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Category Archives: English Poetry

The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

This is presented as an anthology of poems, some 84, arranged chronologically, with extensive commentary, seen as suitable for memorising or reading aloud, in that sense a bit like Ted Hughes’ By Heart collection, although the Hughes is neither chronological nor offers comment on the poems. James variously and perhaps surprisingly eloquently gives about four or five paragraphs to each poem. This struck me as very refreshing. The book was indeed put together just after James’ death in 2019, and it is a most unusual effort. But I think we get out of it not just those often perceptive insights but a curious assortment of pickings from English literature from the metaphysics of the Renaissance on.

There are two forces of fascination, then;- the choice of poems, and of course how memorable they are, along with the commentary. James might be seemed to some as an Aussie philistine, and he is unafraid of voicing some strong opinions. We might remember that his unfinished doctoral dissertation was to be on the influence of Dante on Shelley, would that there were such. James himself undertook a translation of The Divine Comedy. This is the same man who was Observer TV critic for about 10 years, and was suitably telegenic, eg in his TV series on fame. 

The choice of poems is suitably expansive. A few little known names appear, some Australian, but other than that it makes for an interesting primer on the course of English poetry; this might also be got of course via such other anthologies as The Rattle Bag, though that has a rather scatter shot arrangement.

The book is just a little too long to digest in one sitting. Among the metaphysics we get Donne, Herrick and Herbert. Milton is represented but not Dryden; there is besides a Shakespeare sonnet (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). There is reasonably full coverage of the Romantics. James notes the considerable impetus of Keats’ poetry toward higher things, had he longer stayed the course.

When we get to near contemporary poetry, Hughes (‘Pike’) and Heaney are here along with Plath, whom he does appear to take relatively seriously (‘Cut’). But we also find catholically represented Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Donald Davie and Kingsley Amis. Still perhaps what we might call the British Poetry Revival does not figure here greatly. 

James manages to turn a relatively fresh ear to many of these writers, though the choices at times can seem a little quirky, ie why that particular Shakespeare sonnet for instance, from such a range of choice.

What does one come away with? This is actually a fairly short, concise anthology; very often there is the attempt to spread the net wider. But James has put his imprint on it, in a way we have found from previous anthologies such as those of Yeats and Larkin, not to mention the current Ricks.

Not everyone is likely to be disposed to the emphasis on commentary, which is fully half the book, and of course this is somewhere Hughes didn’t go. Some anthologies such as that of Keith Tuma provide extensive prefatory matter; quite often we get merely the poems.

One could cobble out, piece together a kind of argument about where James sees poetry going. He says of Plath and Hughes, ‘Although the towering Hughes raided the whole of history and all cultures for his ideas, she was the one with the poetic scope’. (p251) He accords Heaney high praise,- ‘when he spoke he made hundreds of years of troubled history seem at least a touch more bearable’ (p268). He also attends to Walcott, but not Brathwaite, ‘Walcott had more talent than anyone knew what to do with’ (p270). As the cited Walcott poem concludes, ‘Sea Grapes’,- ‘The classics can console. But not enough.’ In terms of direction, this strain of influences will doubtless continue to work on through.

The choice of poems is decidedly idiosyncratic. James does not go for some of the major targets, eg for Eliot we get ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, though with Pound it is the now familiar couplet ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Of Pound’s flirtation with fascism, James offers,- ‘Pound himself was very slow to deduce that the Dream was a farcical nightmare’ (p107). Olson, who took so much from Pound, isn’t here, but John Berryman is. To Davie James attributes a ‘misplaced admiration for the mind of Ezra Pound’ (p213) though we still have canonical works like Kenner’s The Pound Era to contend with.

I think the book actually has a pretty good take on Anglophone poetry, even if it could hardly be termed radical. One can only wonder what Hughes might have done had he scope to comment on the poems in By Heart. What I come back to is that the whole scope of the book is quite refreshing, and maybe Clive James could get away with it because it was a posthumous, albeit somewhat impassioned exercise. I find it too as helpful in the effort to get a grip of the development of English poetry. Whilst some here are overlooked, there is too much of quite certain relevance here to make it much more than a personal indulgence; James deferral to poetic affinity is too strong to invite dismissal. 

