Carcanet Press – Smart Devices

Cover of Smart Devices by Carol RumensA year of hand-picked poems and commentaries from the Guardian‘s ‘Poem of the Week’ blog.

Carol Rumens has been contributing ‘Poem of the Week’ to the Guardian for more than a dozen years. Do the maths: that’s more than 624 blogs! No wonder she has a large and devoted following. She’s a poet-reader, not an academic. She is fascinated by the new, but her interest is instructed by the classic poems she has read. They make her ear demanding: when it hears that something, it perks up. She perks up.

‘A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.’ Rumens partly agrees with Williams but she develops the conceit, seeing each poem ‘as a more flexible instrument, a miniature neo-cortex, that super-connective, super-layered smartest device of the mammalian brain’.

She tries to avoid poems built from kits with instruction manuals. She looks for surprises, and she surprises us.

And I’m delighted to be in it.

Source: Carcanet Press – Smart Devices

Six Turas Press Books: A Review

Earth Music, Eithne Lannon, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-71, €12.00

Exposure, Julie-ann Rowell, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-9-5, €12.00

So Long, Calypso, Liz McSkeane, Turas Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-9957916-0-2, €12.00

bind, Christine Murray, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-4-0, €12.00

Crunch, Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-9957916-2-6, €12.00

White Horses, Jo Burns, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-5-7, €12.00

Turas is a relatively new independent publisher based in Dublin and, on the evidence of these books, open to a diversity of approach that is refreshing indeed.

Eithne Lannon’s debut collection is primarily imagistic in style, and she captures the actuality of moments in space and time with an admirable economy:

The wild meadow weave, the strand,

places of late summer, autumn-

a stone skimming water, suspended

in air, its slow motion glide punctuated

by the drop, touch, rise of a ghostly presence

(from ‘Thin Places’)

She also focuses on the relationship between language and sensory experience, a searching after the most apt syntax in which to frame our experience of the world. In a typical Lannon poem, some fact, some person, place or thing, is posited as a site of enquiry and then unfolded in words, a process of verbal opening out, primarily through accumulated analogy:

Take the river’s curl, the ocean’s wave,

the never ending trees, the sway of a meadow,

the roll of the sun, the scattered stepping stars.

And take last month’s silver bud of moon

now come full to the sky, her mouth is wide and open,

white lips brimming with a soft wet light,

month by month, she gives her widening

emptiness to the earth, holds the planet in her orbit,

washes ocean after ocean over sand

(from ‘Moon’There are risks with this approach, especially when the analogies lapse into overly-easily achieved similes or metaphors that are, on the whole, more conventional than revealing:

And while he searches the shores

of her heart, its chambers

dark with old blood, his fingers

touch the braille of an occupied

life, his tongue is tinged

with a salty metal sweetness.

(from ‘The Kiss’)

Lannon’s poetry is at its very best when the sound and flow of the language do more of the work than the prose sense:

My people are river-ripples, fishing nets cast
beneath dark mottled skin. They are rocks
and pebbles and sand, shape-shifting through grief.

Their sound is the sea’s constant voice,
its wild tongue unloosed in the air, a wind-cradle
wrapping its wide arms around me.

(from ‘Song of My People’)

Here, the object of the poem is achieved not through comparison, but by becoming; the people are not defined by what they do or where they do it, they are these things. This is a fine achievement.

Julie-ann Rowell is a Devon-born writer who spends a lot of time in the Orkneys, a biographical fact I mention only because it is central to the work in Exposure. These poems are largely

explorations of a kind of ideal polis, one where belonging and silence are valued and respected, by a tolerated outsider whose perceptions are necessarily not the same as those of the native Orcadians:

We must bow to the greater god,

perpetual, exhaustive. I don’t hear

the voices of the dead like some do

only a bulldozer shifting up a gear.

(from ‘Windstorm’)

Death is a constant presence in the book, not least in an interspersed thread of poems dealing with the illness and death of what appears to be the poet’s father-in-law. The last of these poems, ‘April Committal’, reflects the particular nature of Orkney society, the validation given to every life event by the community:

Only when they over the rise of the hill

the people of the town in their winter coats

to join us by the graveside did I nearly break down.

Rowell knits the human into the fabric of the islands partly by balancing two very different timescales. On the one hand, there’s the human-scale shifts of the weather, an ever-present context:

The air is full of water, in the south they’d call it rain.

The black sheep are at the gate again as we walk to Harray Stores

neither of us talking.

(from ‘Connection’)

On the other, the long, suprahuman time of sea and stone:

At Brodgar a single stone has been cleaved by lightning,

Even so it’s survived thousands of years

facing each day’s turn stolidly.

I’d like that kind of stone for a soul,

that even dynamite couldn’t shatter me.

(from ‘Stones o’ Stenness’)

Of course, these standing stones form part of the human world of Orkney, a continuity with the cemetery of ‘April Committal’, and the temptation to anthropomorphise them is hard to resist. But Rowell’s vision of the islands is at its sharpest when she looks at things as they are, without the filter of simile or metaphor, as in these lines from ‘An Ending’:

The sun will be on your neck,

while on the opposite shore men

will plough the fields with steel ashine,

there’s incremental washing on the line.

Men will be baling too, perhaps, in this

strange puffed out time of empty skies.

The adroit, quietly effective, balance of vowel sounds running through these lines shows a poet’s ear at work; for instance, the way ‘e’ sound in ‘men’ folds into ‘incremental’, then recurs and finally appears in ‘empty’ or how the ‘ashine/line’ rhyme is presaged by the ‘while’ a line earlier.

What shines through these poems is Rowell’s careful affection for her adopted landscape and its people, whose ways and traditions are shown as forming a whole with the place itself.

Liz McSkeane is the founder/editor of Turas as well as a widely published poet in her own right, with So Long, Calypso being her third collection to date. The blurb points out that one of the key

themes in this book is aging, and this is certainly true, especially in a strand of poems featuring the (mis)adventures of Angela, her emergency button, commode, falling TV set and nosy neighbours. But there’s more to the book than tales of diminishing faculties. McSkeane is preoccupied with memory and movement and how they both reflect the transient impermanence of experience which belies the persistent endurance of the world:

There must be something solid and unchanging

in the realm of things,

something that withstands the advances

and the crumblings of time

unless the constant flicker

Is in a self which sparks from life

to many lives.

