the whence and the why,
had been lost – as when a tyre has burst just at the point
of acceleration on the downhill run towards home.
(“Breakfast with Nausicaüs”)
“The Return of Odyssea” ends the collection with the most fully-achieved of its sections.
Overall, Shimmering Horizons is an ambitious book, wide-ranging and carefully worked out. There’s a lot to discover and enjoy here, although I sometimes felt that there was perhaps too much effort to organise and explain rather than letting the poetry do the talking. Nevertheless, John Looker is to be applauded for the broad sweep and variety of his project.
Stephen Claughton’s poems have appeared widely in print and online. He has published two pamphlets: The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey & Windle, 2020).
Kathleen Bainbridge’s Inscape reviewed by Ellen Phethean
Inscape by Kathleen Bainbridge. £6. Vane Women Press. ISBN: 978-1-904409-21-2
Kathy Bainbridge has lived a well-travelled and varied life, and has written for many years so it’s surprising that she’s never had a publication before. However, age and experience means hers is a confident voice, a poet in control of her material. Her pamphlet explores themes of journeys, relationships, living and dying, yet her images contain no hint of sentimentality or self-pity. On her journeys, people and ways can be lost, as in ‘Sea Glass’:
the ghostly shape
of one summer day washed clean –
immaculate, like my lost way.
You loved hats, I remember, in the early days
when you lost your way and prowled the Old Town
and the poem, ‘Holdfast’, i.m Bill Moran:
‘…you spend half a lifetime // losing your way and your keys’ and yet in the last line – ‘I see you wave to me often, cheering me on.’ Bainbridge knows, despite the loss, she has to carry on.
Her opening poem ‘To Curiosity’ reveals her cosmopolitan experiences and her eye for detail, referencing ‘…the Darro rumble its buried course / under a Moorish moon, see the way moth-flies / fold their wings so neat and flat’
These journeys are geographic, psychological, metaphorical and emotional and never easy, as in ‘Crossing the Mississippi’: ‘Getting there I had to wrestle / the rented snow shoes over roots’
and in ‘Minnesota Déjà Vu’:
After the first journey I was never the same:
fainter, less solid, looking for rescue,
drowning in time like the lost.
Bainbridge writes about the entrapment and danger of relationships. Again in ‘Minnesota Déjà Vu’, she creates a mood of fear using weather and precise details of landscape:
‘Overnight the sky offloads / its ballast on to the house, blinding the panes / and jamming the front door tight.’
In the lines ‘you funnel me through the meanness / of your kitchen into a bedroom’ she neatly transfers the epithet from man to house. ‘Islander’ is a tightly constructed sonnet telling a dramatic story, mixing physical violence with sensual detail in an effectively understated way:
‘as his fingers pressed down on the bone / of her throat when he kissed her after / and softly eased her into the water.’
Bainbridge makes line breaks work in ‘Looking for Lorca’: the lines ‘Late summer, just gone seventeen, I’m turning / Calderon de la Barca into fluent modern English’. That line ending on ‘turning’ works to suggest the maturing process as well as the translation of language. The line breaks wrong foot our expectations: ‘What does life want? A touch of winter consoles the green fizz / of August trees,’ a wonderful surprise, those trees.
She uses the suggestion of fizz again in the title poem ‘Inscape’: ‘I parted company with myself without a sound / mind clear as champagne racing up a glass / to overflow,’ this suggests a loss of awareness that leads to disaster: ‘I never saw the ash / on all sides, the scorched ground, / the forest fires in the distance.’
Although the themes of loss and darkness weave through this collection, there’s much joi de vivre and celebration of life, sometimes loss and joy mixed together. She recalls a hat in another sonnet ‘Me the Dodger’: ’me / the Dodger parading louche on your arm / in a chancy city where villains down alleys / hawked millinery fallen off lorries.’ Vivid details and great use of rhythm and assonance bring the scene alive, yet she uses the turn artfully in the last six lines to reflect on its loss coupled with another:
‘the December day we put you in the ground / it hid my face and kept me from the rain.’
This is an engaging debut, witty and moving, poems to savour and reread. Kathleen Bainbridge is a poet who deserves a full collection.
Ellen Phethean lives, teaches and writes in Newcastle upon Tyne. Her books include Poetry: Wall, Smokestack Books 2007; Breath, 2014, Portrait of the Quince as an Older Woman, Red Squirrel Press 2014. She has also written a Young Adult trilogy Ren and the Blue Hands, Ren and the Blue Cloth, Ren In Samara, Red Squirrel 2019. ellenphethean.com
Alison Binney’s Other Women’s Kitchens reviewed by Carla Scarano
Other Women’s Kitchens by Alison Binney. £5. Seren Books ISBN 9781781726464
Being aware of the joys and dangers of coming out can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey but also a compelling quest for self-awareness. Alison Binney’s debut pamphlet deftly explores in fresh lines her commitment to this process. Irony and humour mix with seriousness, describing tragi-comic scenes but also exposing discriminatory remarks and attitudes against gay people.
Binney was the winner of the Mslexia pamphlet prize for poetry, and the introductory poem, ‘The way you knew’, was longlisted in the 2018 National Poetry Competition and highly commended in the 2019 Bridport Prize:
The way you knew not to wear your hair short the way you knew how to walk how to talk how to french kiss a boy and why you had to and more the way you knew for sure that if anyone knew about you you were dead
(‘The way you knew’)
The author had to learn to exercise self-control, denying her true self, and had to be alert to what was going on around her and to her inside feelings too. It was a traumatic experience that shaped and strengthened her personality. The repetitions in the prose poem emphasise her growing awareness that resists imposed roles and reflects on the consequences of doing so with a mature outlook.
Complicity and confrontation alternate and the L word becomes a stigma, a taboo she learns to utter in an effort that is above all physical and that reflects the societal mentality:
If you wiped it away they knew it had stuck.
I kept it under my tongue like a piece of old gum
brought out to chew in the dark. When its bubble burst
on my lips I gulped it down. It’s a lump in my gut
even now, something I swallowed whole and cannot
bring up. I can’t take the taste away, so I settle for gay.
