Raymond Antrobus: All The Names Given • Denise Riley: Lurex • Katharine Towers: Oak • George Szirtes: Fresh Out of Sky • Alison Brackenbury:Thorpeness • Paul Batchelor: The Acts of Oblivion • Victoria Kennefick: Eat or We Both Starve • Kim Moore: All the Men I Never Married • John McAuliffe:The Kabul Olympics • Gill Learner: Change • Lesley Saunders:This Thing of Blood & Love • Frances Sackett:The House with the Mansard Roof • Chris Hardy: Key To The Highway • Ilse Pedler: Auscultation • Tess Jolly: Breakfast at the Origami Café • Dominic James: Smudge • Robin Davidson: Mrs. Schmetterling • Matthew Barton: Dusk • Clive Donovan: The Taste of Glass • Lynn Valentine: Life’s Stink and Honey • Eleanor Hooker: Of Ochre and Ash
Local Wonders: Poems of our Immediate Surrounds edited by Pat Boran
Martyn Crucefix • David Hackbridge-Johnson • Sue Kindon • Derek Coyle • Merryn Williams • Steven Waling • Jonathan Timbers • Rosie Jackson • Ken Evans • Alex Josephy • Rowena Sommerville • Adrienne Silcock • Konstandinos Mahoney • Jill Sharp • Hilary Hares • Quentin Cowdry • Tom Laichas • Clifton Redmond • Sue Watling • Carla Scarano D’Antonio • Stephen Claughton • Neil Leadbeater • Anne Symons • Richard Hawtree
Raymond Antrobus’ All The Names Given reviewed by Martyn Crucefix
All The Names Given by Raymond Antrobus. £10.99. Picador Poetry. ISBN: 978-1529059502.
Genuinely acclaimed first books can be hard to follow up. Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 2018) was a Poetry Book Society Choice and won the Ted Hughes Award and the Rathbone’s Folio Prize in 2019. I reviewed the book that year as one of the five collections shortlisted for the Forward Felix Dennis First Collection Prize https://martyncrucefix.com/2019/08/20/2019-forward-first-collections-reviewed-3-raymond-antrobus-the-perseverance/. In many ways it was a conventional book of poems – its voice was colloquial, it successfully employed a range of (now) traditional forms (dramatic monologues, prose poem, sestina, ghazal, pantoum), its syntax and punctuation were nothing out of the ordinary. Its subject matter was to a large extent dominated by a son’s difficult relationship with his father, by questions of racial identity and (this is what made it especially distinctive) the experience of a young Deaf man. Besides the latter, what really marked the book out (I argued) was ‘that impossible-to-teach, impossible-to-fake, not especially ultra-modern quality of compassion’.
Three years on and literary acclaim, a new publisher, a recent marriage and a broadening of perspective (particularly towards the USA) all place Antrobus in a very different environment. He has set aside a lot of the experimentation with recognised forms (which is not to say the new poems do not experiment with poetic form) and the book opens very positively:
Give thanks to the wheels touching tarmac at JFK,
give thanks to the latches, handles, what we squeeze
into cabins, the wobbling wings, the arrivals,
departures, the long line at the gates, the nerves held,
give thanks to the hand returning the passport [. . .]
In a similar tone, ‘The Acceptance’ concludes with the word ‘Welcome’ being signed. But the 30 lines preceding this hark back to that ‘complicated man’ (‘Dementia’, from The Perseverance), the poet’s father. Though dead for several years now, he continues to haunt his son’s dreams and a number of these new poems. In ‘Every Black Man’, the ‘dark dreadlocked Jamaican father’ meets his prospective, English mother-in-law for the first time. He’s already drunk, there is shouting, he lashes out, she racially insults him: they never meet in the same room again. The father’s ‘heartless sense of humour’ is turned into a slow blues: ‘I think that’s how he handled pain, drink his only tutor’ (‘Heartless Humour Blues’). And the man’s ‘complication’ is reaffirmed in the poem, ‘Arose’, in which, talking to his embarrassed son, the father boasts of the great sex had with the boy’s mother, but then is touchingly remembered, calling out her name: ‘Rose? And he said it like something in him / grew towards the light.’
But All The Names Given also pays more fulsome tribute to Antrobus’ mother. In ‘Her Taste’, despite her conventional, English, religious background, she drops out, joins a circus (literally, I think!), has various relationships, and eventually gets pregnant by Seymour, the ‘complicated man’ from Jamaica, who left her to raise the children. Thirty years on, she’s defiant, independent, ‘holding her head higher at seventy’. We see her leafing through a scrapbook of her past, ‘rolling a spliff on somebody’s balcony’ or again, ‘in church reading Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I’m Not a Christian’.’ Despite such moments, the maternal portrait does not quite have the vivid distinctiveness of the paternal one. But, with the benefit of the passing years, Antrobus can now write, ‘On Being A Son’, in which he unreservedly praises Rose in her neediness, her self-sufficiency, her helplessness with IT, her helpfulness in so much else. He concludes, channelling her voice: ‘mother / dyes her hair, / don’t say greying / say sea salt / and cream’.
This greater focus on the mother is partly a redressing of the previous gender imbalance, but it is also at one with Antrobus’ interest in family and heritage as offering clues to his own identity. It turns out the Antrobus name – from his mother’s English side – is anciently English (or far distantly Norse) and associated with Antrobus in Cheshire. ‘Antrobus or Land of Angels’ records a visit (by mother and son) to the place, to face the suspicious looks in The Antrobus Arms, the guard dogs at the Hall:
A farmer appears, asks if we’re descended
from Edmund Antrobus.
Sir Edmund Antrobus, (3rd baronet)
slaver, beloved father,
over-seer, owner of plantations
in Jamaica, British Guiana and St Kitts.
The son’s quick denial of the line of descent is a complex moment. Despite carrying the same name, his mother is not truly a descendant. But given His Lordship’s slave-owning history, who is to say whether there is any genetic relation, ironically, through his Jamaican-born father, Seymour. The thought surfaces in ‘Horror Scene as Black English Royal (Captioned)’. Antrobus’ note tells us this poem was sparked by tabloid/CNN speculations in 2019 about the likely ‘blackness’ of the Sussexes’ royal baby. The poem’s narrator looks down at his own hands and sees ‘your great-great-great Grandfather’s owner’s hands’.
So All The Names Given quickly reveals itself to be a book deeply troubled by the kinds of questions raised in the poem ‘Plantation Paint’: ‘Why am I like this? // What am I like? / Who does / it matter to?’ In this second book, Antrobus is still working towards an ‘overstanding’. The idea was alluded to in The Perseverance via a Peter Tosh lyric: ‘love is the man overstanding’. It is a form of understanding that emerges after all untruths have been overcome. The truths, untruths and complications of identity preoccupy the majority of these new poems. Only occasionally does Antrobus set aside such profound (perhaps irresolvable) anxieties. The African/Vietnamese waitress in ‘A Short Speech Written on Receipts’ is a figure who seems to outweigh the poet’s wrangling over his own selfhood, leading him to wonder: ‘Maybe kindness is how / you take down the stalls’. The gates of compassion also open frankly and to great effect in ‘At Every Edge’ and ‘A Paper Shrine’, two brief poems remembering very different students in creative writing classes. Likewise, ‘For Tyrone Givans’, commemorates a young Deaf man (a friend and contemporary of Antrobus) who committed suicide in Pentonville Prison in 2018. Here too, the vector of attention is outwards, towards Tyrone’s mistreatment by the authorities, his suffering and despair, rather than inwards towards the poet’s own ‘complications’:
Tyrone, the last time I saw you alive
I’d dropped my pen
on the staircase
didn’t hear it fall but you saw and ran
down to get it, handed it to me
before disappearing, said,
you might need this.
Martyn Crucefix’s most recent publications are: Cargo of Limbs (Hercules Editions, 2019) and The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017). These Numbered Days, translations of poems by Peter Huchel (Shearsman, 2019) won the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, 2020. A Rilke Selected will be published by Pushkin Press in 2023 and a translation of Lutz Seiler’s essays, Sundays I Thought of God will be published by And Other Stories. Currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The British Library, he blogs on poetry, translation and teaching at http://www.martyncrucefix.com
Denise Riley’s Lurex reviewed by David Hackbridge-Johnson
Lurex by Denise Riley. £10.99. Picador. ISBN: 978-1529078138
If there is a prize for writing with simultaneous complexity and lucidity it might well go to Denise Riley. She might be described as a poet-philosopher or a philosopher-poet but perhaps a composite word is needed, such as might have proved useful in the cases of, say, Paul Valéry or Friedrich Nietzsche. ‘Poetosopher’ sounds silly – so this concept needs either work or abandonment. Riley’s twin concerns feed each other – this makes her philosophy lucid however complex the issues, be they to do with such matters as identity, language or the perceived categories of ‘women’ – and it makes her poetry both direct and knotty at the same time. A Riley poem might have a light, even colloquial surface, yet will unpack itself from its easy structures to something richer and harder to grasp – just as those Havergal Brian symphonies that reveal internally, Tardis-like, vast halls of sound in a mere 15 minutes or so of outward span. In this way I read the first poem in Riley’s latest book (of which more below) many times – teasing out an ironic tragedy of alarming proportions from a 6-line ‘biographical note’. ‘A natal error’ hints at dire episodes of neglect but also, somehow, a hospital setting; ‘In leaping joy alone’ has at least three meanings, each with their own epicycles of possibility. Another poem from her book No Fee shows this compressive tendency happening very early in Riley’s career – an evocative opening with an hilarious put-down – its single verse worth quoting in full:
Folding out these poems starts as a pastime and leads to striking discoveries and profundities. The poem just quoted is called ‘Not what you think’ – a phrase that might serve as an epigram to her work as a whole. Furthermore, this act of unfolding or looking at a poem stems from a concern as to both a poem and its reception – her ‘Outside from the Start’ asks: ‘What does the hard look do to what it sees? / Pull beauty out of it, or stare it in?’ Perhaps both poet and reader can never be sure what will be stared in to a poem. Or pulled out.
Picador continues to issue the poetry of Riley at a time when other large publishers are leaving the field to the independents or to the honourably occluded purveyors of pamphlets. Although much of their poetic issue is in the field of popular anthologies in attractive covers – as if pre-wrapped for gifts – Picador also publishes the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, John Glenday and Ian Duhig, among others. Four Riley books have come out so far: a hardback reissue of Time Lived, Without its Flow (2012, 2019), Say Something Back (2016), Selected Poems (2019), and most recently, Lurex (2022). Rather than just talk about the vital thickets of the latest poems, it is worth making a larger clearing in which to view Riley’s work.
There might be a book somewhere called A History of Literature in Fabrics. If not, sometime poet and then fashion historian James Laver would get the gig, if he were still alive. Chapters for Dickens and the Spitalfields silk weavers, and Mrs Gaskell’s dressmaker, Mary Barton. Proust making a book not like a cathedral but like a dress. The soldier in Mary Butts’ short story ‘Speed the Plough’ aroused by a fabric-fantasy: ‘She would wear…beautiful things with names…velours and organdie, and that faint windy stuff aerophane.’ The soldier’s ‘she’ is ‘Georgette’ – the name and the fabric woven together. Then in the same World War One setting we might have Enid Bagnold’s A Diary Without Dates from 1917, with its anti-erotic of bandages and peeling dressings.[vii] Riley would achieve entry in this imaginary book if only for her use of the self-same Georgette, and now Lurex, as titles for poetry volumes. Once the reader knows what Georgette is (I didn’t at first) it is hard not to spot fabrics everywhere in Riley’s Reality Street Editions volume Mop Mop Georgette from 1993, (hard to find now excerpted in Picador’s Selected Poems of 2019). Even a pastoral poem inspired by Samuel Palmer takes on a warp and woof of its own by the use of words such as ‘spangled’, ‘glimmering’, and a plethora of colour words – as if landscape is like shook cloth. Lurex, her latest book, has a very spangled and glittery cover – folds of the bright stuff with its vaporised silver and gold. It might be posited that Riley is hinting at a role played by women in the manufacture of fabric (the cotton mills of the north come to mind, wherein my own female relatives toiled) and their involvement in the household tasks of cleaning, ironing, folding – so-called ‘women’s work’. This might tally with perceptions of women as categorised for certain tasks and bounded by them – for which, see Riley’s powerful survey Am I That Name?: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History.[ In a 1995 interview, Romana Huk asked Riley about the significance of the synthetic fabrics that crop up in her poems – rayon and shantung are two others – the response is both pragmatic and suggestive of a poetic. Riley replied: ‘I don’t know… ‘Rep’, the title of another poem, refers to a coarse, lineny corded stuff. They’re arbitrary titles that float over the content of the poems. It was to do with needing titles for the collection, some sort of correlative material, something that, if you were to touch a poem with your fingers, might have its same roughness, or shimmery or flimsy quality.’[x] Riley as both a magpie after shiny things and as a poet after tactile surfaces.
She has also written ‘about’, ‘around’ or ‘from within’, grief. What that is like I might know too. From within it you can see that grief never really goes. Once it is out – dispersed from the self – it has a fallout of a duration sufficient for the remainder of life. Grief as spatial – an array of wild sensations that spiral from this agonised head that can’t find succour. The world seems larger, uncontainable and the stricken being sees no clouds or sky between itself and a kind of gravitational void. Protective atmospheres peeling off leaving a rasping lunar lung. The people around you are flimsy, lose their meaning; they become all you hope to see except the one you can’t. The core of grief – that metallic knot of despair – baulks at approach, is resistant to pity, sympathy, expression. It is the pull on all you think and do and permeates being – even though with the passing of time, some initial shocks of pain recede, the core remains. So it feels right when Denise Riley says, ‘I work to earth my heart’. Again it’s a sentence to be read in multiple ways – work as occupation or distraction (simply the numbing daily tasks of washing, eating, sleeping, are arduous), work as in working on the anchoring required simply to carry on; to avoid being swept away by what Colin Murray Parkes calls the ‘exquisite pain of grief’. And the idea of earthing – a safety wiring against certain and potentially lethal shock – we know from Murray Parkes’ research that bereavement cannot always be survived. To tug at the threads of the fabric metaphor – it is as if there is much work needed to mend the torn cloth of life – to re-stitch the sky that was rent and showed red raw behind its weave. Life’s surroundings have to be re-gathered in order to have any possibility of the mind’s unfreezing from a hollow stasis – Time Lived, Without its Flow – is Riley’s most apt title for her prose memoir about the loss of her son. When Auden demands in a cabaret song that we ‘stop all the clocks’, for the truly bereaved that has already happened. In a most moving passage, Riley, begins by saying that part of the bereaved person has died alongside the lost loved one (an oft reported feeling) yet she continues by saying ‘you feel that the spirit of the child has leaped into you’. This rebinding to the self of the lost spirit is another type of work. For a parent, a mother specifically, this is perhaps a return of the child to the womb – elsewhere Riley ponders, ‘the peculiar fate of mothers of dead children: still to contain that other life, and to shelter it twice over.’ The poetic twin of Time Lived is Say Something Back, her collection from 2016. Loss permeates ‘A Part Song’ with its suggestion of both apartness and togetherness, as in a musical part song for voices. There are fragile memories wrenched into a new reality: ‘It’s odd how boys live so much in their knees. / Then both of us had nothing.’ Beyond the confines of ‘A Part Song’, grief is a running theme that pricks the remaining pages. Some lines are striking by appearing to act detrimentally on the body: ‘Absence turns thicker, muscled by its strain.’ Later in the same poem a paradoxical glow of nothingness: ‘I sensed your not-there in its burning life.’ With her two grief-anchored books, Riley has attempted a grounding of the most unbearable feelings. The act of writing as a survival that might, by painful craft, give some glimmer of hope and love.
And so to Lurex proper. Beyond the aforementioned ‘Please supply a biographical note’ – that Chinese puzzle of interlocking verbal surfaces – we find an abundance of poetic life in all its variegated colours. Wit aplenty – for which, see ‘Prize Cultures’, the witheringly funny dig at the ‘Po-Biz’ world with its prizes, collaborations and residencies. We learn about the ‘most innovative mullet’ award, the ‘Experimental Malevolence prize’, and that ‘They’ as a personal pronoun might be far better than being called an ‘it’. There are two lyric memorials to fellow poets: Tom Raworth and John James. There are further uneasy meditations on loss – in ‘Time How Short’, the poet tries to see the passing of time in terms of carpe diem – ‘Speak as you can & while I can still hear’ – but also discovers time’s failure to heal – ‘Time does not always ‘heal the damage’ / but tamps it down and seals it tight.’ Riley offers a denial of cod-therapeutic nostrums such as ‘moving on’ or ‘finding closure’. Riley’s poems don’t set out with designs on the reader; a grand scheme of her own with which to merely impress; rather, poems are sparked by a phrase that baffles before coming into focus, the line of a popular song, a small detail from decades back – seemingly trivial but somehow lodged permanently – a memory that refuses to become one, stuck in the throat of the now. From these shards a poem emerges.
