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Monthly Archives: May 2021

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

I have always admired Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, particularly his Anglo-Saxon translations, so it is a pleasure to read and review Gravity for Beginners, his first new collection for six years. An additional delight is the setting – mysterious, atmospheric Norfolk with its wealth of legends.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rilke which sets the mood for the theme of ‘times past’ and the sense of magic. ‘This is the heart of everything that ever was’ is the first line and it is also the heart of Gravity for Beginners.

The epigraph is followed by nine parts of a sequence called ‘Seahenge: A Journey’ and we begin a journey through an emotional and geographical landscape established by pieces whose titles themselves are poem-like: ‘Tump’, ‘Deadheaded’, Unliving’, Shimmer’. ‘Tree’, ‘Altar’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Tides’, ‘Burden’. Here the journey begins with ‘a search for a thumbnail of pottery’ that will remind the narrator of his belief that he was ‘an inmate of the barrow’ that once existed and whose echoes can still be heard:

         Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen,

         footfalls through forests bedded

         with cones and needles:

         knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men,

         truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees

         still resting here.

The sequence explores the background to Seahenge – a timber circle of oak trunks with a huge, upside-down one at its centre. Here a young woman relates how she helped to build the circle and lay the body of her father inside it and here the atmosphere becomes ancestral, pagan, violent and ritualistic. We are in the realm of a ‘white skull, green earth, swarming sea’. This is the site of a ‘crossing place’ where ‘time and ‘dream’ have re-mapped the original henge ‘into another truth’ where the narrator is able:

         Wholly to immerse myself

         wholly to find myself.

Gravity for Beginners, like all of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, is imbued with myth, history and the still-living past where wide steps are ‘scalloped by centuries of hooves’. (‘The New Familiar’). These lines from ‘The Northern Gods’ particularly appeal to me:

         Have you ever dreamed you were sitting in the bole

         of Yggdrasill, squinting up at the skull

         of the white sky, then down into the icy swirl?

         Have you heard the vitriol of the dragon,

         the corpse-devourer, and seen how the squirrel

         whisks it up to the eagle on the topmost branch?

There’s humour as well as lyricism in ‘L’Abbaye-Château de Camon’ where the ‘rondel/ of the seasons seems to spin faster’ and the breath of the medieval queen Aliénor ‘is always here/or hereabouts, trailing her wailing/retinue of troubadours.’

But this whole collection is a journey and in ‘En Route’ we are reminded there’s ‘always some unscheduled halt/with its attendant wonders’ which may be:

         The marvellous or the monstrous

         but more often the humdrum 

  • a reclamation yard, or the smell

of an autumn bonfire; this siding, say,

choked with dusty purple nettles,

an ochre butterfly flickering over them.’

There is a sense of wonder throughout Gravity for Beginners and this brings me back to the starting point of Rilke’s lines about the way ‘the heart of everything … returns to each of us, our very being,/woven into us.’ Kevin Crossley-Holland invites the reader to share in the essence behind the appearance, to see the landscape behind the words.  The collection’s title poem sums this up:

         Words slipping into the mind’s casket,

         quick rain falling to attending earth.

Or maybe the essence and wonder is best expressed in this, my favourite poem, ‘Winter as it Used To Be’:

         Birds flew in searching for seed

         and all at once became snowflakes;

         as words do.

         A burst of sunlight, an angel’s aureole,

         and then mist; and the trees,

         and our singing selves made of morning air.

Mandy Pannett 31st May 2021

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

This is a stirring and insightful collection of essays that often reads like a travelogue or reportage; that is that its prerogatives are not speculative or theoretical. Kei Miller from Jamaica, who studied and has taught in Britain, has been lauded for his poetry, especially The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014). 

I was a little reminded of Martin Amis Visiting Mrs Nabokov, which similarly is in a kind of reporter’s prose conveying and getting back about places he’s visited, people seen. Miller’s essays cover a lot of ground, from Jamaica to Trinidad to Kenya to Ghana. 

Reflecting I’d say the main points coming through are to get a bit of local colour, sometimes not without its hazards, in some of these places; and to take measure of Miller’s insistence on his embodiment, no ivory tower here, and the culture and politics of racial or ethnic identification. Miller seems to suggest that he can no more get out of his body than change or forget his skin colour. Identity figures too in Miller’s gay identification. Among topics covered are the circumstances of battyboys in Jamaica through to Trinidad and Jamaica carnival on to corrupt police in Ghana. 

