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Category Archives: English Poetry

Knitting Drum Machines For Exiled Tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani is out!

Knitting Drum Machines For Exiled Tongues by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani is out!

Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani’s ground-breaking poetry collection Knitting drum machines for exiled
tongues 
presents the reader with thirty-five multilingual poems in English, French and Croatian structurally interwoven with thirteen visual-textual fragments and three poems-tattoos or “tattooed” drawings through the narrative device of “enchâssement” (embedding). Using the universal languages of the heart / love / music / rhythm the author seamlessly transgresses borders and provides us with a poignant, evocative, and fully inclusive, immersive experience. The recurring tropes of falling, absence, and loss, and the evocation of a fourth “shadow language” signify the narrator’s displacement from ‘home’ and language, whilst at the same time questioning the identity discourses of nostalgia, belonging and exile. Here, the central image of the “knitting drum machines for exiled tongues” can be interpreted both as an innovative artistic practice allowing the revival of lost and / or exiled languages, and as an enabling device for the (re-)coding of multilingual language patterns in which “poetry of the mind breaks free”.

A QR code included in the book invites the reader to access additional content related to the Knitting drum machines for exiled tongues collection such as a glossary, visual, and audio sources.

The book is available to buy on the Tears in the Fence website through the Pay / Subscribe / Donate page (https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/).

“In Knitting Drum Machines for Exiled Tongues, ‘harmonies’ are ‘sounding out’ spectrums of sonic frequencies, attempting to connect self/others. Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani brilliantly raises the old sword of the bard battling both the silences within herself and which plague us all – the ‘mutisms’ at the ‘edges’, our own wilderness being contained. The poet stretches through the unhearable, unsayable, claims ‘je capte’ ‘kapetan bez broda’ – but then leaves us a blank void to be filled in. That space is the remarkable work waiting here for readers to respond to, to find our ‘futures possible’ where ‘optimism’ is that ‘impossibility of closed passage’ of which she writes so eloquently.”

Jennifer K. Dick, author of, most recently, That Which I Touch Has No Name, 2022

30th September 2022

Adventures Among The Living by Tim Cumming (Blueprint)

Adventures Among The Living by Tim Cumming (Blueprint)

The Acknowledgements page at the end of Adventures Among the Living suggests that this new pamphlet (or chapbook) from poet and artist Tim Cumming is the product of – or ‘made possible by’ – ‘a lucid dream’ back in 2021. This may or may not be the subject of Cumming’s painting ‘The Poet Appears in Space Time outside Kensal Rise overground station in the dead of night’, which is reproduced in full colour across the centrefold of this publication; a strange, slightly blurry work which foregrounds a fox against a street corner, with – presumably – the apparition of the poet to the left of the image.

It’s a powerful image, as is the beginning of the first poem: ‘I was not all there. Friends had / a habit of pointing this out.’ The jokey tone, with its initial pun, gives way to something darker, where the narrator ends up ‘whispering secrets / into a hole in the ground’, convinced that no-one can hear him, but coming to the realisation that ‘they all knew the words’. All? Friends or the implied everyone from the use of no-one? The narrator is set apart, kept back, with the others 

     glancing back at me as if I was
     the last figure of a convoy
     from the last war of antiquity,
     and my gods were contagious.

I love that last line, the idea that you can ‘catch’ gods, like an illness or disease, a virus perhaps, but Cumming does not linger in this scene; the untitled poems swiftly move the story along. Returning to his room our protagonist finds incident tape and arson, forcing him to flee, comparing himself to Frankenstein but ‘hoping / something good would come of it’ rather than ‘monsters / that would eventually kill me’.

The fourth poem’s ‘bedsheets beneath me / twisted into a body shape’ suggests that we are in dream territory, an idea reinforced by the way the narrator finds himself ‘falling through air’ then moving among people he recognises, ‘unheard and unseen’. The dream sometimes turns into a nightmare:

     I looked for my face but only
     saw a gap. How could I retrieve
     it, unfold it, spread it out
     like a map and read it,
     follow it, and find myself

But he cannot find himself, for he is ‘as solid as smoke’ and ‘way off the map’, reduced to asking ‘what / would Keith Richards do?’, which hardly seems like a rational response!