The refusal of the past to be there, informs the centrepiece of Lurex; a sequence of fifteen poems under the overall title ‘1948’ – a reference to the year of Riley’s birth.[xix] ‘Your past can’t tell it is the past.’ – is the opening gambit from which a plethora of events fail to be recollected in tranquillity. This idea is a leitmotif throughout the sequence, signalled (but without Wagner tubas) by such variations as: ‘Time did, but did not, pass’, ‘This present-past hangs on’, ‘I tell my past it’s passed, though it can’t tell.’ The real-time hurts of the past reside in details familiar from one of Riley’s earliest pieces of prose: ‘Waiting’, which was included in Liz Heron’s 1985 anthology of writings composed by women who were girls in the 1950s, Truth, Dare or Promise.[xx] In that book, Riley finds herself ‘caught in the toils’ of why she can’t explain, why she can’t explain the formation of her adult beliefs. Beyond what is an impossible narrative for her, only fragmentary details remain. It is these details from her childhood, the 1985 prose piece, and ‘1948’ that have remained in constant vibration – ‘What I remember vibrates in a permanent present.’[xxi] The ‘daily clouting across the mouth’ in poem viii of ‘1948’ is still felt ‘in wheals each the width of a finger’. A list of admonitions barked ‘in the only mother-tongue you knew’ is similar in ‘1948’ and ‘Waiting’. In a sense the poems of ‘1948’ are ripples from the aftershock of ‘Waiting’ – the earlier work a stunning evocation of the bits of a life not worth a biographical note but that mean everything. That Riley cannot escape a reliving of details gives her poems both an obsessive ring and armours them against the temptation to utter soporific ‘I remember whens’ over the slurped froth of a fireside Horlicks. She speaks for herself in these poems but is too modest to attribute uniqueness to the story of her early years: ‘This history’s too commonplace to tell’. In ‘Waiting’ she called this history ‘a monstrous ordinariness’. As a response to ‘That couldn’t have happened, you seem so normal’ – the poet says, ‘I am so normal. And it did. / Just as it did to thousands.’ Riley also has a riposte to the potential confessional-ising’ of such poetic work; ‘dead violence as calligraphy’ is not her way of breaking the spell of the past, since it won’t break. Why should a poem ‘done well’ break anything? And would the writer of such work wish for the judgement: ‘damaged. TMI.’? What Riley brings to light are the cracks between a life’s narrative and what lies hidden in those cracks; time and again in ‘Waiting’ there is a sense of concealment – a child should be seen and not heard, she must not talk about certain forbidden things like prostitution, rape; even womb ‘was an intimate and horrifying word’.So many utterances and behaviours forbidden. It is the body that is concealed and anything related to it. All the good you do cannot wipe the stains of a body brought into the world by sin. The moral strictures of 1950s England are a heavy blanket weighing down the body. And yet under the mattress – concealed – is a way out into the wild imagination behind the ‘shocking lines’ residing in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Riley can reveal the intricacies of this history of concealment.
Finally, the title poem, ‘Lurex’ which flashes a ‘dark yet sparkly’ texture over cryptic swatches of identity and memory: ‘To believe in both its then and its now’ – ‘How am I mine, who once was yours.’ Once more Riley turns the faces of the puzzle where the past won’t stay where it never was and where selves shift in uneasy longing and regret. Riley, or a person like her, is in the poem dressed not in Lurex but in cramoisie which I take to be a type of crimson-coloured velvet. This texture, yet another fabric, like a Riley poem, burns in the memory, or is the emblem of a figure – dressed like that – almost brazenly before us but yet ever questioning in its pose, and in those questions finding profound truths in a lack of answers.
Lurex is an achievement in its own right and in the context of Riley’s outstanding previous work. Continuities abound and continue to spark great work. She is an unflinching poet who in talking about a self never draws attention to her own. The work is, on the contrary, generous in its outward flow of thought and feeling. This reader feels drawn into ways of being, living and suffering that are not painted as wounds for lurid exposure but as oddly accommodated pains. A different form of sympathy is achieved. And the reader feels a craft undemonstrative of its brilliance, right in its telling of the untold, and somehow illuminated by love. If reasons are needed, these are mine for wishing to read this book again and again.
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.
Katharine Towers’ Oak reviewed by Sue Kindon
Oak by Katharine Towers. £10.99. Picador. ISBN 97861 5290 7842 8
What more can there be to say about the best-loved of trees? Plenty, it would seem, and Katharine Towers has carefully sifted just the words to say it. This volume is a timely reminder of the wonders of the oak tree; since the word ‘acorn’ was dropped from the Junior Oxford Dictionary earlier in the century, it is more important than ever to keep our relationship with oak alive.
As you might expect, this isn’t a natural history handbook, although there is much to be gleaned about the biology of the tree and the birds, insects, and fungi that form part of its ecosystem, along with the adjacent flower-filled meadow. It’s as if the poet’s eye is a time-lapse camera, recording the life of one particular tree, its aspects seen through various filters, in unblinking detail.
Even lines that sound as if they could apply to any tree pick up on the grand scale of the oak:
a tree must catch what it can before dark
when it will giantly exhale
like a whale spouting
What a wonderful image! Towers is attentive to oak-related detail throughout; acorns, obviously, but also the strength, stature, and longevity of the oak:
an oak of great age has gravitas
like a baroque cathedral
The contents list is the clue to the structure. The book is in seven sections, corresponding to The Seven Ages of Man, a concept dating from at least the twelfth century, and famously set out by Shakespeare in As You Like It. There is a quasi-Shakespearean quality to the poems; they range in style from the sublime:
thus mistletoe will make itself a home
and take unto its tangly self
those important things that uphold a tree
to the minimalist ‘origami / backwards / another leaf / uncomplicates / sunlight / irons it all out’,
to the vernacular of the schoolboy saying ‘fuck that’ in his impatience and hatred of rules.
One of the recurrent themes is chance, also popular with The Bard:
think of the throes of fortune or luck
which cause one to be trodden down and one
to muster and set foot
to quote another example from the Schoolboy section. There is a further As You Like It quotation towards the end of the book.
It would seem that the rhythms of the King James’s Version are lurking in the wood ready to drum up a touch of archaism when required. The opening poem begins:
this is not chaos
but a small change in our green midst
which shall not wreak havoc
nor shall it bring down curses or disaster
nor cause the seasons to go backwards
nor cause the weathers to upend
and, speaking of Biblical, the final section, 7, has direct references to The Book of Revelation, with its seven angels and trumpets.
Music is another recurring theme, The oak has ‘a sturdiness like a trumpet / sounding after strings’, for example, and:
a mast year is like when an orchestra
suddenly plays fortissimo
you have to cover your ears
for the splendour
There is sometimes a playful tone: ‘shall we knock and see who’s home?’, asks the narrator, to which one of the answers might be ‘Pip the Robin’. A Jack o’ the Woods figure is up to no good, and there are nursery rhymes.
This is more of a saga (think Oswald’s Dart) or a story-telling than a collection; ‘and so we say once upon a time’, concludes the opening poem. The first poem in each section forms the function of a chorus and sets the tone for the corresponding age of man/tree. The poems flow from one to another, despite changes of style and register. They are made to be read aloud.
The only poems with what you might call titles are two groups of three, Regarding the three true loves of an oak, and the three manners of dying, although in the case of the latter, the would-be be titles come at the end of the poems, in a larger typeface.
One constant is the lack of punctuation, apart from the odd question mark or brackets. It’s quite some feat to maintain this successfully over 92 pages, but Towers manages it gracefully. It has to be said that there is a good deal of white (or off-white, in this case) space amid the 92 pages, often used to effect, but it does make the book appear physically rather larger than the sum of its printed contents.
The effect of the poems is the exact opposite; the careful choice of words creates an immense and lasting impression. The magic is in the metaphors, which surprise:
an oak is a long book
in which we set down
the many mistakes
and, perhaps my favourite:
(an oak in its lichen
resembles Miss Havisham
dressed in fine dust)
There are many others, but rather than give a spoiler alert, I won’t deny you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. Finally, don’t be fooled into thinking these poems amount to the mere personification of a tree; they can equally be seen as the oakification of life itself.
Sue Kindon lives and writes in the French Pyrenees. Her greatest achievement is an award for a poem in French. She was Runner Up in the 2021 Ginkgo Prize (for Eco-poetry); her latest pamphlet is Outside, the Box (4Word Press, 2019).
George Szirtes’ Fresh Out of Sky reviewed by Derek Coyle
Fresh Out of the Sky by George Szirtes. £12.99. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN: 9781780375847
It is striking how much things can change in a matter of just a few weeks. The opening section of George Szirtes’ Fresh Out of the Sky deals with the immigration of his family to England. He and his family arrived in from Hungary in 1956. He was eight years old. In the first section of the volume we find the poet exploring the strange new culture he found himself within, with its extravagant weather and its odd customs and games. Although the book was only released last October, this suddenly feels like an urgent and pressing theme.
One of the most impressive features of this collection is the poet’s formal agility. This is clearly on display in the opening section, with its wiry and nimble tercets, all of which dance within a terza rima rhyming scheme – not the easiest formal scheme to deliver convincingly in English. Szirtes makes it work. In these tercets, the first and last words rhyme (‘plane’, ‘age’, ‘rain’), with the middle term being picked up by the next tercet, to provide its dominant rhyme (‘page’, ‘come’, ‘gauge’), and hereby Szirtes achieves an on-going momentum (‘numb’, ‘line’, ‘hum’) which is the distinctive virtue of this form. A virtue which helps in the forward focused delivery of a tale, the telling of a story, a drama. The great master of this form was Dante in The Divine Comedy. In fairness to Szirtes, he deploys the form skilfully across the first section of his book, a section which deals with the young Szirtes’ experience of discovering the intricacies of the new culture he found himself in as an immigrant. And so the form matches this young man’s mood and sense of adventure, discovery, and occasional bewilderment.
In the opening poem Szirtes uses the form to keep his rather abstract phrasing energetic and dynamic:
formalities and waiting and a numb
half expectation as we stand in line
or squat on benches with a constant hum
of meaning that our ears cannot define.
He and his family have arrived by plane, the ‘fresh out of the sky’ of the book’s title. What strikes the young boy (perhaps in retrospect) is the incongruity of it all:
I can’t quite conjure it. I seem to stand
at an angle to my life. I cannot see
myself or tell how much of this was planned.
Regrettably, there will be a new generation in Europe who will be able to relate to the experiences explored by Szirtes’ here.
One of the English cultural experiences that Szirtes’ struggles to understand is cricket. He isn’t the only outsider to falter before the intricacies of this game. Through the experience of this sport, which seems to slowly meander for days, he glimpses something of the distinctive character of England and the English:
England is the raising of an eyebrow,
the tempo of a surgical operation
What is striking is Szirtes’ facility with his chosen form. He relates these thoughts, memories, incidents, without breaking his stride, or so it seems. These poems are delivered without the slightest formal twitch. If cricket is ‘a form of art//that no one can explain to you or teach’, perhaps the same can be said for poetry.
In the ‘Five Interludes’ section of the book we find the wry ‘In praise of breathing’, an amusing look at the significance of this almost unnoticed action of the body:
is secret. Breath
appears and vanishes.
It pirouettes on points. It glows
The poet considers the epic significance of breathing: ‘the beauty of/breath’ is worthy of a song on the scale of Walt Whitman’s expansive ‘Song of Myself’. In fact, breathing approaches the heights of the Romantic sublime. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is alluded to in the humourous: ‘My breath is the west wind/in drag.’ In ‘Hen Harrier’ we see dynamic runs across little lists: ‘the rise,/twist, swoop, sweep, drill of his flight’, and energetic verbs: ‘arching’, ‘chiding’, ‘pecking’. Even a man of the city, like the poet, can appreciate the vitality in the dance of this bird, ‘these brief perfections.’ I think ‘Morning Song’ one of the finest poems in the collection with its dedicatee Martin Battye rising to his day’s work in a blaze of light, like a figure in Monet’s field, or on Seurat’s riverbank. Battye encounters ‘a lusciousness you may dive into or luxuriate in’. Rising late from his bed,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the water in the bowl,
to the dazzle of the tablecloth, to the orange neatly peeled
and the spiritual comforts of cereal, toast and coffee,
Battye discovers ‘a version of the world you may fully believe in.’
In Szirtes’ take on the dream song, ‘Dream of the Danube’, we encounter a transformed Budapest, where melon-rind drifts on the tide, with the city intolerable, where we discover that the ghosts of the train stations’ tunnels sing their music here, with the Metro’s escalator ‘the nearest waterfall’. We emerge to ‘the light of midday,’
where a hot-air balloon is a heart
to a cavity to exhaustion to coffee
to the rococo pastry of the lungs.
George Szirtes’ Fresh Out of the Sky sees us visit a complex and varied range of landscapes, memories, and thoughts, from Brighton to Budapest, as if along a Hen Harrier’s flight pattern, in a poetry of energetic formal confidence.
Derek Coyle has published poems in The Irish Times, Irish Pages, The Texas Literary Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Orbis, Skylight 47, Assaracus, and The Stony Thursday Book. He is a founding member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-Operative. He lectures in Carlow College/St Patrick’s. His first collection, Reading John Ashbery in Costa Coffee Carlow, was published in a dual-language edition in Sweden in April 2019.
Alison Brackenbury’s Thorpeness reviewed by Merryn Williams
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury. £12.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1800172258
Alison Brackenbury is descended from a long line of domestic servants and farm workers; her roots are in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire. Her poems are unusual for several reasons; they rhyme, they are accessible, and they stay very close to the land. In a world of smartphones and motorways, she writes about animals (a beloved blind pony which had to die), birds (today we seldom hear the cuckoo) and plants (elderflower, a source of wine and cool drink). She sees herself as part of a tradition of country writers, as the poem of that name, dedicated to Edward Thomas and Richard Jefferies, makes clear:
They lingered by cool dairies’ yellow milk
Which we never dreamed of or saw.
Children sipped froth beside the hot stacks, through
A hollow straw.
They scared a hundred sparrows from eared corn,
woke to their thrushes’ common song.
The line of rooks which flared the sky to roost
Stretched five miles long.
The past is not idealised. She’s the granddaughter of a shepherd and a cook, and knows how hard life was for them and others in the years before her birth. A great-uncle coming back from the First World War refused ever again to work for the gentry (‘Meeting 1919’), and her forebears, who are a big part of her poetry, had lives which our globetrotting generation can hardly imagine:
Both my grandmothers were of age
to stuff fat sausages with sage,
Lincolnshire’s herb which calms the blood.
They could make dumplings sweet with suet,
slash egg-white with a knife till thick,
plate shoulder-poised, Victorian trick,
but never dreamed of kneading bread.
They ran to bakers’ vans instead.
Yet when strange men tramped round the farms
to beg for work, in ‘30s storms,
Dot, between her jobs, would pour
them tea beside her fire, before
sending them out in rain well-fed
on home-cured bacon and white bread.
(What, she wonders, would her grandmother make of today’s cuisine?). Nevertheless, a life close to nature, much improved by the skills of a good shepherd or a good cook, could have been deeply satisfying. There were small pleasures, like a sugar mouse in a child’s stocking, or a ‘buttonhole’ of asparagus fern. She doesn’t want the age of deference back but worries about what this generation is doing to the natural world:
Beech tree, you are an elephant,
your crumpled bark as grey as power,
glistening and irresistible
in the small violence of a shower.
Foul water lines your long toes. Our
brief bustle will not see you through.
You are the year. We are the hour.
Green in my death, I fear for you.
‘The Oldest Tree in Mercombe Wood’ may not be standing in the next century. And we also have a habit of fighting each other; the sight of a helicopter, on an ordinary bus ride, reminds her that not here, but in other places, helicopters strafe the innocent (‘Sunday on the Coach’). And then there is Covid. A remarkable poem, ‘The Train: 1993, 2020’, recalls a frightening ride on a Russian train in Yeltsin’s time and compares it with our own lockdowns and sickness at the height of the pandemic, ‘Rocked deeper, scared, we still must ride this train’.
One other outstanding poem has to be quoted in full. ‘Apollo, 1968’ is based on the famous photograph of our beautiful fragile planet as it appears from space:
They floated past the moon without a spark
of radio, the quiet before birth.
Pulsed by its cobalt seas, they watched the Earth
its perfect O, rise trustful from the dark
as we wish children might, without a mark.
See South America, whose tides of white
shield sloths, jewelled hummingbirds which drink our light.
I was too young, sucked into my own dark.
At work, in a Tech Library, an Ark
Of students, I set blue earth on the wall
so it sailed to them, bold and beautiful.
In drawers, the plans for wind power slept in dark.
The blue sea rose, then drowned. We lost the lark.
I never dreamed that we would reach such dark.
So many poets, so many voices clamouring for our attention, but this one is special. I could happily go on reading her for ages, and the poem above, I suggest, touches on greatness.
Merryn Williams was the founder and first editor of The Interpreter’s House. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently: The Fragile Bridge: New and Selected Poems (Shoestring Press 2019). She has edited two anthologies, also published by Shoestring, The Georgians 1901-1930 and Poems for the Year 2020.
