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  • Billy Mills 14:52 on 24/10/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading October 2022 

    Messengers of the Macabre: Halloween Poems, LindaAnn LoSchiavo and David Davies, Audience Askew, October 2022, ISBN:‎ 979-8841254102, $9.99

    Europe, Love Me Back, Rakhshan Rizwan, The Emma Press, Oct 2022, ISBN: 9781912915149, £8.99

    this island still, Charlie Ulyatt, 571 Press, 2022, £4.50

    On Hysteria, Nancy Kuhl , Shearsman Books, 2022, ISBN 9781848618367, £10.95

    The Art of Learning to Fly, Timothy Arliss OBrien (ed.), The Poer Heroic, 2021, $10.00

    It’s not very often that I review anything quite as seasonal as LindaAnn LoSchiavo and David Davies’ book of Halloween poems. Messengers of the Macabre, equally it’s unusual enough to come across a collaborative book of poetry that seems to be fully so, in that this is not a collection of poems by two poets, each poem with a name appended, but poems that appear to be genuinely collaborations. As such, they meet the first criterion of success, which is that the two poets have succeeded in creating a single voice for the book.

    The idea of Halloween here ranges from the Irish festival of Samhain through European and American witchcraft, graveyard tales, the Mexican Day of the Dead and haunted houses The poems are mostly in what I’d call semi-formalist unrhymed stanzas, with a handful of rhymed poems that seem, to me at least, less successful, and a couple of very fine haibun, one on Sante Murte and the second addressed to Anthony of Egypt, recluse and patron of graveyards. This latter, which appropriately enough records a pilgrimage of sorts ends:

    Descending to the ground below, my bare feet press the sheen out of new seedlings. As I get closer to the ancient Egyptian cemetery where a youthful Anthony had once cloistered himself, even ditchside daisies drain their yellowness/ Detached branches. Neglect. A ruined crypt, its flesh and bones stripped out. Unreadable cursive. Squint. Midday calm.

    Sun caresses

    a tombstone’s slumped shoulders

    we cast one shadow.

    This is a good example of the single voice I mentioned, which, at it’s best, has a kind of knotty toughness that suits the horror themes.

    If thefts are noticed, we’d blame that horse-ghost—

    Or Raven Rock’s forlorn white-gowned vexed wraith.

    Who haunts the dark glen where she froze to death.

    [From ‘A Sleepy Hollow Halloween’]

    Here, as elsewhere, the verbal music reinforces the otherworldliness of the sense, as the reference to Washington Irving plugs the poems into a larger tradition; there are also references to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and an interesting role-reversal poem about the disinterment of Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti (‘Cemetery Superstar’) so that her husband’s poems might be retrieved from the coffin:

    Rossetti’s poems sweetened maggots’ meals.

    Worm-eaten scraps had crowned my coffined head

    There’s a rich appropriateness in this victory of death over verse in this collection celebrating the Day of the Dead. Paradoxically, or maybe not, it’s a fun read.

    The poems in Rakhshan Rizwan’s Europe, Love Me Back cirle round a different, more mundane yet more profound horror; the casual, engrained racism faced by a ‘small brown woman’ living in a Dutch suburb and working in a Dutch university. A neighbour you think you’ve befriended suddenly ignores you, your PhD supervisor makes fun of your punctuation, your son is the only child on the street who isn’t invited to a birthday party: it’s just there, in the air, invisible because you’re not a ‘refugee’, a story, a splash of colour in a news report:

    …no one was interested

    in eliciting my testimony. After all, I wasn’t dead –

    I wasn’t ill – and hadn’t this country treated me so well?

    At the core of the book is the matter of language. Dutch is, as far as the reader can discern, Rizwan’s fourth or fifth language (she moved to Holland from a period living in Germany), and needs negotiating:

    But now, wrenching out these delicate sequins

    of German articles, replacing sehr with zeer,

    neun with negen, makes me want to escape

    to my mother’s Punjabi

    [from ‘In Translation’]

    Language is a tool for Othering, as in the self-explanatory poem ‘A man is speaking Urdu on the train and everyone is turning to look at him’ or again in ‘If the space’ in which the small space between, to take one example, ‘Isaac and Ishaq’ can result in a state of permanent conflict and oppression.

    Some of the most interesting poems in the book are Ghazal-like pieces, with long-lined couplets printed landscape across facing pages, reflecting ‘my mother’s Persian couplets’, also referenced in ‘In Translation’. In one of these, ‘A hundred years of gaze’, the male gaze becomes the Othering gaze, the Muslim woman’s identity perverted but the ‘oriental’ fantasies of the European mind, provoking a kind of resistance of reinvention:

    but her body is more than something to move a slow news day
    a signifier to light and take a long drag; more than a Rumi verse, a nesting doll, a whirling Sufi, a harem girl —

    she begins to cut herself out of dinner conversations, headlines,
    starts to sew herself a brand new skin.

    This sense of threatened, shifting identity chimes with another poem, ‘Passport Skin’, in which document and skin are both unable to secure the individual from scrutiny:

           No matter what I do

    the Muslim woman in me appears on the scanner,

    the mysterious creature covered from head to toe

    in whispering scripts, swathed in sacred pashmina

    and beaded black oppression.

    In the end, in the final poem in the book, ‘Seville’ (that historic beacon of Islam in Europe), everything hybridises:

    In this quaint house, go up the steps

    to feel more European,

    come down the stairs

    to feel more Arab,

    and linger in between

    to feel a bit of each.

    This is a thoughtful, thought provoking collection of controlled emotion expressed through deceptively flat surfaces.

