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Category Archives: English Poetry

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction, flash fiction, translations and creative non-fiction by Seán Street, Mandy Pannett, Isobel Armstrong, Jeremy Reed, Andrew Mears, Anum Sattar, Ian Davidson, Joanna Nissel, Simona Nastac, Alan Baker, Lilian Pizzichini, Lucy Ingrams, Beth Davyson, Charles Wilkinson, Scott Thurston, Gerald Killingworth, Gabriela Macon, Kate Noakes, Peter Robinson, Kay Syrad, Huw Lawrence, Lesley Burt, K. V. Skene, John Freeman, Jane Wheeler, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Goodman & Elvire Roberts, Andrea Moorhead, Rebecca Althaus, Rachel Goodman, Mark Goodwin, Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Belinda Cooke, Alice Tarbuck, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Adrian Clarke, Nigel Jarrett, Norman Jope, Steve Spence, Maddie Forest, Claire HM, Peter Larkin and Mark Russell.

The critical section includes Richard Foreman’s Editorial, John Freeman on Shelley’s Animism and Ecology, Alice Tarbuck on Thomas A. Clark, Carla Scarano on Margaret Attwood, Jeremy Reed on Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners, Sarah Acton on Martin Stannard, Phil Maillard on d.a.levy and Bill Wyatt, Graham Hartill on Phil Maillard’s Bill Wyatt, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Pilgrimage, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Other Long Poems, Jeremy Reed on Patricia Hope Scanlon, Andrew Duncan on Will Harris, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Steve Spence on Ric Hool, Ian McMillan, Mandy Pannett on Sarah Cave, Maria Jastrzębska on Marcin Świetlicki, Ric Hool on Mike McNamara, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue and Notes On Contributors 

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Mai Ivfjäll’s poetry shares the quality of symbolic elusiveness with that of William Blake whose motifs are significant in Weep Hole. Tantalising hints throughout the pamphlet invite the reader to explore a world of mysticism and ancient magic as well as the retro future of a fifth element and a divine language.

‘Suspended Not Suspended’ is written from the perspective of Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’ where the secret, invisible worm is its own self-destructive love. Time, in Mai Ivfjäll’s poem, unravels self like the thread of a hem. Here there is ‘no health’ but ‘only living     my sick sick rose’. There are sonnets in Weep Hole, part of a sequence called ‘Sick Sonnets’ which the author has described in an interview with Paul Cunningham of Action Books, as a ‘kind of love letter to the obliteration of self (and attunement to the present moment) that happens in the throes of chronic sickness.’

Sickness, certainly, and pain ‘is a psalm that sings your body is a bivouac’. (‘Glossolalia’). The poems begin with the line ‘the bees are dying – can you feel it?’ and the end of the collection is insistent: ‘the bees are dying the bees are dying’. The book itself is titled Weep Hole – an opening at the bottom of a structure which allows water to drain away. A small opening, a small weeping where ‘healing is an endless emptying’. (Poembody).  In the same poem the author poses the question ‘who wrote the list of the saddest words in the English language/on dictionary.com?’

But it is these words, this focus on the joy of language that most interests me in Weep Hole. In the same interview mentioned earlier Mai Ivfjäll describes how her sonnets may look traditional but inside are a mess ‘gorging on language’. Her poems overflow with sonic richness. ‘I liked the way the sounds tasted in my mouth,’ she says, ‘and wanted others to experience that pleasure.’ 

‘Make Me An Instrument’ offers fine examples of this gorging. One line plays with the sound of words: ‘I am lamb bait a baited lamb a lamented/bam’ while this word chain is perfect in its assonance: ‘noon moon moan koan loan lean/ mean meal meat met wet/let lit i’. What could be a better example of the joy to be found in linguistics than ‘Keening’?

            slime gifs

            are prayer psalms of goo

                                           asmr

            devotional gulp   oozing

holiness        as collapse

The first poem in the book is titled ‘Glossolalia’ and this intriguing word seems to me to be a central motif with its definitions that suggest fluid echoes of speech-like syllables that lack any readily understandable meaning, sounds that predate and supersede human speech, a sense of something transcendent and pentecostal, a language that is divine and mystical. References to books and films enhance ancient mysteries – the narrator slips ‘in and out of time’, one moment as Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war sci-fi book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, the next as Leelo from Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ – Leelo who by ‘googling a new vocabulary’ and by injecting herself with the quintessence of ether becomes the element itself that alone can defeat a cosmic evil force, can save the planet Earth.