Clark Allison 19th October 2021

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kelptown by Carol Watts (Shearsman Books)

Kemptown in Brighton is the point of departure for Kelptown, in which Carol Watts studies and investigates the effects of what we have lost because of global warming, a change in climate conditions and the consequent lack of connections with nature. The language of the poems has a fragmented quality that is emphasised by deliberately hallucinatory links that express the dire situation we are experiencing today. The picture of the spinach leaf with beating blood cells on the cover of the book symbolises this connection between human and nature that should be re-established to revitalise our world in a more hopeful vision.

     The collection is divided into four parts that trace a journey from observation and witnessing and apocalyptic descriptions of a world drowning in rising tides and burning forest fires to possible alternatives of ‘DeExtinction’ and community projects. This is not only a way to take care of the environment but also a practice that merges human and natural worlds in an empathy that might guarantee life to future generations. This serious vision needs urgent solutions, as Greta Thunberg remarks in her speeches collected in her book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. We seem to be blind to nature, and putting it first again might be the solution to environmental threats, as botanists and biology educators such as Susanna Grant, James Wandersee, Elisabeth Schussler and Dennis Martinez state. The relationship with nature that the poet describes aims for the level of equality that existed in the primordial indigenous world. As Rachel Carson observes in Man’s War Against Nature, published in 1962, the idyllic fruitful countryside suddenly changed: ‘mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.’ What Carson described in her book were the effects of chemical pollution, but a more lasting and durable process is exposed and explored in Watts’s poems. Since the 1960s the situation involving global warming, sea and air pollution and the waste production of the so-called civilised world has grown and worsened, causing the opposing calamities of floods and fires.

     In Watts’s poems, death looms; it ‘crowns this day […] catastrophes approach’ and are out of our control. Loss is at the heart of this situation and we need to re-enter our community and accept mutations to envisage possible alternatives:

ghost pulse    miniature scale

warning glitch    grief penumbra

airborne    a dream of fireflies

lost to colder climates

extinguishings at dusk    ash lit

border crossing    nocturnal

(‘Disappearances’)

     The fragmented discourses of Watts’s lines emphasise this absence, a loss we need to bridge to reach the DeExtinction she analyses in the last section of the collection. Her poems are in various forms and include personal artwork (for example, T.R.E.E., Total Rare Earth Elements) such as sketches, photos and responses to music, such as ‘Life Scores’, which was created in collaboration with the composer Dave Maric. 

This enriching collection has a complex, wide range of references that also include writers such as Emily Dickinson, Ovid, Pablo Neruda, William Blake and Andrew Marvell, and yet it addresses the major issues of today’s society in a simple way. The poet suggests that this time of loss can be a time of witnessing and exploration, an opportunity to search for and reach the essence of our being. The different moments are caught and described in their shifting temporality, in their minimal simplicity; they form revitalised life in the kelp forest that, like a reef, protects our shores, or in the rocks, trees, wildflowers and plants thriving in the countryside. The ‘ants, toiling butterflies, pollen rising in clouds’ confirm how nature renews relentlessly, that ‘No one dies out, but they enter community’, a statement that confirms a presence despite the loss.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th October 2021

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press)

The enthralling collection Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo cleverly combines form and content in hybrid structures in which the horizontal lines intersect with a vertical reading. This form allows different possibilities that coexist at physical and conceptual levels. The poems are also beautifully illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, though they were not created in collaboration with the artist. In her previous works, Tarlo collaborated with many artists. For example, in the exhibition ‘A Fine Day for Seeing’ at Southwark Park Galleries she worked with Judith Tucker in reference to the artwork ‘Dark marsh: silvered out’ (2021) in relation to her poem ‘Winter Saltwort’. The illustrations in this collection strongly express the essentiality of the writings, whose style is a minimalist one:

cut flowers why would they when

it came to it         lasting longer

long days             before dawn sees

a fair light            crows & robins upright

on the wall           look out, learn to travel in

deep time             blood fish & bone, find

new ventures        prepare, parse, prey for

vegetables

The poem can be read horizontally and the part on the left vertically as well, which is reminiscent of a mesostic or of a wordplay. This form gives the lyric a structure that is both open and closed that is reflected in the illustrations too. In fact, some of the pictures have geometrical closed shapes with grids and dots of sorts symbolising flower shapes, while others are delicately sketched minerals or barely traced wall structures that are open to multiple interpretations by the viewer.