    Charlie Ulyatt is what I think of as a dedicated minimalist (although he describes this island still as ‘almost minimalist’) who deploys apparently simple fragments of language using repetition and spacing to create musical structures of great subtlety and Zen-like clarity. There’s a clear announcement of intent on the first page of the book with a reference to Bashō’s most famous haiku:







    It is this quality of attending to the world that infuses all the work here. These poems invite us to see the world as it is, not as we would have it be, or as an Idealist projection. And the paring back of language is part of this process; the world we perceive is not made by language, language is our imperfect tool for capturing what we perceive:






    The world is not contingent on us, we are contingent on the world. And this is something we have learned to forget:

    we have

    at being

    who we

    are not

    Ulyatt recognises this and uses language and the silence that surrounds it to bring the reader back to that still point where who we are is to be found. Take how the line and stanza breaks in this short extract move us past our expectations, lead us from what we think the poem means to how it means something else. This is poetry that you need to present rather than discuss; there is nothing to say about it that it doesn’t already say, it is ‘a/gift/of//grace’. Don’t read me writing about it, get it and read it yourself.

    I’ll confess that I approached Nancy Kuhl’s On Hysteria somewhat hesitantly at first, given my aversion to the idea of poetry as therapy or self-help. My fears turned out to be entirely unfounded. The book represents a kind of argument with Freud’s writings on hysteria, but Kuhl is too much the poet to become didactic. She grounds herself in the Freudian area of the family, right from the first poem in the book ‘One Story House’:

    In a family, when something has been lost

    something new can be recruited to take its place.

    The seed of Kuhl’s position is found here. Where Freud saw the ‘talking cure’ as being away to bring the fractured hysterical self back to some ideal coherent whole, Kuhl posits the reality that fragmentation and uncertainty are the norm, and that we have evolved to adjust, to recruit from the flux to constantly recreate our provisional selves:

    She considered the gift, the pale
    dress; she considers her unyielding

    spine, her pair of working lungs,
    her attentive nerve endings.

    [from ‘Wrecked’]

    This attentiveness is another way of understanding the Freudian hysteric, that the world is fragmented, discontinuous in our experience of it, and that we should not just learn to live with this, but learn to celebrate it, in our own quiet way, all the time remembering that our understanding is provisional, that the stories we tell about our world are necessarily incomplete:

    I keep telling

    the story; I worry there’s
    nothing more to know.

    Again, I circle back; this is
    the rind of the orange, the pit

    of the peach; also the sweet,
    also the tender. Also the tooth.

    [from ‘Takes Place’]

    We circle back, each time the same, each time different. The power of Kuhl’s writing is in how she enacts the ‘hysterical’ condition rather than describing it. Take these lines form ‘Along the Grain’:

    Sameness of daily routine; ordinary
    disruptions. Afternoon train

    sounding over the bridge. Chime
    and tick and the clock is wound

    again, slows again. Someone calls
    children home at dusk. Their names.

    Stillness follows. The atmosphere—
    it can break into pieces across

    the high-fenced yard. Night comes
    down finally, closing like an eye.

    The semantic disruption of the ordinary is delayed until the last two couplets, but it is prefigured in the rhythms on the opening lines:

    Sameness of daily routine; ordinary
    disruptions. Afternoon train

    sounding over the bridge. Chime
    and tick and the clock is wound

    again, slows again.

    Let’s say that opening line is dactyl, trochee, iamb, dactyl and the second is amphibrach. troche, stressed monosyllable. It soon becomes evident that there’s no discernible metrical pattern at work here, but the rhythm is extremely effective in disrupting the sense pf ‘sameness’, and this is underpinned by the long ‘a’ vowels threaded various short vowels, with full or near assonnances on sound/wound, train/again. This is verbal music at its most subtle, with he ear of the true poet. A fine book that merits rereading.

    Finally and briefly, The Art of Learning to Fly is a wonderfully old-fashioned feeling zine, reminiscent in appearance of the 1970s. Editor/illustrator/contributor/book maker Timothy Arliss OBrien, who also runs the Poet Heroic podcast, has brought together a number of poet collaborators to contribute pieces on the subject of pigeons, with guest appearances by Christian Rossetti, Jones Very and Emily Dickinson (a brave choice). There’s a sense that many of the poets are till in the process of discovering their own voices, but there’s also a sense of excitement that’s infectious, and some very fine lines:

    Eyes of a hawk, it’s bloodlust

    trained by a whistle.

    Shocked on impact, I fall

    [Felicia Rashe]

    Earlier this week I saw a pigeon downtown pacing,

    back and forth across the street.

    Six or seven times.

    I was so worried for him I called the Audubon Society

    But they weren’t any fucking help.

    [Tabitha Acidz]

    Try to lift your chin darling

    the songbird still sings,

    and the snow still blankets the earth.

    [Timothy Arliss OBrien]

    This is exactly the kind of publication we need to see more of.

  • Billy Mills 12:58 on 09/09/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires: A review 

    106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires, 2022, ISBN 979-8525523869, £9.99

    Six years ago this month my review of My News for You: Irish Poetry 600 – 1200, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires was published by the Dublin Review of Books. Squires’ new book, 106 Early Irish Poems, is an expanded and much enhanced reworking of that earlier volume, but in terms of cultural and social background, the challenges of translating and the comparisons with previous translation, I have little to add here and recommend the interested reader to click that link and read the previous review.

