Books under Review
Ruth Sharman • Ona Gritz • Jonathan Timbers • Nick Cooke • Edmund Prestwich • Wendy Klein • Tom Sastry • Hilaire
Susan Utting’s Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems by Susan Utting. £10. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 9781909747258
Susan Utting’s new collection includes some forty new poems plus a selection from her three earlier books. There is so much here to enjoy. Just a glance at the scattering of epigraphs – references to Edward Thomas, Giacometti, Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, Soutine, Gloria Steinem, the MP Jo Cox… – gives a sense of the varied inspiration underlying a collection whose generosity – eighty poems in total – is matched by the breadth and richness of the poet’s vision and by the sheer exuberance of her language.
The title poem reflects the bias of the new work, which picks up and develops themes from the earlier collections relating to women’s lives. Joining the ranks of striptease artist, florist’s assistant, the wonderful ‘Bathers of the Ladies’ Pond’ are the school misfits and anorexics, the scullery maid, the girls killing time at the bus stop, the woman who – rather typically of her kind – feels the need to keep saying sorry. There is a quiet feminism at work here, celebrating that female characteristic of ‘managing small things’, the ability to make do, to ‘thrive on other people’s leftovers’, to be so much more than the product of men’s imaginings, ‘sweethearts, dolls… posable, blow-up generous… nice arse, a lovely pair’, as ‘Half the Human Race’ concludes, with an abruptness that emphasises how much more there is to be said: ‘…Say we’re all / of this and none of it and more, and this / is nothing like the end of it. Say’”
Utting is particularly good on feelings of alienation and ennui – being in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time. ‘Their Separate Ways, after a painting by Eileen Cooper, concludes:
They both know their nakedness
for what it is: it is a small bird
between them, caught up in the cup
of his right hand, a bird with a sharp
beak, untidy feathers, half-stretched
wings about to, struggling, to fly.
The broken syntax of the last line conveys the physical and emotional dis-ease of the situation, the difficulty of actually breaking away. And this poem is mirrored on the next page by one (“Becoming”) in which the bird motif has now become the central metaphor, where the woman-turned-owl, “lulled by the rhythm of window-pane water” (no longer recognised as rain),
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx…. listens, hears, knows
her brothers’ song, their call across cold air.
She stretches the wing of her arm, settles, waits
for her tongue’s quiver, its shrill reply
– the dropped last line emphasising her startling transition into an alien form.
Utting focuses on the minutiae of our everyday lives, at home among domestic objects and ordinary routines, but capable of imbuing the familiar with a wonderful freshness. The most ordinary events become rich and intriguing thanks to visually precise description – condensation on a windowpane, poignantly linked to her father’s propensity for crying, or the experience of having one’s hair washed and cut, which she links to the lightness felt at the end of an affair… And, as in ‘Becoming’, a dreamlike strangeness stalks a number of poems. In ‘For the Punters’ (from Striptease), another kind of metamorphosis occurs, in which the striptease artist begins again from naked, stripping off skin and flesh, while in ‘My Mother’s House’ (from Houses Without Walls) the poet’s mother is losing her grip on reality, a process reflected in the surreal quality of her surroundings, her wardrobe ‘full of ball-gowns, / sandwiches and biscuit barrels full of instant coffee’ and ‘granulated sugar in her dancing shoes’.
As moving as these earlier poems about the vulnerability of an ageing mother or the lovely ‘Spoon-Maker’s Daughter’ (from Striptease) remembering the poet’s father with his ‘head too full of memories to remember’ are poems in the new work dealing with the loss of an unborn child. This is difficult subject matter, which Utting succeeds in addressing in a fresh way, avoiding the least hint of mawkishness. ‘Products of Conception’ sets up an effective counterpoint between terse medical questions and the poet’s frantic searches in odd places for something small mislaid, like loose change, and her efforts to piece back together words torn up by the shredder and now only forming a broken patchwork of painful meanings. In the mirror poem, on the opposite page, ‘The Ones that Got Away’, the poet expresses sorrow for their loss as much as her own, ending:
You have your reasons, so I’ll let you go, quiet
as lambs, not a peep or a whimper, while I stay
here, tight-lipped against the almost of you,
against its sting, sharp as yesterday, as sure.
The American poet Mark Doty commented recently that it is easy to finish a poem too soon rather than running with an idea and seeing where it goes. Utting is never guilty of this, never short on ideas. Take the exuberant ‘Self-Portrait as a Ticked Box’ in which she thinks of all the colourful ways in which she could describe who she is and where she has come from rather than limiting herself to ticking a single box in a questionnaire. That said, Utting’s poems are absolutely considered – down to their very sequencing – and tight as a drum. Her language is both precise and inventive, qualities reflected in a predilection for Larkinesque compounds. ‘Look at her flirt in her flash-vivid bolero, / lash-flutter, hair-flick and kiss-me-soft smile’ begins ‘Picture of My Mother as a Young Woman’ (from Fair’s Fair), continuing in a giddy rush of such couplings. And the brilliance of Utting’s metaphors – that owl-woman in ‘Becoming’, for example – is matched by the freshness of her similes: the sound of traffic ‘like the smudge of downstairs / conversation after lights out’, peeping Toms dropping ‘like plums’ out of the trees by the Ladies’ Pond, an inrush of cool air into a room like ‘petals fallen on dry earth, their cool / restfulness after all that blowsy flowering’.
