Recent Reading June 2020: A Review

Forty-Four Poems and a Volta, James Davies, The Red Ceilings Press, 2019, £6.00

Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva, Cathy Galvin, Guillemot Press, 2019, £7.00

Opportunity’s Stargazing and Perseverance Valley Interrupted, Sarah Cave/Astra Papachristodoulou, Stegosaurus, 2019. No information available.

Undertones, Chris Turnbull and Bruno Neiva, Low Frequency Press, 2019, $8.00

Six-Count Jive, Rosie Johnston, Lapwing, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-910855-92-8, £10.00

Rivering, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Oystercatcher, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-911499-01-5, £5.00

2019 the vase in pieces, Rod Mengham, Oystercatcher, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-911499-00-8, £5.00

Fordings, Daniel Gustafsson, Marble Poetry, 2020, ISBN: 9781916336902, £5.00

I love tiny pamphlets and very short chapbooks. They represent an opportunity for poets that are new to print to publish without the pressure of putting together enough material for a full-length book, and for more established writers they’re a chance to try things or to get work out more quickly. For the reader, they can be just enough to give you a taste of what’s going on, and maybe develop an appetite for more from a poet. This review is a roundup of small things I have read recently.

The 45 very short poems in James Davies’ little book are arranges as twin lines of text on a page, centre aligned, with a break between them, with some ‘lines’ actually being two to four lines long and others that consist of a single word. Despite the small page size and eminently readable font, the form allows lots of white space for the words to float in.

As usual, Davies is interested in disrupting readerly expectations, not in the traditional way of a delayed rhyme or variant metrical foot, but by playing with the language. This can be achieved via grammatical ‘error’:

what am I now but someone standing next

to a lids

or by semantic disruption created by fragmented juxtapositions:

a pot for a day first thing

(i was looking up)

or by demonstratives with no apparent reference, a gesture to the world outside the text:

(and that was the last satsuma, and that is

the last tangerine)

The effect is to slow the reader down and attend to texts whose brevity might otherwise lead you to rush through them. The Volta of the book’s title is as much this returning to focus on the language as it is the final poem in the series. These are poems that challenge our innate need to make sense of language; deceptive in their apparent simplicity, they can be read and reread with pleasure and fresh insight each time.

Cathy Galvin’s Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva is a single poem in nine sections, or cantos as she calls them in an informative note at the back of the pamphlet. Galvin and Godiva (or Godgifu as she is called in the poem) travel the road that circles the old medieval walled city, exploring past and present, the personal and the public as they go. As a kind of proto-feminist icon, property owner, protester, defender of the poor, Godiva’s role in this poem is something like the Spéirbhean in Irish aislings or the Pearl-maiden in the Middle-English ‘Pearl’, a guide for the poet through a visionary landscape.

Another model is the Virgil/Dante relationship in The Divine Comedy, the ring road evoking memories of the Inferno’s geography, and Galvin calls this out explicitly in Canto VIII:



packed tight where the Catholics lie,

without their purgatory, such easy company.


There are no circles of hell, just this road.

And if there’s no hell, then where does heaven lie?

The cemetery in question is the place where Galvin’s parents, the note informs us, are buried near a memorial to the victims of WWII bombing that all but destroyed the city, an operation codenamed Moonlight Sonata:

Godgifu dreamed of a mortuary in autumn rain,

a roof blown away. Hastily written tags tied


to lines of melted bodies. Black ink

seeping their names towards memory.


Nothing to warn of such streaming departure,

of massacre codenamed: Moonlight Sonata.


Da unten sind Leute. Ich kann die leute nicht sehen.

Of course, there were people down there. Galvin gathers the city in memory, with Godiva, the blitz and her own experience ‘Two tone, tight jeans, white/shirt; the heat of ska, the broken/song of beat’ into a unified vision. It’s a quiet, impressive achievement, handsomely presented by Guillemot in a pocket-size pamphlet with eye-catching illustrations by Kristy Campbell. Galvin is a new name to me, and one I hope to read more of.

The two tiny pamphlets by Astra Papachristodoulo and Sarah Cave are interestingly intertwined. Papachristodoulou’s is a response to Cave’s Perseverance Valley and Cave’s in response to Papachristodoulou’s Stargazing. Both are published by STEGOSAURUS, a press with no online trace, as far as I can find. To further confuse matters, Perseverance Valley Interrupted is © Astra Papachristodoulo. Add to that the fact that I have so far read neither of the books being responded to, and the question of how to review becomes interestingly framed. These pamphlets are ephemera personified, so to speak.