The collection is divided into four parts, each featuring one of the four seasons, though this division is not especially strict. The sequences are more linked to the long-term practice of daily observation and diary annotations, with particular attention given to the weirdness and unpredictability of everyday events. The tone is not autobiographical, and the attention is on feelings. The language is mostly expressed using a tangential view that suggests rather than states:

they got darker than he meant them to

bleeding            into body, blurring into

portal                 light lost – Fall maybe or

out of                 all Four Seasons together

art scene             people can stand anything

these days          more than cube, depth

frame or             field could interiorise

internalise

The floral aspect could also be a reference to botanical catalogues and old prints of flowers and seeds such as the ones conserved at the British Library and the Natural History Museum in London. The body is a recurring image of loss and regaining, sometimes abused but at other times cherished and always explored in its diverse aspects. Tarlo therefore plays around with cut flowers, wildflowers, flowers in greenhouses and in garden centres, and city flowers that trigger ‘PAIN        ANXIETY  FERTILITY/WELL        BEING STRESS’. Cutting flowers could also be a reference to cutting living things, cutting lines off and to the practice of flower arranging and making decorations out of flowers, hobbies often associated with women. The changing of seasons, weather conditions and situations the poet explores suggest a changing of mind that subtly comments on the status quo. This is especially clear in the use of apparently isolated words listed in the left vertical part of the poems. These lines express political connections, for example to Syria, environmental concerns and concerns about violence against women. Therefore, the collection patiently traces a detailed quotidian observation of ordinary life with an eye on global issues. Different possibilities coexist in a comprehensive and yet fragmented vision that might be unsettling but is also illuminating. This view is skilfully expressed both in the structure and in the imageries and language of the poems and is exquisitely emphasised by the illustrations. Tarlo gives a unique interpretation of a botanical reality that is profoundly human and, at the same time, intensely empathetic towards nature.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 4th October 2021

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

The Daedalus Files by Mandy Pannett (SPM Publications)

One of the most dramatic and controversial myths is revisited and thoughtfully explored in Mandy Pannett’s The Daedalus Files. The roles of the actors in the story are investigated in the poems, from that of Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth, to that of his son Icarus, who was the result of Daedalus’s marriage to a slave called Naucrate. Icarus later dies while he is trying to escape, falling from the sky into the Aegean Sea. The role of the monster, the Minotaur, is also explored in the poems; it was created following a sexual encounter between the adulteress queen, Pasiphaë, and the sacred white bull, a present from Poseidon to the king, Minos. Finally, the role of Theseus, the hero, is examined; his victory is tightly linked to the clever tricks of Ariadne, whom he eventually abandons on the island of Naxos. Death is the constant threat that is present in the centre of the labyrinth, where the monster is imprisoned and where seven Athenian boys and seven girls are sacrificed each year to its hunger and lust. 

Symbolic meanings unfold and overlap in this myth, following the meandering turns of the labyrinth, such as death and renewal, the search for identity and the encounter with otherness, as Kerényi states in his seminal book on the labyrinth. Borges, in his poem ‘The Labyrinth’, expresses the loneliness, boredom and frightening aspects of the place where otherness is present and absent at the same time. It is a search for meaning that is never definitely achieved; on the contrary, it is always postponed. The centre is a loss, an empty space where the monster waits, and going back to that space by following Ariadne’s flaxen thread does not redeem the hero. The contact with the mystery of the labyrinth, or a supposed sacred centre, does not give answers but only silence. However, defeating the monster and returning is Theseus’s goal that implies courage but also ruthlessness and eventually betrayal.

Pannett highlights this signum contradictionis implied in the labyrinth and in the myth, for example in the figure of the Minotaur, who was once a tender calf ‘cradled on his mother’s knee.’ Nevertheless, its brutality and ferocity have no reason, and only language, poetic language, can try to make sense of this violence and successive unfaithfulness. The poems analyse and question the myth connecting the story to the present situation of danger and displacement experienced by people fleeing from conflicts and persecutions, people in exile. It is a ferocious journey, as Pannett evokes in ‘Memo’, describing it as ‘Cramping. Claustrophobic. No air.’ In the foreword she recalls how her poems were inspired by the fall of Icarus and the arrival of refugees from Syria on the Greek island of Tilos, where she was staying at the time. Escaping and finding a way out towards salvation are the objectives that are eventually contradicted by the ending. Icarus dies and Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, the ‘faithless lover’. Therefore, the solutions are partial and temporary; they need to be renegotiated each time and loss is inevitable. The narrative of the myth is rewritten in Pannett’s poems in a constant resignification that evolves in an exploration using language. The process is emphasised in impeccable lines that develop all these threads.

