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Category Archives: English Prose

Jane’s Country Year by Malcolm Saville (Handheld Press)

Jane’s Country Year by Malcolm Saville (Handheld Press)

Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Five books were part of my growing up, a more literate successor (along with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books) to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, which I loved but raced through. Saville never got much recognition for his writing for children, and only recently did I discover the Lone Pine Five paperbacks I collected (and still have) often had a quarter or more of the story removed since their initial hardback publications.

There are several publishers in recent years who have been reprinting out-of-print books, marketing them to nostalgic adults keen to revisit their past, but Handheld Books – who are new to me – are not one of these. Until now they have been reissuing books by the likes of Rose Macualay, John Buchan, Sylvia Townsend Warner and other authors I have never heard of. But their ‘Handheld Classic 24’ is this stand-alone novel-come-nature book by Saville.

It’s a beautiful edition, with reproductions of the original illustrations included, and a new foreword contextualising the 1946 story for 21st Century readers. Hazel Sheeky Bird makes links between Saville and the likes of Blyton, notes his critical neglect, but also details how important the likes of Richard Jefferies’ book Bevis was to Saville. 

Organised into twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, Jane is sent to recuperate on her uncle’s farm after a long illness in the city. There, she not only becomes well but is introduced to nature, farming, and country life, making new friends and gaining information as she goes. From the first few pages on there is a sense of wonder at the open spaces, the weather, and how people live. Her inquisitiveness is informed by her new friends, the shepherd, the farm labourer – who she at first thinks is a tramp, and the Parson’s family, not to mention her aunt and uncle.

Some of these ‘information drops’ are a little awkward, but they are redeemed by the knowledge a reader gains, and the overall narrative arc; and Bird notes that explanatory notes which were added to later editions have been removed for this edition, which returns the book to its original form. The other slight problem is the sometimes condescending and clichéd description of villagers and workers as plain simple folk, somehow more honest, open and true than the city or town folk who live where Jane and her parents live.

It is also an era where farmers were farmers, not industrial livestock or vegetable producers. Jane’s uncle keeps sheep, grows vegetables, and milks and slaughters his cattle; although he goes to market, works hard and works his employees hard, the focus of his work is what his land can produce to sustain his family and those who work on it, whilst looking after his fields and animals.

Saville did not write this novel as a polemic though, he wanted to tell a story that engaged his readers, and saw the lead character Jane, get well, mature, and learn. The pace is varied as suits the changing seasons, with some wonderful set scenes around events such as first lambing, harvest, the local fair and Christmas, various interactions with other people, and a number of epistolic sections which reproduce Jane’s letters to her (rather distant) parents. The pace is gentle and meandering, the story fairly simple, but Saville sustains the mood of engagement and wonder throughout. The pictures are a genuine bonus, and I greatly enjoyed learning about the recent historical past, however romanticised, and sharing the delight of Jane’s year in the country.

Rupert Loydell 8th January 2023

Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship by Sister

Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship by Sister

In the 1990s Sister Wendy Beckett, a contemplative nun, became the unlikely presenter of a series of BBC television programmes on the visual arts and author of a number of art books. She was often the subject of – sometimes warm-hearted, sometimes not – parody and ridicule, especially after one particular TV moment which saw her fondling the testicles of a life-size statue of a bull. These parodies and homages included the anarchic Sister Windy Bucket, the cross-dressing Sister Beatrice, and Postcards from God, a musical.

Her Sunday School demeanour and somewhat simplistic religious take on art did not endear her to everyone, but in person she was very different. At the 1990’s The Journey art exhibition and conference in Lincoln, she was a charismatic speaker and a sociable and engaged delegate who charmed everyone present. In a couple of brief notes she sent to me soon afterwards, she enthused about everything from the food (which was mediocre at best!) to the other speakers and ensuing talks and discussions, as well as the exhibited work itself. 

