Electronica, ephemera, etcetera

A World Where, Paul Brookes, Nixes Mate Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0999188217, Kindle Edition £2.30.

The Headpoke and Firewedding, Paul Brookes, Alien Buddha Press, 2017, ISBN: 1548371858, free on Kindle Unlimited.

The No Breath, John Goodby, The Red Ceiling Press, 2017, £6.00 inc. p&p (UK), £7.50 inc. p&p (Europe), £9.00 inc p&p (World).

a world whereAppropriately enough for a poet I came across for the first time on Twitter and WordPress, Paul Brookes seems to specialise in being published online. The two e-books under review here represent the boundarylessness of the Internet as medium, being the work of a Barnsley-based Englishman published in the United States and distributed online.
Brookes describes himself as ‘a shop assistant, after employment as a security guard, postman, admin. assistant, lecturer, poetry performer’ and his work reflects the breadth of this life experience, coming, as it does, from outside any kind of mainstream British poetry.
A World Where comprises a series of imaginings of a world where an inversion of norms is the norm, in poems whose title often take the form ‘x is y (‘Youth is Age’, ‘Loss is Good’) or otherwise express humorous paradox. This strategy allows him to reflect on the absurd unfairness of many aspects of the world as is, of lives lived in the margins, but without the ‘romance’ of liminality:

I’ll keep it short.
Folk don’t reckon.
Soft in the head.

To share’s forbidden.
Grip my hand, lad
for sores
and livelong pain.
(from ‘Before “Get Lost!” Nobody Tells Me’)

These poems are full of disease, decay and death, of death, especially, in life:

He touches me. His skin
warm. An abnormal
response. I can tell

he is dead. His heart

will beat. He will walk and run.
This is how death shows itself.
(from ‘A Movement is Death’)

But they find hope in the simple power of language, the power of simple language, as in this poem, which defies extraction and cries out to be quoted in full:

The Undo

Unwalk the walk,
Step back the step forward,

unstride the stride,
exhale the blossom,

unspring the spring
unsprung the sprung,

unsee the seen,
untouch the touch,

unsmile the smile back,
unlaugh the laughter,

unlive the life,
undead the dead.

headpokeWhile A World Where is made up of a series of discrete short poems revolving around a single idea, The Headpoke and Firewedding is a more ambitious work. It consists of two longish sequences, the first of which, ‘The Headpoke’, hovers around the theme of fire, in its domestic and primeval emanations. Where the language of the earlier collection is quotidian, here Brookes plays with mythic, almost ritualistic, registers. In the opening set, the quotidian act of lighting a fire in a grate takes on the weight of a solemn ceremony, undercut somewhat by the voice of the grate urging a return to the everyday.

Old ash and cinders block gust makes for
poor-burning, makes for poor-thinking
prepare my gob for my tongues my gob
packed with ash piled ash in my grate
piled ash in my head crumbles like walls
from incendiaried homes

stop wandering off when I’m talking to you!

ash up against my fire-bars makes them

overheat makes you overthink

so they sag and “burn through” make me
virginal something to focus on something
for focus recall collecting ears of spelt in
reaper’s baskets

The use of formatting to weave other voices and registers to the text is used here and elsewhere to great effect. There are strong echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in places:

Heart-ship tugs at its harbour.
My imagination in mere-flood,
in whale plunge, wide in its turns
eager for seas vastness. Gannet yells
as whale-way spirit quickens over holm’s deep

At other times, the influence of Finnegans Wake is apparent:

Her flaps
of the waterbride
of the waveskin.
Her inner lips of the river,
spring and waterfalls,
fermented honey drip.

The second section, ‘Firewedding’, moves away from the domestic world of grates to the natural order. It consists mainly of sections in Brooke’s South Yorkshire dialect followed by versions of the same text in ‘Received English’, the latter generally being longer than the former, which may be part of the point.

breathe in mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.

watch massive sticky full moon rise amber an gold as if honey outa hive

yon balefires r small suns
t’ massive blaze nar set this short neet


Inhale mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.

watch massive sticky full moon rise in amber and gold as if dipped in honey out of a hive

These balefires are small suns to the massive blaze above now set this short night

It’s a potentially interesting idea, but it tends to lose impact after a couple of iterations and you’re left thinking that the dialect sections might have been more powerful left to stand on their own merit. Nevertheless, Brookes’ voice is his own, and it’s a voice worth reading for its own sake.

