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Category Archives: English Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 8th February 2023

The Wine Cup: Twenty-four drinking songs for Tao Yuanming by Richard Berengarten (Shearsman Chapbook)

The Wine Cup: Twenty-four drinking songs for Tao Yuanming by Richard Berengarten (Shearsman Chapbook)

I haven’t engaged with any of Richard Berengarten’s poetry for some time and I’m glad to say that my re-encounter has been a pleasant one. These poems have a wide cultural background aside from the obvious Chinese connection and I’m straightaway reminded of Berengarten’s technical abilities as these are very skilfully put-together poems and strict forms suit his kind of poetry. He’s old-school and I don’t mean that a criticism but these poems, although concerned with mortality, a constant theme in his work, are full of life and musical vigour. Each villanelle is prefaced by an italicised quotation translated into English from Tao Yuanming as indicated in the postscript:

          Dusts

               My gaze drifts over the west garden

          Where the hibiscus blooms – brilliant red

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage,

          Following quiet woodland paths seems best.

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

          When young I was half-blinded in a cage

          Of city-dust and rubbish, hope possessed.

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage

          Seventy-five and still I earn my wage

          By piecemeal work, with scant let-up or rest.

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

          What point is there in shouting, at my age?

          I grin, breathe deep, walk by, like any guest.

          Now this thatched cottage is my hermitage.

          My heart beats on against its old ribcage.

          To touch the moment passing, that’s the test

          Against oncoming night. Why rant or rage?

          A hundred years – our fate and heritage.

          Considering that, I’m nothing if not blessed.

          Now this thatched cottage is my heritage,

          Against oncoming night, why rant or rage?

There’s an obvious reference to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle….’  and the shift in perspective is quite moving in the sense that Thomas died at a relatively young age while Berengarten is now a much older man. I wouldn’t say the above has resignation but there’s certainly a mellowing of tone and while some of the poems in this suite include elements of anxiety and perhaps even fear, as in ‘Scattered, My Books’ with its ‘Shall I go mad? Heart drums and temples pound. / The dead awaken. Ghosts rise to the brink. / Scattered, my books and brushes lie around’ the overall sense I’m getting is one of celebration and a restful melancholy.

     There are hintings towards Yeats and D.H. Lawrence here as well as the Chinese poets I’m less familiar with and Berengartens’ work is always full of awareness of tradition and artistic precedents. As has been suggested it is common for even contemporary poets to use and refer to the sonnet form but less so in the case of the villanelle. I can only think of two recent examples of contemporary poets who have done so in any sustained, thematic way and these are Alasdair Paterson and John Kinsella.

     The final poem in this collection underlines the drinking theme and celebrates the natural world and the here-and-now in a manner which though full of intriguing information also captures something of the moment, of the passion and wonder of being alive:

          Until this liquor drains

               I’ve a fine wine here. Let’s share it.

          A crane calls in the shade. Its chick answers. 

          Ineffable the ways the Way remains,

          Unspoken, all-enduring, never-ending,

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          And pity the self-hater who abstains,

          Refraining from desire, stiff and un bending.

          Ineffable the ways the Way remains.

          Ingredients of fruits, herbs, berries, grains –

          What inner fire resides in their fine blending.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          Its tastes – so complex! How the mouth retains

          Echoes of subtle flavours, time suspending.

          Ineffable the way the way remains.

          Threading through tunnelled arteries and veins

          Its fire fans out, ever itself extending.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains.

          Come, sit outside with me and watch the cranes

          Fly overhead. Heart-warming? Or heart-rending?

          Ineffable the ways the way remains.

          Love, drink with me until this liquor drains. 

The repetition and the patterning in the villanelle form makes for a very musical poetry which also allows for nuance and complexity even as the writing is direct and clear. Here you get the feel of intoxication and its relation to human physiology and also the mystery and directness of being alive in the moment. There is resonance and I’m getting Andrew Marvell’s sense of abundance in his ‘garden poems’ as well as other hints that I’m not quite sure about. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading these poems and I can only repeat that it was good to be re-acquainted with this singular and prolific voice.

Steve Spence 5th February 2023

Postcards To Ma by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press)

Postcards To Ma by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press)

You have to take a deep breath before you dive into this pamphlet, which is actually a single twelve page long poem. Not only because of its length, but because you will need as much oxygen in your brain to cope with digressions, lists, and the unreliable, perhaps even irrational, narrator.

