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Category Archives: Books

What The Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore (Smith Doorstop)

What The Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore (Smith Doorstop)

Kim Moore’s riveting chronological account of practising the trumpet and becoming a trumpeter delves from her childhood into adulthood, exploring the emotional as well as the practical implications of starting to learn how to play an instrument at a young age and pursuing it throughout life. She practises every day for hours, takes part in concerts, becomes a conductor of brass bands and a brass teacher in primary schools. The short pieces in the collection entertain the reader with funny and serious anecdotes, surprising events, insightful comments and information about what it means to play the cornet and the trumpet. Personal reactions to the significance and impact of music in general and her close relationship with the cornet at first and then the trumpet are investigated too. In her writing Moore also shows a professional knowledge of the instruments which has been developed over many years of practising, reading books about them, playing in concerts, teaching in schools and eventually dropping them to concentrate on writing.

     Her references to the ‘oldest trumpets in the world […] discovered in King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter’, one in silver and one in bronze, are a revelation that links Moore’s dedication to music to the ancient past. She imagines that the Egyptian trumpets are light, ‘like a hollow branch’; she would like to touch them, connect to them as if each of them were a talisman that might bring her luck. Other players will have the opportunity to play the ancient instruments, such as James Tappern and an Egyptian bandsman; the latter, unfortunately, shattered the silver one into pieces by pushing the mouthpiece of the delicate instrument. It is said that King Faruk, who was present, helped to pick up the shattered pieces.

     Similar anecdotes enrich the collection with memories of the author’s music teachers, who were sometimes helpful and encouraging but at other times their remarks diminished her. Her A-level music teacher thought that she was not good enough for music college, but Moore proved her wrong. However, the teacher’s remarks haunted her for years as she felt that although she could make a living playing the trumpet, she would never excel as a solo trumpeter. The trumpet also opens her up to new experiences. Her first gig, a week’s performance of Singing in the Rain at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester, gives her the fabulous sum of £150 to add to her savings for a Bach Stradivarius trumpet that she needs for music college. At the college she studies the Cornet Method by J.J-B. Arban and understands Paganini’s techniques, making clever connections with her experience and the achievements of the virtuoso musician. 

     Love stories and crushes mingle with her daily musical practice. The trumpet remains as present as ever, a friend or a guide that at times seems to lead her destiny. This happens during a tour to Germany with a dance band when she meets a man who will change her life and almost break her. The story is narrated in the sequence ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’ in her first full collection, The Art of Falling, published by Seren Books in 2015. In the sequence she explores how he closely controlled and unravelled her, reducing her to nothing. The recovery is slow but the trumpet and her new job as a peripatetic brass teacher in Cumbria help her. It is a full-time teaching job that broadens her experience not only as a player but also as a human in relationships with students and colleagues. A sense of pride in her students’ achievements and sometimes frustration about missed lessons reveal moments of joy and sadness. 

     The recurring motif of the Last Post links to moving events such as the death of one of her best friends, a guitar teacher who suddenly dies while she is playing in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The event is shocking and will echo for years every time Moore plays the Messiah:

I feel as if I can’t breathe, as if I’m going to have a panic attack. Then I have one of the strangest experiences of my life. My head is still resting on the wall of the church. The stone is cool against my skin. Suddenly, I feel a wave of calm washing through me, but it’s as if this calm is coming from the wall of the church.

     Moore’s writing is effective and engaging. The reader is captivated by her neat descriptions that convey profound thoughts. Her stories are interesting and precious; they communicate the ordinary and link to a wider view that alludes to the world’s conflicts and social issues too. She investigates her vulnerabilities as well as her strengths, which have helped her navigate in a reality that has not always been easy. Her knowledge is accomplished and vital, not only in music but also in literature and art, as evoked in the poem ‘The Splendour Falls On Castle Walls’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson and in the suspended sculptures of flattened brass instruments by Cornelia Parker, which look ‘like pressed flowers in the open book of a room.’ Her responses are always clever and innovative, prompting the reader to have a diverse understanding. 

     Eventually Moore starts a new path, that is, writing. She joins a poetry group and attends poetry readings and workshops. Her attitude towards writing is as disciplined as her study of the trumpet. However, she practises the trumpet less and less and she reduces her teaching hours as well. When she is offered a Vice Chancellor’s Bursary at Manchester Metropolitan University for a PhD in 2016, she drops the trumpet and focuses on writing, expressing her talents in full and achieving considerable successes. Language becomes central, but the trumpet is still there; it survived a car crash and was reassembled. Although it is not perfect, it will survive and last and will always be ready for new adventures.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 8th February 2023

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

Surface Tension by Derek Beaulieu (Coach House Books)

I have several Derek Beaulieu books on my poetry shelves; his work fascinates and intrigues me, but I still don’t feel I know how to read them (or perhaps the term is process them). Concrete poetry is an established genre and I am happy to put Beaulieu into that lineage, I’m also happy with poetry that uses the visual as a guiding or organizing principle, and poetry that doesn’t prioritise content or narrative or epiphany.