    So, what’s different about this new book? The most immediate change is the addition of 25 new translations, a significant expansion in range and scope that makes 106 Early Irish Poems easily the most comprehensive readily available anthology of its kind. This, in turn, means that the Notes section is expanded, naturally, and in some cases significantly rewritten, and the notes are really integral to the book, partly because Squires begins each note with the original Irish version of the first line, an invaluable aid when it comes to locating the full originals on the Internet. The notes also discuss specific points of complexity in the translation process, both comparing Squires’ reasoning behind the choices he made when bringing over unclear or ambiguous words and phrases into English and comparing his decisions with those of earlier translators. This aspect of the notes gives the general reader some very useful insights into both the nature of the Irish language(s) during the period the book covers and Squires’ approach as a translator, which on the whole tends towards tonal rather than formal veracity. At any rate, as many of the notes make clear, the formal structures of the originals are very often the result of conjecture on the part of modern editors as they set out to transcribe from their manuscript sources.

    In the earlier book, the reader was provided with an appendix that contained the originals for seven of the 81 poems translated; here a different approach is adopted, with 13 poems appearing with accompanying Irish text (8, 8a, for example). Four of these originals appear in both books, so he reader with access to them both will have 16 originals to compare with their translated versions. In addition, this new volume contains a very useful appendix that analyses some opening lines by providing transcriptions of what they sound like and discussions of their syntactic, semantic and phonic structures, an invaluable aid to those readers with limited or no knowledge of the language.

    The other significant addition is the 30-page bibliography, an excellent list of resources covering the cultural, linguistic and historical contexts in which the poems were written, as well as source texts and other translations. It’s an invaluable resource.

    One background area that definitely impacts on these poems is the shift to Christianity from the older pagan order. All of the poets here were at least nominally Christian and the poems are often marginalia in devotional manuscripts, so unsurprisingly many of them are straightforwardly religious. However, there is a strong element of an older Ireland that emerges, sometimes as whole poems (the nature poems and some of the Fenian narratives) and other times as an element in a poem that also has clear Christian tones. While this might seem odd at first, it strikes me as probably reflecting the reality of the wider context in which the poems were written. Societies and individuals don’t change overnight, and Christianity was particularly adept at coming to accommodations with earlier systems of belief. Like the poems they wrote, these poets contained within them elements of the pagan and the Christian. Perhaps this fusion in the poetry was facilitated by the fact that they were written in the vernacular; as the language of the church, Latin might have tended to impose a more religiously orthodox approach.       

    And what of the translations? Squires remains faithful to his earlier approach, “to make of these originals an equivalent poem in English” and does so in the new versions as he did with the first set of 81. I note some silent changes of wording, as for instance in the poem ‘Fil súil nglais’ which changes from ‘a moist eye’ in 2016 to ‘a wistful eye’ now. As Squires notes, a literal translation would read ‘a green eye’ and previous translators have rendered the adjective glais as blue or grey, but his sense is that the speaker (nominally Columba) is expressing grief at leaving his native island, hence the move away from colour to emotion. A small point that provides a valuable window into the translator’s thinking.

    Another small but significant (in my reading, at least) is that in 106 poems the first letter of each stanza is almost invariably capitalised whereas in the 2016 versions, this is limited to the first stanza, excepting proper nouns and the pronoun ‘I’. This shift has the effect of changing how you read the versions, with each stanza acting more as a discrete unit, disrupting, however slightly, the flow of the eye down the page. Of course, I can’t be certain that this was Squires’ intention, but the result is, in a way, to add a stateliness to the versions here.

    The more I read it, the more I think that across these two volumes, Squires has recreated medieval Irish poetry for our times. This book is essential for the reader with an interest in Irish poetry, or poetry in general, or Ireland, European literature, or all of the above. Read it.

  • Billy Mills 09:25 on 19/08/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Peter Finch Collected Poems in Two Volumes: A Review 

    Collected Poems Complete Set, Peter Finch (Ed. Andrew Taylor), Seren, 2022, ISBN: 9781781726709_9781781726716, £30.00 (individual vols £19.99 each)

    Peter Finch’s Collected Poems is a two volume set, with volume 1 covering 1968-1997 and the second 1997-2021. Running to almost 1,000 pages it is, in one sense, a monumental piece of work, as long as you don’t conflate monuments with the past, as Finch is going strong and apparently the first collection for inclusion in volume 3 has already appeared. It is too large a body of work to allow for a detailed reading in the limited scope of a review, so what follows is a number of thoughts provoked by reading these two books.


    The first thing that strikes the reader is the incredible range of Finch’s work, from ‘conventional’ lyrics through experiments in sound and performance, to visual and concrete work, he is constantly pushing the boundaries of what poetry might mean and of readerly expectations. And he is the master of the formal mash-up, producing list poems in prose that contain elements of found material and sound poetry, or an anecdotal poem that dissolves into its constituent sounds, for example.

    This formal range enables Finch to make poems ‘about’ nothing and everything:

    Two Interruptions

    we should be able to make a

    poem out of anything apple

    tase shift should we are able

    to make a poem (poem) out

    of anything shift taste made

    a pommel out of it door

    should be shift should we

    are able to refuse to donate

    the poem out of shift anything

    shift able to make

    Here, as elsewhere, the process of transposition (shift) is made visible, accessible even, to the reader who is invited to inspect the workings of the poem.

