The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century – A Review

The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century, Rishi Dastidar (ed.), Nine Arches Press, Nov 2019, ISBN 978-1-911027-85-0, £14.99

On one face of the trapezoid stone that marks John Clare’s grave is carved ‘A POET IS BORN NOT MADE’. It’s a bold, unambiguous answer to one of the big questions that tends to get asked about poetry; can you learn, or be taught to write poetry? Clare, or rather whoever was responsible for the inscription, came down clearly on the ‘nature’ side of this nature or nurture question. On the other side, implicitly or explicitly, you have MFL courses, modules on creative writing as part of an arts degrees, poetry workshops, mentorships and poetry manuals, all of which, to one degree or another, assume the importance of nurture in a poet’s formation.

The Craft falls under the heading of poetry manual, and so is invested in the nurture argument. It’s an attractively presented set of short, to the point, chapters divided under four headings that range from specific poetic forms to broader discussions of such subjects as the role of research, performance, voice, narrative and the nature of poetic truth. Each chapter is by a practicing poet and they are consistently well-written, not pushing one particular school or style of verse, and refreshingly jargon free.

The idea of poetry as craft is called into question early by Will Harris in his introduction, subtitled ‘Against “Craft” in Poetry’. Harris compares poetry with carpentry and points out that the carpenter works with ‘materials that have consistent properties’, whereas the poet works with mutable language, and that as a consequence to talk of craft in poetry is not appropriate; we are dealing with a different kind of human activity. Harris is quite correct, insofar as he goes. The problem as I see it is that his comparison is of the ‘apples and oranges’ variety; it would be more accurate to compare the poet working with language to the musician working with sound and silence or the painter with colour and form. All art works with the mutable, and all art is a product not of craft, but of the use, abuse, neglect and/or transformation of technique. Of course, The Technique would make for a less snappy book title, but perhaps a more accurate one. In fact, the term is used by a number of the contributors, as, for example, when Jane Commane writes about technique as a way of exploring truth in an essay that reminds me of Marianne Moore’s description of poets as ‘literalists of the imagination’; Commane argues that if we work towards accuracy our poems poems can offer the poet ‘the chance to imagine other realities and possibilities’ or, to quote Gregory Leadbetter (in his chapter on the fictive in poetry), in turn quoting RP Blackmur, ‘poetry “adds to the stock of available reality”’.

The first section consists of a series of ‘how to’ essays on specific forms, covering the sonnet, sestina, Ghazal, Golden Shovel, narrative verse, nonce forms and prose poetry. These are clear, practical guides that both demystify the forms in question and highlight their individual strengths and potential uses. The one risk is that the reader may come away thinking that if they have created, say, a sestina that fully complies with the rules, they will have written a poem, which, as we all know from experience, is not necessarily the case. Poetry is more than form, which nudges us towards the other great question, what is poetry anyway?

A number of contributors address this question either directly or indirectly. For Caroline Bird, writing on the ‘impossibility’ of poetry, ‘[e]ach poem is an attempt to communicate something wordless… using words’. Karen McCarthy Woolf talks about ‘trying to write music with words’. The most comprehensive definition is Carrie Etter’s ‘[a] poem combines distillation (focus, concentration, etc.) and musicality. It is through the intensity that comes with focus and musicality (that may come from metre, repetitions of sound, speech rhythms, etc.) that we recognise poetry’. Etter is building a case for prose poetry, but the definition holds equally well for all poetic forms and genres. I would add that poetry tends to embrace uncertainty, to deal in questions rather than answers.

And I would further argue that ‘focus and musicality’ are the consequences of technique, the poet, consciously or unconsciously, applying skill to language, and skill tends to be acquired, bringing us back to the ‘nature/nurture’ question. as with most aspects of human behaviour, the answer is probably ‘both’. Clare may have been born a poet, but his feeling for language was nurtured on ballads, broadsides, and recitations, and we know that he also read voraciously, starting with James Thomson’s The Seasons, which he bought as a schoolboy, the start of a small library of poetry that he kept with him always.