(‘The L word’)
She sits ‘upright’, holds herself ‘erect’ and looks ‘the world in the eye’, hiding her feelings and behaving as she is expected to, that is, wearing the right haircut and having a boyfriend. However, she cannot lie to herself – she dreams about ‘that girl in the corner shop’ and ‘of other women’s kitchens’, the latter becoming a metaphor for her desire. The kitchen is an intimate space that delineates a woman’s world which men rarely access. In this imaginary and yet real environment, Binney finds the courage to come out and rewrite her self:
out you’ll wonder
how you ever
(‘Coming out for beginners’)
Sex and love come next, with occasional and more stable relationships that give her joy and fulfil her sense of identity. The exploration of gay history reveals that she cannot feel completely safe and free, as some remarks by members of Christian communities confirm, such as ‘your life is an abomination’ or ‘we don’t think it appropriate for you to speak can I pray for you?’ Separate cards are sent to her and to her partner by her aunt; this is evidence of homophobic attitudes that endure despite gender equality policies and laws and apparent changes in society:
[…] Yes, they know
what they are doing, these separate-card senders,
and therefore so must we, sharing cards, homes,
wounds, opening ourselves out.
In the compelling poem ‘Exposure’, Binney ironically challenges the idea of not exposing children ‘to the information/of our existence’ until they are sixteen. The ‘symptoms’ of this exposure are cleverly listed as ‘curiosity, empathy, loss of prejudice’, an openness that speaks of possible changes. The quest therefore becomes universal in an attempt to understand the other that is empathic and comprehensive. Tenderness and union are fully expressed in the last poem, in which the two lovers merge in the figure of a tree:
my hand from your ribs the same grain
running through both of us all the way
from my ear to your little toe and back up
The poems reveal an enthralling and inclusive vision in a progression of self-confidence and self-awareness that unveils a fully formed individual despite menacing attitudes against her gender and the restrictions that society imposes upon her. Her past experiences, which are sometimes traumatic, are rewritten in an ironic and honest perspective. It is a final revelation that might be a revolution.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She has a degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and a degree in Italian Language and Literature from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. She worked on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021.
Salvatore Quasimodo: Complete Poems reviewed by Sam Milne
Salvatore Quasimodo: Complete Poems, translated by Jack Bevan. £19.99. Carcanet Press. ISBN: 978 1 80017 108 4.
Salvatore Quasimodo was born in Sicily in 1901 and died in Milan in 1968. He was an outspoken anti-Fascist and joined the Communist party after the Second Word War. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959 ‘for his lyrical poetry, which with classical fire expresses the tragic experience of life in our own times’. Of the triumvirate of the finest twentieth century Italian poets (Ungaretti, Montale and Quasimodo) he is probably the least read in this country now. The reason for this may be that he has not been translated that often into English (although the American translator Allen Mandelbaum brought out The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo in 1960, and Bevan himself brought out a Selected Poems in 1965). Bevan’s excellent Complete Poems now brings us the whole of Quasimodo’s world (as much as can be realised in English), capturing the essence of the Italian’s spirit and technique, and presenting us with the work of a poet of the first rank. All Quasimodo’s volumes of poetry from 1920 to 1965 are here, plus two uncollected poems, and his essay ‘Discourse on Poetry’. There is also a fine elegy to Quasimodo by Bevan himself, plus an excellent bibliography, introductory essay and a translator’s note. There is a useful index of titles and first lines. The poems have been arranged chronologically so the reader can clearly follow the poet’s developing style. Some of the translations first appeared in Bevan’s Selected Poems of Salvatore Quasimodo (Penguin Press, 1965) and in Debit and Credit (Quasimodo’s last book) published by Anvil Press in 1972. It is a pity that Quasimodo’s excellent essay on Dante is not included here (it is available in Mandelbaum’s book) or his remarkable Nobel Acceptance Speech (which is available online).
Quasimodo is a poet of place, of locales, especially of his homeland, Sicily, with its ‘sloughed skins of snakes’, ‘the river full of magpies, / salt and eucalyptus’, ‘plains where sulphur / was the summer of myths’—‘the shores of Homeric childhood’, ‘the fabulous days of grace’. He writes many poems praising the Mediterranean and Aegean lands, poems on Greece, Tuscany, Lombardy, Venice, Savoy, Lake Como, the Italian Alps, and Emilia-Romagna. His poems are firmly rooted in Italian tradition, but owe something also to a native Sicilian school of poetry stretching back to the creator of the Italian sonnet form, Giacomo da Lentini. The compactness, lucidity, craftsmanship and music one finds in that tradition are qualities evident in Quasimodo’s own work, qualities which are excellently conveyed in Bevan’s translations. Quasimodo writes of ‘ancient roots’, ‘the ancient dead’, ‘the ancient voice’, ‘the soft words of antiquity / and the words, born of the vineyard / and tents on the bank of eastern rivers’, of ‘ancient tombs thick honeycombed in the wall’. Tradition for him is ‘a harmony of form’, ‘armoria di forme’, ‘the Doric well’ of the past. In his Nobel acceptance speech he talked of the ancient poet’s ‘incorruptible distance’, of tradition being not ‘a gallery of ghosts’ as some practitioners think (having the followers of Marinetti in mind) but real, living voices in the here and now. Again, Bevan is aware of this revolt against the eloquence of Carducci and Pascoli, the grandiloquence of D’Annunzio, and the Futurism of Marinetti in his translations, bearing in mind that Quasimodo himself was a translator of Homer, Catullus and the Greek lyric poets, his own work, like theirs, often, in his own phrase, ‘concrete in the classical sense’. For Quasimodo ‘the anchor of Ulysses burns in the mind’ always, and influences the present. Wallace Fowlie comments rightly on ‘the grace of phrasing and rhythm’ in Quasimodo’s poetry (in a note to his translation of ‘Dalla Rocca Di Bergamo Alta’, ‘From the Fortress of Upper Bergamo’, in The Poem Itself: 150 European poems translated and analysed, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, Pelican, 1964). As with the Imagists and the Objectivists there is an economy, a sparseness to his work which makes every word count.
