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Category Archives: Pamphlet

Cauldron of Hisses by Penelope Moffet (Arroyo Seco Press)

Cauldron of Hisses by Penelope Moffet (Arroyo Seco Press)

     Penelope Moffet’s Cauldron of Hisses from Arroyo Seco Press seems to me the perfect poetry chapbook to have come out of the pandemic and its lockdown. It is a unified collection of poems, linked by their opening and closing lines, about different kinds of cats. It is more than this though. Underlying every poem, it is about our need for connection and how we regained it through our connection with nonhuman friends, and perhaps more importantly how we used our dreamworld to get through that time.

The second poem of the collection ‘Leopards’ helps us to see the familial connection we have with the animals that populate our lives.

Breathe another’s breath? 

Only Emily’s. She plants 

herself in front of me, inserts 

her face into my thoughts. 

She is my family, 

Emily the golden leopard 

and her brother, 

Snowshoe Raku. (2)

It was easy for many of us before the pandemic to take for granted the connections we had to other beings in our worlds. Moffet clearly does not do that, and she shows us how important those connections are. She also shows us the importance of wildness because inside her cats is the same wildness that lives in the great cats of the wild.

     What follows are the dreams and memories that she has of cats, and with it the implication of how important those dreams and memories are. We have entered a new state, a new world, where we have been cut off from human connection. It is our job now to find a way to survive these new conditions in a way that preserves our sanity. Moffet’s dreams of the wild given physical reality in her cats do just that. In one of her ‘Mountain Lion’ poems, she writes:

So much depends on posturing 

in cats and humans. The way 

my own two felines sometimes 

walk stiff-legged, glaring, 

showing teeth. The way 

I sometimes turn myself 

into a cauldron 

full of hisses. (7)

So she understands herself a little better, and her animal reactions by understanding these animals. She dreams of them, meditates on them, understands them. Through them she, and we, can see what people are.

     This is, to some degree, a lonely collection, but it is not alienated. Instead, Moffet gives us a way to understand the loneliness of the new world without being consumed by it. This is a dreamy collection, and it is beautiful. It is about what the human mind can do to preserve us when allowed to bound through the jungles and savannah instead of simply dwelling on loneliness and pain.

John Brantingham 18th January 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

Adventures Among The Living by Tim Cumming (Blueprint)

Adventures Among The Living by Tim Cumming (Blueprint)

The Acknowledgements page at the end of Adventures Among the Living suggests that this new pamphlet (or chapbook) from poet and artist Tim Cumming is the product of – or ‘made possible by’ – ‘a lucid dream’ back in 2021. This may or may not be the subject of Cumming’s painting ‘The Poet Appears in Space Time outside Kensal Rise overground station in the dead of night’, which is reproduced in full colour across the centrefold of this publication; a strange, slightly blurry work which foregrounds a fox against a street corner, with – presumably – the apparition of the poet to the left of the image.

It’s a powerful image, as is the beginning of the first poem: ‘I was not all there. Friends had / a habit of pointing this out.’ The jokey tone, with its initial pun, gives way to something darker, where the narrator ends up ‘whispering secrets / into a hole in the ground’, convinced that no-one can hear him, but coming to the realisation that ‘they all knew the words’. All? Friends or the implied everyone from the use of no-one? The narrator is set apart, kept back, with the others 

     glancing back at me as if I was
     the last figure of a convoy
     from the last war of antiquity,
     and my gods were contagious.

I love that last line, the idea that you can ‘catch’ gods, like an illness or disease, a virus perhaps, but Cumming does not linger in this scene; the untitled poems swiftly move the story along. Returning to his room our protagonist finds incident tape and arson, forcing him to flee, comparing himself to Frankenstein but ‘hoping / something good would come of it’ rather than ‘monsters / that would eventually kill me’.