The book is framed with imaginary letters directed to the esteemed James Baldwin, who becomes Miller’s muse for a time, both opening and closing the book. Baldwin, of course, struggled hard for his art, frequently feeling unsafe, and speaking with a rare reach of eloquence.

Miller seems to be following a theme, if you like, of where you belong. That being so, of course there was black livelihood before Jamaica, presumably prompting the trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. But no Roots excavation here. It is also inescapable that skin colour betrays something about roots, be it tanned, mulatto, deep brown and so on. Miller links his skin tone to his body consciousness, something that no amount of cerebralness can countervene. 

Chapter 9 is called ‘There are Truths Hidden in Our Bodies’, and in that sense this can account for Miller’s body consciousness, a means to arrive at the truth if not quite to some sort of felicity. He does sympathise with the battyboys, who will play up the pride and camp at carnival, and how that experience is seen as a time to expunge our ‘worst’ behaviour, albeit I assume harmlessly. It cannot go unremarked that Miller has a short account of the recent police death incident, rendered anonymously, repeating the fatal expression ‘Please, I can’t breathe’ (p197) twenty two times.

Miller says to Baldwin actually, ‘I resent your dying’ (p16) about the same place he concludes that ‘there are histories that haunt our bodies’.

But of course irrespective of that body awareness Miller is able to bring us a persuasive, writerly account of what is going on in some of these places he inhabits. A strong attachment to Jamaica comes through well, of the shoreline, waves lapping on rocks, of the hillside houses, of the different seasons. Miller says he regards the book as ‘an act of faith, an attempt to put my trust in words again,,,to offer, at long last, a clearer vocabulary’. (pxv) While this is a book with an eye to the future, I like to think that it is well on the way to espousing that enhanced clarity. 

Clark Allison   30th May 2021

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

Islands of Voices: Selected Poems of Douglas Oliver edited Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

The eight titles of Douglas Oliver’s works included by Ian Brinton are supported with a preface by Joe Luna and introduction by the editor along with eight pages of notes at the end of this 180 page book. The inclusions by Joe Luna and Ian Brinton make clear Douglas Oliver’s stance towards poetry as indeed does reading his poems.

         The poet’s inward conversations held within poems being the very thing with which he wants to confront possible readers: the immediacy of language acting in the moment of experience and in the reported experience, each being reliant on the other. Clear indication of this evident in:

                  ‘Oh you are born already!’ cries the English mother

                  in pained surprise to her hanging baby,

                  as though the finished phrase

                  has slipped, unfinished, out of anguish

                  still continuing, into its adventures.

                                                               ‘Beyond active and passive’

and strongly so, in:

                  … The moment we will speak has

                  already happened: it waits

                  in the silence of the subterranean hall

                  as meaning stumbles downstairs to articulation.

                                                               ‘The earthen stairs’

There is no escaping the disruptive syntax, especially in poems from ‘Oppo Hectic’ and ‘The Diagram Poems’ but then poetic articulation has its tradition in ‘strange and wonderful language’ (Aristotle), in order to estrange itself from normalcy. The core concern of defamiliarisation as outlined in Viktor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Art as Technique’, is that language should be non-normative

so that the author creates a vision from de-automized perceptions.

Certainly Douglas Oliver’s earlier poems invite such a step into them, not to understand, but to believe them. Once done the presumptions of comprehension give way to other experiences.

                  Kindness acts idly or unnaturally,

                  leads you into fear. Act in kind.

                  Kindness makes you idle, worse, unnatural.

                  Don’t be afraid of the darkness of kind;

                  for it’s the birth of darkness, vertical twist

                  of opening lips in the night:

                                                               ‘For Kind

However not all the poems are difficult but most are arresting:

                  …on their marital bed she, the Haitian

                  changed his skin sympathies, unshackled his stiff pelvis

                  by mounting him, squirting black womanly sperm into him,

                  remaking his mind and his tongue while he was still

                  asleep, new conceptions warm and liquid in his pelvis.

                  The opening of eyes, changing of person, exchange of sexes,

                  Black for White, We for They, Woman on Top, all this is

                                                               ‘Penniless Politics’

That book ‘Penniless Politics’ advanced the notion of a people’s political party in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York and, as with the sweep of his writing, politics and social comment was its fuel – that and the manner in which it was sourced from his personal life.