A neighbourhood pub, a visit to the hairdresser’s, moisture on a windowpane, a bunch of tulips – none of these things remain ordinary in Utting’s hands. Thanks to her enthusiasm for language and for life itself, for the very fabric of life, she can be trusted to tackle the most mundane subject matter and wake us up to its importance.
Ruth Sharman lives in Bath, where she works as a freelance editor and French translator. Her poems have appeared in various anthologies including Staple First Editions. Her Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador. The title poem won second prize in the Arvon International Poetry Competition and also appears on one of the International Baccalaureate’s English exam papers. Her second collection, Scarlet Tiger, was the winner of Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016.
Jessica Goody’s Defense Mechanisms reviewed by Ona Gritz
Defense Mechanisms by Jessica Goody. £12.25. Phosphene Publishing. ISBN: 9780985147778
‘I can read my life in the pages of the history books,’ Jessica Goody tells us in her poem, ‘Human Curiosity’. Indeed, Goody, who has cerebral palsy, reveals a rich knowledge of disability history in her debut collection, Defense Mechanisms, and shares it generously. In the opening section of the book, Being Handicapped, she inhabits not just her own disabled body but many. We meet Franklin Roosevelt just as he’s released from an iron lung, the poet’s uncle who suffered the cruelties and indignities of life in the infamous Willowbrook State School, and an amnesiac who describes him/herself, using Goody’s wonderfully unique poetic logic as ‘…a noun without adjectives.’ It’s a logic that’s quirky yet always precise, giving us ‘the time-release process of menopause’ (‘Mastectomy’), and describing ‘the volatile verbosity of Tourette’s’ as “a simple refusal to let the subconscious remain unheard” (‘Neurodivergency’).
Goody has a passion for detail and a desire for exactitude that, at its best, has the probing quality of early Sharon Olds. Her images pile up to refine and refine like an adjustable photo lens bringing it’s subject continally closer. ‘The place where his eye used to be is a dark hallow, / a knothole; the cracked china face of a broken doll,/one long lashed eye winking shut, his empty eyelid/bruised like rotten fruit’ (‘Prosthetics’).
Another of her gifts is the ability to present her clear narratives without sacrificing music. She does this with the skillful blending of internal rhyme—’a swelling bead like a burst pomegranate seed’ (‘Drawing Blood’), alliteration—’the twitches and tics of sudden spasm’ (‘Senses’), and a keen ear for rhythm—’Water droplets like facets of crystal flash from / the sun-browned bodies of splashing children’ (‘Polio’).
The second section of the book, Green Sentinels, offers poems that grapple with death interspersed with meditations on nature. It is in the later that the poet’s good ear and keen observational powers are most apparent. ‘The sea teams with texture,’ Goody states in her poem, ‘Galapagos’. The same can be said of the many seascapes in this section, including the lyrical and closely observed ‘Beachcombing’ where ‘white froth flashes and glows about / damp ankles like swirling dancers’ skirts’ and ‘Oceans’ where ‘every seashell ha[s] / been shipwrecked, berry-picked from the tide.’ We meet whales who ‘…click and moan in a damp dialect” (‘Whale Song’) and a dolphin—with its ‘patent-leather flesh’—who describes for us his life in the limited world of an aquarium tank. Finally, Goody moves from setting back to character in ‘Selkie’ where she imagines the poem’s speaker to be the mythical sea creature trapped in a human and disabled (limping) body.
The collection’s third and final section, Other Voices, contains a body of poems that are like landscape paintings. Goody’s characteristic sharp mind and finely tuned ear are at work in lines such as those in ‘Metaphors for the Moon’ where the subject is described as, among other things, ‘a gemstone/winking on a black bed of jeweler’s velvet’ … ‘a bite of butterscotch’ … ‘a marble to be knocked by a precise thumb’. In ‘Ode to the Marshes’ the sea flows ‘in the shifting shades of a fading bruise’, in ‘Fireflies’, the titular insects ‘blink Morse code’, and in ‘Diving’, ‘Humpback…prepar[e] for their freefall into/the horizon where the elements meet, blue into blue.’ ‘Certain Doorways’, a strong stand-alone piece, pays homage to both curiosity and domesticity. In it, we meet the stranger wondering and wishing to peek in on other lives, and are given glimpses behind those closed doors: ‘Every house'” Goody tells is, ‘is a box filled with heartbeats,/footsteps, history…’
Another series of poems in the section takes us back through various points in history with Goody’s singular ability to empathize and enter others’ lives. ‘Stockings’ is a moving portrait of poverty told through a close rendering of a worn piece of clothing. ‘Dust Bowl’ gives us the landscape ‘pumiced by swirling dust’ and a peek at a particular family waiting and huddled in ‘a dun-colored world.’ We experience the dust bowl a second time in Erosion where we are shown, in a line where Goody is at her lyrical best: ‘a patchwork shack of stacked tires and tar paper,/the flotsom of fruit crates and fence slats.’