The fourth poem’s ‘bedsheets beneath me / twisted into a body shape’ suggests that we are in dream territory, an idea reinforced by the way the narrator finds himself ‘falling through air’ then moving among people he recognises, ‘unheard and unseen’. The dream sometimes turns into a nightmare:

     I looked for my face but only
     saw a gap. How could I retrieve
     it, unfold it, spread it out
     like a map and read it,
     follow it, and find myself

But he cannot find himself, for he is ‘as solid as smoke’ and ‘way off the map’, reduced to asking ‘what / would Keith Richards do?’, which hardly seems like a rational response!

This, however, is not a rational journey, it is a city where ‘shadow lives sometimes showed through’, built upon ‘the shadow of false memories’, a place where ‘the ground itself swooned at your feet’. The bed is a re-occurring image, as are maps and absences: of memory, self, any sense of purpose or direction. Films and parallel universes are mentioned in passing, and ‘[a] box that had been opened / decades ago suddenly arrived / in the hands of a courier’, as time loops around itself and slips away.

This poetic journey is made by a narrator who ‘wasn’t going anywhere’, who is eventually led to tell himself that

     Your place is here, and even
     though you are going to be very
     far away, you are expected and
     there’s nothing you need to bring

although in the next poem he interrogates this: ‘What did you bring / and how much of it did / you need to carry?’ At this point, in the final two poems (the quote is from the last-but-one), we realise the whole sequence is a meditation about growing up and the baggage we all carry with us as we navigate the world around us and find our place until we 

     reach this point where
     the road ends, folding
     its dimensions into what
     you packed in haste as a child
     before embarking on your journey.

Cumming’s dreamlike sequence, perhaps written according to ‘fairy tale logic’, is a strange and marvellous affair, its abstractions and surrealism grounded by very real depictions of the city, and a perceptive engagement with the language of emotion and confusion. It’s a brave engagement with, and attempt to illuminate ‘the shadows that / fall when memory passes you by.’

Rupert Loydell 29th September 2022


What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider the  domestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.

Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context:   ‘My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).

The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt a  writer/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’.  Yet  poem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart of  home and family: 

        Every haven you have ever found

        was only lent to you.

        Even now you abide in your body

        like a stranger house-sitting for the friend of a friend

                                                                                   ‘A Lending Not a Giving’

Though there is anger and resistance in these poems, and a sense that the ‘I’ must  escape in order to survive (‘I grab what I can and run’, from ‘Our Marriage Dies in a Dream’) there is also great tenderness and  strong religious faith, even if that faith may not be recognisable to her grandmothers, changed as it is through time and   language. The collection ends:

        I pray and search for roots

        and earth, and soil, and tree.

        For truth, for God in all I see.

                                                                            ‘The Language of Grief’

Though it may not be possible to mend the damage caused through betrayal and the imbalance in male/female relationships which can cause ‘home’ to be less than safe for women, Njambi’s work still places faith in the future, and in the continuing struggle: ‘I wrestle and fight for the tongue my mother taught to me’. This is a powerful and moving collection. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of Njambi’s development in her subsequent books.

 Anne Bailey’s imaginative world is surreal, wry and strange. Outwardly amiable in its quotidian references to such things as ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘polyester,/ chiffon scarves, lipstick, men with shining shoes’  and in the wonderfully-titled ‘Uses and abuses of the tea towel’, still nothing is quite as it seems. A lake appears in the living room. ‘How to get the most out of baking’ begins: ‘Put butter in a baking bowl,/set it in front of the fire, then/call up the dead’. 

I liked this collection very much for the apparently deadpan way it deconstructs domesticity and women’s roles in maintaining it. Houses which ‘should’ be sparkling and perfect are always in danger of decay and spectacular damage: the poems enjoy exploring themes of mould, disintegration, spoilage. The domestic is a dangerous, twilight zone where budgies meet sticky ends under a scalding tap, where ‘letting go’ happens and where ‘Something will have to be done’ (‘A film of dust is how it starts’) – but what? Even darker, a woman are kept psychologically imprisoned by an obsessive man who has taken domesticity to perverse levels: ‘For him it is an act of love’ (in ‘The Curator is married to the rain’).