    None of this should be taken to mean that Finch’s poetry is aesthetic, is art for art’s sake; he is frequently, I might argue usually, politically engaged, and this engagement moves through 1960s radicalism to a disgust at the destruction of his native Wales under Thatcher (“she listened but did not hear”) and a recurring evisceration of arts administrators, corporate business speakers, and bullshitters in general. See, for example, ‘Words Beginning with A from the Government’s Welsh Assembly White Paper’:

    a a assembly an assembly assembly assembly and assembly and assembly assembly assembly assembly assembly annexes and arrangements assembly and assembly affairs and authority accountability a achievement assembly autumn assembly a affect an an assembly assembly assembly and a alongside a an assembly assembly assembly allocate assembly and and acts assembly assembly assembly administrative agriculture a an annual and authorities and agency and authorities are accountable address assembly and answerable across assembly assembly assembly assembly assembly and arrangements are assembly assembly are assembly agriculture and and and and arts and annex a assembly approval assembly all after assembly assembly affairs and and assembly assembly and a and account appropriate assembly acts and are acts a assembly are assembly a authority and and able as and a assembly authorities agencies assembly able assembly assembly and a and and a a a assembly assembly and able able assembly about a assembly and a assembly as appointments also and assembly assembly as assembly assembly against as as able and authorities against and assembly are a and a assembly assembly and assembly assembly a affairs assembly authorities and and and and all and ahead and are across and as assembly and assembly a attuned a agency and authority authority and and and and and any agenda assembly a assembly able a a a adopting assembly and and are a authority and afford an ambitious and a an as as an and air and agencies assembly a and administration agency a and assembly agency already an all and and and agencies authority authority as a and and assembling and authority are agency acquired and and address an a a across and assembly and appoint agency a a assembly authorities at and agency and a and an agency assembly assembly agency arrangements and agency authorities a and attracting and and assembly action action action and a and a assembly assembly agenda assembly at all agenda assembly and and appointments also and are also a and a and an authorities agencies and advice advice approximate a assembly and at affairs annual a and assembly and actions assembly assembly assembly and a administering assessment agency assembly assembly assembly a are and agriculture aborigines advisory assembly and adequate appropriate appropriate areas and approximate arrangements are appropriate approximate appropriate arrangements and assembly art assembly are arrangements approximate appricimate appropin approximarly approximin approximit approximate appropinate appropriate approlution approximate apprealin approling approf appross apprit approx approximate appropriate arsembly approt approt apprit aparse amprim arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit approximately assembly and arsen assembly all art and agriculture agenda appropriately alltittle all al aswoon apricot artle at assen ash arsenit assuitable assuage annual after amiddle approximate appealment apparliament arprat aprat art arse alltold approximate flatart anti anemia academic and averted arse art all assembly anti any attitudenal arseweakness all appropriate approximate approximate apripple affected arse affected all affected and any affected apathy apathy and responsibility for ancient monuments arses arses arses and wishing wells


    Both editor Andrew Taylor and Nerys Williams, who provides the Foreword for the first volume, refer to William Carlos Williams’ idea that a ‘poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words’, which is apt circumstantially as Finch reworks the American poet’s ‘This is just to say’ a number of times but more pertinently because it points towards the central thread of Finch’s poetic; that language is material, and is the material of poetry.

    This is as apparent in the ‘plain text’ poems as in the visual work. On one level, it’s the focus on the hard particularity of words in passages like this:

    We walk single file. Shellduck on the

    mudflats, groyne teeth, breakwater, boat ribs,

    wrecked hard-core. the slope to the sea estuary

    toughened with a boulder skin rough as a navigator’s


    [from ‘Lambies’]

    On another, allowing the levels to be a continuum, the simple beauty of the visual work:

    In a number of poems he plays with paradigmatic relationships through the use of brackets, as inn these lines from ‘Fold’:

    We (us) (I) (you) were (weren’t) (won’t) (will) a (the) (this)

    people (pointed sticks) (prime numbers) (purple patch0 taut

    (tired) (tiled) (tight as fists) for (from) (frightened) (foaming)

    war (wet fish) (wet fist) (wet fear); the (those) (these)

    hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)

    (hardened) were (will not) (can not) (can) no

    (none) (neither) (normal) harder (holding) (heaving)

    (happy as barber’s poles) (hard hosts) (home)

    The bracketed items create opportunities for multiple readings, multiple folds through the poem. It is also typical of Finch’s work that they create and seem driven by patterns of sound, and that these have a timeless quality, reaching back perhaps to the earliest poetry in Welsh and English:

    the (those) (these)

    hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)


    In an amusing but useful note to the poem, we are told: ‘(cant) (explain) (can)    (might)      (read on)’ (‘cant’ being both a private language and can’t).


    In the late 1990s, two things happen; Finch begins to play with he haiku and his sense of Welshness, already present as an undercurrent, becomes much more central to the work. And I mean not just his own Welshness, but some kind of exploration of what being Welsh might mean in the late 2oth century, post mining, post-industrial world.

    Finch being Finch, there are visual haiku:

    sound haiku:

    nnn nnnn nn nnn n

    nn nnn nan n nn nnn nan

    nn nnnn n nn non

    haiku that nod to the form’s great tradition:

    so boundless

    frost on the pond

    light on fire

    and Welsh haiku:

    Dim mynediad the farmer’s sign

    The cow parsley

    Goes right on in

    Apparently around this time Finch had learned Welsh but decided to continue writing in English, but to my ears at least it’s an English with an increasingly Welsh inflection:

    rydw i am fod blydi i am

    rydyn ni rydw i rody i

    rodney rodney i am

    rhydyn am fod I am I am I am

    rydw i yn Pantycelyn Rhydcymerau Pwllheli yes

    RS Thomas is an important figure whose presence recurs across Finch’s work, not just as a poet but as a kind of exemplar of varieties of Welshness:

    In his work are there traces of this place,

    where he was born, reluctant, leaving

    as fast as he could? Do the streets of Cardiff echo?

    No, they don’t. Do we honour him in this

    city as a lost son? Plaque, statue, trail?

    No we do not. He wouldn’t want them.

    Not Welsh enough, us, for a man redolent of

    rural fields and revolutionary fire.

    In Wales, cities are alien places.