The myth remains a mystery because the different actors never disclose their secrets; loss and betrayal loom at the end of the story. Daedalus the maker, the craftsman, sculptor and architect pushed the boundaries of human limitations with tragic consequences. The poet questions his inventions, suggesting they might be ‘transitory and insignificant’. He kept his self-control but his son did not; he dared too much despite his father’s instructions to ‘Get ready to jump. Mind rocks. Don’t/hesitate. Deep breath.’ There seems to be no way out, though the final poems suggest a change of mind, the possibility that is not necessary ‘to fall into the dark/wingless and hurt’. But the myth culminates with the death of Icarus, and this is the end the reader is left to unravel.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th September 2021

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

leaf o little leaf by Ralph Hawkins (Oystercatcher Press)

I’ve not read much of Ralph Hawkins’ poetry before despite first coming across his work in A Various Art some years back but this is something I need to remedy. This little chapbook is wonderful. In his poem ‘Max Jacob – Some of the butchers had binoculars’ we get the following line, a reference to both Max Jacob and Ted Berrigan – ‘Both poets being playful, humorous and serious and full of fraught connectives.’ It’s that ‘fraught connectives’ that does it, a phrase that could well be applied to Hawkins’ own poetry as beautifully exemplified in the following:

          Corn from Delf is good for Elves

                                       Bernadette Meyer

          you can get a coach

          transport yourself

          Scarlett Johannson

          an alien in Glasgow

          the girl at the psalter

          palmistry soap

          all those overburdened

          with the clothes they wore

          the abandoned, the outcast, what future

          they ‘fished’ them out of the sea

I’m unsure if the title embodies a quote from Meyer but its mix of digression and stream-of-consciousness is entirely appropriate. The manner in which this short poem shifts ground so swiftly is witty and yet suggests the way the mind connects when we are ‘thinking to ourselves.’ The jump from ‘coach’ to ‘self-transportation’ and then to the film reference which implies a more cosmic form of technology is wonderfully done and then we are in darker territory via ‘psalter’ and ‘palmistry’ which lead to the final four lines, chilling in their contemporary resonance but also hinting at an historical narrative. 

     Hawkins works with found texts and references to paintings quite regularly as well as obviously working by association and ‘stream of consciousness’ though most of the poems are reasonably short and as well as relatively smooth transitions there are abrupt jumps or ‘crash edits,’ to borrow the film jargon, which can be a cause for humour or in some cases bafflement. It’s good to be baffled at times! His poem on Max Jacob, referred to above, mixes humour, wordplay and celebration with a melancholy feel and another stunning ending – ‘And later having to wear a yellow star / when the Germans came.’ He has the ability to combine a sort of surreal lyricism with a darker tendency and then switch to genuine pathos or emotional directness as in this final stanza from ‘Jean-Francois-Millet’ – ‘however there is a softness in the children / and a care which / suffuses all exhaustive acts.’

     The opening piece – ‘Poem: Found and Manipulated Text’ has an ‘instructional tone’ which takes off at all sorts of tangents and teases the reader into trying out an interpretation or two while being aware the absurdity of the scenarios are not entirely approachable by linear logic!  For example, we have the following: ‘12 lions may be presented in all / read by a Fakir in spectacles / (note the adjustable settings / Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd).’ You could choose to read ‘lines’ for lions and then ponder a reading by ‘A Fakir in spectacles’ but are the adjustable settings related to the spectacles or what might or might not be type-faces – Arcadian, Gothic, Absurd – and how in any case does this influence the ‘meaning?’ As Hawkins himself says in the closing couplet – ‘we don’t usually see the world / with entirely different eyes, do we.’  