The poems weigh the sinister and the surreal very carefully together with a lovely sense of the absurd, so that the effect is always unpredictable and engaging. There is loss and grief here, and a range of very dark emotions indeed, but Anne Bailey celebrates the odd and uncanny with relish so her poems fizz with wonderful images : the ‘wooded’ Felicity, ‘her open spaces …full of damp washing’, the ‘tarmacked’ Nigel ‘with a central reservation but no hard shoulder’ (‘The sum of the parts’). Home may throw a long shadow over women’s lives, its rigidity always encroached upon by the wild, the unruly, by wild birds coming inside, becoming trapped –  but the women in Anne Bailey’s poems are more than resilient: they are magical shape-shifters  in ordinary disguises. This book is wise and funny and rewards re-reading.  

Pippa Little 18th September 2022

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

Spaces by Clive Gresswell (erbacce-press)

This is a neatly produced chapbook from erbacce-press which is nicely laid-out and has a cover design incorporating (I think) a photograph of the author which has been adapted into a double-image by Alan Corkish.

     There are 21 poems, each titled and each taking up a page. The overall title relates to the layouts of the texts which are split mainly into phrases, single words and occasionally longer pieces, halfway towards sentences, which suggest narrative structures but are fragmented and full of what I can only call texture. For me this is the most interesting of Gresswell’s recent chapbooks as there’s something almost Shakespearean about his use of language, where a variety of dictions interplay and resonate to great effect. There’s certainly a lyrical element to this work but it’s mixed with a dark foreboding quality which talks of ‘our times’ and has a sort of apocalyptic quality throughout. Take this poem on page 15 as an example:

          Dawn

          the roar of dust       seeps through    this island

          & settles on                the cooling       coastal walks

          where gypsies         comprehend     essential pleasures

          & grips upon              the vain wrath    which weeps

          in and out                in out   in      gentle   harshness

          of winter storms    captured     and    capitulated on

          trials    and           childhood dreams  rehearsed the blue

          and calming grey    of the sea’s     once charming

          vernacular ripped      the throat      into gargled pieces

          from screams and night       sprawled      anecdotes those

          enchanted visions       curling           rushing by with

          no aftermath or            naked         ambition shoved off

          the sands & holocausts   to temptation’s taut temerity

          the shallow        fields   of   memory    sucked deep

          into nature’s       glistening       awakening of tomorrow. 

There’s enough space here for the reader to fill in the gaps with his or her imaginings which is seemingly the entire point of this work. If the communication is partial it also suggests a degree of communality and shared experience 

     From ‘Shore‘ we get the following: ‘the taste infringes     salt   on the tongue / the bitter       taste     of effigies / redundant     from       the holy war.’ Throughout these poems there is a playful use of language which is harnessed to something darker. Nature is ever-present, whether with a sense of recuperation and as a place of retreat or as something much harsher and menacing. There’s a beauty to these shards and phrases – ‘golden memories recycled & harmony   reboiled / in among the     snakes     of     wrath their / seething      nightmares   claiming in sleep.’ (from ‘Sleep’) but it’s always tempered by something more sinister and unsettling. Nevertheless I found these poems pleasurable to encounter as the balance of the phrasing and the conflicting textures of the writing make for an enticing read. Take this opening sequence from ‘Face’, for example: 

          through mists & mischief miscreants

          from days of       their bauble dalliance

          the embellishments  of   their grievous

          circumstances   the knotted question

          of their day’s    abeyance abundance

          of their fortitude    & let alone such

          gratitude       …….  

     These are essentially playful poems but the tone is more often than not dark and would seem to reflect a collective as well as an individual sense of things going wrong. As I suggested earlier these are poems for our time.