    In addition to Thomas, the figures of Williams and Bob Dylan recur. There are a number of reworkings of William’s famous ‘This is just to say’, my personal favourite is this one from 2001 and included in the Unpublished Poems section at the end of the second volume:


    thj tsayI hv eatentplumat rein thicebox

    & wch youreprob savbreakForgive thy

    redelicious sosw eet &socold wmcls m

    The object made sound.


    There is so much more that could be said, for example about his use of the list form or the internet poems that work on the page but come to life online. but I’d like to close this review by going back to a Twitter discussion on the nature of experimental poetry started by Beir Bua Press while I was reading these books. What Finch, a determinedly ‘experimental’ poet, shows is is that this kind of work is more formal than so-called formal verse in that it is constantly in search of form, that it delights in failure, or the risk of failure, because it knows that without that risk we are left with the comfortingly numb, it is, in short, whatever you want it to be.

    These collected poems are a joy to read; so go read them

  • Billy Mills 09:43 on 21/07/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading: July 2022 

    Butter Intervention, Ellen Dillon, Veer2 Publication 011, Veer2 Publication 011, February 2022, ISBN: 978-1-911567-30-1, £9.00

    Gelpack Allegory, Robert Kiely, Veer, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-911567-35-6, £5.00

    Beir Bua Press Anthology 2021, Beir Bua Press, 2022, ISBN: 9781914972560, EBook £3.00, print £10.00

    Selected Text Art 2010-2020, Bruno Neiva, Hesterglock Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781739807108, £15.00

    Arrangements, Eléna Rivera and Peter Hughes, Aquifer Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-1-8383587-5-4, £10.00

    Ellen Dillon’s Butter Intervention is a kind of potted history of Ireland told through and from the perspective of the titular dairy product. Her starting point is the Middle Irish parody in prose and verse called Aislinge Meic Con Glinne which she refers to as ‘A Vision of Whitemeats’ (meaning milk products, roughly) and which serves both a forerunner and model for her own mixed-medium text.

    The 11th century ‘Vision of MacConglinne’ begins by outlining the parts of a story: The four things to be asked of any composition must be asked: place, and person, and time, and cause of invention. This composition will circle close to the creameries of south Limerick. Its people are farmers, butter-makers, dairymaids, co-op workers, creamery managers, scholars in varying states of hunger. Its first time is the straight line joining the Butter-mount of MacConglinne’s vision to the EU’s butter mountain. Its other times pleat the first and then extend it to release hidden notes. Its cause of invention is this pleating and extension, hunger and restlessness, the seizing of attention. In the beginning was a scholar, hungry for dairy and poetry, withered from reading. While this is McC, he will soon cede to other scholars and even here he finds himself folded with another ‘I,’ a 21st century scholar/poet addled from the sources she’s trying to string into a dairy story.

    Dillon uses this perspective to question attractively simple explanations of events; for example, the idea that the spread of the dairyman system led to the death of cheesemaking is rejected by looking at the evidence of those areas of the country untouched by dairy plantations where cheese also died out. Similarly, A.T. Lucas’s view that the introduction of the potato was the sole disruptor of traditional food culture is countered by focusing on the role of butter as a marketable product to the point where it became, in effect, a currency used to pay for the landlord’s lavish, often absentee, lifestyle.

    By focusing on butter as a commodity, Dillon surfaces the complexity of historical processes and the role of human agency; things don’t just happen, we make them so. This is called out by a single sentence that recurs throughout the book as a kind of refrain: ‘A commodity does not trade itself.’ This insight provides a lens through which Dillon looks at the development of the market from a local event that provides for the needs of people to an abstract concept that provides for the needs of wealth; the marginalisation of women and women’s work in the rural economy (something she sees as continuing down to today); the co-op movement and its failures to be genuinely co-operative; the complicity of peasant butter makers in the sad history of empire and slavery and a number of other strands of history.

    In her discussion of the Famine, Dillon points out that 70% of the population were not fully dependent on the potato as their sole source of food and goes on to read into some current attitudes to the poor a legacy of those survivors who, it is assumed, did little or nothing to help the 30%. Given her rejection of other over-simplified readings of Irish history, it should, I think, be pointed out that this, too, is an overly neat line to draw from past to present, no more valid than using our supposed ‘race memory’ of Famine to explain relative Irish generosity around things like Band Aid. The reality is that we do not, and cannot, use events of over a century and a half ago to ‘explain’ the present without a lot more data and analysis than is given here.

    Nevertheless, this is really a minor quibble. Dillon is one of our more interesting younger Irish poets, and Butter Intervention is her most accomplished work to date. Highly recommended.

    Robert Kiely’s Gelpack Allegory is also composed in a mix of prose and verse and also draws on the idea of allegory as initial impulse, but unlike Dillon, Kiely is concerned with the future more than the past. The book uses Science Fiction as a medium for meditating on the dystopian rise of technocracy as economic, social and ecological disaster. To my ears, at least, it owes something to the early work of William Burroughs, but with the clear distinction that while the old Beat’s vision of hell was fictional, Kiely grounds his in fact, placing Elon Musk at the centre of his nightmare.

    Musk’s face, his grin

    a canyon which you could fit a four-hundred storey

    building in

    why not go there

    why not go there

    to be a number with irrelevant importance

    on an allegorical level


    into the profounds of axioms

    the effect remixes the cause

    In Kiely’s view, and it’s hard to argue, Musk is the ultimate con artist, the inventor who invents nothing; he presents us with a conversation between a young Elon and his father in which he declares his ambition to go to America, become rich and invent things:

    “What will you invent?”


    “Cars have already been invented.”