This concentrated power (also educed in the poet’s images and similes) is a technique I think he learned from studying Dante (the latter’s work is ‘a lesson of language, of poetry’ he tells us). As Eric Auerbach has shown (in Dante: Poet of the Secular World) Dante’s poetry often stays close to the earth. In it, he tells us, we find ‘croaking frogs in the evening, a lizard darting across a path, sheep crowding out of their enclosure, a wasp withdrawing its sting, a dog scratching; fishes, falcons, doves, storks’, rarely straying from everyday similitudes. This is also a key feature of Quasimodo’s work, I would argue. He presents us in line after line with this kind of exact observation. I think he also learned much from Ungaretti, his concision, his lyrical preciseness, his stripping everything down to essentials (as Bevan argues in his Introduction) as in Ungaretti’s famous two-line poem of 1933:
In his essay ‘Discourse on Poetry’ (the only prose work of his in Complete Poems) Quasimodo states that his work is pitched against those aiming ‘for a poetry of facsimiles, not men’, those who ‘refuse the humanist tradition’, and in his own verse he wants to avoid decadent language, wishing to break away from the excesses of Marinetti and D’Annunzio. He aims not at approximation but data, a crystallisation of experience, avoiding what he calls ‘baroque gyrations’, creating thereby ‘the lexicon of a new poetry’. In this I think he largely succeeds. His claims for poetry are large: ‘The voice of Homer exists before Greece’, he writes, ‘and Homer “forms” the civilisation of Greece’. ‘The poet teaches us to live’, he says, his work ‘modifies’ the world, and he should have no time for ‘critics who try to reduce poetry to a science’. Reading Quasimodo in his entirety one is left with a sense of classical balance. A great poem he says should be ‘Enough one day to balance the world’, all contradictions, dichotomies and antinomies brought into a unity. This sense of polarity as a structural principle lies at the heart of his work, the ‘counterpoint / of sweetness and fury’ as he calls it. It is there in such lines as ‘summer sleeps in the virgin honey, / the lizard in its monster infancy’, and ‘the golden / balance between debit and credit of mankind’. Earthiness, as I mentioned earlier, is also very much to the fore, as in ‘Night is buzzing loud, / on fire with insects’, ‘lizards flash by lightning; / frogs return to the ditches’, ‘Each green thing opens, / And a brooding of icy laurels’, phrases which convey the ‘earth’s dark secrecy’ (Bevan’s rendition is preferable to Mandelbaum’s ‘the obscure sorcery of earth’). Quasimodo’s capacity for precise observation reminds me of the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, the latter’s ‘horse-flies syphon the green dung’, ‘armour of / wild bees’ larvae’, ‘red-helmeted worms’, ‘a damson-bloom of dust’, ‘the pinnacled corn’, ‘apple-branches musty with green fur’, phrases redolent of his native Mercian landscape as Quasimodo’s are of his native Roccalimera, Gela, Acquaviva, Trabia and Messina. Careful syntax and pointing are crucial for Quasimodo (as for Hill), and Bevan catches his ‘racked caesurae’ (the poet’s own phrase) exactly. Bevan may break up the stanza structure of ‘Ancient Winter’, for example, but his method works, creating a beautiful, sonorous music:
A little sun; a haloed glory,
Then mist; and the trees
And us, air, in the morning.
This quiet diction emerges from the precise punctuation. Bevan is aware that a good translation should not sound like one, but be an entity in its own right, a poem that sounds like a poem. It is a very difficult task to bring off, but one in which he succeeds time after time. The loss of innocence is also a key theme in Quasimodo’s work, a move away from the Eden of his childhood in Sicily: ‘Lost to me each innocent thing, / even this voice, / enduring in imitation of joy’ he writes, ‘every joy…/ hardened so soon at the roots’. And the labour, the difficulty, of writing can get him down: ‘Day after day: damned words’ he writes in ‘Day After Day’, but he is always aware, in Yeats’s words, that ‘difficulty is our plough’. So it is he writes of ‘the mind’s hold’, of the necessity for learning, intelligence and craft in poetry, opposing what he calls ‘the tortuous corruption of poetic forms and language’. Attaining a style as ‘simple as Dante’ is very difficult, he writes, but it is what he aims for in his own work. The poet’s task now though is different: it is ‘to avoid metaphysical systems and to interrogate himself as a unity linked to the universe’.
Quasimodo was never interested in ‘petty aestheticism’ (his own phrase) as some of his critics think, trying to reduce him to nothing other than a member of the Orphic or Hermetic schools. It has to be recalled that his poems were written on the walls of jails by political prisoners, and this for the reason that he wrote of man as man and not as a mere abstraction (his own words from his Nobel speech), resisting ‘the degradation of culture’ and preserving what he called ‘the internal fire of the conscience’. Through sensual, felt, intuited spiritual apprehension, the poet creates a world of comprehension far removed from that of the material reductionists, thereby surmounting what he calls ‘the multiple dissipation of man’s meditative interests’, This is a project much larger, and much more important, than mere ‘poetic decorum’, as he strongly argues, a belief that is always evident in his poetry.