This, however, is not a rational journey, it is a city where ‘shadow lives sometimes showed through’, built upon ‘the shadow of false memories’, a place where ‘the ground itself swooned at your feet’. The bed is a re-occurring image, as are maps and absences: of memory, self, any sense of purpose or direction. Films and parallel universes are mentioned in passing, and ‘[a] box that had been opened / decades ago suddenly arrived / in the hands of a courier’, as time loops around itself and slips away.

This poetic journey is made by a narrator who ‘wasn’t going anywhere’, who is eventually led to tell himself that

     Your place is here, and even
     though you are going to be very
     far away, you are expected and
     there’s nothing you need to bring

although in the next poem he interrogates this: ‘What did you bring / and how much of it did / you need to carry?’ At this point, in the final two poems (the quote is from the last-but-one), we realise the whole sequence is a meditation about growing up and the baggage we all carry with us as we navigate the world around us and find our place until we 

     reach this point where
     the road ends, folding
     its dimensions into what
     you packed in haste as a child
     before embarking on your journey.

Cumming’s dreamlike sequence, perhaps written according to ‘fairy tale logic’, is a strange and marvellous affair, its abstractions and surrealism grounded by very real depictions of the city, and a perceptive engagement with the language of emotion and confusion. It’s a brave engagement with, and attempt to illuminate ‘the shadows that / fall when memory passes you by.’

Rupert Loydell 29th September 2022


What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider the  domestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.

Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context:   ‘My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).

The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt a  writer/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’.  Yet  poem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart of  home and family: 

        Every haven you have ever found

        was only lent to you.

        Even now you abide in your body

        like a stranger house-sitting for the friend of a friend

                                                                                   ‘A Lending Not a Giving’

Though there is anger and resistance in these poems, and a sense that the ‘I’ must  escape in order to survive (‘I grab what I can and run’, from ‘Our Marriage Dies in a Dream’) there is also great tenderness and  strong religious faith, even if that faith may not be recognisable to her grandmothers, changed as it is through time and   language. The collection ends:

        I pray and search for roots

        and earth, and soil, and tree.

        For truth, for God in all I see.

                                                                            ‘The Language of Grief’

Though it may not be possible to mend the damage caused through betrayal and the imbalance in male/female relationships which can cause ‘home’ to be less than safe for women, Njambi’s work still places faith in the future, and in the continuing struggle: ‘I wrestle and fight for the tongue my mother taught to me’. This is a powerful and moving collection. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of Njambi’s development in her subsequent books.

 Anne Bailey’s imaginative world is surreal, wry and strange. Outwardly amiable in its quotidian references to such things as ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘polyester,/ chiffon scarves, lipstick, men with shining shoes’  and in the wonderfully-titled ‘Uses and abuses of the tea towel’, still nothing is quite as it seems. A lake appears in the living room. ‘How to get the most out of baking’ begins: ‘Put butter in a baking bowl,/set it in front of the fire, then/call up the dead’. 

I liked this collection very much for the apparently deadpan way it deconstructs domesticity and women’s roles in maintaining it. Houses which ‘should’ be sparkling and perfect are always in danger of decay and spectacular damage: the poems enjoy exploring themes of mould, disintegration, spoilage. The domestic is a dangerous, twilight zone where budgies meet sticky ends under a scalding tap, where ‘letting go’ happens and where ‘Something will have to be done’ (‘A film of dust is how it starts’) – but what? Even darker, a woman are kept psychologically imprisoned by an obsessive man who has taken domesticity to perverse levels: ‘For him it is an act of love’ (in ‘The Curator is married to the rain’).

The poems weigh the sinister and the surreal very carefully together with a lovely sense of the absurd, so that the effect is always unpredictable and engaging. There is loss and grief here, and a range of very dark emotions indeed, but Anne Bailey celebrates the odd and uncanny with relish so her poems fizz with wonderful images : the ‘wooded’ Felicity, ‘her open spaces …full of damp washing’, the ‘tarmacked’ Nigel ‘with a central reservation but no hard shoulder’ (‘The sum of the parts’). Home may throw a long shadow over women’s lives, its rigidity always encroached upon by the wild, the unruly, by wild birds coming inside, becoming trapped –  but the women in Anne Bailey’s poems are more than resilient: they are magical shape-shifters  in ordinary disguises. This book is wise and funny and rewards re-reading.  