    The reality being that invention has become a way of building in control and redundancy, a world in which you buy the latest gadget, it harvests your data and presents you with opportunities to spend, before irreparably clapping out so that you have to replace it with the next one.

    Into this landscape, Kiely introduces a handful of characters who are caught up in Musk’s Mars adventure for a variety of reasons. Mas is the new frontier, Elon’s manifest destiny, his motivation being

    to lengthen the working day

    by at least 20 but possibly 40


    Kiely draws heavily on the work of Samuel R. Delany, who I have never read, And Karl Marx, who I have, but the work stands alone. In the end, the penultimate page, in fact, he surfaces the fact that the book is not really allegory at all, that the border between the allegorical and the real has been blurred, in ‘real life’, to the point of invisibility:

    Anyway there was no allegory

    because we live allegory

    without a level of meaning

    social hieroglyphs we don’t understand

    and this is only enacting

    a scorched-earth policy

    with regard to genre

    that is all I intended.

    As I read it, genre refers to SF and literary genre in general, but also to life as a kind of categorised activity in a capitalist culture. It makes for interesting reading.

    There’s no question that Beir Bua Press is currently Ireland’s most exciting poetry publisher, with a list that features many of the most interesting Irish and international poets who fit under the loose heading of ‘experimental’ Their 2021 Anthology presents a selection of work from some of the titles published in that calendar year, and it’s the most interesting anthology I’ve read in some time.

    Unlike most anthologies, this one isn’t making a case other than that the press publishes interesting and challenging work that would otherwise, in an Irish context at least, be hard to come across. A such, picking out individual contributions is invidious; nevertheless, here are some personal favourites.

    Rose Knapp’s alliterative triads that resolve, or dissolve, into a cascade of multi-language symbols that flow down the page:

    Lydia Unsworth’s poems from Some Murmur cast a slant light on questions of motherhood:

    I write with whichever side I am not feeding with. Left-handed phone type.

    Phone held in air above baby’s head. Phone swiped behind back as baby’s eyes

    move over to that other life.

    Which is your dominant side?

    Stay put, baby. Comply.

    The ever interesting Marian Christ’s essay on Square Poems, a chapter from her book Fibs to Fractals: Exploring Mathematical Forms in Poetry ranges from the SAOR square via Elizabethan England to her own poetry and needs to be read in full.

    Nikki Dudley’s erasure poem using Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is a significant improvement on the original, and again seeds to be see in full. Vik Shirley’s poems from Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse are suitably grotesque and apocalyptic:


    A torso dragged itself to a kiosk, where, it understood, it could buy some


    It had no head, so wasn’t sure how it was going to ask for cigarettes, or indeed

    smoke them, and, with no brain, was running on some kind of instinct.

    The girl working at the kiosk, which did indeed sell cigarettes, as well as a wide

    range of newspapers and magazines, was perturbed when the torso appeared,

    with its macabre snail trail of blood and innards.

    But lord knows this stump could use a cigarette, anyone could see that, and as it

    was looking to pay by cash rather than card, she saw no problem with carrying

    out the transaction

    Marcus Slease contributes prose poems from Puppy, a kind of Flann O’Brien vision of pet and owner merging; is it about a puppy?

    Puppy sniffs the world to see it. What we sniff comes back to haunt us. The ghosts of car engines rotting in the dirt yard waiting for hedonist highways. I have high value treat. Baked chicken. I have high value treat. Raw fish sushi. I have high value treat. Iberian ham. I have high value treat. Scrambled eggs on thick toast. Touch, come, heel, sit, lay down. Potential pleasure. This rewards behaviour.

    I could go on, but this should be enough to convince you to get familiar with Beir Bua and their writers. They’ve rapidly become an essential element in the Irish poetry landscape.

    Bruno Neiva is someone whose work I’ve reviewed on a number of previous occasions, but Selected Text Art 2010-2020 is by far the most substantial collection of his work that I’ve seen to date.

    In my review of Undertones, his collaboration with Chris Turnbull, I wrote that the ‘undertone is, clearly, political, with, as I read it, a critique of the commodification of language, and, by extension, the human, running through the work.’ This intention is apparent in a number of the pieces here, for example the set of image/text pieces called ‘It Can Produce up to 250 Litres a Day, in which advertising slogans are placed at the top of digital images of pixilated bands of light on a dark background which serve to dislocate the texts.

    Similarly, newspaper reports of torture are cut and folded to form semi-abstract shapes in the sequence ‘Well, after Susan Howe’.

    Elsewhere, Neiva draws on materials from the world of pedagogy: a page from a Spanish grammar, sheets from exam papers, an exploded periodic table all represent ways in which language can be used to both represent and distort knowledge through systems of organisation and control.

    In many of the pieces, the role of language as such is marginal or invisible, but Neiva creates images that are, so to speak, language-like, using systems of marks on the page to represent complex realities. One fins example of this is ‘N2OC10H12’, a sequence of 11 digital images spread over 6 pages. The title is the molecular formula for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is both an element of a range of psychedelic drugs and a number of antidepressants. Neiva’s imagesseem to chart both uses by mixing bursts of crystalline vision with what could be seen as outputs form scans of neural activity. The result is almost a narrative arc from a kind of blurred shapelessness in the first image to an equally blurred organisation in the final one.

    Neiva is doing more with this kind of work than most of the text artists I’m familiar with and his range is genuinely impressive. He has moved away from the tradition of Dadaist collage while retaining much of what is challenging around that tradition. This is a book I’ll be returning to as a reader.

    Arrangements is a collaboration between Peter Hughes, a poet whose work I know well, and Eléna Rivera, whose work is entirely new to me. It consists of two 12-part sequences, each consisting of 12 (or 13) poems by each poet in a kind of call and response structure, with a poem by Hughes followed by a poem by Rivera, in 12 iterations. In both sequences, she provides two versions of one of her responses, hence the ‘or 13’.