Poetry for Quasimodo is also ‘a consolation’, a protesting cry which is proof of life—‘grido fulmineo di vita’ as he calls it in ‘Della Rocca Di Bergamo Alta’, ‘a cry strident with life’ as Bevan translates it (Fowlie opts for ‘the lightning-cry of life’, which is nearer the original), ‘my being’s cry’ as he writes elsewhere, ‘urlo della mia sostanza’ (Mandelbaum has the awful ‘howl of my substance’). Montale writes in the same vein of ‘a paradoxical affirmation of life’. The poet writes in order ‘to break solitude’, to overcome his desolation—‘and my days [are] rubble’, he writes, ‘I am a man alone, a single hell’—‘remote the dead, and even more the living’. ‘Bitter exile’, as in Dante, is also a leading theme: ‘No one will take me back to the south again’—his hankering after the Edenic childhood of Sicily. This nostalgia often seques into a general theme of transience: ‘the meagre flower is already flying’ (Mandelbaum has the dreadful ‘scrawny flower’); ‘the flux of the stars’; children ‘fade upon the air like shadows’ (Mandelbaum has ‘They yield in the air, / barely shadows’ which hardly makes sense at all); ‘the paltry heart of the clock’; ‘hurling my howls to the void’; ‘meagre, flickering lanterns / no more than a firefly’s light’ (akin to Montale’s ‘turning the noon / into a night of kindled globes’ of ‘Arsenio’); ‘Another year is burnt, / and no lament, not a cry / raised to win back the day’. At times for him even poetry’s importance fades: ‘spelling my prayers to the dark’, he writes, ‘cold image ever / varying’, the poet a ‘worker of dreams’ only—illusory, unreal, his mistress laughing at him for ‘flaying myself for words’—‘words of love… / that vanish each day / as soon as struck’. It is the poet’s task to try and overcome this ephemerality, this constant metamorphosis. Poetry is like salt (Yeats uses the same analogy in his famous statement that ‘All that is personal rots unless it is packed in salt’)—‘the changing of water/ to changeless form’, ‘waters that heavy / sleep matures in salt’, ‘your voice orphic and sea-sounding… as salt from water’.
Quasimodo is also a fine poet of war. ‘On The Willow Boughs’ is perhaps his most famous war poem:
And we, how could we sing
with a foreign foot on our heart,
among dead abandoned in the squares,
on the grass hard with ice,
to the lamb bleat of children,
the black howl of the mother
going towards her son
crucified on a pole?
On the willow boughs as an offering
even our lyres were hung
and swayed light in the sad wind.
(To my mind this poem is the equal of Ungaretti’s ‘San Marino Del Carso’.) Quasimodo writes that ‘the truly creative spirit always falls into the claws of wolves’; he writes of ‘a savage age’, the ‘barbarity in our times’, ‘the violent rupture of our times’, a world of ‘firing squads’ and ‘landing parties’—‘how much blood [runs] into the rivers of the earth’. He writes of human loss and anger (‘ira’), of ‘wolves’, ‘foxes’, ‘ruined houses’, their ‘derelict remains— ‘But our time has been blood and rage’—the fascists’ ‘knowledge precisely extermination-guided, / loveless, Christianless’. ‘We are filled with war and Orpheus is aswarm with insects’ he laments, and men ‘sink in the mud, / their hands and eyes in ruins / howling for mercy and love’. He writes of the ‘Envy of love, hatred / of innocence’, of ‘di fumo maligno’, the malignant smoke of war, of ‘mothers / with bellies dried up by tears’. Elsewhere he writes that ‘The living have lost forever / the way of the dead and stand apart’—‘all down the ages pity / has been the howl of the murdered… / and pity [has grown] remote’ (‘e la pietà lontana’), ‘the gentle cross has left us’. In war all one hears is the ‘muffled drone of the damned’—a phrase reminiscent of Dante’s Hell. The last sentence of Quasimodo’s essay on Dante reads: ‘The new generation knows that to find man it need not thrust beyond into the inferno: the inferno is here’. It is to oppose this violence, this unreason, this hell, that the poet writes ‘to save the civilised impulses’. Hope is always present in Quasimodo’s universe, however, balancing the pessimism, the gloom: ‘The day is ours still’, he writes, ‘Someone will come’, as is his love for what he calls ‘the incomparable earth’. This (qualified) hopefulness is best summed up perhaps by quoting the whole of his poem ‘And Suddenly It’s Evening’:
Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of sun:
and suddenly it’s evening.
Human love is also never far away in his poetry: ‘Your voice consoles the naked / night with shining / ardours and delight’, and ‘pietà’ is a recurring word throughout his poetry— meaning, at various times, ‘mercy’, ‘pity’, or ‘piety’. He closes his Nobel speech with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: ‘In time every wrong is made right’.
Collected Poems gives us a more Catholic perspective on Quasimodo’s writings than the earlier Penguin edition (part of their exemplary Modern European Poets series), or Mandelbaum’s book. We come across lines such as ‘My patient day / Lord, I bequeath to you’ (Mandelbaum has the risible ‘My patient day / to Thee, Lord, I consign’, which makes him sound like he is delivering a package); ‘My blood, Lord, / is yours: let us die’; ‘You have not betrayed me, Lord: / of every grief / was I brought forth first-born’; ‘In poverty of flesh I am here, / Father, as I am’; ‘Your terrible gift of / words, Lord, I am / doing my best to pay off’; ‘All seems to me like a miracle’; ‘the spirit hastens to the eternal end’—and so on. In his prose he writes of ‘the spiritual freedom that finds itself enslaved on earth’. It was rather unfortunate I think that this religious element in his poetry was left out in the earlier editions of translations. Still there always remains a tense paraox at the heart of his faith, perhaps best caught in his phrase ‘my preying heart’ (‘predone’—Mandelbaum has ‘my plundering heart’, which misses the point entirely) which, in its punning exactness, skilfully balances faith and despair (‘the terrible dark beating of the heart’).
Throughout his writing life Quasimodo always remade (‘rifare’) himself, adopting a new style as needed. He moved away from what Wallace Fowlie calls his early ‘self-centred isolation’ (and what Luciano Anceschi wrongly calls his ‘metaphysic of aridity’) to a more conversational, socially oriented, multivalent poetics (‘In my country, too, they laugh at pity,’ he writes, ‘the patient heart, the lonely despair of the poor’).
After the Second World War, for instance, ‘when all the blood of war had dried’ as he phrased it, his work takes on the force of the Greek elegists, especially in his poems of homage to the fallen of that war, particularly the anti-Fascist partisan fighters. Honour, praise and lament are to the fore here. There is a fine elegy for those murdered by the Nazis on 10 August 1944—fifteen men publicly executed as a reprisal for partisan attacks, their bodies left on display for days. There is another fine elegy for seven antifascists murdered by the fascists.