Are we ‘empty vessels or/cosmic bodies’ asks Mai Ivfjäll in ‘S(ub)lime’.In ‘Everywhere Disappeared’ she gives herself a possible answer, disclosing ‘strange fruit    of a strange fire/my secret alphabet’. In ‘Preliminary (Im)materials’ she may ‘caw and claw/and coo I am dead’ but then, in the remarkable poem ‘A Slow Rapture’ she gives us this:

            wet

            magnolia trees

            drip

            memory    haunted

            after-rain baptismal’.

Mandy Pannett 12th July 2021

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

We are delighted to be able to announce that we will be holding the Tears in the Fence Festival Digging Deeper: Roots and Remains on 2nd to 5th September 2021 via Zoom and at the Stourpaine Village Hall, Stourpaine, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8TA.

Amongst our featured readers and speakers will be Sascha Akhtar, Rae Armantrout, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Vahni Capildeo, Abigail Chabitnoy, Simon Collings, Emily Critchley, Melisande Fitzsimons, John Freeman, Alan Halsey, Jeremy Hilton, Fawzia Kane, Luke Kennard, Geraldine Monk, Mandy Pannett, Maurice Scully, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts, Sarah Watkinson.

There will be a celebration of the poetry of Rae Armantrout and Carol Watts. There will be open reading sessions, music, videos, talks, discussion, book signings and Festival bookstall. Amongst the open readers will be Lesley Burt, Paul Matthews, Aidan Semmens, et al.

Festival bursaries are available.

More details at http://www.tearsinthefence.com/festival.

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Paul Sutton, perhaps somewhat of a cult figure in contemporary poetry, is approaching his sixties. His first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia was published eighteen years ago around the time he abandoned working in contract negotiations for offshore gas fields. Since then he has published six collections and a plethora of pamphlets, while teaching English in secondary schools, a job he finds creatively stimulating:  

the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.[1]

Sutton is no doubt a little proud of his outsider status, relishing opportunities to decry political and poetical conformism in what he conceives as the ‘mainstream’. His favourite subjects for poems are “decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation…[2]” so it seems a natural move for his latest offering to be a pamphlet punning on one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. Sutton’s macabre fascination with Jack the Ripper lasts for just the first two poems: ‘Prologue’ and ‘a Man in Acton Wearing a Trilby’, both alluring and unsettling affairs, though the theme of murder does resurface in the pamphlet’s twenty poems.

Outside of Roy Fisher’s city centred writing, Sutton’s biggest influence may well be Larkin, their similarities shine not just in mutual dispensation for ironic humour and poetry of place, moreover they have a pronounced talent for metrical sophistication, a scrutiny paid to the rhythm and beat of syllables and sonants, something of a lost art in contemporary poetry. Sutton’s poem ‘Under Gas’ starts beautifully:

My grandfather’s book on meteorology

starts gently, with him reminding us:

‘We live under a sea of gas.’

‘gently’ picks up the last syllable of ‘meteorology’ before leaning into the mesmerising image of a hazy world ‘under a sea of gas’. Sutton can be a poet of such delicacy, as technically gifted as any of his contemporaries, even the ‘mainstream’ figures he despises. Another particularly mellifluous moment comes in the opening to ‘Mud and Sun’:

Sudden sunlight hits the road

as you drive past what you’ve known –

seen in the rear-view  then gone

the juxtaposition of moving on from the past, physically and emotionally, floats out along the dashes and the repeated, clashing o sounds of ‘known’ and ‘gone’. However while the aforementioned ‘Under Gas’ has a clear focal point for its drooping nostalgia (the memory of Sutton’s grandfather), the nostalgia evoked in ‘Mud and Sun’ lacks directness, the poem features a mystical yearning for a forgotten place. Martin Stannard locates this in his blurb as a ‘sense of loss (but loss of what?) in contemporary Britain.’ The subject matter ties Sutton to Larkin once more while also harking back to the Georgian school, but it is also a point of departure for me. I simply don’t believe in what Sutton is mythologising, his idyllic visions of a lost Britain seem to my eyes constructs about as real as Neverland in Peter Pan, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In ‘Mud and Sun’ Sutton’s craft is sublime but his sentiment misses the mark.