Stannard is adept at keeping a straight face, however weird his poetry gets, and for taking language on long, surreal walks. He’s also good at using repetition and near-repetition, to help structure his work. In this long poem, which starts with the narrator noting that he ‘Sent a picture postcard to Ma “Arrived Safe”‘, this involves variations of the theme of how people see him and similes for how he sleeps,  irregular reoccurrences of phrases such as ‘Special Offer!!!’ and a kind of chorus to break up the flow:

                                                   Crack of dawn Swam in
   ocean Frolicked on sand Sent postcards to Ma

Each day, post-swim, offers new infatuations and obsessions, be it the ‘tautness / of cotton across generous bosom’ or ‘Gal by the name of Mabel looked better / than a Mabel’, who decides ‘she thought dancing was too sexual’ and heads off home with her husband.

As well as dance, philosophy, history and exploring ‘the kingdom republic or state’ he is holidaying in, Stannard’s narrator reports that he

   Had a crack (ten minutes tops) at being agnostic
   Buddhist vegan pacifist Marxist epicurist internalist
   Satanist atheist Christian externalist Irish
   Thought about differences between philosophy and religion

although it not until the next day he ‘Read philosophers thoughtfully / (ten minutes each tops)’, though it is long enough to (mis)quote from several in the same section.

Another day, in response  to happening ‘across abundance of / lucrative literary prizes’ he ‘Turned to scribbling for an easy buck’, quickly dashing off his first two novels under a nom de plume and ‘Between novels had a couple / of free days Penned slim volume of award-winning poetry’. Of course! And, as one would expect, it is titled ‘The Zenith of Our Feelings’, for ‘When a man is happy he writes damn good poetry’.

And of course, on the back of his literary success

                                                            Was offered post of
   Writer-in-Residence at Tourist Information Centre
   Declined Accepted instead role of Poet-in-Dormitories
   at St. Theresa’s Finishing School for Young Ladies
   A short-term contract abruptly terminated at lights out

I confess to finding this not only reminiscent of the Fast Show’s lecherous old man (‘Me, in a girls school, with my reputation?’) but also very funny, in a squirming response to this surreal inappropriateness.

There are similar engagements with the visual arts, including ‘a self-portrait (I have often wondered / how I see myself)’, sport, nature and music, the last with good results:

   Taught myself piano violin cello guitar ukulele flute
   piccolo trumpet bassoon oboe recorded harmonica kettle
   drum triangle Established first one-man orchestra

Of course, soon after, he notes ‘Decided to become a singer/songwriter’.

Thankfully, having ‘Slept like a cuckoo in a clock’, there are signs this monologue may be ending:

   Have run out of postcards so am unable to write
   which is a shame pity cause for regret disappointment
   sorrow ruefulness perhaps even woe I don’t know
   It’s the last day of the jollidays

It is, seemingly, not before time, as ‘Things are turning interesting slightly bewildering’, as they already have for the reader. There are elephants, rainbows, séances and a ‘well-formed nymphet’ who ‘scampers off teasingly into the trees’ (it’s not clear if she is wearing a white blouse or not) and it is ‘Probably / wise to be leaving’, ‘to speed with a merry heart / returning home to Ma.’

This is a strange surreal annoying hilarious disturbing righteous tasteless ridiculous surprising, unexpected text. It comments on any and everything in the process of describing and participating in it. The narrator appears to not only be obsessive and irrational, but also perhaps hallucinating the whole thing; like Stannard as author, however, the writer of these strange reports and postcards is seemingly oblivious to how strange the strange world he lives in is, and simply responds to it, although ‘Sometimes I think I think / too much’.

And if our narrator ‘can’t remember all the words I made / some notes’, let alone ‘remember what any of them mean’, then why should I as reader reviewer poet author writer friend critic? I am going to take several slow deep breaths and hope to sleep ‘like a badger in a badger box’, although I have idea what that will be like. ‘What else is there to say?’

Rupert Loydell 3rd February 2023

Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

I love Philip Terry’s poetry which is always inventive in a variety of ways. This short collection from the wonderfully miniature Red Ceilings Press is a peach, basing itself on ‘the chicago,’ a form developed via the Oulipo some time ago. The basic idea is that each short poem is made up of five lines and the final line, a homophonic ‘translation’ of a place name, person, animal etc. generates  the content of the previous lines and may be guessed by the reader. In each case, here at least, the final line appears at the end in a numbered key (50 lines) so you can choose to refer forward if you wish. It’s a game in effect and combines the idea of the Old English riddle with the more experimental methods developed by the Oulipo. One very positive effect of taking part is that the method generates creativity and ‘a zest for language’ as Alan Baker suggests in the back-cover quotation. Dip in and go with the flow and once you pick up the idea it’s great fun. Here are a few of the poems by way of example:

          1.