It was Montale who argued, in Poet In Our Time, that poetry is hard to write in an age of criticism. It could be argued that translating poetry is just as hard in such an age. Quasimodo writes of ‘a translation style’, probably based on his own experience of translating the classical Greek lyric poets, Homer, Catullus, and the Gospel of St John. I think that Jack Bevan has caught just the right ‘translation style’ here, and one can only praise him for a voice which so closely approximates to the original.
Reading Quasimodo reminds me of a phrase of Sorely Maclean’s—‘Ealain iomaluath an daìn’, ‘the quicksilver art of poetry’—bright, swift, brilliant, mercurial, magical—like life itself. Jack Bevan has done a great service by bringing Quasimodo’s poetry once more to the attention of an English audience. It is a book I highly recommend to every lover of poetry.
Sam Milne has published a number of books of poetry,a translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (in Scots) anda critical book on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill. He reviews regularly for Agenda magazine, and has publishedplays in Scots in Lallans magazine
After Dante: Poets in Purgatory reviewed by Edmund Prestwich
After Dante: Poets in Purgatory edited by Nick Havely and Bernard O’Donoghue. £19.99. Arc Publications. ISBN: 978 1908376 76 3
After Dante: Poets in Purgatory is both a presentation of the whole Purgatorio section of Dante’s Commedia, and an anthology of sixteen poets’ different approaches to carrying it across into English. Only two really wrench it into new contexts but, as the word ‘after’ indicates, all approach the task as poets making poetry, allowing themselves more inventive freedom than, say, Robert Durling or Jean Hollander in their parallel text translations. For readers who already know the Purgatorio, or the whole Commedia, I think the diversity of the different poets’ approaches will make for richly varying interest. For those who don’t, Nick Havely’s general introduction and the clear annotation of individual cantos give useful contexts. However, I do think that first time readers looking for a consistent imaginative approach to the whole might be better going to something like D. M. Black’s fine Purgatorio, published last year in the NYRB Classics series.
What I find absorbing in the Commedia, apart from the visionary aspects that flower most fully at the climax of the Paradiso, is the clarity of Dante’s imagery, the clarity and power of his narrative, both in the overarching story and in the smaller narratives it contains, and the vividness, sensitivity and depth of his rendering of character. The translators and adaptors who most succeed, in my book, are those who best carry across some or all of these qualities and capture the haunting play of emotion that flows from them. It’s interesting to see which formal and stylistic approaches seem most useful in doing this.
One very obvious contrast is between the registers adopted by different poets. Mary Jo Bang, translating Cantos 1, 4 and 5, writes like this:
Heading over waters getting better all the time
my mind’s little skiff now lifts its sails
letting go of the oh-so-bitter sea behind it.
The next realm, the second I’ll sing,
is here where the human spirit gets purified
and made fit for the stairway to heaven.
Here’s where the kiss of life restores the reign
of poetry – O true-blue Muses, I’m yours –
and where Calliope jumps up just long enough
to sing backup with the same bold notes
that knocked the poor magpie girls into knowing
their audacity would never be pardoned.
In contrast, Angela Leighton, translating Cantos 9, 10 and 11, adopts a formal, rhetorically elevated style:
Dawn, the mistress of Tithonus ever old,
already paling on the eastern border,
had slipped the arms of her sweet lover.
Her forehead glittered with gemstones, shaped
like the starry Scorpion, that cruel-cold beast
that lashes everyone with its stinging tail.
The night that comes on hour by hour
had climbed the first two steps where we stood,
a third was already shadowed by its wing,
when I, my old-Adam’s nature upon me,
overcome by sleep, sank down on the grass
just where all five of us had come to sit.
Different styles will appeal to different readers. Some will find themselves drawn in by the swiftness and lightness of Bang’s approach, and feel that touches like ‘sing backup’ make Dante’s archaic text less alien than they might otherwise find it. Others – including me – will find her style positively jarring in anachronisms like ‘The gorgeous planet that says yes to love / was turning the east into a total glitter fest’ and find that the swiftness itself elides detail. The statelier pace of Angela Leighton’s translation brings detail to vivid life, both in terms of how pictures are allowed to unfold in the mind and of her richly expressive phonetic texture. Of course she’s no more just transmitting Dante’s literal meanings than Bang is. ‘Slipped the arms’ is a brilliantly inventive rendering of ‘fuor de le braccia’, which literally means simply ‘outside the arms’.
Neither Leighton nor Bang rhyme. A fundamental decision for every translator of the Commedia is how closely to echo the structure of the original on two different levels. One involves rhyme. Each canto unfolds in tercets (groups of three lines) in which the first line rhymes with the third and the second with the first and third lines of the following tercet: ABA BCB CDC and so on. The other is the relation between line and stanza on the one hand and units of sense and syntax on the other. Dante tends to harmonise units of sense and syntax with those of line and stanza. This gives solidity to the small units, encouraging the reader to pause over them and making it easier to absorb them as discrete elements of meaning at the same time as the rhyming structure creates a rolling continuity through the canto as a whole. This harmonising of smaller and larger pulsations is one of the beauties of the Commedia in Italian. Generally speaking, I found that the translations that gave me most pleasure were the ones that did most successfully capture this effect. However, because full rhyming is much more difficult in English than in Italian, and therefore makes a louder impact when it does occur, they followed the rhyme scheme with varying degrees of strictness, and sometimes didn’t follow it at all.
Eschewing regular rhyme doesn’t weaken Leighton’s cantos because in them we still feel line or stanza divisions and meaning pulsing together. However, although I greatly enjoyed both the vivid graphic detail and the clarity of syntax in Bernard O’Donoghue’s versions of Cantos 2, 6 and 7, I felt they lacked a rhythmic shape that would have crystallised impressions more definitely:
The spirits who had spotted by my breathing
that I was still alive, were so astonished
that they all turned pale; and just the way
a crowd will gather to hear the latest news
from a messenger carrying the olive branch,
and no-one cares if they trample on each other ,
so these spirits, blessed though they all were,
jostled for a good view of my face,
distracted from their path towards perfection.