Papachristodoulou’s procedure is apparently something like erasure, with the erased text being replaced with tildas. The text is set in justified rectangular blocks of eight longish (as long as the page size allows) blocks, each with a title. Most of the poems contain quite a lot of what I imagine to be the original text; at the other end of the scale, ‘escapology’ consists of tildas and word spaces. The effect is oddly soothing, with the tildas enacting a kind of gently wave motion between the words:

Formally, the poem/texts in Opportunity’s Stargazing faintly echo those in the Papachristodoulo pamphlet, consisting as they do of eight short justified lines, with an additional ninth line of just one word. They are, however, more densely packed, small packets of verbal energy fizzing. The interest in astronomical subjects is, as the title might lead us to expect, more directly marked here, with all the pieces being named for either constellations or telescopes. The language riffs on the titles, pulling out all kinds and sorts of references and referents:

What the reader comes away from this pair of small gems is a sense of two poets clearly enjoying each other’s verbal company and a strong wish to read the bigger books that they are responding to.

The entry on the Low Frequency website describes the procedures and format that underpin Undertones, a collaboration between poets Chris Turnbull and Bruno Neiva, more succinctly than I could, so I’ll just paste it here:

a): First comes a number. One of them addresses it and sets the pace. The other follows suit. They take turns randomly and carry on. This goes on and on, for over a year, until they reach twenty-one and finally turn their attention to notepads.

b): The crease between each set of numbers, each piece, is a form of measure and hiatus. The numbers carry us forward. The pieces are unexpectedly in accord, are a bit unreal. Without summarizing, perhaps they hum in a sort of intercross of tangential, accrued perceptions harvested sensorily from daily and scattered appropriations. Marked treads.

And the format is, indeed, notebooklike, with smallish portrait-oriented pages bound at the top like a reporter notebook, the pages being light card in a soothing cream tone. The text is presented in two blocks per page, one, presumably, by each poet. At the beginning it seems the intention was that the number of lines per block was to be the same as the number at the top of the page, but this broke down at 6, made a brief comeback, and was then abandoned. The texts include collage or collage-like cutups and found materials including bits of catalogues, submission instructions from a press or mag, business jargon, signage, snippets of internet-speak and more, and the two blocks perform a kind of call-and-response dialogue. This is 3, for example:















A person. No matter what brand. Cheating to get permanent green


The undertone is, clearly, political, with, as I read it, a critique of the commodification of language, and, by extension, the human, running through the work.

~~ thyroid follies ~~

~~ sac-like structures ~~

~~ £1 price label still attached ~~
















something fails.

hung on a green

wall “the digestive

system” offers many

schematics and labels. Such

inner shapes and functions. okay,

today let’s lie. inside it’s perfect.

locate interior, nose, glass, tenets

Rosie Johnston’s Six-Count Jive is at the upper end of the pamphlet scale, with 30 pages of text, each page bearing three of the ’17-syllable stanzas’ advertised on the cover, with an additional three pages each with a pair of footprints, jiving away into the future. The formal description is careful to avoid reference to haiku, which is fair enough as most of the stanzas to not conform to any of that form’s conventions apart from syllable count, the one most frequently deviated from by English-language practitioners.

An introductory note tells us that this work has been a long-term project, written over a decade and dealing with the experience of and recovery from PTSD. The formal restraint of the stanza, presented in groups of three, with an additional fourth on the final page, allow distance and control in the work, a kind of detachment necessary for the making of poetry from trauma. We’re told on the blurb that the stanza poems can be read individually or in sequence, but my own view is that the latter is the best way to read them. The result is a narrative arc from abuse to divorce, diagnosis, treatment and then hope. The beginning of the journey is a very dark place:

‘We don’t get on,’ she breathes,

edges away.

‘Yes, we do,’ he laughs, alone.


That week-old bruise. Its slanting


seem to offer distant rescue.

The narrow space of the stanza means that he implied menace in a simple conversational exchange emerges unforced, the measured tone of the language framing the darkness. Johnston uses flexible line-length and natural rhythm within the 17-syllable limit to create a subtle range of effects that act as a measure (in every sense) of the experiences she is exploring and relating. It is, I think, telling that the moment of catharsis hinges on poetry, the two stanzas that end page 30 and begin page 31, the move of the eye from page to page being part of the release:

In the rage of a poem, where the

fury starts,

lives revolution.




In the calm of a poem, where the

struggle stops,

lies resolution.

This leap from fury to calm, from revolution to resolution, a leap that can be made in both directions, is what enables the hope of the poem’s ending (and I read the entire sequence as a single poem), in that extra final stanza, one that cannot really be read without the one before it:

A tingle pulses on her tongue tip – one

word, unspoken, shelters



Love. On the doorstep. Kissing its

own fingers

warm till she lifts the latch.

In the interesting times we find ourselves inhabiting, this joyful nostos is Johnston’s gift to her readers; that survival is not only possible, but desirable, that we can be agents in our own lives, and that poetry can be a part of that journey. This is an important little book. Read it.

