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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Missel-Child by Helen Tookey

Carcanet, £9.95


One of the links connecting the prose poems of Francis Ponge and the early poetry of Charles Tomlinson is a concern for boundaries, edges, limits that define what is just visible before the limit is decided. Tomlinson called it ‘space made articulate’:


The shore between wall and wall;

The sea-voice

Tearing the silence from the silence.


Ponge wrote about steering to the edges of things so that we can recognise them. Helen Tookey’s first full-length volume of poems also brings into focus a clear vision of where one world meets another. Whether it be in the epigraph quotation from Sir Hugh Plat’s Herbarium of 1653, aptly called The Garden of Eden, or in the emergence of a lost world at Formby Point, these remarkably haunting poems give us a vision of ‘what’s lost’ being ‘everywhere’. The flatlands at Burscough and the flat lines on a page offer ‘black coffers’ which ‘lie rich with the drowned.’ I used the word haunting about these poems because time and again I am struck by a past which, palimpsest as it appears, has a vivid tangibility that can be uncovered: footprints which have become lithographic over time, uncovered, become alive with the validity of their presence:


four-toes, twisted, no use

at the hunt; this girl, months-heavy, inching

her way, clawed feet curled hard into the mud;

and the children, quick, unhurried, knowing

themselves alone possessed of a future.


These children suggest kinship with those whose hidden and excited quickness of laughter were connected to ‘Time past and time future’ in ‘Burnt Norton’.

Just as the tide uncovers the relics left by ocean the narrator of ‘Cockleshells’ contemplates the margin between presence and absence:


I carry

merely yesterday’s meanings but


you are already translated, turning

towards the bright months while I


collect October’s cockleshells,

curetted cleanly by the sea.


One of the most intriguing and compelling poems in this book is ‘Hollow Meadows’ which opens with a quotation from the early notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins in which he gives some definitions of ‘Hollow’ relating the word to ‘hull (of ships and plants)’ and then skulls/heads which are both hollow and ‘hold’. Hopkins ends by suggesting the shape of Hell. Tookey’s poem guides us through a range of memories and extracts circling around these definitions of hollowness before concluding with one of those boundary moments where one world intrudes momentarily and eerily upon another. Hopkins was well aware of Hell and in his 1883 ‘Meditation’ on the subject he wrote ‘And as it is by the imagination that we are to realize these things so I suppose it to be by the imagination that the lost suffer them and that as intensely as by the senses or it may be more so.’

Helen Tookey’s imaginative realization of worlds just beyond the visible horizons is both striking and deeply enchanting: take care!


Ian Brinton 27th January 2014. 

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment

Tony Barnstone’s Beast in the Apartment (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) comes with a book cover of William Blake’s etching of Cerebrus, the three headed creature, used to illustrate Dante’s Inferno, and hints at potential encounters. The beast in the apartment is a paper lion, rather than a tiger, that comes alive. Barnstone, (like his father, Willis Barnstone, the respected poet and New Testament scholar), is well travelled, an accomplished translator of Chinese poetry, with a solid grounding in religious studies and a number of poetic traditions. Indeed, his father appears and reappears throughout the book. Barnstone’s previous books include, The Golem Of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008), which exudes a joyful playfulness in its modern psalms, parables, testaments, sermons, sutras and gospels, and Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagaski (BkMk Press, 2009), which offers multiple perspectives from found material from both sides of the Pacific conflict.  Both are well worth reading.


Beast in the Apartment, divided into five sections, with crisp narrative poems, traditional sonnets, repeated imagery and intriguing, yet not in-yer face, juxtapositions is perhaps more conventional than his earlier work. It works around a series of opposites or near opposites and has a smoothness and symmetry. The poem, ‘The Strangeness’, for example, with its hinted echoes of John Donne, follows a poem where Friedrich Nietzsche’s on the eve of mental breakdown sees a cab-horse flogged and begins to eat hunger, relates the experience of seeing a strange, dead creature washed up by the swale, to two sets of couples, (moving bodies, synced and unsynced) that disperse and separate as a memory trace.


the way in memory the people that we were

are just now shaking the sand off the blanket


and folding, and you take my arm and squeeze

the bicep as we walk to the car, and I shift my neck

to pilfer a last, small glance at the strangeness of it all,

of all we leave behind us, gleaming on the sand.


‘The Strangeness’ echoes later as one reads the sequence and considers whether the narrator’s encounter with Gwyneth on the beach is a matter of luck, randomness or fate, and whether we read the strange creature as an emblem of all our dead selves. The poem is skillfully placed to end the first section with its worship of women’s bodies and seemingly fatal and camouflaged world.