John Goodby is an Englishman living in Wales who has written some of the most important critical responses to innovative Irish poetry. He’s also a leading Dylan Thomas scholar, as evidenced by his immaculate editing of the Centenary Collected Poems. He’s also a fine poet in his own right. His most recent collection, The No Breath, is published by The Red Ceiling Press in an edition of 40, so the review copy I have is digital, one of the interesting possibilities that new technology allows to small publishers and their authors.
Goodby’s poems tend to be small, disjunctive snapshots of energy, in a disembodied diction that evades the idea of a single speaking voice. He favours the lightest of punctuation, and often the main or only punctuation used is initial capitalisation of every line:


Blue silk slats slander perfume
Tied with a fist conversation
A fishbone in the mirror a grave
Walking in the dark turning-point
It is a lion cathedral decline

Which has the odd effect of causing each line to start with a missed beat, start-stopped rather than end-stopped. This is a key part to the distinctive music of these poems, but Goodby is not averse to more conventional notation, including alliteration and assonance, creating sound patterns that are almost lyrical, while mirroring the disjunction of the syntax, s in the ‘w’ and long and short ‘e’ sounds in this passage from ‘Morn’.

At three with the secrets of the world
We turn when you come to bed
From the well I had not understood
The breath you have been working

Goodby, like Brookes, has a developed a distinctive voice, low key, minor key even, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

DSC_0016Finally, a wonderful mixed bag of goodies of the kind that I suppose we have to call ephemera came from Rupert Loydell when I asked for the rest of the Smallminded Books series after reviewing Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree a while back. The full set includes work by Loydell himself, Martin Stannard, Robert Shepherd, John Phillips, John Martone, Sandra Tappenden, Patricia Farrell, Andrea Moorhead and a host of others, including the excellent Sarah Cave, whose work is relatively new to me. Her tiny folded book, Cat on Ice, is a sequence about a fox, Slava:

Beneath a ridge of granite
Slava fashioned a limpet crucifix
and sucked his fingers clean
tasting sea-life to death.

The bold formatting calls out words on six of the seven pages that form an additional poem, whether intended or not I cannot say:

A bear
in shadow
limpet crucifix
seven seals
a solitary spruce

Also in the packet were 5 other folded A5 booklets, these of four A6 pages each, with images front and back and inside two poems with the same titles as the images. The series goes under the collective title Joyful Mysteries, numbered #1 to #5. In the first and third, the poems are by Loydell and Peter Gillies, the second and fourth feature Loydell and Cave again, and the fifth has two poems by Loydell, and the whole thing circles around the Annunciation. The final lines of the last poem, ‘God Thoughts’, capture something of the tone of the whole:

God hated being nagged by words.
They’d bugged him from the beginning,
then teamed up with consciousness
in an attempt to make people think.
He used to know how to walk on water.

Finally, there are five A5 card covered saddle-stitched pamphlets under the Analogue Flashback Books imprint that do what they say on the tin; they are a bit like time travellers from the 1970s and 80s, the great era of the photocopier and long-armed stapler for little presses. Three of the five are anthologies of sorts, one a set of responses from various poets (including a number of those who appear in the Smallminded series) to a photograph called The Poet; another is a set of prose pieces on albums that were formative in one way or another to the writers; the third is a kind of mock theology reader. Of the remaining two, Loydell’s Inner Space Ghost Machine is, apparently, a reworking of a book by Daniel Y Harris, but as I don’t know the original I felt like I was missing the point somewhat.
The fifth, Impossible Songs: 21 Annunciations, is a collaboration between Loydell and Cave that covers much the same ground as the Joyful Mysteries set, even referring to some of the same images, but in more extended form. The individual poems here are not attributed to either writer, but there are some possible clues as to authorship. Ten of the poems have titles printed on bold, title case while the rest are in regular, all uppercase, with one of the first group being dedicated ‘for Rupert’ and one of the second ‘for Sarah Cave’. This may, of course, be a complete red herring; one way or another, it’s a very interesting little book:

Your cousin’s child
came to die. Mary’s father says, ‘we all come to die’.
He came to die for our sins. ‘We take our sins with us’.