                                                         … for my father

                  now spoke, in death still a typical Scot:

                  ‘Please yourself with all this palaver

                  about Socialism; the cemetery is certainly not

                  a Tory stronghold. The truth is, I’d rather

                  your Socialism shone with your past; you’re not shot

                  of that fatherly honesty,  walk humbly but

                  remember your innocent days; who refuses

                  his childhood’s a booby – and I haven’t forgot

                  your politics, with its blindness and pearly roses.’

                                                               ‘The Infant and the Pearl’

There is a quantity of information regarding Douglas Oliver and that’s good – it is very good and purposeful. What I hope to have achieved in this review is to set out the push in the publication of Islands of Voices.

         Ian Brinton has selected poems by Douglas Oliver that he considers should be read. There is no getting away from this. His selection is generous and scopes the poet’s life, to wit (and it’s quoted in Ian Brinton’s introduction) Douglas Oliver said, ‘A poet’s full performance is the whole life’s work; …’

Some of it is here and Ian Brinton instigates a reading of it all.        Yes.

Ric Hool 29th May 2021

The M Pages by Colette Bryce (Picador Poetry)

The M Pages by Colette Bryce (Picador Poetry)

These poems appear almost formal, but absolutely sing in massed choir from the pages of this collection in which Colette Bryce is absorbed in witness to the passing of life – death and changes arrived by its finality. She feels, looks, listens and imagines.

It is through the imagination evoked in setting out her words that carries these poems, the lines work in unison, sometimes soothing, ‘the polished lozenge of a hearse’; sometimes, bluntly factual, ‘Death. Nobody wants / our accumulated stuff’; sometimes gracefully handling polite insincerity, ‘Smokers in the parking lot, / ashes to ashes /        ‘yes we must / in happier…’Some awkward hugs’. Colette Bryce is an articulate and trustworthy observer.                        

‘Death of an Actress’ is a poem of neatly stitched euphemisms celebrating vernacular’s informal rendering of demise:

                        Has gasped her last, pegged out, gone west.

                        Mislaid the future like a set of specs

                        or a loop of keys. Has booted the bucket,

                        dimmed her light to the glownub of a wick

                        and snuffed it, passed on to the kingdom of perpetual

                        night, hooked up with darkness as a bride.

                                                                                                (‘Death of an Actress)

Nimble writing. She makes it sound so right; makes it look so easy. Colette Bryce’s natural aptitude for navigation is all over this book.  She keeps each poem on course.

That capability is also felt in that she, herself, is in constant transit irrespective of the arresting manifestations in the face of fate. Her travels surface in poems such as ‘Cuba, A Short Commute’ and are alluded to elsewhere: a trip by car to the hill fort Grianan of Aileach near Derry, in visits to family and Ireland. From that poem, ‘Car Hire’, deft wording, care and humour capture the poet’s poorly mother being taken for a drive: 

                        as we ease you from the wheelchair, bend

                        your hinges into the hatchback (memory foam

                        on the seat for your sore, score brittle bones),

                        fasten the belt across you with a click.

                        Not forgetting your tank, ‘Jacques Cousteau’:

                                                                                                (‘Car Hire’)

Such an instance can’t help but connect with a reader in the most positive manner.

The quizzical poem ‘My Criterion’ makes clear Colette Bryce’s fondness for the writing of poet Emily Dickinson and without leaden obviousness drops a nod the latter poet’s obsession with mortality and in doing so the whimsical four lines maintain the central theme of the collection whilst amusingly delving in pensiveness:

                        She writes New Englandly.

                        How do I?

                        Derrily? Verily.

                        Irelandly? ‘Northernly’.

                        Emigrantly, evidently.             (‘My Criterion’)

The fourteen-part title poem begins, ‘M has disappeared’ and interestingly the final line of the final poem in the collection, ‘A Last Post’, ends with, ‘at which they always disappear’.

Appearances and disappearances; beginnings and ends; the transitions between those become characteristic.

Part 1 is a collection of measures: ‘final’, ‘OK’, ‘basics to sustain’, ‘happy enough’, ‘more love’ but comes down to the five times, coffin-nailed: ‘final’.

Part 2, arrives in Melville-fashion, every image to but not from, Moby Dick. 

                        The great nothing breached like a whale

                        and submerged again, just to remind us,

                        or rather inform us it is always there,

                        all times, all place,

                        monstrous in the depths.