It seems almost redundant to say it, but poets learn technique by reading, and reading in, broadly speaking, two ways; as a reader who enjoys poetry and as a technician who is reading to beg, borrow or steal ‘how it’s done’. And yet, if the evidence of journal and press submission pages is anything to go by, many would-be poets seem reluctant to dilute the purity of their inspiration by succumbing to any risk of influence. Pretty much all of the contributors to the book refer to poets as examples, with the implication that maybe we should go read them, and some are more explicit. Harry Man devotes an entire section of his piece on technology and poetry to the vital importance of reading widely, and particularly reading work we find difficult or unsympathetic. In her piece on translating, which is a particularly intense form of reading, Clare Pollard is even more explicit: ‘every translation is a new reading of a text, in which you try to decide what is brilliant and important in the original, and try to replicate it; in which you say: look what this poet is doing! Look how amazing this is!’ It is primarily through reading at this level of attention that born poets are made, that they, we, learn to recognise, learn and adapt the technical means of poetry for our own ends.

The rest is work. Many of the contributions on here acknowledge this inconvenient fact: Liz Berry on making dialect a part of your own voice; Roy McFarlane on doing research; Julia Webb on the fraught business of writing about your family and the limitations of anecdote; Rishi Dastidar’s funny, well-argued piece on picking the right title for a poem that ultimately fails to convince me that Shakespeare’s sonnets would be improved by the addition of snappy names; Moniza Alvi on the line as a unit of composition; Antosh Wojcik on sound; Malika Booker on her writing process; Joelle Taylor on Performance; Peter Raynard on class and power; Dean Atta on creating characters and personas in poems, and the importance of empathy. Atta also underlines the importance of revision, of ‘[redrafting] until you get it right. I confess this seems a bit optimistic to me; I might have gone with ‘until you can tolerate it’.

At the end, there’s a kind of checklist of questions you might ask yourself when writing a poem by Roger Robinson that may serve to make the fledgling poet more self-aware, especially those questions that remind us that everything we write is part of a tradition or traditions and that it might not be a bad idea to be familiar with what went before, and a set of writing prompts, a tool whose appeal I constantly fail to understand but which lots of people seem to like.

Will reading The Craft make a poet of you? Probably not. However, you are likely to find lots of useful advice in comprehensible language and, like me, you may well find yourself reflecting on your own development and practice as a writer. And it’s a lot cheaper than doing a university course or going on a writer’s retreat. It certainly won’t do you any harm, and that’s no small thing.

Linda Chown and Martin Corless-Smith: A Review

Inside In, Linda Chown, 2015, ISBN: 978-1-940162-28-1

Odious Horizons: Some Versions of Horace, Martin Corless-Smith, Miami University Press, September 2019. ISBN-978–1–881163–65–7, $17.00

[In the interest of full disclosure: hardPressed poetry has published Linda Chown and I have attempted Horace in English. ]

Chown’s association with the Beats and Black Mountain poets go all the way back to when she worked at the Poetry Center and is evident in the poems collected in Inside In, poems of controlled openness and deceptive conversational directness. The book is organised in three sections, Place, People and Knowings, but these are not narrow silos, and poems from one section will frequently bleed into the concerns of one or both of the others. This is a poetry of presence, of being in the world:

to sit here and be here

smoking, alive, sizzling a bit

in the sun.

Hers is a poetry of perception, of looking at and listening to the world as it is, not as it would be, and these poems call on us to attend to the world without telling us what it is we ‘should’ be seeing:

When on a long night

 

When on a long night

 

 

Far under the trees

There

 

 

Red peonies

Massing

Round and defiant

He poems have no designs on us, nothing to sell, and no morals to draw. Several of the poems in the People section are memories of childhood, but unlike so many other poems in this genre, Chown presents these memories for themselves, not for some putative lesson they might teach her or us. They are poems of experience as lived:

The world begins simply to spin, slow, long, textured,

grainy and porous in my eyes touching.

