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Category Archives: English Poetry

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

Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

This is a book, I might say, that is both challenging and highly accomplished. Wilkinson gives few concessions to the wavering reader without compromise. To take the opening poem, ‘Download’, this starts out,-

                        Unruffled by the breeze, water holds steady state.

                                   It must soon be shook, which mind is

                        shattering from black, white and brown,

                        into a leaf-fall flurry, green, red and gold:

                                                 yes, in time, understood       (‘Download’ p9)

Plainly, syntactically and semantically there is a lot going on here, and the phrasing is edifyingly rich even where it might be elusive. The first person is missing, we have the ‘it’ of water, but also the veiled omission of a prospective third person who will ‘shake the water’, presumably. The ‘mind’ mentioned initially plainly retains to the water also, but can be picked up. The understood in time notation seems quite apt, this is the kind of writing that benefits from rereading and commentary. A first reading certainly brings a good amount of sense to it, and the linguistic dexterity of it is unmistakable.

The writing in a sense is plainly not transparent; it is quite thickly elaborated. One can’t help but wonder if this is part of the show or shine of well honed syntactic delivery, not at all giving much easily away. How often, for instance, does anyone speak of water being in a ‘steady state’? It is a matter of rhetoric and affect. 

Another poem further along ‘Burnt’ p21, has an intriguing formulation,-

                                               Draw back, chilled or burnt,

                                                the threads of destiny entangle,

                        hot wax drips on them and cools to affirm

                        simply where we are, each one their personal seal.   (p21)

This is highly indicative of Wilkinson’s style. As for ‘each one’ plainly no one is writing quite like this, not even, say, Keston Sutherland, with whom one might find some stylistic parallels. The use of language again is highly condensed. Wilkinson it could be said is highly economical, little goes to waste. Another citation that tends to bring out Wilkinson’s assertiveness is ‘This /cannot fit, must not…We own it all deniably.’ (p59) of ‘Stop-Out’.

With Wilkinson’s strong sense of rhetoric it is this that I take most from the poem, its apparent uniqueness in this regard. The poem includes a number of ‘Impromptus’ that are in a brisker, more effusive style, which makes for some contrast. Nonetheless the density of the language and its elusiveness of referent in places does tend to make it a difficult read. 

I can’t help but feel, however, that Wilkinson’s ‘personal seal’ tends to move to an inaccessibility and coolness to the writing that somehow uninvites reconsideration. Partly of course this is down to personal style. Wilkinson I think essentially is a highly assertive writer, should one suggest much more the expressionist than the impressionist, which is perhaps where some differences in my reading preferences fall.

That said, the craft of the writing is undeniable, and Wilkinson plies his syntactic originality and versatility with much flexibility and finesse. A question that remains is whether one must write like this, with an attendant density and elusiveness, or whether more transparency is at all possible. And equally if the density reaches certain levels, one wonders if the pay off satisfies the expense. There needs to be some kind of way in for the reader rather than simply marvelling at the verbal acrobatics. So, this is undoubtedly a book of considerable rhetorical fluency and really I suspect does send language use out to limits, less reflective and more of assertion and conviction. 

Clark Allison 9th June 2021

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

All the Shades of Grief by Ellora Sutton (Nightingale & Sparrow)

In this vibrant debut pamphlet, Ellora Sutton excavates grief to discover the beautiful, the ugly, the playful and the startling. One could argue that mourning is much-explored terrain in poetry, covered by poets throughout the ages, from Shakespeare to Emily Berry in her acclaimed 2017 collection Stranger, Baby yet Sutton’s pamphlet brings new truths about grief and its countless ‘shades’ to the table.

Sutton’s imagery is bold and striking. The pamphlet opens with the visceral: ‘Darling – / if I could, I’d dislocate my jaw like one of those snakes / and float my soul out to you’, and with the speaker crying ‘molten gold’. Later, there is a dead badger ‘spangled with flies’, an empty pickled onion crisp packet ‘squeezed until (it is) a dead rat’, a portrait of loss as ‘a passport with a corner cut’, a woman in the moon tucked up like ‘a sweet red adzuki bean’, a radio that forecasts rain ‘before demonstrating / beautifully / with Mozart’. This confidence in use of imagery and metaphor – the ability to convincingly declare that a horse ‘melts / to a Greek chorus on the bank’ – is enthralling. 

