Recent Reading December 2020

Nostoc, Daragh Breen, Shearsman, 2020, ISBN 9781848616912, £9.95

Fruit, Matthew Geden , SurVision Books, 2020, ISBN 978-1-912963-16-4, €6.99

The Coming-Down Time, Robert Selby, Shoestring Press, 2020, ISBN: 978-1-912524-51-8, £10.00

neutral milky halo, Maria Sledmere, Guillemot Press, 2020, ISBN 978-1-913749-09-5, £8.00

Reviewing Daragh Breen’s What the Wolf Heard  a few years ago, I was struck by the Gothic tone of the work and the not altogether benign influence of Ted Hughes. In Nostoc, the poems are, if anything, more firmly Gothic than in the earlier collection, but the Hughesian world of mythic archetypes has been left behind. In fact, these new poems move from the world of myth to the world of folklore, and Breen’s distinctive voice emerges in all its Gothic clarity.

I should take a moment to clarify what I mean when I call this work Gothic. Breen introduces elements of horror not just to shock, but to broaden the range of available experience in his writing. The ‘I’ in these poems is not unproblematic, but neither is it decentered, it is immersed in a folkloric world, whose logic and sense of time is operating in a different order of reality. Breen is decentering the lyric voice by broadening the range of available experience to include the products of Gothic imagination.

The book comprises five sections, the first of which is concerned with the artificial breeding of dogs and involves talking animals, mutual recognition between wolves, foxes and dogs and historic information on the breeding of the Irish Wolfhound.  The writing here neatly illustrates what I mean by Gothic:

Where are you going with that blood

on your shirt, boy? the fox asked me

I didn’t recognize him at first

being out of that raggedy dress

he normally wore. He said that he’d

been out helping with the lambing

reddling the frost around the new-borns.

The horror here is filtered as if through the language of a previously-unknown Border Ballad, the dram landscape made ordinary.

The following three sections deal with art, witchcraft and the ultimate Gothic note of the Crucifixion. The non-human world is foregrounded through some very closely observed writing, as in this description of a raven’s nest from ‘A Raven is Crowned in the West’

a raised curve of bone-dried

Connemara twigs, bailing twine [sic], the husked

thorns of rusted barbed wire, fishing line,

sheep hip-bones and the matted wafts of

their snaggled fleeces –

The final section sees a shift, with the horrors of the imagination giving way to the experience of the death of a father, located in the very concrete landscape of Cork city. This section is also alive with animals, especially crows, seen as augury, but the key recognition is that in the face of death all else fails, there is no scrying of nature that can ameliorate the ultimate absence:

For months after you died

I tried to describe the birds

above the city as I stared out

from within a sheep’s skull,

knowing that the light had gone

to weed and would soon ivy

with night. But all that I saw

was dust, kicked-up by the

ghosts of white dancing Spanish

horses

These poems, this book, sees Breen enter fully into his own poetic voice, and it’s a voice that is pretty much unique in Irish verse. It’s a collection I’ll be re-reading for some time to come.

At first glance, Matthew Geden’s Fruit is a more modest affair. It’s a pamphlet of 38 pages containing poems in Geden’s characteristically quiet mode, a mode that works beautifully. Where Breen uses language to shock us awake, Geden focuses more on the tricky nature of the medium itself. In the opening poem, ‘Favourite Nymphs’ he uses the language of fly fishing to comment on the slippery nature of words, as many of the flies are not flies but ‘shrimps and beetles’; words mean what we use them to mean.

The focus on language as slippery medium plays out across syntax in the sequence called ‘Stolen Parables’ where the unit of composition is the line, and lines interact in a manner that reminds me of some of Tom Raworth’s work:

twilight till evening leopard

the years vertical bars

changed stone love and

tearing wind suffocated

a dream this prison

but the main achievement of the booklet is the title poem, a sequence of sixteen numbered sections in which the rich fragility of fruit serves as a context in which the poem plays out. There is an ‘i’ and a ‘you’ and an implicit narrative of a fractured ‘we’ in language that is both pellucidly clear and somewhat hermetic at the same time. At certain points, the inner, private world blends into a more public, outer sphere:

the simple man

bruises easily

watches his children

consumed by mud

traitors turn to you

bury you in the crowd

he is pushed

against the wall

shakes the blood

out of his eyes

happy to be alive

The language of fruit (bruising, consumption, the espalier effect in the third stanza) overlays the language of crisis to create layers of meaning for the reader to unpeel.

But the thing that most satisfies in Geden’s writing is the musicality, an undemonstrative lyric flow in which alliteration, assonance and the interplay of long and short vowels are deployed to make unobtrusive but vital patterns of sound. Listen:

the mirror takes you

through the undergrowth

tangled groves gone

wild with pithy beauty

a distant song might

call your first name

the one given to you

by the lonely earth

here in my hands

a ball of fire burns

It looks simple, but the careful balance of sound, the playing with and dodging of the obvious, is a result of careful selection by a poet with a very fine ear indeed.