Jack the Stripper also features a ripping pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is rude, puerile and seriously funny, while also demonstrating Sutton’s fine hand for prose. Could it be time for a collection of Sutton’s Sherlock Holmes sagas? I think so. His sharp tongue and acid sense of humour are well suited to satire plus he knows the shimmies and feints of Conan Doyle’s as well as any writer. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is then a highlight of an original, often disarming, addition to the Sutton catalogue. 

Charlie Baylis 8th July 2021


[1]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

[2]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Then by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Describing her first collection, Inventory (2008), Linda Black drew a parallel between her writing style and her approach to etching. ‘As a visual artist (and art teacher),’ she said, ‘my process was to begin without a preconceived idea—to approach a blank sheet, or etching plate, by merely making a mark, with as it were a blank mind, to delight in the not knowing, the exploration, the opening up of possibilities.’ A matching openness to where words might lead characterised that first collection, and has been a hallmark of her poetry ever since. With each new volume, her writing seems to take more risks, the most recent book, Then, continuing this trajectory.

Memories, domestic objects, children’s games, fairytales, and the doubtful wisdom of common sayings are all grist to Black’s process. Word associations, puns, rhymes and alliterations are allowed to lead, the poem discovering itself as it goes along. ‘Call my refrain     a form/of recitation …….  my favourite/polyphony’ she writes in ‘The thrum   string   strain’. 

There are echoes of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons in some of the poems, for example in phrases like: ‘Suppose it is done and frequent as the moth’, ‘stuck lift/when there is kindness/a solid spoon’, and ‘Concerning cutlery were canteens.’ Like Stein, Black often focuses on the domestic: clothing, food, washing, household items. One section of Then, called ‘Frippery…’, groups poems about dress, including the delightful ‘What she is wearing today she may not have’. The second paragraph reads:

Slipped on the shoe. Many laced and pin-tucked as featured. Browse for the time being. Snag a caught loop on a chain. There are many ways to travail for example on the slide without a care. Never having driven nor for that matter the length of a thread. Forewarned is to dangle, toes tapping.

Travailing ‘on the slide’ might be a description of Black’s own work method. Anna Reckin speaks to this in her back-cover endorsement of Then:  

Words ‘collude / allude’, slip over each other, with many near-misses. They lean into one another, threaten connection, narrowly miss and ricochet in another direction. Allusions are so nearly (neatly-delightfully) pinned down, are always on the verge of escaping.

In the book’s next section, ‘The un-envisaged…’, we find poems reference eating and the kitchen. ‘A smidgen’ makes extensive use of typographical devices in its witty celebration of gluttony. The poem begins:

          Of fudge   a…

screa m  of carrion   fat-lipped   drained

          of FANCY    a st0rm

in a st0mach   walls   str-e-e-e-tch

          churn   regurgitate   just a   little

     bit  MORE  salvation: latkes   tzimmus

(Latkes are potato pancakes, and tzimmus presumably refers to tzimmes, a kind of stew of vegetables and dried fruit.) 

Another poem of note, which comes in the final section, is ‘A Causeway Runneling Between Two Lands Either Side of a Parting’, a long prose piece which riffs on the tropes of Medieval Romance literature. Fortunate is kind of a knight errant, a ‘traveller’ who knows well ‘in which direction lies pleasure & fervour, rest & a full stomach.’ ‘Tralalee, tralalee,’ he sings, ‘this is my domain.’ 

But Fortunate’s sense of entitlement is challenged later in the poem by a mocking authorial voice. ‘Sort yourself out!’ it admonishes. ‘The world is not a shellfish!’ ‘The water is furring, the air is hardening, a storm is nigh,’ the voice warns. ‘Fuel is eating the planet. To go by foot is honourable. When it comes to tomorrow: Then!’ 