Yet, Beaulieu’s poems are beyond that. Often constructed from Letraset rub-down lettering, they are visual patterns and constructs, sometimes in sequences, sometimes seemingly treated even more (or made differently): “Calcite Gours 1-19”, published and given away by rob mclennan back in 2004, and my introduction to Beaulieu’s work, contains a ‘suite of poems’ which are circular-ish explosions of ink, reminiscent of star clusters. They are as seductive and engaging as the night sky, too.

That book is also dedicated to the memory of Bob Cobbing, which offers another lineage to place Beaulieu’s work into, that of improvisation and sound poetry, hand-in-hand with the farther reaches of experimental poetry. Beaulieu states that the work ‘is an attempt at engaging with the materiality of language; treating the construction of poetry as a physical task’, going on to reference ‘painterly/gesture based movements and modes of construction influenced by abstract expressionism’, to be considered as ‘an examination of mark making’.

Surface Tension is much more clearly made of letter forms, not only prompting the question ‘where on earth does the author find Letraset in the 21st century?’ but also offering a way in to the work through variation, change and mutation: the work in each sequence is clearly related and shares source material as it slides, disforms and reconfigures itself. My favourite sequence is ‘Dendrochronology’, which swiftly develops from a curvy conglomeration of letters into enlarged topographies of black and whites forms, reminiscent of rock strata or map details.

The book is also interesting for the poetics on offer, presented as prose between the series of poems. The first of these offers several interesting ideas and facts: that ‘Surface Tension creates landscapes from the remnants of advertising’ (which made me feel less guilty about my landscape comparison); and that ‘[t]hese reflections and distortions work to keep concrete current, in flow, a fluidity refusing to solidify around power.’

This idea of fluidity as a tactic to resist power is an interesting one, and Beaulieu builds on it in a later text where he states ‘that the usages of language in poetry of the traditional type are not keeping pace with live processes of language and rapid methods of communication at work in the contemporary world’, and also reminds us that ‘[w]riting is not aboutsomething, it is the something itself.’

Even if we want to argue with that notion, perhaps saying we want a poem to be about something as well as being something, we must be aware of  those ‘live processes of language and rapid methods of communication’, perhaps even the idea of society, nature, knowledge and matter itself in flux. I am reminded of Helen Vendler’s statement in The Given and the Made, when discussing the early work of Jorie Grahamthat:

‘The instabilities of matter must now be assumed by the self; and so any poem spoken in the voice of the material self must be an unstable poem, constantly engaged in linguistic processes of approximation.’ 

Beaulieu’s way of dealing with the unstable and approximate is to create ‘poems that refuse linearity in favour of the momentary’, poetry that ‘move[s] past declarations of emotion into a form more indicative of how readers process language’. To resist modern culture, advertising and the transient by producing poetry that works in the same way is an odd form of engagement, but it is an intriguing approach, and serves as a provocation and reminder that ‘[e]motions and ideas are not physical materials’, and that poems ‘are not rarified jewels carefully chiselled for a bespoke audience.’ 

Beaulieu prefers poetry to be constructed with ‘nuts and bolts, factory made, shifting from use to use’, thinks that ‘[l]iterature is not craftsmanship but an industrial process’, and states ‘[t]he contemporary poem is an understanding of juxtapositions’: all admirable responses to and rebuttals of the egotistical, lyrical hangovers and shaggy dog narratives we find in so much contemporary poetry. 

Once we realise it is okay to just enjoy Beaulieu’s poems for what they are, in the moment, a weight lifts and we no longer have to worry about content and understanding, can find our own way of engaging with these original and distinct poems. We should also be aware that how we read and what we read, changes. Jacques Derrida perhaps says it best, in ‘Living On / Border Lines’:

‘unreadability does not arrest reading, does not leave it paralysed in the face of an opaque surface: rather, it starts reading and writing and translating moving again. The unreadable is not the opposite of the readable, but rather the ridge that also gives it momentum, movement, sets it in motion.’ 

In Surface Tension Derek Beaulieu continues to set all sorts of things in motion, extending and refining the possibilities of poetry.