Pippa Little 18th September 2022

La Loba Speaks For Wolf by Susan Taylor (Burning Eye Books)

La Loba Speaks For Wolf by Susan Taylor (Burning Eye Books)

Burning Eye Books are a Bristol based setup that seem mainly in business to produce written documentation of Performance Poetry and Performance Poets. This is probably not an entirely accurate description but my limited engagement with these publications would seem to suggest this is largely the case. Susan Taylor is an accomplished poet (she has produced around ten books, many of these with South West publishers) who combines written scripts with ‘spoken word’ performances. Her material is not always the sort of poetry that I find most interesting but I was taken with the subject in this case as I know she has performed some of these poems and this is where it can come alive. On reading this collection I’ve come to the conclusion that although the poems do work ‘on the page’ they are essentially a prompt for a live performance and I’m looking forward to hearing them ‘in situ’ so to speak.

          The Song Beneath the Song

          Come hear the song La Loba sings –

          A song she sings, so mountains ring

          And as they ring, they rearrange

          The rising wind that drives all change.

          It was her voice out on the air

          That caused a wolf to leap at her,

          Though not to harm a hair of her,

          But just to be in care of her.

          The wolf returns to mountainside,

          He and La Loba, side by side.

          Protective charms in Loba’s arms

          Transcend the harm beneath the harms.

          Her spirit lights on butterflytes,

          Calls up the stream beneath the stream.

          The blue and green of Gaia’s scheme

          Empowers the dream beneath the dream.

          Come here the song the lobos sing –

          The song they sing, so mountains ring

          And as they ring, they rearrange

          The wind beneath the winds of change.

There’s a concern with ecology here which is something central to Taylor’s poetry and is in tune with a lot of current thinking about environmental issues and rewilding. The regular rhythms may feel deceptively simple but they have a spell-like influence which carries throughout the collection. There are a variety of formal devices and there’s also a mix of information and intoxicating repetition which I imagine comes across even more strongly ‘in performance.’ From ‘Wolven’ we get the following:

          Only wolf

          nails it

          in high flying notes,

          igniting

          the ashen face of Venus.

          To howl wolven,

          howl for joy

          and the wonder of being

          a link of sound

          between earth and sky.

     There may be something predictable and comforting about these verses but they are also skilful, challenging and imaginative. I’m slightly reminded here of Richard Price’s The Owner of the Sea: 3 Inuit Stories Retold which touches on similar issues and themes if in a more scatological framework. La Loba Speaks for Wolf includes an introduction which suggests a context which is part lament, part mythology and part science-based.

Steve Spence 14th September 2022

Tears in the Fence Festival: ‘Bewilderment / Bewildered / Be Wild’

2–4 September 2022

A tree without a soul watching, 

one adjacent prayer touching

Peter Larkin, Sounds between trees, 39

At Stourpaine Village Hall, an eco-friendly and sustainable building, the Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival displayed the diverse and multifaceted sides of poetry. It encompassed experimental and performative poetry, studies in etymology, translations, confessional poetry, poems about relationships, food and different types of encounters, and eco-poetry. The days were packed with sessions of engrossing readings that alternated readings by poets featured in the festival with essays, interviews, music, discussions and talks. The programme was varied and entertaining and included long intervals that gave the attendees plenty of time to connect, chat and update each other. The organisers, notably Janet Hancock, Joanna Nissel, Andrew Henon, Gerald Killingworth, Hamidah Saleem and Richard Foreman worked tirelessly to make the festival run splendidly. Lunch and dinner were available on the Saturday and refreshments were offered during each day. The atmosphere was enjoyable and friendly and the readings and talks were engaging, fresh and stimulating. The festival gave different voices a space that validated distinctive views and different ways of seeing and feeling. The theme, ‘Bewilderment, Bewildered, Be Wild’, was meant to reflect on our uncertain times but also to open up our senses to the enchantment of nature, to the connections between the world of humans and the world of non-humans. These realities are closely linked and are endangered by the effects of climate change, global warming and conflicts. Trees, insects, the landscape and the weather are all part of an ecosystem in which humankind thrives, sometimes in harmony but at other times clashing with and exploiting the natural world that should be at the centre of our concerns. Some poets investigate these issues in a perspective that proposes free expansion and rewilding. The approach might be considered prophetical, wild and unmapped; it is often experimental, revealing attempts to form a more authentic vision and a sustainable green future.