The second section has some fine sonnets, such as ‘Die’, with its amusing opening line, ‘One day your toe fell off, the tiniest toe’, and ‘Lamp or Mirror’, on the strangeness of self, with its last line, ‘The mirror breaks. I gasp awake. He’s here.’, which serves to add to the circular play of absence and presence, life and death, old self and new self. The third section follows watchmakers from Istanbul, his father dancing, and the thief of time, and segues into the fourth section titled after the medieval concept of rota fortuna, casting its shadow, dominated by a sequence of sonnets, odes to chaos and bags, and a plea to marry opposites:


And yet when starlight fills Yosemite

like dreams, then we might understand this call:


to put down iPhones, turn off HBO,

and find the hidden meadow, secret cove,

to turn back from the world we think we know

and enter the ecology of love.


The last section, the beast in the apartment, echoes the first and third sections and serves to produce a wonderful circularity that plays around with the themes of fullness and emptiness, order and disorder, life and death, past loves and new loves, movement of bodies, and saying goodbye to former selves, fumbling in the darkness of a new becoming.



David Caddy 25th January 2014




Launching Simon Smith

Launching Simon Smith

The first of the 2014 Shearsman events at Swedenborg Hall in London included Simon Smith reading from his recently published collection 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard. This is a fast-moving world which ranges from L.A. to Dartford in Kent, from Paradise Cove to Gravesend. One of the epigraphs to the first section, the American poems in which Simon Smith goes in search of Paul Blackburn and the ‘pure products / of the dream factory’, simply gives us ‘A crazy little place called ‘Be There Now’’ and as one is zoomed across a continent this seems very apt. One of the things I liked about these poems was, however, that impression I got of the sense of ‘Now’ being placed within a context of both ‘Then’ and a future which can loom with ominous dislocation. The click and shift of sounds and humour are underwritten with an urgency which has moments of leisure to savour ‘the taste of almonds as Time drops below the sun’.

The second half of this collection is titled Gravesend and it takes us on the North Kent railway line from Charing Cross to Chatham and beyond…and beyond. In a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as a mirror of everyday narrowness Smith gives us ‘Deposits’:


Refrigeration and containment

Not that far to the jail at Sheppey

Nationalise the debt for helicopter money

No time to think—extruded plexi-glass,

Or a few details from my own personal experience

Is History in real time not sampled

The exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries,

The male located in the female.


The reference here to acrylic glass is both precise and illuminating since laser cut panels have been used over the last ten years to redirect sunlight into a light pipe or tubular skylight in order to spread it into a room. In this sequence of poems details of personal human experience shed light upon the poet’s perception of History and, as if in memory of the time when he threw a large clock through the window of Barnwood House in order to do a runner from the lunatic asylum in Gloucester, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney now ‘plots his great escape from Dartford Asylum’.

On the back of this volume Jeremy Noel-Tod has written ‘All the digital landfill of one London poet’s life is here, not to mention a book-stopping tribute to Cy Twombly. Line by line, Smith is one of the most exciting poets writing in England: if it weren’t for the sweet Thames and the Little Chefs, he might pass for an American.’


Ian Brinton 22nd January 2014


Caroline Clark’s Saying Yes In Russian

Caroline Clark’s Saying Yes In Russian

Saying Yes In Russian by Caroline Clark

Agenda Editions 2012


This is a poetry of junctions, places where one road meets another, one language meets another, a place where in the ‘Night Train’



the untouched tracks



the foregone night


It is a world of definitions where meaning takes place, dawningly, as light intrudes on darkness and ‘void’ becomes ‘lightened window’ or ‘differences dawn lightly, / first away, then towards’. Richard Price’s comment on the back cover of this handsome Agenda edition is very much to the point when he says that Caroline Clark’s poetry ‘explores the Russia she knows intimately—city, forest, snow—and always with a music that seems to soothe the fear of gaps she finds, edges beyond the edge.’ This poetry recognises that an object’s individuality is obtained by contrasting it with other objects: we perceive things by contrast. In his essay ‘My Creative Method’ the French phenomenologist, Francis Ponge suggested the importance of these borders in outlining one experience from another in the creation of personal identity:


…la variété des choses est en réalité ce qui me construit. Voice ce que je veux dire: leur variété me construit, me permettrait d’exister dans le silence même.


When Caroline Clark comes to a place ‘where the tower blocks stop / and do not give way to woods / or open field’ she sets out into a new world. Initially there are potholes, ‘things to avoid’, ‘obscenities’; and then comes new language, ‘a tugging / at comprehension’:


They took me to a village wedding,

the name of the place meant apple.

Yábloko, yábloko. Give me a word

I can understand. Say it with a bite.


As the poet tells us ‘these words are not my own’. But it is the new conjunctions, the fresh juxtapositions, which make these words convincingly evocative of a life lived with seriousness. This is a terrific first collection of poems.