Rupert Loydell 31st January 2023

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

Affordable Angst by Mercedes Cebrián Translated by Terence Dooley (Shearsman Books)

This dual-language book selects from Mercedes Cebrián’s four collections published in Spain back to the mid-2000s. They’re poems about her nation and its changes since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Healthcare, consumerism, globalisation, the EU, the hollowing of city centres, the Church, data access, relations with other countries… There’s even a poem called ‘Brexit’:

         […] no era
         un ir y venir, era la diferencia
         entre mutuo y recíproco. […]
         (It wasn’t a to-and-fro-ing,/ it was the difference/ between mutual
         and reciprocal)

Such big social subjects are treated with a surface cuteness that dissimulates a deeper (and darker) nexus. A poem about immigration links the arrival of kiwi-fruit to Spain with the arrival of Pakistani immigrants, and does so in a way that its phrase especies de otros mundos (‘otherworld species’) and its excursus about chimpanzee smiles indicating hostility can be read as deniable, provocative or seriously unsavoury. Poems about regret for the loss of colonies, complaints about paying tax, and irritation with people blaming Franco for everything can similarly sound whimsical, ironic or quietly nasty. Ambiguity is often the strategy of the politically timorous writer, but the malestar (‘discomfort/ malaise’, rather than ‘angst’) of the Spanish title seems to be the aim here. The few poems about relationships likewise have their emotions camouflaged under elaborate, comic but disturbing fantasies:

         En esta cantimplora que acarro
         llevo un marido líquido […]
         (I have a flask I carry round with me/ with a liquid husband in)

To these ends, the book’s most frequent stylistic devices are abrupt non-sequiturs in the manner of Ashbery, and ostensibly nonsensical declarations that match an abstract noun with a highly particular image in a way familiar from surrealism:

          Los temas escabrosas están en el azucarillo
          de este descafeinado.
          (All the unsavoury gossip is in the saccharine-packet/ for this decaf.)

Its favourite joke-tone, meanwhile, is a faux naiveté

         […] Panamá. ¿A quién se le ocurrió partirlo en dos?
         (Panama […] Who on earth split it down the middle?)

shored up with plentiful references to childhood and its soft toys, dolls and felt-tip pens:

         ¿Sirve el gesto de devolver el edding y a cambio no pagar
         los euros que Hacienda me demanda?
         (What if I handed in the Edding as a gesture,/ would that mean
         I didn’t have to pay the Revenue all those euros?)

Even so, this is an adroit poet, and the grim prophecies of ‘Población Flotante’ (‘Floating Population’) 

         El futuro ya está blanco
         y está hervido, en eso se parece
         a nuestra cena
         (The future is white now/ and processed, like our supper)

with its imageries of desertification (‘hervido’ above is strictly ‘boiled’) and missile attack seemed to me among several poems whose power to unsettle reached beyond the habitual gripes.

The bold translation makes many unexpected choices: ‘recycling centre’ for vertedero (landfill site); ‘to google’ for saber más (to know more). It embellishes (‘re-tweeted’ for decía (said)), advertises (agendas negras (black notebooks) become ‘Moleskine’ ones), tones down (‘continents’ and even ‘photos’ for the thrice-repeated razas (‘races’)) and plays freely with line lengths and syntax, always valuing stylishness before strict precision. Nonetheless it works well: for the intermediate hispanophone less obvious meanings are sometimes illuminated and the exuberance is entertaining, while the genetically-modified Cebrián served up to the monoglot can be read as entirely apt for the ironies elsewhere.

Guy Russell 29th January 2023

Willoughby, New York by Carson Pytell (Bottlecap Press)

Willoughby, New York by Carson Pytell (Bottlecap Press)

I love Carson Pytell’s work. It reminds me of Charles Bukowski and Fredrich Exley. It reminds me of Kevin Ridgeway and John Fante. It reminds me of the kind of fiction that a lot of us were trying to do when I lived and worked in Long Beach. So many of us who studied under Gerry Locklin and Ray Zepeda were going after a kind of gritty realism, and some of us accomplished the spirit and tone. Others did not. I never did to the degree that I wanted to, and so I shifted to different kinds of writing. Pytell, however, is a kind of master of this type of writing, and his fiction collection, Willoughby, New York is powerful work, the kind that I was reaching for back in those days. His chapbook reaches the kind of humanity most of these writers are striving for as he often focuses on people’s worst days, their most embarrassing moments and how they live through them. He is a writer who isn’t afraid to show us not only how banal life can be and how insignificant we can be made to feel but also how to live through these moments with dignity.

         The first story of the collection ‘In the North Country’ captures much of that power as a 21-year-old tries to have sex with a woman, both of whom have been placed into a facility for having attempted suicide. They sneak off to a bathroom, but when the woman finds that the protagonist was born with only one testicle, she reviles in disgust and even horror. She reveals a dark side of her character as she berates him for not being the perfect physical specimen, she’d hoped he was. He asks her what her problem is, and she replies: ‘My problem? I’m in here with a one ball wonder. You’re like seven feet tall, can’t you imagine what I was expecting?’ There is a callowness that Pytell is exploring and helping us to understand. He is taking us to that place of shallowness, showing us how to move on when confronted with these moments. Years later, the protagonist finds out that the girl he almost had sex with eventually succeeded in her suicide, and he is left trying to understand her, perhaps trying to understand his place in the horror of her life.