Writers and poets such as Mandy Pannett, Morag Kiziewicz, Jessica Mookherjee, Penny Hope, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts and Frances Presley delve into these arguments, expressing the damage caused by human intervention and exploring the contradictions of being immersed in nature. Wandering in the natural world and being overwhelmed by a sense of wonder imply being lost and therefore open to new possibilities that are uncertain but also inspiring and thought-provoking. The centre shifts, chaos seems to prevail and marginal views come to the fore, such as in the work of the Roma poet Karen Downs-Barton, acknowledging a human and non-human condition that traces unpredictable paths. It is a peripheral vision that becomes central in poetry.

The mystery of the natural world is partially unveiled in the spareness, vulnerability and humility of the quotidian in which contact with the environment becomes spontaneous. Therefore, conservation is attained in the delicate balance between respect for and consumption of the resources available, a rewilding that is both an attitude and a practice. Other authors, such as Ian Seed, David Caddy, Jennifer Dick and Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana face the wild in surreal encounters in which the ordinary is subverted or in double-sided relationships and in language, which needs to be rearticulated to voice the unheard.

Forthcoming and recently published collections were presented as well. Here is the list, which is certainly an interesting one: 

Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, Knitting Drum Machines for Exiled Tongues (Tears in the Fence)

Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sing Me Down From The Dark (Salt Publishing)

Gerald Killingworth, Emptying Houses (Dempsey & Windle)

Frances Presley, Collected Poems Vols 1 and 2 (Shearsman)

Harriet Tarlo, Spillways (Hydro Spheres) 

Harriet Tarlo, Saltwort (Wild Pansy Press)

Sarah Watkinson, Photovoltaic

Joanna Nissel, Guerrilla Brightenings (Against the Grain)

Peter Larkin, Seven Leaf Sermons (Guillemot Press)

Peter Larkin, Sound Between Trees (Guillemot Press)

Tilla Brading and Frances Presley, ADADADADADADA (Odyssey Poets Press)

Carol Watts, Dockfield (Equipage)

Jessica Mookherjee, Notes From A Shipwreck (Nine Arches Press)

David Caddy, Interiors and Other Poems (Shearsman)

Carla Scarano D’Antonio, Workwear (The High Window)

The hilarious reading on the theme of games by Richard Foreman and the captivating wry sense of humour of Charles Wilkinson gave a twist to Saturday evening. A special mention is due to Morag Kiziewicz’s accurate festival address and Peter Larkin’s engrossing essay ‘Rewilding the Expressive: A Poetic Strategy’, which will be published in Tears in the Fence 77. I was particularly impressed by Frances Presley’s considerable work on sounds and syntax and her commitment to community projects, and by Joanna Nissel’s ‘Hove Lawns to Portslade – April’, a long poem about walking on the beach at sunrise during the first lockdown. Peter Larkin’s short poems about trees made me crave his latest collection, Sounds between Trees, which features 100 short poems evoking the many intersections we share with trees and meditations on our breathing with them. The festival ended with a walk to Hod Hill, a site of natural beauty with a breathtaking view from the top of the hill, which Carol Watts mentions in her poem: ‘On a clear day, from this place, you would see across channels to an island.’ The next poetry festival will be on 15–17 September 2023 at Stourpaine. Everything will be announced on the website: https://tearsinthefence.com/

The festival was a celebration of poetry and a promise of friendship in a conversation that gave a space and a voice to a wide range of poetic approaches and often imperceptible but crucial views.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 13th September 2022

Fool’s Paradise by Zoe Brooks (Black Eyes Publishing)

Fool’s Paradise by Zoe Brooks (Black Eyes Publishing)

This unusual work has had a leisurely path to print. Written after a visit to Prague in 1990, two extracts were published (in Aquarius, no less) in 1992. Twenty years later it appeared as a self-produced e-book. Now, after ten more years and on the heels of its author’s similarly slow-arriving but sporadically awesome short-poem collection (Owl Unbound), it’s finally made it out. 