Its fourth verse:

                        your name will unfix like a limpet from its scar

                        and birl away

                        in ocean’s eddies,

                        a waltzing teacup, and you, dear M,

                        plus all of us, will become unspoken.

Such lyricism. The Scottish word, ‘birl’; the fairground unrealism of ‘a waltzing teacup’ spin the mind.

Part 4, on entering M’s residence, is journalistic in its police-fumbling exactness.

Part 5, flashes back to M’s innocence, duped by sellers and traders.

Part 7 is subtitled, ‘The Whereabouts of M’ and shoots straight from the hip,

                        Don’t let’s talk about the underworld and all that crap.

as Bryce enters the heart of any home, the kitchen, before moving to the limbs of M’s residence.

Part 10 is reminiscent of a scene in ‘Silent Witness’ and followed by Part 11 where M’s isolated body takes the reader to a lonelier and unexpected contemplation.

The M Pages says things directly, imaginatively and deeply.

Ric Hool 27th May 2021

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

First off, I think this is a good book to argue, feel and think against. There are some highly perceptive close readings here of the likes of O’Hara, Graham and Guest. What’s missing is any overt theory or credo, so for instance nary a mention of Language poetry or the Movement. Wilkinson does not try hard to justify his candidates for reading, intimating for instance that he was quite taken by Shelley’s poetry, of which disapproved, while at high school (p2) Wilkinson maintains that he perceives a need to think and respond ‘ahistorically’, although some enterprising student might be able to put together a chronology. There is little here earlier than Shelley and the choices are highly individualist. A near contemporary WS Graham is one bellwether.

There is nonetheless a kind of tacit theory here. Wilkinson is aware, for instance of Drew Milne’s radical ecopoetry, what’s been dubbed a ‘lichen Marxism’. Wilkinson takes on this notion of ecopoetic grounding, and feels we need to attach poetry to the breath, where Olson comes up, and the stony, wherein we have Adrian Stokes. An empathy say for old stones might seem elusive and inconsequential, but Wilkinson I’d say just about makes a case for it. Stone is the most intransigent and ingrained aspect of landscape.

As signposters each chapter, of ten, comes with a prefatory summary. Chapters 1 and 10 probably provide the better all round guidance. This at times can veer to the haphazard as, eg, what does Barbara Guest have to do with Frank O’Hara or Adrian Stokes, other than that they have caught John Wilkinson’s astute, if sometimes fervid imagination?

It is in Chapter 10 I think that one finds Wilkinson getting closer to staking out his perspective and inclinations, as –

            ‘The silence of the text prepares for the poem’s voice. As for my voice it will be engulfed in the             event, in the ‘abstract act’, as act is engulfed in abstraction and as abstraction gives rise to act.             Such coming-together…’ (p234)

Needless to say, Wilkinson is foremostly a poet, and quite an accomplished, challenging one before turning his hand to criticism or essay. The book in a sense joins other efforts by noted poet critics to establish their prerogative or world view, from Eliot’s Selected Essays to Auden’s Secondary Worlds to Davie’s Under Briggflatts to Geoffrey Hill’s Critical Writings. I might suggest that Wilkinson is less the traditionalist, more the progressive, with his Cambridge school leanings, and that on a certain level he has occupied and demarcated ground that is beyond these estimable precursors, albeit that he is unwilling to venture any chronological analysis or synthesis, but that then may be highly symptomatic of these global times we live in.

Strangely I sometimes feel as if I’ve been there, and certainly Marjorie Perloff set about a thorough critique of O’Hara that no doubt exceeds this in its depth and range of comprehension. But on the other hand one would not catch Perloff discussing Shelley nor probably WS Graham in quite this way.

Wilkinson, I tend to feel, is mapping out a space, a hopefully reliable space, from which we can view and apprise ourselves of developments in ecopoetry and lyric poetry. The sheer depth of range is foolish to dismiss. If Wilkinson is right such notions as dwelling or territory are apt to become more relevant even than they have been. Not just stony ground, but for the ‘breath’, wherein we have the instigation of Olson’s Projective Verse allied to place through myth. I’d say then that this is vital poetic criticism, quite at the cutting edge as much as anything comparable that might complement or counter it. Careful reading I’d say definitely leads to a sometimes searching reconsideration of what it is that we want or expect our poetry to do.