Paul Batchelor’s The Acts of Oblivion reviewed by Steven Waling
The Acts of Oblivion by Paul Batchelor. £11.99. Carcanet. ISBN:978-1800171992
This is a substantial and challenging collection that covers a terrific range of theme and subject matter, from poems set in the North East of his own upbringing to the 17th century Civil War period. It’s also a formal tour-de-force, including ballads, narrative poetry and dramatic monologue in its considerable range, using modernist juxtaposition and open form in such a poem as Brantwood Senilia, and in the poem titled ( ), even that much-disputed form, visual poetry.
This felicity with form and breadth of subject matter might be problematic in a lesser poet, but here is a collection that is involving, personal and deeply felt as well as being very erudite. The research and learning that has gone into these poems is considerable, but it never overwhelms the poetry and never seems merely clever. Paul Batchelor does not show off but you never feel excluded from these poems. A good example of this is the dramatic monologue of The Discoverer’s Man, written in the voice of an assistant to the Witchfinder General:
Yet he was merciful, and stood upon these points:
that we should not accuse another soul
nor force confession from the examinate
by violence. Our methods must be nice.
Sometimes to keep them waking was enough –
if they would sit or offer to couch down
we would desire them to walk about –
and the swimming test was only used
at such time of the year as when none took
a harm of it. The man was so averse
to witnessing a spectacle of pain
that when our work was done he would not suffer us
to tarry long or watch the execution;
how can you call him, as is the fashion, cruel?
This is just one verse of a poem over 10 pages long, in which the slightly old-fashioned language, entirely fitting the character, never lets up; but which never becomes tedious or merely academic. It examines the way in which the discoverer’s man’s self-justificatory monologue reveals the way cruelty by torture is excused.
The poet that comes to mind with the dramatic monologues is FT Prince and poems like his poem Stafford. We are transported into the time of the Civil War, and into the consciousness and conscience of a witchfinder, and it is at the end an uncomfortable read because that character could be us. These acts of ventriloquism – and we also hear the voices of several other 17th century rogues – are only one aspect of this book, however.
The first section of the book is titled Brother Coal. These poems are generally more personal, concerned mainly with life in his native North East; so Brother Coal, for instance, riffs on the idea of a working-class upbringing, from the tin bath toboggan to the coal mines and silicosis. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane: in a poem like To A Halver, he’s fully aware of the history of struggle, of strikes and pit closures:
O halver, O haffa, O half-brick: your battened-down
century of faithful service in a pit village terrace
forgotten now you’ve broken loose, now you’re at large
on CCTV, flackering out of kilter till you bounce
like far-flung hail rebounding off the riot squad –
or kissing the away support a fond goodbye –
or anyhow let fly, as fifty years ago
someone aimed you at my father’s skull…
There is throughout this collection a deeply political imagination at work, alongside the close attention to personal, local and historical detail. Batchelor is never a shouter of slogans, however, and he sometimes has fun at the expense of the Home Counties middle-class who find his obsession with the Civil War strange (see the poem Societe).
I feel this review only really touches on the splendours of this collection. There is a longish poem based on the writings of John Ruskin, and a poem concerning hidden truths called The Marble Veil I still haven’t figured out. There are also a few scattered translations, including a loose version of Pushkin’s The Prophet that perhaps gives us a clue to how Batchelor sees the role of a poet and poetry. All through this book there is a strong sense of form from free verse to the ballad. Here is a collection that performs that rare fear of making the reader both think and feel. A cracking good collection.
Steven Waling‘s latest two books are Spuds in History (Some Roast Poet) and Lockdown Latitudes (Leafe Press) and he is widely published. His reviews have appeared in Liter, Stride, and Magma among other places. He continues to live in Manchester.
Victoria Kennefick’s Eat or We Both Starve reviewed by Jonathan Timbers
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick. £10.99. Carcanet. ISBN: 978-1800170704
Victoria Kennefick’s first collection has been unlucky. Twice shortlisted for major literature prizes (the Costa Award and T S Eliot prize), it failed to win either. Without taking anything away from the prizewinners, it too would have been a deserving winner of both awards.
It is certainly a collection worth buying, reading and re-reading.
To begin with the cover, Carcanet’s has produced a strikingly attractive book. Its nineteensixtyish uneven thin red lines, cut across at angles by strips of white, is subtlety reminiscent of a famous collection it draws from: Plath’s Ariel. The cover attracts attention straight away.
Broadly the collection’s structure is a timeline. It takes us on a journey through the poet’s life from her birth to her adult self. Her autobiographical poems are interspersed by poems with historical/ religious themes, sometimes taking the form of tableaux. I’m tempted to say they are like stations of the cross but I haven’t found twelve of them so this may be wishful thinking. The poems are vivid, dry, ironic, emotive and sometimes disruptive in language, tone and meaning. We are confronted by sex and gender, historical myth and archaeological truth.
The poems are often confessional. Many of them explore the experience of being a gendered woman – in fact growing into gender. We start as the poet consumes her mother until the sound of sirens stop, presumably outside her house. The humour is grotesque:
The eyes are tougher than expected,
Aqueous humour slithers down my throat.
A surprise, it’s minty
(Learning to eat my mother, where my mother is the teacher)
Maybe this a metaphor for being inside the womb or just being someone’s child. The physicality of this poem pervades the whole collection. It leads into a sub-theme: the poet’s disgust at meat: ‘ fresh as the insides of my mouth’, as she describes it. Towards the end of the collection, there is an ambiguous resolution when her partner offers her a sliver of fillet steak in a restaurant:
xxxxxxxxxxxxx In front
Of me, leaves, nuts, seeds,
To be honest, I say, I’m starving.
( A La Carte)
Some of the best poems concern the poet’s experiences as a girl/ woman and her guilt at being a child ( ‘an infestation’) of a second marriage. The theme of the conflict between an inner sense of self and another external self, which isn’t part of her and yet influences her identity, is explored in poems such as ‘A young girl discovers her reflection’, ‘Selfie’ and ‘Prayer to Audrey Hepburn’, the last poem in the collection, where Audrey’s iconic image is finally reconciled with the poet’s unflattering sense of self, including her ‘pudgy belly’, until ‘our seams popping, we shriek with laughter’.
These poems mix acute observation with surreal imagery, as in the brilliant ‘Second Family’. A sequence of poems which begins with a filmic representation of her descent from two generations of second families, from the woman’s perspective:
Two brides, four brides
lit like lanterns float up the isle.
Early on in the collection there are a set of poems about her Catholic upbringing. At first, they seem like overfamiliar territory but over time they reinforce a critical theme/ image about the host and fallen flesh (all flesh is fallen. We are all meat).
Blasphemy plays an important part in this collection, not only in the unfavourable presentation of the Church but also in the grotesque historical figures, who follow patterns of sin and mortification, ultimately satirised in a poem of anodyne chapter headings:
Chapter 7: St. Gemma’s characteristic virtue
Chapter 8: The Means by Which St. Gemma Attained Perfection. First, her Detachment
Chapter 9: St. Gemma’s Perfect Obedience
Chapter 10: St. Gemma’s Profound Humility
Chaper 11: St. Gemma’s Heroic Mortification
( Hunger Strikes at Gemma Galgani (1878 – 1903).
Note the exquisite use of the full stop and capital letters.
Kennefick’s blasphemy extends to historical themes to, as in Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO, Dublin 1916. Here the teenage narrator has a crush on the heroic dead of the Easter rising, who overlap in her mind with Christ: ‘these rebel Jesuses’, as she calls them, pressing her fingers into the building’s bulletholes, ‘its wounds’. The comparison with the stigmata is pretty clear, as her fancy-free desire to ‘kiss them all’. This is similar to the teenage narrator in ‘Big Girl’ who goes round snogging other revellers after consuming a packet of chips in a kind of wild adolescent ceremony, though one which is in its own way really innocent. It’s actually great to have poems like this about growing up. On one level, they’re really down to earth, on another, completely crazy.
But there’s so much more than this, as the collection is shot through with compassion and never more so than in her poe, ‘Researching the Irish Famine’. . In this poem, she discusses how ‘they can measure hunger’. Using her skills of linenation and enjambment, she builds up to a dramatic and thematic climax in the fourth stanza. Throughout the collection, she writes laconically, making verbs do a lot of work, ‘mothers/……lullabies [are]/ locked in their jaws’. Eventually, Ireland itself is consumed by decaying flesh. She compares the famished then with glutinous overfed now and her visceral conclusion is devastating.
It takes a lot to write a brilliant and affecting poem about the famine. It’s a subject written into so many family histories, including mine, that it’s difficult to say it again with such surprising effect.
She also writes well father’s death in a way which reaches out to others. One poem is about his diet as he was dying and the powerlessness of her love:
I wanted to pick life from the trees, wellness from the bushes,
huge bunches of health from the garden and hold them
to his lips…”
As her father’s brain cancer develops, she senses ‘her father’s brilliant network of networks’ and thinks of ‘the sound of ice splitting’. (Arctic Circle). This is vivid art based on honesty and empathy.
Without sentimentality, she applies this art to her own difficulties conceiving a child. In ‘Family Planning’ she disrupts narrative expectations by going back not forward, and confesses to her own guilt, and sense of failure. It’s an experience many women will identify with. It so good that a poem with such a clever way about it is there to deal with such raw, all-too-common but culturally unacknowledged emotion:
………….xxxxxxxxxxxxDaughter-to-be, if you could form
Your hands into little fists you would bang on my womb
that carpet-lined waiting room (Family Planning).
There‘s much more to this collection than I’ve let on. It’s a beautiful object full of marvellous things. Buy it, enjoy, or in the words of George Herbet, ‘sit and eat’.
Jonathan Timbers has been a teacher and lawyer; he’s worked in a tank factory, a prosthetic limb factory and the last cloth cap making workshop in Leeds (at the time). He helped organise and gave evidence. to the UN inquiry on the impact of austerity on disabled peoples’s rights in the UK. He was once the mayor of Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd and thinks that Ted Hughes is England”s greatest war poet. He occasionally publishes poetry and reviews; otherwise he lives a life of complete self indulgence, with his cat, Polly.”
Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married reviewed by Rosie Jackson
All the Men I Never Married by Kim Moore All the Men I Never Married. £9.99. Seren. ISBN: 978-1781726419
The first time I read Kim Moore’s wondrous second collection, my response was so deeply visceral, grateful to have so much of my core female experience named, I sat and wrote a long catalogue of memories it triggered of ‘me too’ moments, from the casual misogyny that still runs as an undercurrent in our lives to more overt abuse. The list seemed endless: acting dumb for fear of being seen to be too clever, guilt at eating, taunting by male colleagues that levered me out of academic posts, threats from taxi drivers, muggings by youths in London, a man who hurled me across a room and could have broken my spine, a near-miss rape in France, sexual exploitation, emotional abuse, the father of my son who stole my son, shame at bodily and facial hair, a mother who swallowed her tongue, a general sapping of confidence… the examples go on and on, linked by the pulse of what it means to live in a female body within patriarchy.
But this volume is much more than a musical box recycling old feminist tunes. What Kim Moore does so brilliantly here is to distil the relations between the sexes to the narrative behind the narrative, moving through the essence of particular stories (which every woman can recognise and enter from different angles) to merge different men into a generic ‘he’, so the whole collection becomes a far-reaching and thought-provoking parable of gender expectations and realities. On the surface these might seem to be poems about men standing too close, men exposing themselves, men who drink, men who pursue you to hotel rooms, poems about sexual pleasure and sexual violence, about domestic abuse, women trying to free themselves from the male gaze, but while they are about that they also point to the worrying and seemingly enduring politics of what lies underneath. All these behaviours are symptoms of sexism, but sexism is the tip of a much deeper iceberg of power and patriarchy, which terrorises both women and the world. Women are still murdered on our streets. And as I write this, Ukraine is being bombed and bombarded, more than a million people displaced by a patriarchal tyrant. These poems, unsettling, far-reaching, thought provoking , leave me wondering what exactly is patriarchy? And when will it be dismantled?
Poetry wise, the 48 poems (numbered but not titled) of All the Men I Never Married show the same consummate skill as Moore’s previous collection The Art of Falling. The seemingly effortless casual voice and contemporary style are recognisable hers, especially her fabulous reliance on anaphora, which seems to work as both a lyrical and political device. Her tone is utterly confident, her range includes subversive, playful, angry, impassioned, serious, audacious, ironic, the metaphors are stunning, her wide reading and learning are worn deceptively lightly. ‘I didn’t know that a person is already fractured by the time we meet them. It was just like Rilke said,/his gaze was a lamp turned low.’ Poem no 15.
The forms move from prose poems to couplets, quatrains, redactions, and astonishingly inventive flights of fantasy – as in the superb poem no 43:
‘When I open my ribs a dragon flies out
and when I open my mouth a sheep trots out
and when I open my eyes silverfish crawl out
and make for a place that’s not mine. ..’
Here the mythical/dreamlike quality pours out the shadows that have come with another unnamed male, culminating in the last verse:
‘now I’ve said the word whisper it rape,
now I’ve said the word whisper it shame,
will my true ones, my wild, my truth,
will my wild come back to me again?’
Moore writes lyrics beautifully too, qualified and undercut by all that makes female lyricism so difficult. Here’s the whole of poem no 18:
‘This is not love. We are not speaking of love.
We are singing of Hardy: Woman much missed,
how you call to me, call to me – we are speaking
only of this. Outside I shout the whole thing
to the wind. There is darkness between us,
there is the ocean. My lips are moving
but nothing is heard. This is not love but it is
something like it. Here we are with the loyalty
of clouds. We are drifting, two boats on the water.
You have the wild in you, little wolf.
This is what happens when the body is a boat
and the heart is high and bright as a lantern.’
In many ways, this is a book of its time. I feel it comes out of decades of feminism ( and the backlash against it), comes also out of the #metoo movement, which it both echoes and reinforces. It could not have happened like this before. Forty years ago, I was battling to get even one woman poet onto an undergraduate syllabus. But now we are fortunate to have a poet as skilled, humorous, passionate and conscious as Kim Moore to voice in exquisitely crafted work these long silenced and still persistent areas of experience. These poems assure me I am not alone in my fear as I walk alone at night, not alone as I stand up to any form of sexist insult or abuse, and we are not deluded when we recognise that despite all our advances, we are still in thrall to many of the same muzzles, subject to the same male arrogance, gaze and abuse that have been running the world for centuries. I think Fiona Benson is right about this collection: ‘it will be canonical.’ Ultimately, it is a book striving for love, compassion and equality, and calls out all that militates against them. It should be essential reading for everyone.
Rosie Jackson is a poet and creative writing tutor recently whose work has been widely published in journals. She recently moved to Devon after many years in Frome. Her poetry collections to date are: Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird (with Dawn Gorman, Hedgehog Press, 2020); Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline (with Graham Burchell, Two Rivers Press, 2020; The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016); What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).
John McAuliffe ‘s The Kabul Olympics reviewed by Ken Evans
The Kabul Olympics by John McAuliffe £10.50, The Gallery Press ISBN: 978-1-91133-784-3
McAuliffe’s well-received fifth collection The Kabul Olympics (Guardian Book of the Month, June 2020), meditates on ideas or ‘versions’ of ‘Home,’ in an era of identity politics and nationalist populism. At a time too, of binary responses, fundamentalism, and forced migration, what is it we mean, and how might we frame, ‘home?’ Where do we take to be our ‘home’? When we say we feel ‘at home’ – what does this mean, if anything?
The Guardian described McAuliffe as Irish but writing about his adopted home in Manchester. However, this is a Manchester of the ‘mind’ as well as in fact, mediated though various frames. The digital prism of the media, for example, as when the Arena bombing in the poet’s own city, in the lauded poem, ‘City of Trees,’ is viewed, as for most of us, on-screen, in a safe, appallingly ‘present’ mode, and replayed on a loop, at a continuous remove.
The historical prism of ‘A Rest,’ is a short-lined sonnet about Chopin’s visit to Manchester as a refugee fleeing the 1848 revolutions. A monarchist with nationalist friends, Chopin’s music was described by Schumann as “cannons hidden by flowers”. These evidence-trails and allusions, contradictions and dichotomies, are the backstories against which McAuliffe’s considered poems ‘speak’. In the poem, the Chopin concert In Manchester is re-imagined (because of the composer’s tuberculosis, it wasn’t a triumph.) An Irish critic, fittingly, shares the crowds’ disappointment but is distracted to see ‘a figure’ (italics the poets’ own) emerging wraith-like from the piano. Is this a premonition of the composer’s death? Of the death of music? Of revolutionary ideals? Of Romanticism? (Chopin’s enjoyed a colourful love-life, was sickly and died young – all key for Romantic apotheosis.)
