Wound Scar Memories, Peter Philpott, Great Works, 2017, ISBN 9781326857165, €7.79.
.pinned., Sonja Benskin Mesher, 20/20 Vision, 2017 ISBN 9781907449017, £14.99.
Shape of Faith, John Phillips, Shearsman Books, 2017, ISBN 9781848615328, £9.95.
What the Wolf Heard, Daragh Breen, Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 9781848614963, £9.95.
Scarecrow, MW Bewick, Dunlin Press, 2017, ISBN: 9780993125928, £9.99.
Prayerbook for Tree, Anna Cathenka, Smallminded Books, 2017.
It’s warming to see Peter Philpott revive his somewhat legendary Great Works imprint after a long absence and his own Wound Scar Memories is a fine collection to do it with. The book comprises three verse sequence, each of 17 ‘sonnetty things’ and an extended prose note, adding up, perhaps coincidentally, to a full deck of 52 texts exploring various aspects of identity.
The first sequence, ‘Fragments of Vulgar Things’ takes off from a visit to the Provencal village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, sometime home to Francesco Petrarca combined with a reading of recent versions of the Italian poet’s work by Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes. The primary voice in this sequence is that of a reimagined Laura, who queries the nature of her identity as filter through the sonnets, as well as the identities of her sonneteer (Frank) and those of Atkin, Hughes and Philpott:
the self bit, Frank, is important
you know nothing at all about me
all I read is you talking about yourself
without really daring to – oh
the pretence is pretty stupid, yes?
Alongside these epistemological questions around the existence of the self and others that are addressed, the poet(s) depends on language as anchor; where there is interaction there must be people who are engaged:
whatever poetry is or what it looks like
what it senses
what language it uses
interplay is a good word &
some complex level of humane intercourse
The next section, ‘Action in the Play Zone’ narrows the focus on to the role of pronouns in mapping possible selves and their interplay. Philpott’s riffs on the word ‘I’ can be reminiscent of similar explorations in the work of Maurice Scully, with a similarly playful seriousness evident in the disjunction achieved:
I was looking for a purpose until I woke up
one morning like a great big wind
the self is a broken fence don’t you think?
the I just another rotten post
The third ‘sonnetty’ sequence, ‘Hedge of Utterance’ moves the examination on fersonal to cultural or ‘national’ identity as, in part at least, a response to the vote in the Brexit referendum. These poems excavate the various ‘Matters of Britain’: Mercian kings, Roman villas, Welsh myth and history, the Arthur stories and the Norman invasion to uncover an archaeology where nothing is quote what it seems. The sequence opens with Cerdic, an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ king with a Celtic name, and moves through Arthur denying the validity of his own story to the overlapping of the poet’s grandson Neirin with the author of Y Gododdon who, as the prose ‘Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain’ reminds us, the earliest known Scottish, British and Welsh poet. Or, to quote the second poem in the sequence ‘mongrels we’re born & mongrels we’ll be’.
The drive of the poems is to debunk any notion of ‘pure’ origins, a point which is taken up and driven home by the prose section. It’s an interesting piece in itself, but appended here it has the unfortunate effect of overly explicitly explaining that which should, and does, emerge organically from the poems.
In a short review like this, it would be all too easy to make the book seem somewhat preachy, which would do Philpott’s skill as a poet no justice. The book is rich in verbal music, as in the wonderful juxtaposition of vowel sounds and the use of punctuation as scoring in this stanza from part 2:
like politics? or symbols? this is
mediocre fun but talks about itself
look! here! this poem! no notes!
no other circus to learn about and love
here’s coming round the final bend
time for a break – OK
.pinned. is Sonja Benskin Mesher’s debut publication. She is self-described as ‘a painter who writes, an author that paints’, and the book reflects this dual nature of her work. A handsome hardback, it comprises 11 facing page parings of text and image, speaking to each other across the spine. The images are printed as tiny squares of colour in the centre of an expanse of white page, while the facing texts, though short, tend to dominate by virtue of being printed in a possibly excessively large font. Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to think of the writing as primary; each pair is a complimentary whole, and themes resurface across pairings.