The narrative arc moves unapologetically from mythology and folklore to ekphrasis responding to the work of the Old Masters, Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Perhaps this mirrors the mercurial state of grief; the dysregulation of emotions following a loss, and the suddenness of a shift from one feeling to another. In ‘The Five Stages of Grief’, the Kubler-Ross module is translated from clinical to visual, with each stanza conveying a stage of grief. Even if one is not familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – each stanza reveals each stage through concrete imagery as clearly as if the stages were named: the second stanza refers to an unsatiated urge ‘to punch walls’ in which the speaker’s ‘knuckles / do not bloom to corsages’. The final is ambiguous as to whether or not acceptance is relieving: whilst the stanza begins with the sun, how ‘The syrup of it / still warms me / through the cobwebs / and glass’, it ends with the horizon as a ‘scab’. Religion is tackled in ‘Flying Ants’, in which ‘the sunrise (is) the absolute beginning, / and sunset an utter myth’, and a girl watching the ants fly is ‘still as an idol’ and ‘a prehistoric monument to a deity, long defunct and bored with her reams of pointless forever’. Perhaps we are all flying ants in ‘the yawning drain-mouth of late afternoon’, and to the ages, our lives are as fleeting.

Dedicated to the memory of Sutton’s mother, the work communes with women throughout time. In ‘I Became the Wolf’, the Bible meets fairy tale when Little Red Riding Hood ‘sheds’ her cloak and remembers ‘before the wood’, ‘a woman naked in a forest / with an apple and a fig leaf’. Both stories reflect that ‘A girl, by nature, is a wild thing’. Witchcraft becomes a feature in ‘Ghazal for a Black Cat’, where ‘Fireworks refract dreams onto dustbin lids, / and it is all just fish to her, black cat’, and in ‘Coven / Transfiguration’, where characters ‘skin hares for their eyes / and feet’, and ‘The love is violet strong’. Much like in Julia Copus’s poem ‘The Great Unburned’ from her 2019 collection Girlhood, witchcraft is a symbol of female empowerment. All the Shades of Grief is both a celebration of and an elegy for female relationships, from the romantic, such as in ‘I Fall in Love with the Women in Paintings’, to the maternal in ‘Orbuculum’ where the speaker writes ‘I carry the weight of my mother on my chest’, and each breast is ‘a crystal ball’. The pamphlet engages with Sylvia Plath, whose influence is palpable throughout, not least in those that mention her by name – ‘On Sylvia Plath’s 87th Birthday’, ‘the moon is a gravestone with half the name keyed off’ and the ‘yew tree, / nursing the light like a horse breaking hot air, / is a boot print on the neck of the dark’, and ‘the wind howls red hair’. This weaving of Plath’s images is an echoing conversation between two grievers.

This pamphlet allows that grief, and its emotions are not to be avoided, but rather acknowledged, processed, and where possible, embraced: that ‘Tears are not snares around throats but dances / honest dances’. This is fresh, evocative work.

Olivia Tuck 7th June 2021

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

This unassuming, slightly chunky book delivers far more than its undemonstrative cover design might intimate. It is essentially a sampler of what Broken Sleep Books got around to doing in 2020, and some 24 poets are presented along with five examples of prose or nonfiction. It strikes me as pretty remarkable actually, the novelty and standard of writers represented. The publisher is using on demand printing. There is a mantra, ‘Lay out your unrest’, a good one to ponder over. But there is no mission statement nor any commentary on the writers appearing here. They are arranged chronologically according to date of publication and each writer gets approximately about 8 pages, give or take.

So perhaps first off, the grade of contributor quality is satisfyingly met if not exceeded. This, naturally, is a long way from a Faber or a Picador. The press I’m most reminded of is Knives Forks and Spoons. And by that, that Broken Sleep are largely dealing with newcomers and fringe activity. They haven’t quite yet settled with any ‘house’ authors whom they might wish to centre on or prioritise. Also, Aaron Kent is an able publisher but I wonder if he has other interests; he has a great way of identifying talent, but is that centred on literature or perhaps on other media. I think some of us are wondering about YouTube, just to cite one prominent hub of activity.

The book leaves the reader with a dilemma. Surely, all these tantalising excerpts are most entertaining and thought provoking to encounter, but which of these 28 assembled authors would one want to know more about. Being newcomers, few names are readily identifiable. 

And this appetite for novelty attends both to form and content. Some contributors are formally highly adventurous. And the range of subject matter is wide including an amount of risqué material, even in our age of unshockable indifference.

I’d perhaps venture that Kent is not getting behind a particular style of writing as such but rather more a sort of sensibility, a state of attitude or mind, that is slightly offkey, an amount of radical departure from what would ordinarily be expected. Looking with a new perspective is some hint, although the waters can become a little uncertain.