Opposite this poem is ‘Ledwidge in Manchester,’ about another doomed romantic hero. Francis Ledwidge was a WW1 poet killed at Passchendaele in 1917. Ledwidge, an Irish nationalist, nevertheless claimed an obligation to fight for and defend the British Empire, and not simply enjoy its protection, cost-free. In three rhyming quatrains, the poem ‘versions’ Seamus Heaney’s own poem in form as well as subject, ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge.’ In Heaney’s poem, Ledwidge is ‘in your Tommy’s uniform / A haunted Catholic face.’ Ledwidge is quoted as being called to be ‘a British soldier while my country / Has no place among nations.’ The Spring imagery of white hawthorn was for Ledwidge where, ‘My country wears her confirmation dress,’ an allusion to Ireland being admitted into the convocation of free, independent nations. Ledwidge recuperated from a war-wound in Manchester. In this mirroring poem (Ledwidge seen through Heaney, filtered through McAuliffe), the WW1 Irishman looks out from a ward onto daffodils, ‘bending under a north west wind.’ Like the daffodils, Ledwidge is soon passing, he’s in transit, recuperation, about to be sent back to the Front. Heaney finishes on death, which takes ‘these true-blue ones’ just as much as an idealist like Ledwidge. The McAuliffe poem envisages a time before the final act, but the last line is, if anything, more forlorn, ‘The not much that lies ahead of him, and helpless symbols.’ Heaney’s ‘bronze statue and bronze cape / That crumples stiffly in imagined wind’, becomes another symbol of young idealism destroyed then re-engineered into ‘Art’, and McAuliffe seems to go further, to imply poetry itself is a ‘helpless symbol’ canonising the idealistic and defeated.
There is a kind of accompanying diptych or ’mirror poem’ to the ‘City of Trees’ (on an atrocity carried out by a Manchester-based Libyan refugee). ‘Saloon’ ostensibly refers to a type of car used in another bombing, but may also embrace notions of comfort, relaxation, refuge, ‘home’ even, as in a salon (a place of intellectual debate and discussion) or a saloon bar. The bomber in ‘Saloon’ is counterpoint to the Manchester Bomber. Mahdi Ziu was a family man with an executive role in the Libyan oil-industry, yet he filled his car with gas canisters and determined to drive into the front of Gadafi’s notorious Katiba stronghold. His actions freed a number of pro-democracy activists who faced summary execution.
The narrator, driving his own car and kids through urban traffic ‘moving slowly as a funeral,’ hears news of the bombing on the radio, and later scrolls through online images of ‘an oblong tangle / of hardframe and smashed, rusting metal.’ The car, a ‘relic.’ Ziu has ‘your propane cargo strapped like a child into the passenger seat.’ Ziu is now ‘a closed case, your silence clarifying in the heat,’ becoming in the media and popular martyr narrative, a revolutionary hero of democracy, set against Abedi, an imported, self-propelled generator of violence from a country of bloody regime-change.
McAuliffe is too nuanced and adept to suggest these comparisons/contrasts as more than tacitly revealing themselves. They are present in their sequencing together in the collection. ‘Circumstance (Accession 8, Box 2)’, which precedes the Ledwidge poem, relates to the IRA bomb in Manchester in 1996, which almost destroyed Carcanet publishing house. Here though, it is the languages in translation (a practice of ‘versioning’ and potential linguistic ‘occupation’, perhaps?) in the sheafs of paper that survived, but are dead languages. ‘There is ash and a smudged print / on the sheet when I move it a little, / a dry scent in the air.’ In the end, the precariousnesss of life – even the survival perhaps, of the distinguished poetry house, (one of McAuliffe’s ‘homes’ to which he has dedicated a teaching and writing life), is in the image of ‘two pieces of elastic/which still hold all this paper together.’ The ‘still hold’ lets us as reader into history, as the poems that follow – of WW1, 1848, and the modern convulsions of North Africa and Europe, are played out as backdrops.
The title poem, ‘The Kabul Olympics’, crystallises these strands. It is both personal, in being an elegy for a Master’s student at Manchester University who became a successful novelist, Caroline Chisholm, but in fourteen tercets, alludes more obliquely to the interplayed tragedies, idealism and follies of war, foreign occupation, mass migration and fundamentalism.
Chisholm was a novelist, refugee activist and diagnosed with cancer. She decided to attempt swimming the Channel to ‘think through the chances/of a character escaping the camps in Calais.’ Note, a ‘character’, not ‘person’: this is a for a novel, ‘Art,’ as well as a political statement. The novel is to have as a central image, the grandiose scheme of building a swimming-pool in Kabul which one day may home the Olympics. This before the rise of the Taliban, and the Soviet Union’s bloody engagement.
The Olympics stands here as symbol of a pre-fabricated ‘family of humanity’, living by readily-agreed norms, rules and regulation – as opposed to the actual bloody struggles that erupted, with civil war, religious fundamentalism and the then two Superpowers’ interventions.
Chisholm’s idealism is characterised by when, ‘Younger, she rode off on a horse, it was a white horse,/seen from an orchard: her amazed father,/diminishing on the border.’ ‘Borders’ again. Division lines. The hubristic pool was later drained, and used as a Taliban execution spot, as it was ‘a quiet spot, to test for innocence. She could hear its dry echo.’
The last tercet in the poem could be taken as a summary of Chisholm’s work and an ‘ars poetica’ for this subtle and measured collection, in which every word feels thoroughly ‘interviewed’, even interrogated, for its placement in the line, by a firmly assured hand:
Something unspoken can be something known.
Would be a desperate matter.
Ken Evans won the Kent & Sussex Competition (2018); Battered Moons (2016), and the Leeds Peace Prize (2019). Twice commended in the Troubadour, he was a runner-up in 2016 and 3rd in Poets & Players (2018). Ken’s poems feature in Magma, Under the Radar, Envoi, Lighthouse Literary Journal, The High Window, Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House, and Ink, Sweat & Tears. Publications include the pamphlet ‘The Opposite of Defeat’ and a first collection in 2018, ‘True Forensics.’
Gill Learner’s Change reviewed by Alex Josephy
Change by Gill Learner. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-89-0
Gill Learner’s third collection is well named; Change suggests something new but also hints at continuity. It connects the different sections of this diverse collection, in which the poet reflects on history, nature, the rhythms and modulations to be found in art and music, and centrally, on the death of a life partner.
Mediating all these areas of change, Learner’s poetic voice is steady and carefully reflective, opening out into some wonderful flights of imagination. I found her evident and musically attuned love of language a joy to read, enhanced by fluent lineation. There are many poems that give pleasure in this way. To dive in immediately, my initial favourites include ‘A life with moths’, a lovely riff on moth names (despite the giveaway title, it took me a while and a little reserach to realise the extent of what she’s doing here):
When I am rich, I’ll build a Brown House
with Beautiful Arches, Gothic style; the drive
will be Plain Clay banded with Garden Pebbles.
I’ll walk on Spanish Carpets past Festoons
of Flame Brocade…
Among the ekphrastic poems, there’s an irrisistible fantasy in which a Gormley statue installed at Crosby Beach comes to life and swims alongside the poet:
into the starry darkness of the Irish Sea.
I was excited to encounter such a sweeping range of cultural references, including among others: the Channel Island surrealist Claude Cahun in a poem that salutes her queer, clever courage in occupied Jersey; land artist David Nash, whose work, subjected to the influence of natural forces and seasons, is all about change; and four cathartic interpretations of Müller’s Winterreiser: ‘the ultimate expression of man’s pain.’ I’ve listed these seemingly random examples to illustrate the scope of Learner’s work; in fact, they seem to arise quite naturally and are integral to the collection’s central themes, enabling her to throw light on closely personal experiences.
The book is divided into seven parts, each prefaced by a well chosen epigram. I found these very enjoyable. They are varied and apposite: Arundhati Roy is followed by Martin Luther King, Edgar Degas, Cole Porter, and so on. These pages and the white spaces that surround them allow the reader to pause and reflect before engaging with another batch of poems. And they give the impression that throughout the collection, Learner is checking in with her influences, drawing strength from her ‘presiding spirits.’
The heart of the collection for me lies in the section relating to the death of the poet’s husband. She approaches this material with honesty and delicacy, prefacing the poems with a resonant line from a Cole Porter song, especially poignant given Learner’s intense relationship with music, further elaborated in the final part of the book:
There’s no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor…
The small details recorded in these poems catch in the throat: ‘your favourite stirring stick’; ‘not-yet-finished books’; and in ‘Resurrection’ there’s an extraordinary description of scattered ashes becoming ‘special additives’, a super-fertiliser releasing traces of a life let go in a succession of unexpected places:
…in a plot
within the summoning of Wimborne Minster chimes, the coming
summer’s sunflowers will shine with extra brilliance.
The poem is deftly structured to range far and wide before returning to a final scattering very close to home; this brings home the grief too, to end on a note of resolution:
…Meanwhile, as winter ends,
a magnolia by my door will unfurl its furry buds
to flaunt some extra-lavish stars along bare twigs.
These are your legacy – in this way you live on.
To me, it’s the specific nature of these named plants and places that makes the lines so very touching (with a frisson of Pound’s Imagist line: ‘Petals on a wet, black bough’, too).
‘When the Music Stops’, also in this section, is collaged out of the titles of musical compositions; throughout the book, Learner’s engagement with sound and music seems always to link back, however indirectly at times, to the tribute she pays to her marriage. For instance, in ‘Soundtrack: 1795-1821’, she relates a life of Keats through sounds, from: ‘the steady iambs of his mother’s heart’, to the final moments in Rome where:
in Severn’s arms and to his murmured prayers,
silence comes at last.
Interwoven with the themes of history, time, and change is a quiet but present awareness of contemporary issues. Will the swallows return? Can poverty and drought be alleviated? Have we angered some capricious god to the extent that he may decide to ‘wash the planet clean’?
These poems kept surprising me, conveying the poet’s surprise too, as the best poems do. Learner describes this sensation beautifully in ‘The show dish’:
Look over the painter’s shoulder. As he contemplates
the pale, round platter a braccio wide, he tingles–
In Change, Learner keeps testing and discovering new ways in which to understand what it is to live, in language, in images and perhaps most of all, through music. It’s a gently exhilerating exploration.
Alex Josephy lives in Rye, Sussex and in Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016, and White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu
Lesley Saunders’ This Thing of Blood & Love reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
This Thing of Blood & Love by Lesley Saunders. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-1-909747-968
This Thing of Blood and Love contains powerful, intelligent, challenging, visceral, well-crafted and occasionally mysterious poems, and is Lesley Saunders’s fifth collection. She is clearly an experienced and highly skilled poet, she packs a serious punch, but with some delightfully playful touches and resonant references to mainstream culture. In the opening poem ‘Croquembouche’ she explores the ‘the divine in material form’ having witnessed the chef Michel Roux carrying the eponymous patisserie mountain through a Paris Street, and finding in it a representation of our own mortality:
our sweet flesh will be as candied apricots,
exquisite riposte to catastrophe and apocalypse
and the great night that lies at our feet; incarnated
with all compassion, then broken and consumed.
She examines what it is to be a woman, with daring and ferocity. In ‘Biopic’ she riffs on the advertising slogan for Revlon’s 1952 lipstick ‘Ice and Fire’, and on cinematic tropes of the time. She takes us into the Regal, where we’re ‘buried alive’ and where:
die so easily, the slightest cut, a heap
of backless satin, a strapless shoe at the foot
of the stair
and the poem ends with:
Her fingertips match her lips, but she won’t
be healed by birdsong, its inglorious roses.
Do you secretly hope the next man you meet
will be a psychiatrist? Me too. Me too.
The next poem in the collection is ‘You Bring Out the Bourgeois in Me’, prompted by the work of Louise Bourgeois, in which she says:
Lying in my stockinette
of lard, stitched pig-of-me, I feel for dints or lumps
in this pillow of a body; with my glass look like a doll’s
I monitor the leak of puberty, the filthy pink
of fat and brassiere.
In ‘Block’ she (I rather have to hope) references scandi-noir or similar detective fiction, as she seems to reflect on something possibly harmful that she has done:
I switch channels, refresh the screen. Nothing doing.
In one of the soaps a woman’s sobbing rescues me,
like a sudden soakaway appearing in the road
or something covered with a blanket in the wood.
And in ‘On Not Knowing’, a poem similarly themed to the one quoted above:
(There are no images,
save for the river running to sand, salt
on the tongue, the pulse of previous stars.)
The book is in three sections: Carnal Knowledge, Vital Signs, and Personages, and in the second section there are poems which refer, evocatively, to the current painful planetary situation, to global warming. In ‘Some Trees’ she begins the poem with ‘Here are some trees whose wood burns sweetly’ and ends it with:
And here is a magpie who has learnt a new call: it rises
like prayer through the smoke, mimicking the sound
of the sirens of the ambulances and fire engines.
Here are some trees whose wood is burning, not sweetly.
Many of her poems are ekphrastic, or prompted by artworks, and the collection’s title is both the title and a line from her poem after Cy Twombly’s ‘Study for Achilles Mourning the Death of Achilles’:
because the thread or cord or stem or feeler of it
is a red as life, because it is a thing of love and blood,
because he is blown, deracinated & visceral, towards it
in every fibre of his being, because he is trying to record how
the news smote him
I love the force and energy of the repetition in this, such a hammering, insistent rhythm, the blood in the vein…. She has great skill with phrasing and manipulation of language, as can be seen in the excerpts given, and her vocabulary is impressive – I will admit that there were several words I looked up, just to be sure (exegesis, tegument, quag), several words in other languages that I either knew or got the gist of (meltemi, primum frigidum), and some that were new to me (pungawerewere) – but all were perfect in situ(!).
I really enjoyed reading these very original and powerful poems. On the back cover, poet and critic Jeremy Hooker says of this work ‘It can only be entered by a reader prepared to share an exhilarating dance on the ice’ and I think that’s right. I was absolutely prepared to go along for the dance, and I am very happy to recommend this excellent collection.
Rowena Sommerville lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for all her life, as a creative and as a project producer. She has written and illustrated several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to anthologies and magazines. Her first adult poetry collection was published by Mudfog press in September 2021. She writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen. She is delighted to be Visual Artist in Residence 2022 for The High Window.
Frances Sackett’s The House with the Mansard Roof reviewed byAdrienne Silcock
‘The House with the Mansard Roof’ by ‘Frances Sackett. £10.99. Valley Press. ISBN: (9781912436804)
I was hooked from the moment I dipped into this book. It’s as if Frances Sackett takes you by the hand and leads you through a gallery (many of the poems are ekphrastic) and tells you stories about the pictures. Then afterwards, she takes you to tea where she tells you more of herself, her life and the things about the world that worry her, with funny anecdotes thrown in for good measure! All this done with seemingly clear and clever imagery with a huge amount of skill.
But all isn’t clear. Which is what, for me, defines good poetry in a world where we are awash, it seems, with words.
Take the title poem, for instance, ‘The House with the Mansard Roof’ , after the Edward Hopper painting. The poet captures perfectly the mood of the artwork, the isolation of both artist and writer, reflecting shadows, darkness, light and the intangible so characteristic of the original painting: ‘Trees cast / shadows against the white balconies / like the dark graphics of charcoal ‘ . The language is clean and spare. Yet it is also enigmatic. Who is the ‘girl in a lonely city ‘ with ‘bare feet [that] carry shadows’, after the brutal storm where the trees ‘drip with cool wetness’ ? There is no girl in the painting, but there’s an affinity for the reader as Sackett imagines the girl looking out of a window smoking a cigarette (a later Hopper painting from 1940). The effect is both unsettling and fascinating, as well as evocative of the era when the picture of the house was first painted. Yet there’s a timeless quality not only to the languor but also the sense of threat we all might feel on ‘silver steel’ tracks which ‘ you can treacherously cross, / but take you nowhere.’
Many of Sackett’s poems are ethereal, echoing other lives, other pasts. ‘ Desert Ghosts’ begins by telling the reader that ‘ There is no fear of attack ‘ but then launches into the war-torn :
lifting with the heat haze
in the no-man’s land
between tank and village.
Not part of the desert
but of the desert winds,
the mind of the desert.
The writer tells us of foreign wars, soldiers’ and people’s ordinary lives, who are : ‘tinsmith, blacksmith, goatherd and nomad ’ , conjuring up images both of ordinariness and suffering (rather Audenesque) as well as humanity.
Similarly, in ‘ Boy Singer ’ Sackett relates a boy’s dream where : ‘ the landscape moved, / rotating its sails, / ‘ and how: ‘When the Taliban came / we buried the [musical] instruments ‘ . The boy sings: ‘ to hold the sky still ‘. Language that explains so much in such a moving way.
Personal poems, such as a short series about Sackett’s daughter growing up and leaving home are equally successful. She presents them as ‘ Letters to Malta ‘ where her daughter lives for a while – reflecting a global lifestyle where many of us have experienced leaving and/or missing our loved ones. In the poem’s second section, we see her daughter and partner disappearing like the ghosts in other poems behind ‘ two smoked glass doors ‘. Again succinct images endorse the work’s strength.
The ideas behind the poems are fresh and refreshing. In ‘ Bare Trees ‘ Sackett anthropomorphises, but not in a clichéd way. The trees want to step into the gallery, are ‘ intent on breaking / through the plate-glass windows to clothe / themselves in ivy wallpaper. / Do they know how choked they would be? ‘ Playful language, which by the end of the poem stamps upon us important points with regard to the value of nature.