It’s ‘a mystical poem for voices’, or a verse radio play. Three unnamed travellers start their journey at a gibbet and so may be newly executed – or not. A riddling Fool with his dog ‘gather[s] their shadows’ and ‘take[s] them to be cleaned’. He uses a skull as a glove-puppet. ‘Your way is down,’ he says, so he may be a courier demon – or not. Traveller 2 says, ‘It was your country which sold mine/ for a few years’ peace’, which could refer to Chamberlain at Munich. Or not. They are left in a city where Traveller 1 loses a notepad (‘it was my ladder out’) and they tour a church at some length. All at once the Fool is surreally on trial:

            Man: […] You stand falsely accused 
                             that you did steal the throats of birds
                             and placed milk upon the housewife’s lips.
                             that you did upon such and such a day
                             destroy the fabric of the world
                             and wore a hat of many colours.

Then he has been executed, and the travellers are left disorientated. Traveller 2 meets capitalized Woman. The others find the dog, who is carrying his master’s bones. The Fool himself reappears and leads them all through a museum where in a Dantesque moment they see ‘the man who held the world in chains/ […], who ‘weeps/ for paintings he did not paint,’ and may be Hitler. Or, of course, not. After which they are mysteriously restored, like tourists at the end of an ersatz ‘experience’, to the outdoors and a square where they can have coffee. 

The strange, orphic poem-world has gibbets but also photographs and lightbulbs. The characters similarly mix archaic diction with modern idiom, comedy with sonority, and verse with prose, song, nursery-rhyme and puppet-play. There are folklore motifs, Jungian archetypes and, as if the ambience weren’t dreamlike enough, more dreaming inside the narrative. Primary allusions are to the Bible, especially the Passion, and Bulgakov, though the numinousness, oneiricism and episodic composition made me think mostly of late Strindberg. The bathetic café-ending, even so, does suggest a kind of shaggy-dog-style cosmic joke. 

The episodes often have arresting moments: I liked the idea that ‘Hell/ is a museum’, with the sense that time there has stopped and its denizens are either guides or exhibits. And the Fool’s trial scene is a mini-masterpiece of sinister absurdism:

                      Man: How do you answer these charges?
                      Fool: I am falsely accused.
                      Man: Then you are falsely condemned.

There’s also a Youtube clip of the poet herself reading a section, where the fine judgement of the line-endings becomes salient in a way not always clear from silent reading. Zoe Brooks is one of those talented poets of ‘early promise’ who sidestepped to prose and seems only now to be compiling and releasing her old stuff. It’ll be interesting to see what newer work is in the offing.

Guy Russell 9th September 2022

On The Royal Road: with Hiroshige on the Tōkaidō by James Bell (Shearman Books)

On The Royal Road: with Hiroshige on the Tōkaidō by James Bell (Shearman Books)

James Bell (1950–2021) passed away just a few months after submitting the manuscript of this collection to Shearsman Books. Some of his poems from the collection had already appeared in Shearsman magazine, and the editor, Tony Frazer, eventually decided to publish Bell’s work together with the pictures of the woodblock prints from Hiroshige’s second Tōkaidō series. The poems are ekphrases that correspond to the pictures of the 53 stations that the artist drew after he had completed the journey from Edo (modern Tokyo) to Kyoto in 1832. He made sketches along the way which were later developed into successful prints that established his reputation. The first series of The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō was so popular that Hiroshige published 30 more different interpretations of the Tōkaidō during his lifetime in both vertical and horizontal shapes. It was a long-lasting exploration of the highway with its commonplaces and its sense of adventure.

Utawaga Hiroshige (1797–1858) was born in Edo during the so-called Edo period (1603–1867) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal government characterised by relative peace, economic growth and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. This situation allowed the development of arts and culture in a controlled environment that reflected Japanese traditions in techniques and themes. Society was slow-paced compared with that of today and people’s everyday life was the main focus of stories and pictures. Hiroshige’s artwork reflects this status. Nature is prominent, and there are impressive trees, mountains and rivers. Mount Fuji is often present, smaller or bigger in shape but always the protagonist, as the poems of the collection cleverly underline. The pictures depict different kinds of weather in different seasons, though Hiroshige made his journey in the summer. This changing of the seasons conveys a sense of contingency and sadness, emphasising the transience of every creature. James Bell reflects these concepts in his poetry, re-creating the atmosphere of the Japanese artist’s works by adding unusual descriptions that not only interpret the images but also give a tremendously insightful view:

a spit with another village stabs the sea 

         dark and light – the straight horizon 

               rose and red sky announces dusk.         (‘Shinagawa – 1st Station’)