John’s hear lies half-formed
on another woman’s salver.

Salome looks smug over the reception desk.
She thought you wouldn’t want to say goodbye.

This parcel of paper is a fine celebration of the joys of quick, small-scale analogue poetry publishing at its best, long live print.


Recent Reading Six: More Short Reviews

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.

Wound Scar MemoryIt’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.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:

.the crossing.
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 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:

Towards five
in the morning:
My hand creates
the words
I write,
the words I write
create me.

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.

Always this
wasn’t it.

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.

What the wolf heardShearsman 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
dark-ridged muck.

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.

MW_Bewick_ScarecrowScarecrow 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 editor@stridemagazine.co.uk. I’m off to try to get the rest of the set.

Say Something Back, by Denise Riley: A Review

Say Something Back, by Denise Riley, Picador, 2016, ISBN: 978144727037, £9.99

[This review was first published in Issue 2 of Eborakon]

When a poet asks ‘what is X for’, they are really asking how can a suitable shape of words be found in which to frame the question. In Say Something Back, Denise Riley ponders the question ‘what is absence for’ and solves the problem of framing the question in song as few others have ever managed. The central absence in question is that of a dead son, and the inquiry is framed in a balanced construction which Riley achieves by (almost) opening and closing the book with two long poems, ‘A Part Song’, on the death of her son, and ‘A gramophone on the subject’, on the death of countless sons in WWI.

I say almost opening, as ‘A Part Song’ is preceded by a short poem called ‘Maybe; maybe not’, a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13:11 (‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’) which identifies the singer/poet with natural process. Inevitably, the reader is directed to the next Biblical verse, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ This verse speaks to one of the core questions that runs through the book; after such absence, what next? The idea of meeting the absent one again after death is examined, hoped for and, ultimately, set to one side.

A Part Song opens with a section that is somewhat modelled on Pound’s ‘Envoi’ to the first part of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ (itself an echo of a 17th century song by Waller), which immediately addresses Riley’s core problem ‘You principle of song, what are you for now’. Now is, of course, the time after bereavement, but also can be read as referring to contemporary literary culture. Pound instructs his poem to endure; Riley has no such ambition, it seems:

But little song, don’t so instruct yourself
For none are hanging around to hear you.
They have gone bustling or stumbling well away.

And yet. In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran in The Shearsman Review, Riley says that in her career ‘[t]he only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope.’ This sense of hope relates to the collection’s title, which comes from some lines by W.S. Graham that serve as epigraph to the book. The idea of ‘saying something back’ implies a conversation; the poem says something back to the absence, but the absent one also says something back to the poem. This something is made concrete in the final section of ‘A Part Song’ when the poet gives voice to her dead son:

My sisters and my mother
Weep dark tears for me
I drift as lightest ashes
Under a southern sea
O let me be, my mother
In no unquiet grave
My bone-dust is faint coral
Under the fretful wave

In the same interview, Riley talks about rhyme acting as a ‘guarantor of continuing and perceived time, and of human listening, attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language’. She was specifically referring to the poem ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’:

Over its pools of greeny melt
The rearing ice will tilt.
To make rhyme chime again with time,
I sound a curious lilt.

But the observation relates equally to a number of other poems in the book that use rhyme as an organising force. In ‘A gramophone’, rhyme echoes the contemporary poetry of war, where hope hangs in the balance and where the initial question hangs in the air:

What is it for some name to ‘live’?
It’s lifeless. Set in stone.
Its bearer proved too slight for it.
He’d always been ‘Unknown’.

Throughout the collection, the formal restraints of song, with or without rhyme, provide a sense of emotional restraint, a pattern of emotion expressed, and then drawn back, an exploration of the language to enact this pattern in, that is deeply moving.