The collection includes several grid poem, some of them reading like skipping rhymes. I particularly like ‘Lark’, the title capturing the poem’s ludic approach:

Folly me dandy                          Follow me rare

Up from the broad room            Down for repair

Clopped in the cow-pat             Snapped in the snare

Glandular fever                          Dip snip & dare

Influence effluence                    Stock still & stare

Safety-pin paraffin                     Polish & swear

Pickle & candy                           Cauliflower pear

As well as engaging in this kind of childlike play, Black’s poetry can also address more personal and difficult subjects. A section near the beginning of the book, ‘Misdemeanour’, includes poems about Black’s deceased parents, the mood here far more sombre. In ‘Mother’ she writes of a parent about whom she clearly has conflicted feelings, a mother ‘with the perfect/script’, a ‘quite comfortable/off mother  fed/to the teeth’, a ‘flat iron mother/about faced’. 

In ‘He lay down…’ she compares her aging father to a ‘dormant parasol […]/its skirts/declined   limp  all life/gone out of them’. The final poem of this section, ‘I like’, says of her father’s death: 

if it was up to me

I’d deem you well

alive and well

and sitting opposite

There is a great deal of variety in this engaging collection, both in form and theme. Black’s playful, quizzical, at times elusive poetry is well worth getting to know if you’re not already familiar with it.

Simon Collings 27th June 2021

The Significance of a dress by Emma Lee (Arachne Press)

The Significance of a dress by Emma Lee (Arachne Press)

The picture of a gown depicted on the front cover and the title that is written in stitches in a red thread represent the poems featured in this collection very well. They give a voice to the silenced humanity that, similarly to the image, is only partly visible; the people who form this part of humanity suffer and struggle to survive in war zones, fleeing from deprivation and persecution and arriving in a western world where they are often isolated and rejected. The bleak reality of refugee camps is described in stark, vivid language with ironic undertones and striking imagery The poems expose the injustices, inequalities and ongoing abuses that deeply affect the lives of the most vulnerable, such as women and children, dispossessed families and migrants in general. Their stories are told in the news, reiterated in newspaper articles and echoed on social media. Lee cleverly explores the sources available, reworking prisoners’ timetables, headlines, text messages and media reports. Sexual inequality, racism and the damage caused by imposed gender roles are the common threads of the collection and reflect the feminist motto ‘the personal is political’. Lee’s commitment is relentless; it evolves in a subtle way and at different levels and is emphasised by the leitmotif of clothes and dresses.

The breeze breathes through them,

bullies the dresses into ghosts,

brides with no substance,

angels bereft of their voices.

(‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’)

Tulin, named after a daughter, offers gown hire, make-up

and hairstyling that will withstand humid evenings.

‘I don’t ask how old they are,’ says the beautician. A

mural

outside shows a girl in a white gown holding a teddy

bear.

(‘The Significance of a Dress’)

Among them is a long-sleeved, ankle length pink dress

to a five-year-old, covered in a layer of gold gauze.

A special occasion dress that sparkles as the light changes.

(‘How a Dress Lost its Sparkle’)

Life jackets litter the beaches and uniforms cover wounds; bridal dresses are for hire, which is ‘a sign of hope’ but the dresses also convey the uncomfortable reality of child brides and rapist bridegrooms who marry their victims to be absolved from punishment. Clothes are therefore a metaphor for mundanity that are reduced to a disturbing reality; they are a second skin that is used and abused, donned or abandoned according to the circumstances. ‘This is not a fairytale’, the lyrical voice warns.

How line breaks are used and having lines that only have one word in them in ‘The Significance of a Dress’ impose a pause and ask the reader a series of questions. Can you bear all these injustices? Is this the world we are building and want to live in? What can we do to change it for the better? ‘Injuries need fixing’, Lee claims in the final poem, ‘no matter whom they belong to.’ 

The poems embrace historical and global issues, from the suffragettes to conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, the US–Mexico border, problems in Turkey and domestic abuse. The vision is broad and profound; it breaks boundaries and borders, leaving a sense of globalism regarding both injustices and hope. The wish ‘to try again’, to reach safety and survive, goes with the dream ‘of making a home again’, and who can deny anyone this? The poems of the collection give a voice to people who cannot articulate the hardships they endure. Lee develops her arguments in a consistent and sustained way, exposing the often neglected cruelties that are happening now in different parts of our so-called civilised world.