The close observation of the different details in the pictures and the consequent comment on the whole of the composition develop a wider view; it is a meditation on what life means for ordinary people and their connection with the environment. The poems evolve in a meaningful exploration that engages both the spiritual and the practical sides of existence. The Tōkaidō road, which was 300 miles long and could normally be covered in about 10 to 14 days, was one of the five roads that joined the two major cities of Japan. People travelled on foot, horseback, wheeled carts and litters depending on their social status. Porters helped them to carry luggage and cross rivers. Such a long journey needed stops to eat, have a rest and socialise. Therefore, travelling along the Tōkaidō was not only a way to reach the destination but also triggered connections, spread news and prompted storytelling in a country in which nothing relevant apparently happened due to its isolation:

a scene interested in movement on calm water 

       on people who pass on the shoreline path

                in the foreground                               (‘Kawasaki – 2nd Station’)

in a quiet scene where nothing much 

happens                                                             (‘Mitsuke – 28th Station’)

On the road, people come and go, face the adverse weather and are busy carrying their wares. Stillness or pretended movement characterises some of the scenes. Mount Fuji overlooks humankind benevolently in its unchanging shape. The scenes look similar and yet singular in some details, which are always new in terms of the different perspectives they reveal but which also have repeated themes:

an idyll only in its stillness 

            that pretends movement

(‘Arai – 31st Station’)

             the profile of Mount Fuji 

a contradiction ignored 

                  its minimal reality 

       too familiar to be in a third dimension            (‘Shimada – 23rd Station’)

Most of the poems have the structure of haiku, that is, three lines and no punctuation. However, Bell interprets the haiku by moving the lines along the page and ignoring the syllable count; in this way, he unleashes the imagination, allowing more freedom and revealing alternative views.

The final poems in the appendix are ekphrases of images from the first Great Tōkaidō ((1833–34). In these last well-chosen and complex pictures, Bell further explores Hiroshige’s art, emphasising once more the imposing Mount Fuji and the sense of adventure when the pilgrims cross mountains and rivers but also the thrill of living an ordinary life when ‘we bear secret witness/to all that is concealed in what is unconcealed’. (‘Wintry Desolation near Hamamatsu – 29th Station’). Dramatic windy scenes are followed by calm passages in which the pilgrims cross a bridge or have a rest under a tree. The everyday evolves and fades in the hours of the day and night and in the passing of seasons that transform the world in a cycle that is never the same but is ephemeral and unpredictable.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th August 2022

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

This is a neatly produced chapbook from erbacce-press which is nicely laid-out and has a cover design incorporating (I think) a photograph of the author which has been adapted into a double-image by Alan Corkish.

     There are 21 poems, each titled and each taking up a page. The overall title relates to the layouts of the texts which are split mainly into phrases, single words and occasionally longer pieces, halfway towards sentences, which suggest narrative structures but are fragmented and full of what I can only call texture. For me this is the most interesting of Gresswell’s recent chapbooks as there’s something almost Shakespearean about his use of language, where a variety of dictions interplay and resonate to great effect. There’s certainly a lyrical element to this work but it’s mixed with a dark foreboding quality which talks of ‘our times’ and has a sort of apocalyptic quality throughout. Take this poem on page 15 as an example:

          Dawn

          the roar of dust       seeps through    this island

          & settles on                the cooling       coastal walks

          where gypsies         comprehend     essential pleasures

          & grips upon              the vain wrath    which weeps

          in and out                in out   in      gentle   harshness

          of winter storms    captured     and    capitulated on

          trials    and           childhood dreams  rehearsed the blue

          and calming grey    of the sea’s     once charming

          vernacular ripped      the throat      into gargled pieces

          from screams and night       sprawled      anecdotes those

          enchanted visions       curling           rushing by with

          no aftermath or            naked         ambition shoved off

          the sands & holocausts   to temptation’s taut temerity

          the shallow        fields   of   memory    sucked deep

          into nature’s       glistening       awakening of tomorrow. 