Still looking for lost people – look unrelentingly.
‘They died’ is not an utterance in the syntax of life
where they belonged, no belong – reanimate them
not minding if the still living turn away, casually.

(Listening for lost people)

The close presence of absence acts, inevitably, as a memento mori, with references to the frailty of the poet/singer woven through the fabric of the book. One particularly telling instance is the poem ‘Tree seen from bed’, which opens as a close observation of the movement of the crown of a tree in sun and wind. This leads to a realisation of the unavoidable fall of autumn, before turning in on the invalid observer:

Tree watched from my sickbed, read to me.
Read from the hymnal of frank life – of how
to be old, yet never rehearse that factor cosily.

One starting point for this poem would appear to be Paul Verlaine’s ‘Le ciel est par-dessus le toit’, and like the Verlaine, the poem is both a premonition of death and a lament for the poet’s lost youth, in both available senses. But still the song carries hope with it; if we can learn to be old we can learn to reconcile ourselves to the consequences. And in the end, the shape words can make of the question is the tentative curve of hope:

Hope is an inconsistent joy
Yet blazes to renew
Its lambent resurrections of
Those gone ahead of you.

Denise Riley is among the most consistently interesting British poets of our time, and Say Something Back is a major achievement. These quiet, insistent, singing poems engage with one of the most fundamental questions of human existence in a way that neither simplifies nor obscures its complexity. Neither do they offer simple solutions where none exist. They do, however, offer the possibility of hope, the hope that the absence may just say something back.

Fay Musselwhite, Matthew Clegg and Michael Haslam: A Review

Contraflow by Fay Musselwhite, Longbarrow Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1906175306, £12.99

The Navigators by Matthew Clegg, Longbarrow Press, 2015, ISBN 9781906175269, £12.99

Scaplings  by Michael Haslam, Calder Valley Poetry, ISBN 9780993497384, £7.00

contraflow-cover-6-aprContraflow is Fay Musselwhite’s first collection, a substantial book of over 100 pages in Longbarrow’s typically handsome, pleasingly designed hardback series. It’s a book full of people doing things and the writing is suitably muscular and physical to reflect this. Often the activity is heavy with a sense of necessity, things done to ensure survival, be it foraging for firewood:

Alone or in pairs by dark we go,

every day or so, for armfuls that warm us

twice at least – as we handle it home,

cleave it apart for the hearth brought to light

by peeling back years of emulsion, paper, tin

and a squatting of soot.

[From ‘Firewood’]

or visiting a friend in a block of council flats:

I spiral up the concrete stairwell,

and my footsteps reverb – I can hear them

gaining on me half a floor below.

At the landing I push on through the wired glass

to carpet that clings to my soles,

a grin for Min’s spy-hole and I’m in.

[From ‘Tales from Min’s and Other Storeys’]

There’s a heft to the writing that enacts the action here, a pleasure in sound patterning that is absent in so much contemporary poetry. Musselwhite’s use of assonance, internal rhyme and alliteration lends a musicality to her verse, and it’s not in any sense fey music, this is full-blown orchestration and it makes for invigorating reading. There is, I think, more than a trace of the influence of Dylan Thomas, but Musselwhite’s voice is all her own.

And despite her interests in walking and rivers, the landscape of these poems is essentially urban, or more correctly fringe urban. Musselwhite is drawn to marginal places: deprived estates; disused industrial sites; hidden rivers; abandoned mill races. There is a sense of people and nature surviving, but not thriving, everything just getting by, an open, questioning narrative pulse that lifts the ‘I’ centred poems to a level way above the curse of the closed, self-satisfied anecdote that infects so much contemporary verse. Another strand in the book is the decline and death of British post-war liberal optimism: planned Modernist ‘rational’ housing intended to usher in a Utopian equality of opportunity becomes so-called sink estates; the Welfare State, designed to act as a safety-net against poverty becomes a poverty trap; the 60s drug culture dream of opening the doors of perception actually opens a trapdoor to despondency and addiction.