[from ‘Wood Sight’]

 

On the bus going home

I listen for myself,

checking to see

how truthful I am,

checking to see

how I am.

[from ‘Meeting’]

Many of the poems carry place attributions at the end, and a pattern emerges, an interweaving of three threads: San Francisco, Spain and Grand Rapids. These three very different landscapes enable her to build a tapestry of contrast, of the global situated in the local. The intermingling of places also points towards a non-chronological organisation in the book, but there is a remarkable consistency of tone across it, which suggests that Chown arrived at her own voice early and has stuck with it. In some of the poems in the Knowings section, she approaches a statement of her poetics, particularly in the opening lines of ‘Writing To’:

Write to. Write about not.

It just begins. And she does.

Little all in her combat.

Not about. But to.

Her troubled eyes.

Close to get. Come to see

The fire raging.

Write to can be followed by noun or verb, to someone or something, in address, or to explore, discover, question. The quiet strength of these poems is that they do both, and in so doing, they draw the reader in, on her own terms, to a world entire built on fragments of life:

My mind turns on itself.

A bowl of soup,

an old scratch of a poem.

Your gray jacket

brushing on my hair.

 

The word ‘versions’ in the subtitle of Martin Corless-Smith’s book is key; these are poems that take off from individual odes by the Latin poet, but they reimagine the Roman world in terms of contemporary Britain and America. In this, they can be seen as part of a tradition of modern Latin translation that can be traced back through, for example, Peter Whigham’s 1966 Catullus to Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’. Like his predecessors, Corless-Smith is concerned to ‘translate’ the cultural context of the poems: Virgil becomes Tom Raworth, wrestling is translated into cricket, the Roman mob’s call to armed rebellion is echoed in football chants and contemporary politics:

She’ll turn a Triumph Bonneville

into a hearse

some punter prays to her

whole cities hold their breath

chanting for Brexit or Man U.

[from I.35]

Horace’s response was to retreat from the public sphere, a response that, as Corless-Smith remarks in his Preface, resonated with those 17th and 18th century English poets who followed his example, adding that Horace’s withdrawal was a political act ‘offering an ethical alternative to engaging in a system that he highlights in all his contemptable idiocy’. It’s an alternative that Corless-Smith clearly thinks appropriate to contemporary society, and many of the best passages in these versions reflect this kind of resistance:

Life gifts the quiet man with wealth

the bees visit his flower pot

his pennies buy his penny loaf

& those who search for more and more find more and

more is not enough

[from III.16]

One possibly fruitful way of thinking about what Corless-Smith is doing is to read him alongside both the original Latin and an earlier translation from that Restoration period.  Here’s Horace’s I.9.

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum

Soracte nec iam sustineant onus

silvae laborantes geluque

flumina constiterint acuto?

 

Dissolve frigus ligna super foco

large reponens atque benignius

deprome quadrimum Sabina,

o Thaliarche, merum diota.

 

Permitte divis cetera, qui simul

strauere ventos aequore fervido

deproeliantis, nec cupressi

nec veteres agitantur orni.

 

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere, et

quem fors dierum cumque dabit, lucro

adpone nec dulcis amores

sperne, puer, neque tu choreas,

 

donec virenti canities abest

morosa. Nunc et Campus et areae

lenesque sub noctem susurri

composita repetantur hora,

 

nunc et latentis proditor intumo

gratus puellae risus ab angulo

pignusque dereptum lacertis

aut digito male pertinaci.

And Horace: The Odes, Book One, IX, translated by John Dryden:

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height

Made higher with new mounts of snow:

Again behold the winter’s weight

Oppress the labouring woods below’

And streams with icy fetters bound

Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

 

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold

And feed the genial hearth with fires;

Produce the wine that makes us bold,

And spritely wit and love inspires;

For what hereafter shall betide

God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

 

Let Him alone with what He made,

To toss and turn the world below;

At His command the storms invade,

The winds by His commission blow;

Till with a nod He bids them cease

And then the calm returns and all is peace.