Steve Spence August 25th 2022

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Before Mike Ferguson became an English teacher (he’s now retired), he tried his hand at farm work, imbued with the back-to-the-land enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. Having emigrated from the USA, Ferguson took a job for three years near Ipswich, and then lived and worked part-time in the Chiltern Hills whilst he studied at Oxford. 

Although perhaps the reality of labouring, even within agriculture, hit home, and Ferguson followed his degree by training as a teacher, eventually moving to Devon, and then engaging with the Devon reading and publishing literati, especially in the context of readings, workshops and magazine & booklet production within education, Ferguson still goes slightly dewy-eyed and nostalgic about farming, as evidenced by this beautifully produced, austere pamphlet.

Much of Ferguson’s current writing is process-driven: he uses erasure, pattern, word-shapes, Humument-type explorations and collage to write through and from writing both old and new. Here, this type of work shares its pages with more lyrical free-verse and prose poetry, and occasional haiku-esque (or imagistic) work.

There are stories here, poems full of characters and events – J. H-J. ‘tending the grain dryer’ but also trying to put out a barn fire with a hose in the other hand; the narrator proudly taking his heifer to the County Show but ending up flat on his arse in cowpats – but also frozen memories and moments, such as this brief, evocative and personal poem:

    Not Shearing Sheep

   For me, it was rolling wool

   and then my lanolin arms

   wrapped around

Elsewhere, acclimatisation to the smell of silage has the effect of changing it to the ‘candied whiff / of a sweet dessert; mucking out the pigs wrecks a pair of DMs; and we are asked to stand still and briefly listen to ‘the heron / miscalling / our names’.

Other poems are more playful, presenting the swirl of crows or the laying of irrigation pipes by hand as simple and effective shape poems, boldly set on the page; with some evidencing the author’s educational knowing and critical distance in poems such as ‘Farming Without Derrida’, where ‘[t]here is nothing to deconstruct’.

Obviously, Ferguson also has the gift of distance in time to look back at himself then. In ‘Agrarian Creed’ he notes that he 

       didn’t preach

   Marx on the farm back then

   as we were

   comrades when

   collectively hand-hoeing weeds,

   or sharing the

   three-bar electric fire

   for our morning breakfast toastings,

   or freely passing on

   the skills and

   wisdoms acquired over time.

and admits that even many years later, when a teacher in Devon, he would visit the Honiton (agricultural) Show – ‘still drawn to / tractors’ – only to find new models with air-con and stereo systems, which prompts a reimagining of possibilities, with ‘Hendrix feedback up cultivated rows, / or Dylan // defiant in ignoring Maggie’. (A reference to both Thatcher and the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.)

The book ends with a confessional poem and then an observational comment and statement. Having written earlier in the book that ‘Hunting and gathering was / never going to be enough’, ‘Fault’ admits the agricultural failing back then was the poet’s, in an erasure poem rather appropriately sourced in Richard Jefferies’ The Toilers of the Field:

   Fault

                                                                                       the fault of

                                                     th       is

                                                                                       agricultural

        labourer

        is                                     poetical feeling

                                                                                                         of

        beauty

The closing poem, ‘Residual Revelation’, is more nostalgic and accepting, although it starts by noting that

   In ’73 I thought this would be

   my pastoral idyll, an agrarian

   nirvana after LSD

   with no need for a degree.

On some levels it clearly was an idyll, but studying literature, teaching and writing has clearly changed Ferguson, even though the poem states how he still gardens and grows crops. Although he suggests that he ‘could claim / how studying, in the end, taught / [him] a thing or two’, the poem ends by contradicting or qualifying this, revealing that it was

   Scrivy who coached me in how to

   look and look all those years ago and

   find revelation in the simple things. 

It is that sense of revelation and simplicity, an attention to the world – remembered, reinterpreted, deconstructed (or not) – that is most evident in this engaging, entertaining and clear-minded collection, which evidences an open-eyed, thoughtful and sure-footed writer at work. Even when standing in animal shit or recalling ‘the butt-end of a / tedium of days’.