At the heart of the book there are two rivers, the Rivelin and Loxley, especially in to sequences, the long ‘Memoir of a Working River’, in thirteen sections, and the shorter ‘Flood Tryptic: The Loxley’. In the former, the course of the river is tracked from source to its confluence with the Loxley. Musselwhite draws on the historical record of the Rivelin’s industrial past as power source for corn and steel mills, as well as her apparent personal familiarity with the valley as source material. She chooses to exemplify the river as an old man, a device that can be a bit clunky at points, but the poem contains some of her best verbal music, as in this evocation of water tumbling over a weir and into a mill race:

while the risen elite, fleet

silver-lick shifting, race keen

is chicaned to a side lane


to slip along thinly, spit gravel, he’s shallow

arrives in a vast mud-lined vessel – pent

seething, he swells

And, in the eleventh section, there is a glimpse of that accidental rewilding that happens when we abandon places we can no longer derive economic benefit from. It’s perhaps the most optimistic, Edenic even, passages in the whole book:

 Trees steal back to comfort healing land –

banished for centuries by grind’s fear of flame

– as wheel-gates close he’s dappled again.

The Flood sequence also draws on documentary sources and personal knowledge, this time to focus on a flood that caused havoc and death in 1864 when the river burst its banks. The writing is so immediate and vivid that on initial reading without reference to the notes, I thought it was a more recent flood that the poet had been immediately involved in. In these poems, Musselwhite is a particularly vivid archaeologist, drawing on such shards of evidence that are available to her to evoke an entire world with an admirable economy of language.

Contraflow is a formidable first book, carefully constructed, generally very well written, and very nicely produced. It leaves me looking forward in anticipation to what comes next from Musselwhite’s pen.

navigators-openThe Navigators is Matthew Clegg’s second full-length book, both again from Longbarrow, and again it’s a handsome piece of bookmaking. The book circles around the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, rivers flow through it, as it were. Carrying on from the poems in the final section of his previous collection, West North East, Clegg uses more open, freer forms for many of the poems in this newer book, a fact that he recognises in a note at the end. His original poems are bookended by versions of short passages from Greek epic, opening with Odysseus in Hades from Book 11 of the Odyssey and closing with the effect of Orpheus’ song on Jason’s crew from near the beginning of the Argonautika.

It is impossible to preface a book of poems with that particular passage from Homer without inviting comparison with Pound’s Cantos However, Clegg’s choice of epilogue makes it clear that he does not share Pound’s epic pretentions. Apollonius was the first Greek epic poet to place an almost clinical dissection of love at the centre of his work, and it is a different Pound quote, again from Clegg’s note, that reveals what is at the core of this book; the line quoted is from ‘Exile’s Letter’: ‘there is no end of things of the heart’. The Navigators takes us on a trip around Clegg’s love of particular places and people: his grandfather, the boat he built in retirement, and the canals they sailed it on; the Lake District, the waterways of South Yorkshire; a handful of women who shared some of these experiences with him.

The writing is clear and understated:

The thought of sleeping on my granddad’s boat

would tie a little reef knot in my gut

in case it might be true what my cousin said

about the earwigs squeezed in every nook

that scaled your neck and face when you dozed off

and crawled into your ears and eyes and mouth.

[from ‘The Passage’]

There is a tendency at times for the poems to veer off into somewhat inconsequential anecdotal chatter, but in the best poems, such as the haiku-like ‘Trig Points’ sequence and the very strong final ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’ set, there’s a pleasing supple strength:


you’re a mollusc

and we’re

squawking gulls.


You draw

your shell down


and suck.

[from ‘Counting Stones’]


Greens and ochres and cobalts ink the walls,

but offer no windows of light, no icon.
Your mania was stilled here in these pools.


You’d almost forgotten your slow approaches
to the sloshing cave mouth. Those seagull flocks
were grace notes rising from new-scored horizon.

[from ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’]

Overall, despite some unevenness that you would expect from a collection of poetry that runs to over 123 pages, this is an interesting book and a clear advance in range and technique from West North East. The ‘Trig Points’ sequence, written when Clegg was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, is one of the most accomplished new haiku sequences in English that I’ve come across for some time. The sequence, or renku, maps the inner and outer worlds with a musicality that is all too uncommon in the form:

Lit coals crack and fly.