Other poems such as ‘ Flood ‘ are beautiful and poignant. Here, ‘ Flood water takes the willows / by their necks , / filling the throat / of the bridge . ‘ But this isn’t only a poem about a high river or even climate change. Sackett is telling us about an old woman towards the end of her life, who even then is trying to adapt to new circumstances. ‘ The day is drowning ‘ , she tells us: ‘ sun is water in the shining ‘. And beautifully, mournfully, the woman’s ‘ compulsory bed / rocking away on the current. ‘
Whether Sackett is writing about historic events , past painters, or her own personal experience, this indeed is poetry earning a place in the contemporary canon. Read it!
Adrienne Silcock’s writing has appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. She recently published her collection Of Gardens and Witches with The High Window Press. Her first pamphlet was Taking Responsibility for the Moon (Mudfog Press, 2014), she is a featured poet in Vindication ( Arachne Press 2018, six women poets). She has also written novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2009) , Controlling Aphrodite (shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009) and The Kiss (for Kindle).
Chris Hardy’s Key To The Highway reviewed by Konstandinos Mahoney
Key to the Highway by Chris Hardy. £10.00. Shoestring Press ISBN 978-1-912524-81-5
Key to the Highway, the title of Chris Hardy’s latest collection, is also the title of a 1940’s blues standard about leaving home and hitting the road. The cover illustration of the collection shows a long road stretching away from a high-rise city, narrowing on its way to distant craggy mountains. Hardy, a long-term resident of London, sold up and left the capital as this collection was coming together so both title and cover seem apt. Moving, especially in later life, can give cause for fresh reflection and these poems, all fifty-three of them, are rich in insight and story, poems about childhood, parents, animals, countries lived in, poems of place, environment, poems of peace, violence, myth, travel.
Leaving Now, a poem of four nine line stanzas, is about saying farewell to his London home,
We said goodbye
To the path across the common,
that in summer was white and hard,
in winter brown and muddy,
so people walked on the grass,
and the path got wider.
The cherry and almond trees
outside our windows that were
flowering when we first arrived.
The second verse features local people being left behind, Mr. Patel the corner shop owner, Jose a night worker, an elderly neighbour whose complaining voice they often heard behind their holly tree, though they never saw the man himself. The third stanza has more of the same, farewell to the neighbourhood, the cleaners heard chatting and unlocking doors. But Hardy is not letting the reader off lightly, this is not just a poem about moving house. The third verse ends,
The street where we lived,
that sometimes led to home.
What does it mean, ‘that sometimes led to home’? Isn’t a home, always a home?
The final verse similarly segues into a wider, deeper reflection, ending with a paradox, the changed being unchanged, linked to a profound image of the seabed unperturbed by the movement of the tides above it – the city unimpressed by the comings and goings of its inhabitants.
When the trucks drove off
We got in our car and sat
by the kerb for a while.
The engine fired and as
We turned the corner
and said goodbye
all that changed to being
unchanged like the sea floor
far beneath the tide.
This elevates the poem, gives it philosophical heft, a reflection on time, place, human transience. The cherry and almond trees in the first stanza will go on blossoming, it is the people leaving who are changing, the place they are leaving remains the same.
Time and death are explored in other poems. In All the Numbered Years the poet juxtaposes the end of the planet, ‘the shop shuts’, with the end of his life, ‘on a day already/waiting to be printed’,
and realise that diaries will be made
until the dates run out and the shop shuts.
Before then, on a day already
waiting to be printed,
I will have stopped choosing in December
an oracle for next year.
The next stanza muses on the future, filling the blank pages of a diary, what is to come – a family holiday? The third and final stanza takes an unexpected turn into history, Christopher Columbus the great explorer, how he sailed into a bay and
waded ashore and then without
knowing or wanting to killed everyone.
Despite the orderly diary with its numbered pages, dates, months, years the totally unforeseen can occur.
Now living on the Sussex coast Hardy has lived and travelled in Asia and Africa, Europe and as with Hardy’s earlier collections there are poems from the different places he has lived in.
‘Eden’, about his experience of snakes ranges across Asia, Africa, Greece. Despite saying he is not much acquainted with snakes, repeated several times as a refrain that grows a line or two each time it appears,
Though I have lived in jungle and savannah
I am not much acquainted with snakes
the poem is alive with serpents – a snake falls asleep and plummets from a balcony onto a woman eating al fresco, sea snakes, grass snakes, vipers, cobras, bootlace and house snakes. The contradiction between refrain and poem creates a nice irony that gives the poem attitude and energy. The title references the Old Testament, Genesis, the snake in the garden of Eden, a symbol of evil responsible for Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise. Here the encounters with snakes are often violent, snakes blasted with guns, beaten with sticks, shooshed away with brooms. But finally, the refrain tells us, the poet lives too far north for snakes, we catch, perhaps, a hint of regret, the wanderer returned home to a tamer land. There is a memorable overlap of countries/continents in the tercet about a chance encounter in Wales with a neighbour from days in Africa where the man had killed both a cobra and the cobra’s returning mate; they meet during the drought and heatwave of 1976,
and after agreeing the burnt hillsides
smelt of Africa we recognized each other.
Cruelty to animals is to the fore in ‘Golgotha’, name of the hill that Jesus was crucified on, another biblically referenced poem. Set in the Asian sub-continent it is a brutal poem of animal suffering in which Hardy’s serves up the horror without the outrage, leaving that to the reader. After months of lenten fasting the slaughter begins, whipped oxen, hobbled sacrificial bulls and lambs, live roosters carried upside down and the hideous aftermath of flesh and bones, rats, vultures, hyenas. It is a vision of hell, all the more chilling for its tone of factual reportage. After the slaughter comes a surprisingly bucolic ending, a peaceful agricultural image, the farmer’s plough folding into soft black earth for cotton.
‘War Paint’ also deals with violence, in this case the aftermath of violence, a young English soldier’s encounter with a girl in a newly liberated concentration camp. The starving girl hardly knows if she’s alive, the boy disoriented, yanked unwilling away from home to war. The young soldier gives the starving girl porridge, something to drink and, with a Hardy twist, he also gives her
a tube of lipstick red as blood,
glistening and perfumed.
This is a startling, unsettling ending, almost offensive, but the lipstick, so far removed from the grim realities of the camp, throws its horror into stark relief, while at the same time, in a strange way, signaling a return to normal life.
Malaysian days are recalled in ‘Eastern and Oriental’, a reference to Penang’s famous old colonial hotel,
When I went back to the E&O
The past was as usual present,
I met myself beneath a Casuarina
The poem uses this atmospheric old hotel as a vehicle for talking about time, memory, transience. As with other Hardy poems the surface is about a certain place, a time, here the A&E, memories of staying there with his father, trying to recall what his father had said to him; beneath this is a strong undertow, the pull of time that unravels lives, memories and sweeps us all towards extinction. The middle section references Odysseus pouring blood into a ditch to help his dead friend speak – the poet’s longing to remember his father’s words. In a powerful central section the hotel is portrayed as a mausoleum of memories,
And my still pulsing life
filled corridors with familiars
who had stayed behind when I
went into the cloud of darkness
that spun down
from the ceiling fan
when we switched it off
and shut the door.
The poem ends with an extraordinary section that will haunt me every time I check out of a hotel,
It’s always the same at checkout.
You pay for time you’ve
already used, like laundry,
while the maid is in the room
cleaning ghosts away.
Hardy’s preference for the shorter line, enjambement, pauses the rhythm, controls the flow creates a measured pace giving pause for thought. Often, these short-lined poems leave the right hemisphere of the page blank, a space to be filled by the reader. It is often the line of thought that drives his poems forward, adjectives are used sparingly, Hardy is a poet experienced and skilled enough to be simple and profound at the same time, his poems are lean, no spare fat on them.
The above poems are a taster of the poems in Key to the Highway, every poem in Hardy’s substantial collection, his fifth, is strong, many of them have been previously published in magazines. It is a collection worth biting on, reading and rereading, unpeeling. Hardy is both painter and philosopher, his poems conjure people, places, worlds, while drilling below the surface to explore the nature of time, memory, the enigma of existence.
Konstandinos (Dino) Mahoney is a London based Greek-English-Irish poet and playwright , who won publication of his collection, Tutti Frutti, in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition 2017, and is winner of the Poetry Society’s 2017 Stanza Competition. He is also part of Dino and the Diamonds , a group that performs his poems as songs. He teaches Creative Writing at Hong Kong University and is Rep for Barnes & Chiswick Stanza. Recent poems have appeared in in Perverse, Butcher’s Dog, Live Canon, The New European.
Ilse Pedler ‘s Auscultation reviewed by Jill Sharp
Auscultation by Ilse Pedler £9.99 Seren ISBN 978-1-78172-626-6
This debut collection by a practising vet is convincing evidence that, though they may be undesirable for MPs, second jobs are an excellent thing for poets. Auscultation is ‘the act of listening’ in general, and of ‘listening for sounds made by internal organs’ in particular, ‘to aid in the diagnosis of certain disorders.’ Given her job, Pedler’s diagnoses are mostly of animal maladies, but she also turns her poetic stethoscope on her fellow humans, and on her own heart, in many of these poems.
The opening piece picks up and emphasises the collection’s title, with each line beginning ‘I’m listening…’ Here, it’s to the clients who come in with an ailing pet, rather than to the pet itself:
I’m listening when you say you vets are all rip off merchants.
I’m listening when you snap at your partner.
I’m listening when your kids go quiet and hold hands.
But as auscultation suggests, and the poem concludes, the listening isn’t simply to what’s being said:
I’m listening as your dead husband stands behind you putting
his overcoat around your shoulders.
‘Teach Me To Kill’ tells of a course attended along with ‘the hangman, the slaughter men,/the ones who draw up lethal injections’, the vet’s euphemistic ‘putting to sleep’ seen in the stark light of reality. But the poems are not all serious or shocking. ‘Miss Freak’s Whelping Forceps’, a gift of a title if ever there was one, presents a potted history of this instrument and its various male inventors:
How they laboured, these men
with their unforgiving fists of metal
but in the feral hours where instinct loosens
itself from shadows, it’s Miss Freak’s we reach for
to coax the unborn to crown the light.
Many of the animal poems focus on either aiding or preventing reproduction, but never become either sentimental or melodramatic. ‘The Calving’ presents the matter-of-factness of doing a skilled job attentively:
I prepare ropes and a jack,
roll up my sleeves,
take off my watch and ring…
Elsewhere, we’re confronted with the creaturely cruelties of farming: piglets removed from the sow at only 3 weeks; the just-calved cow separated at once from her calf. But this is poetry, never polemic, and Castrating calves is a golden shovel after William Carlos Williams, where the vet slices off ‘soft hairless pouches of skin’ and:
with a flick of her white
thin wrist throws the last of them to the chickens.
The poems at the centre of the collection focus more widely on landscape, identity, wildlife in cities, and also on death. ‘The silence is‘ dramatizes the meeting that she and her mother have with an undertaker, to discuss the burial of her father. Here, as elsewhere, Pedler is focused on attentiveness and listening, where the silence ‘is never silent,’ but is ‘waiting’ and ‘awkward’ and ‘shocked’ and ‘embarrassed.’ ‘Roadblock’ recounts a callout to a stricken horse – the delays, the creature’s intense suffering, ‘sweat starting to carve rivers in his coat,’ and then what must inevitably be done with ‘the rigid cold of the gun.’ These are poems that look squarely at lived realities, presenting them for the reader in language that cuts to the quick.
‘Mothering’, a poem about disguising an orphaned lamb for acceptance by another ewe, opens the way for the concluding series of poems, with its own subtitle: ‘Fairy Tales and Step Monsters’.
This is a very personal sequence about the experience of being a stepmother, and the process of a court custody battle between her partner and his ex-wife. It’s a subject that lends itself to being told ‘slant’ through the tropes of fairy tale, with mirrors, thorns and high turrets effectively suggesting the emotional and psychological tensions she’s experienced.
‘The Year in the Castle’ has a beautiful child held captive by a woman who ‘kept the key/in the glass case of her heart all wrapped around with thorns.’
‘The Year in the Forest’ uses Hansel and Gretel imagery:
What could we do
but every week send you letters;
tiny white pebbles that shone in the moonlight,
to lead you back to us.
And again in ‘The Court Decides’, the judge, like a wicked fairy, ‘gave the verdict / that closed you behind a screen of thorns.’
In this powerful and moving sequence, a sounding is taken of her own pain as a stepmother, as well as of the grief of her partner in ‘Every other weekend’ and ‘The Father in the Weeks Between Seeing His Son’.
These are attentively lived and deeply felt poems, composed with sensitivity to structure and sound. They touch on a unique set of professional and personal concerns, but Pedler’s accessible, spare writing allows the reader an intimate insight into those worlds.
Jill Sharpwas an Open University tutor for many years. Her poems have appeared this year in Prole, Stand and Acumen, Envoi, Under the Radar and Poetry Salzburg. Her pamphlet Ye gods was published by Indigo Dreams in 2015 and she was one of six women poets included in the volume Vindication, from Arachne Press, 2018.
Tess Jolly ‘s Breakfast at the Origami Café reviewed by Hilary Hares
Breakfast at the Origami Café by Tess Jolly – £10.00 – Blue Diode Press. ISBN: 978-1-9164051-4-1
The cover image of Tess Jolly’s arresting first collection is slightly greyed out, as though the poet is standing in the background, there but not quite present. This, indeed, is the feeling which many of the poems evoke. If I had to sum up the whole in a single word, I would say it was about change: how life events change us (illness/abuse), how we shift perspective as we move from child to adult, how often something other is present which we can’t quite grasp but which affects us in profound and diverse ways. To accommodate this, we often fold ourselves into different shapes. We are also given the strong impression that this is a journey which the poet travels alone, finding little to give her comfort or consolation.
In the first of four parts, emphasis is largely placed on looking back, if not with regret, then with a feeling of wistfulness, illustrated in poems like ‘The Cloth’ – as if, in re-shaping a grey gown the past can be re-made. In ‘She’, carol singing, a locket and a geometry lesson all evoke a childhood recollection, each with an abrasive, and slightly surreal edge. The title poem is included in this section and is another example of the desire for things to change; visitors to the Origami Café fold themselves, or are folded, into new realities and yet:
Nobody notices the girl
sitting alone by the window has vanished.
She must have folded herself smaller
and smaller until there was nowhere left to go.
Small hints of darker things are also scattered amongst the poems like clues. ‘Winter Solstice’, for example, does not celebrate the sparkling lights of the festive season: ‘I will not say these things because this / is a poem about darkness. I am writing about the darkness’.
Part II is a series of cameos reflecting moments in time with her ailing father, captured in a variety of ways. In ‘Still Life’, the colour of the small moment is inscribed as clearly as the colours in a portrait by an old master. In ‘Diagnosis’ we meet her father: ‘in his baby blue pyjamas in which / he drifts between terror and sleep’. Here again, the sense of things folding in on themselves is strongly present. It makes us feel as though we want to push back the walls of the poem to give it more breathing space and this clever technique is employed with considerable skill. In ‘On a High Mountain Pass’ her father revels in the view as though: ‘he could be mistaken for someone who feels / they’ve got all the time in the world’ and, ‘With my Hand in His Pocket’ scopes a memory which will resonate with many of us:
I will remember his hand
Enfolding my hand
From Scafell Pike, Striding Edge, Skiddaw
In the third section we move out into recollections of the wider family: her Grandmother (‘Hornets’), her daughter (‘Tapestry’) and, buried deeper in’ Bluebell Wood’ we meet a brother and glimpse her mother, in ‘Conkers’. Again, subtle skill is employed to lift the stones of their lives to see what lies beneath and it’s not until we reach ‘Not the Flame’, that a change of tone, exposes a more obviously dark underbelly:
Not the man back home from war
bubbling horror and rage,
but this creature in the day room
who needs to be changed.
This exposure continues in ‘Ivory’ which focuses on her grandfather. It’s not often that a writer can show us more than one side of an abusive situation but here the final lines express the pull of conflicting emotions:
I have kept the book locked
in a bedside drawer: an inheritance too shameful to open,
too precious to give up.
The concluding section comprises a number of longer narratives, several of which have achieved recognition. ‘Prayer’, commended in the Mslexia Poetry Competition, returns to her father’s final illness and how she tries to process the impending grief. In the opening she tells us that ‘If I prayed at all it wasn’t when I thought you were dying’ but the poem concludes with this poignant final thought as she:
listened to water wash the beach with seabirds’ cries,
then looked up at the stars and flush of moonlight
on a darkening tide. If I prayed at all it was then,
and I whispered, in case you woke and heard.
As we move towards the end of this section, there is also a feeling of moving away from the raw impact of some previously explored emotions. ‘The view from a Travelodge Window’ stirs a deep reaction and, although ‘St Ives’ does provide a fresh perspective, it can’t completely overlay the past: ‘what bright new example do you hope for?’
Overall, this is a fascinating cornucopia. The poems are well-written and have an assured economy and clear, memorable images. Not all reveal their depths easily but they are sufficiently compelling to encourage us to delve into them in more detail. I’m sure this will be the first of many collections to compel and intrigue us and I look forward to reading the next one.