Peter Hughes’ Oystercatcher is one of the best publishers of pamphlets in the UK, producing a steady stream of consistently interesting innovative writing. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Rivering can be read as an extension of here earlier book Swims, which begins and ends with swims in the river Dart in her native Devon. Rivering documents a summer of swimming in that same river; almost inevitably readers will be reminded of Alice Oswald’s Dart, but while Oswald read the Dart outside-in, basing her work on walking by and talking about the river, Burnett starts from a point of literal immersion. Using open filed forms, she evokes the sense of being in the water and with the water:

I dip my toe in

the slipstream

raw but not bruising

we do not hurt each other the water & I slick with light & gold may be

the sweat of the sun

but also of the body

The summer’s swimming was 2016, and political events impinge and are absorbed into the poem’s wider ecology.

The final section, ‘Grendel’s Head’, draws on the episode in Beowulf where the hero returns to Heorot bearing the head of the creature he has just killed under water, preferring this token of victory to any of the gold and jewels he could have returned with.

back to the streets everyone bold as women

everyone back from the lakecliff                                with the head of the thing they have


if you are ready                                 to come to land

warriors of water



Then come in marching

It’s not for nothing that Burnett’s heroes are women, and the thing slain remains ungendered. Rivering ends on a note of empowerment achieved through swimming, and it’s a specifically female experience. The immersion the poem charts is an act of self-discovery, but it is a self that is part of, not separate to, its experience of the world as unitary. This is profoundly ecological writing.

If Burnett is immersed in water, in 2019 the vase in piece Rod Mengham seems absorbed in time, mythic, historic and personal:

I rid myself of the drone of the past

but an overpowering need to look back


far out to sea, to the West of Spain

shows nothing left but cinders afloat

no halls or bowers to scan

This past assembles itself as a kind of shared identity, from the Athenian cave where the cult of Pan was celebrated, through Ovid, and Pan again via the transformation of Syrinx into the god’s pipe, the Iceni women that appear very early on, the Last King of the Angles (conflated with Peter Hughes, dedicatee of the poem of that title) to JH Prynne, who recasts memory ‘from the ground up’.

On one level, this shared past is the shattered vase, and one of the factors in its breaking is spelled out explicitly a few lines after the drone above:

there is nothing in Paradise, nothing there


but burst water mains, ever flowing

like innate ideas of Brexit.

This conscious breach with the shared tradition reads backwards as the cause of the ‘cinders’, the burning down of an ideal history to a kind of Waste Land, a public isolation that bleeds into the private sphere, via Eliot and, perhaps, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (the poems in this pamphlet is run through with other poets):

there is no spirit who walks beside you

only a coincidence and its shadow


we all walk slowly into solitude

a blind colossus in an exiled land

each eye turned into stone

The presiding tone is a kind of radical pessimism, of endings without new beginnings. Even the prose poem ‘Le Square Villemin’, which consists for the most part of a careful documentation of the view from the narrator’s window, is deeply elegiac, a litany of things left undone:

Leaning at twelve different angles are twelve poles, twelve slim columns of wood, two meters long and too thick for one hand to encircle. Lovingly fashioned, they were placed here when first acquired and have rested in the same positions ever since. And leaning against the twelve is an old, sit-up-and-beg, French bicycle that I have never seen anyone mount or park. The poles, palettes and leaves are all at rest, but the bicycle is not.

It may or may not be significant that the titular square was once home to Afghan refugees, but even without this information, the chain that links stasis and rupture, the personal and the public, runs through these almost reluctant poems, mature work by a poet of quiet skill, that enact the sentiment that closes the Syrinx poem: ‘It is a gift I have///and this poem just kills me.’ Where next?

Daniel Gustafsson is a poet whose work is new to me and it appears that his previous published work was in both English and Swedish. Fordings is also concerned with time, all things and actions are equally present here, in a kind of mythic continuity. The Scandinavian influence is apparent here, with the location of the poems having a strong sense of ‘the North’ and much of the language and music being influenced by Anglo Saxon metrics and imagery. This context is established early on, in the eight-part sequence ‘Saga’, the second poem in the booklet:

Call him Halfdan,

whole-hearted halfwit,

heedlessly hell-bent on glory.

Gustafsson, the blurb tells us, ‘writes and lectures on the intersection of philosophy, theology and the arts’, and this conjunction is clearly present, with ‘Saga’ reflecting on the moment of conversion, the bridge from Odin to Christ as mediated through representation:

Say he suffered a change of art,

saw the images altered,


saw his all-father orphaned there,

strung from a branch of the rood.

Here, as elsewhere in these poems, the rhythm and alliteration serve to mark the continuity of past and present that marks Gustafsson’s meditation on continuity, on building a present that incorporates the past, as in these lines from ‘The Buried Ship’:

                                Still, though

rafters are bare, let us repair

to these ruins, make of this ramshackle

ship-shape a home. Come here

castaways, as stewards,

stubbornly setting the thwart-boards

in line, Rig up your staves

for a scaffold; kneel down

where speedwell aspires.

There are parallels with the work of David Jones here in the breaking down of barriers between then and now, the myth and history, sacred and profane. My feeling is that Gustafsson may end up exploring this poetic landscape on a larger scale eventually. Whether or not I’m right, this little book contains narrow multitudes and rewards re-reading.