Recent reading May 2020

Peace – Land, Gabrielle Barnby, 2019, ISBN 978191288051

Triptych, Fran Lock, Fióna Bolger, Korliss Sewer, The Poetry Bus, 2019, ISBN 9780957690387, €12

Sunshine at the end of the world, Chris Hardy, Indigo Dreams, 2017, ISBN 978-1-910834-60-2, £8.99

The Five Petals of Elderflower, Angela Topping, Red Squirrel Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1910437391, Out of print

The Hollow Woman on the Island, Nessa O’Mahony, Salmon Poetry, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-912561-63-6, €12.00

The subtitle of Gabrielle Barnby’s book, Scapa 100, Reflection – Remembrance – Response tells you most of what you need to know about it. The book consists of 100 short poems, numbered from I to C, to mark the 100th anniversary of the capture and scuppering of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow. The sequence, or rather set of sequences as the book is divided into twelve titled sections, is a meditation on memory and war, and of the role of language in framing memory and commemoration, as, for instance, in XXV, the familiar wording is modified:

The role of honour

The roll of horror and the roll of honour

Say it often, let it become banal

There’s a kind of baggy brevity to the writing of these conversational short pieces that allows a great deal to be said in small spaces, with myth and history, the local and the global folding into each other:

The greedy Stoor Worm

Will swallow the fleet.

Barnby insists on the importance of remembering with equanimity, valuing the German dead alongside the local ‘one in five,/never home.’ There are no real heroes or villains, just people caught up in the disaster that is war, as seen from a Peace-Land that needs vigilance if it is to be preserved. As she writes in the final, 100th poem:

Keep memory honest,

And peace safe,

A whisper

In the noust of the heart.

Ultimately, Barnby reminds us, it is that noust, that safe harbour, that is the guardian of peace, the place where reflection and response enable its preservation. A fine book.

For The Poetry Bus, the idea of a combined collection by multiple poets is probably a logical extension of the magazine that is their central activity. The three poets included in Triptych represent an admirably wide diversity of approaches and styles. Fran Lock writes mainly in long verse lines and prose poems and deploys internal rhyming, assonance and alliteration interestingly.

the blended directionless shriek that means the weekend’s here, bed-

sores, settled scores, old school sorceries. the tv screen, a white sail

stretched tight by light, not air.

These poems are peopled by those on the margins, one way or another: squatters, Irish migrants in London, missing persons, suicides, and all in a setting of urban decay. There’s an element of the poète maudit at play, a romantic view of both poetry and the poet that may prove hard to sustain over the long haul, but there is no questioning Lock’s relishing of her primary material, words:

nuclear kickabout. echo. static. ecstatic. etched

in acid. I watch until the dark broke and lack

of sleep perfects a kind of shapeless courage.

Fiona Bolger’s poems tend to speak in the voices of personae; Penelope, a coconut seller, a mehendi artist, and are equally frequently coloured by an immersion in the exotic, especially the Indian subcontinent where she has lived. Her people are frequently trapped in ‘a lattice of words’:

endless suits come

they desire my wealth and power

they sit in waiting knots

 

by day I weave these words

letters to my lover

who is alive, I know

[from ‘Penelope’]

Korliss Sewer’s poems are immediately located in an urban, American landscape of weed, drink, domestic abuse and drive-by antisocial behaviour.

Rita’s eye is blackened again.

Her ribs are broken again.

She tipped down the street in front of my porch,

splinting her side from his kicks.

This crumbling edifice sits on foundations of oil, of the oil industry:

Even through the pouring rain

The scent of petroleum burns the nose.

An intoxicatingly potent blend of commerce and poverty.

The landscape is peopled by the marginal: addicts, a little black girl who’s ‘always been a wee bit off-center’, Russian and Korean migrants ‘harvesting greens/from drainage ditches around the city’, each group locked out of the other’s world. These are anecdotal poems that reuse the neat, optimistic resolution the genre expects. Thanks to the Poetry Bus crew for introducing me to three such disparate voices.

Chris Hardy’s poems in Sunshine at the end of the world frequently hover along the line between time and space, immanence and observation, the boundaries of the human mind where myth and history overlap. He is concerned with the way time layers itself, blurring the distinctions we impose, or try to impose, on it.

The past is here

and feels like loss,

but isn’t lost.

Living in the present,

when tomorrow

is what you do today

and time has no lid,

took up all our time.