     It’s the estrangement from received notions of ‘reality’ that I most like about these poems as they make you ponder while providing a good laugh at the same time. As he also says elsewhere, in Doig 1,’ – ‘what paths we must take / when nothing seems strange.’ These poems are certainly a good antidote to boredom as well as having a ‘more serious’ side and I very much enjoyed reading them. The cover artwork is equally puzzling, it may or may not be the suggested ‘leaf’ but has the feel of a print with organic textures and could be an image by David Lynch but probably isn’t. I like it though and it’s certainly in tune with this chapbook’s contents.

Steve Spence 27th August 2021

Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Operations of Water by Ian Seed (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Seashore scenarios, the fluidity of water and the hardness of ice are images that recur in Ian Seed’s second collection from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, which is reminiscent of Montale’s ‘Arsenio’, who wanders around at the beach, where his thoughts and hopes are erased by the backwash after a storm. Arsenio’s ‘immoto andare’ (motionless motion) is a very good description of Seed’s uncertainties, his sense of displacement, the fragmentation of the self, his isolation and his loneliness as he engages in a heedless search for a meaning. These themes were already present in his first full collection, Anonymous Intruder (Shearsman Books, 2009), in which the protagonist’s ‘feeling of lostness’ cannot be resolved. Multiple encounters mark a meandering journey that does not reach a definite ending. While the first collection was composed of structured poems and prose poems, Operations of Water is more experimental in form; this emphasises a sense of letting go and an openness to even less defined perspectives. The themes are explored in a deeper way, revealing a profound sense of displacement and emptiness that nevertheless is always in process, like water that is flowing. Everything seems ever-changing, shifting, fluid; there are ‘fluctuating life stories to be shared’ in an ‘emptiness [that] is not nothing’. The estrangement from the body and the concept of authenticity are therefore even more challenged in this last collection. The poet is open to the mysteries of experience, which is unresolved, questioned and ultimately unknown.

The collection is divided into four parts that are mostly composed of sequences of poems that delve into the different concepts, mixing conversational language and abstract imageries. The dialogue is open and provisional, hinting at Baudelaire’s correspondence and the magical world of folk tales. The uncertainty of the human condition is acknowledged and so is the illusion of any faithfulness to firm theories. The protagonist ‘mix[es] a cocktail’, negotiating relationships in ‘a solitude that is not/in your control and cannot be sweetened’. Seed’s questioning is stringent in some poems, addressing existential concerns which remain unresolved and distant. The search for a home ends in desolation; it is ‘a vanishing place’ or ‘an abandoned house’ where the protagonist experiences his inadequacy: his body is ‘a stranger to itself’. Striking images confirm this idea, as in ‘Phantom Limbs’ after Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which the body and the mind merge in a multifaceted view and the amputated limbs can be renewed in the imagination as a memory; they are entities that do not exist anymore.

The reference to Dante’s ‘donna gentile’ is again an illusion and does not give respite to the poet. The woman’s spiritual healing power is reversed in reference to the trapping frozen lake that is reminiscent of the Cocytus at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno where the traitors are punished.

This incompleteness not only causes uncertainty but also anxiety. It is a consistent state of lingering and may end in a fall. The final section, ‘Operations of Water’, is a long sequence of poems composed of nine parts but it actually reads as a continuum of unpunctuated double-spaced lines; they are fragments connected by enjambments, recalling in their form and in the tone the flowing of water. Openness, tenderness, the inside and the outside play infinite roles in these final compelling poems. Imageries follow one another, developing in ‘rippling promises’ and ‘unwinding paths’ and rising ‘in abyss and within depth’. The protagonist strolls around in this reality whose essence is unreal and surreal and has the dual symbology of water, that is, death and renewal. Seed engages the reader in the whirlpool of his imagination, conveying his ideas in deft lines that always surprise with their freshness and consistently affirm his ideas.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 25th August 2021

Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms by Steve Spence (The Red Ceilings Press)

Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms by Steve Spence (The Red Ceilings Press)

Steve Spence, based in Plymouth where he co-organises the Language Club, studied at the  University of Plymouth and has published A Curious Shipwreck from Shearsman in 2010. He also writes a good many reviews and is a regular contributor to Tears in the Fence.

This chapbook, of 41 poems, is organised in a standard format of 4 quatrains and a closing couplet, unrhymed. Most of the pieces have short 3-word titles. No named protagonists, but a ‘he’ and ‘she’ are given to comment fairly often. Patrick Holden has called Spence a ‘connoisseur of noise pollution’.