The layout prescribes that no one or more authors is highlighted or given unusual prominence. Two I particularly liked were Jonny Wiles, quite radical formally, and Alex Mazey, who is promulgating a Baudrillardian vision of consumerist society. The book both begins and ends well. The conclusion, a most unexpected short discourse on the rhinoceros in classical literature by Luke Thompson is quite fascinating. The opening by Emilee Moyce is actually reasonably indicative of what to expect. Her opening poem ‘Over the Moon’ concludes;-

            I felt that I was floating,

            my eyes no longer burned, and I slept

            until the sun came and went away again,

            waking only when the moon called my name.  (p12)

which in its mode of narrating is suitably moonstruck and, I think, quite original.

There are numerous edifying passages like this scattered through the anthology. I am reminded again that its design is highly understated, with few real hints of what to expect, although the plug from Andrew McMillan isn’t far off in speaking of an ‘exciting, and vital press in the dreamscape of UK publishing’. A valuable find, then, and I certainly hope that Aaron Kent, our editor, finds his way in the creative sphere, and there might be some anticipation as to where he heads next. 

Clark Allison 5th June 2021

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

I have always admired Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, particularly his Anglo-Saxon translations, so it is a pleasure to read and review Gravity for Beginners, his first new collection for six years. An additional delight is the setting – mysterious, atmospheric Norfolk with its wealth of legends.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rilke which sets the mood for the theme of ‘times past’ and the sense of magic. ‘This is the heart of everything that ever was’ is the first line and it is also the heart of Gravity for Beginners.

The epigraph is followed by nine parts of a sequence called ‘Seahenge: A Journey’ and we begin a journey through an emotional and geographical landscape established by pieces whose titles themselves are poem-like: ‘Tump’, ‘Deadheaded’, Unliving’, Shimmer’. ‘Tree’, ‘Altar’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Tides’, ‘Burden’. Here the journey begins with ‘a search for a thumbnail of pottery’ that will remind the narrator of his belief that he was ‘an inmate of the barrow’ that once existed and whose echoes can still be heard:

         Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen,

         footfalls through forests bedded

         with cones and needles:

         knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men,

         truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees

         still resting here.

The sequence explores the background to Seahenge – a timber circle of oak trunks with a huge, upside-down one at its centre. Here a young woman relates how she helped to build the circle and lay the body of her father inside it and here the atmosphere becomes ancestral, pagan, violent and ritualistic. We are in the realm of a ‘white skull, green earth, swarming sea’. This is the site of a ‘crossing place’ where ‘time and ‘dream’ have re-mapped the original henge ‘into another truth’ where the narrator is able:

         Wholly to immerse myself

         wholly to find myself.

Gravity for Beginners, like all of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, is imbued with myth, history and the still-living past where wide steps are ‘scalloped by centuries of hooves’. (‘The New Familiar’). These lines from ‘The Northern Gods’ particularly appeal to me:

         Have you ever dreamed you were sitting in the bole

         of Yggdrasill, squinting up at the skull

         of the white sky, then down into the icy swirl?

         Have you heard the vitriol of the dragon,

         the corpse-devourer, and seen how the squirrel

         whisks it up to the eagle on the topmost branch?

There’s humour as well as lyricism in ‘L’Abbaye-Château de Camon’ where the ‘rondel/ of the seasons seems to spin faster’ and the breath of the medieval queen Aliénor ‘is always here/or hereabouts, trailing her wailing/retinue of troubadours.’

But this whole collection is a journey and in ‘En Route’ we are reminded there’s ‘always some unscheduled halt/with its attendant wonders’ which may be:

         The marvellous or the monstrous

         but more often the humdrum 

  • a reclamation yard, or the smell

of an autumn bonfire; this siding, say,

choked with dusty purple nettles,

an ochre butterfly flickering over them.’

There is a sense of wonder throughout Gravity for Beginners and this brings me back to the starting point of Rilke’s lines about the way ‘the heart of everything … returns to each of us, our very being,/woven into us.’ Kevin Crossley-Holland invites the reader to share in the essence behind the appearance, to see the landscape behind the words.  The collection’s title poem sums this up:

         Words slipping into the mind’s casket,

         quick rain falling to attending earth.

Or maybe the essence and wonder is best expressed in this, my favourite poem, ‘Winter as it Used To Be’:

         Birds flew in searching for seed

         and all at once became snowflakes;

         as words do.

         A burst of sunlight, an angel’s aureole,

         and then mist; and the trees,

         and our singing selves made of morning air.

Mandy Pannett 31st May 2021

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