The images are generally assemblages of the everyday, pins, buttons, stitching samples, a doll. They are quiet moments of colour, lacking drama but repaying careful consideration. And the texts (Mesher avoids the word ‘poem’) echo these preoccupations in a carefully unpoetic manner. The result is often (in as much as anything can be ‘often’ is such a short range) surprisingly revealing. Take, for instance, the following entire piece:
carefully you drew crosses on my skin
i looked at you
no, you said, crosses
The careful undercutting of romantic sentimentality, the denial of the metaphorical, here takes on an entirely other resonance when the image opposite is considered, consisting, as it does, of a set of crosses stitched into white fabric in blood-red thread.
Other pairings deal with personal and family narratives, a mania for collecting and death, all in what, to quote the title of one text, we must consider ‘measured tones’. An intriguing debut that also serves as an example of the quality of presentation that can now be achieved through print on demand (POD) technologies.
John Phillips’ Shape of Faith is a more substantial Shearsman paperback of 80-odd pages, again demonstrating the range of possibilities of POD. Like Philpott, Phillips is concerned with language as a means of forming our map of the world, and this also leads him to question assumptions of the self. Indeed, although the title poem refers to more topical questions of belief, the shape delineated across the book is that of a tentative faith in language as a reciprocal arrangement between the self and the world:
in the morning:
My hand creates
the words I write
The danger of this kind of writing is that it can slip into a kind of Idealist solipsism; knowledge of the thing is not the thing, and things exist outside our naming of them. So that while I may admire lines like:
We look at what we think
is real knowing it is
only what we think it is
I find myself slightly at odds with their refined detachment form the world. It is, I think, its very unknowableness that requires poetry to engage with it a bit more messily than Phillips sometimes does. But then, he writes so well that I find myself carried along by his language as it teeters along the line that separates it from silence.
In many respects, the concerns of Phillips’ work here overlap with those of Cid Corman, to whom one of the more substantial pieces is dedicated. Like Corman, Phillips has the ability to capture a complexity in a handful of lines of carefully swift verse:
What I mean to say
and what I say
are different things.
This short, untitled, poem comes near the end of the book and strikes me as being key to the whole collection, with its implicit question instantly withdrawn through a simple act of punctuation. It’s a poem, and a book, that repays rereading with attention.
Shearsman has become a very broad-church publisher in recent years, and What the Wolf Heard by Daragh Breen is as far removed from Phillips’ quiet work as one could imagine. Breen is clearly, and heavily, influenced by the early Ted Hughes, and writes a poetry of Gothic nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. These are poems that are heavy with simile and metaphor:
Dusk, just above the horizon,
the sun is the blood-soaked reds
of a foal’s birthing sack
The very specific ‘foal’ is illustrative of a general tendency for Breen to over-explain:
A murder of currachs, like upturned
crows’ beaks, crowd towards the rocks
where the crow is there for the reasonably alert reader and doesn’t need to be named. As happens with Hughes, the result can be a ‘nature poetry’ in which everything stands for something else, that denies the haecceitas of things.
One theme that runs through many of the poems is the figure of metamorphosis: people take on animal masks that merge with their human heads; crows become the lost wolves they once scavenged off; a boy is shod like a horse on his father’s instructions. These passages are clearly intended to shock the reader out of complacency, and initially they do, but like anything else, the shock wears off if the effect is used too often
There are, however passages of rich simplicity where the poetry is allowed to emerge through the language:
Amongst the hillocks of rusting metal
on the narrow harbour of Rossaveal,
waiting for a ferry to the Aran Islands,
three elderly Japanese women sit patiently
in white wide-brimmed sun hats,
they have some to see where the sun sets.