Carla Scarano 23rd June 2021

The Review by Martin Stannard (Knives Forks & Spoons Press)

The Review by Martin Stannard (Knives Forks & Spoons Press)

The book title gives no clue as to content. Individual sections are not titled either. Who is doing the reviewing and of what? Life? An old bus ticket? A bird in an unnamed tree? A neat alphabetical list at the back of the book, ranging from abortion rights to urban sprawl, tells us of some issues to which the author is paying scant or even ‘flippant’ attention. Otherwise, he presents no signposts. ‘I am a patchwork,’ he says. A set ‘of limbs and brain cells’ that appear to be dressed up, in disguise, after a ‘fairly late-in-life shift’.

The Review is a delightful book that offers far more than the ‘snippets of pleasure’ that Martin Stannard claims for it. Most of all I appreciate the clever and witty way the whole text is built on paradox. If an issue is profound it is described on a superficial level, if there are elements of tragedy we are given a comic, throw-away line, if the author is in danger of seeming serious, caring too much, then he will be light-hearted and indifferent. 

No signposts or destination but nevertheless it feels as if we are on an expedition of sorts. There is a guide, a narrator, or rather a persona who goes to great lengths to pare his personality down ‘towards an oversimplified self.’ A persona that clings on ‘determinedly merry’ and more than willing ‘to pass an empty/few minutes,’ to share ‘a perky tale or two,/spruce up the day’, one who will try and live in ‘a constant state of cheer.’ This is someone who wants to be accepted for his ‘creamy brain flipping and flopping around like some kind of/barmy joint of meat determined to enjoy/the best and worst of times.’

No signposts, no destination, no apparent landscape for this outing, only a series of impressions of somewhere vaguely pastoral, fluffy as an idyllic holiday, ‘a convoluted expedition during/which men in safari suits and women not in/anything much at all gallivant around/without any apparent object in mind/except to fill a few lines of narrative on a /dull day.’ Or maybe Martin Stannard intends us to feel we are at a coffee morning or a ‘lovely country house weekend/with society women turning up at the party/with jewelled scarabs and slicked-back hair/with silk underthings’ Enviable? Probably not if one is hoping for love or friendship or any kind of real contact. This is a world where ‘People drop/in, you share a splendid dinner and a few drinks,/then they drop out, then they’re replaced/by other people.’

This brilliant evocation of futility is underpinned throughout the text of The Review by every aspect of language. ’This is no time to mess about in/the misty regions of symbolism,’ says the author, dismissing clever similes and selecting deliberately watered-down imagery: ‘My treehouse is above ground,/hovering with the wasps and wispy clouds’ he says, for here there will be ‘jingly birds in the bouncy boughs’. As for tone – it ‘must be full of the wisdom of (pick something/at random) …big things.’

The Review is rich in irony and humour. Martin Stannard is adept at the witty turn of phrase or the play on words such as ‘they can come after wool and go home fleeced.’ Several lines are pure laugh out loud: ‘The best advice I ever received was not to/have another half’. ‘Does a chicken have a favourite/egg among those she lays?’ Or here, in a description of the ‘leafy summertime of youth’: ‘On my face/ is an expression suggestive of trying/to ignore a runny nose’.

Delightful writing, light-hearted, clever, funny. But don’t be fooled. This is serious. We are always in ‘the dark side of the world’ with panic and desperation. ‘If I pass by a hole in the ground’ comments the writer, ‘I/shout into it in case someone is down it and/lonely.’ It’s all about trying to hang on: ‘Wild or beautiful/or savage or poignant it’s all really just/a coping mechanism that prevails despite/the weather.’

Toward the end of the book there are sentences that make an attempt to sum up the impossible: ‘If this is clumsy and lacking poetry/all I can say is, ‘You can’t have everything/but there’s no harm in trying. Lantern-bearers/sometimes wander in darkness but are able to retain/their sense of humour.’

I said there were no signposts in The Review, no final destination but perhaps this line offers a suggestion: 

‘On the final mattress it all makes sense’.