Before all else, Spence isn’t sticking to a specific narrative, so, no, nobody eats here, gets gas or worms, and the artwork is a spare abstract of red, black and blue that could almost be a Rorschach blot.

Spence on a certain level is involved in a game with the reader, this can read a bit like a metanarrative, and admittedly, in those terms, he rarely puts a foot wrong. We are into a wholly realised space at a tangent from social realism.

There is assuredly a certain wariness. The first poem is called ‘Ceaselessly, with Threats’. Now what these threats are is unattained, not wholly spelled out. By the end we are ‘Returning to the Surface’, as if we have been immersed in some fictive terrain.

The uniformatting tends to emphasise the want of a narrative progression. There are suggestions of closure at the end, ‘we can come down from the trees’, though I don’t think the trees are the only space we’ve been. Other titles near the end are ‘An Act Of Defiance’ and ‘Doing It Yourself’. That insistent page formatting can have a curious effect, likewise the short titles.

So, read as 40 odd short poems this book has its interests, and they can be read quite discontinuously. I have to say I think the titles are peculiarly serialised, that is distinct but all gelling together. It’s as if we’ve gotten into a box and are staying there.

It may be worth citing from the final poem:

                                            ‘These colours come from their

                                diet yet an open habitat is a dangerous

                                place for a prey animal. “Do you like how

                                I’m telling you what’s going on where you are?”

                                When night falls we can come down from the trees.’  (p41)

There is that wariness again, ‘a dangerous/ place’, whereas our writer finds value in ‘telling you what’s going on’.

If this intrigues another poem ‘Playing With The Image’ has a somewhat different sort of ending:

                                                  ‘Are we slowly

                                retreating from everyday life?

                                These brushmarks are intriguing

                                but we also like smooth surfaces.’ (p15)

As for ‘retreating’ this poem also has ‘“we need to/ keep this conflict from/ spreading.”’ This somewhat spells out those perceptions of wariness. We also have our contrast between smooth surfaces, and these might be called smoothly realised poems, and rougher ‘brushmarks’ somewhat perhaps suggested by the cover.

So the poem series in a sense seems to find self containment an issue. What ‘this conflict’ is is not spelled out, not of course that it should be. And yet there is scope for some finely realised perceptions within this constricted domain. And as I say we have a ‘he’ and ‘she’ making appearances here but we do not learn much about them.

One feature of the book then is that it contains a strain, a tight relation, between form and content. Somehow when that final poem says ‘Returning To The Surface’ I am not quite so sure I’m there. Am I fending off the world or aspiring to an alternative world, maybe some niche that is viable in the here and now? Watching over what might or ought to be an ‘open habitat’, as Spence says,- that is a reassuring notion. Of course, the tight formalism also demonstrates a certain determination. Weighing in the impact of this chapbook I think then well furthers the development of a suitably aesthetic perspective for these times.

Clark Allison 19th August 2021

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

This pamphlet on Stone’s husband’s battle with Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis (SBE) – ‘a bacterial infection that produces growths on the endocardium (the cells lining the inside of the heart) […] and, if untreated, can become fatal within six weeks to a year’ – is a stark, honest account of marriage when a spouse has a life-threatening illness. 

These poems are written with a sparing style. Stone allows the narrative arc to unspool through the domestic, with the speaker in the bathtub in ‘Unwinding’ or watching her husband’s illness take hold in ‘Pallor’. As Mr Stone’s serious illness becomes more apparent, the language of detachment seems to take over. This is evidence in the titles of several of the poems: ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, ‘Mrs Stone Waits for News’. There is often a sense of dissociation in these poems, as if the speaker is existing in ‘survival mode’, however, finer, specific details bloom through like dandelions in the crack of a pavement: ‘tissues scented / with lavender’, ‘the gold pinstripe of her white dress’, ‘liquid, which should be clear, / darkens to rust / with too much blood’. This may sound like an impossible dichotomy, but in my experience, trauma is both vague and vivid, sharp and blunt, often simultaneously, and this pamphlet deftly demonstrates that phenomenon. 