You can’t go back.

You don’t need to, it’s there,

all there.

It is an eternal present.

(from ‘Kelvingrove’)

The mode she mainly deploys is short-to-medium-length narrative, but there are a number of loose sonnets and one overly-long dystopian fable, ‘Visiting Monuments’. But for me, at least, the most interesting poem in the book is ‘Remembering the Child’, especially the deft construction of its second stanza:

So what? Well, quite a lot and maybe all

that matters. When you wake up, every day

the big adventure, what’s new, bring it on

and stay surprised, still wonder at the way

the radiance of nothing much can call

up joy: whatever else might change, hair grey,

jaw slack. brain cells decayed, waist run to fat,

when all the rest is gone – hang on to that.

These lines demonstrate all the strengths and weakness of McSkeane’s writing. The firm, Audenesque tone, the quiet, unintrusive effectiveness of the rhymes, speak of a poet who knows just exactly what she’s after and has the ability to achieve it. And yet these very virtues can lead, as here, to an impulse to over-clarify, to tell us too much, with the result that by the end of the verse we’re left wondering just what it is we’re being enjoined to hang on to. It could be argued that this piling up of detail imitates something of the aging process it relates to, but you can’t help feeling that a little more editing might have made it even more effective. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting poem in an interesting book.

Christine Murray is well-known as a champion of women poets via her Poet head blog and the Fired! project. It would be all too easy for this activity to obscure the fact that Murray is a poet in her own right, and on the evidence of bind: a waking book that would be a real pity. It’s a book in five sections, each consisting of short named or numbered poems that trace overlapping natural and temporal processes: the day, the seasons, the unfurling of a leaf, the pun on ‘waking’ in the subtitle, as both mourning and morning. The poems imagistic, fragmentary and echo the tensile logopoeia of Mina Loy:

cinquefoil the amberlight

purelit / renders in ‘leaf’

|unfurls|

fur, not claw,

can render her nets

laid-out-on-grass.

(from ‘Dawn’)

Murray uses spacing and typography to serious effect, with a special focus on the use of the pipe symbol and italics and faint or greyed fonts as devices to (de)emphasise fragments of text, as in this couplet from the ‘Dawn’ sequence:

winter is a hard place,

winter is a hard place.

But the most striking aspect of the book, to me at least, is her use of pronouns. The third person dominates, with ‘my’ appearing occasionally and ‘I’ not until the last few pages. The effect is to decentre or even deny the speaking voice as medium for the poems. In fact, the predominant pronoun is she/her and this female third person is frequently identified, directly or otherwise, with the natural world:

she awaits yellow spring

willow is the first to don her light-robes

a tree,

plain and ordinary.

(from ‘willow’s’)

The image of the fallen leaf, and specifically the recurring phrase ‘a leaf fallen is always a poem’, lends an autumnal, almost mournful, tone to the book that might be seen as appropriate in this era of ecological crisis, but Murray is not a bleak pessimist, it seems, and images of spring and of the rising sun point to a cautious optimism. Not that Murray is intent on using nature as symbol; her focus is on the world as-is:

the

actual bird,

the image of a bird

the real thing of it

grasps onto a branch.

And the result of this focus is one of the more interesting books of Irish ecopoetry I’ve read recently.

Anamaría Crowe Serrano also uses typography in her book Crunch, with font size and colour to the fore, along with visual elements, including text-as-visual work. Indeed, the second page is a visual text representation of a ‘tempting’ apple, which sets the tone for what is a reading of the Biblical myth of the fall.

The book draws heavily on images and phrases in that initial visual text to emphasise the appleness of the Edenic apple, and Serrano retells the familiar story as something of a simple tale of female wisdom:

when she looks at me

she can tell there is

more worth knowing

than the pampering

that goes on in paradise

which is fine to a point, but there is a danger with this kind of conceit of toppling over into an overly-simple view of things:

as far as I’m concerned

it was just an excuse

to wield some power

In Eden before Eve

got wise

and reclaimed the lot

The reality of Judeo-Christian history indicates that, for good or ill, Eve and her daughters didn’t reclaim that much power, on the whole.

Serrano is at her best here when the writing is less didactic, more allusive, as in these lines from later in the sequence:

it cannot be described –

the sky inverting

the fruit

in her smile

saying it all

Jo Burns’ White Horses is, in terms of page count, the most substantial of the books reviewed here, coming in at well over 100 pages. The book is organised in four coherent sections, the first of which, ‘Eclipse’ has, as epigraph, a quote from Pablo Picasso: ‘Women are either doormats or goddesses.’ Burns then goes on to refute this statement through a series of poems that give voice and complexity to the artist’s lovers, wives, models muses, daughters and friends and patrons. These include a deftly-imagined put-down of Picasso’s poetry put in the mouth of Gertrude Stein:

You write only as a painter writes

and merely give back what an ego

writes, which glibly puts a stamp

without thought on giving back.

Is it that easy, Pablo, simply writing?

(from ‘Gertrude Stein reacts to Pablo’s First Poetry Recital’)

The second section, ‘Oceans’, centres around questions of place and identity, as we move between Germany, Southern Africa and the North. There are poems here of coming to terms with other languages, a process of coming to terms with the nature of language itself:

The elusive verb you need is a holy grail, so

you prise adjectives up, searching under rubble.

When you lift it, dripping its pronoun entrails,

only then do you know what you were doing at all.

(from ‘Abseiling in German’)

But the main focus is on the complex nature of identity in a society (or societies) characterised by movement and migration:

We flitted over antipodean green land

chimera brained, our gorgets plumed,

of Rhodesian and Scottish descent,

we landed in the bowls of Saskatchewan.

In vibrant flight paths of coriolis,

we flew from torpor in circadian thread.

We gulped in the gyres of new-found cultures,

squinting into smog which swallowed the sun,

Language burst our ruby syrinx throats,

and some of us even chanted as poets.

In another poem, Burns talks of being brought up on a poetic diet of Sassoon and Tennyson, but in ignorance of Heaney; our literary horizons are part of the identity boundaries our upbringing tends to enforce on us.