 

Tomorrow and its works defy;

Lay hold upon the present hour,

And snatch the pleasures passing by

To put them out of Fortune’s power;

Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –

Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

 

Secure those golden early joys

That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,

Ere with’ring time the taste destroys

With sickness and unwieldy years.

For active sports, for pleasing rest.

This is the time to be posesst;

The best is but in season best.

 

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,

The pleasing whisper in the dark,

The half-unwilling willing kiss,

The laugh that guides thee to the mark,

When the kind nymph would coyness feign

And hides but to be found again –

These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

And Corless-Smith:

See the Sawtooths white as teeth

with snow-clogged pines,

the streams bitten with cold

 

Pile the firewood high

bring out the reserved wine

 

Outside the gods can fight

the winds that shake the cypresses

each day’s a victory

 

Forget tomorrow

while you’re young go out!

and play the games

that lovers play at night.

It’s interesting to see how Dryden’s technical exuberance leads to a translation that is far longer than the original, and not in any sense true to its tone, while Corless-Smith’s more minimalist leanings result in a much truncated one. Both are reflections of their own poetic culture, both men making work that is a result of, and likely to appeal to, a specific place and time. Tellingly, I think, both erase the addressee of Horace’s original, Soracte, resulting in poems that turn to address the reader directly rather than one that mimics an ‘overheard’ conversation. On balance, Corless-Smith seems to me to capture more of the formal restraint of the original, Horace is not hidden behind a tangle of verbiage, and there’s something of Horace’s voice reflected in the calm English of the text.

However, there’s one thing they both lose in translation. We tend to assume a continuity in Western literary traditions that reaches back through Latin writers to the Greeks, a single root with many branches. But the reality is that Horace is probably at least as alien to us as, say, Basho. Again, this is acknowledged in the Preface where Corless-Smith writes: ‘’I might ask also, what of Horace is available when a modern reader (even a classicist) opens his original text.’). One of the key elements of Horace’s foreignness is the Latin language itself, with its relatively fluid word order, a characteristic that Horace pushed further than most. All translation is, in one aspect, a process of editing, and versions of Horace that edit out his syntactical complexity remove a crucial layer of his technique, a kind of convoluted ambiguity. Neither does Corless-Smith really seem interested in bringing across what Horace sounds like, what the music of the odes might be. Again, this is a perfectly valid translator’s choice, but it does, I think, limit the scope of the achievement of this book.

These caveats aside, Odius Horizons is a very fine collection of poems, a valuable place for a reader with no Latin to begin approaching Horace from, and a highly enjoyable read.

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.

MOTHERBABYHOME by Kimberly Campanello: A Review

MOTHERBABYHOME, Kimberly Campanello, zimZala, 2019, £40 in the UK and £47 in the rest of the world.

Kimberly Campanello’s MOTHERBABYHOME is at once a very easy and an incredibly difficult book to describe. On the one hand, it’s a work of memorial to the 796 babies and children who died in the custody of the Bon Secours Sisters in the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1926 and 1961, one page per child with their name and date of death, along with age at time of death, in chronological order, frequently accompanied by other text. So far, so simple.

On the other, it is a complex work of documentary/visual/conceptual writing that resists all the usual reviewer tools: quotation, paraphrase, rhythmical analysis and so on are insufficient to the immersive experience that is reading this book; it is as much a visual as a linguistic experience. Printed on A4, bulky, with a cover that uses a surveyor’s map of the convent and surrounding area, it could at first glance be an archaeological survey, a work of local history, report of a commission of inquiry or a musical score, all of which it is, to one degree or another. In places, the reader is reminded of the visual/documentary writings of Susan Howe:

At times, the technical means deployed are integral to the monumental nature of the book; for example, three pages of densely packed causes of death resemble nothing more than memorial walls on former battlefields. Other pages read like a lyrical haiku:

chemical modifications

epigenetic changes

molecular scaffolding

So, where to begin? The quiet (the font size used is smaller than that used for the other text in the book), incessant pulse of names seems as good a place as any. Sometimes they stand alone on the page, sometimes they’re framed, or even obscured, by text, and sometimes there are runs of pages containing nothing else. And each time, the fact of what happened is softly hammered home:

Walsh Unknown (boy) 10 minutes

In the face of these simple, terrible facts the reader is left aware of the profound inadequacy of their response, of any available response. The temptation is to exclusively blame the nuns involved, but this is a cop-out, a denial of the complicity of the state and of society as a whole, a complicity that to some degree continues today. As Campanello reminds us, ‘a number of these health professionals may still be working in the system’, a system that was, for far too long, more than content to turn a blind eye to the ‘unmarked, unvisited, unknown’ lives and deaths of mothers and babies who were notionally in their care. But that system extended far beyond the professional context of nuns, doctors and police; if it takes a village to raise a child, it also took one to build this ‘architecture of containment’. The reactions of those who would still deny complicity are woven into the text, for instance the ascription of the unearthing of the horrors of Tuam to ‘assorted catholic bashers’, against which Campanello posits the cold facts of the case and the testimony of survivors:

every time I heard an

ambulance I would hide
Devere Catherine (02/02/19430 1 month

Implicit in the techniques employed is the notion that conventional lyric and anecdotal poetry may also be inadequate responses. Of course, a number of Irish poets have written fine poems about institutional abuse, but the results are inevitably personal in tone and narrow in reach; that’s the nature of the form. MOTHERBABYHOME is striving for something different, there is no controlling centring ‘I’, no single voice in dialogue with the reader, none of the comforts and crutches of coherent prose syntax; the range of this work is of a different order, it works, as I have already said, on a monumental scale. In fact, the book is the memorial to the victims and survivors of Tuam that has otherwise been denied them. For example, one run of pages towards the end of the book consists of a slowly disintegrating fog of delay, a visual effect contrived by the superimposition and fragmentation of the word ‘delay’ (with and without a question mark) that enacts the response of all those officially involved. The text is initially virtually unreadable, but clarity emerges until finally we are left with a simple condemning question, ‘delay?’ We are, at this point, 30 years in.

Reilly Oliver 30/12/56 4 mts

MOTHERBABYHOME is a crucial attempt at a pushing language through the enfolding of multiple voices and perspectives to a point where it can be adequate to the enormity of the fact it needs to express. In this, it’s a necessary work of ‘committed’ experimental poetry in Ireland.

Finally, a word of appreciation for zimZalla for the care and attention involved in bringing it into print, once again underlining the vital role of small presses in keeping writing alive.

Six Turas Press Books: A Review

Earth Music, Eithne Lannon, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-71, €12.00

Exposure, Julie-ann Rowell, Turas Press, 2019, ISBN 978-0-9957916-9-5, €12.00

So Long, Calypso, Liz McSkeane, Turas Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-9957916-0-2, €12.00

bind, Christine Murray, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-4-0, €12.00

Crunch, Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-9957916-2-6, €12.00

White Horses, Jo Burns, Turas Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-0-9957916-5-7, €12.00

Turas is a relatively new independent publisher based in Dublin and, on the evidence of these books, open to a diversity of approach that is refreshing indeed.

Eithne Lannon’s debut collection is primarily imagistic in style, and she captures the actuality of moments in space and time with an admirable economy:

The wild meadow weave, the strand,

places of late summer, autumn-

a stone skimming water, suspended

in air, its slow motion glide punctuated

by the drop, touch, rise of a ghostly presence

(from ‘Thin Places’)

She also focuses on the relationship between language and sensory experience, a searching after the most apt syntax in which to frame our experience of the world. In a typical Lannon poem, some fact, some person, place or thing, is posited as a site of enquiry and then unfolded in words, a process of verbal opening out, primarily through accumulated analogy:

Take the river’s curl, the ocean’s wave,

the never ending trees, the sway of a meadow,

the roll of the sun, the scattered stepping stars.