Mandy Pannett 22nd June 2021

Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Known mainly as a translator of Russian poetry and as a reviewer of Russian and Irish poets in The Russian ReviewPoetry Ireland Review and other prestigious places, this is Belinda Cooke’s first full collection of her own work. Structured in four sections, three of them focused on specific locales (Ross-shire, Berkshire and Aberdeenshire), it consists of personal, inward-turned lyrics whose contexts are sparse and whose addressees might be friend, brother, parent, child, lover or even a ‘you’ that’s a complicitous ‘I’. Such an approach can be mysterious, frustrating, or a challenge, depending on the type of reader you are. Is the dedicatee ‘Steve’ the same paratextual ‘Stephen’ credited with the author and cover photos, and hence the same ‘you’ frequently associated with photography, and therefore, from the eroticism of ‘Stem’, a lover? But these pronominal ambiguities are generally finely judged. In ‘Take’, they help depict a rolling pattern of personal support, with the twist to the first person at the end:

[…] Dark night, unexpected 

at your door, you’ve lost

so much weight you say.

When the voice is lonesome

just come home you say – 

and you only once thirty years ago,

you know why I’m ringing…

just come home,

come home I say. 

‘We get no kicks on the A96’, begins one poem here, and these are confessionals, too, whose main confession is that there’s not much (willingly) to be disclosed. There are landscapes, moments listening to rain, listening to music, problems with houses, being apart from loved ones, going for walks, and the fine-tuned emotions and quiet epiphanies arising from each. If something does happen – ‘bad news’ is mentioned once  we readers aren’t made privy to it. Some similar lyric poets import drama instead from news stories or character-monologues. Belinda Cooke resists that, but rather flavours her self-appointed reticence with spicy hints – ‘It’s as if we were looking/ into each other’s bones’; ‘always just yesterday/ that I first felt your loved weight’; ‘I learn about intimacy the hard way’ – and prefers to listen than speak:

Talk to me, I will listen,

I will lean in close to that

dark that is yours alone […]

Meanwhile there are references to Rilke, Larkin and particularly Marina Tsvetaeva, whom Belinda Cooke is especially known for translating: otherwise-opaque phrases like ‘the packhorse dues’ can be illuminated by identifying their origins in her writings. The book, confusingly, has many unaccountable commas, misquotations, odd italicisings, lost parentheses and hanging quote-marks, among other typos. (Perhaps ‘Whitenights Park’, for this notable russophone, might be deliberate? But whoever are Wilhelmina and the Mainliners?) Nonetheless, such slippages don’t overwhelm the pleasures to be gained, especially in the more unguarded poems about youth which are the ones, for me, that make the book most worth getting hold of. A Catholic childhood nicely provides a ‘little box of imagery’, and those on young love, after all, are everything you’d hope for:

            Heavy and lovely

            the night we first didn’t sleep together

            but lay awake all night

            me like a madwoman

            who couldn’t stop smiling:

            ‘What’s so funny?’ you asked.

Guy Russell 20th June 2021

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Brightwork by Suzannah V Evans (Guillemot Press)

Amongst the poems, in prose and verse, of her latest pamphlet Brightwork – a follow up to last year’s excellent Marine Objects / Some Language – Suzannah V. Evans translates a number of pieces by Francis Ponge, minimally adapting their imagery to the localised milieu of a boatyard. In ‘Rain’, for example, a poem of deft attention and delicate syllabic patterning, the manifold action of rainfall is shifted from Ponge’s Paris courtyard to ‘the boatyard’, while scalar comparisons for water droplets – ‘un grain de blé’, ‘un pois’, ‘une bille’ – are swapped for boatbuilding paraphernalia – ‘pin head’, ‘copper rove’, ‘shackle’. Another poem, ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’, retitles Ponge’s ‘La Barque’, allowing a new perspective on a classic wooden yacht (and on Ponge’s poem).