At his best, as in the poem ‘Auspices’, an encounter with an owl, the blend of close observation and a sense of another time beneath the observed layer, results in moments of verbal alchemy:

She drew everything to her,

Even the sea stopped moving

Then she was gone as if

 

She’d not been there.

The crickets and the sea

Were allowed to sing again

 

And the place

Was an ounce lighter

Now its soul had left.

There are a number of poems here deriving from family memories, where the same blurring of space and time underpin the insights, and the same is true of the poems that meditate on a wider history. There is a danger always that this kind of poem will descend into mildly quirky anecdote, as happens in the nicely made if somewhat inconsequential title poem:

In the Moravian graveyard

the dead stand up,

cold, mud-clamped sentries

knee-deep in the water table.

Daisies spreading across

Spring grass touch

the square stone lids.

 

Better to be thrown in the sea

with a lump of lead.

Then the flowers that follow,

the small white blossoms

I’d ask for,

would from far below

resemble stars.

But it’s a pitfall that most of the poems here avoid, thanks in no small part to the poet’s modesty in the face of the world:

One thing’s for sure –

I will be forgotten.

Good luck to all of us,

will that do?

It certainly will.

In The Five Petals of Elderflower Angela Topping presents poems that engage with either the natural world, particularly the overlap between urban and rural environments, or anecdotes of childhood, love and ageing. The former group are firmly based on close observation of the world, and Topping shows a good eye for the telling detail:

The fireweed, rosebay willow herb,

colonises everything, its feathery tufts

signal the release of assertive seed

on waste ground, bombsite, margin lands.

At least it’s alive, at least something’s home.

The two strands come together in the title sequence, a set of five poems that interweaves the structure of the elderflower and the stages of a relationship from young love to parting.

The flowers smell of sex, of lust, foreign tongues to us.

Too soon the lane opens out into streetlights,

pavements, cars. You drop my hand. The scent

is left behind, pollened on memory.

The writing here is vivid, immediate and urgent. Elsewhere, there can be a tendency for it to be a bit too comfortable, too at ease with itself and the conventions it operates within:

Company on the Road

 

I was lost

after a diversion

and in the dark

driving home

from a poetry reading;

you came

as though

death were

no bar

to keep

me company

not by speech –

beyond you now –

but by your scent,

that musk

of clean sweat

I’d known you by

alive

and a sudden warmth

ran through me

like a flame.

Coincidentally, the book includes a Shetland poem called ‘Noost’, which unlike Barnby’s work is a more traditional lyric. Topping has a good ear and writes well, but nothing else in the book really matches the ambition and achievement of the title sequence.
Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent book is determinedly Irish in conception and construction, drawing as it does on figures and events from Irish history, particularly the early 20th century and the period of the Troubles and highlighting the intersections of family and national history and geography and the influence of religion on both. The influence of Irish poets of the canon, especially Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, Mahon, Kinsella and Boland, is also evident in the writing.

Unlikely looking gift, this five-barred

metal gate, rusting, crossed,

tethered in its lock by blue nylon strings.

The signs unwelcoming: dogs beware,

walkers climb at their peril

in this kingdom of scrub and rock.

O’Mahony is a very literate writer who uses the tropes of the tradition with considerable skill, extending them by the inclusion of female experience that has often been marginalised. This is particularly the case in the fine sequence of poems that give the collection its title. This set of four Hollow Woman poems deal with the poet’s experience of ovarian cancer in an idiom that seems to owe much to middle-period Kinsella, an idiom that O’Mahony does much to make her own.

What matter

if the eye of faith betrays?

Trace your truth

with a thumb, a tongue,

an index finger,

a thought

 

a scratch

on paper.

Ultimately, however, this writing is best read as an extension of the tradition, not an expansion of it. It is poetry that is comfortable within its clearly defined limits.

The question arises, not just with O’Mahony but with most of the poets reviewed hers, whether or not poetry written out of a supposed shared unproblematic sense of self which is in itself problematic do justice to the world we inhabit? On the whole, and not, I think, unrepresentatively of most contemporary verse, the voices we hear reflect a Wordsworthian ‘man speaking to men’, more inclusive, admittedly, not narrowly gendered, but still fundamentally wedded to the basic assumptions of the ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’ and its associated Romantic sensibilities and expectations. Gabrielle Barnby’s work is the exception, and her use of found materials and a decentered lyric voice enables her to both pare away and include more than more conventional poetry can manage. Which is not to take from the undoubted skill of the other poets under review; they all do what it is they set out to do with a great deal of ability, but it would be interesting to see them take more formal risk in their writing, to expand the idea of what poetry is, and is for.

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