Clark Allison May 21st 2021

Slow Walk Home by Young Dawkins (Red Squirrel Press)

Slow Walk Home by Young Dawkins (Red Squirrel Press)

There is a pilgrimage of sorts in Young Dawkins’ writing of these poems and it is evident in reception of them as audience in both hearing them read by the poet and in reading them from the page. That the poems are biographical there is little doubt. 

Restlessness is arrested over and over by the poet’s recognition of ‘isness’ in the circumstances from which each poem has its evocation, ‘saying it as it goes’ as Robert Creeley once said, culminating in a collection that is ever-looking through one situation to the next.

The place Young Dawkins is in search is not defined geographically, although it ultimately manifest itself so, but in the ‘Slow Walk Home’ to himself and where his ‘heart finds rest’, to quote Robert Duncan.

He is witness to and speaks out of moments of disconnection as in the poem ‘Radio’ where he finds himself astronaut-like, searching for attachment through tenuous radio messages.

            Sometimes late at night

            I play with my radio,

            trying to tune in the dead.

            A nine-band Panasonic,

            ears on the world,

            AM, FM and Shortwave.

            I believe this is how

            those gone will reach me,


            Old friends will find me,

            maybe my mother;

            I keep my radio on.

There is no piteousness in the poem. It’s a situation in which the poet finds himself on repeated occasions – his radio tweaking another endeavour, not only in his search for home but in discovering a definition of home – the last line a disclosure of his openness.

Poems in this collection often lay bare unhappiness as contributory to life as much as pleasure and cameo them in close association.

In many of the poems, there is deceptively delivered lightness yet one that remains reverential to the seriousness of a circumstance – in style, more caring than laconic.

Friendships / relationships are key to this collection.

Dawkins picks up the importance of his male bonding in poems ‘Going Up’ and ‘Fishing With The Dead’, both concerning his buddy, Billy Hoops; Billy signposted again in the poem ‘Letters’, in which Billy is an agent of unification in Dawkins’ lapsed friendship with Malcolm. Billy is there in ‘Sporting Life’ and ‘The Secret To Trout’ – an outdoorsman, a rugged friend, home-spun philosopher and an indelible character.

Elsewhere are poems reflecting the poet’s concern with family, writing colleagues, journalists – he spent many years and travels being a journalist before engagement in academic life as a university lecturer.

The influence of Beat poets is well-drawn but subtly so: Kerouac and Ginsberg are written-in, as is jazz.

Dawkins’ is a seasoned performer of poems to music, notably jazz, and it is the gentle swing of language and phrasing that is at the very heart of his poetry: it is profoundly musical.

In the elegantly anecdotal poem, ‘Billy Collins And My Lousy Poetry Career’, Dawkins relates a reading with the one-time USA Poet Laureate -there is a murmur of likeness in both the styles of Dawkins and Collins. Certainly both advocate and write poetry that ‘often has two subjects, the starting subject and then the discovered subject’ (Collins) and both often write private poetry they want the public to read. 

Young Dawkins has lived in many places in USA but later in life found employment and

‘a home’ in Scotland, establishing himself there for several years. It was also there he met his wife and wholeness to that he had sought for many years.

However, that was not to be the end of the story to ‘Slow Walk Home’. He now lives in Hobart with his wife and son where the final poem in the collection places every important piece in its place. 

Young Dawkins’ imperative is met and it’s here in this generous collection of poems.

By way of friends and relationships he has navigated to a geographical and spiritual place and condition he can finally say is home.

Ric Hool May 20th 2021

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

In this vital pamphlet, Hannah Hodgson, who lives with a life-limiting illness, addresses disability, hospitalisation, and isolation at a time when the disabled and unwell are frequently treated as voiceless statistics.

With no romance or affectations, this pamphlet painstakingly examines what the ill want from the well. One often reiterated wish is for no self-pity; a demand of able people to not ‘hijack tragedy’ with their tears. In ‘Dear Visitors’, the speaker has ‘become a tiger’ and the ward ‘a zoo’, who asks of those who have ‘paid their entrance fees at the nurse’s station’: ‘Don’t maudle, as the captive here that’s my job.’ The speaker goes on to tell the visitors to be themselves, ‘Reveal a little / of your flesh, trust I won’t rip you apart.’ – to bring the things that the speaker loves into the sterile clinical setting – ‘Talk of the wild, talk of home’ – even to help them escape the sterile reality: ‘meet me at midnight with the bolt cutters’. Later in the pamphlet’s arc, in ‘Everybody Loves a Dying Girl’, the speaker bluntly states: ‘I wish to reject my sainthood – illness doesn’t cure me of a personality’, dispelling the widespread dialogue that suggests unwell and disabled people should be eternally optimistic and ‘inspirational’. 

