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.
rivulets of sweat
seeping into distressed
swept away by a switch
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:
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
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.