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.

Unrecent Reading: Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Emma McKervey

Bloodroot, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-58-2, €12

The Rag Tree Speaks, Emma McKervey, Doire Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-907682-55-1, €12

Sometimes a parcel of books comes through the letterbox and then slips through the cracks somehow, and this is what happened when Doire Press kindly sent me these two titles about 18 months ago. Still, better late than never.

Ní Churreáin’s debut collection has been widely and very positively reviewed, and it’s easy to understand why; she writes interestingly about matters of great importance to our idea of ourselves as a society, specifically the appalling treatment meted out in the relatively recent past to many unmarried mothers in ‘Catholic Ireland’. She writes with conviction about the Kerry Babies, Ann Lovett and the scandal of the so-called ‘mother and baby homes’, which were far from being homes and paid scant regard to the mothers and babies supposedly in their care. However, it would be an injustice to paint Ní Churreáin as a poet concerned with just these issues, her range is wider than that.

The book is divided into three numbered sections. The first of these is primarily concerned with the idea of coming of age, seen from multiple angles, a set of journeys from childhood to maturity, not all of them happy, set in what are often mythic landscapes.

a stream of girls,
wet hair trailing
a scent of apples

in the left-behind air,
orchards
imagined us

fetching from wells,
pitchers of silver equations,
poems, plant names.

[from ‘Sisters’]

This section opens with a poem, ‘Untitled’ (called ‘End of Girlhood’ elsewhere) that is a kind of inversion of the Daphne myth; here, rather than being absorbed into the world of nature by losing her humanity and becoming a tree, the young female protagonist becomes perhaps more fully human by being integrated into the natural world through a process of imaginative sympathy:

The first time
a tree called me by name,
I was thirteen and only spoke a weave of ordinary tongues.

There are poems of female isolation, cut through by friendship as in the poem ‘Sisters’ which she can be heard reading here. Also in this section is the title poem, which concerns the incarceration of Ní Churreáin’s grandmother in Castlepollard home, an event that has clearly helped shape the poet’s own world view. In the poem, we see her trying to conjure some kind of truth from the ruin of the past:

Home, if I press my lips to your ruins       three times

and circle the ground like a beast,        if I say my root

to this earth

who will hear            when I speak?

The second section takes up this summoning of ghosts in a set of poems that treat of the stories I mentioned earlier. Again, the background of a mythic landscape is used to give historic depth to the foregrounded events:

and each night I dreamed Saidhbhín,

who, betrayed of a human form, hooved

hiding in the woods,

awaits

the blood-hounds

of Fionn.

[from ‘Saidhbhín ‘]

It is tempting to say that Ní Churreáin is recovering these narratives, but that’s not quite the case, as they have been aired to a far wider audience than poetry readers in the media over recent years. It’s equally tempting to think of her giving voice to the women whose lives and deaths she is exploring, but she knows more than to patronise them in this way. Rather, it strikes me that she’s asking difficult questions about what these stories us as a society with a history – a long history – of mistreating significant sections of our citizens, and how we might learn to genuinely mourn for the victims of this neglect.

In an interview in The Irish Times, Ní Churreáin points the finger at the state as the villain of the piece, the poetry is wiser than that, seeing a wider picture:

The villagers did not unite

in outrage

but instead, they set about their days as usual,

posting letters, buying fruit, forming queues in the bank after lunchtime.

The sad truth is that while Irish people had a number of ways of responding to pregnancy outside marriage, too many parents shipped their daughters off to the dreaded mother and baby homes, knowing exactly what they were like.

The state was certainly at fault for washing its hands of this and outsourcing the management of these ‘fallen’ women to a church that all too often completely failed to act in accordance with the precepts of love and charity it nominally promoted. This was not simply a failure of the state, it was a failure of an entire society.

The central poem in this section of the book, and of the book as a whole, is ‘Six Ways to Wash Your Hands (Ayliffe, 1978)’ which gets its title and the first lines of each of its six stanzas from a classic scientific paper on hand hygiene for medical practitioners. Ní Churreáin deftly weaves the idea of a method of personal hygiene with that of a society ‘cleansing’ itself of the supposed moral stain of uncontrolled sexuality and its outcome:

Rub palm to palm, fingers interlaced and around the wrists

to erase all trace of fathers. Never mention cuffs.

Never mention scars. Raise your head against the sky

and let the violet clouds overfill your eyes as the names

of these men become again unknown as birds.

When you see a wing, like a realm of thumbed pages

fluttering, take this as a sign: the fathers are no more.