‘Gravity’, the third section, opens with another epigraph, quoted from Israeli writer Esther Raab: ‘Blessed is he who made me a woman/that I am earth and Adam/a tender rib’. The poems in this short section reflect on motherhood, and on the illness and death of a child, and the tone, the overwhelming maternal drive to protect their offspring compounded by the sense of loss as they grow up and away, is reflected in the closing lines of ‘Places your Children Should Never’:

Children, close your eyes to the cold gravity of our moon.

I’ll switch the clock back to when you had it mild.

Climb back. Curl softly into my womb.

The last section, ‘Revelations’ returns to Picasso for its epigraph ‘The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?’ The poems that follow reflect the mess that is a world where it takes ‘[o]nly a minute to spread false news’. They are political poems that engage with the rise of Fascism, ecological catastrophe and other contemporary political crises that have served to undermine confidence in liberal values and social progress:

I’d rather write about blooming hope

or ending patriarchy. You see, I believe

in women. But Ulster, you’re wilting

under two who may foster your drought –

a limp languish of shrivelled intentions.

But it is these ‘shrivelled intentions’, the refusal of simple answers or ideological comforts that give these poems their strength. White Horses is a very strong first collection, full of fine moments and rich in promise.

Two Anthologies: A Review

The Edge of Necessary, John Goodby and Lyndon Davies (eds.), Aquifer Books, Oct 2019, ISBN 978-1-9998367-1-9, £13.00

NOON: An Anthology of Short Poems, Philip Rowland (ed.), Isobar Press, May 2019, ISBN 978-4-907359-26-3, £14.70

It’s been a while since I had an anthology to review, and then two come along together, and two whose contents and approaches illustrate the range that anthologies can encompass. John Goodby and Lyndon Davies’ The Edge of Necessary: Welsh Innovative Poetry 1966-2018 does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, allowing for wide definitions of ‘Welsh’ and ‘innovative’. The 46 featured poets include those born and resident in Wales, those born in Wales but living elsewhere, those born elsewhere but now or at some time resident in Wales, and one or two who apparently qualify on the granny rule.

The range of what is covered under the rubric ‘innovative’ is also broad, reaching from the Eliot-influenced South Wales Echo of Gerard Casey through concrete and sound poetry to the adaptions of classical Welsh forms and metres of Rhea Seren Phillips. Casey’s work also draws on two of the three crucial early figures of Anglo-Welsh Modernism, David Jones and Dylan Thomas, the third being Lynette Roberts. Interestingly, apart from Casey, Thomas does not seem to be a strong direct influence on the poets in this anthology, and neither does Roberts. And Jones appears to have percolated primarily by way of Chris Torrance.

In fact, there is a case for considering that Torrance is a key figure in this book, and, by extension, in the development of innovative Anglo-Welsh poetry of the last half century. For one thing, many of the other poets included were or are his friends, students and/or collaborators and, in the case of Iain Sinclair, the publisher of much of his early work. More significantly, there’s a strong argument in support of the notion that by virtue of his status as an outsider, Torrance was able to claim Welsh landscape and myth and, to an extent, the Bardic tradition for Anglo-Welsh poetry in a way that simply disregarded the more mainstream writing that dominated it in the 1960s, poetry which, in the words of the editors’ introduction, ‘was a pale, Welsh-tinged imitation of the English equivalent’. Torrance’s work since 1969 has been a long engagement with the fact of living in Wales as an actual, mythic and poetic landscape and as such has opened up possibilities for other Anglo-Welsh writers. Along with others here, he helped to create, to quote John James, ‘faults through which an exile voice can sing’.

Another key figure, both as presence and example, is Peter Finch, poet, publisher, editor, bookseller, performer and general force of nature, whose practice and championing of sound and visual poetry was and is highly influential beyond the borders of the Principality. One of his poems featured here, ‘Hawksmoor’ is a kind of dialogue with Sinclair’s London poems written after he moved to the city from Wales. It’s a pity that none of this early Sinclair is included to make the conversation more explicit.

The introduction also notes ‘that Welsh poets had contributed as much as any others in these islands to the British Poetry Revival’. It’s an assertion that is amply supported by the presence of Torrance, Finch, Sinclair, James, Philip Jenkins, Paul Evans, Tilla Brading, Paul Griffiths, Ralph Hawkins, Phil Maillard and Wendy Mulford. Indeed, the syntactical playfulness of the selections from Mulford’s The ABC of Writing is among the great pleasures of this book:

Wales again

outside the house is not inside the house and people live inside the house

they do not live outside the house which makes outside the house a very

much nicer place to be

For many readers, a good deal of interest will lie in the work of the younger poets who follow after the Revival figures, poets like Rhys Trimble, Nerys Williams and Elisabeth Bletsoe, poets whose engagement with ‘the matter of Wales’ is both modern and timeless and who serve to make this anthology centrally necessary for anyone with an interest in what’s really been happening in British poetry over the last half century. Equally interesting is the discovery of two real outsiders, the British-born, Canadian-reared Welsh resident Peter Meilleur (Childe Roland), whose work draws on the concrete tradition but is primarily focused on the relationship between language(s) and reality and the Welsh-born French poet Heather Dohollau, whose work again engages with Jones, but also with Thomas. Sadly, Meilleur died not long after publication, but one can only hope that the interest generated by Goodby and Davies may lead to a greater level of interest in his work.

It is, I suppose, traditional when reviewing this kind of ‘survey’ anthology to lament the absences. I can only think of two possible candidates’ John Freeman, who is referred to in passing as a publisher but whose Objectivist influenced work is not mentioned and, more recently, Jeremy Over. But these are very minor quibbles. This is a fascinating survey of a relatively overlooked body of poetry, and should serve to reconfigure the map of the Welsh, and, indeed, British literary landscape.

Philip Rowland’s Noon is a very different kind of anthology, with all the poems being drawn from the 13 issues of his NOON: journal of the short poem from 2004 to 2017. Indeed, the introduction tells us that the book is ‘a retrospective special issue’ of the journal, constructed, as the regular issues were, to form a coherent whole, and not just a selection of the best poems to have been included.