The Journey was organised by artist Garry Fabian Miller, and a couple of years later Stride published Honesty, a book of his photographic plant images accompanied by five Sister Wendy texts. The book was launched in a London gallery and Sister Wendy turned out for the event and set to signing limited edition copies. She sat with my mother behind the sales table, joking and chatting with her and our book buyers, whilst consuming a surprising amount of white wine. That was the last time I met her in person, but once again I received a few short letters afterwards, enthusiastic and uplifting, one accompanied by a short pamphlet she had previously written about prayer.

Robert Ellsberg got to know Sister Wendy much later on. They wrote to each other from 2016 until her death in 2018, and Dearest Sister Wendy… is a book extracted from a much larger correspondence. Ellsberg does, or did, his best to coax Sister Wendy into an in-depth conversation, opening up himself to her before she takes the bait and enters into true dialogue.

I say true dialogue, but actually much of what both sides write is religious platitudes: breathless thank you for each others’ letters, ‘being touched’ by, ‘rejoicing in’, supporting each others’ sufferings, and the sharing of dreams (always a bad sign in my opinion). There is little depth or actual questioning or debate going on here; Sister Wendy appears almost zen-like in her self-abnegation, and everything that happens is simply God’s will and that is pretty much the end of it, her response is not needed. The most interesting part of the book for me is the slow change of Sister Wendy’s attitude to the rebellious writer and monk Thomas Merton, whom she initially criticises for not following his monastic order’s rules, but gradually warms to, mostly as the result of Ellsberg’s gently persuasive arguments and observations.

Maybe it’s just me, but Sister Wendy’s acceptance and inability to discuss things except in terms of her untroubled Christian belief, makes for alien and uncomfortable reading. I long for some doubt, some questioning, some discussion of art in terms of colour, form, weight, pattern, creativity, not as an enabler of some simplistic mini-sermon related to a picture’s ‘content’. Ellsberg is the editor-in-chief of Orbis books, and in some ways this publication feels like an indulgence, a view supported by his constant mentions of books he has published or will be publishing soon, and the autobiographical stories he weaves in to his published letters. I prefer to remember Sister Wendy’s crooked smile, wine glass in hand, as she chatted amiably to the people around her in Lincoln and London; Ellsberg’s depiction of a saintly, retiring and somewhat pious and dull correspondent does her a disservice.

Rupert Loydell 3rd November 2023

Betrayals by Ian Seed (Like This Press)

Betrayals by Ian Seed (Like This Press)

The fifteen short prose pieces in Betrayals delineate the story of a young English man living in northern Italy between Ivrea and Turin in the 1980s. The story is a follow-up and a rewriting of Italian Lessons (Like This Press, 2017) that has a different tone and is from a different perspective. Betrayals is a rethinking that meditates on the perception of relationships in a more personal way. The short prose pieces look like chapters that trace chronologically the Italian experience which is centred on the protagonist’s job as an English teacher in a high school and on his relationship with his Italian lover, Donatella.

     The relationship starts as an occasional encounter in a discotheque in an atmosphere of déjà-vu that mimics movies’ romantic scenes:

Her eyes caught mine; she smiled with a strange mixture of shyness and cheekiness. She held out her glass to me. I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes. […] 

I took the glass from her hand, drank a sip, gave her the glass back. Was it my imagination or was she really leaning her face towards mine?

     They meet regularly at weekends and spend their time in bed ‘making love, sleeping, making love again.’ For the protagonist, falling in love with Donatella is like falling in love with Italy, with its blue summer sky and its strong coffee. Both Donatella and the protagonist are searching for self-discovery. Donatella works as an accountant but hates her job; she has artistic talents and is well-read but abandoned her dreams as she was aware that she would never have the opportunity to fulfil them. Her father died when she was a little girl and she could not go to university as she has to support her mother and her brother with her wages. The protagonist seems to have a more available future. He completed his university studies before moving to Italy and is free to approach life in a more open way. The Italian adventure seems to give him the answers to his yearnings, though it will soon reveal the incomprehensible side of love. His inexperience exposes his naivete but also triggers a reflection that will lead him to acquire a maturity of sorts. He relies on Donatella’s support as she helps him find a job and a flat, and she also pays the deposit. However, their relationship unexpectedly deteriorates as soon as his life seems to settle. She is trapped in her family, which depends on her, and he is trapped in a job that he cannot quit because he needs to pay the rent and give back to Donatella the money that she paid for the deposit. Their love-making sessions become less frequent and are not as idyllic as before. What can he make of it? Love seemed smooth and clear at first, but it has suddenly become a tangle of misunderstandings; it is elusive and delusive for no apparent reason. Why isn’t life like a Hollywood movie in which everything is finally explained and all ends well? Why are the pains of love so excruciating and unfathomable? The circumstances betray the genuine emotions the protagonist feels, revealing their illusory essence. Therefore, the title of the book not only refers to his cheating on Donatella but more widely to a condition of feeling betrayed that he experiences.