Ian Brinton 20th January 2014

‘the clink of the stonemason’s chisel’

‘the clink of the stonemason’s chisel’

A Strong Song Tows Us, The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton (Infinite Ideas)


This is an astonishingly individual, direct and engaging biography of one of the most important poets of the twentieth-century; it possesses that hallmark of the serious work, a sense that it really matters to the writer. As Richard Burton takes us through his reasons behind committing the past three years to this work he opens up a picture of a landscape, Bunting’s autobiographical poem Briggflatts, ‘as the spine of this life’:


‘Bunting’s poem acts as the Pennine Chain of this book, holding its landscape together on the one hand and, I hope, providing vistas that help us see the hinterland of Bunting’s work.’


This is not a review of Burton’s biography but merely a sign posting readers towards the review which will appear in Tears in the Fence 59. That said, let the difficulty of the biographer’s task remain uppermost in the mind as one reads Bunting’s response to Faber’s Editorial Director when asked for an endorsement which could be used as blurb for the cover of the Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound:


Thank you for sending me the book. It makes me shudder. No doubt it is fitting that maggots consume us in the end, or at least the rubbish we scatter as we go; but I’d rather leave the lid on my dustbin and the earth on my friends’ graves. Piety takes curious forms: the toenail clippings of Saint What’s His Name are revered. I don’t think religion is much advanced by that. It would be more profitable, more to his glory, to throw away some of the poems Pound printed than to print those he threw away himself. I apologise for my lack of sympathy for the industrious compilers.


Ian Brinton January 17th 2014

Shannon Tharp’s The Cost Of Walking

Shannon Tharp’s The Cost Of Walking

Colin Winborn suggested that I might enjoy Shannon Tharp’s The Cost Of Walking (Skysill Press, 2011) and he was right!


This thoughtful collection, which begins with an H.D. preface, ‘Better the wind, the sea, the salt, / in your eyes, / than this, this, this’, references the possibilities of loss by not confronting the weather, the unseen and unknown. In a series of succinct meditative poems, Tharp gestures towards other approaches and possibilities in any movement between two points. The poems balance short suggestive, philosophical, statements with a concrete imagery gravitated around the weather, felt as both physical and psychological, and travel.




In conditions less

than perfect,

what I make out through


rain – happening a-

gain in a

slow diagonal –


white hearse, green graveyard,

little else

save for what isn’t.


Tharp avoids the pitfalls of pure abstraction by centering the poems within a knowing inner voice, and conversely avoids the downside of subjectivity by looking outwards through distance and separation.  The narrator is aware of division, of the split self, of things falling between, of small movements. The short, often understated, poems expand outwards by means of a few words, whereas the longer poems, such as ‘Chasing Landmarks’, ‘Travelogue’,  ‘Practice’, dedicated to Jack Spicer, and ‘High Rise’ impact cumulatively and succinctly. The book is a feast of composite layering, as in for example, ‘Morning (With William Bronk)’ which starts ‘The world, what we took / for the world, / is breaking. Breaking!’ and ends ‘And we are / equally alive.’ One feels blessed to encounter such acute brevity and depth. This is compelling and strong poetry.




A god-


















as they




The collection coheres and beguiles in equal measurement.

It is a remarkable achievement.



David Caddy  January 16th 2014


John Torrance’s Waterwheel

John Torrance’s Waterwheel

I admire the ingenuity of the water mill having spent much of my boyhood at Fiddleford Mill. John Torrance whose previous books include Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1991) prefaces his new collection, Waterwheel (Oversteps Books, 2013) with this rhythmic poem, ‘Getting The Old Mill Going Again’:


     When the sluice in the leat is opened

     the first bucket fills, and spills

     down into the second, which fills

     and spills out into a third, and then


     the great wheel creaks and stirs

     and slowly begins to move, and when

     the fourth bucket overflows, it

     starts to turn, and now the water


     tumbles out as the wheel comes round

     falling and filling, rumbling and spilling,

     faster and up again, over and down

     and round and round, until at last

     it turns and turns and turns and turns and turns …


The poem serves to remind the reader that there is always the possibility of starting a new life.


Divided into three parts, Waterwheel, is a measured sequence of poems that deal with lives on the cusp of death and the emergence of new life and love. The ‘Touchstone’ section features poems written for his friend from school days, the poet and writer, Jan Farquharson, who was dying of cancer, and concerns finding ways between life and death, coldness and warmth and those other binaries that occur as a close friend nears death. Torrance, a former Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, allows the reader to sense the struggles without recourse to any hint of sentimentality or compromise. The second part, ‘Still Life’ contains poems written about his wife, Charity, whose progressive dementia was cut short by a fatal stroke, movingly evokes the ‘wild-eyed, pleading, creased with tears’, the ‘blather and burning’ of gradual losses. The third part, ‘Honeycomb’ has poems written about or for John’s new partner, Barbara, Jan’s widow, and the waterfall and steadying qualities that she brought post-bereavement.


As Sarah Hopkins writes on the back cover blurb, Torrance achieves a gentleness of tone and style, moving from crises to repair that make this one of the most loving of texts. It is both compassionate and elegant.


David Caddy January 13 2014

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