In ‘263 Prindengracht’ we are invited into the hidden apartment where Anne Frank lived out her last years. Here, the sound of her pencil on the page ‘might be mistaken for the scrabbling of rats overhead’ and the lone window is made up of ‘panes which divide / every reflection into quadrants: sunset, starlight,/moonglow, and the play of light from dancing clouds.’
Finally, in what may be Goody’s most affecting and effective poem, ‘Unanswered Prayers’, we find ourselves with the young workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory whose ‘metronome’ is ‘the rhythm of push, seam, snip’ as the fire catches and spreads leaving the scorched bodies of the girls along with the relics and symbols most meaningful to them. ‘I can read my life in the pages of the history books,’ Goody has told us. Here, in the pages of Defense Mechanisms—with its land and seascapes, its precisely rendered portraits, and deep understanding of times past—we too get to read our lives in the lives of others, and we’re all the better for it. This is a timely and impressive first book.
Ona Gritz’s poems have been published widely in The US. An essayist and children’s author, she has also writtten a memoir: On the Whole: a story of mothering and disability (Shebooks. 20140). Her poetry collections are: Geode, (Main Street Rag 2014), and Left Standing, (Finishing Line Press, 2005). She is co-author of Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems (forthcoming, Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of Challenges For the Delusional 2: Peter Murphy’s Prompts and the Writing They Inspired (forthcoming, Diode Editions).
Philip Fried’s Squaring the Circle reviewed by Jonathan Timbers
Squaring the Circle by Philip Fried. €12.00 Salmon Poetry. ISBN: 978-1910669747
Kate Fox’s popular study of contemporary Englishness, Watching the English, applies not just to our national character but to a lot of contemporary English poetry too. English manners, she says, are either ‘over polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or loud’. After a few drinks, our restraint can result in aggressive behaviour, particularly if our privacy is threatened.’ We fear being ‘straightforward’, she concludes, and ‘aspire to modesty’.
In English poetry, these characteristics translate into a deep unease about political poetry. That is unless it’s performance poetry, in which case poets can express our resentments and frustrations, often wittily, provided they’re not too ‘posh’, ‘middle class’ or intellectual.
Philip Fried, a US poet, whose Squaring the Circle, is published in unabashed Ireland, may seriously offend these ‘sensibilities’. He’s not only a very political poet, he also writes amusing but challenging poems about religion, science and philosophy. His collection is a great read if you like verse packed with allusions, puns, ideas and word-play. Some English readers may dismiss them as ‘willed’, ‘too forced’ or contrived. Not me, I had fun reading them.
The collection is divided into four parts. The first – Powers of 10 – explores questions about God and the Universe using tropes derived from contemporary science and maths. From time to time, bits of autobiography make their way into some poems. Often, God himself appears, sometimes sounding a little like Ted Hughes’s Crow:
Have I been to Disneyfield, God wonders?
(‘God as Float’)
Then, absent-mindedly, God rubber stamped
Nobody’s passport with the Sun and Moon
God can be both a character in Fried’s home, New York (e.g. ‘God the Busker’, a statistician or a doctor): or the city itself, ‘Doctor, I’m a little bit like Manhatten, / Starting as a settlement at the tip/ Of possibility. (‘God Says’)
After reading these poems, I couldn’t help but wonder if Fried believes in God. On reflection, I’d venture to say that he is agnostic but deeply affected both by God’s presence and his absence; God is ‘’indiscernible at his Director’s desk’. Fried likes poking fun at our conceptions of the deity ‘in his green plastic Gambler’s visor’ (‘Cloud of Knowing’ – the title echoing a medieval English text – and the image referencing Einstein’s comment about Quantum Mechanics – more of that in the collection’s second part). The trinity (i.e. ‘old-time religion’) is explored in his impious but not ungodly poem about carbon paper and ballpoint pens, ‘In Triplicate’.
On one brilliant occasion, Fried himself is God-like:
Express me, I who was not famous like Pi,
Not yet anyway, but a garden variety square
Root of, take your pick, 3.5, or 11,
And so could go on and on and on……….’.
In the second part, – The Quantum Mechanics of Everyday Life – autobiography comes to the fore with family and childhood recollections. The title poem concerns his ninety something mother, who at night imagines she is twelve again, having to dash to the bathroom to avoid a predatory cat. Levels shift in this poem, time dissolves, and it ends up being God’s reply to Einstein on quantum mechanics:
God to Einstein: My universe, my bones,
My house, my rules, my ivories, my tombstones.