There’s enough space here for the reader to fill in the gaps with his or her imaginings which is seemingly the entire point of this work. If the communication is partial it also suggests a degree of communality and shared experience 

     From ‘Shore‘ we get the following: ‘the taste infringes     salt   on the tongue / the bitter       taste     of effigies / redundant     from       the holy war.’ Throughout these poems there is a playful use of language which is harnessed to something darker. Nature is ever-present, whether with a sense of recuperation and as a place of retreat or as something much harsher and menacing. There’s a beauty to these shards and phrases – ‘golden memories recycled & harmony   reboiled / in among the     snakes     of     wrath their / seething      nightmares   claiming in sleep.’ (from ‘Sleep’) but it’s always tempered by something more sinister and unsettling. Nevertheless I found these poems pleasurable to encounter as the balance of the phrasing and the conflicting textures of the writing make for an enticing read. Take this opening sequence from ‘Face’, for example: 

          through mists & mischief miscreants

          from days of       their bauble dalliance

          the embellishments  of   their grievous

          circumstances   the knotted question

          of their day’s    abeyance abundance

          of their fortitude    & let alone such

          gratitude       …….  

     These are essentially playful poems but the tone is more often than not dark and would seem to reflect a collective as well as an individual sense of things going wrong. As I suggested earlier these are poems for our time.

Steve Spence August 25th 2022

The 3-D Clock by Stephen Claughton (Dempsey & Windle)

The 3-D Clock by Stephen Claughton (Dempsey & Windle)

Stephen Claughton’s latest short collection focuses on his dearest mother’s journey into the forgetfulness of dementia that changed her physical and mental state but also opened up different, unexpected horizons. Her son tries to help her by mentioning people she knew and things that happened in her past, but the deterioration of her memory seems unstoppable. At a certain point he offers her a 3-D clock, that is, a digital dementia day-clock; it shows her the day of the week and the period of the day. When he goes to visit her again, she has already disposed of it with the excuse that ‘it’s worse than one that ticks.’ She prefers staying in the dark, the son remarks, but it is a darkness that she chooses, a kind of ‘unawareness’, as if she were too tired to be engaged in any kind of conversation or activity. 

In his previous pamphlet, The War with Hannibal (2019, Salzburg Poetry), Claughton revisits his boyhood and family memories, evoking school days and the legacy of his father and grandfather. The male side of the family heritage is delineated in well-paced lines and harmonious sounds that convey a sense of balance and understated wit. In the poems, keen observations and irony coalesce with unexpected final twists that surprise the reader. A similar attitude is developed in The 3-D Clock, with special attention being paid to his mother’s condition and his caring for her. Deep compassion and an uncertain acceptance of her status characterise his love for her as he tries to understand the different world she is now living in. He is at her side even if he sometimes feels puzzled and does not understand what is going on in her mind.

At a certain point in the story, words fail her and so the world of language that keeps things together and makes sense of life and of reality collapses:

Even the words of ordinary, 

everyday things are beginning to fail you now

like old labels that come unstuck

and get muddled beyond recall.

I do my best to help you, 

as together we puzzle out

what exactly it is you mean.

[…]

Your periphrases, though accurate enough, 

are somehow beside the point.

“The thing that holds water,” you say,

I lamely render as “jug”, 

only to find it was “radiator’ you meant.    (‘Anomia’)

She goes back to Welsh, her mother tongue, ‘a refuge from the English/of teachers and bullies’, a language that her son does not understand and that therefore widens the gap between them. However, he likes ‘to think that in Welsh/you’re making sense’, accepting the change in the hope that it might be helpful. As his mother likes listening to radio programmes, he buys her a digital radio, but it is too complicated for her so he has to tape over most of the buttons and leave only the on/off one exposed. He shows her pictures on his phone of her old home in an attempt to revive her memory, but nothing really works; she slips further into her forgetfulness until she mistakes him for someone else or looks at him as if he is a stranger. She was a teacher in her youth and adulthood, committed to her work and always in charge, but now she is ‘beyond rescue’.

Not being recognised by his mother seems to make the author question his own identity in some way and opens a hole that feels like failure. However, her ending is described as peaceful even though he grieves deeply for her:

Even after I knew you’d gone, 

it was hard to believe you weren’t there – 

your hand still warm in mine, 

despite the room’s mortuary chill.