And take last month’s silver bud of moon

now come full to the sky, her mouth is wide and open,

white lips brimming with a soft wet light,

month by month, she gives her widening

emptiness to the earth, holds the planet in her orbit,

washes ocean after ocean over sand

(from ‘Moon’There are risks with this approach, especially when the analogies lapse into overly-easily achieved similes or metaphors that are, on the whole, more conventional than revealing:

And while he searches the shores

of her heart, its chambers

dark with old blood, his fingers

touch the braille of an occupied

life, his tongue is tinged

with a salty metal sweetness.

(from ‘The Kiss’)

Lannon’s poetry is at its very best when the sound and flow of the language do more of the work than the prose sense:

My people are river-ripples, fishing nets cast
beneath dark mottled skin. They are rocks
and pebbles and sand, shape-shifting through grief.

Their sound is the sea’s constant voice,
its wild tongue unloosed in the air, a wind-cradle
wrapping its wide arms around me.

(from ‘Song of My People’)

Here, the object of the poem is achieved not through comparison, but by becoming; the people are not defined by what they do or where they do it, they are these things. This is a fine achievement.

Julie-ann Rowell is a Devon-born writer who spends a lot of time in the Orkneys, a biographical fact I mention only because it is central to the work in Exposure. These poems are largely

explorations of a kind of ideal polis, one where belonging and silence are valued and respected, by a tolerated outsider whose perceptions are necessarily not the same as those of the native Orcadians:

We must bow to the greater god,

perpetual, exhaustive. I don’t hear

the voices of the dead like some do

only a bulldozer shifting up a gear.

(from ‘Windstorm’)

Death is a constant presence in the book, not least in an interspersed thread of poems dealing with the illness and death of what appears to be the poet’s father-in-law. The last of these poems, ‘April Committal’, reflects the particular nature of Orkney society, the validation given to every life event by the community:

Only when they over the rise of the hill

the people of the town in their winter coats

to join us by the graveside did I nearly break down.

Rowell knits the human into the fabric of the islands partly by balancing two very different timescales. On the one hand, there’s the human-scale shifts of the weather, an ever-present context:

The air is full of water, in the south they’d call it rain.

The black sheep are at the gate again as we walk to Harray Stores

neither of us talking.

(from ‘Connection’)

On the other, the long, suprahuman time of sea and stone:

At Brodgar a single stone has been cleaved by lightning,

Even so it’s survived thousands of years

facing each day’s turn stolidly.

I’d like that kind of stone for a soul,

that even dynamite couldn’t shatter me.

(from ‘Stones o’ Stenness’)

Of course, these standing stones form part of the human world of Orkney, a continuity with the cemetery of ‘April Committal’, and the temptation to anthropomorphise them is hard to resist. But Rowell’s vision of the islands is at its sharpest when she looks at things as they are, without the filter of simile or metaphor, as in these lines from ‘An Ending’:

The sun will be on your neck,

while on the opposite shore men

will plough the fields with steel ashine,

there’s incremental washing on the line.

Men will be baling too, perhaps, in this

strange puffed out time of empty skies.

The adroit, quietly effective, balance of vowel sounds running through these lines shows a poet’s ear at work; for instance, the way ‘e’ sound in ‘men’ folds into ‘incremental’, then recurs and finally appears in ‘empty’ or how the ‘ashine/line’ rhyme is presaged by the ‘while’ a line earlier.

What shines through these poems is Rowell’s careful affection for her adopted landscape and its people, whose ways and traditions are shown as forming a whole with the place itself.