Rupert Loydell 23rd August 2022

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

Well into his eighties now, JH Prynne is enjoying the most prolific period of his career and indeed one that exceeds the output of every other poet I can think of. Since 2020, he has published some 25 new works, mostly chapbooks with small independent publishers. This puts into shade other notable late flowerings like those of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Ashbery although presumably it could be argued that because Prynne’s publications are all short-form sequences (At Raucous Purposeful, for example, amounts to only 15 pages of text) in terms of actual word-count they might tally with the prolix ruminations of, say, The Daybooks and The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. (I’ve always thought that late Prynne and late Hill have a good deal in common, sharing the hermetic, fulminating tone of a slightly unhinged don, over-erudite and over-immersed in the historical etymologies of their beloved OED, bent on an increasingly private vision that seems to distantly footnote their earlier momentous breakthroughs.)

    Who on earth could keep up with Prynne at this rate of production? Perhaps that’s the point; as time runs out, is he trying to outrun any attempt to coddle him into sedate poetic dotage, like an Augustus Carmichael sent to doze over his notebook on the lawn? On the one hand this scattershot approach feels like the great confounder sticking to his guns, keeping faith with the small presses and sequences of cryptic linguistic détournement which have formed the bedrock of his practice since the 1960s – not for him the facile conveniences of airing new work on the internet or quietly waiting to update his seminal and increasingly unwieldy Bloodaxe Poems every few years (“the big yellow (para)taxis” as a friend once called it). On the other hand, with a style as distinctive as Prynne’s – a poetic approach established over 50 years ago which, in spite of manifold formal permutations, has not really “developed” or reinvented itself ever since – eventually we are forced to read the work as self-parodic, caught in a loop of its own making, consuming its own hyper-extensive tail or choking on it.

   If poetry can become “an engrained habit” (as John Heath-Stubbs said to the Queen on receiving her Gold Medal for Poetry), there is a sense in which enduring poetic identity might be linked with continuing prolificity in the face of dwindling powers. One thinks of Swinburne, kept on a tight leash in early retirement in Putney, churning out volume after volume of hollowly sonorous lyrics which are almost non-referential in their formulaic melopeia. As TS Eliot wrote of one Swinburne poem, “that so little material…could release such an amazing number of words requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.”

    Turning to the ten poem sequence At Raucous Purposeful, I was caught between open-mindedly approaching it (as Robert Potts advises) “like a painting or a piece of music”, teasing out connections and possible chains of association (Potts again: “sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically”) and at other moments wondering if these were just random word-lists generated by a computer, an algorithm whose parameters are set to explicitly avoid any conventional poetic techniques, figurations or meanings, to confront the reader with slabs of sheer aleatory verbiage in the same way that many bands, musicians and composers have brought out albums of pure dissonance and noise. Why? To challenge our complacent assumptions about what constitutes music, to clean out our banality-clogged ears? Or even to make us want to turn the racket off and listen more attentively to the birds in the garden or the human voices that surround us? 

    No doubt it would be unreasonable or irrelevant to expect an 86 year old poet to change course or develop his practice at this late stage but reading At Raucous Purposeful I also thought of Prynne’s own words about a poetry reading he’d just been to, from the fascinating Paris Review interview he did in 2016:

I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to ­establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself. To hear poems that must have been written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate. There wasn’t a poem anywhere in that sequence that I heard that I would have been glad to read for a second time…I can’t imagine why he did them. What was the motive? What was the serious development of his practice that poems like that would help him to find his way to? ”

Oliver Dixon 19th July 2022

Met Obs by Lizzi Thistlethwayte (Waterflag Press)

Met Obs by Lizzi Thistlethwayte (Waterflag Press)