Although rhyme isn’t necessary to giving this rhythmic shape it does help, at least when deployed with inventiveness and sensitivity and softened by half rhyme. Canto 26 is one of the outstanding episodes in the Purgatorio and the Singaporean poet Alvin Pang presents it brilliantly. Here, Dante sees the souls of the lustful in the circle of fire and talks to the poets Guido Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel. There’s a sinewy vitality to Pang’s syntax that both maintains momentum over line endings and allows the unforgettable images within the lines to emerge distinctly:
there, coming from the opposite direction
down the middle of that fiery road, new
figures had appeared. I stared in fascination
as the spirits in each group (as if on cue)
exchanged brief kisses, then with no time to lose
for a lengthier welcome, immediately withdrew;
they looked like ants, who in their teeming queues
would touch faces briefly upon meeting
as if to ask for directions or the latest news.
Once the spirits were done with their friendly greeting,
each shouted out a phrase as loud and as best
they could before moving on, their cries competing:
‘Sodom and Gomorrah!’ roared the newcomers. The rest
bellowed in response: Pasiphae enters the cow to
lure the bull into charging her lust!’
Like a flight of cranes parting ways – some veering to
the Riphaean heights, others to the desert,
avoiding either the sun’s heat or the highland cold – so
both groups of spirits broke off and moved apart
Part of the pleasure of this is the sheer joy of those images of the natural world, like flashes of a David Attenborough programme, and part is the heightening contrast between their grounded reality and the weirdness of the Purgatorial scene at this point, when all the spirits except Dante and his two companions, Virgil and Statius, are walking in flames so hot that when Dante does have to cross them he says he would have thrown himself into boiling glass to escape their burning. Perhaps even more important, though, the energy and mutual courtesy of these spirits reflect their spiritual state and the stage they’ve reached in their purgatorial progress. The verse moves swiftly and lightly because that’s what the spirits do. They’re nearly touching their goal, they’re full of hope on the final circuit of the purgatorial mountain, and as Virgil told Dante at a lower level, souls become lighter and move more easily the higher they climb, shedding weights of sin on every circuit.
Although there are many memorable individual lines scattered through this book, Pang created what is to my mind the loveliest, referring to Guinizelli as the father of Dante’s generation of poets ‘that ply love’s sweet and supple prosody’. And though I can’t say he succeeds in replicating the extraordinarily moving effect of Dante’s giving a speech in Occitanian to the Provençal Arnaut Daniel, his description of Daniel’s disappearance is a little masterstroke of allusion. Dante writes ‘poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina’ – ‘then he hid himself in the fire that refines them’ – a line famously quoted by Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’. Translating this as ‘And with that he faded into the purifying fire’ Pang evokes the disappearance of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ at the end of the Dantean second part of Section II of ‘Little Gidding’, in which Eliot himself pays homage to past masters: ‘He left me with a kind of valediction, / And faded on the blowing of the horn.’
For me, the single most powerful episode in the Purgatorio comes in Canto 30. This is when Dante finally, almost beyond hope, meets the long-dead, glorified Beatrice, the love of his youth, whose soul has sent Virgil to save him by guiding him through Hell and Purgatory. Incredulous and overwhelmed, he turns to Virgil like a frightened child running to his mother but finds that Virgil has vanished. As a pagan, Virgil can go no further. So much of the moment’s emotional power rides on the rich and subtle development of Dante’s relationship with Virgil through the Inferno and the previous twenty-nine cantos of the Purgatorio, and on the momentousness of this point of transition in the architecture of the Commedia as a whole, that it can’t be meaningfully represented by quotation, but Draycott’s clear, vivid translation effectively bears the weight that rests on it.
The two poets who most radically reinterpret the original are Lorna Goodison, the recent Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and John Kinsella. Goodison relocates Canto 12 to the West Indies, not only by sprinkling her version with Jamaican dialect and remaking the characters in its inset stories into West Indian figures but by rewriting the Angel’s words to Dante to refer to the abiding legacy of slavery. She writes well – most brilliantly in the description of the morning star as ‘bright / and suffused with trembling radiance’ – and I would have liked to read a whole Purgatorio rewritten in this way. On the scale of a single canto, the rewriting seemed a mere taster to a project that as far as I know hasn’t been written yet. It might well be different for someone more steeped in Caribbean culture and history, but I felt that the ideas gestured towards in the five tercets in question needed more extensive development to come fully alive.
Kinsella rewrites Canto 32 – an admittedly tedious allegory of the corruption of the church – in a froth of polemical jargon that my brain refused to translate into anything meaningful. In fairness I should give a sample, so that those to whom Kinsella’s language does speak can disregard my opinion:
And with Eve-blame stimulated by the forest, himself
over herself like shelf fungus, the angel-music
suppressing serpents and denying her the rights of self.
And as time plays distance so it plays the politics
of measurement – the arrow in triplicate
is the spatiality of Beatrice’s aeronautics.
And caught in the gender binary with the constellate
Adamic, they oscillate about the tree
whose limbs have been shaved of leaves and florets.
Altogether, I’m delighted to add this book to my Dante shelf, and would recommend it to others, particularly those who already know the Commedia, whether in the original or in translation.
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. He has no claims to Dante scholarship but has been a long-term amateur reader of Dante in Italian and in translation.
Louis de Paor’s Crooked Love/Grá Fiar reviewed by David Cooke
Crooked Love/Grá Fiar by Louis de Paor. Bloodaxe/Cló Iar-Chonnacht. £12.99. ISBN: 9781780375946
Crooked Love/Grá fiar is the second bilingual selection of Louis de Paor ‘s poetry to be published by Boodaxe Books in conjunction with Cló Iar-Chonnacht, the contents of which have been previously published in monolingual Irish language collections. For this new edition the poems have been translated by Kevin Anderson, Biddy Jenkinson, a considerable Irish language poet in her own right, and by de Paor himself. Divided into five sections, the volume has a carefully composed structure with, at its apex, a sequence called ‘One Day’/ ‘Lá dá raibh’, in which the poet evokes the living and the dead in an imaginary village in the West of Ireland. This sequence, in both its English and Irish versions, was broadcast on RTE with music composed by Dana Lyn and links to both performances are available in the book.