The death of his Grandpa, described as the formation of a Black Hole, transforms his relative into ‘the crushed and crushing Patriach’. (‘Event/ Horizon’). School features too, as a system of spiritual and intellectual restriction:
One brooding rebel gnashing teeth to endure
The gentle affixing of A+ like a cure
The third part, Cutting Edge, moves between post apocalyptic monologues – including a parody declaration of independence by cybernetic systems – and pre-apocalyptic satires on US militarism. The technique Fried uses is to describe a process – like invading another country – in terms of something else (like the Passover story, or aeroponics – the airborne bombing version of hydroponics – or recipes like ‘The War on Leeks’). Registers get swapped around, metaphors extended. This is all highly entertaining stuff.
One of my favourite poems from this section is a parody of WC Williams, which tackles the ’no idea but in things’ principle straight on:
So much was risked
A red lopsided
Beside the repo’d
(“no ideas but in things….”)
This poem shows, on the contrary, that ideas (like foreclosure) can become things or define them. Bankruptcy is, after all, even more real to some people than a plum.
‘Interrogating Stress’ is more characteristic of his ingenious but knockabout approach. Stress is the subject of the narrator’s violent, illegal interrogation. In the process, of course, we interrogate stress as a social and verbal construct. We also learn stuff we might not have known about before. For example, I found out (thanks be to both Fried and Google) that the opposite of distress is eustress. Stress is called ’the aphetic / jihadi of PTSD’, a metaphor which is both metaphysical and uncomfortably political.
Arguably, the most interesting poem in this part – and maybe the most discursive – is Posterity Posse. This is an exploration of posterity in ‘the end of history’ era. In true Audenesque fashion, it’s a gathering of elegant and related sayings and verbal games (in fact, at one point Fried breaks posterity down into a series of Scrabble possibilities). Posterity, Fried declares, joining the hubristic present with a non-human future, will be a ‘Mega-dossier, awaiting its alien reader’. Of course, since we live at ‘the end of history’, we must actually be the posterity everyone has been talking about for so long (since the Middle Ages, Fried points out, sharing an interesting etymological fact and showing that the future has a history too). The poem rounds off by breaking down traditional taxonomies in our postmodern, and perhaps soon to be post human, world:
I’ve fled the future to ghost the fugitive moment.
Our connection is real, imaginary and instant
The final part, The World’s Big Show, isn’t, as far as I can see, fundamentally different from the preceding section except that it is more focussed on domestic matters rather than foreign wars and apocalypse. Accordingly, it is the destination for several poems about flags. One uses the form of a mock problem page where various versions of the stars and stripes (a decal, a t shirt etc.) complain about their relationships. The second is about folding the flag, which has to be done in a particular way apparently, and features Apollo, one of a number of classical references in the poems, where mythological or historical figures from the classical world become actors in our own, another Audenesque feature of his work.
This and other poems in this section concern the means by which US society structures our consciousness to accept its war games and destructive consumerism (cf Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ or ‘The Unknown Citizen’). ‘Package Insert’ for example predicates a hypocrisy drug by providing advice about its usage and side effects. Resistance to this establishment mind control is present in the form of his grandmother, watching US all-in wrestling and seeing how the contestants have become ‘avatars’ of American might.
The section and collection ends with a poem ‘Hullabaloo’. Here the microscopic becomes political – with epidermal cells described as agents of health – a trope ( the body politic) that was also used by Auden in his late great poem, ‘Talking to Myself’.
This is a brilliant book, full of fun, controlled anger and dazzling word play. It breaks the rules of English poetry because it enjoys – like many of us who moved on from humble backgrounds – ‘the life of the mind’. Once upon a time, this was the sort of poetry that could only be written by privileged people like Auden. It’s great to see Fried occupy and share a space once reserved for the upper middle class, with such zest, ethical passion and wit.
Jonathan Timbers is a human rights worker and qualified solicitor. His poetry has been published in Neon Highway, Interpreter’s House, Pennine Platform and Oxford Poetry. From 2014-15, he was town mayor for Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd and has spoken about Ted Hughes’s war poetry at Ted Hughes poetry festivals in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough, South Yorkshire. He is one of the few people living in Hebden Bridge who has ever worked in a military tank factory.
Michael Lee Rattigan’s Hiraeth reviewed by Nick Cooke
Hiraeth by Michael Lee Rattigan. 11 Euros. Black Herald Press. ISBN 978-2919582143
Rattigan’s debut collection, Liminal (2012), included some striking and assured work which fused philosophy with acute sensuous observation and paid implicit homage to various poets, notably the Eliot of ‘Four Quartets’, who surely lies behind its longing for, and groping towards, the precision that language inevitably lacks: ‘If only / you could pin it / down, as definite / as the face still there, / turned away’. That was a way of putting it, very satisfactory on the whole, which suggested a definite promise.