The poems shift seamlessly between the concrete and the abstract. This is prevalent in ‘There is an Art to Falling’, a poem written after Kim Moore. Here the speaker offers seemingly everyday imperatives: ‘Drink water – if you can, // eat something – if you can’, before crossing over to the abstract: ‘reignite the furnace of your body, / blow on its embers’. Similarly, in Kim Moore’s poem ‘The Art of Falling’, imagery moves fluidly between commonly used turns of phrase: ‘to be a field and fall fallow, to fall pregnant’, to imagery such as ‘leaves / like coins of different colours, dropped from the pockets of trees’. One could be forgiven for thinking that the concrete and the abstract could not possibly exist in as small a space as a single poem, but impressively, the mercurial nature of these pieces proves otherwise.

The particular relevance of this poetry in 2021 is palpable. One only has to look at society’s treatment of the disabled and the chronically ill pre-pandemic. Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow addresses themes that have become eerily familiar to us all over the past year. Throughout its pages, we encounter a man left with ‘staff unable to move him – his death a macabre art installation’, a consultant who cries, ‘deserted by her superpower’ as so many of our essential workers have been during the Covid-19 pandemic, the removal of a mother’s body by porters and ‘the bed space marked vacant / on the computer system’, the constant stalling and rhetoric that comes with the delivery of bath news: ‘another step in the wrong directionthere’s no easy way to say this’. There are also poems that speak of shielding, giving voice to those who have had to remain inside with little contact with the outside world for many months due to being at high risk of Covid-19 complications. In ‘10th April 2020’, the speaker reveals that ‘The GP rang this afternoon, / trying to talk about a DNR order. I refused, / instead told him about starlings murmurating / and all the living I have left to do’.

This pamphlet features symbols that we have come to associate with death in poetry, for example, the crow, as in ‘Leaflet dispensed by crows who circle around the resus bay like overstated authority figures’. Again, this poem feels startlingly topical in its imagery: ‘Each cell is a police officer / clad in riot gear’; ‘As the Prime Minister of your body, remain calm – / pretend everything will be fine (even though it won’t)’, but in addition, it seems to be communing with poems such as Ted Hughes’s ‘Examination at the Womb Door’, in which death is the overriding force: ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death. / Who is stronger than the will? Death.’ However, the notion of the ‘womb door’ in Hughes’s poem synthesises birth with death. Birth and death are also synthesised in Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow, for example, in ‘The only person I knew with my condition’, in which the speaker discusses a fellow patient, whose name the hospice has added ‘to the roll call of the dead; / wooden hearts which hang / above the nurses’ station, / the opposite of a baby’s mobile’.

I was captivated by the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Decompose With Me’, written after Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Small Female Skull’, as we experience the pain of this world alongside the speaker, and leave changed. This is the work of a poet of honesty with an effortless ability to articulate the near inexpressible. 

Olivia Tuck 17th May 2021

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

Andrea Ross’s Ploughshare’s article “A Feminist Look at Edward Abbey’s Conservationist Writings” details the way that Abbey sexualizes the landscape in his many writings of the American Southwest, taking a racist and misogynist approach to the wild world. Ross has a complex relationship with the natural world of the west as a former ranger and current English professor. She often works with writers of this area, people like Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and Kenneth Rexroth, so I was excited to see her take on the landscape, how she would use it in this memoir about finding her birth family while trying to find a home within the natural world. What she finds in her relationship to the land is exceptional. Ross, unlike these other writers, is able to see the natural world as a place of rest; in her long journey to find her birth parents and herself, she finds home in nature.

     While Unnatural Selection is in large part about her journey through the bureaucracy caused by laws that seal the records of adoptees and their birth parents even when everyone involved wants to connect, the center of it is Ross’s search for a place where she belongs, a home. She tries to find this through other people, and through various careers outdoors, but underneath the surface of all of this is an awareness that she is learning where she belongs in this wild world. An early boyfriend asks her to find it through adventures in the backcountry, most notably in mountain and rock climbing. She feels as though she should because the people she admires seem excited about it. Unfortunately, the danger of it just doesn’t thrill her, and she abandons this sport and with it, the boyfriend. She tries to share it with people in her life. When she is a ranger at the Grand Canyon, she tries to show her adopted mother the beauty of the canyon floor and the two of them explore the domestic ruins of the Native Americans who lived there. What she is doing as she proceeds in this journey is finding not only where she belongs but how she belongs in the wild, what her role is. She is not someone who seeks adventure or domination of it in the way that Abbey describes. She wants to be a part of it.