         Getting to this place of moral, emotional, and intellectual ambiguity is one of things that I love about Pytell’s work, what he does as well as anyone I know. In ‘Where the Line Is,’ his protagonist discusses his ambivalence about death after having gone through the last rights and recovered. He describes what he sees as a funny scene when he is alone in his hospital room and his blood gets splattered around the room. ‘As for the poor nurse who walked in on the faux murder scene, the worse off custodian, I recall their faces better than my family’s. How could I not? I laughed silently, but visibly harder than I ever had.’ His protagonists are often detached in this way, watching their lives and trying to understand them but not caught up in a maudlin concern. They understand something about the nature of life and its absurdities, and they are showing how odd it is.

         Although Pytell is part of that literary tradition I found and loved in Long Beach, he is making the work his own. It is not in imitation, and it is constantly powerful. I cannot recommend Willoughby, New York more highly. 

John Brantingham 17th January 2023

Darkness Between Stars by John F. Deane & James Harpur (The Irish Pages Press)

Darkness Between Stars by John F. Deane & James Harpur (The Irish Pages Press)

The authors’ own Introduction to this beautifully produced hardback book notes that Deane and Harpur 

   have known each other for many years and shared readings, 
   discussions and introduced each other’s work, finding friendship
   and mutual encouragement in discovering that [they] were both 
   fascinated not only by the life of poetry but also by the divine, 
   the sacred, ‘God’.

It is this fascination, and the writing out of it, which underpins this ‘joint selection’ of poems: although there are poems about a wide range of subjects, they are, the authors suggest, ‘poems in search of God’, poems which ‘bear witness to […] probings into the ineffable’.

This raises two issues. Firstly, I hoped for more of a poetic conversation, and not a selection of poems by each author, the one followed by the other; perhaps even new work, produced in collaboration or as a direct response to the other’s work. Secondly, an issue the authors are all too clearly aware of, that faith rooted in specific religion is somewhat out of fashion, as is the idea (put forward in the Introduction) that poetry ‘springs from our argument with God, or the absence of God.’ 

I find the idea of poetry somehow being inspired by the divine or a muse, somewhat antiquated, as I do ‘the search for meaning, for certainties’, which the authors suggest (again in their Introduction) has never been more important, particularly as a result of Covid, but also generally. I am not alone, however, in accepting the notion of truths, plural, rather than Truth, isolate and declamatory. Recent developments in the sciences, engineering, the arts, psychology and sociology have shown us how much knowledge is tentative and of its time, rather than fixed, final and certain.

It would be wrong to suggest that Deane and Harpur are in any way dogmatic, evangelical or theologically certain: both write poems that question and consider, even when addressing the divine directly, both doubt and debate. Although Harpur’s poem ‘from St Symeon Stylites’ is about and perhaps spoken by St. Symeon, we might consider the poet’s voice too, admitting that 

   Most days I think I’m split in two, 
   A spirit yearning for the light
   And a body of delinquent appetites.

That phrase, ‘delinquent appetites’ seems to be both enticing and full of self-disgust, and although the poem is full of lonely, resistant prayer it ends up with a doubting question: ‘Sometimes I wonder if I pray / To keep the Lord away?’

Deane often explores his belief and doubt through revisions of the Gospel stories. ‘Words of the Unknown Soldier’ notes, in very un-soldier-like language,  how ‘he stumped us, this Jesus of yours, with his / walking on water, fandango, entrechat, glissade’, whilst the lengthy sonnet sequence ‘According to Lydia’ brings a feminine point-of-view to bear on key moments, finally countering imagined ‘onslaughts of foolishness’ with the beatitudinal ‘blessed is the one who does not lose faith in me.’

Mostly, however, both authors choose to see or encounter the divine reflected or present in the physical world around them. Bones, birds, star clusters, woods and corn circles are all cause to stop and consider man’s place in the grand scheme of things. In fact, man’s relationship to the natural world, and even more specifically the ‘Christian failure to incorporate the reality of evolution and its consequences’ is what Deane suggests has ‘alienated thinking people’ from ‘”traditional” religious tenets and activities.’

‘Poetry, God and the Imagination: a Dialogue’, actually a 2018 email correspondence, ends the book, and in many ways it is the best part, offering up a frank and thoughtful discussion to the reader. Deane’s Catholicism, or at least his Catholic upbringing, is very much on show as he suggests that ‘To accept evolution is inevitably to deny the doctrine of “original sin” and even that of the “Immaculate Conception”. I don’t know about the latter as that veers off into ridiculous discussions about human purity, virginity and sexlessness, but the former was always explained to me, by the Baptist church I attended as a child, as a matter of relationship to God, not a physical genetic inheritance!

The discussion is wide-ranging, covering the spiritual, the poetic and writerly,  as well as religious institutions and mystical theology. Surprisingly, Deane turns out to be ‘a devoted follower’ of Teilhard de Chardin, the author of a cosmic theology informed by both evolution and philosophy, whilst Harpur prefers ‘a multi-construct Christ figure’ although he admits to mostly trying to focus on his ‘own interior silence’.