This short and poignant second book largely emphasises the philosophy at the expense of the observation. In vain, on the whole, do we look for the kind of almost Keatsian physicality found in these lines from Liminal: ‘seeping / from tart pith / that severs / in clotted fullness / to offer the blood’s /cascading / bread’. Eschewing capitals and full stops, Rattigan conducts a formal, at times borderline-bombastic investigation into various aspects of the Welsh term ‘hiraeth’, which an explanatory note defines as ‘a homesickness for a place to which one cannot return, or that never was, the grief for the lost places of one’s past, tinged with a deep feeling of incompleteness and an intense nostalgia, a deep emotional state of longing for what is absent.’ Sometimes this quest is more a collection of poetic-sounding phrases than a cogent argument, or even a single actual sentence. ‘Voyage’, for instance, is a 48-line piece which from the start is entirely free of main verbs –
pneumatic swell hung below spray
thought’s inconsolable northern braid –
although its second stanza is notably superior to that opening in terms of lucidity and economy:
clearer than in life unbound
as touch without foam expands
essential welcome of belonging
without limit in equal sight
I found the more valuable poems to be those in which, as in that stanza, Rattigan either hones down the abstract – and at its worst rather cluttered – style to a leaner version of itself, or he does what happens so often in Liminal and employs sentence-based syntax, making use of enjambments and rhythms that capture the speaking voice.
The value of the leaner approach is shown by ‘Point’, which could qualify as outright Imagism and perhaps represents Rattigan at his spare and simple best, at least as far as this collection is concerned:
horizon-step included in matter
unmooring lives as with fronds
reclining figure mouth to wound
fire-cut on ocean’s mark
pre-dated bells seaward facing sickle
chisel from where horses emerge
Regrettably the last line spoils the effect, with an unwanted double mouthful that stands out here because of its rarity:
coterminous with ever-substantial foam
Perhaps the best instance of the speaking-voice approach is ‘Flight’, which begins with a mimetic sense of irregular, sinuous movement:
palpably uncorked in weightless drift
wide-awake death that plays
with light wing, tearful way
through southerly approach
at bimanual speed, one piece
direct to heart
There is again an Eliotic as well as a Beckettian touch in the central section:
so much excitement
so much hopeful dust
louder than voice that knocks
with painstaking pain
of observance to broken will
in life’s unending quaternary change
striving toward rest
even though the poet would ideally have avoided a second non-defining relative clause in such quick succession (‘that plays’…‘that knocks’), and ‘unending quarternary’ is self-contradictory, in that ‘quarternary’ alludes to a period that is by definition finite.
The ending, if a little overwrought, has a deathly, liturgical power to which not much contemporary poetry aspires:
on last runway’s
at dark-double minimum
below throttling down with episodic fear
to quenchless hunger’s pointed finger
tremoring not separate from song
It’s worth pointing out that the book is published with a parallel page-by-page translation into French, and so, wittingly or otherwise, raises the kind of cross-linguistic questions faced by readers of Beckett and tackled by critics such as Christopher Ricks, around the extent to which a translation can and should constitute a separate work of art in its own right. In Beckett’s case the answer has to be yes, because the author is also the translator, and Ricks is at his subtlest and most exquisitely sensitive in teasing out the contrasting merits of the different texts. A conclusive answer may be harder to determine in the case of Hiraeth, where the collection has been translated not only by someone other than the author, but by Blandine Longre, herself a known poet whose own first collection, Clarities, I thought was even more impressive than Liminal. However, for what it’s worth, my enjoyment of the book was enhanced, often considerably so, by the excellence of Longre’s French version.
Some of this enjoyment may have been down to the more naturally sonorous quality of poetic French, which particularly suits the elegiac and often mournful tone of this collection, in the same way that English translations of Les Fleurs Du Mal could never quite hope to match Baudelaire’s euphonic mastery (unless undertaken by Tennyson, perhaps). It may be that English is not quite the ideal language for the expression of such feelings.
However, an arguably related factor was what I saw as an inbuilt morphological advantage of French, to wit the non-existence in French grammar of the English Saxon (or s-) genitive, and the necessity for a prepositional form of possessive link, invariably using ‘de’, which means that the weight of a phrase or sentence has to fall on the elements where more often than not it really belongs. Too frequently – at times it became a mannerism – Rattigan’s original depends on phrases that begin with the subject followed by an apostrophe-s, even though the balance of what follows is adversely affected. We’ve already seen a couple of examples: ‘last runway’s / implacable approach’ and ‘quenchless hunger’s pointed finger’ from ‘Awake’. Now compare the following examples with their French equivalents.
shore’s withered stalk against blackness hung (‘Ambrosial’)
la tige flétrie du ravage sur l’obscurité se découpe
lifted whisper’s irridescent glow along paths
spoken thought’s clear voice without speech (‘Vital Sign’)
lueur irrisée du murmure qui s’élève le long des sentiers
voix limpide de la pensée proferée sans paroles
Perhaps even more telling is the final stanza of ‘Voyage’, where the superiority of the English second and third lines, with respect to the first and fourth, clearly has to do with the issue made so clear by the French version:
wavering doubt’s faithful thread loyal filament du doute hésitant
hurrying on with death-bed strides se pressant à foulées mourantes
thoracic bond of elbowed guilt lien thoracique de la culpabilité écartée
to coming day’s untold remission vers la rémission tacite du jour approchant
If his namesake Terence was known for well-made plays, Rattigan might do well to reflect on how finely crafted this collection is overall, when seen against its predecessor. In my view its quality isn’t quite consistent enough to merit a fully positive comparison, despite many redeeming moments.