    An introductory note states: ‘Arrangements consists of two sequences written between Peter Hughes and Eléna Rivera. Sequence one, ‘Seasons’, was written between November 2019 and October 2020. The poems respond to each other, but also to the solo piano suite Les Saisons by Tchaikovsky.

    The second sequence, written between February 2021 and January 2022, responds to works by twelve women artists.’

    In reality, both sequences are calendrical, given that Hughes names his poems after the months, although with one exception Rivera does not follow suit.  And all this makes the book seem much more complicated than it actually is.

    The first set starts out in normality, but in March, things change, and the ways in which the change is noted reflect the different circumstances of the poets, one in Wales, the other in New York:

    the king is in his armoured counting house

       & has proclaimed that fire should be allowed

    free reign to ransack woods & villages

    so as to reinforce the commonwealth’s

    immunity to future conflagration

    the slightly longer evening light plays on


    How to write of the present

                    Daylight savings time thrust forward

    new light—this season now “pandemic”

    Stillness descends, city crocus

                    bloom daffodils between empty

    towers, some still work, having to—

    having to move forward this month

                    ruled by Ares in the Western Canon—

    social distancing dilates, isolates


    These extracts illuminate a lot about the book. For one thing, we see how the specifics of the calendar (longer evenings, daylight saving time, flowers, birds) form a kind of spine around which the contingent matter of the poems take shape. We also see how the differing styles of the collaborators compliment each other. Hughes is perhaps more allusive, and the ampersands and lowercase point to a certain modernist aesthetic. Rivera tends to greater directness and the presence of sentence case, albeit without the attendant full stops, creates an expectation of something like prose syntax, an expectation she disrupts neatly across line and stanza breaks (‘city crocus/bloom daffodils’, for example).

    The inevitable focus on natural cycles that goes with the calendar poem lends itself to a kind of ecopoetic reading as when Covid folds into other forms of crisis in Rivera’s ‘September’:

              Saw the land


    One thing, then another

                                                            Who saw the wind?

    Fire                        Flood                     Virus

                                                                                    At the crossroad

                                                                                              And we’re all stuck in our boxes

    the second sequence, as already mentioned, is both calendrical and ekphrastic, and there are certain interesting factors involved in the second of those aspects. The first of these is that while each pair of poems is responding to the same artist, they are not necessarily responding to the same work by that artist. Indeed, at times there is no specific work mentioned at all. Secondly, there’s a degree of challenge involved in reading ekphrastic poems without the painting or paintings set beside them. Fortunately, the Internet came to the Internet came to the rescue here. The result, one way or another, is some very fine writing, as in these lines from Hughes’ ‘August 2021’ (after ‘Lost Voices’ by Mary Lloyd Jones)’ (See here at the bottom of the page):

    a book of hours tattooed & gouged in shale

    old blood & river silt called between the nails

    constellations of familiar stepping stones

    hovering alongside fish-scale stars & soot

    branching zig-zags of an older language

    an alphabet of trees envisioning

    rickety bridges across the nocturnal

    indigo echoes & charged white water

    Here complex patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme help unfold the multiple layers of historical and mythical sense in a pattern of past and present intertwined.

    There is a sense, too, of art becoming, as it did for so many, a kind of pandemic refuge, as in these lines, the opening and closing,  from ‘January 2022 (After an untitled work by Etel Adnan)’:

    she said the world was too tense

    & that’s why we need art

    she said the world is too tense

    & I came to painting through poetry

    peaceful pigments come into the poem

    the old dog limps in & goes to sleep


    Art may be a refuge, but it’s also a provocation, and this is very much to the surface in Rivera’s October poem, ‘When Levels Rise’, a response to Maggi Hambling’s seascape paintings. Again, she turns her focus to the existential crisis that is climate change:

    If the South Pole ice melts, the sea will rise by 200 feet!

    —saw it in a dream once or was that childhood, another country

    The way waves break at the shore, the way a brushstroke moves

    a goddess out of the foam, the curve of her body, tail twisting

    Narratives lost at sea—in the colors—her mother a girl refugee

    Past, present and future blend in a dynamic whole, fact and myth illuminating each other and the world. This is a thought-provoking, delightful book, blending two distinct but complementary voices to create a greater whole. One to reread.

  • Billy Mills 12:03 on 23/06/2022 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: poetry   

    Recent Reading June 2022 Part 2 

    Riptide, Amanda Bell, Doire Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-907682-85-8, €12.00

    Revolution, Amanda Bell, wildflower poetry press, 2021, ISBN: 979-8565843385, £6.00

    Wintermoon, Robert MacLean, Isobar Press, 2022, ISBN 978-4-907359-39-3, £11.83

    Amanda Bell’s Riptide is a mix of ‘conventional’ poems, haiku and haibun (or perhaps haibun-like texts) that makes for an interesting set of contrasts. As the title would lead you to expect, the sea features as a central preoccupation, as do the symbolist paintings of Edvard Munch. The book is dedicated to Bell’s daughters, and questions of family also run through the collection. For me, however, the main thing that comes across is the contrasting styles between the longer poems and the haiku/haibun.

    The contrast is evident in ‘Sea, My Love’ where the sea is addressed directly, personified:

    Dear Sea, you feel like home

    when I slide into your icy embrace

    hissing like coal.

    The first time I broached your shallows’

    combed through your jewelled weeds,

    dark kelp parted to reveal, then re-conceal,

    with each successive wave.