Hilary Hares lives in Farnham, Surrey. Over 200 of her poems have found homes online and in print including Finished Creatures, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, South and Stand. She has an MA in Poetry from MMU and her collection, A Butterfly Lands on the Moon sells in support of Winchester Muse. She won the Christchurch Writers’ Competition 2013 and Write-By-The-Sea Competition 2018. Her latest pamphlet, Red Queen (2020), is available from Marble Poetry. Website: www.hilaryhares.com
Dominic James’ Smudge reviewed by Quentin Cowdry
Smudge by Dominic James. £8.50. Littoral Press. ISBN: 978-1-912412-37-2
The fine 20th century Irish poet Louise MacNeice believed poets should be interested in pretty much everything. As life was ‘incorrigibly plural’, their work should reflect that.
Consciously or otherwise, MacNeice’s prescription is not one with which the Cotswolds based poet Dominic James would agree. James is a successful writer but his success is narrowly founded thematically and formally. The former is the more serious limitation. As his second collection, Smudge, again demonstrates James is a poet of the momentary sensation or impression or flight of fancy – at least much of the time. The moments are often beautifully captured through a combination of adroit imagery, rhythm and sound patterns, but the writer generally does not delve further and this constrains the longer term impact of his work. But sometimes the scalpel slices deeper, as in the fine poem from which the collection gets its title, and when it does the result is poetry of an altogether higher order.
In the book’s concluding work, ‘Warm Planet’, James breaks out of his normal thematic confines and addresses one of the world’s gravest problems, climate change, and does so triumphantly. Here, the poet applies his full armoury to a grand theme – personifying earth as a self-regarding lapis gem whose former cocksure confidence has been rocked by the realisation that it has been profligate. Form is also tightened, the poem playing out through five, shortish lined quatrains, with all but the first conforming to a rhyme pattern, the full rhymes never sounding forced. But James is pessimistic about the chances of disaster being averted, the poem ending with the quatrain:
what can I do to stop a scarring?
I fear my skin will grey with tears,
how to heal these ugly blisters?
Cold cream. For ten thousand years.
The pleasure of James’s poetry is in its evocative surfaces – the image of a setting sun leaking ‘blood on inky darkness’, the sound of swallows squealing in twilight, the feel of a ‘heartbeat in a bedspring’. There is a persuasive sensuousness to his work which sometimes verges on the Keatsian, as when, in the poem, ‘Gazelle’, he empathises with a street kitten stretched out in the heat of the day.
This talent for picture making is well exemplified by the book’s opening poem, ‘White Tree’ in which the poet vividly recalls a summer, sunset walk in the Gloucestershire countryside. For a poet with marked aesthetic instincts and a gift for description there is more than enough here for him to get carried away. But he avoids that pitfall, instead giving us a portrait that captures both the objective and imaginative reality of the moment. As light fades, the sky and the ‘smoothly executed hills / delicate as apricot on glass’ have the feel of an aquarelle, but the observer also registers the stench of tractor diesel ‘heavy on the air’.
As the canvas also takes in a hotel, with some of its elderly clientele enjoying the last of the day’s warmth sporting ‘rakish’ hats, James could have taken on the English pastoral tradition more fully, but, characteristically, he stops short, preferring rather to leave us with a mysteriously symbolic, if beautifully rendered, image:
Further in, on pastureland
an oak stripped white and bare;
from its ruptured trunk run spears
of milky lightning
into the soft night air.
The poem, ‘Helen’s Day Bed’, illustrates the rich rewards James achieves when rhythm is well controlled. The locus of this poem is an unnamed shoreline – the ‘olives on the bay’ probably pointing to some corner of the Mediterranean – where a woman is taking a daytime nap. The scene is swiftly, expertly summoned up through the poet’s usual eye for suggestive detail, with the mood teetering on the sensual – the woman lying naked ‘in quiet calm’. But it is the rich cadence of the lines that particularly impresses, the way, for example, the setting is so effectively conjured in the unhurried unfolding of the poem’s long opening sentence:
How calm she lies among the olives on the bay,
on her unfolded mattress, eyes closed against
the tranquil day, oblivious to the boats, below,
plying their way through rippled fields of blue
and all around, a drift of velvet butterflies –
In ‘Smudge’, James turns the spotlight on himself, not theatrically as in the graveyard musings of ‘Port of Call’ but squarely and honestly. The result is a poem that, arguably, is the book’s finest. It begins with James slipping back into sleep, even though the morning light outside is strengthening – those few seconds brilliantly particularised as, in his mind, his home becomes a ‘jewelled spacecraft’, next a ‘prism / turned in colossal night’.
We are then in the unconscious mind, which over the following three stanzas worries away at the poet’s enduring sense of the fragility of happiness, the fact that, after years of adulthood, he can claim only a ‘temporary peace’. As a younger man, living in a tower block, he would press his forehead against a window to watch the passers-by below, the image powerfully conveying a loneliness, partly, perhaps largely, fuelled by shyness.
These days he is more content – a married man and a father living now at a ‘lower orbit’ where ‘branches vein long passages / of country roads and beeches shine / in early light’. But there is still that insistent, background fear that everything might fall apart. Charming though the house and its setting might be, the windows of several rooms bear testament to the fact that the old habit persists:
Room to room, from three steps back,
I find on glass that forehead smudge of old,
a greasy badge of doubt on my reflective pane…
These lines are sad to read but the author can console himself with the thought that, when he combines artistry, honesty and serious theme, the outcome is an altogether higher calibre of poetry.
Quentin Cowdry is a Middlesex based poet whose work has appeared in a span of literary journals and e-zines, among them Poetry Salzburg Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, South, The Cannon’s Mouth and The French Literary Review. He is now working on his first collection.
Robin Davidson’s Mrs. Schmetterling reviewed by Tom Laichas
Robin Davidson, Mrs. Schmetterling, with artwork by Sarah Fisher. £14.99. Arrowsmith Press. ISBN: 978-1737615644
Two decades ago, the poet Robin Davidson made a trip to Kraków, there to immerse herself in Polish language and literature. She’d recently been introduced to contemporary Polish poets in a class taught by the late Adam Zagajewski, and had been particularly moved by the work of Ewa Lipska. Little of Lipska’s work was available in English, so Davidson studied up on her Polish, met with Lipska and, in concert with poet Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska, began translating Ms. Schubert, published this past year.
Davidson’s own collection, Mrs. Schmetterling, also appeared in 2021, a fortunate but not accidental coincidence. Speaking to Kelly Howard of Lunch Ticket, Davidson says that she conceived of Mrs. Schmetterling as a “response” to Lipska’s work. To read Davidson’s own work together with her translation of Lipska’s simultaneously is to overhear dialogue between two master poets and through their fictions.
When Davidson first introduces Mrs. Schmetterling, she is an everywoman well into a comfortable and mildly disappointed middle age:
She is neither great musician nor poet.
Not scientist nor historian. She is ordinary.
Any century’s woman. She cooks, reads, bathes children
and dogs. She takes out the garbage, listens to music.
Mrs. Schmetterling is tired. Her imagination is
pressed like a tiny chestnut blossom between the pages
of old letters and recipes, a book of days.
(“Mrs. Schmetterling Kneels in a Garden”)
She is, on first impressions, a pragmatist who “believes in what she can see” — snow, sparrows, tulips. She “wants nothing more / than the landscape, the city’s opening / onto streets of stones, shops, small wrought iron tables (“What Mrs. Schmetterling Wants”). She “considers the scent of a dying tree” (“Mrs. Schmetterling Untrims the Christmas Tree”) and mends pajamas (“Mending Pajamas”). She is
…skeptical of the sublime. She does not trust a transcendence
that will come to her on the day the world ends.
(“Mrs. Schmetterling Considers the Beautiful”).
Outwardly, Mrs. Schmetterling is the neighbor one greets every morning for years, but who discloses little about herself. Inside Mrs. Schmetterling’s head, it’s different story. Though intensely private, her interior life “pressed…between the pages,” her mind is intensely absorbed with meaning-making and world-building. For her, the world of things resolves, once past the eye’s literalness, into metaphor:
… When she thinks of heart, that rocking, flopping in her chest,
she does not see in her mind’s eye a muscle
or chambers, or bloody arteries twitching, rather
she sees cranes rising from a marsh en masse…
(“Mrs. Schmetterling Thinks of Her Heart”)
It turns out that Mrs. Schmetterling is far from “ordinary.” She possesses Mary Oliver’s gift for seeing the whole of things in modest daily truths, so much so that one might call Davidson a poet of practical metaphysics, particularly as related to one’s own entropic diminishment:
Mrs. Schmetterling has been reading what scientists say
about theories of cloaking, and now she thinks
she’s beginning to understand her own invisibility.
She wonders how fast or how slowly light must travel
Across her face to hide her eyes, nose, mouth, chin,
How much time it will take to erase her person entirely.
(“Mrs. Schmetterling Considers the Invisible”)
Beyond erasure, there is remembrance. At Montparnasse Cemetery, wandering among the graves of the once-great, Mrs. Schmetterling considers:
She pauses longest before Marguerite Duras, reads love notes
covering the stone, as many as she can until she sees
the open notebooks, lined unfilled, and pencils, pencils, pencils—
to write unceasingly from the grave. She takes the stub
of pencil from her pocket, places it in the overflowing jar,
kisses the glass, and walks on in the morning sun.
(“Mrs. Schmetterling Visits Montparnasse Cemetery”)
Davidson unspools Schmetterling’s half-whispered soliloquys in long, even languorous lines that her publisher could accommodate only with extra-wide pages. To my ear, they read like the offspring of Vermeer and Hopper—a body in a still room, possessed of a certain translucence, its surface warmed by the heat of interior meditation, sometimes anxious, sometimes assured. Reinforcing this painterly solitude are artist Sarah Fisher’s radiant icon-like portraits, which I lingered on as I read.
Even as we come to know this woman, she preserves, against our questions, an obdurate reserve. In the collection’s very first line, Davidson introduces Mrs. Schmetterling offhandedly: “let’s call her Judith…” That is Davidson’s last invitation to intimacy. From here to the end, in every poem, she is Mrs. Schmetterling. This has a dislocating effect: we address Mrs. Schmetterling formally, as if we hardly know her, yet we are witness to her intensely private inner life.
Many of these poems have appeared in Davidson’s earlier work, particularly her chapbook City that Ripens on the Tree of the World and her full-length collection Luminous Other. Much as H.D. came to inhabit her Helen of Egypt, another woman whose surface belies rich depths, Davidson inhabits Judith Schmetterling. Schmetterling is not exactly Davidson’s doppelgänger — unlike Schmetterling, Davidson invites others to share a portion of her thought — but she is more than just a fiction. In her chapbook Kneeling in the Dojo, Davidson suggests the shape of her relationship with Mrs. Schmetterling:
I dreamt I lived one summer
in your library
where the walls were hung with books
Afternoons I’d nap, dream the body of a woman
part by part, in photographs
as Stieglitz dreamt O’Keeffe
and each day the apples inside me
grew larger, like human faces waiting
for a voice, and the apples on the wall
began to swell, filling the room, opening
like skin unfolded, torn
to find the same woman
dreamt again and again
each book singing its own fruit.
(“The Tree in the Library”)
For Robin Davidson, Mrs. Schmetterling is that woman, dreamt again and again.
It is not hard to see what attracted Robin Davidson to Ewa Lipska’s Ms. Schubert. The women are not dissimilar. Both are of comfortable middle class means, the greater part of their lives behind them. Neither is exactly nostalgic for the past, but both are sharply aware of its presence. Still, Ms. Lipska, like Mrs. Schmetterling, recognizes that possibilities remain open: “it’s still too early to be too late.” (“Piano”)
At least, that’s what we’re told. While Davidson explores Mrs. Schmetterling’s inner thoughtscape, Lipska’s Ms. Schubert never utters a word, either aloud or in her head. What we know Ms. Schubert is learned from a former lover who reminisces on their affair in brief and often cryptic letters, all beginning with the formalism “Dear Ms. Schubert.” Ms. Schubert’s responses do not appear. In Lipska’s work, Ms. Schubert is a silent “you,” revealed only in her correspondent’s retrospective male gaze, albeit a male gaze conjured by Lipska herself. Unlike Mrs. Schmetterling, Ms. Schubert is a woman whose thoughts and experiences are alleged rather than witnessed.
The brisk declarative sentences in Ms. Schubert establish a playful conversational sensibility. Yet the letters are also allusory and fragmented, reminding me of Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios and Famas. Consider, for instance, Lipska’s “Cities” —
Dear Ms. Schubert, there are cities that could
testify against us. We abandoned them
suddenly and for no good reason. Panicked addresses
and hotel beds chased us along highways.
Do you remember the dilated pupils of Venice?
Manhattan in a huff? Ambitious Zurich, a relative
of Thomas Mann? The cities of our birth harbored a grudge
yet behaved proudly. They knew we’d be back.
Like all children of repentant old age.
And “Lightning” —
Dear Ms. Schubert, I won’t translate the words
for you I never said. They got all tangled up
with childish excuses. Cows were evaporating
in the meadow, while we ran in place,
as if struck by lightning.
Davidson’s third-person account of Mrs. Schmetterling’s internal monologues resists the pull of surrealist dream and fracture. Here is “Mrs. Schmetterling Thinks of Returning to the City Where She Was Born” —
Mrs. Schmetterling thinks of returning to the port city of her birth
when the pandemic passes.
What will she recognize from her first year of breath in the world?
The scent of sea air? Words in Italian?
She closes her eyes and conjures window boxes of geraniums and phlox
coloring white-washed stucco walls.
She imagines cobblestone streets as narrow as alleyways, and the child
she was, jostling along beneath
the stroller’s black canopy, beneath laundry billowing from wrought-iron
balconies, and the great Duomo.
Ms. Schubert and Mrs. Schmetterling left me with a riddle. Ms. Schubert’s letter-writing former lover has a name: it is Mr. Schmetterling, literally, “Mr. Butterfly.” In borrowing and feminizing that name, Davidson conjures a counter-world in which Ms. Schubert and Mrs. Schmetterling share landscape, outlook, and some unspecified personal history. It is a pleasure to walk within earshot of these women, their minds entangled in language, life, and story.
Tom Laichas is widely published in the United States. His collection, Empire of Eden, was published by The High Window Press in 2019. He is currently The High Window’s Featured American Poet.
Matthew Barton’s Dusk reviewed by Rowena Sommerville
Dusk by Matthew Barton. £10.00. Shoestring Press. ISBN: 978 1 912524 75 4
This is a collection of deeply personal poems in which seemingly simple expressions and descriptions indicate great amounts of feeling, of life experience, of thought, and of poetic skill, distilled into the ‘seemingly simple’ lines on the page. The poems are accessible – human and emotional – but never simplistic or sentimental; many address the writer’s grief or regret, within the implied context of his own ageing, but I did not find them depressing or monotone. I was put in mind of Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’, and like that song, for me the book was uplifting, spoke of fellow feeling, a friendly companion in the gathering shadows……
The collection and the opening poem are called ‘Dusk’, and that is the overall mood, the darkening time before nightfall (also, I read elsewhere, known as ‘owl light’). In ‘Dusk’ Barton says:
a great white owl
came ghosting over the treetops,
sails of its wings sensing
the depths of the overgrown field beneath.
It was a spirit if ever I saw one:
ominous, serene. It was death
bearing the world alive
through living dark.
From some of the poems, and from the cover information, I gather that his wife has recently died. Their relationship is portrayed as stormy, and the shock of her death leaves him remorseful as well as reflective. In ‘Good Night’ he says:
The last evening
you came down – it seems now in farewell –
to sit at the table.
So vivid my turning to go
to my bed and my brief
Good night then. Not knowing
that was my last chance to speak
words different, deeper and kinder.
There are a number of different deaths referred to throughout, and in ‘My Dead’ he describes the process of re-evaluation following a death, how the understanding of former relationships, the assessment of former significant individuals, can shift about during that process of mourning and thought:
They’re growing ever otherward,
their silence in me just my own deaf ear
to their intimate oracle.
There are also poems celebrating the living. His mother has had a stroke and has lost her previously sharp powers of speech – but there are other methods of communication. In ‘Listening’ he says:
How is it your hand
rests patient in mine?
now it’s so hard
for you to speak
we seem to be speaking more easily
than we’ve ever done?
Several poems are sub-titled ‘For Rachel’, who I think may be his daughter, and in ‘Beach at Twilight’, which carries this dedication, he addresses the processes of growth and reflection through the metaphor of rediscovering your own footsteps left in firm sand:
as if the earth
wears us as we walk and shapes
a slipper of our every step, will hold us
to the destiny that can fit
the one alone making it.
In ‘Old Hawk’ Barton raises a cheer for an aged survivor:
Threadbare but nevertheless
he circled and hovered with the grace
of an old pro, unfurled
the battle-torn flag of himself: hung there,
was gone before I knew.
Now at the risk of seeming unmannerly, I do think that Barton is an old hawk of a poet – in the best possible sense! In this collection he circles and hovers with grace over some personal and painful matters and makes lovely and resonant poems out of them. I thoroughly recommend this book.