          Money money

          Cash cash

          Bread bread

          Sponz sponz

          (Dodo (Dough dough))

          17.

          Bishop close

          Archdeacon shut up

          Nun fasten

          Abbot enclose

          (Monk seal (Monk seal)) 

          23.

          Canary Islands swallow

          Easter Island gobbles

          Cook Islands pick at

          Channel Islands savour

          (Falkland Islands wolf) Falkland Islands wolf)) 

          33.

          Large sidewalk slug

          Great path beetle

          Colossal motorway snail

          Huge street fly

          (Giant rodent (Giant road ant)) 

          42.

          African arse

          Asian bottom

          American bum

          Antarctic posterior

          (European ass (European ass))

This is poetry as fun and it’s the mix of the formal limitations and the invention that can lead from this that can generate a love of language and playful experimentation that is in no way dry or exclusive. This sort of method is a great prompt to learning without too much pain and these poems are easy to dip in and out of and can provide a great antidote to boredom. There are other contemporary poets who work partly with similar methods, Giles Goodland, for example, whose occupation as a lexicographer stimulates a lot of his poetic output. Drew Milne’s ‘Eck’s Column’ is another example where the homophone really comes into its own with quite often hilarious results.

     As I’ve suggested these poems can provide a great stimulus to experimenting with language and discovering how strange and delightful the process can be. Highly recommended.

Steve Spence 1st February 2023  

A Census of Preconceptions by Oz Hardwick (Survision Books)

A Census of Preconceptions by Oz Hardwick (Survision Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert Loydell 9th January 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandy Pannett 18th December 2022

Far World From Silesia by Jeremy Hilton (Brimstone Press)

Far World From Silesia by Jeremy Hilton (Brimstone Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

close to the lake two men meet in a tent

men of renown, rescued and rescuer, roles reversed

one weary from hundreds of miles of his forces dying

hearing the groans and cries in a forest with no light

the other riding his steamboat with fresh supplies

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

out of the river dream the mystery spreads

growing into our very lives, the too soon deaths

pushing back the frontiers of our unknowing

hills and mountains to traverse, rivers to wade

forests to scramble through, stealing venom of snakes

roads leading skyward among the arrows and falcons

all down the drought-threatened flyways, flash

of a kingfisher in front of lakeside crags

and drown into the earth of an ancient hallowing

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

how is this throbbing

chaos, this crunch of bright and dark visions

tropical lightning sheeting crazy malarial nights

to be governed, to be granted the music of peace

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

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

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

Simon Collings 27th November 2022

Seige and Symphony by Myra Schneider (Second Light Publications)

Seige and Symphony by Myra Schneider (Second Light Publications)

     In her latest collection, Myra Schneider uses poetical language to investigate our difficult times. Her lines develop concerns and thoughts in expanded imageries that search for new paths. Her detailed observations give a clear and multi-layered vision of the arguments she explores. Nature is often at the fore and helps us to understand our situation and our role on the planet and what it means to be human. Environmental concerns and the everyday struggle to survive in this troubled period are therefore paramount; Schneider’s response is complex and expertly nuanced but eventually positive. We will survive despite conflicts, depression, oppressions, failures and fragilities and the damage we are inflicting on the planet. We will survive even though the situation may look hopeless. In the final lines of some of her poems the message about having faith in the renewal of humanity is constant and undeniable, allowing the reader to rethink and ponder on major issue with fresh eyes:

the light still reaching us from the early universe,

darkness splitting apart to let morning be born,

rain filling puddle and sea, the will to survive stored

in ovaries, love, minds mastering the beauty 

of mathematics, this poignant arch which rises

in the silence beyond the leaning walls of the nave.   (‘Cropthorne Church’)

in spite of hungers, uprootings, in spite of losses 

too deep to name, the will to live persists.     (‘Thrust’)

     Her words are generous and frank, ‘not fabrications easy as eiderdowns // that prettify lies’; they are passionate, ‘tough words’ that dissect and amplify meanings, unleashing the potential of the imagination. They defy darkness and celebrate colours, especially the colour green: 

[…] It’s a green spawned 

by the damp bedded in rotting logs and deep

leaf mush, a green that’s been so mothered

by light it banishes lighlessness, a green

more potent than the science which explains it,

a green which fills my mind, feeds my arteries,

a green that urges: never give up.         (‘Cushion Moss’)

     Some of the poems in the collection are ekphrases that evoke paintings by artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Stanley Spencer, J.M.W. Turner, Henri Rousseau and Henry Moore and prints by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The ekphrastic poems catch the essence of the artists’ message and go beyond it, playing freely with the pictures in loose, sensuous descriptions; they penetrate the inner meaning of the artwork, connecting with the poet’s experience in an exchange that creates memorable lines, such as those about the vitality of Hokusai’s ‘The Horse-Washing Waterfall’ in which ‘movement is everything.’ 