     When the protagonist occasionally has sex with women he encounters after the estrangement in his relationship with Donatella, he experiences a sense of displacement, a ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’, as Rimbaud would express it. However, the experience is not poetically dramatic, as it is in the French poet’s work. Instead, he wanders around without a direction, deciding not to choose what to do but to just let things happen to him, like in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, though again the exceptional side of the experience is understated and there is no intention to set an example, as there is in Baudelaire’s work. Life flows effortlessly and is unjustified:

This is the first of several betrayals of Donatella since officially we are still together. On my wanderings around the city, chance encounters sometimes happen, and these sometimes lead to sex. They are the only thing that keeps me going. They become my raison d’être. That, and starting to read Italian literature in Italian. Here, I sense, there is a world to keep exploring for a long time to come.

     Eventually, Donatella realises he is cheating on her and a melodramatic scene follows in which she weeps and beats his chest with her fists at a bus stop, and he weeps too. The story sounds humorous, like in Commedia all’italiana, comedy in the Italian way. However, there is a pervading sense of a void, an atmosphere of being in limbo that is different from the hell evoked in Rimbaud’s and Baudelaire’s works and is nearer to Eugenio Montale’s collection of short prose pieces Farfalla di Dinard (The Butterfly of Dinard, 1956) in which the Italian poet expresses his disillusionment caused by misunderstandings in relationships and his visceral incapacity to grasp the reason for the different situations he encounters in life. In the end there is no answer and no meaning to our unforgivably misplaced beliefs and unabating faith in trying to make sense of our world and of our life. The protagonist survives the Italian experience, pays back the deposit money to Donatella and ‘cannot wait to go back to England’ with his wealth of unsettling experiences. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 30th October 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


England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

Which writer is not at some level engaged with place, landscape, mythology, folklore and stories? It may be overt, it may be in opposition to established histories or geographies, it may be about colonisation, rebellion or immigration, it may be about revisiting the past and present through the lens of gender, sexuality or identity, it might simply creep into our writing because we all live somewhere and hear and see things others don’t.

England on Fire is subtitled A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape, the kind of phrase that smacks of vague New Age mysticism and woolly religious philosophies. It doesn’t do itself many favours by this kind of labelling, because the book – an anthology of carefully curated images accompanied by Mat Osman’s poetic prose – is much harder-edged and interesting than that subtitle and dour cover with a deer-headed figure against a circle of light suggests.

Stephen Ellcock talks about research, intuition, pattern making and collage in the brief authors’ biographies at the start of the book, all creative processes I can relate to. The book is in 12 themed chapters or sections, each evocatively titled (‘Out of Darkness’, ‘Weeds & Wildness’, ‘Rebellious Nature’, ‘Acardia’), each a cluster of beautifully reproduced painting, photos, prints, sculptures or drawings, each opening with a few hundred words from Osman, who responds to Ellcock’s themes through tangent, metaphor and storytelling.

Osman also supplies a more straightforward, if slightly polemical, ‘Introduction’, where he explains how ‘Stephen juxtaposes and weaves imagery around itself, teasing out narratives and finding wild connections in a kind of visual language’, suggesting that the project is politicised, ‘a very English rebellion of the nameless many against the privileged few’, and uses ‘a language that speaks to England’s subconscious’. Heady stuff! But fair enough, although Osman seems to find the images in here more unknown and obscure than I do.