The book is divided into four sections, the first being a trip along the west coast of Ireland by way of its lighthouses, the second a set of animal poems, the third titles Requiem for Ned Kelly and the last a set of three poems concerned with the sun. Of these, the Ned Kelly poems are the most successful. Tropes that are familiar from earlier poems gain new urgency:
When the authorities
removed the jaw-less tomb
of his metal helmet,
what they found
was the dingo’s head
that his Mary had substituted
for poor, dear Ned’s.
And the metaphors are crisper, less insistent:
Night had left a bark
of frost on the dead wolf
where he lay in the
While not a kind of poetry that appeals to me usually, I detect an individual voice below the Hughesian surface. It would be interesting to see it emerge more fully into the light.
Scarecrow is MW Bewick’s first collection and is published by Dunlin Press, which he runs with Ella Johnston. The somewhat whimsical notes at the back of the book inform the reader that most of these poems were written on trains while commuting between London and his home in Wivenhoe, and they deal with his experience of both places, but not as some kind of big city/small town duality, but as a continuum. Urban train lines are fine locations for the student of the ecology of decay, and Bewick takes full advantage:
Flowers escape identification
as carriages shunt by the spare ruins
of wrecked hotels Liverpool Street Station
hides its true treasures deep
And on the continuum, the buddleia clinging to urban spoil is the buddleia that grows by the fence at the edge of a field, both of them ‘arcing for wilderness’, just as the city sparrows are sib to their rural counterparts, in this book full of birds. And the poet attends because:
Nothing ever sings if we don’t listen
and we’ll never come to listen again.
And the urban/rural range encompasses many aspects, one being from the closed spaces of office and train through city streets and squares to the lanes and open fields of Essex, with the figure of the scarecrow bridging both, out in the field but trapped:
staked into the soil,
flapping at the wind
with the gulls and crows
And yet, with a key role in the circle of life, as hinted at on the next page:
Dunlins skit from the field,
and pigeons lift by the fold
for the peregrine’s blood talons
Inevitably, many of the London people observed in these poems are, like some of the birds, migrants; most memorably Jesus of Kingsway, a kind of scarecrow figure himself whose accommodation with London is mapped in a long piece that draws on the folk ballad tradition to very contemporary ends.
Jesus of Kingsway stands
ten worn hours on his soles,
aches for the minimum wage,
aches for his foreign home
beyond the blind owl’s flight
and the night foxes soon
coming up from the Strand
for whom he’ll throw out bread
If London is, to quote some graffiti quoted in turn by Bewick, a ‘City of Sludge’, these poems are an attempt to find some solid footing from which to make it make sense. It’s an ambitious book, a little uneven at times (for instance, the line ‘watch the bees bathe in the dust of our dry white days’ could do without the last five, overly poetical, words) but generally successful. I look forward to reading more of this poet whose work was previously unknown to me.
Smallminded Books is a fugitive enterprise from poet and Stride publisher Rupert Loydell. They consist of a single A4 sheet cut and folded to make a booklet of 7 A7 pages, plus a cover. Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree is the only one I’ve seen to date, and it makes for a very inviting introduction. The sequence is subtitles ‘translated from Lichen’, and I read these tiny poems, which the poet describes as experiential, as an imaginative entering into the symbiotic relationship that exists between lichen and trees, a commensalist relationship in which the lichen benefits and the tree is not harmed and may even gain some accidental benefit.
In short, the prayers (named ‘prayer 1, prayer 2, etc.) are a venture into the unknowable, and Cathenka pares language back to a minimal limit to achieve expression of the experience she tries to enter in to, thus minimising the temptation to anthropomorphise the subject by making the praying lichen overly articulate in human.
Apart from the title, what remains is a handful of words, some slashes and square brackets, a colon and an exclamation mark, deployed to the maximum effect, and the result is one of the most interesting and challenging pieces of ecopoetry I’ve read in some time. Here, for instance, is ‘prayer 5’:
[ironic:] just like the flowers
If you want to read, and reread, the entire sequence, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m off to try to get the rest of the set.