     The fourth section, ‘Siege and Symphony’, is dedicated to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major, also called ‘Leningrad’ as it was performed for the first time in Leningrad in March 1942 when the city was under siege by the Nazi army. The symphony became a symbol of resistance to oppression and totalitarianism. Half a million people died in the siege, which lasted more than two years. The symphony is considered to be a response to this invasion, though part of it was probably conceived before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The famous ‘invasion theme’ and later dramatic movements express the sufferings caused by tyranny and the resilient opposition to it. 

     Schneider’s long poem is formed of fifteen parts that retrace the story of the composition and of the performance, drawing inspiration from primary sources that add unexpected, interesting details to the narrative. The destruction of the war dramatically mingles with the quotidian the different characters experience. The poem also links to more recent conflicts, such as the Syrian war, encompassing ‘meanings / which travel far beyond Hitler’s war.’ Despair and chaos seem to pervade the music and the city, where ‘Bodies lie hard as rocks in the snow’ and ‘Death crouches in corners and doorways’. These conditions are reflected in the weakness of the conductor and the musicians, who are starving during the rehearsals and the final performance. The ending is moving and glorious: ‘utter silence, then a storm of clapping’ spread in the audience and beyond, reaching the German troops as well. Marigolds and cornflowers are offered at the end in a triumph of colours that envisages a more hopeful future. The poem therefore appropriately ends this multifaceted collection that addresses different and complex arguments; it encompasses personal experiences and global issues and suggests possible positive solutions in which humanity is eventually rescued from total destruction. The vision is compelling, passionate and compassionate. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 19th November 2022

The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

I love The Waste Land. My Dad, an engineer and aeronautical draughtsman who had retrained as a school teacher, was not a great reader of poetry, but he did like T.S. Eliot, and Eliot was one of the first poets I read for myself. I loved the incantatory nature of his writing, and the vivid imagery of the London, pub and river scenes in The Waste Land. Even studying the poem for English A Level didn’t put me off, although the pencilled translations and notes are still in the margins of my father’s copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems which I kept after he died.

Neither my own notes nor Eliot’s published ones do anything other than point elsewhere, offering a glossary of source materials, allusions and asides that doesn’t actually help understand or experience the poem, which I prefer to remain as a series of shifting scenes and episodes rooted in 20th Century London and Modernism. Others of Eliot’s poems work differently, and critical work that deconstructs or theologizes poems such as ‘Ash Wednesday’ or ‘The Four Quartets’ are more useful than those that impose a grand narrative on or reveal a hidden meaning in The Waste Land.

The title of Matthew Hollis’ book suggests that it offers a new approach to Eliot’s poem: I was intrigued by the notion of the biography of a poem rather than a poet. However, the subtitle is a misnomer; what we actually get is yet another sprawling biography of Ezra Pound, T.S. and Vivienne Eliot, and an account of their interactions with each other, publishers, writers, supporters, enemies and critics.

I’m really not sure what Hollis thinks his book is doing, or why he thinks Eliot’s interactions with the likes of the Bloomsbury Set are of particular interest. The book is often clunkily organised, with set scenes interspersed with both summative episodes and unwanted authorial commentary and scene setting. What are we to make of the fact that  ‘A hunter’s moon hung low over Margate’ (p. 290) or that ‘Pound took to life on the Left Bank’ (p. 278), or being told that ‘Something truly exceptional had taken place between Eliot, Pound and The Waste Land, something truly rare’ (p.362) ?

Pound’s editing and re-versioning of Eliot’s draft text is well-documented elsewhere, not least in the published volume of The Waste Land Facsimile, and much written about. I really don’t need Hollis to give me or the editing process his seal of approval! Better to look at versions of the text and think about how the language and form of the poems and overall sequence works, than offer banal context and vague approval.