The opening poem of the first section is ‘For the first generation to survive the death of Irish’, which de Paor calls a ‘slant translation’ of a poem by Billy Collins’, although in Collins’ poem the language in question is English. Inevitably, there is an irony in turning a poem about the death of a global language into one about Irish, the death of which has been on the cards for decades:
This poem is hardly worth the trouble.
It isn’t as though you’ll be able to read it.
And I have other things on my mind this morning;
for instance, writing a half decent poem,
in Irish, for those who still get it.
For de Paor, the Irish language is a fundamental part of his cultural heritage and yet he, like all speakers of Irish, is the product of two linguistic traditions. In de Paor’s case, this is evinced most obviously by his many references to English, or more accurately, American poets: Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Langston Hughes. The Scottish poet Norman McCaig also gets a mention as does Wysława Szymborska, whom de Paor has presumably read in English. He has of course immersed himself also in his native tradition, one of the fruits of which has been his monumental anthology of Modern Irish poetry, Leabhar na hAthghabhála/ Poems of Repossession. However, de Paor does not seem to be conflicted by his dual inheritance, unlike his great predecessor Seán Ó Ríordáin whose love of the English poetic tradition was always something of a ‘guilty pleasure’.
Having pinned his colours to the mast, de Paor first presents us with a set of poems exploring family history. The delicate image of a fountain in the poem of that title is beautifully rendered in its English version. Though its musical effect may be different, it is not inferior to the original:
That’s us there
in the photo
backs to the camera
on a park bench
white water blooming
from a fountain
a crystal chandelier
a willow weeping
Impressive also is ‘My father is a fisherman by right’. Here is its second stanza:
The day of the funeral,
he carries the dark of early morning
across the strand that stretches
from the door of the church
to the edge of the world.
There is a stateliness about this single sentence which is underpinned by the repetition of the d’s, the cluster ‘str’ and the vowel common to ‘early’, ‘ church’, ‘world’. This, to me, has the look of poetry that has been worked over until the best possible harmony has been achieved. In ‘Bells’, the poem is built upon a pattern of interlocking memories across three generations; while in ‘Swings’ a garden swing swaying in the breeze evokes an absence:
… a blue swing
but only just
in the empty garden
with no one to push it,
no one at all
Family history is of course a common enough theme in Irish or indeed any poetry, particularly for those acquainted with the work of Montague, Heaney and Muldoon. However, de Paor’s reminiscences have a pared back lyricism that is his own.
In the second section we move from childhood memories to poems evoking married love. In ‘Multi-tasking’, the poet addresses his wife while they are performing household chores, but then his focus shifts to a more visionary mode as he muses on the possibility of alternative lives:
I know it’s no bother at all to you
to be there alongside me and away
somewhere I can’t follow you, unlike the man
in Banville’s novel who was about to go
through the French doors in the Anglo-Irish mansion
when he turned back at the last moment
and was afflicted by the most incredible loneliness
for the rest of his life for the person
he might have become …
In ‘Chaos theory’, he widens his scope as he evokes the interconnectedness of everything in the digital age: In ‘Couples’, we sense that our aspiration towards the ‘good life’ is constantly under threat:
we turn a deaf ear
to the seagulls who say
any day now eels will go in
and out through the windows
of this house
built of glass and straw
right at the edge of the ocean.
With the third section we reach the volumes’s central hub: a group of interrelated poems that are both down to earth and slightly surreal. The overall effect, particularly if one listens to the broadcast version, is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood. However, de Paor’s sequence is more loosely connected, less dramatic, less slapstick and, given that this is Ireland, more concerned with history. Its opening poem, ‘Sweeny and the Dark Postwoman’ gives further evidence of de Paor’s skill in reinventing himself in English:
The years have gone to seed
on the walls of the Big House
and pride, deep as the clutch of ivy
tightens its grip on Sweeny’s mind
where he sits with the souvenirs
of glory days, neat and dapper as a coffin.
Whether it was intended or not, Sweeny/Suibhne brings to mind the medieval bird poet and mad anti-clerical who is most familiar to many of us from Heaney’s Sweeney Astray. In ‘One Day’, he is a curmudgeonly character who lives in the past with a serious chip on his shoulder. In the light of all the changes that have taken place in Irish society in recent decades, he is irrelevant and ignored:
His mouth gapes
like a broken letter-box
as he listens to a tune
steady as time passing.
The dark postwoman whistles it,
cycling quickly past his gate without stopping.
In ‘The Ministry for Birds’, the atmosphere becomes more bucolic in this version of Ireland where the returning swallows have ‘customary rights’ guaranteed by their own government department. As in Under Milkwood, de Paor’s sequence is enlivened by its cast of quirky characters. There is the dark postwoman, whom we have already met, and who has had enough of ‘the guff of geriatrics / on pension day’. There is a foreign hitchhiker who knows that a shaggy dog story about a lobster dressed in tweeds will take him a long way. There is also a touching interlude in ‘The Empty Church’, where a young couple relive their wedding day. Here is the poem’s concluding image:
The rhodendrons breathe
a fragrant sigh. They can’t wait
for another wedding to go to
in their lovely purple dresses.
Just as this sequence is placed centre stage in the book as a whole, the central focus of ‘One day’ is a meditation upon Irish history and, in particular, the decline of the Irish language. In ‘The Shop’, childhood nostalgia is evoked in the names of sweets and comics which are, of course, all English. In ‘The King of History’, the progress of English is shown to have been universal and unstoppable: ‘English tramps / the mountain road / with his black moustache, Contempt yelping at his heels.’ In ‘The Great Fire’, the mass burning of sheep, which followed the foot and mouth epidemic, becomes an image for the loss of the Irish language. The new flock which replaced the one destroyed has lost the ability to ‘hear the grass talking to itself’ and consequently has found it harder to survive in the barren landscape of the far west of Ireland:
They can’t hear
the grass talking to itself
in the narrow clefts
behind the rocks.
The air is deaf and dumb
to them, the earth is empty.