     Her journey toward a complete family that includes her adoptive parents and siblings and her birth parents and siblings is no less compelling than her discovery of nature. It is, however, a much more difficult journey and contrasts with her treks to the wild world because it is so unnatural. She has to deal with artificial laws that separate one of the most important relationships of a person’s life. While her mother certainly wants privacy in the beginning when she is an unwed teenage mother, that desire turns on itself, and she begins to feel a need for closeness to her missing child. Ross too benefits from the adoption, gaining a family that loves her, but that doesn’t mean that the rift between parents and child needs to be permanent. The search is long and unnecessarily difficult even though she has a genetic disease that she wants to understand more fully. 

     Ross’s journey and her pain are shared by many people who have gone through the adoptive process. Unnatural Selection is the kind of book that lets people who have been dismissed and not listened to about an emotion they are living with that they are not alone. Her book gives us a way forward in a world that often feels hostile.

John Brantingham 16th May 2021

New Poetries VIII Eds. Michael Schmidt, John McAuliffe (Carcanet)

New Poetries VIII Eds. Michael Schmidt, John McAuliffe (Carcanet)

Anthologising is, assuredly, a contentious art, not just a little like canon forming, despite numerous protestations. The mere act of including someone and leaving others out, with its corollary to granting book publication, seems nonetheless indispensable. We need to try to get a better flavour of the times, to put worthy contributions within the same pages of a collaborative volume, just to digest and try to sample what has been going on. In contrast to the Bloodaxe Staying Aliveseries, which began in 2002, Carcanet’s New Poetries has just reached its eighth volume, having commenced in 1994, with by the standards of the series more contributors, some 24, than usual this time out. A slight bias is doubtless inevitable in that we find here Carcanet authors as well as Manchester associations. Nonetheless the range of poetries is highly diverse.

Aside from the high calibre of the various poets, presentation wise each gets to say something over a page or two about their attitude to poetics, and this in itself makes for fascinating reading. The order of presentation is, if you like, random, which I would definitely say is to the good, – I get very tired of presentation alphabetically – and there are no author photos, which again is probably advantageous in directing the reader to the text, rather than wondering too much about what the writer is as a person. This is assuredly both more in depth and if you will serious than the Bloodaxe anthologies, but more importantly is not focused on the single poem. 

Which poets might appeal is almost certainly down to personal preference; some have been already generously lauded, others are relatively unrecognised. Schmidt and McAuliffe are somewhat dismissive of attempts at labelling or categorising even. As the introduction states, ‘Particularism would be our philosophy…It entails a resistance to theories and “schools”…To say more would risk a limiting definition’ (pviii). This view certainly has its merits, but I would maintain that in the course of time some sort of filtering by subject tag or name association becomes pretty much inevitable. If our editors think this gives their writers some breathing space for now perhaps that should not be berated.

In terms of overriding themes or methods, I’d say most of the poets here do not adopt strict formalisms; but there is certainly quite a lot of objectification going on; a certain inhospitability to introspection might be noted. The poets seem more grounded than airy; there may be more nods to ecopoetry, rather than high flown verbal display or game playing. 

To be a little hopelessly partial, three poems I particularly liked here were Colm Toibin’s ‘Curves’ (p337), Joe Carrick-Varty ’54 Questions for the Man who Sold a Shotgun to My Father’ (p109) and Benjamin Nehammer ‘Things as they Must Be’ (p139). Also Isobel Williams’ Catullus renderings work very well as a set; Christine Roseeta Walker’s poems are vividly evocative of her native Negril, Jamaica. Nehammer’s poem concludes,-

                        you struck against your sense of things

                        as they must be, as they are

                        bound to be in the very end,

                        when the trees will stand in bloom,

                        when a figure you have met and forgotten

                        will return and demand what he is owed.  (end p139)

Well and one might also insist that the subject is owed something besides, but Nehammer’s phrasing is very fluid, precise and exact. That ‘sense of things’ most here would regard out in the world rather than in interior states. 