Both seem to agree that religion is ‘rooted in mystery, epiphany and personal experience’ and rather worrying that ‘that’s what it shared with poetry.’ Or should, because Deane is adamant that ‘too much contemporary poetry […] seems vapid and imitative, saying nothing and saying it well.’ In the same way, he notes that ‘it has always amazed me how the churches got it wrong’, although later he redirects the discussion because ‘we are not going to get too far with the theological and rational surveying of the world and poetry.’

Later on there are mentions of Simone Weil, Richard Rohr, Yeats and Hopkins, but the main drift of the conversation seems to be towards a critique of poetry that society thinks can be measured in financial terms, and then a suggestion that the mystical, inspired or ineffable is a counter to this. Whilst I agree that Western neoliberal capitalism and the measuring of anything only in terms of profit, potential or otherwise, is wrong, poetry has always had more cultural than financial value. I do not, however, want creative writing made mystical. Language is what we use to think and talk to each other, it is how we process the world; when we recognise how fluid and full of possibility it is, we can create anew. Whilst much of the poetry here is beautifully worked, thoughtful and intriguing, it does not in the main evidence what many of us would think of as a ‘radical approach’ which Deane suggests is needed. The re-mystification and obscuration of poetry and how it can or might be written does no-one any favours.

Rupert Loydell 11th January 2023


A Census of Preconceptions by Oz Hardwick (Survision Books)

A Census of Preconceptions by Oz Hardwick (Survision Books)

Oz Hardwick prose poems are short moments captured from what the author, in ‘Out of Town’, says is ‘Beyond the range of church bells’, where ‘time follows its own instincts’. These gently surreal poems slur time, jump time, and revel in experiential time, where action ceases or slows, allowing the poet time to breathe, take note, follow trains and trails of thought and share them with his readers.

In ‘The Coming of the Comet’, for instance, the original observation of the comet’s trails as ‘fragmented nursery rhymes’ (sky writing) allows the author to imagine reaching up to touch them, although he fears getting his fingers burnt, metaphorically and literally. Then the text undertakes a sideways move towards the ducks who have already flown away from the winter, which allows a digression about other creatures, before the poem swerves into myth and nursery rhymes, with a dying dragon returning us to the burning motif. All that in half a page!

Other poems in this collection are calmer and static. ‘Rain Fugue’ is just that, an ode to the past, lost love, triggered by association with bad weather; whilst ‘The Museum of Silence’ imagines the titular organization as a repository of items such as ’empty headlines, snapped violin strings’, ‘the pressure of gentle arms and the electricity of soft hair falling across eyelids’. The left-unsaid contradiction is the fact that the museum, where ‘There are never any words’, can only be conjured up through the author’s careful arrangement of words.

Elsewhere, there is a gentle humour with a serious undertow: ‘When we stopped wearing watches, our hands became lighter’ (‘The Evolutionary Urge’), ‘In the absence of clear government guidelines, I’ve convinced myself that angels are everywhere’ (‘Epihanies for All’), ‘I’ve changed the locks and changed my mind’ (‘imdb’), ‘Before he moved out, the previous owner hid a volcano in the house’ (‘The Armchair Volcanologist’). The poems are not the slightest bit incendiary though, although they do surprise and occasionally shock. ‘Swarm’, for instance, observes that ‘Bodies break up every day, but still we’re surprised when it happens to us’, before riffing on the idea of a search for ‘an appropriate image’. How to commemorate nothingness, or absence, the fleetingness of life in the grand scheme of things, even when there might be ‘sweetness at the heart of our shattering’?

These are poems where ‘Difficult questions push between simple gestures’ (‘Highway Blues’) and ‘Graveyards are the new shopping malls’ where visitors are ‘browsing their quiet aisles, comparing prices and window-shopping afterlives’. This set-up at the beginning of ‘Bargain’ allows Hardwick, or the poem’s narrator, a chance to remember, countering the fact that his ‘own family leave no trace’. He recalls a religious cult leafletting student groups, the notion of ‘a loving god whose face is too bright to see clearly’, and rescues his family from oblivion, before asking about ‘rest and redemption, about spreading payments, and about insurance in case of cancellation due to unforeseen circumstances’. The deity only offers him a brochure which contains only ‘a list of names printed in invisible ink’ inside it.

But this is not a dour or miserable book. Yes, it reflects upon death, beliefs, and doubts, but mostly it is full of joyous associations and playful observations, delightful moments and wonders from the world that readers can share. As Hardwick says in ‘Please Make Up My Room’, ‘Just because they are in your handwriting doesn’t mean they are necessarily your words’, and I guess the reverse is true: these words can become ours.