Rowena Sommerville lives on top of a cliff looking out to sea in beautiful North Yorkshire. She has worked in the arts for all her life, as a creative and as a project producer. She has written and illustrated several children’s books (Hutchinson/Random) and has contributed poems to anthologies and magazines. Her first adult poetry collection was published by Mudfog press in September 2021. She writes for and sings with four-woman acapella group Henwen. She is delighted to be Visual Artist in Residence 2022 for The High Window.
Clive Donovan’s The Taste of Glass reviewed by Clifton Redmond
The Taste of Glass, by Clive Donovan. £9.99. Cinnamon Press. ISBN: 978-1788649278
Fredrick Nietzsche said that, ‘one must learn to love — this is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. But that is what happens to us not only in music, love, too, has to be learned.’ This quote comes to mind when trying to capture something of the spirit of the poetry of Clive Donovan’s first collection, The Taste of Glass published by Leaf by Leaf, an imprint of Cinnamon Press. It is first and foremost a philosophical inquiry presented in the guise of a personal journey. Donovan’s speaker which is predominately the first person “I” who is continuously confronted with the different restrictions and limits which life presents and for which the “I’s” concept of love and relationships is being challenged, constantly its being shaped and reshaped by the speaker’s interpretation of it.
Throughout this finely constructed collection of poems, the theme of love is constant, it occurs and reoccurs unapologetically, haphazardly, particularly in the book’s opening poems. Whether it be love of another, or an imagined one, Donovan really captures something of its ability to overcome, to tangle the senses and lead us, the reader into his own sculpted world. Another of Donovan’s techniques is to encounter the idea of love through the use of objects. Within the lines of, “In your Stillness”:
It seems to me that in your Stillness you float
enclosed in a complete cloud of ecstasy
that kisses you and when your big black kohl-
lidded eyes snap open they
laser into me your special scowl that dizzies me.
The poet conjures the image of a doll in a box. He describes the female form and the distance he creates can be interpreted as the speaker’s sense of guilt and helplessness in the face oof a patriarchal system. Here, the speaker is taken out of their senses by what they see. Donovan’s speaker while describing these details opens up a realization for the speaker, an awareness that centuries of female persecution sit behind how this doll is presented to him. He ponders as the poem closes:
Still unclaimed are you in your dinky cardigan
and flared frock
with tissue clouds surrounding you
that cradle you, caressingly,
beyond your pane of cellophane…
In another piece, “Playtime in Hell” Donovan offers an even starker image:
The red-rimmed eyeballs of men
that once were babies,
crawling among their mother’s pots and pans,
now stare thrilled at the
woman they have just impaled,
fascinated by the way her eyes roll.
This poem is a glaring example of Donovan’s keen eye for recognizing how gender roles are played, and he is not afraid to recreate the cruelties that they in the constructed word of this collection demand. While there is a sense of helplessness within the presented frame of mind of the speaker, there is also a longing for the ability to overcome. This energy in the language is also present in the line and the forms.
Donovan’s work represents something of the long tradition of love poetry within the English cannon. There are traces of elements of a kind of Metaphysical poetry, a term coined by Samuel Jackson when describing the work of seventeenth century poets such as John Donne whose work was wrangled in conceit and the themes of love, both imagined and unattainable. Donovan too uses unusual metaphors and similes to drive his work. However, Donovan does not overuse these techniques, takes on the forms pay homage to his predecessors: Larkin’s echoes linger, while there is a real sense of the likes of Hughes who struggles in his work with how to deal with emotion.
While there are traces of the larger literary footprints that he must walk in, Donovan is very much attuned to the contemporary scene of British poetry. In the poem “The Adult Carousel”
This is not a children’s ride;
a ratty ring of bells and busses;
not a squatty little roundabout
Within this piece there is a quick, upfront tone where the speaker almost acts as a warning to the reader. There is a lyrical quality where the lines seem to dance merrily to create the music of the carousal as an ironic play with the reader. These techniques are compatible with the likes of Simon Armitage, but the short lines, coupled with the sharp tone and the music within those short lines might be more inspired by the likes of Carol Anne Duffy.
Although there is modern England of ‘high-viz’, and ‘camera phones uploading to You Tube,’ there is no naming of distinctive places: towns, villages, at times bars and saloons but no “where” is offered. This generic space adds to Donovan’s conjuring of mystery. It is not only geography that is sparse in Donovan’s work, but there is also a sense of this collection being a place, ‘where time has no dominion’, a placeless sphere of psychical existence. Donovan’s other preoccupation while a comingling of love and human nature are at work as central themes, within the poems in the latter stages of the book, the modern man is archaeologist in a Heaneyesque way he is digging down into the history of social behaviour to unearth clues to answer the question of what it means to be human.
Clive Donovan’s first collection is a treasure trove of sharp insights and fresh ideas which coupled with an affection for his work gives the reader some memorable poetry without being too restrained by over editing. The book has something to say about society through observation without telling us how it should be. And this is where Donovan is most successful.
Clifton Redmond is an Irish poet based in Carlow and a member of the Carlow Writers’ Co-operative. He is currently studying at Trinity College Dublin and is a past student at Carlow College St. Patrick’s. He has had poems published across various forms of media in Ireland, United Kingdom, United States, Mexico, and South Africa.
Lynn Valentine’s Life’s Stink and Honey reviewed by Sue Watling
Lynn Valentine: Life’s Stink and Honey, £9.99. Cinnamon Press. ISBN: 978-1-78864-125-8.
The title of this collection, ‘Life’s Stink and Honey’, grabbed my attention from the start. For me, the juxtaposition of opposites reflects the themes running throughout these poems where working-class identity, poverty and childlessness, mingle with love and a deep appreciation for the landscapes and creatures of the natural world.
The 21st century is a time for even more women to step forward and speak of what has previously been avoided. Female poets have continued to gain a personal voice and have the means to increase its volume through the power of digital access. I’ve met Lynn in online workshops and it’s possible I might not have come across these poems otherwise. I’m so glad I found her! Lynn is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects head-on and shows great skill at merging the personal with the universal. These poems reassure the reader they are not alone in their experiences of death, loss and grief while also containing reminders that despite the difficulties, there is still much beauty, love and hope to be found in the world.
Many of the poems deal with poverty, a state all too familiar to those from working-class backgrounds, where it’s a struggle to pay for heating and food. It’s a world with never enough to go around so parents stay hungry while juggling the pennies. ‘Junk Drawer Day’ refers to ‘snipping winter kale for breakfast’ when you’re still days away from being payday while ‘Born in the Slums’ seeks to emphasise the kindness of neighbours and existence of laughter, even though the basics are denied. There is no central heating, colour tv, or three meals a day, while prawn cocktail crisps are a luxury. Those who know what it is to be poor will feel resonance with the freezing cold of an outside loo or the hunger of seeing a queue at the chippy when you can’t afford to join them. Poverty never leaves you and reminders are threaded throughout the poems. ‘Winter soup’ contains lines about ‘the mother who has to eke the last – of the beets to feed her hungry girls’ while ‘Winter Night’ speaks of the need to sell books to buy bread and parents who ‘…choose – to go hungry, take a third cup of weak – tea while children eat’. Food vouchers are ‘scrunched – down in purses’ which ‘blush-red with shame’ as choice is reduced to ‘Pasta, milk, tins’ or a ‘sweetie – hidden for the middle one’s birthday.
Poverty and working-class too often exist side by side. In ‘The Cleaners’, Lynn writes about the ‘unknown people’, those who society depends on to keep the environment safe. They include Lynn’s father, ‘a council man’ who drove a snowplough to clear the streets in the early hours of the morning. Often clearing up after accidents and ‘clearing roadside drains, – other people’s silt and shit’, Lynn knew from an early age how to check for Weil’s Disease, a bacterial infection caused by rat’s urine contaminating water. ‘Ma faither at fower a.m.’, written in the Scots language at which Lynn is so adept, offers a glimpse of this life where ‘Mornins, ma faither whistled – as if the world wis his alane,’ and how the children ‘dreamit o Dad, – this suddent sneeze o a snawploo – chairgin tae life in his hands….as he clearit thi street, tried no tae – rouse the sleeper, the fidgeting bairns, folk bundilt in their jammies,’.
The collection contains a number of poems written in the Scots language. Lynn won Hedgehog Poetry’s dialect competition, and was runner-up in the Scots category of the Wigtown Poetry Prize. In Lynn’s first collection, ‘A Glimmer o Stars’, the Scots poems were printed alongside their English translation, but in ‘Life’s Stink and Honey’ these poems stand alone and show Lynn’s growing confidence in the use of her language.
The theme of childlessness is threaded throughout; a difficult subject but one which Lynn handles with great skill and emotion. ‘Sheela Na Gig, Rodel’, describes visiting a church on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The origins of the ancient carving of Sheela Na Gig’s is thought to represent fertility in the shape of a ‘hallowed, unholy mother’, and Lynn writes with feeling of how her ‘barren belly – concaves in the wet – afternoon, my waterproof – the only second skin I’ll own.’
Caring for Shrimps has the saddest of lines ‘Remember when we tried to make babies?’ while in ‘At Hallgrimskirkja’, Lynn imagines herself with ‘a belly drumming under my best woollen jumper’. In some poems, I think childlessness is more disguised, as it so often is in real life. Family and friends ask the age-old questions about starting a family or hearing the patter of tiny feet, and answers have to be found which satisfy while also camouflaging grief. ‘At Culbin Sands’ deals with loss, but without naming the source. In the final stanza, ‘My voice gives way to pain’ is followed by the observation of a bar-tailed godwit looking for a meal in the surf. It’s a reminder of how the natural world continues to exist. Sometimes this awareness can offer solace, as in one of my favourite poems in the collection which is Gloamin. Here the poet reminds us of the existence of something larger:
And you look out of the window
and look really look
the mountains low
still snowed bunkered
into winter still
the sky high
the everlasting orange and blue
And you think
this is why
‘Life’s Stink and Honey’ is a powerful collection. It contains the sadness of loss but is also full of hope. This review has only given a glimpse into Lynn’s world. There is so much more which could be included and I would recommend seeking the collection out in order to discover the full beauty of all of its poems.
Sue Watling is a writer and poet from Hull where she has an allotment and keeps honeybees. Sue’s poems are published in a range of journals and her first collection, Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers, will be published by Dreich in 2022. Also Thetis, a set of narrative poems about the Trojan War as seen through the eyes of Thetis, mother of Achilles, is due for publication by Esplanade Press later this year.
Eleanor Hooker’s Of Ochre and Ash reviewed by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Of Ochre and Ash by Eleanor Hooker. £11. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1910251911
The award-winning poet and writer Eleanor Hooker traces a journey of self-recovery in her latest collection. Ochre and ash are the colours and the smell of the grassland, the earth which she is deeply rooted in, reminiscent of burials but also of our physicality and of our contact with the soil that makes us real. Towards the end of the collection, we realise that Hooker was treated for breast cancer and was eventually cured. The sombre tone and unsettling mood in the poems explore this uncertain condition shifting between life and death. The poems are haunted by a sense of mystery, a surreal atmosphere surrounding conversation with the dead, who live in an imprecise other world. Her thoughts are suspended as if she is looking for answers that cannot be found so is open to whatever might happen. The future is undefined; death lingers ruthlessly but the poet carries on searching for reassurance. This is a search for essentiality – for what is really important in life. It is a dissolution of the self but also a revolution in her life that might bring renewal. Her condition is hard to accept; light and darkness alternate in a void of space and time that fractures the lines:
Like shadows dreaming of sun,
we shoulder our shrouded dead.
And sorrowful, our many hands trace
round the belly of the earth,
touching, not touching, touching.
(‘Traces, x Traces’)
Hooker creates a mythical world that is rooted in her ancestry, her grandmother ‘cry-laughing’ and her mother ‘singing love poems’; they are the heroines of her epic. Virginia Woolf’s writing is evoked too in quotations and in references to drowning and to the solitude or isolation of the writer. This brings the poet to the threshold between life and death. She is nearer to death and to the dead but she also acquires new awareness of her situation:
you sing out of turn,
and some hear
you sing out of tune –
when you birth a stone,
when you no longer care,
and walk to the darkening lake,
step into the trembling water.
(‘Legion, vii When you unravel’)
Death is also present in childbirth when the baby has a ‘cold forehead, closed mouth, cold feet […] drowned and decomposing.’ The physicality of the decaying of the flesh, which is disturbing and real at the same time, expresses the cruciality of the body. In this journey of self-awareness, the body is the source of our knowledge whose healing grants us survival.
The sequence ‘Legion’ investigates language as it is identified in the quotation by Robert Bly: ‘We are bees then; our honey is language.’ Therefore, the poet creates language which nurtures the self; she speaks ‘messages/from the other world to this’. It is a mysterious language she is trying to decipher and communicate which encompasses light, darkness and memories:
What is the speed of dark in your poems?
The speed of light – what signifies after meaning.
It is the rate of absence, a barrel of want,
it is the buzz, a swarm that endures
as perception only. In the presence of light,
true darkness is rumour.
What is your view?
Of the mountain pass, the hairpin, and there,
the memory of us four on the road, and in the night –
aurora borealis, Lyra Belacqua and Serafina Pekkala.
The golden undertow of a cello as if it drags the air
offshore. Bird-prints on snow, the weight of stones
in my mind, and from here, hurdles and form.
(‘Legion, viii Interview with Honeybee as Poet’)
The three poems about Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso refer to Dante’s Divine Comedy but the journey is less dramatic; it is lonely and sadder in some ways compared to the Italian poet’s work. There is no mentor or helper as Virgil is for Dante in the first and second realms and as Beatrice is in Paradise. Hooker is alone to face her ‘imperfections’, her ‘torn wings’, her sorrow and her decay:
[…] we are absorbed in the moment,
have no thought, other than for the presence of joy,
and as with instants of love, or joy recalled,
heaven is in the heartbeat, and solid beneath our feet.
(‘Paradiso: Aubade in which Soul becomes Shadow’)
The joy of the paradise is only ‘recalled’ and is contingent on her daily life; it is the soil where we are rooted, the physicality of the recovering body. Hope comes back in the last poems when the temptation of suicide is only a nightmare in which a shadow ‘attempts to pull/[her] toward the abyss’, calling her name. The conclusion is positive:
And you arrive,
an archive of the dead –
roe to the place
of return and departure,
where the waters rhyme.
Though ‘we swim to die’, ‘fresh water awaits’ us and we leap towards a new life; an enchanting world surrounds us and we are finally safe at home.
Hooker’s poems are a profound secular prayer about the implications of illness and the pain she suffered in her body and mind. The surreal atmosphere of her work is rooted in a land that is real but is also suspended between life and death. She looks for light in the dark tunnel of cancer where she finally emerges hopeful ‘above water’. The void and absence of life she has experienced are eventually redeemed in a journey that brings her home among family and friends.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020. She worked on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/
Greg Freeman’s The Fall of Singapore reviewed by Stephen Claughton
The Fall of Singapore by Greg Freeman. £8.00. Dempsey & Windle. ISBN: 978-1-913329-69-3
Railways were the main subject of Greg Freeman’s first two collections, Trainspotters (2015) and Marples Must Go! (2021). The Fall of Singapore continues the theme in a very different way with his father’s experiences as a POW, building the infamous ‘Death Railway’. For Freeman, the book is timely not only in marking the eightieth anniversary of the fall of Singapore, but also in providing a corrective to the Brexit view of Britain, when ‘even now,’ he says in his introduction, ‘many Britons seem to delude themselves that we won the second world war almost on our own, and that our country is somehow still the best.’ In addition, the war in Ukraine has since given it an up-to-the-minute relevance that he could not have imagined: ‘A taste of things to come, an invading / army that didn’t play by the rules.’
Scarborough may not be Mariupol, but the First World War naval raid on the town and two others, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties, caused outrage at the time. “A Scarborough Lass”, in the book’s first section, uses the shelling, which ‘killed / a woman scrubbing her step’, as an image of the way in which the War also indirectly destroyed civilian lives, robbing women of future partners. It is typical of Freeman’s economical style that the only reference in the poem to lost love is the oblique: ‘No more letters from France.’ Economy is apparent from the very first poem in the book, “The Family Silver”, about his maternal grandfather and a silver cruet set given as a wedding present by his football club. ‘Never really knew my mother’s father’, the poem starts and proceeds in a series of piecings together. The effect could be disjointed, but Freeman’s selection of detail builds up a satisfactory whole.
The first section mixes family history with social and political history, covering both the First World War and the build-up to the Second. “Le Treport” describes being taken on a trip (‘It seemed like another of my mother’s / mad missions’) to find his great-grandfather’s grave in France (‘caught a snorting steam engine / at Boulogne, the like I’d never seen before’). Lucky to have had themselves driven to the right place (‘Which cemetery / there are two,’ says the taxi driver), they were less fortunate in recording the event:
Three cheers for mum’s determination.
She took a photo, in her eagerness
another one on top of it. We rushed
to the station. When they came back
from Boots you couldn’t quite read the inscription.