Later, dim, they’ll give nothing

To their next of kin.

scaplingsThere’s a half line in the 36th and final numbered section in Michael Haslam’s Scaplings that could almost serve as a stand-alone review of the book: ‘With where I live I do love to be friends.’ The sequence is a declaration of love for the country around Haslam’s home in Hebden Bridge and the words and phrases used to name its features in the local dialect. Haslam’s first book, Continual Song, is one of the key texts of the later stages of the British Poetry Revival and announced the arrival of a significant new voice in British verse.

That book was, in part, an investigation into the nature of soul, and this is a direct link with Scaplings. In ‘A brief glossography’ appended to the end of the book, Haslam remarks that ‘Soul is that classic oxymoron. An immaterial substance’. As I read these poems I found myself reflecting that if soul is a function of the mind and mind is, for a poet at least, achieved through language, then the soul of this poetry is to be found in Haslam’s exuberant, joyous wordplay that opens up the spaces between words to let the world in:

 The sweet tea tastes eternally ephemeral as fairy cake,

a light confection, as to play is like to laik, as plea is pleased

to plead for pleasure, prayer for the revenue, unmeasured praise

in reverie, a sheer lake glade, a risen rose, a misted

forest mere

[from ‘7’, and once you start quoting, it’s almost impossible to stop]


Like both Musselwhite and Clegg, Haslam shares a fascination with the particularities of the landscape of the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, it is possible to suspect the influence of Thomas (and British surrealist/apocalyptic poetry of the 1930s/40s):

The invisible worms in the visible words may squirm within

an invalid homology between the workaday world

and the demonic cobblers tampering with pins

the blethered soles.

[from ‘20’]

As I said above, Scaplings is a love poem, and a poem to spring, with its own aisling figure in ‘april in a flowered apron’ (in the glossography, Haslam is at pains to point out that he uses lower-case initials or proper nouns to create fruitful ambiguities). The flowered apron will, depending on your tastes and reading, summon up images of La Primavera by Botticelli, the Welsh flower goddess Blodeuwedd, or even Samuel Ferguson’s ‘The Apron of Flowers’, a poem that owes much to the old song ‘Do You Love an Apple’.  Haslam’s Calder Valley is known intimately through both immediate experience and his understanding of how it is named, and his relationship is priapic, its fecundity issuing in the language of his poem.

 Wick quickens, growth regrows; thickets thicken; birkenshaws explode

their nodes in filamental delicates from root to leaf in blue cerulean

along lines of genetic codes. A thunder showers from high heaven

to the green lungs sprung from earth beneath the flowers of the heath

all under powers gathering their lower lower glowers o’er the hearth,

the heart of hillfog heathen hovel home, to puddle in the peaty loam

in muddy muddle.

[from ‘35’]

Haslam also invokes the twin shades of Blake and Newton, poles of opposing views of the world, and despite the visionary nature of his language, Newton is not really rejected; how, after all, could a dedicated glossator reject science? Indeed, there is a fine irony, a kind of double bluff, in lines like these:

Apology. I graduated from a college with small knowledge of what

frequency and wave meant, And I haven’t even heard of hymenopteran

vespology. The oakleaves fall and my imagination of the real has failed.

A scattering of spangle galls lay patterning a shining causey pavement.

[from 29]

with their fine observation of a crucial stage in the life cycle of the cynipid wasp. And this in a section that earlier alludes to the fate of Blodeuwedd’s husband Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who can only be killed in the most peculiar of circumstance by a spear that had been ‘a year in the forming’. Haslam associates the spear with an abandoned mill, ‘depressive-manic’, in an echo of Blake. Clearly, he is as aware as anyone of the eco-political dimension of our relationship with the earth, something that he specifically calls out in ‘16’:

… When water passed

to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.’