Rupert Loydell 9th January 2023

Jane’s Country Year by Malcolm Saville (Handheld Press)

Jane’s Country Year by Malcolm Saville (Handheld Press)

Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Five books were part of my growing up, a more literate successor (along with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books) to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, which I loved but raced through. Saville never got much recognition for his writing for children, and only recently did I discover the Lone Pine Five paperbacks I collected (and still have) often had a quarter or more of the story removed since their initial hardback publications.

There are several publishers in recent years who have been reprinting out-of-print books, marketing them to nostalgic adults keen to revisit their past, but Handheld Books – who are new to me – are not one of these. Until now they have been reissuing books by the likes of Rose Macualay, John Buchan, Sylvia Townsend Warner and other authors I have never heard of. But their ‘Handheld Classic 24’ is this stand-alone novel-come-nature book by Saville.

It’s a beautiful edition, with reproductions of the original illustrations included, and a new foreword contextualising the 1946 story for 21st Century readers. Hazel Sheeky Bird makes links between Saville and the likes of Blyton, notes his critical neglect, but also details how important the likes of Richard Jefferies’ book Bevis was to Saville. 

Organised into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, Jane is sent to recuperate on her uncle’s farm after a long illness in the city. There, she not only becomes well but is introduced to nature, farming, and country life, making new friends and gaining information as she goes. From the first few pages on there is a sense of wonder at the open spaces, the weather, and how people live. Her inquisitiveness is informed by her new friends, the shepherd, the farm labourer – who she at first thinks is a tramp, and the Parson’s family, not to mention her aunt and uncle.

Some of these ‘information drops’ are a little awkward, but they are redeemed by the knowledge a reader gains, and the overall narrative arc; and Bird notes that explanatory notes which were added to later editions have been removed for this edition, which returns the book to its original form. The other slight problem is the sometimes condescending and clichéd description of villagers and workers as plain simple folk, somehow more honest, open and true than the city or town folk who live where Jane and her parents live.

It is also an era where farmers were farmers, not industrial livestock or vegetable producers. Jane’s uncle keeps sheep, grows vegetables, and milks and slaughters his cattle; although he goes to market, works hard and works his employees hard, the focus of his work is what his land can produce to sustain his family and those who work on it, whilst looking after his fields and animals.

Saville did not write this novel as a polemic though, he wanted to tell a story that engaged his readers, and saw the lead character Jane, get well, mature, and learn. The pace is varied as suits the changing seasons, with some wonderful set scenes around events such as first lambing, harvest, the local fair and Christmas, various interactions with other people, and a number of epistolic sections which reproduce Jane’s letters to her (rather distant) parents. The pace is gentle and meandering, the story fairly simple, but Saville sustains the mood of engagement and wonder throughout. The pictures are a genuine bonus, and I greatly enjoyed learning about the recent historical past, however romanticised, and sharing the delight of Jane’s year in the country.

Rupert Loydell 8th January 2023

Visions of Llandaff poems by John Freeman photographs by Chris Humphrey (The Lonely Press)

Visions of Llandaff poems by John Freeman photographs by Chris Humphrey (The Lonely Press)

This superb collection of poems, each one accompanied by Chris Humphrey’s impressive colour photographs, comprises observations about different walks written in sections that are linked by landscape, small journeys, reflections and moments of vision that are ‘undramatic and intangible but real’.

With ‘Words Inside a Birthday Card’ the poet begins his journey with a choice, for one ‘can go three ways’: alongside a wall, into a churchyard with yew trees or straight ahead towards the river although time is too short and the weather too cold to appreciate the mallards ‘swimming, flying’. Yet he does stop for a robin is singing ‘and going on singing’, a continuity that brings in ‘other birds singing’ so that anyone watching will find they need to listen and go on listening.

A description of insects, halfway to wasps in size, introduces a hint of heaven for they are like ‘a ladder of angels ascending and descending beside the robin’s tall tree’ – a welcome sight for they are ‘part of the livingness of the world’ and, together with all the opening and growing of buds and leaves, cause the first of the changes in the narrator for he, who had been ‘impatient and depressed’ finds the dark mood falling away.

The next section is intriguingly named ‘A Lost View’ which, for years, has been remembered and looked for in vain. Other views of Llandaff are ‘lovely’ but ‘not what I remember’. The discovery, when it happens, occurs accidently while the poet is ‘intent on water’ and this in turn reminds him of Shelley who wrote about his own journeying ‘I always go on until I am stopped, full stop, and I never am stopped, full stop’. 

The title section ‘Visions of Llandaff’ begins with ‘Summer rain on leaves and old stone.’ There is much to see but more important than the seeing is ‘the feeling’ of a ‘soft fellowship in which things bloom and are tenderly magnified’ – a special way of feeling which seems to be offered as a gift and, if one is distracted by lesser things, can be ‘rerun’ again ‘in thought’ together with a resolution to do better ‘with the next gift that is offered.’ This is the heart of the vision in the collection’s title, a reference to fragments that can still be gathered up, a ‘transfiguring’ remembered from ‘an intense early version’ when, as a lonely adolescent, the author kept company with a squirrel that was ‘the one other unrooted thing’ in a landscape of an old castle ‘surrounded by tall trees and a soft rain’.