(‘Opening the Window the Night You Died’)

The scene that is described is moving, sincere and powerful; it conveys despair as well as profound affection despite his mother seeming absent to him well before her actual death. The poems in the collection are remarkably consistent in theme and tone, revealing in evocative and precise lines Claughton’s intense and tender affection for his mother, whose illness affected their relationship in the last years of her life. However, dementia did not spoil their rapport; on the contrary, it became stronger and more significant during his efforts to accept her condition and during his attempts to help her. She had wanted to avoid a funeral, but a simple one is arranged with ‘only the family there’ and “Nimrod” playing with a ‘glitch at the close’, and his last thought is about how she would have hated it. The poems are a remarkable testimony to the link between mother and son that transcends illnesses and incomprehension. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th August 2022

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Before Mike Ferguson became an English teacher (he’s now retired), he tried his hand at farm work, imbued with the back-to-the-land enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. Having emigrated from the USA, Ferguson took a job for three years near Ipswich, and then lived and worked part-time in the Chiltern Hills whilst he studied at Oxford. 

Although perhaps the reality of labouring, even within agriculture, hit home, and Ferguson followed his degree by training as a teacher, eventually moving to Devon, and then engaging with the Devon reading and publishing literati, especially in the context of readings, workshops and magazine & booklet production within education, Ferguson still goes slightly dewy-eyed and nostalgic about farming, as evidenced by this beautifully produced, austere pamphlet.

Much of Ferguson’s current writing is process-driven: he uses erasure, pattern, word-shapes, Humument-type explorations and collage to write through and from writing both old and new. Here, this type of work shares its pages with more lyrical free-verse and prose poetry, and occasional haiku-esque (or imagistic) work.

There are stories here, poems full of characters and events – J. H-J. ‘tending the grain dryer’ but also trying to put out a barn fire with a hose in the other hand; the narrator proudly taking his heifer to the County Show but ending up flat on his arse in cowpats – but also frozen memories and moments, such as this brief, evocative and personal poem:

    Not Shearing Sheep

   For me, it was rolling wool

   and then my lanolin arms

   wrapped around

Elsewhere, acclimatisation to the smell of silage has the effect of changing it to the ‘candied whiff / of a sweet dessert; mucking out the pigs wrecks a pair of DMs; and we are asked to stand still and briefly listen to ‘the heron / miscalling / our names’.

Other poems are more playful, presenting the swirl of crows or the laying of irrigation pipes by hand as simple and effective shape poems, boldly set on the page; with some evidencing the author’s educational knowing and critical distance in poems such as ‘Farming Without Derrida’, where ‘[t]here is nothing to deconstruct’.

Obviously, Ferguson also has the gift of distance in time to look back at himself then. In ‘Agrarian Creed’ he notes that he 

       didn’t preach

   Marx on the farm back then

   as we were

   comrades when

   collectively hand-hoeing weeds,

   or sharing the

   three-bar electric fire

   for our morning breakfast toastings,

   or freely passing on

   the skills and

   wisdoms acquired over time.

and admits that even many years later, when a teacher in Devon, he would visit the Honiton (agricultural) Show – ‘still drawn to / tractors’ – only to find new models with air-con and stereo systems, which prompts a reimagining of possibilities, with ‘Hendrix feedback up cultivated rows, / or Dylan // defiant in ignoring Maggie’. (A reference to both Thatcher and the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.)

The book ends with a confessional poem and then an observational comment and statement. Having written earlier in the book that ‘Hunting and gathering was / never going to be enough’, ‘Fault’ admits the agricultural failing back then was the poet’s, in an erasure poem rather appropriately sourced in Richard Jefferies’ The Toilers of the Field:

   Fault

                                                                                       the fault of

                                                     th       is

                                                                                       agricultural

        labourer

        is                                     poetical feeling

                                                                                                         of

        beauty

The closing poem, ‘Residual Revelation’, is more nostalgic and accepting, although it starts by noting that

   In ’73 I thought this would be

   my pastoral idyll, an agrarian

   nirvana after LSD

   with no need for a degree.

On some levels it clearly was an idyll, but studying literature, teaching and writing has clearly changed Ferguson, even though the poem states how he still gardens and grows crops. Although he suggests that he ‘could claim / how studying, in the end, taught / [him] a thing or two’, the poem ends by contradicting or qualifying this, revealing that it was

   Scrivy who coached me in how to

   look and look all those years ago and

   find revelation in the simple things. 

It is that sense of revelation and simplicity, an attention to the world – remembered, reinterpreted, deconstructed (or not) – that is most evident in this engaging, entertaining and clear-minded collection, which evidences an open-eyed, thoughtful and sure-footed writer at work. Even when standing in animal shit or recalling ‘the butt-end of a / tedium of days’.

Rupert Loydell 23rd August 2022

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