As such, it’s an extremely effective piece of work. Rowland’s rough definition of ‘short’ is no longer than 14 lines, with some exceptions for poems with very short lines, though it’s a restriction that is less relevant to the numerous short prose-poems included, but has the benefit of not limiting the book to a haiku-like absolute brevity, although there are a number of haiku, or haiku-like poems included. The range here is great, and includes a good deal of work that might be considered visual or concrete as well as the more expected imagistic lyric. The tiny poems gathered here are remarkably spacious, and the general tenor is captured in the last line of the last poem, ‘Everything Has Two Endings’ by Jane Hirshfield

As silence is not silence, but a limit of hearing.

The work in Noon is poetry tending towards the ideal condition of silence, which is a kind of music, and the visual element, not only within but in the space around each poem, is key to eliciting the quality of attention required from the reader when a poem places so much weight on so few words. Rowland and Isobar are to be congratulated for allowing each poem its page to breathe in, even in so short a poem as this by Richard Kostelanetz

SNOW

There are a number of very familiar names in the list of contributors, poets as diverse as Sheila E. Murphy and Thomas A. Clark, Rosmarie Waldrop and Bob Arnold:

Dawn

 

To live by a woods river

Forever is to finally

Forget it

 

& to remember

It again

Is something

but again, part of the pleasure is in encountering poets, like Kostelanetz, whose work I had not previously known, poets like Emily Carr:

dandelion to the

instant, a

sparrow empties

its cry into the

blank memory

of heaven the

Lord, a billboard

says, is my

shepherd [I shall

not want]

 

after R. Armantrout

Noon is a book to go back to, to dip in, to quietly relish. Meanwhile, the journal forges ahead, adding increments to the silence.

Recent Reading October 2019

Traversi/Crossings, Patrick Williamson, Samuele Editore, 2018, ISBN 978-88-94944-07-5, €12.00

The Evening Entertainment, Matthew Paul, Eyewear Publishing, 2017, £10.99

An Experience on the Tongue, Glen Wilson, Doire Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-907682-67-4, €12.00

Carnivorous, Moyra Donaldson, Doire Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-907682-68-1, €12.00

Conditional Perfect, Emily Cullen, Doire Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-907682-71-1. €12.00

Let the Light In, Shriram Sivaramakrishnan, Ghost City Press, 2018, free download PDF

For poetry to be healthy, we need as wide a range of outlets as possible to flourish. Micro, small, medium and large presses, both funded and unfunded, all have a role to play in ensuring that the diversity of published poetry is as great as possible. And diversity goes beyond gender, minorities and geography; crucially it also includes diversity of form, style, technical approach; and this is, perhaps, the least considered aspect of the question. The publishers whose outputs are reviewed here are all part, each in their own way, of this necessary landscape and should all be celebrated for what they contribute to the health of poetry. We should, I believe, also celebrate the continued importance of print publication. I recognise the value of readings, workshops and online outlets, but there’s nothing quite like a book in a quiet room to assert the poem’s independent existence, its life away from both the interpreting voice of the poet and the background noise of the flow of extraneous data.

Patrick Williamson’s Traversi/Crossings illustrates one strand of this diversity neatly, being a bilingual English/Italian collection of poems by an English poet who lives in France and published in the North East of Italy. The title of the book refers to the idea of displacement, of movement, specifically the displacement of those fleeing war, oppression and extreme want, from Holocaust survivors to refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, generally in terse, unsentimental verses.

solitary passengers

rivulets of sweat

seeping into distressed

 

forms triggered

swept away by a switch

intensity, illumination

 

brace yourself

hurtle

through water

to light

There are also moments when we are reminded that a crossing may also be a crossing out, an erasure. The poems recognise the reality that for many migrants or potential migrants, the light at the end of the journey may not always be a welcome one, or that the journey might never even begin, as in this image taken, I think, from Gaza:

morning uncovers rubble, crunching

how can you love the spring

 

the morgues are full

dead children in ice cream cabinets

It is natural given the weight of events for a poet to question the worth, the validity of writing, to wonder at the inadequacy of art when it seems we are all complicit in the horrors of the world. In Williamsons case, this takes the form of a critique of Samuel Beckett’s Quad as seen through a lens of extraordinary rendition:

It was too beautiful

Not the brutalised men, 24/7

Somewhere in nowhere, no time

It’s an understandable reaction, but Williamson is too much the poet not to realise the need to create, especially in the face of wholesale destruction, not just of people and places, but of the values that art can, just by existing, stand for. In the end, beauty has a value as a form of resistance to the cheapened and cheapening rhetoric of oppression:

The word on the page is unscarred
and writing the glue,
only replicants seal wounds cleanly
so no trace remains;
we always leave a trace,
an identity in the cloud, portrait with Gray,
perfect to leave our ugliness behind.

The traces Williamson leaves in this little book form another kind of crossing, the bringing over of horror into art, which, whatever its inadequacies, is part of what makes us human, and therefore part of what we are obliged to fight for, to preserve.

Many of the poems in Matthew Paul’s debut collection The Evening Entertainment could be described as anecdotal. This is an increasingly popular procedure for making poems which assumes a speaking ‘I’ and reading/listening ‘you’ who share a common social language. A vivid personal experience (real or imagined, first, second or third person) is described and then, simultaneously or subsequently, ascribed some kind of metaphorical significance to a wider world. Then the poem is snapped shut with an image or neat phrase designed to close the circle, to reconcile the incident with our supposed common understanding of the world.

The book is divided in to three sections, the first comprising poems about the quotidian world of work and play, the second poems of childhood and student days in Belfast, and the third poems about predecessors, especially the poet’s father.

Paul’s poems are characterised by a lightness of touch in the handling of his stories matched with a closeness of observation of the details of ordinary life and a lack of any sense of being overtly judgemental.

I’d itched to stay up late,
well past my bedtime, to watch the neighbours nip out
by moonlight and deposit the usual tat:

 

mattresses stained with a Turin shroud of spunk;
an analogue telly that would break a man’s back
if he lugged it on his own; three-legged chairs, Coke

 

cans, clotted condoms; miscellaneous crap.
But what no-one expected underneath the heap,
when at last they carted it off to the tip,

 

was a head- and limb-less Caucasian man,
whose identity the Police would never learn,
in bloat stage; a gutful of maggoty churn.