Like in Rebecca Goss’s collection Her Birth, as well as in the work of Hannah Hodgson and Helen Dunmore, this pamphlet takes us into hospital, and we see the full, unsterilised truth of it. In In ‘Mrs Stone Drives Home from the Freeman Hospital’, the worlds of inside and outside the hospital merge, the rest of society seemingly continuing with ‘the blossom and barbecue smells of late May’ despite the Stones’ reality, yet the psychologically inescapable fact of her husband’s hospital room haunts Mrs Stone: ‘Even in my car waiting to head home, / I am in that room with you’. In ‘Bear Hug’, Mrs Stone connects with a woman, remarking, ‘we share the same complicated / relationships with our mothers’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, there is a piercing moment of powerlessness and inability to protect a loved one felt by many relations of the unwell, shown simply through the words, ‘I had not done enough / to bring you back’. Foreshadowing is also woven into the narrative arc, particularly during the poem ‘Mrs Stone Tries to Stop the Rain’, in which Mr Stone wonders, ‘Is this where the infection began? Pressing a sponge to soak to pooling water, / bacteria creeping into barely visible cuts on his hands?’ By this, I was reminded of Jenny Downham’s YA novel Before I Die, in which Tessa, the protagonist, who has cancer, reflects on her pre-diagnosis days by exploring her childhood, through hindsight, using startling imagery of potential signs of what was to come: ‘the butterflies crisped up in jam jars’ ‘my Uncle Bill got a brain tumour. At his funeral…the grave earth wouldn’t come off my shoes’. This seems to be a human eccentricity, how we look back into our pasts for warnings that we did not heed or see, yet the fact is that sometimes we just cannot ‘see things coming’. 

The scenes of this pamphlet are perhaps more familiar to us as a consequence of our experiences over the past year and a half than they would have been pre-pandemic. Arguably, the scenes in ‘Mrs Stone Visits Her Husband’ – ‘the cold gel’ which ‘seeps / into the broken skin of her palms’ – would not have been so instantly recognisable to us all if we had not had to wash our hands so frequently or confront serious illness and death on a daily basis, collectively rather than individually. The almost-godlike quality with which Mrs Stone depicts medical professionals caring for her husband corresponds with our pandemic-formed view of NHS staff; in ‘Mr Stone is in a Loop’, ‘nurses glide’ around Mr Stone’s bed (this ‘gliding’ instantly prompted me to think of angels). In ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, she declares, ‘I don’t need faith. The gods are here.’ This need to put our trust in medical personnel surely rings truer now than it ever has done.

Something else that feels familiar as a consequence of Covid-19 is the craving to regain life exactly as it was prior to an episode of uncertainty and loss. In ‘Mr Stone’s Bionic Heart’, the speaker reports how she ‘took Valium so [she] could sleep / with [her] head on [Mr Stone’s] chest’. Later, in the pamphlet’s closing poem, ‘Mrs Stone Lies Awake’, Mrs Stone states, ‘I’m trying to get back to where we were. / Praying it’s as simple as putting my head / on your chest and falling asleep’. Perhaps it will be this ‘simple’; perhaps it will not. As we emerge from lockdown, we are yearning for ‘normality’; perhaps this is conceivable, perhaps it is implausible. All we can do is try.

Olivia Tuck 17th August 2021

I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

I’ll Splinter by Tom Branfoot (Infernal Editions)

My grandparents’ house is called ‘Tod Cot’. I had never really thought about it much – a random arrangement of sounds and syllables, it simply was. But the first poem in Tom Branfoot’s debut pamphlet, I’ll Splinter, gave me pause. The title of the poem, ‘Cotlight’, is a lovely word which, I learnt, refers to the light shining through windows after dark, from ‘cot’, a rural dwelling, now ‘cottage’. Tod is an old country term for fox, and now the two pieces of the puzzle fit together – Tod Cot, fox cottage, den, holt, home, the words unfurling themselves before me. I’ll Splinter encourages this kind of reframing of the everyday, as Branfoot’s sharp eye picks out the poetic in the pebbledash and tarmac of the in-between places. 

‘Cotlight’ is a fitting introduction to I’ll Splinter – it is an invitation, an invocation, a calling. ‘go there’, the poem begins, ‘and say that fire/ brought you // to the brook where light travels as bruised ginger.’ Exactly where ‘there’ is is never quite clear, but we are reminded of Seamus Heaney’s landscapes of the imagination where words are a means to their own end, endlessly discovering themselves. There is a longing for wildness in this poem that is never fully realised, striking a feral note that rings true through the entire collection. An impulse towards a primal, ancient something rears its head in the lines ‘call after me when you arrive / like an untied animal’. If you can see the cotlight then you are necessarily out in the dark, hovering between the artificial light spilling from double glazed windows and whatever darker something lurks beyond its yellow glow. 