Liz McSkeane is the founder/editor of Turas as well as a widely published poet in her own right, with So Long, Calypso being her third collection to date. The blurb points out that one of the key

themes in this book is aging, and this is certainly true, especially in a strand of poems featuring the (mis)adventures of Angela, her emergency button, commode, falling TV set and nosy neighbours. But there’s more to the book than tales of diminishing faculties. McSkeane is preoccupied with memory and movement and how they both reflect the transient impermanence of experience which belies the persistent endurance of the world:

There must be something solid and unchanging

in the realm of things,

something that withstands the advances

and the crumblings of time

unless the constant flicker

Is in a self which sparks from life

to many lives.

You can’t go back.

You don’t need to, it’s there,

all there.

It is an eternal present.

(from ‘Kelvingrove’)

The mode she mainly deploys is short-to-medium-length narrative, but there are a number of loose sonnets and one overly-long dystopian fable, ‘Visiting Monuments’. But for me, at least, the most interesting poem in the book is ‘Remembering the Child’, especially the deft construction of its second stanza:

So what? Well, quite a lot and maybe all

that matters. When you wake up, every day

the big adventure, what’s new, bring it on

and stay surprised, still wonder at the way

the radiance of nothing much can call

up joy: whatever else might change, hair grey,

jaw slack. brain cells decayed, waist run to fat,

when all the rest is gone – hang on to that.

These lines demonstrate all the strengths and weakness of McSkeane’s writing. The firm, Audenesque tone, the quiet, unintrusive effectiveness of the rhymes, speak of a poet who knows just exactly what she’s after and has the ability to achieve it. And yet these very virtues can lead, as here, to an impulse to over-clarify, to tell us too much, with the result that by the end of the verse we’re left wondering just what it is we’re being enjoined to hang on to. It could be argued that this piling up of detail imitates something of the aging process it relates to, but you can’t help feeling that a little more editing might have made it even more effective. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting poem in an interesting book.

Christine Murray is well-known as a champion of women poets via her Poet head blog and the Fired! project. It would be all too easy for this activity to obscure the fact that Murray is a poet in her own right, and on the evidence of bind: a waking book that would be a real pity. It’s a book in five sections, each consisting of short named or numbered poems that trace overlapping natural and temporal processes: the day, the seasons, the unfurling of a leaf, the pun on ‘waking’ in the subtitle, as both mourning and morning. The poems imagistic, fragmentary and echo the tensile logopoeia of Mina Loy:

cinquefoil the amberlight

purelit / renders in ‘leaf’

|unfurls|

fur, not claw,

can render her nets

laid-out-on-grass.

(from ‘Dawn’)

Murray uses spacing and typography to serious effect, with a special focus on the use of the pipe symbol and italics and faint or greyed fonts as devices to (de)emphasise fragments of text, as in this couplet from the ‘Dawn’ sequence:

winter is a hard place,

winter is a hard place.

But the most striking aspect of the book, to me at least, is her use of pronouns. The third person dominates, with ‘my’ appearing occasionally and ‘I’ not until the last few pages. The effect is to decentre or even deny the speaking voice as medium for the poems. In fact, the predominant pronoun is she/her and this female third person is frequently identified, directly or otherwise, with the natural world:

she awaits yellow spring

willow is the first to don her light-robes

a tree,

plain and ordinary.

(from ‘willow’s’)

The image of the fallen leaf, and specifically the recurring phrase ‘a leaf fallen is always a poem’, lends an autumnal, almost mournful, tone to the book that might be seen as appropriate in this era of ecological crisis, but Murray is not a bleak pessimist, it seems, and images of spring and of the rising sun point to a cautious optimism. Not that Murray is intent on using nature as symbol; her focus is on the world as-is:

the

actual bird,

the image of a bird

the real thing of it

grasps onto a branch.

And the result of this focus is one of the more interesting books of Irish ecopoetry I’ve read recently.

Anamaría Crowe Serrano also uses typography in her book Crunch, with font size and colour to the fore, along with visual elements, including text-as-visual work. Indeed, the second page is a visual text representation of a ‘tempting’ apple, which sets the tone for what is a reading of the Biblical myth of the fall.