The poems of childhood are distinguished by their lack of sentimentality, again focusing on the ordinary details of family life: breakfast, seaside holidays, school, a school visit to the zoo; all against a background of 1970s Britain, as in these lines from ‘Winter of Discontent’:

Snow on the bins. Dad’s poaching herrings in milk again.

The cat’s going Radio Rental. Mum sings. Wogan

chunters over ‘Beautiful Noise’.

The Belfast poems may contain a bit too much student squalor for some tastes, but these are more than compensated for by a number of useful additions to the much-neglected genre of poems about cricket. There are also glimpses of another Paul, one who engages more closely with the sounds words make. One of the best examples is the poem ‘Scarecrow’, in the persona of a 10-year old boy, Charles Paul, speaking in 1872 in a poem near the beginning of the third section:

St Swithun’s Day dawn. A goshawk

fossicks the fields of Coombe Hill Farm.

All the crows and jackdaws have flown.

Charlie drowses within the corn,

though woe betide if Master Buss,

the headman, should witness him so.

This is Paul at his best, and it’s good.

Glen Wilson is a native of Northern Ireland who also studied in Belfast and who also writes anecdotal poems, many of which are narrated by an ‘I’ that is clearly not the poet: there are poems in the voice of a gamekeeper, a rose, a dog and a ‘souper’. For any young poet in the North today, the ghost of Seamus Heaney must cast a long shadow, and his influence is clearly visible in at least some of the poems here.

My breath haloes like the smoke rings

my grandfather spun from pursed lips

as he sat in the new house where my mother was born

Many of the stories told by Wilson are concerned with ‘history from below’; he gives voice to women whose partners are gone to fight in WWI and to the victims of our current wars and migration crises.

When I was a child I needed stitches

from banging my head against a wall,

now, the wall is no longer there.

 

We drove to the next town

then the next town,

as the fell like dominoes

our numbers growing, but thinning as well.

There is an interesting and important ethical distinction to be made, I think, between poetic acts of ventriloquism that seek to recover the stories of those long dead who are unable to speak to us themselves (Paul’s child ancestor, Wilson’s WWI women) and those who, like the people who are suffering the consequences of the West’s disastrous policies in the Middle East , can tell their own stories if only we’ll listen. While the instinct to bring them to our attention is one I fully agree with, I can’t but feel that a poem like ‘Surface Water’, in which the story of a homeless man’s death is told in the third person is a more effective model. The ending of this poem is particularly effective:

…bouquets

are strapped to the railings again

 

quenching thirst with sheared roots.

The criticism of empty gesture in these lines is implicit, there to be discovered by the reader, not an equally empty gesture on the part of the poem.

Towards the end of this first collection, we start to see a different voice emerge in poems of a more directly personal nature; these are poems that are not trying to convince us of everything, which is their great strength. I particularly enjoyed ‘Heath’, a love poem for Wilson’s wife:

I make a fire for you,

clean the grate

so fresh air can circulate,

lay kindling sticks

for a solid base

The direct clarity of language is deceptive, the patterning of vowel sounds is a carefully controlled music that lifts the poem to the level of pure song.

Emily Cullen’s Conditional Perfect is another new collection from Doire, a medium-size press who manage to produce a lot of books on relatively modest grant funding and from a geographical position in Connemara that perhaps allows them to take a broader view than some Dublin-based houses. The book’s title can be read as either a grammatical descriptor (what would or could have happened) or as presaging a sense of the fragile nature of our lives, and the poems move between these poles. The first two sections of the book focus for the most part on the minutiae of daily life: mortgage arrears, periods, childcare, rural Post Office closures, pregnancy.  The importance of these ‘small’ matters is addressed in a poem called ‘Perspectives’:

I’ve been waiting for a while,

like Shelley, for a revelation,

loitering like Hesiod, hopeful

of a visitation from the Muse,

shunning my humdrum life.

 

Today I realise I’m not so far

from the divine fire after all.

No need for tempests of the soul.

I don’t have to corral the grand,

can simply sing of the granular.

The influence of specifically Irish models, of Kavanagh’s ‘Gods make their own importance’ and Eavan Boland’s writing about the female experience of the quotidian, can be seen behind these lines and many of Cullen’s poems in this book. Balanced against these are elements from the poet’s life as academic, musician (Cullen is an Irish harpist) and arts administrator, a continuum:

from spreadsheets and footnotes

to hunkering on the floor,

shoe-horning Lego into Duplo.

These lines from the end of ‘New Year Coping Strategy’ illustrate the anecdotal strategy in action, a neat, effective tying together of the various strand that run through the two longer stanzas that proceed it. It’s a strategy that Cullen deploys well throughout the first two sections of the book, although there is the odd misstep; ending an otherwise excellent poem on periods (‘Poem for the Female Unspoken’) with a variation of the old ‘if men got pregnant’ joke may be teetering on the edge of cliché, for example. However, it’s in the final section, ‘Music of What Happens’ that the book, and Cullen’s voice, comes fully into its own.

This section is based on documentary records of the 1792 ‘last gathering of the Irish harpers’ in Belfast. The section consists of seven monologues cast in the voices of individual participating harpists, another in the voice of Theobald Wolfe Tone, who attended the gathering, and three further poems set in the ‘now’ but echoing the earlier sections. This more extended structure sees Cullen shift from anecdote to narrative, and from the closed certainty of the former to the more open, questioning latter. It is interesting that one theme that emerges from the voices of the harpists is the rejection of the famous Carolan and his internationalist, avant garde innovations; these harpists tend to see themselves of the last preservers of a native tradition that is under threat from the outside:

I’d sooner have ‘Eileen Aroon’ or the ‘Coolin’

 

than sully those sounds with planxtys of Carolan.

Give me the native airs our people played

This cultural insularity is set beside the outward-looking zeal of Tone:

The harp’s our vessel; it carries our culture

but its custodians are more like fossils.

We need to show that the harp’s newly strung,

not owned by blind, moribund minstrels.

This balance between the potentially conflicting needs for conservation and renewal of a tradition is echoed in the ‘now’ poems by the contrast between the harp as tourist attraction at ‘Bunratty, Knappogue and Dun Guaire’ and the genuine renewal of harp music in recent years, a renewal that finds room for both the ‘Coolin’ and Carolan’s planxtys, so that ‘no longer silent, the harp, again, is salient.’ It’s also a balance that enlivens these poems, and one that perhaps points to future directions for Cullen’s work.