Met Obs is a large pamphlet, lovely to hold and look through, with superb black-and-white photographs by Jen Lindsay. You are encouraged to take your time over these poems: even a four-line poem will usually be in the centre of an otherwise blank page. And they need time: they have a fullness which allows for sudden new directions, jump-cuts, and startling changes of register. There is a strong presence of what feels like rural Suffolk, a particular house and garden, and its surrounding natural world; of night; and also of the sea and seashore. There are other human presences. The idea of a world in endless transformation is there in the first poem, ‘Moly’. The middle stanza has a steady focus on sleet on a ploughed field until, in its third and last line: 

‘a seethe   capsizing me   unmoored strangeness of raw’

Through its characteristic patterning of sound (seethe/me  moor/raw  caps/ness), we feel the plough and the sleet moving under us. The last stanza is prayer-like (‘shelter me night   the roots of the mind are tender, frail’), the wind is ‘in the earth’s rigging’, and ends with almost homely directness: ‘I am out of true’.

     Voyaging is explicit in the very enigmatic title poem, ‘Met Obs’. Short for ‘meteorological observation’, a nautical term, referring to a reading or record, as the epigraph to that poem has in brackets, ‘mid-atlantic 0200 hrs’. Night time, at sea, a wondering alertness…very much the provenance of these poems. 

     A lover is openly present in ‘Scatter’, which introduces the ‘we’, ‘We climbed that storm’, continuing with the poignant ‘mostly hope, mostly bent towards/the other…’ , adding the evocative and positive ‘slipping our moorings’, and ending where characteristically the erotic (‘your hand round me in me’) meets a tiny shock, the surprise of  ‘you/crackled…’ And there’s the delightful ‘Below 0 ° C’:

the birdbath is moon, cold niche, midwinter

stash, icefield, clamp, pent, chock of sky.

There are flaughts in my ribcage

rips in the skylid. From a spent

maize strip rook-black ejecta sling

which ever way the wind.

Below 0° C I’m not my own light, cariad,

as I cup my smithereens to your keelbone.

The music of association, the sound of one word suggesting another, pent/spent, rib/lid, cage/maize, sling/wind, etc. helps create the sense of an openness to a winter’s night and to the beyond, and though there’s cold outside, there’s the warmth of the lovers’ bed in the extraordinary last line (‘cariad’ is love or sweetheart, a word of Welsh provenance).

     At the end of ‘Horizon’, the characteristic images of earth and sky are also suggestive of the explosive physical effects of human encounter:

No one utters a word for, on some days, the violet

violence of that meet place, the power load, the tightrope.

But it gets dark it rains and there’s that sweet

unseen pulse-point no you were my heart, and we did touch.

The voice breaking in, in italics, with the poignant ‘were’, ‘did’, unsettles the poem even as it completes it. 

     The relation between text and photo seems to be one where each is allowed to speak for itself: only ‘Stilts’ seems to take one as its starting point, where vaguely stilt-like old iron stanchions protrude from a grassy hillside. 

     The book finishes with ‘The Angle of Dip’, but its first line is by this stage probably not how you expect even a Lizzi Thistlethwayte poem to start!

         Life is a massive con, hurrah…

especially when four more lines start with ‘hurrah’ (including both ‘hurrah for rain at last’ and ‘hurrah for a roof that doesn’t leak’!) Nevertheless, the casual ‘what-the-hell’ freedom here is characteristic. Once the speaker confesses to the ‘sin of a veerable soul’ and continues with the playful charm of the adaptation of the 23rd psalm, ‘for even though I walk in the valley of sensible shoes/I cry like a child’, the poem ends with

Q. Should I appear nonchalant or full of holes? 

A. I am here, under the rain, already miles away

both possibilities still open, the protagonist not to be pinned down, elusive, as her poems are, as the world is.