     Direct homage to Ponge is a savvy move on Evans’s part, allowing a more nuanced appreciation of the qualities of attention she’s cultivating in her work. ‘I particularly admire certain restrained writers’, Ponge tells us in ‘Notes For a Sea Shell’, ‘because their monument is made from the true secretion common to the human mollusk, from the thing most closely proportioned and adapted to his body … LANGUAGE’. The voice of Brightwork is suffused with this Pongean tact, with a quality of discretion or restraint which nevertheless allows a sense of powerful feeling to emerge.

     Mostly, these poems build towards an intensely affectionate investment in things seen, a cathexis mirrored in the care taken over the poetic act of knowing and naming. ‘Slipway’, which eases us in to the collection, admires a roster of ‘lovely things’ about its titular object: ‘your timber cradle, how you hold the hull of boats so closely, how you keep your chocking stable, and whistle at the sight of the wooden deck’. Many of the recurring pleasures of the poems in Brightwork are present here: playfully anthropomorphising lyric address; enjoyment of specialised lexis – ‘chocking’; imaginative working up of sound into voice – the slipway’s ‘whistle’ (returned to, memorably, in the closing ‘Slipway Song’); a subtle investment of favoured objects with a quality of maternal care – ‘cradle’, ‘hold’.

     Notably Pongean, too, is the collection’s anti-monumentalist focus on tools, machines, and bits of infrastructure that might easily go unnoticed, as well as its affection for the arcana of a craft – boatbuilding – easily reduced, in the age of the supertanker, to mere ‘heritage’. The title, Brightwork, derives from those parts of a boat of special polish, whether in wood or metal – elements which need maintenance and love to withstand the corrosive, barnacling impact of the sea. A sense is cultivated, throughout these pages, that the poet’s own brightwork is an act of rescue and salvage, the painstaking buffing up, in language, of things otherwise liable to entropy and neglect – things which, like ‘Puffin, the little Hillyard’ are vulnerable before the storm we call progress: ‘Left alone, she follows the current and drifts, like everything in the world, towards ruin’. 

     In ‘Say Elbow, Say Heart’, Evans has her boatbuilders dream of ‘a red hull inching / onto the slipway’, the dawn light which wakes them conflated with the glint of finish on the imagined vessel: 

And as the dream fades away,

And the sun eases up over the harbour,

The words brightwork brightwork brightwork

Lap at the corners of their rooms.

Here, the careful deployment of metaphor suggests the sociological concept of habitus – how our perception is shaped by institutional and technical structures of labour and action. Throughout Brightwork, Evans celebrates the highly particular imaginative worlds created by skilled labour, a shape of encounter between body and matter which takes form in a shared argot – a truly Pongean ‘monument’ all-too-easily lost in a homogenising, capitalist work-culture: ‘language is worked into the wood as they [the boatbuilders] move, / mahogany murmuring with the sound of canvas, / carlins, clinker, coaming, cradle, crook’.

     Brightwork imagines language sedimented in matter, a trace left by the interactions of living and non-living bodies. The poet’s task is to listen in to such significant encounters, translate them into speech: ‘place your hand on my smooth side and I am a rounded belly, full of sea dreams’, a buoy entreats (‘Buoy’); elsewhere, a pontoon ‘curls its voice around a creek, grumbles’ (‘Pontoon’). Together, these poems coax open the boatyard habitus, allowing it to slide out into a broad ecology of material interactions, the ‘sweet frictions’ of wood, air, metal and water tracked by subtle modulations in the sounds of words, an ‘acoustic tumbling’ (‘Slipway Song’). Thus, ‘rain thrums on hulls and hoods, / batters hatches, haunts heels / and heads of sails’ (‘Underfalling’).

     Often, Evans’s skillful sonics put me in mind of Lorine Niedecker, another poet whose work focused on the practical artefacts of ‘life by water’. She seems to share with Niedecker (and other Objectivists such as Oppen and Zukofsky), a trust that the things themselves, properly re-presented, might yield a quiet socio-cultural commentary. These are poems which encourage an ethics of careful listening and argue for respectful proportion between human presence and the elemental world. One of a host of writers drawn to the fertile margins of sea and land – many of them, such as Isabel Galleymore, also published by Guillemot – Evans has nevertheless martialled her influences to claim a highly distinctive poetic lineage. In Brightwork, her voice continues to develop with singular and exhilarating focus. 

Oliver Southall 13th June 2021

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