Nick Cooke has had poems published in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Dream Catcher and the anthology Poems for a Liminal Age, as well as the Agenda online supplement and websites such as Poetry Space, Writers for Calais Refugees and I am not a silent poet. His poem ‘Process’ was awarded Highly Commended status in the Segora Poetry Competition (July 2015). He is currently working on his first collection.
Pennine Tales by Peter Riley. £4.50. Calder Valley Poetry. ISBN: 9780993497322.
Peter Riley was really only a name to me until I read this attractively produced booklet from Calder Valley Poetry. Knowing his links to Jeremy Prynne and the ‘Cambridge School’, I thought he might seem dauntingly experimental. In fact the poems of Pennine Tales are accessible and beautifully written. There are twenty-four, each twelve lines long.
From the start, I loved the polished fluency of the rhythms, with lines slipping seamlessly over line endings except where there’s a precisely calibrated hesitancy or interruption or gathering for emphasis in the flow of the thought.
Such skill is a physical and aesthetic pleasure in itself. It’s also the condition of another kind of seamlessness and ease for which these poems are remarkable. We get a taste of it in the first poem, beginning
Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station, heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing …
There’s something quietly startling about the ghosts. Our imaginations are set flickering between the physical world and a parallel, immaterial one. The subdued tone both muffles and sustains the shock, making it linger rather than being dissipated in the moment of impact. The touch is beautifully light, except in the jingling of ‘jubilee’ and ‘normality’. The slipping between material and immaterial worlds is made easier by the way the physical world seems not quite substantial, with the bus dematerialised to a glimpsed ‘red flicker through the trees’. There’s a gravity and weight under the lightness, though, and a constant movement of half-caught suggestions under the surface of the writing. This includes the way the world of myth is made to shadow the ‘real’ one, so that at the end of this first poem a Homeric or Dantean ‘dark river’ draws ‘the last minibus’ into its imaginative orbit. In fact everything in the poem seems volatile and shifting. ‘But they have caught / the wrong bus’ sounds at once sombre and comic. ‘And will be delivered into nothing’ is similarly equivocal. ‘Delivered’ is surprising because the sense of release it brings abruptly reverses the movement into sombre reflection, but the word itself is a little well of meanings and associations sending out ripples of thought, and the whole phrase shimmers with ambiguity.
So the qualification to calling these poems accessible is to say that they’re never quite graspable. They lead you on and in as much by their elusiveness as by their inviting approachability, and it’s the combination of the two that gives them their richness.
This first poem’s movement between the actual and the phantasmal is one example of what Roy Fisher, quoted on the back sleeve, calls Riley’s ‘mediating between inner and outer experience in a way that makes for free passage to and fro’. The movement is often associated with an elegiac feeling. Riley’s reflections often touch on death. Physical settings by owl-haunted, wooded hillsides or exposed moorland roads at night, in the wind or under the stars, and the recurrent situation of waiting for a bus, naturally suggest metaphors of transience and the end of life. The landscape of abandoned chapels and demolished mills gives this a historical dimension. All the poems are set in the Upper Calder Valley, and the sense of rootedness in a particular small area is very strong. However, the movement between inner and outer experiences creates its own spaciousness. Drawn into the poet’s mind, we find a fluid palimpsest of perceptions and relations, involving vast vistas of space and time. The marginal place he stands in becomes the centre of the world or the solar system, because the centre is wherever you look out from, and he brings to this centre a long life of wide-ranging experience in other places and fields of knowledge:
I walk with Wordsworth, and poor Clare,
Shakespeare who repeatedly disappears,
and Hardy, guide and spokesman. Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots …
Altogether, I’ve discovered a poet essentially new to me, who’s given me considerable pleasure and a desire to know more of his work. There are, of course, things he doesn’t give, at least in this book. Although various individuals are named, none of them become substantial presences. This reflects a rarefied quality to the writing that did jar for me in one of the several poems that bring in political reflections. The third line of my final quotation is memorable and beautifully poised, but I felt that if the refugees at Calais and the people in the townships were to be invoked at all they should have been presented more solidly:
We are in the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world. In this vast nowhere
the refugees at Calais cover their heads in dark tents
the township people murmur under iron roofs
contented for the moment, worried for the future
and along the road a lighted vehicle appears in
Old Town where old trust survives and needs us.
Edmund Prestwich grew up in South Africa but has spent his adult life in England where he taught English at the Manchester Grammar School till his retirement. He has published two collections: Through the Window with Rockingham Press and Their Mountain Mother with Hearing Eye.
A Fury of Yellow by Robin Thomas. £5.00. Eyewear Aviator Series.
This slender pamphlet by Robin Thomas is deceptively small for what it contains: wide sweeps of history, niche poems, discreet and so intensely personal they make you gasp or bubble up, bursts of ekphrasis which look anew at pieces of art. Indeed, the very title is derived from Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Tarascon Stagecoach’ with its background wall ‘A Fury of Yellow’, echoing the famous sunflowers.