The book draws heavily on images and phrases in that initial visual text to emphasise the appleness of the Edenic apple, and Serrano retells the familiar story as something of a simple tale of female wisdom:

when she looks at me

she can tell there is

more worth knowing

than the pampering

that goes on in paradise

which is fine to a point, but there is a danger with this kind of conceit of toppling over into an overly-simple view of things:

as far as I’m concerned

it was just an excuse

to wield some power

In Eden before Eve

got wise

and reclaimed the lot

The reality of Judeo-Christian history indicates that, for good or ill, Eve and her daughters didn’t reclaim that much power, on the whole.

Serrano is at her best here when the writing is less didactic, more allusive, as in these lines from later in the sequence:

it cannot be described –

the sky inverting

the fruit

in her smile

saying it all

Jo Burns’ White Horses is, in terms of page count, the most substantial of the books reviewed here, coming in at well over 100 pages. The book is organised in four coherent sections, the first of which, ‘Eclipse’ has, as epigraph, a quote from Pablo Picasso: ‘Women are either doormats or goddesses.’ Burns then goes on to refute this statement through a series of poems that give voice and complexity to the artist’s lovers, wives, models muses, daughters and friends and patrons. These include a deftly-imagined put-down of Picasso’s poetry put in the mouth of Gertrude Stein:

You write only as a painter writes

and merely give back what an ego

writes, which glibly puts a stamp

without thought on giving back.

Is it that easy, Pablo, simply writing?

(from ‘Gertrude Stein reacts to Pablo’s First Poetry Recital’)

The second section, ‘Oceans’, centres around questions of place and identity, as we move between Germany, Southern Africa and the North. There are poems here of coming to terms with other languages, a process of coming to terms with the nature of language itself:

The elusive verb you need is a holy grail, so

you prise adjectives up, searching under rubble.

When you lift it, dripping its pronoun entrails,

only then do you know what you were doing at all.

(from ‘Abseiling in German’)

But the main focus is on the complex nature of identity in a society (or societies) characterised by movement and migration:

We flitted over antipodean green land

chimera brained, our gorgets plumed,

of Rhodesian and Scottish descent,

we landed in the bowls of Saskatchewan.

In vibrant flight paths of coriolis,

we flew from torpor in circadian thread.

We gulped in the gyres of new-found cultures,

squinting into smog which swallowed the sun,

Language burst our ruby syrinx throats,

and some of us even chanted as poets.

In another poem, Burns talks of being brought up on a poetic diet of Sassoon and Tennyson, but in ignorance of Heaney; our literary horizons are part of the identity boundaries our upbringing tends to enforce on us.

‘Gravity’, the third section, opens with another epigraph, quoted from Israeli writer Esther Raab: ‘Blessed is he who made me a woman/that I am earth and Adam/a tender rib’. The poems in this short section reflect on motherhood, and on the illness and death of a child, and the tone, the overwhelming maternal drive to protect their offspring compounded by the sense of loss as they grow up and away, is reflected in the closing lines of ‘Places your Children Should Never’:

Children, close your eyes to the cold gravity of our moon.

I’ll switch the clock back to when you had it mild.

Climb back. Curl softly into my womb.

The last section, ‘Revelations’ returns to Picasso for its epigraph ‘The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?’ The poems that follow reflect the mess that is a world where it takes ‘[o]nly a minute to spread false news’. They are political poems that engage with the rise of Fascism, ecological catastrophe and other contemporary political crises that have served to undermine confidence in liberal values and social progress:

I’d rather write about blooming hope

or ending patriarchy. You see, I believe

in women. But Ulster, you’re wilting

under two who may foster your drought –

a limp languish of shrivelled intentions.

But it is these ‘shrivelled intentions’, the refusal of simple answers or ideological comforts that give these poems their strength. White Horses is a very strong first collection, full of fine moments and rich in promise.