This then is a quite persuasive rendering of the view on present poetics from Carcanet, and as such no doubt does what it meant to accomplish which is to display, map out and sample what is going on in contemporary poetry. One need hardly add that there are many woman poets and poets of ethnicity here, also. Whether anything of major consequence has been omitted is another issue, and let’s say there are no Instagram poets here, for instance. But what we get is a very fulsome, variously enticing and accomplished slice of the poetic milieu.

Clark Allison 15th May 2021

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Peter Larkin has been publishing poems about trees for almost 40 years, yet with each new collection he brings fresh perspectives. This arises in part from his close attention to trees, an attention which he invites us as readers to share. It is also nourished by his interest in scientific research into trees and forests, and recent philosophical debate on the non-human and our relationship to it. 

In his latest volume, Encroach to Resume, ‘Bodies the Trees of’ is a good example of the way science informs the poetry. The poem takes as its principal source The Body Language of Trees: A Handbook for Failure Analysis by Claus Mattheck and Helge Breloer, a book given to Larkin by J H Prynne. The handbook is focused on the hazards that trees can pose: how they break, why they break, and why sometimes they break when we don’t expect them to. The authors identify a series of indicators of stress and potential failure, the ‘body language’ of the title. 

Larkin has written before about the interaction of a tree with its environment and how this shapes the eventual form a tree takes. In ‘Bodies the Trees of’ he explores the idea of a tree being the record of the various vicissitudes it has had to negotiate through its life. Each response a tree makes to stress generates potential lines of fracture. Thus ‘cracks radiate, the root-swerve revolves describes (sub-writes) a blow’ (para 2) and ‘silent signs render screams to seams’ (para 4). ‘Sub-writes’ here evokes ‘underwrite’ (risk insurance), and ‘screams’ suggests both the sound of sheering timber and the cry of someone struck by a falling branch. 

The poem goes on to explore various aspects of potential stresses which might cause failure, and the way in cities we deal with risks through pruning and felling, constraining ‘branches in harness’. It also generalises this image of vulnerability to say something about our own being in the world. In paragraph 7 we read: ‘excessive stalling into shape    trees share horizons of the body across all the unsheltered flesh of the world’. 

A very different poem is ‘Given Trees Their Other Side of Nature’, a text which engages explicitly in metaphysical speculation. The poem is prefaced by three epigraphs, the first from Rilke’s Erlebnis in which the subject of the text wonders if he has been ‘transported to the other side of Nature’. This is followed by the environmental philosopher Bruce V. Foltz asserting that ‘the other side of nature is the side that allows it to be more than…our own production. The other side is the side we sense but do not see…’. The third epigraph is from Emily Dickinson: ‘I could not find a privacy/from Nature’s sentinels –‘.

The sense of there being an otherness in nature, a numinous presence we scarcely apprehend, is a common theme in Larkin’s work. This for him is not a transcendent reality but something we experience phenomenologically, however mysteriously. Thus in the seventh section of the poem Larkin writes: ‘Nature’s other side no less born, sensory only as its gift bestirs     a fragility not quite nearby but companionate burden’. In the central part of section 10 we read:

rootedness scratches

at a dimensionless

deflective abiding

in welts of belonging

the unaccountable,

prongs of the trees

smack at nature’s


It is through the material presence of trees that we have a sense of this otherness. Section 9 includes the line:

No such erasure without a raised other side, what is not a lid     hidden only as leanest against, supportive until obstructive enough for prayer

Larkin has made increasing use of the word ‘prayer’ in his poetry in recent years, though who or what is praying in the poems is often ambiguous. Personal pronouns appear rarely in his work.  Here he speaks of prayer ‘not bridging but a thrown (penetrating) embankment, its own least-beyond-from-which’ (section 1). Ultimately it is prayer, understood as a reaching towards, which retains the initiative in this poem, rather than metaphysical argument.

‘As a Tree Not a Tree’ is another fine poem which anticipates many of the themes in ‘Given Trees’. I enjoyed the subtle ambiguities explored here, the sense of a tree containing what is literally ‘not tree’ while also being more than ‘tree’ in a metaphysical or spiritual sense – that a tree ‘shelters what it is not’. Four other poems on various tree-related themes make up the collection as a whole.

Larkin’s texts are challenging, demanding work from the reader. The ideas he explores are often subtle. But the effort is worth making. The global environmental emergency we confront demands of us a very different way of being in the world. Larkin’ poetry is an invitation to reflect on what that might feel like.  

Simon Collings 13th May 2021

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