The reality is that each reading opens up new ways of engaging with Haslam’s marvellous, engaging, infuriating, baroque lyric. What holds it all together is an innate musicality, as, for instance, the perfect balance of long-short-short-long vowel sounds on the alliterating stresses of this half line from ‘18’: ‘Flayed by fangs how her fur flies.’ Thirty-odd years of listening to the sounds of the world lie behind a phrase like that. We must be grateful to Haslam for sharing the results of his investigations and to Calder Valley Poetry for publishing them with an unfussy elegance. Read this book.

Recent Reading Five: More Short Reviews

The Noise of Everything at Once, by Chris Burke, Happy House Press, paperback and Kindle, ISBN: 979-1091619073

at vacuum’s edge, by Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN: 9781326772123, 7.00 euro

Bridge of the Ford, by Susan Connolly, Shearsman Press, ISBN 978-1-84861-465-9, £10.95

Da Capo al Finne, by Krzysztof Bartnicki, ISMN: 9790902013109

CBurkeChris Burke is a Paris-based English journalist and poet whose work in this, his first collection, is a curious amalgam of a kind of Anglicised version of hard-boiled American and straightforward English whimsy. Typically, the poems in The Noise of Everything at Once use wit as a distancing device, a refusal of seriousness that might be seen as the dominant mode of post- movement English verse. This tone, for want of a better word, can be illustrated by these lines from ‘Columbo’s last case’, a poem about Alzheimer’s, addressed as the culprit in the case:

And here’s the bit

you think I’m done

then I stop, turn in the doorway

only Mrs Columbo

she lays trash bags on the doormat

keeps me from walking out

and I’ve been stuck in this spot

15 years, trawling for some line to say

It’s a tone that becomes problematic in a poem like ‘La Mort aux Juifs’, a meditation on the European tradition of casual Anti-Semitism set as a parody of ‘Adelstrop’:

Yes. I remember Death to Jews –

the name, because one afternoon…

because the name. It was ‘Juin’

I imagine it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Such lapses aside, Burke can write well and interestingly, and, when he drops the ironic mask, movingly, as in the very fine poem ‘Gravid’:

No fault of yours

the word, its strain of burden,

load, stone

to be engraved, cold


reaching up to pull

your child from weightless

space to ground

then grave. Blame me

who found the root in Latin,

lost, shivering,

something of my own to raise.

Here, with the carapace of wit stripped away, Burke finds a voice to call his own. It would be nice to think that having found it, he will produce more work in this vein.

atvacuumsedge-jpgat vacuum’s edge is composed in Michael McAloran’s characteristic disjunctive prose, a single block of italicised writing some 33 pages long, divided in to bursts ranging in length from one word to several lines, separated by slashes. These can be seemingly random phrases – ‘/dressage blind orchid/’ or almost entirely conventional sentences – ‘/time’s passage given to mark the flesh as if it were/’.

There are a number of recurring motifs that emerge: the title phrase and variants on the idea of vacuum, including ‘vacant’, ‘absent’, ‘hollow’, ‘nothing; the double ‘echo-echo’, again with variants; the idea of the human as meat, along with copious quantities of bodily excretions of all sorts. In the first third or so, imagery from the Christian mythos is prevalent, with particular emphasis on the word ‘chalice’, which is, additionally, another empty container with echoes of all sorts clustered round it. Several of the themes of these opening pages come together in the phrase ‘chalice of bone’, after which the religious language gives way, although not quite completely, to images of the body as site of decay, ‘a vacancy of meat’ with desire reduced to ‘a vacant lot of burnt bones a vacant cityscape’.

Much of this links with earlier work by McAloran that I reviewed last year, even the titles of those books, EchoNone and In Absentia, attest to a continuity across his writing, a continuity underscored by the ellipses that open and close edge. As I said in the earlier review, it would be easy to mistake McAloran’s stance for nihilism, but this would be a serious category error. Despite the surface bleakness of the work, there is an urge to persistence that denies the null. We are, after all, at vacuum’s edge, not in its suffocating heart, and the edge of a vacuum is marked by that which is full. Where there is an echo, there is a voice, and where there is a voice, there is not no thing. The act of writing is an act of affirmation in the face of the void of incomprehension, or, as the book ends, with at abundance of nothing that is still an abundance:

/it is said alone/said alone yet foreign and unsaid/undone/(an empty
echoing abounding)..