Reading this collection feels, at times, like crouching in the garden after dark with a torch, illuminating the homely contours of the garage and the garden fence until they become uncanny and otherworldly, sitting quietly until the miracle of a toad or the flicker of a wing is caught in the beam. ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ is full of exacting and at times excruciating details of rural mundanity – ‘the polythene-bagged hay bales / on the perimeter of deserted / horse fields distant cars tear past’. The image of sparrows darting from ‘shrub to waxy / shrub pared back and almost berryless / pebble-dashed and ordinary’ is chillingly exact. In turning his attention to neither the sublime nor the sordid, but the rural ordinary, Branfoot shines a hard electric light on the places between which form such a large part of our experience but are blurred out by familiarity. 

Again and again, the speaker’s meetings with the natural world and the wonder it entails remain curiously frustrated. In ‘Minor Katabasis’, the speaker forages for ‘unbloomed fruits / by the clear stream’, then ‘empty handed I head home / along Station Road’. Despite the plethora of exquisite detail, the ‘liver-spotted mushrooms / and a skinful of sloe’, there is a feeling of aching need unmet – whilst nominally foraging for mushrooms, something else, something bigger and deeper and older is being sought, and repeatedly eludes. 

This fumbling desire for wildness asserts itself in ‘Shadowmoss’, which shares its name (intriguingly) with a Greater Manchester tram stop. The lines between the ‘natural world’ and our own blend: perhaps in ways only possible in the semi-rural, post-industrial places that the collection illuminates. Deer appear, but only in the context of the very human tarmac: ‘come rutting season / deer edge closer to their limits / we listen for bellows through the traffic (…) the fog lifts to black skids and fur scraps.’ It is a poem, like the collection, of almost-meetings, of glancing blows, of desire for contact unmet. It cries out for movement, yet remains curiously static. Instead of wild geese the speaker sees men ‘stumble into winter’s mouth / and nothing but migration’, the ‘drifting men’ taking down a traveling fun fair offer the closest thing to the freedom of the geese.

The pull between a keen love for the detail of a place and an itching desire for something else, anything else, hums throughout this collection. I mentioned stasis, but ‘dormancy’ and ‘dormant’ both appear in ‘Winter Storm and Plastic Flowers’ – an altogether more hopeful concept, suggesting an eventual reemergence. The two words pull at the competing nostalgia and terror that periods ‘at home’ in your early twenties can instill, an undercurrent which threads its way through ‘Loom of the Land’, the second poem in the collection. The poem reads like loose Old English alliterative verse, as the speaker walks a relay ‘from street lamp to bus stop  slow as night’, the initial alliteration and the regular division of each coupleted line into two giving an ancient weight to these modern, prosaic subjects. It is a fitting form considering Old English literature’s concern with place and belonging, with the material fact of the hall and the invisible structures of kinship and loyalty. ‘people leave’, Branfoot writes, ‘because going makes a sound’, and we are reminded of the wild geese, the drifting men. The image of the cenotaph, the empty tomb, in the final line embodies the fret and drift of the poem as a monument to absence. 

Despite the immediacy of Branfoot’s subjects, this is a quietly literary collection, with a rich array of form and allusion, from Old English alliterative verse to nocturnes, fugues and free verse; attention to rhyme and rhythm crisply attended to throughout. All of this contributes to the feeling of meticulous detail and controlled observation. 

If the first poem in the collection is an invitation, then the final poem, ‘Mooring’, is a kind of acceptance. In choosing one of the oldest and tenderest of filial reunions, that of Odysseus and his father in Homer’s Odyssey, Branfoot writes not only about one father, but all fathers. Mingling the epic and the everyday, Branfoot stays true to Homer’s original right down to beggar’s disguise and the sharing of scars, until, after feasting and bathing in olive oil, ‘we leave the radio on / to not feel alone.’ After the discomfort and the ambiguity of the rest of the collection, this poem is a gentle ode to the rituals and the awkward comforts of home, the places we are from but do not quite belong, which remain deeply part of us even as we struggle to escape them. 

Hannah Green 12th August 2021

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 

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