On the evidence of Carnivorous, Moyra Donaldson is a poet with a distinctive voice and range. At the core of these poems is an Imagistic sense of wonder at the world, with haiku and haiku-like poems threaded through the longer poems as moments of clarity:

Signs and Wonders

 

A small feather

curl from a crow

floats down dark

against washed out

pale evening sky

and the faint idea

of a new moon

 

lands at my feet

These moments of insight are part of Donaldson’s poetic search for ‘some connection to the universe’, a connectedness sought in the face of the realities of life in Northern Ireland, as she puts it in ‘The Erne Rushes Through Me’:

…it is as if nothing

bad is happening anywhere: as if
everything in the Garden is lovely.

It’s a hard-won state in a world where women are killed by paramilitaries or left to mourn their missing dead daughters, as was the case of Patricia Dorian, the subject of a fine elegy here. Donaldson implicitly connects the dead of the recent Troubles with their historic antecedents, such as Betsy Gray, who was killed during the 1798 Rebellion.

Social and historical forces are not the only barriers to the kind of connectedness Donaldson is striving for in her poems; she is also acutely aware of the limitations of her medium; the problematic nature of language, the odd mediating relationship between word and thing, distinct entities, is bound to concern the poet who tries to present the world as an organic whole. It’s a problem that Donaldson addresses explicitly in ‘Beneath the Surface’:

‘but it comes to nothing, you cannot put your pen

on the nub of it no matter how hard you try.

and again, in a more connected manner in ‘Mistle Thrush Recurring’:

Tempting to see them as communications’

those bats and birds, foxes, insects, spiders;

but I’ve never been good at other languages.

This recognition that the world speaks in a language (or languages) that cannot easily be mapped to the poem is central to a poetry that is open to and accepting of the complexity of the world. Interestingly, Donaldson toys with the anecdotal, but manages to undercut it in playful ways, as when she ends ‘Time Travelling in Mayo’ with a refusal of the comforting closure expected:

I have neither the wit nor skill to make sense of it,

I’m just reporting that one moment the clock

has stopped, then suddenly it is much later.

Or when, in ‘Myth Making’ the story of a shared family memory becomes an open-ended story about family stories:

It’s as if we might have made them up.
Like the night we camped on a hill in Donegal, above
the sea and under a clear sky, watching the Perseids
smear sudden streaks of brilliance across our holiday

and it was like eternity or timelessness or time
or something; our two young daughters, awake
after midnight and watching with us. They both
remember too — I’ve asked. Even after twenty years,
light is still seared across their retinas; the night when…

(That’s the entire poem.)

At the core of this book is a poem called ‘Not Metaphors’, about the poet or speakers’ horses. And they are, as the title makes clear, real horses in a real field with real needs:

My horses need fed, groomed, shod.

They strain tendons, cut themselves,

get ulcers, viruses, mud fever

and need the vet; colic during the night.

Are they warm enough, safe enough?

Is that one losing weight,

or this one’s sacroiliac flaring up?

It’s interesting to compare Donaldson’s poem with Ted Hughes’ ‘A Dream of Horses’, in which the animals stand for some primeval force of nature and the focus of the poem is not them. but their impact on the human ‘we’:

We crouched at our lantern, our bodies drank the din,

And we longed for a death trampled by such horses

As every grain of the earth had hooves and mane.

These are an idea of ‘horse’, an archetype, but they are not flesh and blood horses. The great strength of ‘Not Metaphors’ is its modesty, its recognition of the horseness of the animals it embraces, and the recognition that this insistence on messy reality carries with it risk, the risk of actually living:

That’s a lot of work for me and my horses

and sometimes we make mistakes –

fall and get hurt; actually hurt.

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan is a young Indian poet who also has strong connections to Northern Ireland, having completed an MA in Poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast. let the light in is a long narrative poem detailing a trip to Scotland he made between graduation and his return home.

Technically, he uses a kind of open-field method, with full use of the A4 page that PDF publication affords him.

The surface tone of the poem is one of carefully controlled flatness, a surface that treats of all things equally, handling, say, an airport in the same way as it does megalithic monuments.

from London en route Aberdeen Airport, a flat-bread of a building overlooking the lone

passenger terminal, this aside from four to five

additional terminals for North Sea

helicopters/

much as I wanted to opt for a copter, hop onboard and have myself lifted vertically as in

libido, it was not what I was looking forward to,

especially after making a bumpy hour-

and-a-half long flight to Aberdeen

 

 

the next day I got down in the middle of nowhere, crossed fields overrun with sullen-looking

sheep, crossed the Standing Stones of Stenness, crossed at myself for not having enough data

on my mobile to map my journey, crossed the Odin stone, crossed an isthmus buoyed at both

sides by lochs, the Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray,

to the Ring of Brodgar, a henge made of thirty-six

of the original sixty

stones, a circle

 

to map the sun’s movement, which meant

a shift of 4° in the angle subtended at the centre, from 6° for sixty stones to 10° for thirty-six,

a window large enough

for the light to escape this sun-dial

for a time

Nothing is privileged, meaning everything is, and vice versa. Sivaramakrishnan renders bus timetables, family disputes, the contents of his airport lunch, the Scottish weather, history and his graduation ceremony through this same equalising filter in a sustained performance of rhetorical control.

He is also apparently obsessed with libraries and with lists, and these obsessions can, naturally, overlap:

isn’t a library an anthology unto itself/ this

 

library that library the library at the end of Botanic Avenue in Belfast the library near the city

centre in Leicester the library at the busy junction in Stratford the library in Ilford the library

of yore in Manchester the library at Barbican the library at South Bank Centre that I visited

often during my sojourn in London

 

boarding the District Line underground

 

Upton Park Plaistow West Ham Bromley-by-Bow Bow Road Mile End Stepney Green

Whitechapel Aldgate East Tower Hill Monument Cannon Street Mansion House Blackfriars

Temple Embankment where I would get down take the pedestrian bridge parallel to

Hungerford Bridge grab a quick bite at Eat. located at the ground-level of

the centre visit the bookshop at National Theatre next door

come back take the talking-elevator to Level 5

There is a sense that all this piling of detail upon detail, item upon item, is a form of deflection, of a deferred return, especially when the listing turns to the order and importance of placement in the guest list for his mother’s impending 60th birthday, an event that feeds into his reluctance to go home, a reluctance that led to the Scottish trip that is the pretext for the poem, an interlude between obligations.