    While these lines, and the entire poem, make interesting sound patterns and are well written, there is, I think, a sense of the reader being led by the hand too much; the subjective element in stark contrast with the objective directness of a haiku that appears just a few pages later:

    drifts of seafoam

    the clack of a sea otter

    smashing a clam

    For me at least, an entire world is evoked in this dozen words, while the more capacious earlier poem excludes by over-evoking. There’s an interesting case in point towards the middle of the book where a poem rising from a visit to the Vigil of Our Lady of Ransom in Cadiz is immediately followed by a haibun concerning the same event. In the poem we read

    Before the Residencia inmates line up in chairs

    to watch the train of brass and incense pass.

    I tuck a little card into my billfold, and peruse it

    over tapas. Redemptionis captivorum. On the

    countertop a ham-stand with a black pig’s leg,

    the small neat foot en pointe, tilts heavenwards;

    I let its rich smoked fat melt on my tongue,

    and afterwards recall display, not sacrifice.

    Again, this is a well-written piece of work, but for me the ham is being asked to do too much work, to be something other than ham, to stand for rather than simply stand. By way of comparison, on the next page we read:

    Tonight, the Vigil of Our Lady of Ransom, Nuestra Señora de la Merced, is honoured by a procession through the parish.

    tapas pile up –

    from distant lanes

    the sound of drumming

    moonlight –

    through winding alleys

    I follow trumpets

    Here the elements of the evening fall into place more naturally, each thing itself, each thing part of the larger picture, with nothing forcedly ‘poetic’ getting in the way of the poetry.

    Which is not to say that bell’s ‘conventional’ poems lack interest; some of them are very fine indeed and ‘A Compost Bin in Rathmines’ is a tour-de-force riff on Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. It just strikes me that she is at her best in the haibun and haiku gathered here.

    Speaking of which, her Revolution is a set of 24 calendar haiku, two per month, with he interesting twist that the calendar in question is the French Revolutionary version, with Bell choosing to start with spring rather than autumn. In each case, the haiku are thematically linked to the month name.

    The punning title is almost too obvious to mention.

    Reviewing a chapbook that consists of 72 short lines of poetry isn’t a simple matter, so what I intend to do is to tease out some of the implications of just one haiku, the first of the pai for Messidor, Month of Harvest 19 June – 18 July:

    six weeks of drought

    blackbirds in the cherry tree

    pick each stone clean

    So many layers get folded in to these 13 words. The birds, too, are harvesting, and the sweet, juicy cherries provide food and drink in time of drought. Beyond that, there is the compassion of the orchard owner who shares their crop with the thirsty birds, compassion being central to the Buddhist haiku tradition.

    Crucially, the sense is framed in a delicate verbal music, those long ‘e’ vowels (weeks/tree/each/clean) carrying the poem’s burden with a counterpoint of short ‘I’ sounds (six/birds/in/pick) and the necessary discord of the short ‘e’ in cherry. These patterns sit on a neat tension in the rhythm. For instance, the metricist in us might want to scan that final line as two iambs, but the ear hears for stressed syllables, or, if you will, a pair of spondees. This richness of formal control is characteristic of the work in Revolution. Highly recommended.

    Robert MacLean is a Canadian poet who spent a quarter of a century in Japan studying and practicing zazen under various masters. Wintermoon is, in a sense, the public fruit of those years. The book consists of 119 haiku presented in 11 titles sections. The book roughly follows the course of the year, but each section has its own unity and follows a distinctive arc.

    True to the tradition of Bashō, Buson and Issa, MacLean’s vision is democratic, with the same care and attention paid to the smallest thing as the biggest:

    cockroach scuttles

    across the sidewalk


    There’s a neat inversion of feeling here, a reminder that the cockroach has more to fear the human than we do the cockroach. This entering in to the world of the non-self is at one with the zazen imperative to study the self in order to forget the self:

    fall inside yourself

    until that word too

    is gone

    This departure from the self is also a departure from language; the ultimate end of haiku is silence. It is, however, important to remember that the loss of self is not to be feared but welcomed. It is the way to truly immerse yourself in the world of the ten thousand things:

    if you get lost

    far enough

    is that home

    Of course, MacLean is working in multiple traditions, and I detect an echo of Robert Frost in the opening haiku of the sequence ‘Back Route on Fushimi Inari’ to go along with the evocation of Bashō in the title:

    main path

    that way

    go this way

    The sequence is a good example of the distinctive arcs I mentioned above. After this opening, the sequence takes us through a set of luminous moments on this road less taken but in the end we have moved from the philosophical position of choice to the physical act of walking:


    feet braille-read the path

    in the dark

    This sense of returning to the dark points ahead to the shadow of death that hangs over much of the rest of the book. The next sequence, ‘Migrations’, deals with the deaths of parents, but it is the penultimate sequence, ‘January’ that is the most poignant of all. This set of eight haiku circles round the premature death of a son, the tone set by the opening poem again:

    the first place we phoned

    said he was too small

    for ashes

    There’s a world of heartbreak captured on these dozen words. The grief is personal and alienating:

    we go to separate rooms

    to take off

    our faces

    But the arc of the set is towards some kind of love, an image of unexpected union:

    breath whorl window

    snowflakes holding each other

    as they fall

    Here the act of falling is not one of oblivion, but of care. There’s an inevitable comparison with Issa’s great poems on the deaths of his children, but it’s to MacLean’s great credit that his poems more than hold their own.

    I realise that I’ve done little but quote in this review, but it’s in the nature of work of this crystalline clarity that all you can hope to do is point the reader at it and get out of the way. Let me finish by quoting one more time:


    from nowhere

    to nowhere

    Wintermoon takes us on just such a journey, but the pleasure is in the ten thousand things observed along the way.

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