We move between wars by way of a poem about (the unnamed) Hitler receiving France’s surrender in the same railway carriage (trains again!) and in the same place that the Armistice was signed (‘the misfit’s moment of revenge’). The section ends with two poems about Freeman’s father, “A Job on the Railways” and “The Reluctant Volunteer”, that preface the book’s main, central section:
One night in Aldershot, he’d had enough
and went awol. It was quite simple;
at the back of a column, at a fork in the road,
the rest marched one way, he went the other,
without a clue what was round the corner.
(“The Reluctant Volunteer”)
What was around the corner was, of course, the fall of Singapore, his father’s civilian job as a railwayman adding a particular irony to his experience as a POW. Again, his father appears as an antihero:
My dad signed up
as a pay clerk to keep him
out of the infantry, was handed
a gun as soon as he arrived.
He didn’t get to use it.
(“The Fall of Singapore”)
Much has already been written about the fall of Singapore and the infamous Death Railway. What gives this account its vividness is not only the personal connection through his father, but also the way in which it is presented like news in short, urgent phrases:
Fools’ paradise. They partied
almost to the end at Raffles hotel.
My father’s ship bombed
as it sailed in; Repulse, Prince of Wales
sunk two months before.
(“The Fall of Singapore”)
The section includes some ‘found’ poems: “Depend on the Enemy for Rations” and “The Engineer’s Tale” taken from Japanese accounts; “Flora and Fauna” and “Liberation, 1945” from the British side, the former from the diary of an army medic POW, the latter based on letters that Freeman’s grandmother sent to his father after she heard he was still alive. In addition, the poems are interspersed with prose accounts—presumably reconstructions of his father’s oral recollections of his experience, when:
Late at night he spoke
of wartime captivity, reckoning
I’d reached an age to understand.
The poems don’t shy away from moral compromise and physical suffering:
Could a mate be counted as a true friend
when you secretly wished him too ill
to eat his meal? Harsh dividend
of comradeship. They witnessed boys turning
into old men, heads shrinking, teeth growing,
pelvis and thigh bones standing out until
their bodies bore red, raw marks; yearning
for a proper beano, eyes dimly glowing.
(“Eating in Private”)
While there is no sympathy for the Japanese invaders (‘Staff and patients bayoneted / at the Alexandra hospital, / one on the operating table’), Freeman also blames the failings of the English governing class:
Pretence, irresolution, incompetence.
Complacency for many years.
Indian troops said the days
of the British Raj were over.
(“The Fall of Singapore”)
“Train to the Kwai Bridge” parallels Freeman’s account in the first section of visiting a war cemetery in France. Here, as well, things going wrong:
Jet-tired, we get out at the stop before.
Taxi tout spots our bewilderment,
Whisks us away for a crazy sum.
We pay him off, shake off his guided tour.
Poetry plays an important part in making connections. A recollection of reciting Wordsworth’s daffodils gave his father a lifeline to civvy street (“Learning by Heart”) and Freeman himself is linked to the action by comparing Alun Lewis’s preoccupation with Edward Thomas, who died the Great War, with his own identification with Lewis, who died in Burma most probably by suicide:
I wake at three, tormented by
a painful back, scrawl a few lines
about indignities of old age
he never knew. Things seem
so certain in the middle of the night,
just as they must have at five
in the morning in 1944
on the Burma front.
(“For Alun Lewis”)
The sequence might have finished on that personal note, but having previously presented the conflict from both sides, Freeman ends the section with the atom bombs that brought the War with Japan to a close:
The blossoms symbolised clouds
in a nation’s culture. O, what
a cloud. And such brightness.
Shadows left on walls.
The ephemerality of lives.
The final section contains six post-war poems, which include the Falklands and Cod Wars, and the book ends with a quirky symbol of reconciliation, the East German pedestrian green light that became accepted as the common symbol following reunification:
They were glad enough to see
so much thrown in the dustbin
when the Wall came down;
but not the Ampelmannchenn,
the traffic light’s little green man
with his jaunty, Erich Honecker hat.
(“The Little Green Man of Berlin”)
One of the pleasures of reading Greg Freeman’s poetry is that he has such a clear, personal voice. With so much contemporary poetry more about identity than individuality, you’d be hard pressed to recognise most poets from their styles. The poems are conversational not just in the sense that they use plain English and flexible rhythms: they actually do sound as if he is talking to you. This enables him to interpolate explanations that would be fatal to most poems, though without overloading them (there are supporting notes and further reading in addition to the introduction), and it gives him the flexibility to mould a successful sequence out of original poetry, found poems and prose transcripts. The Fall of Singapore is a fitting memorial to his father and the other POWs.
Stephen Claughton grew up in Manchester, read English at Oxford and worked for many years as a civil servant in London. His poems have appeared widely in print and online and he has published two pamphlets, The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey & Windle, 2020), the latter a collection of poems about his late mother’s dementia. He is a member of Ver Poets and reviews poetry for The High Window and London Grip. Website: www.stephenclaughton.com.
Finola Scott’s Count the Ways reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Count the Ways by Finola Scott, £5.00 Dreich. ISBN 978 1 873 412855
Glaswegian poet Finola Scott is a former makar for the Federation of Writers Scotland and a recent winner of Gutter Magazine’s Morgan Competition. Red Squirrel Press published her pamphlet Much left Unsaid in 2020 and she has read her poems at many events including the Edinburgh Book Festival, Welshpool Festival and Brantwood.
Taking her cue from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’, relationships are at the core of this collection: relationships between family, friends and lovers. Humour, sadness and loss are to be found in the 20 poems (two written in Scots) contained in this pamphlet about everyday occurrences that we can all relate to and identify with. The cover artwork by Zoe Scott hints at the substance of the text within: the affairs of the heart, that primary sense organ that Aristotle believed to be the centre of the human body, the seat of the soul and the emotions.
There is an awareness of the outside world in ‘Portencross, Seamill’ and ‘Beneath Slievemore’ but any references to the natural world are subservient to the main theme which is more to do with feeling and emotion, the interior world of the narrator.
Stylistically, Scott is an accomplished practitioner of the short poem. She hones each poem down to its bare essentials so that a typical poem will consist of between 10 and 12 lines made up of very precise language, often multi-layered in meaning, with a strong last line. Scott’s poems are models of concision that manage to convey a range of emotion that far exceeds the number of words used to convey them. In Sean Wai Keung’s words, she ‘brings vastness to small forms’.
Something of this complexity is skilfully employed in Scott’s poem ‘In case of emergency’. It is a poem whose meaning refuses to be pinned down which is one of the reasons why it is so arresting:
On midnight’s verge I text
Help I’m struggling
for a word not a metaphor
nor half rhymes I have fistfuls
Tonight before deadline’s guillotine
I crave silken rabbits
out of your scarf-full sleeve
coins golden from your ears
surprises to end on
Ever the tease
you offer gigolos
Despite its elusive nature there is much to note: the use of space to dictate the way in which the poem is read in the absence of punctuation, the strategic placing of words after the line-breaks, the hardness of words like ‘fistfuls’ and ‘guillotine’ pitched against the softness of ‘silken rabbits’ and a ‘scarf-full sleeve’, the engagement with illusion, conjuring and magic as one day is turned into another (‘midnight’s verge’) and the surprise ending – that strong last line I referred to earlier.
‘Amuse bouche’ is Scott in playful mode:
I watch your plump mouth swallow
oysters from misshapen shells.
I hear the suck of tide, a wet smack.
Your lips seal in the living snack,
you gulp, slurp, I hear kelp slap.
In my mind an airlock slams, final.
Separate I watch you suck, open, gulp,
shut, lick, swallow, smile.
Behind my teeth stingrays dance.
My tongue quivers eager. Tonight
perhaps I will kiss you
long and deep.
The association of oysters with the heightening of sexual desire is obvious here but Scott makes use of this to great effect by focussing on the sights, sounds and pleasures of both the one who is eating the oyster and the one who is watching. It is a very physical, sensual poem. Half way through the poem Scott comes up with the arresting image of the airlock, near the end there is the image of the stingrays and then, characteristically for this poet, the strong last line.
Many of her titles carry more than one meaning which the reader picks up on once the poem has been digested. The poems also cover a wide spectrum of human experience ranging from the innocence of ‘Tell me’ to the wisdom and experience of ‘Long distance love’. These exquisite poems dazzle us with their craftsmanship and fly the flag for small-form poetry.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely both at home and abroad. His latest publications are Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017), The Engine-room of Europe (editura pim, Iaşi, Romania) and River Hoard (Cyberwit.net, Allahabd, India, 2019). He is a regular reviewer for several journals including Galatea Resurrects (USA) and Write Out Loud (UK).
Pratibha Castle’s A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers reviewed by Anne Symons
Pratibha Castle’s A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers reviewed by Anne Symons ISBN 978-1-913499-36-5 Hedgehog Press www.pratibhacastlepoetry.com £10.99 incl p&p
In this debut prize-winning pamphlet Castle’s words land on the page to delight and intrigue like a: ‘whimsy / of long-tailed tits’. Birds are used as a background conceit to explore childhood and other memories, to trace relationships and witness the growth and break up of a family.
Amongst beauty and colour: ‘terracotta pots / seed stash pansies / forsythia tipping yellow’ and: ‘cabrioles / of joy’, there runs a darker thread. In ‘Celtic Spell’ a blackbird keeps watch from a: ‘skeleton forsythia’, ‘augured (…) death’, ate: ‘desiccated corpses’ of meal worm.
A close bond is established between human and bird:
He greets me now with a chuckle,
and a whirl of wings.
When I dribble out his feast,
he quivers on a flower pot,
trumpets a salute,
swoops in to dine.
But this magic comes at a price. The blackbird chases away a sparrow and its mate, and banishes a wren.
The forsythia is showing shoots.
I miss the wren.
Castle has an exuberant and striking way with verbs, tipping grammar to her own purposes — passive mood becomes active, intransitive verbs take an object. In the poem ‘South Downs’ these surprises build into sensuous layers, rich like a Van Gogh painting. ‘Wolf sense idles me / into a random field’. A wooden stile becomes: ‘the saddle / of an imaginary mare / set to canter me off’:
a path through the woods
petals open into a copse,
incense of wild thyme, garlic,
blooming beneath my feet.
tosses into a breeze
wafts the fantasy of a cuckoo.
Dryads lean in,
anoint me with
There is skilled artistry in the way Castle uses the pastoral to explore painful memories. The opening stanzas of ‘Sparrow Love’ describe the courtship ritual of a sparrow:
The female flirts her tail,
of a doyenne cute
as charm. Thumbs
up for the male
But a few stanzas later the sheen on the bird’s eggs reminds her of tears in her father’s eyes, a sudden swoop into sadness: ‘Tears I caught / the hint of once, the day my mother / bundled me into a taxi, scrambled after.’ And years later the deathbed:
[…] Vron, I’ve missed you,
an ocean streaming down his cheeks.
In ‘Plums’, words are for Castle fruits hidden in a paper bag: ‘squished and leaking’ through the ‘chilly dorms’ of boarding school, a narrative of adolescence fiercely expressed in: ‘arpeggios, / rallentandos, chords, / spilt tears onto callous keys’ until: ‘A woman, I returned, exhumed words / meant for savouring on the tongue’.
Castle uses form to shadow content — pain here is sharply expressed in the rattle of short lines tumbling down the page; internal rhyme, half rhyme and alliteration all sounding out a throbbing musicality.
Delicate as the sinews of a bird, a narrative emerges — from the questioning child in ‘Riddles’: ‘How could you let her / snatch me from you?’ to the mother/daughter bond revealed in domestic moments of cake-making: ‘I jammed / together sponges open / hearted as your love.’
Strongly lyrical, this portrait of family love and pain impresses with its artistry and honesty. It deserves a place on your poetry bookshelf.
Anne Symons: After a career teaching deaf children and adults Anne began writing poetry in retirement. Her work has appeared online and in print publications including Agenda, Alchemy Spoon, Dreamcatcher, Ekphrastic Review, Ink Sweat & Tears, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review and The Atlanta Review. She recently completed an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University and the Poetry School in London.
Local Wonders: Poems of our Immediate Surrounds edited by Pat Boran and reviewed by Richard Hawtree
Local Wonders: Poems of our Immediate Surrounds edited by Pat Boran. €14.50. Dedalus Press. ISBN: 978-1-910251-88-1
In his introduction to this fine new anthology of Irish poetry composed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Pat Boran declares: ‘Local Wonders is, above all else, an invitation to name and sing the praises of what is of value to us now …’ For much of 2020 and 2021 those living on the island of Ireland were required to remain within a five kilometre radius of their homes and the poems in this book respond variously and vigorously to this legal restriction. In ‘Birdwatcher’, Paddy Bushe observes how: ‘sanderlings // Can anticipate the speed / And reach of shore waves, / Their precise scurrying lift / And flutter, […]’ In these lines we encounter the local wonder par excellence, a heightened attentiveness to the art of looking by a poet who confides he has: ‘lived on this clifftop / For half a century’. Bushe’s ‘scurrying lift’ propels many of the poems in this book in surprising directions, far beyond Ireland and any limiting conception of the local. Ivy Bannister’s ‘In the Car with Margaret’ closes with the striking image of a scarf: ‘dyed / brighter than the Aegean’, while Gabriel Rosenstock whirls us still further afield with his precise evocations, in both Irish and English, of Mount Fuji’s smoke, the: ‘deatach Shliabh Fuji’.
Through their vibrant engagement with landscape and place many of the poems here mine rich seams of history and memory. At every turn, the evocation of past trauma is supple and shifting rather than dogmatic, as in Moya Roddy’s ‘Overnight’ where: ‘the boundary wall was Aughnanure Castle / or the remnants of a famine village depending / on my mood.’ Similar touches of paradox and uncertainty also surface in ‘Quarantine’ by Joseph Woods. In this piece famine, pandemic and poetry collide as the speaker exchanges the: ‘high altitude of Harare / for the loan of a gate-lodge on your family farm – built in Black ’47 / but more Wordsworthian now …’ If, at this point, readers were in any danger of slipping into Wordsworthian tranquillity Gerry Murphy is on hand to rescue them with characteristic insouciance as he exposes the follies of youth in ‘The Hungry Days’:
To emphasise our hunger
we go into the front garden,
pull up handfuls of grass
and pretend to eat.
This will never do, of course, and the lads are swiftly marched to the back garden and neatly despatched with a rhetorical flourish as they are told:
‘The grass is longer out here, boys,
Eloquent playfulness is one of the great joys of this book, and a searching wit illuminates literary tradition as much as historical record. In Simon Ó Faoláin’s poem ‘Fásach’ / ‘Wilderness’ the speaker imagines living on roots and chickweed in monastic seclusion, but adds: ‘Agus b’fhéidir buidéal Laphroaig’ (‘And maybe a bottle of Laphroaig’) for good measure. From this beehive cell even the Yeats of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ must accept his comeuppance – Paddy Bushe translates –
I’d have no bean-row at all there
(It’s common knowledge that beans
Don’t grow on islands, or exposed mountains).
Another classic of the Irish tradition – the medieval tale of Buile Suibhne – is, likewise, subverted in Jaki McCarrick’s contribution ‘Sweeney as a girl’:
For the brief time I am here,
I have the real earth,
the freedom of the broad valleys
In ‘Very Far After’, Billy Mills hints at the predicament of the modern haikuist, wrestling with the Japanese masters:
& no quiet pool –
this poor poem
Many other shared themes give a rare and pleasing coherence to the poems in Local Wonders. Readers will encounter a variety of old sayings – seanráite in Irish – ranging from Stephen Beechinor’s apt choice: ‘Every start is weak’ to the stoic yet mysterious: ‘Happy is the corpse that’s rained on’ in Mairéad O’Sullivan’s poem ‘Graveside Rain, May 2021’. Indeed, graves are powerfully present throughout this anthology both as sites of homage for those who, like Saakshi Patel at the grave of Louis MacNeice: ‘still strive / for the title of Poet in this screened era’ (‘Homage’) and as places uniquely fit for ludic speculation:
Next, there is compulsive gravedigging, an anti-social addiction
to which even middle-aged, middle-class visitors may succumb.
(John Mee, ‘Unapproved Gravedigging’).
The splendid poems in Local Wonders draw strength from the spatial constraints required at the height of the pandemic. It is impossible to convey their cumulative power within the confines of this review. By employing a commendable diversity of form and cultural perspective all of the poets here respond to what Paddy Bushe calls – in his poem ‘A Vision in a Time of Disease – ‘the lap of here and now’. In reading such work I can do no better than to exclaim with Mark Roper:
inside the world,
if I haven’t
drunk my fill.
(‘Mac Duagh’s Well’).
Richard Hawtree’s poems have appeared in literary journals including: The Stinging Fly, Banshee, The High Window, The Seventh Quarry, Nine Muses Poetry and The Honest Ulsterman. His collection The Night I Spoke Irish in Surrey was published by Dempsey & Windle in 2019. Most recently, his poem ‘The Internet of Things’ was shortlisted in the Brian Dempsey Memorial Competition.