If the fragments of insight, the seeing and the feeling, are the heart of the poet’s vision, then the Cathedral with ‘the elegant gold cockerel on the spire’ is the focal point. For once, he says, ‘I don’t just see, I register this incarnation of the divine as human’. Or maybe it’s not the building that is central but the outside, the rain on the steps, the weeds, and plants, ‘masses of luxuriant wet growth’, the impression ‘that I have, for all my inattention, completed something.’ 

The completion of a sequence of beautiful poems, certainly. John Freeman, as always, shows himself to be an outstanding poet. But there is something about this sequence which, to me, feels more haunting than usual, a joyful vision but one that is also fugitive and sad. Yet, the ending is clear. A candle is lit in a ritual that is not hollow. A path leads through ‘a tunnel of buddleia’. Something has happened and changed. ‘The space is not empty.’

Mandy Pannett 18th December 2022

Far World From Silesia by Jeremy Hilton (Brimstone Press)

Far World From Silesia by Jeremy Hilton (Brimstone Press)

Jeremy Hilton’s latest book offers ‘an exploration in prose and verse of the life and works of Emin Pasha’. It provides a portrait of the nineteenth-century explorer and naturalist via a biography in prose, extracts from his journals, and in a long poem. 

Emin is probably best remembered as the man H. M. Stanley crossed the Congo to try to rescue in the late 1880s. He was born Eduard Schnitzer, in Upper Silesia in Prussia, but spent much of his life in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, working as a doctor and diplomat. He adopted the name Emin, meaning ‘trustworthy’ or ‘faithful’, to facilitate integration into Ottoman society. 

His major passion in life was natural history, especially birds. He was an extraordinary individual, tirelessly observing, documenting and collecting. He corresponded with many scientific editors and contributed specimens of flora and fauna to natural history museums across Europe. He was also a man of humanitarian sentiments and interested in the lives of the people he lived among.

In 1876 Emin arrived in Sudan, where the British were supporting Egyptian (Ottoman) rule. Here General Gordon, the senior local official, appointed him governor of Equatoria province in the south of the territory. Egyptian/British control of Sudan collapsed in the 1880s in the face of an Islamist-led nationalist revolt. Emin and the people under his protection were forced south towards the largely unexplored Lake Albert region. The outside world lost track of him and this led to Stanley’s disastrous, and much written about, expedition. Emin eventually met a brutal death in the Congo rainforests in 1892 at the hands of Arab slave traders. 

The three narrative threads of Hilton’s book – biography, poem, journal extracts – run in parallel columns down the page which is large format (A3 landscape). The text is illustrated with maps, and with photographs of some of the birds and other creatures Emin recorded in Africa. The journal entries in particular give a strong sense of Emin’s intellectual inquisitiveness and energy, and are an interesting read. The biographical material, on the other hand, seemed to me over long. The information provided is readily available from other sources, and a shorter introduction to Emin’s life, sufficient to elucidate the poem, might perhaps have been enough. 

The poem itself draws on Emin’s writings, collaging material to convey his passions and travails. Much of the poem focuses on his time in Sudan and central Africa. There are 45 stanzas, each of eight lines. The meeting between Stanley and Emin is described in stanza 33 which begins:

close to the lake two men meet in a tent

men of renown, rescued and rescuer, roles reversed

one weary from hundreds of miles of his forces dying

hearing the groans and cries in a forest with no light

the other riding his steamboat with fresh supplies

The poem overall conveys a strong sense of physical hardship, of armed conflict, sickness, food scarcity, as well as of a landscape teeming with wildlife. Stanza 30 reads:

out of the river dream the mystery spreads

growing into our very lives, the too soon deaths

pushing back the frontiers of our unknowing

hills and mountains to traverse, rivers to wade

forests to scramble through, stealing venom of snakes

roads leading skyward among the arrows and falcons

all down the drought-threatened flyways, flash

of a kingfisher in front of lakeside crags

and drown into the earth of an ancient hallowing

Using Emin’s words has its drawbacks, as the poem inevitably becomes inflected at times with a nineteenth-century colonialist language. In stanza 18 Emin wonders:

how is this throbbing

chaos, this crunch of bright and dark visions

tropical lightning sheeting crazy malarial nights

to be governed, to be granted the music of peace

Specific experiences are generalized to ‘Africa’, creating an image of a continent ravaged by tribal wars, famine and disease – a benighted place needing the civilizing influence of colonial authority to bring order. There certainly was conflict, disease (including smallpox introduced by Europeans), food shortages in particular areas in particular periods, an active slave trade, but these need contextualizing. Gordon, who was a fierce opponent of the slave trade, soon realised that the task he had been given in Sudan was hopeless. With large lucrative slave markets in Cairo and Constantinople there would always be people trying to supply the demand. The wealthy Ottoman elite for whom Gordon, and Emin, worked, and who were supported by Britain, benefited from this trade. This perspective is largely missing from Far World From Silesia.