I’ve seen Ní Churreáin’s writing described as ‘angry’, but while it might evoke anger in the reader, it’s actually controlled, clinical and dispassionate in its dissection of the process of erasure through which the experience and lives of so many women and children were simply erased from the record.

The third section represents a moving on, both from trauma and from Ireland in poems of travel abroad, neat, well-constructed anecdotal poems that relate more or less interesting epiphanies on beaches in Goa or weddings in Florida. It’s a genre that is, to me at least, unaccountably popular, ubiquitous even, and in the context of this book represent something of a falling away from the intense power of the first two sections. Nevertheless, this is an impressive debut by a clearly gifted poet, and I’m only sorry I didn’t get around to it sooner.

Emma McKervey’s The Rag Tree Speaks is also a debut collection, and there are some overlaps with Ní Churreáin in the use of myth and a certain focus on female experience, though McKervey’s interest in myth is as much Greek as Irish:

I preside over the marital bed of her winter hibernation
fallow, with her legs spread wide, waiting for Spring.
She has forgotten the pomegranate was held in my hand
long before she spat its seeds to the earth and claimed it as her own

However, her work is quite different, both technically and in terms of its central preoccupation. The latter is best captured in a quote from McKervey’s blog:

My writing follows two different processes, one which is a felt, emotional response to a situation, and the other which arises from hours of research and intellectual engagement with the subject matter, a process of contextualisation and distillation. Of course each process informs the other.  What I was searching for, and continue to do so, is what Cy Twombly would describe as ‘the thingness of the thing’, the capturing of an essence, ‘un-anthropomorphised’ as I write in Totem, which arises from a wholly humanist stance in the world.

This striving for ‘thingness’, whether seen in terms of Kant’s ding an sich or some variant on Dun Scotus’ ‘haecceitas’ or ‘thisness’ is both extremely difficult and, I have argued elsewhere, entirely vital in the face of impending environmental catastrophe. There are those who argue from an Idealist position that there are no things unless we humans observe them, but McKervey comes at the world from a different, more humble (in the best sense) perspective. The result is a poetry that is refreshingly short on metaphor and simile and long on a kind of post-Imagist power of patient observation.

McKervey’s ambitions require her to interrogate the place of language in our mapping of the world of things, a process that begins with the opening lines of the first poem in the book, ‘An Sciathán’:

It can be considered odd that the Irish language
has no word for hand or foot; these appendages,
as we see them, are of the linguistic flow of arm and leg
and the words themselves seem supple and warm,

suggestive of the dexterity of the limbs as a whole;

The difficulty involved in what McKervey is attempting is apparent in the book’s title poem, in which the poet attempts to give voice to the rag tree, that once commonplace liminal space on the Irish landscape:

Cerebus uses me to urinate against:

he releases his stinking stream of piss, one head

watching its trickling through the crackles of my bark,

the other intent on whether the chrome yellow trail

can reach the river’s edge where the ferryman waits.

The writing here is strong, the music underpinned by patterns of repeated ‘t’, ‘s’ and ‘k’ sounds carries the reader along, but the Idealist might object, quite reasonably, this is a human voice, a human mythos, imposed from the outside with little enough to do with the treeness of the tree in question. At her best, she overcomes this by a process of close, dispassionate observation, as in the poem ‘Seaweed’:

The seaweed dries slowly, small decorative curls

which have been artfully spread amongst the stone

and shells scavenged from the beach.

 

As the seaweed dries salt crystallises on the rubbery skin

and as it dries farther and the moisture evaporates entirely

the tiny crystals drop and lie without direction on the sill.

 

Inspection shows how precisely formed they are –

cubic solids on a minute scale. Midst careful arrangement

of conch and pebble this fallen saline is perfection.

Here the ‘artful’ human agency is present but not dominant, the process of observation discovers rather than creating, the complex ‘thisness’ of things in themselves. The rhythm and patterning of sibilant consonants tend to slow the reader to the point where we are also engaged in this process of observation. It’s a fine poem from a collection that has many such carefully won moments.

It strikes me that poets living and working in the North find themselves in a position analogous to that faced by most Irish poets a century ago, writing in the shadow of a dominant exemplar; for Yeats then, read Heaney now. If the poem ‘The Rag Tree Speaks’ owes too much to Heaney’s example, then poems like ‘Seaweed’ seem to address the question of influence by ignoring it. At her best, McKervey writes as if she had never read the older poet, the result is an invigorating freshness.

Doire Press are to be thanked for publishing these two fine debut collections in serviceable, nicely designed paperbacks. Having come to them late, I’m left looking forward to seeing what both these poets do in the future.