Concrete or visual poetry is not particularly common in Irish verse. Apart from Some short pieces and the epic Monster by Brian Coffey and a few pieces by Trevor Joyce, I struggle to think of any instances. Given this unfortunate circumstance, the appearance of an entire collection of visual poems by Drogheda poet Susan Connolly is, almost by default, something of an event.

Bridge of the Ford is the English for Droichead Átha, the Irish name for Connolly’s home town, and the bridge is over the Boyne,susan con the Irish river that is richest in mythological and historic freight. Indeed, the first half of the book is a sequence of images in words tracing a journey down the Boyne, through the town and out to the sea. The texts draw on place names and the visual appearance of local monuments as the material from which they are built.

The second section of the book is less unified, although religious themes predominate. The absence of a central conceit allows for a greater range of forms to emerge in this section, as Connolly plays with the words of carols, or single letters repeated in geometric patterns derived from medieval manuscripts.

In her introduction, she cites Ian Hamilton Finlay as an influence, which may have been an unfortunate thing to do. While the pieces in this book are highly competent, they lack that spark of imaginative genius that make Finlay’s concrete pieces exceptional. In fact, with the street-name map poems, the lists of names on the facing pages are more alive than the visual representations opposite.

In a note for the blurb, Paula Meehan notes that among the ‘charms’ of Bridge of the Ford ‘are the glimpses in this book of a fugitive Irish lyric poet flitting through the pages.’ Although this was clearly intended as praise, I think Meehan inadvertently highlights the main problem with this work. Connolly is, indeed, an Irish lyric poet and, like most Irish lyric poets, she is focused on locality rather than place, with the poet as actor, not recorder, the ‘I’ as an unproblematic identity, with no need for recuperation as it was never really questioned. Connolly’s decision to move to a visual mode of writing is a brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at transcending the limitations of the tradition her writing voice is embedded in. She clearly understands and enjoys playing with concrete techniques; however, pouring lyric content into a visual poetry jug cannot transform that content into something it isn’t. These poems, for all their virtues, are made as visual pieces not from necessity but from volition, and ultimately that just isn’t enough.

da capoKrzysztof Bartnicki’s Da Capo al Finne is an extraordinary, uncategorizable work of conceptual something or another. It is, on the most literal level, a reading of Finnegans Wake, but a most unusual reading. In the introduction to this English-language edition, Bartnicki declares the Wake a failed novel, based on what he sees the essential criteria that literature should ‘convey information, didactic patterns, or emotions’. He argues that despite the best efforts of the book’s exegetes, it cannot be fitted into and available literary model, and so is, in essence, unreadable as such.

Further, Bartnicki’s view is that this frees the Wake to a much wider range of uses as an object. It’s a variant on the old canard that Joyce’s great work is unreadable, a view that simply does not stand up when one considers the simple fact that people have, and continue both to read it and to report on the experience. This odd hybrid of Gothic cathedral and Baroque palace of mirrors may not be a novel in any conventional sense, but it is literature, just not as we know it.

However, discussion of the rightness or wrongness of Bartnicki’s premise is neither here nor there. The real interest lies in what he has done with it. And what he has done is to present the Wake ‘stripped of all spacing, punctuation, digits, letters except for lower- and uppercase A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s and H’s’. The result is 122 pages of unbroken and literally unreadable text, which is also a long string of variations on the scale of C-major, plus B.

Bartnicki’s practice is to use this bank of potential music to extracts matches, or near matches, to pre-existing musical works, with some of the results being available on his SoundCloud page. |It’s a bit of a mad project, almost as mad as Finnegans Wake itself. It also fits into a wider movement towards using digital media and the Internet to remake Joyce’s book, a movement I discussed in a piece for the Guardian a couple of years back. It seems possible that the Web will finally make the Wake accessible to a wider range of readers, writers and artists. Bartnicki’s sceptical-inventive approach is an interesting element in this process, and I highly recommend it.