In a Martian poem, an inter-galactic guide points out details of ‘These Gentlemen from Planet Earth’ who ‘…make pictures of themselves, / the enduring and the transient / strangely combined,’ as he points out one of the many famous depictions of St Sebastian, commenting: ‘I have one of their pictures here / this is a naked male and these are arrows . / Attractive, isn’t it?’ (And These Gentlemen, p.11). Elsewhere the poet comments on Frank Auerbach’s ‘Head of Leon Kossoff’ where ‘Paint thrown, / plastered, dripping, cannot obscure.’, concluding with the simple fact that the painting resembles plum pudding with chocolate sauce, and so it does. (Head of Leon Kossoff’, p.13)
In a remarkable piece in three parts, ‘Theme and Variations’ Thomas writes a meditation on the painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump – Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768.’ This is a haunted atmospheric painting where the least important figure is the dying bird. He elaborates on the scene, breathing life into the spectators as the bird is being deprived of its life through lack of oxygen. In the last stanza ‘The Moon’, the response of each spectator is pin-pointed in 13 short lines, ending with ‘the moon pales / the girls cry / the bird dies.’
Robin Thomas does not shirk from the most succinct. historical accounts. In ‘Petticoat’ he describes the escape of Marie Jalowicz Simon, who fled from the Gestapo in her petticoat and became one of the ‘subterranean’ German-Jews who hid in plain sight from the Nazis in Berlin during WWII. The poem ends with intense poignancy when she finds a safe place to shelter:
… a place with a roof that the stars shine on.
rather than through. ‘Hello
dear water tap’. She washes her feet.
She stretches out on the floor. Sleeps.
In another historical piece, he tackles the New York Tugboat Strike of 1946 with an anecdote unfolding from a newspaper headline, about a ship navigated into port by its captain in the absence of tugboats; a ship carrying young enlisted men en route to Canada to learn to fly. High drama unfolds alongside nonchalance as:
Fresh from one more game of Pontoon,
(for the duration) Trevelyan Thomas
leans on the great ship’s rail.
In a touching juxtaposition between the literary and the personal, Edward Thomas puts in an appearance twice. First, as ‘The garden unfolds like a long sandy beach, with waves that ‘fondle’ beckon him to his eventual death, while a voice, I am guessing that of his wife, Helen, pleads: ‘Edward, I beg you, don’t take a chance. (Edward in the Garden, p.20). And second as the poet stops off in Froxfield after selling his mother’s flat, and remembers ‘Edward Thomas came here the year / my mother was born, / to write about time, / not knowing how little remained.’ (Froxfield Stop-off, p.22)
If there is any fault to be found with this vibrant pamphlet, it is in the breadth of material squeezed into it. A reader less well-versed than the poet must be prepared to track references. a task simplified by Google. Nonetheless, this is an admirable poetry of brevity – no poem longer than 26 lines. most much shorter. Taking a page from Emily Dickinson’s book, this poet tells the truth, but tells it slant. Fresh, mysterious, and full of surprises, this poet delivers
Wendy Klein was born in New York, but left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, and on from there to France, Germany and England where she has lived most of her adult life. A retired psychotherapist, she is published in many magazines and anthologies and has two collections from Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) with a third collection, Mood Indigo, out from Oversteps in spring 2016.
The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee. Telltale Press
‘There is photographic evidence
of when she shifted her gaze
the exact time when her eyes went out of focus.’
This is a short pamphlet, beautifully produced. It has a wonderful neatness: inside its dustcover, a white booklet, small enough to fit in a coat pocket. Fifteen poems, each fitting comfortably on a single page, many of them constructed in a similar way.
The opening words of the opening poem, ‘Snapshot’, which are quoted above, double as an explanation of the poet’s method: a setting is ‘photographed’, then allowed to collapse – or expand – into metaphor.
There is a lot to be said for this. These are poems that do not cheat: they take you to a place which the author has inhabited as well as imagined or revisited rather than just remembered. They achieve realness. Then, with the groundwork done, they are free to move on.
When they do move, they cover a considerable distance. ‘Mate Choice’ begins ‘You didn’t ask me to marry you in words / your arms thick as branches/kept me to you’ and ends ‘I would like to have saved the world from drowning’ (a feat which would have been accomplished had the pair produced children). ‘The Neglect’, describes the ruin of a house and garden as a relationship dissolves. ‘It began as she started glancing/ at another man’s dark lashes’ and ends magnificently:
Becoming gigantic, he spat fury
at the television, at the pale man
who pointed his little bindweed fingers at graphs,
predicting floods and tidal waves.
I told you this would happen.
In lesser hands, this could feel a little too familiar. Magic realism is not new, nor is the reimagining of the trouble and mess of the body or of everyday life as fairytale or myth, and nor are short poems which hinge on a transition from the familiar to the fantastic. Quite often, these tricks exhaust themselves, leaving the reader waiting somewhat wearily for the inevitable epiphany in each poem. Mookherjee escapes this trap in the only way possible: by being a very, very good writer. You can read every one of these poems as prose and hear the voice of a fine storyteller; every first line draws in the ear and every first sentence draws in the imagination.