Anyway, what do we get? To start with there is George Frederick Watts’ swirl of creation, swiftly followed by John Martin’s apocryphal ‘The Deluge’, William Blake, Arthur Rackham, Ken Kiff, Samuel Palmer, an Anglo-Saxon brooch, a photographic stereograph of ‘The Devil’s Chimney’, Norman Palmer and one of Madge Gill’s channeled spirit works on paper. This wonderful visual cornucopia is repeated throughout the book, with still from Derek Jarman’s Avebury film, fairy photographs, Notting Hill carnival images, Richard Dadd’s asylum paintings, landscape photography, mazes, the changing face of ‘Settlements’, until we get to the final section ‘Visions’. Here, Osman becomes ecstatic:

   ENGLAND IS A FIREWORKS DISPLAY
   THAT SETS THE NIGHT ABLAZE

   […]

   And us? We are flame-lit and bonfire
   -warmed. We walk in beauty like the night,
   secure in the knowledge that everything
   grows better after a wildfire […]

   England is a firework that burns forever.

Shooting stars, ‘thought forms’ erupting from a cathedral tower, abstract psychedelic inkjet prints, John Martin again, sunsets by George Shaw and Francis Danby… and then Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, The Emanation Of The Giant Albion’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Older Light’, a heavenly figure radiating light into the darkness.

Elsewhere, scarecrows, the green man, corn figures, bonfires, dragons, druids, the Padstow Obby Oss, witches, mummers, along with Punch & Judy appear; as do ruined buildings, masks, stained glass and documentary photos from Rock Against Racism. This is Albion, an imaginary and hyper-real version of England, in all its glory. A land where races mingle and co-habit, magic and religion co-exist, as do ritual and science, poetry and song, humans, ghosts and imaginary creatures. I wish it said Britain, not England (maybe that’s just me being PC – England seems so non-inclusive) but this new book is inspirational and thought provoking, part documentary, part challenge, part of the ongoing change we are living through: ‘England is an immigrant song that changes us with every singing.’

Rupert Loydell 21st May 2022


Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

The Release by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman Books)

The Release by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman Books)

This is a very vital work for a variety of reasons. Prose and poetry are juxtaposed and interrelated as Jeremy Hooker acknowledges he has occasionally undertaken since his Welsh Journal (2001) and it is very revelatory in that regard. The prose records four visits to hospital Hooker, nearing 80, experienced having been affected by a serious kidney condition, and by the end we find he is not yet receiving but anticipating dialysis. The play of the book is between hospital diaries and poems Hooker wrote during the same passage of time, and it is fascinating to note the mutual influences, one upon or against the other.

     There is a long opening stretch of prose, about 30 pages, which can acculturate the reader to Hooker’s style and voice. Here one very pertinent assertion is made early on where our author cites Barry Lopez saying that ‘All great art tends to draw us out of ourselves.’ (p16) Lest this seem to work against the ego, and Hooker admits he is not fond of psychologising, Freudian or otherwise, elsewhere he does assert that our self, ego or individuality is what distinguishes us from other species, albeit that Hooker is very much in tune and sympathy with the aims and attitude of ecopoetry.

Although Hooker’s voice tends to the open, good natured and optimistic, he does cite a quote used by John Cottingham from Malebranche ‘To myself I am but darkness’ (p63). He also asserts elsewhere our relative inability to know ourselves, maintaining in a religious mode that only God can know us fully; but Hooker is very much more spiritual and earthy than he is religious.

Hooker is perhaps fortunate in the sense of seeming to be relatively untroubled; if there is a darkness to the self he seems quite reconciled to it, and few doubts or veerings off are encountered, the disposition of the prose is reassuringly positive and stable. We hear about the occasional ‘bad night’ or indeed ‘a night when I thought I might die’ (p11) but not lengthy details or dwellings upon it. 