In ‘Proofreader ‘, he looks more directly at those who actively repressed the language: men like John Pentland Mahaffy, the Irish academic who was contemptuous of the native tongue and fought to have it removed from Trinity College’s intermediate curriculum. We learn also of William Bedell who, in the face of fierce opposition, strove valiantly to translate the Bible into Irish. Having explored its historical context, de Paor gives further acknowledgement to what Thomas Kinsella referred to as ‘the dual tradition’ by invoking some of the ghosts in his village’s Catholic and Protestant cemeteries. Here the reader may sense a nod towards Máirtín Ó Cadhain, whose novel, Cré na Cille/Graveyard Clay, is acknowledged as the most significant work of prose in Modern Irish. If so, the balance is redressed in ‘Michael Furey and the Brown Girl’, where he names the ghost of Gretta Conroy’s first love in James Joyce’s most highly regarded story, ‘The Dead’.
In section four, the poet moves away from Ireland with an epigraph from Szymborska on the importance of poetry and a freewheeling poem set in New York, which features a poem by Langston Hughes and shows the influence of W.C. Williams. He continues to explore his literary influences with an elegy for Seán Ó Ríordáin and, in ‘Aesthetics’, a poem evoking the work of five other Irish language poets. In the fifth and concluding section he revisits some of the themes and influences of the earlier sections, whether this be in the symbolic mode of ‘Echoes’ and ‘Caverns’ or a return to family dynamics, as in the exquisite ‘Strings’:
She can’t wait for the strangers to go
so she can switch on the gramophone
in the ruins of her mind,
so she and her prince can hear again
the song she heard so long ago.
Listening to it, she could sleep forever.
Rooted in his native tradition, which he has renovated with American influences ranging from the sparse lyricism of Williams and, in ‘American Prayer’, the expansive rhetoric of Ginsberg, de Paor is essential reading for anyone interested in the current state of Irish poetry and the uniquely productive symbiosis between the two languages in which it is written.
David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. His most recent collection of poetry is Sicilian Elephants (Two Rivers Press, 2021).
Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi’s The Translator of Desires reviewed by Colin Pink
The Translator of Desires by Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, (trans Michael Sells), $24.95 Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-181349
The Translator of Desires is a fascinating book. It is a new dual text translation from Arabic into English of the thirteenth century Sufi mystical thinker Ibn ‘Arabi’s Tarjumān al-ashwāq, a long sequence of spiritual love poems. The translator, Michael Sells, is an expert on mystical writings and is the author of Mystical Languages of Unsaying, which contains two essays on Ibn ‘Arabi along with many other fascinating studies.
Sells’s translation reads very smoothly in English and he has provided an introduction about the text and copious notes on the poems. For those unfamiliar with thirteenth century Arabic poetry these notes are an essential way into the poems, pointing out many aspects that would otherwise pass the reader by.
The Translator of Desires, as the title suggests, is one of those texts (like the Song of Solomon in the Bible) that can be read as erotically charged love poetry and as about spiritual desire for unity with God. Reading the poems with these parallel but permeable connotations the verses gain extra resonance and power. A pervasive sense of longing and anxiety is expressed in the poems, for instance, in verse 5 ‘Harmony Gone’:
Yearning sought the highlands,
consolation the plain
and here I’m stranded
between Najd and Tihām
to be joined –
The poems contain many references to place names in the Arab world and figures from Arabic poetry, these are helpfully explained in the notes. For instance, Najd and Tihām contrast the Arabian uplands with the coastal plain beside the Red Sea. The notes also explain Qur’anic references and the use of a variety of traditional Arabic verse forms that naturally cannot be retained in the translation.
The structure of the verse sequence is the Hajj, the journey across Arabia to Mecca, where the poet is imagined travelling behind the beloved, hoping to detect traces of her on his journey, and longing to be with her, with the ultimate goal of touching the sacred Ka’ba which is also figured as the body of the beloved. According to Sells the poems also enact the Sufi idea that the greatest Ka’ba is the heart of the human being at the threshold of mystical union. Here are the first two stanzas of verse 11, ‘Gentle Now, Doves’:
Gentle now, doves
of the sprigberry and
moringa, don’t add your
sighs to my heart-ache
Gentle now, lest
your sad cooing show
the love I hide,
the sorrow I seal
The notes are also useful in pointing out the place names on the route, their significance and the rituals that are performed at specific sites, such as the casting of stones at the cairns at Minā, to expel evil, and standing chanting ‘here I am for you’ at ‘Arafa, where the prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell address.
Although we are constantly journeying (in the poems) we feel at the same time that we are never getting closer to our goal. Ibn ‘Arabi’s poems keep repeating certain tropes, the dove, the beloved’s glance, lightning, so that there is a kind of hypnotic circular motion within the sequence, much like a Sufi whirling dance, where we are constantly circling around particular metaphors.
In Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetry longing is endless. Poem 55 ‘No Cure’:
Without him I die
and with him’s no better
With or without him
longing’s the same
I found him, finding
what I hadn’t foreseen,
the cure and disease
as equal fevers
His silhouette flares
as we draw near
each other and
burns more proud
The deeper the harmony
the sharper the pain
Measure for measure
In this journey of love and faith we arrive only to realise that we have not, in truth, really arrived yet. Every fulfilment leads to another longing. As Sells explains in his note to poem 55: ‘The manifestation of the beloved is constantly changing its form and manifesting itself anew. The mystic’s goal is to achieve constant transformation along with the manifestations of the beloved. This entails the self’s passing away in each moment in order to be receptive of the new manifestation, the joy of receiving that manifestation and joining the beloved within it, and the sorrow of losing it as the beloved takes on a new manifestation.’
And this process is somewhat akin to the experience of reading the poems, where we attempt to understand each poem but that poem is succeeded by another which puts a slightly different spin on the theme explored by the previous poem(s).
Reading The Translator of Desires provides for the western reader a window onto a life-world that is distant both culturally and historically and brings it vividly to life.
Colin Pink has published two full-length collections and two pamphlets of poetry, most recently Typicity (Vole Press) and Wreck of the Jeanne Gougy (Paekakariki Press).