In the end we are left with the poet’s parents arguing over the capacity of their house to cope with 60 birthday guests, followed by an image of broken crockery, mutated into ‘a series of Chinese characters/ for everyone’s tongue’, a kind of precarious, temporary balance is achieved but we are denied any sense of neat resolution. I’m interested to see where Sivaramakrishnan takes it next.

Jeremy Over, Nancy Gaffield and Peter Riley: Three Reviews

Fur Coats in Tahiti, Jeremy Over, Carcanet, 2019, ISBN: 978 1 784107 63 5, £9.99

Meridian, Nancy Gaffield, Longbarrow Press, 2019, £12.99

Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls, Peter Riley, Longbarrow Press, 2019, £12.99

Jeremy Over’s new book is, seen from one angle, a collection of procedural experiments, a jaunt through the territories of Flarf, erasure, Ouliopian N+7 (Williams’ red wheelbarrow as interior design), collage, reverse translation, alphabetical order and minimalist riffing that results in a book of witty, probing forays into the relationship between language and the world. The temptation is, of course, to dwell on the procedures as ‘things in themselves’ and ponder their validity (does the world actually need another reworking of that particular Williams’ poem?). It is, I think, more fruitful to think of Over’s methods as the equivalent of sonnets or ballads, and to ask not ‘is this a well-done sonnet/erasure piece?’ but ‘is this a good poem?’
One of Over’s great merits as a poet is the manner in which he uses scraps of language to create almost mesmeric patterns of sound, so that a single phrase can create a structure as complex and satisfying as, say, a song by Arnaut Daniel:

gawp

gawp at

gawp in at

 

gawp at in

gawp in at gawp at in

gawp at in           gawp at in           gawp at in

 

gawp in at

at in at

gawp in at           at in at

The careful balance of, in this case, exclusively short vowels, the semi-rhyme of ‘it’ and ‘at’, the minimal but vital variations of word order and pause/spacing are the elements that build the music by means of the method.

This is, amongst other things, a poem built from ‘a selection of language really used by men’. The comparison with Wordsworth is both warranted and instructive, I think. Warranted because the book includes ‘a largely semo-definitional treatment or literal translation back into English’ of a German translation of ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’ by Ernst Jandl, which produces lines like:

So thus so much this way so really looks nigh near Emma scything

But Over’s response to the ‘Preface’ is brought most fully into focus in a prose poem called ‘The Maid of Buttermere’:

Buttermere is made of butter, mere butter,

 

but

the Buttermere maid is made of Buttermere butter, not mere butter. The Buttermere maid made the mere more merry, made beer for the mere, made the mere more beery. Barmaid Maud made the beer more beery more barmy, Maud made the mere mutter: ach mutter, meer mutter, das meer mutter, mère mutter, mère die mutter, mutter de la mer die mutter, mère mutter mère mutter, Walter de la Mare mutter, merde,

What becomes evident is that where for Wordsworth language was, or became, a vehicle for self-expression, for Over it is a material substance that enables discovery. Over, it seems to me, does not start out to write a poem to communicate some ‘important’ fact about himself or the world, rather, his intention seems to be closer to Paul Klee’s ‘a drawing is simply a line going for a walk’; Over’s poems are language taking the poet on a stroll through the network of words.
This is most evident in the final section of the book, ‘The Orderly World’, an alphabetical sequence of 27 poems based on a reading/writing through AM Williams’ 1933 The King’s English Dictionary. Each poem invites us to play a game of ‘spot the adjacent word’; for example, the P poem begins with a definition of Pullman Car, and proceeds:

a scarf and hat

small bones

stop plumage

 

one that vomits

stuffing mattress

swallows in the dust

What emerges is a picture of the temporal nature of language, and, above all, of any illusion of linguistic ‘mastery’; poetry like this is made by knowing and working with how language works, not by bending language to the poet’s will. This is underpinned by the inclusion of the 27th poem dedicated to the ampersand ‘&’, a symbol of linguistic openness, a symbol of linguistic openness:

I am just a small, bald figure sitting in an empty land

offering you nothing from my upturned hand

It is this nothing offered that makes Fur Coats in Tahiti such a rewarding read, because it leads to destinations unknown, a restless, constantly moving walk after not knowledge, but illumination, the unexpected relationship between word and word that opens a window to the world. It is, I realise as I write, a kind of Dada Zen book; what more can I say?

The walking, and the line, in Nancy Gaffield’s Meridian are literal, as the book/poem traces a series of walks she took along the Greenwich Meridian from its imagined landfall at Peacehaven on the south coast of England to its equally conventional return to the sea just north of the Humber estuary. The meridian is a line of more than ordinary significance, as its establishment and acceptance as a zero point has made possible all kinds of tools and procedures for locating ourselves and others in space and time, and this is key to Gaffield’s text. Ordnance Survey map sheets serve as section titles throughout, locating both reader and writer in a paper representation of the real world and reminding us that Gaffield’s explorations are, in one sense, of a charted landscape; her discoveries are not of places but of relationships: between politics and geography, the self and others, poetry/language and responsibility.

One concern is with the role of the woman as walker in a society where women do not always feel safe from male hostility:

I am wary of the stranger

on the path

without a dog

She also shows an interest in alternative methods if mapping. as when she gives a list of Alfred Watkins’ ‘reliable markers’ of leys, followed by the comment ‘This is a spatial practice.’ This reference to Watkins helps locate Meridian in a tradition of British walking and landscape art that draws heavily on ley theories, a tradition that includes Iain Sinclair and Hamish Fulton, both of whom Gaffield draws on directly.