Martin Hayden 2nd June 2022

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

Mercy by Eleanor Penny (flipped eye publishing)

‘Before you were born your mother too was visited by dogs (…) They told her it’s not wrong to want a child who fights for its food. Sinks its teeth into the ankle of the world. Sleeps in the sun, vendetta-less, untroubled by strange men.’ (‘The dogs’)

And so we slide into Eleanor Penny’s strange dreaming world of animals, bones, teeth and blood. The world of Mercy is a cruel one, but it is not without its own tender mercies, as the lines between the human world and the animal world meld and shift. In this debut pamphlet, Penny’s dense, atmospheric poems weave rich and bloody interior worlds.

Throughout this arresting, uncanny collection, Penny’s imagery is often visceral, and sometimes grotesque: a woman gives birth in a gutter, ‘there is the gasping light, bloodwaters sluicing off into the drain’, a boy opens a crow to find its ‘stinking knuckle of a heart’, an unnamed speaker loves with a pig’s heart. Animals, and parts of animals, become totemic: in ‘For Jonah’, a whale vertebrae rests in the bed of the speaker, after ‘whales, with their empty car-sized heads, creep onto the tender shore, mouths helpless and unhinged’. The speaker talks to this vertebrae, as it puckers their sheets, and they long to lie like Jonah, ‘always blessed in the belly of the whale.’ I am reminded, here and throughout the collection, of Ocean Vuong’s ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, where a horse is a piano, a shadow, a ‘puddle of sky on earth’, that the speaker is at once within and without.¹

A good proportion of the pamphlet, including ‘The dogs’ and ‘For Jonah’, is made up of short, half-page prose poems. In the density of their language, the effect of the form is heavy and all-encompassing – without the neat distinctions of rhyme and metre the reader is subsumed into the consciousness of the poem, its own small world within a world, a pulsing consciousness in the wider consciousness of the book. As Penny evokes the animal to express and embody what the human cannot or will not, we are pulled into unreal worlds where the impossible is urgent and necessary. For example, in ‘Love song with a pig heart’, Penny asks how a pig might love better, more simply than a human might. The speaker reaches for an animal certainty – ‘soon I’ll have a pig’s heart and know what I’ve been hungry for. My love, it will be better then’. 

Unlike the prose poems, ‘Vivisection’ is formally precise, but, as its title suggests, equally bloody. In opening up the body of a crow, ‘stinking knuckle of heart, bulb and filament / ballasted tightly to the spine’, a boy learns how to become one. The bird’s harsh cry is broken down to investigate its possible human meanings:

They say

Core: an apple, nuclear

Cower: corner

Car: a beckoning, tower of smoke

Inevitably, the figure of Ted Hughes rears its head amongst this transformation and animal magic. Nonetheless, Penny’s voice is relentlessly, doggedly her own in sharp and unexpected turns of phrase: ‘the evening sky is cunt-coloured. Day drooping like a lone white glove’ (‘Poppy Heads’), ‘Your daughter, she has the most beautiful blacksmith’s hands I’ve ever seen’ (‘The list of the missing’), ‘New-fish-in-the-deep-dark yellow’ (‘Paint chart’).

There are animals, which move as strange, terrible gods, and then there is God himself, who appears in various guises throughout this collection. He takes many forms – sending angels as awkward, disinterested emissaries in ‘When angels came’, railed against by a priest who ‘batters both his fists at the chest of god’ in ‘The priest’. God is not all-loving, he is another kind of animal, savage and unknowable, and even his angels are cruel. In ‘Brick by shining brick’, God is feral, and entirely unexpected: ‘God hangs his best skin on the door handle before he enters the house’, ‘God drags a packet of bad children back into the sea’, ‘God choosing a slice of cake and a new dress’. God is slippery, human, promethean, and mysterious. 

God, Animals, animal gods and a ragged, raw love claw their way through the pages of this impressive debut. In its panting animalism and desperate aliveness, Penny’s pamphlet opens up new ways of animal existence, and asks us just how human we would really like to be.

Hannah Green 1st January 2022

Footnote

1. Ocean Vuong, ‘The Queen Under the Hill’, from Night Sky with Exit Wounds, (Jonathan Cape, 2017) p.48

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