These gifts, so evident in The Swell, promise a lot more. This is an impressive beginning but also, I suspect, the beginning of a very notable career.
Tom Sastry was chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice poets. His resulting pamphlet, Complicity, was a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice and one of the Poetry School’s books of 2016. He is working on his first collection.
Later There Will Be Postcards by Claire Booker. £6.20. Green Bottle Press.
I have long admired the range of Claire Booker’s poetry, from poems about loss to the bitingly satirical, along with a good dose of bawdy humour. Her debut pamphlet offers a taste of all of these modes, though leans towards the bittersweet and elegiac. Its title comes from the first line of ‘Model in Love’, a meditation on Giacometti’s statue Walking Woman. The poet imagines that the statue misses the sculptor:
the warm moulding of his hands,
the splash of water
when she was only possibility.
Although she’s grateful for being brought into being ‘she might have hoped / for arms / (or even a head)’. The poem ends anticipating her eventual bid for freedom. She understands
that a pedestal impedes,
no matter how tenderly it kisses
the stems of her feet.
It’s a wry take on the vexed issue of woman-as-muse. ‘Artist Obsessed’, inspired by a Yayoi Kusama installation, hits harder with its opening:
The world is buttered thick with phalluses.
You know she’ll never lick the knife
because Daddy did something he shouldn’t –
Booker is adept at using demotic language to bring us up short. In ‘Dead Letter Box’, a hiker is ‘fa la la-ing deep / in the forest when he kicks a skull to touch’. As well as human bones, he discovers a rucksack with an unsent postcard ‘stamped and ready to go.’ The poem concludes:
It was the least I could do, explains Hubert,
who comes from a long line of postal workers.
The shock of that kicked skull contrasts with the small humane act of sending the postcard. The poem opens with a brisk description of the postcard’s racy Bavarian image, and Booker manages the shifts of tone with great skill.
The subconscious is a big player in the pamphlet, with several poems exploring surreal dream material. The main man himself appears in ‘Unpeeled’:
Freud’s having a field day, sharpening
his pencil in that ‘train through tunnel’ kind of way,
chewing me over with his second best organ.
The opening poem ‘The Night Mare’ begins with the narrator whipping the horse she’s riding as she tries to reach the ‘you’ who is ‘up ahead hollering’. The horse ‘guzzles gladly’ on scraps of fruit but refuses ‘a dried half lemon’ – ‘not yet knowing how sour can be put to long use.’ Two couplets later:
When I wake, I’m tilting at your chest,
remembering how white it was, like a freshly prised abalone
And we begin to understand the poem-dream’s sense, the waking memory of a time when ‘you [were] my turkey cock with feathers and attitude’ contrasted with the bitter present – ‘But here’s neither time nor place.’
‘Return to Hardy’s Cottage’ offers a different take on the vicissitudes of a long relationship. The subtle rhymes and delicate imagery – apple trees ‘full-rigged in coral white’ – create an elegiac mood. The couple standing among those trees ‘are newly-wed again’, remembering ‘that first May’ and ‘our sudden love not yet asking for too much’.
Loss, in its various guises, is a strong thread through the pamphlet. ‘Meeting My Mother’ is another dream based poem, and here the loss is twofold. The poet dreams of her mother, now ‘five years dead’, but her appearance is a ‘Chinese whisper’ of her former self:
Truth is, there’s been a slow rubbing away
since we last met. The brass, once clearly etched,
no longer brings her fresh to me at night.
Yet there is consolation. In the dream, the mother dices ‘beetroot, apple, dill’ and Booker recognises ‘she feeds me still.’
In ‘Visiting My Father’ Booker manifests her father’s memory loss with fragmented spacing on the page. The language is simplified, employing mostly one syllable words and judicious repetition. What may seem cool or brutal instead nails this experience in all its devastating reality:
I walk him past his life xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthen
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx stack him on a chair
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxneat in line
his mind an idle spade again
The final poem ‘Provençal Crosses’ captures a magical childhood moment. Booker sets the scene in a few deft strokes:
I’m at the edge of the known world – the old chapel
with its skim of lizards, sun-bleached stone.
Her brother ‘has drifted with his butterfly net’. She’s on her own when ‘the bell claps and I wonder/where the chimes go’ – into memory, it would seem, to resurface in these luminous poems. The child happens across ‘crosses,/scattered, glistening across the track,//intricate as lacewings’. We learn they’re not daisies
… nor the weightless
shells of small snails. These are unfixable –
free to grow wings and soar
when the mistral blows from the west.
Ultimately, this is an uplifting collection, full of poems that reveal more on each reading. The juxtapositions work well without any jarring transitions, and none of the poems feel like they have been forced to fit an overriding theme. A mature and long overdue debut.
Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but moved to London half a lifetime ago. Triptych Poets: Issue One (Blemish Books, Australia, 2010) features a selection of her poems, and her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000. She is currently working on a poetry collection with Joolz Sparkes, London Undercurrents, unearthing the voices of women who have lived and worked in the capital over many centuries. She blogs at: http://hilaireinlondon.wordpress.com