     This then makes for a very interesting reader experience. We are as it were allowed access to the ground and forming of the poems, besides which the prose is also highly engaging, albeit that there is anxiety about the seriousness of his condition. In hospital he needs help with movement, sometimes spending long spells in his chair, and with bathing, and is fitted with a catheter. Nonetheless he remains mentally highly alert, and most of the poems are thoughtful, vivid and well formed. I’d regard it as a brave gesture to risk such a precarious journal, given that things could not unequivocally be expected to have a positive outcome; this revelatory predilection is generous and emotionally frank, almost unsparing.

     From the prose we are given quite a bit not just of Hooker’s daily activities, and he seemed to enjoy having a window side bed when that happened, and indeed he has a moving poem ‘In Praise of Windows’, some references to his reading and listening, radios 3 and 4, but also his attitude to poetry in general, albeit in passing, but adding up to a kind of orientation. He speaks movingly of his admiration of David Jones, Keats, Lawrence and Edward Thomas, although he cautioned against the ‘danger of Thomas worship’ (p18). Hooker favours the existential, experience, sense perception, even touch, but is pretty much opposed to what he alludes to as system building or excessive idealism. He is unabashed at identifying himself as keeping a poet’s notebook, and some of the nurses found him ‘posh’, though surely not aloof.

Among the selection of poems we conclude with two dedicated to his great grandson Archie. As Hooker says ‘You will not know me,/ Archie, unless in a poem’ (p94). ‘A squib for Archie’ is quite a strong final volley, where he reflects on the peculiar contrariness of death and birth, age and youth, ‘a generation of Toads,/ bouncing in buggies…ferocious with innocence’ who ‘mean no harm’ but ‘intend no good’. Whereupon the final lines here,

            ‘So beware, oldies,

            dads, grandpas, great

            grandfathers.

            Step aside, and instead

            of falling, wave as they pass.’ (p95)

and, again, Hooker seems unpessimistic at the mutual incomprehension of succeeding generations, particularly in these changing times.

That Hooker has chosen to be so open about his life at a vulnerable or challenging time I take some reassurance from; the effect is unusual, unanticipated and intrinsically human. It did take a little while to get into Hooker’s poetic voice after the opening 30 pages, but the poems are assuredly well fashioned full of insight, engagement and verve. It is intriguing to reflect on how the poetry and prose differ, certainly, could one deduce one from the other, well probably not, which is one thing that makes this book enlightening. This is a very candid and gently provocative book that I can’t help but feel breaks new ground where others might follow.

Clark Allison 11th January 2022

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised of a series of ninety-five vignettes, mostly single page length, the shortest being two lines long. An epigram by Samuel Beckett is appropriate for the content: ‘It’s all a muddle in my head, graves and nuptials and the different varieties of motion.’ The reader is treated to snapshots views of the author’s family, his schooldays, his days in the youth club or drinking in the bikers’ club. Music and records provide a backcloth to lost chances, lost loves, and there is a whole string of early jobs in a fish shop, the Co Op, a packaging firm, Samuel the jeweller and Harrison Drape, the factory for curtain accessories where he drove a forklift truck ‘because it was the best of a shit job’ but nearly lost life and limb when it toppled off a ramp as he reversed it. Most of these jobs ended with him being escorted off the premises because of too many days going awol or putting himself on flexitime. One vignette describes a romantic interlude with a first love when he phoned up pretending to be snowbound in Devon so that ‘we spent the morning warm under thin blankets, feeding each other fresh strawberries dipped in cream, mouth-to-mouth.’

Throughout, the writing is detailed but concise with pithy comments. Sunday evenings in boyhood were spent watching a BBC serial ‘with bonnets and sideburns and Mum would provide us with plates of pilchard sandwiches.’ There are layers of implication in this remark about the siblings: ‘My elder sister resented my presence, my younger brother had blue eyes and curly blond hair.’ The tone is consistently laconic such as this one: ‘One year we won a goldfish at the Mop … by the time we got it home the goldfish was dead.’ Or there is this analysis of a relationship: ‘I am with a woman. We lived together, she went away, we lived together, we can’t anymore, so how does this work now?’ A comment on another relationship, many years later with a film maker, is equally downbeat and anti-climactic when he remembers her with nostalgia and thinks how good it would be to reminisce together ‘so I look her up, send her an email and hear nothing back.’