In a postscript Hilton tells us that he has never been to Africa. He confesses, with characteristic honesty, to a ‘large degree of humility, indeed embarrassment’ that he should attempt such a work. He voices some criticisms of Emin in the postscripts, recognizing that he was a colonialist with a somewhat paternalistic attitude to Africans, that he helped facilitate the trade in ivory – but he argues that Emin’s life and work as a naturalist deserve our attention.

Knowing Jeremy Hilton, I have no doubt at all that he is motivated by humanitarian and environmental concerns. If the book prompts readers to seek out more information about Emin and the events he witnessed, it will have served a valuable purpose. Most people in Britain remain ignorant of the realities of our historical relationship with the continent, with the so called ‘anti-woke’ brigade determined to try and keep it that way. This book could have done more to puncture some of the myths, but Emin’s contribution to surveying the flora and fauna of Africa, thereby helping to lay the foundations of modern-day conservation work, is well worth knowing about. This was his enduring legacy and Hilton is right to celebrate it.

Simon Collings 27th November 2022

Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

Aeneid Books VI -XII by Virgil translated by David Hadbawnik (Shearsman Books)

To Virgil, the second half of his epic of Roman imperial destiny and its human cost was the maius opus (‘greater work’). The long voyaging from fallen Troy is over. Aeneas has accepted his ineluctabile fatum, arrived in an Italy already thickly settled with both migrated and autochthonous peoples, and wants land to settle and found his city. There are moments of respite: feasting, aetiological storytelling, divine portents and the extended ekphrasis of Aeneas’ God-made shield. But mostly it’s war: siege, raid, council, treaty, mass funerals and constant one-on-one combat. 

The emotional power of this, the Aeneid’s Iliadic half, accumulates iteratively. The relentless and grisly scenes in which, over and over, a character is given a mini-biog only to ‘vomit thick gore’ or have ‘his face […] covered in hot brains’ a few lines later, becomes sickening as well as pitiable. The pity is reinforced by scenes of grieving loved ones wishing for death themselves, even while each killing inspires yet more vengeful bloodbaths. The poem famously ends with a maddened Aeneas’ refusal of mercy, and its last image of battlefield murder sends us back to the real world without consolation or excuse. 

This interesting new translation gives us an Aeneid that’s Americanized (‘mom’, ‘my ass’, ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’, &c.), film-friendly (‘Zoom in on Lavinia’), humorously anachronistic, hyper-dramatized (‘“Drop what you’re doing!” screams Vulcan.’) and considerably abridged. It bypasses several whole scenes and a massive chunk of Book VII, besides countless smaller details. Many battlefield deaths, notably, become mere name-lists, soft-pedalling the horror that’s the flipside of the epic concept of glory. 

The style is richly and sometimes brilliantly idiomatic. ‘Cum tandem tempore capto/ […] Arruns’ (lit: ‘when finally, having seized the moment, Arruns…’), for instance, becomes ‘This is the break Arruns has been waiting for.’ Indents, spacing and typography stand in for the elaborate soundplay, caesurae and positional emphases of the Latin hexameters:

          When he thinks        the enemy’s
                       close enough PALLAS
                                     moves first     hoping
                        for anything that might            improve
                        the odds […]

The word virtus (bravery, manliness) gets left untranslated, along with occasional other source terms, either to flag significance or for atmospherics. Classical buffs might miss the gratifications of Roman oratory: the most frequent rhetorical device here is cacamphaton (‘What the/   actual/    fuck,’ says Juno). ‘Tough’ is the favourite translation word – the warrior queen Camilla, for instance, is a ‘tough babe’.  

The colloquial parlance co-exists nonetheless with a traditional high-flown register (‘Why/ does fate urge you to unknown war’ &c.), which generates abrupt tonal changes. When Tarchon addresses his men: ‘Now O chosen guys’, the registral discord reaches parodic levels, and when we’re told Evander ‘spews forth’ his poignant farewell to his son, and then ‘blacks out’, it’s patently self-conscious flippancy rather than tonal lapse. This translator, recasting the Aeneid as part-comedy, part-Hollywood blockbuster, is propounding that we (or he) can’t take heroic epic seriously nowadays, and is willing to burlesque the horror and pity in order to subvert its martial vanities, while transposing it to genres more accessible to a contemporary audience. It’s undoubtedly a valid approach. The result feels like it was fun to write, is certainly more fun to read than twenty po-faced translations, and adds an innovative new ribbon to the rich braid of Virgilian studies. Just maybe don’t make it the only Aeneid you read.

Guy Russell 22nd November 2022

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