There is, thankfully, some close reading and intelligent criticism on offer here, but not enough; time and time again we are returned to the geographical settings and (perceived or assumed) emotions of Eliot’s life, all too often in relationship to a revolving cast of characters whose biographical back stories are awkwardly dropped in for the reader before any action commences. The book made me dig out my copy of Kevin Jackson’s wonderful epistolic book Constellation of Genius, (Windmill Books, 2013) which wittily documents the international web of modernism, through the lives of artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, scientists and politicians throughout the year 1922.

I am glad The Waste Land continues to find readers and provoke new critical writing but, despite Hollis’ note that he has not drawn on previous biographies and has returned to original sources (and I am not accusing him of doing other than he claims), it mostly feels like an intelligent and thoughtful condensing and distillation of material that is already available. It’s engaging, mostly well-written stuff, but it needed to focus on the poem more, which surely is – along with other work by Eliot – what it’s all about? Pound gets it right in the 1966 quote which Hollis uses as one of the book’s epigraphs: ‘I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.’ 

Rupert Loydell 26th October 2022


Possibly a Pomegranate by Alwyn Marriage (Palewell Press)

Possibly a Pomegranate by Alwyn Marriage (Palewell Press)

The pomegranate with its abundant red seeds provides a perfect motif for these poems which are subtitled ‘A Celebration of Womanhood’ – a theme which Alwyn Marriage explores across different cultures through memory, creativity, and myth.

The theme of fruit is a constant in the collection. The title poem offers the fascinating suggestion that it may have been a pomegranate that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden but I was mostly intrigued by the background etymology that shows how the word malum, in Latin, is synonymous with both evil and apple – a confusion perpetuated by artists ‘down the ages’ who have given ‘flesh to the mythical fruit’ and displayed it as an apple in all its ‘juicy plumpness’.

These are the key words – ‘juicy plumpness’ – which reference birth and motherhood in Possibly a Pomegranate where women offer ‘breasts to infants’ and ‘feel/their life force flow’ (‘Saturday’s Child’). In the poem ‘Skin’ an infant that is ‘firm, plump, soft,’ snuggles up close to the narrator who inhales the ‘sweetness’ of the baby with its ‘perfume of a fig that’s ripe for eating.’

Poems in this collection describe growth, decline and renewal not only in womanhood but also in nature and its effect on emotions and knowledge. The poet considers ‘the mystery of life’ by discovering ‘the green heart/of the woods’ (‘Field Trip’), an experience which becomes visionary and mystical:

            Aware

-of air

            still when I am still

            moving when

            my body moves

            -of forest floor

            deep pile of leaves

            echoed here 

            in carpet, soft

            receptacle for feet

            -of this mysterious

            collection of particles

            translated into skin and bones,

            warm flesh and hair

            that’s open to everything

            that surrounds me,

            that is in me

            that is me

            breathing a world

            into existence

The aspect of Possibly a Pomegranate that most appeals to me is Alwyn Marriage’s skill in weaving and telling stories.  In the title poem she claims that ‘our oldest stories sometimes hold/more truth than history’ and emphasises ‘the creative mind/of generations’ that devise explanations ‘for the way things are’. Two narratives I particularly enjoy in the collection are ‘Finger four’ and ‘The clue lies in the lady’s toe’. The first is a memory of a teenage love, a song-like poem where the girl and Jimmy the young boy are singing while they are fishing and the hook on his line draws blood from the fourth finger of the girl’s left hand, her ‘ring’ finger, and this becomes ‘a faint reminder of a Scottish boy/who though he sang so sweetly on a sunny day,/failed to catch any fish, or me.’

The lady’s toe poem was written after seeing the bronze statue of a king and queen on a Scottish hillside and wondering about ‘the different texture of the metal on/the king’s right knee’ which is so smooth. The humorous conclusion to the poem comes in the final stanzas where a sheep, like a pilgrim kissing a statue of the virgin Mary, ‘sidles up to the impassive king/and meditatively rubs her rump/against his knee.’

Possibly a Pomegranate offers a wide range of tonal effects from the joyful to the poignant, the amusing to the profound. Throughout it is the observation of details, both quirky and everyday, that intrigue and fascinate – details as small as cherry stones uncovered amongst ‘flint and rubble’ in what was once a small town garden. Evidence, says the narrator, that ‘at least one person/on a number of occasions in summers long ago/sat in this garden spitting cherry stones.’

Alwyn Marriage has written a varied and enchanting collection here. It is finely produced by Palewell Press.

Mandy Pannett 25th October 2022

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