There are fine passages of what might be termed ‘landscape writing’ in the book that nod to this tradition:

I walk with empty hands

amongst the nut-gatherers

tracking an impression

 

after those that made it

have passed by

presence in absence

 

I walk through dappled wood

where the nut-gatherers

course

But despite these passages and the references to Wordsworth and Clare (‘a constant companion’ according to the notes), Gaffield is not so much concerned with the poetry of place as with the place of poetry. Her walking and writing are temporally located in the twin shadows of Brexit and climate catastrophe:

Each night we sleep in our own time zone

with another 1.8 billion people

as the sea levels rise &

the Arctic ice melts

faster than even the scientists predicted

people are booking

cruises to see it

The deceptively flat tone of Gaffield’s verse lends itself well to this kind of factual meditation, but there’s an interesting undertone of sound patterning going on under that still surface. Listen to the long ‘e’ sounds, for example, running through this passage: each/sleep/people/sea/even/people/see. These patterns may seem trivial, but they constitute a key part of how we read and understand the text.

At the heart of all this is the question of what poetry might be for in a world under threat.

it starts with listening

beyond the mechanics

to the unsaid

hibernating

you are the means

by which the poem happens

The section that these lines come from draws heavily to Paul Celan’s acceptance speech on receiving the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960; called ‘Meridian’, it’s a key text for Gaffield. In it, Celan talks about art requiring us to ‘travel a certain space in a certain distance on a certain road’ (I’m using Rosmarie Waldrops’ translation as the one I have to hand, not the Pierre Joris version Gaffield uses). He also says that ‘[t]he poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.’

Meridian, seen in this light, reads like a kind of requiem, a poem that mourns the passing of the world it is travelling through:

I breathe in

the early settlements

of mud huts on the dykes

& willow-lined ditches & later

scattered farmsteads

on the chalk & limestone uplands

& later villages lost

to the plague & enclosure

the only visible sign

of their existence

a foundation

And behind all this there is the realisation that the meridian and the maps of space and time it helped refine, the very tools that Gaffield set out to use to make her poem, are parts of our destructive, ultimately self-destructive, ‘domination’ of nature.

Auden may well have had a point when he wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, but what poetry can do is remember and remind, and Meridian remembers that ‘this route/describes a circle’; it is a line with neither beginning nor end, and what seems like an ending to us is just the next stage in the line’s journey. The walk may end at the sea’s edge, but the line

takes leave of the land

surging further

and further

north

John Clare is also a strong presence in Peter Riley’s Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls. The book consists of four interconnecting sequences, ‘Pennine Tales’, ‘Hushings’, ‘Ring Cairns’ and ‘Nine Poems’, the first, second and fourth sections comprise poems in twelve lines, while ‘Ring Cairns’ is made up of poems in three-line stanzas, but of varying length.

I reviewed ‘Pennine Tales’ when it was published as a pamphlet by Calder Valley Poetry, and in that review I wrote ‘These poems are firmly based on stubborn ground, a stubborn resistance to the easy gesture, to finality, to baseless certainty. They are the latest stage in Riley’s long-term exploration of Englishness, a modest, inclusive vision that is, now more than ever, a necessary corrective.’ This is a view that still holds for the larger canvas of this book.

Here we wait, as if waiting

for the return of truthful politics. And in

all this land, this nothing-much, there are

hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves

as cotton grass and bugle.

Riley’s Englishness is inclusive, and encompasses Lully and John Clare, Italian Madrigal and Walt Whitman, Sandy Denny and Handel, the Kinder Scout trespass and Stanley Spencer, and finds its focus at bus stops and in pubs as much as in books and museums. And it is a tradition, a culture, that is under threat of being erased, with libraries being kept open in the face of ‘the whole vast empty and hungry State’ by recruiting volunteers in towns already all but killed by mine closures. Once again, the question of what poetry might be for in such circumstances is addressed:

everything gained for centuries is chucked away without

thought a second thought and for what? For the end of the chorus,

the end of public truth. So we sing together all the

songs of the centuries one by one and nobody hears us.

Up here above the above the town the site is so fair, the weather

so kind and the sense of our silent singing is passed from

generation to generation.

So that the notion of survival of and through art returns us to that ‘end’ and we realise that it is both termination and purpose, finality but also reason.

Ring cairns, as Riley informs us in a note, are or were sites of burial, and this formally distinct sequence is a meditation, or series of meditations, on mortality, both individual and collective and on the power of language to both remember and forget:

The bit of pavement in Birstall where

Jo Cox was killed, near the library, I take

a photograph, of nothing, to remind me

 

Of nothing, and how her name sails clear of it

how her speech is written on a history and

the killer’s name forgotten soon as said.

But, as Riley writes a few pages on, ‘most of what is is not right, and is not good, either’. In a sense, this is the central insight of the book, and it leaves open the question of whether we acquiesce or resist. In the end, there is a note of resistance and hope in the darkest of times:

I kept the images at bay for as long

as possible but here they come:

the black river crashing under the station

the burning huts on the horizon, the snowdrops

dead on time. The last of the wine, another century

of massacres, the hope extant in one blind rhyme.

But fine sentiments do not necessarily make for good poetry by themselves. What makes Riley’s work special is the sound it makes. True to the tradition he sees himself part of, this sound rests on careful patterning of vowel and consonant via assonance, alliteration, near rhyme and repetition. These poems are songs of high quality that repay the effort of close listening:

Sunlight filtered through thin cloud at mid-day
touches the stone outside the Hare & Hounds.
The stone beams back its own shades, not
illuminated but responding, accepting the offer.
Such a spectre orders the regional ghosts
back to the tumuli and abandoned warehouses
where they belong. Such a spectre sets
history back in our own hands, the plug riots
on the road again, the great engines hiss and cease.
Plumes of smoke rising across the valley, and this
spectre in the throat, this hope in the hand, that won’t,
that just will not, abandon the children.

The thread of sibilant ‘s’ initial and terminal sounds stitches the whole poem together, and plays of more subtle patterns of consonant and vowel echoes (filtered/thin/mid/children back/abandoned/belong/abandon, to pick out a few instances) weave through a rhythm that sits on a free base of iambs and trochees, with variation provided by spondees and amphibrachs.

SUNlight | FILtered through | THIN CLOUD | at MID-day
TOUCHes | the STONE | outSIDE | the HARE | & HOUNDS.

These patterns form part of the ‘meaning’ of the poem, where sound is meaning, and they don’t happen by accident, but are a result of craft and care. Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls represents a remarkable late flowering for one of England’s most interesting living poets; Riley has entered the post-truth world with his eyes and ears wide open, but he has not abandoned hope in the power of language to conserve and to set things right.