Robert Selby’s The Coming-Down Time is firmly located in England, a very particular England of farms and country people and history, even more specifically, it’s the south east of the country that serves as landscape and major subject for Selby’s poems.

The book consists of three sections, the first of which, ‘East of Ipswich’, revolves around the poet’s maternal grandparents, their experiences of the last days of the horse as a major engine of farm work, of World War II, and post-war modernity. The blurb compares Selby to Hardy and Larkin, but while much of the poetic terrain is similar, he lacks the bleak pessimism of the former and the bleak bitterness of the latter. The poems in this first section are careful to avoid the moralizing of much contemporary ‘family history’ anecdotal poetry, focusing on the ‘simple’ act of remembering, a genuinely complex thing to do. Selby is acutely aware that history is a process, not a point in time, and he shows us this through the layering of memory upon memory, the past of the child poet being as much history as the grandparental stories he hears.

Tea is served in glass cups too hot to hold

He stirs two sugars into mine, three into his own –

making up for all the sugar boats that went down.

She hasn’t skimped on the milk, full cream stuff

delivered in pint bottles with silver foil crowns

by the white-coated Unigate milkman

dawn brings whistling from his three-wheeled float.

[from ‘The Divide’]

Selby’s approach can be seen clearly in this passage; the attention to detail, the quiet music of assonance and eye rhyme, as in the own/down/crown line endings, the unfussy syntax. This first section has all the graces of, say, Edward Thomas who strikes me as a more interesting forerunner.

The second section, ‘Shadows on the Barley’, lacks the cohesion of the first. It’s made up of a set of poems that feel a bit like explorations of various modes, with the poet taking on a number of personae, as well as giving us a little more family history and some nicely done love poetry:

You think you saw firecrests in the elms

so why don’t we go and see?

I follow, and my delight

at having you with me

I mask as a possible sighting.

When you lean in to borrow my sightline

up my outstretched arm and finger

the weight against my shoulder

is one of a possible future,

balanced precariously

as a sweet-wrapper snagged in a tree.

[from ‘The Firecrests’]

The final section, ‘Chevening’, is a sequence of twelve numbered sections exploring the beginning of a potential relationship, with the poet-narrator wooing (this seems the only apt term) a Canadian woman living in London, via a trip to the Chevening estate in Kent. The extraordinary thing here is that he uses England as his main attraction, the focus being on having the woman fall in love with the country as much as with him, as in these lines from the final poem:

England did all it could. It hoisted the brolly

of its microclimate and put on its best southern face;

it drew back the nettles and oil-painted

its moths into butterflies. It muted the motorway

but turned up the wood pigeons’ volume,

darted the walks with proud robin.

This slightly odd view of poet and place as extensions of each other are typical of the sequence, and of Selby’s work here in general. To quote a line from earlier in the sequence ‘This is the real England, I say, so what do you think?’ To which the only answer is, no it isn’t. The real England is also London and Manchester, Brixton and Leeds; the Industrial Revolution, empire and colonialism, urban blight and shining steel and glass are as much England as the gardens of Kent, but fit less comfortably into a vision of English exceptionalism that seems to come naturally but which sits uneasily with, say, an Irish reader.  Selby is undoubtedly a talented poet, but it would be good to see him expand his thematic preoccupations to a more inclusive view of what England, and the world, is.

By way of contrast, the poems in Maria Sledmore’s pamphlet are notes from the now, poems of glittering surfaces that contrive to be both immediate and enticingly imprecise. They also reflect the strange times we live in, with references to quarantine, lockdown and the replacement of direct human contact by technology in passages like:

Swerve

and sweet.

In the Time

of the Face

is arrival

[from ‘Marshmallow’]

or even entire poems:

Sundae

In lockdown

the ice cream trucks this emptiness

that is city, selling the opioid

of a sugar requirement. I count time

with a dream

where I can’t stop breathing.

This poem

is a drive-thru for consciousness.

You are losing

the 99% of nothing. It comes

in hundreds and thousands.

It tastes of the eeriest internet

Here we see Sledmore’s method in miniature, the hard surface, the abrupt syntactic shifts, as, for instance, in the noun/verb parallel reading of ‘trucks’, the precision that clarifies nothing but the indeterminacy of the experiences that the poem is sifting through. In the title poem, this virtuosity is applied to a sestina in very short lines. In another poem, ‘Roseability’, 48 of the 49 lines rhyme on ‘roses’, the exception being a deft reversal of expectations in the final line:’ of prior species, gorgeousness, a grafted hunger’.

This short pamphlet ends with the long poem ‘Flotsam’, a more ambitious piece that the shorter poems that go before. It’s striking, with many moments of brilliance, verbal flotsam washed up from the sea of experience and language, experience in language:

I was jobless

as the natural light, listening

to your comedown opening chord

which is to say I think we should stop

seeing, I think we should stop

seeing at all.

However, after repeated reading the whole doesn’t quite cohere for me, which is probably my loss. Sledmere is new to me, and I’m grateful to Guillemot for this small and typically handsomely produced introduction to her work.