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these vignettes is Charlie Hill’s skill is creating a sense of time and place. Scenes of life in Birmingham are evoked:

‘I live in inner-city Balsall Heath with outlaws, dole-ites and artists and get a job with a packaging firm. The packaging firm is in Tysely, a fraying patchwork of factory estates and boarded-up pubs. I smoke among the cardboard boxes in the warehouses … After managing an office consisting of me all day, I come home to a house full of New Age travellers chopping speed … and a tea of Special Brew and noodles.’ 

A passage I find especially evocative is set in India where the author has gone in search of his girl friend:

‘We sit on flat roofs and look at the cows and the billboards advertising toothpaste. From the Ganges we hear incantations, while in the narrow street below men play chess. There is a festival on and the sky is full of bright kites, darting like sprats, stitching the sky with messages of devotion. She says it would be a nice idea if we get married. I demur.’

Subtle humour and I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is rich in it. But it’s humour with an undertone of the bitter-sweet, the nostalgic and poignant. This a book I loved reading. Unforgettable.

Mandy Pannett 11th 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 

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha by Sally-Shakti Willow (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Atha is part of Sally-Shakti Willow’s PhD in Utopian Poetics, and indeed reads more like a practical experiment than a poetry collection. The volume begins with some explanatory pages which could have been taken out of a literary theory textbook, explaining Utopian Poetics. The idea is that Utopian Poetics is a medium of meditation ‘in which one encounters one’s embodied and intersubjective self’, which I understand as experiencing oneself, as in a mindfulness or yoga routine. Willow calls this ‘non-alienation’, and the poem ‘performs and anticipates the possibility of non-alienation, whilst operating within the alienation of this world’. This thesis itself rests on more familiar territory for the post-structuralist: ‘Poems need readers to live. Poems need writers to give them form’, essentially a ‘Death of the Author’-esque reader-response theory about the sovereign control of the reader.

The poems, sometimes stimulated by an image, wind in and around the theme of the body, branching out to the external matters that surround the body and penetrate through the mind. The poems resemble a yoga routine in that they attempt to ground their musings in the body, in an attempt to process and then expel or internalize broader topics. One poem repeats the question ‘how to metabolise this’, foregrounding the idea of a bodily digestion, a literal stomaching of the outer world. This conceit works well, and matches the theme of meditation, questioning the possibility of how we live, thrive off, and in that sense ingest the outer world when its iniquities might otherwise poison or corrupt.

Unfortunately, often these poems swiftly turned into the author’s personal tract against specific, perceived evils of the world, singled out with strange selectiveness. War, or violence, or the manifold crookedness that we see in ourselves and individuals as much as in the world around us, does not get a hearing. Meanwhile, fracking, immigration (and Brexit, of course) are presented as universal evils and goods. It is ironic that a poetic mode whose purpose is be a ‘non-violent’ place of ‘non-oppression’, supposedly a ‘function of openness and multiplicity’ ends up being heavily contrived, controlled and didactic. This descent to a sugar-coated attempt to aggrandize one’s own narrow political interpretation certainly sticks in the throat. The result is that, unless you are perfectly aligned with the poet on what is good and bad in our immediate socio-political climate, you will probably struggle to reach Willow’s utopia, which rather undermines what is meant to be a poetry of inclusiveness. Moreover, despite borrowing techniques and concepts from the East, the poems ended up being very Western-centric. The multiplicity and openness of the poetics is thus let down by these spasms of self-righteousness. It is a shame that the arts world has come to expect, and accept, such pompous tunnel-vision.

The general conceit showed promise of an interesting and refreshing insight into the way subjects interact with the world, reconciling mind with body and then mind and body to the outer world. That this collection frequently resembled a confused and inaccessible train of thought, and failed to fulfil its own ethical criteria, makes one question whether Utopian poetics, let alone utopia, is ever attainable. It is perhaps true that both will remain a theory, at best partially embodied in created forms.

Yvette Dell 5th June 2020

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