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Tag Archives: John Clare

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

If you relish words – their sounds and subtleties of meaning – then this is the book for you. I say ‘relish’ deliberately because Gerald Killingworth’s masterly skill turns words into something one can almost taste and savour for a long time afterwards.

‘Water Words’ illustrates this perfectly. Syllables become ‘fragments of ocean’ and their length corresponds to the different sounds and sizes of liquid. The monosyllables ‘drip’ and ‘splash’ represent the moment of the ocean’s birth but soon both syllables and water grow into ‘puddle’ and ‘rivulet’, then into ‘cataracts’ and finally, with a thrashing surge, into the magnificent, four syllabled ‘inundations.’ 

‘Tongues’ is another example of the pleasure that words bring, the joy to be found in the ‘arcane quaintness’ of ‘ariff’, ‘crizzle’, ‘fizgigging’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘budge’. But this poem is about more than the fun of playing with parts of speech. It’s about erosion, loss and the incomprehension that occurs when ‘History shifts its axis’ and once rich languages are fractured, becoming ‘irrelevant/a footnote at best.’

Concern with this erosion of language is an important motif in Emptying Houses and one that particularly appeals to me. But the main feature of this collection, the quality that makes this book so extraordinary and unique, is the way Gerald Killingworth handles humour, very, very dark humour. Anyone who has heard him read ‘A Tale of a Turd’ will know instantly what I mean. No details of the dead Viking’s excrement are spared, rather they are elaborated on – the owner of the turd, now ‘a famous exhibit’ in York’s Museum, is given the name ‘Snorri’, his eating habits are analysed by scientists who sniff ‘this marvel’, weigh it and pick it apart, concluding that Snorri ‘lived on meat’. A human touch is added as the reader imagines this character vowing ‘to eat more greens with his bacon.’ So, there is a lot of humour, laugh-out-loud humour, in the first part at least of this poem. But then we have the extra brilliant touch that Gerald Killingworth brings to all his poems – the poignancy that overrides despair, the sadness and regret that is always just below the surface. Snorri’s turd is what remains of him, the one thing he is remembered for. That is his reputation though ‘Hardly a blueprint for the whole man.’

Another poem that illustrates this blend of horror and pathos is ‘Rigid with Indignation’ where the skull of Asra, a former temple dancer, is being analysed. The poet wonders if the process might reveal her thoughts and ‘unconfessed ambition’ but any splendours, sadly, do not show up ‘in this vacuity’ which is ‘dull as an empty ice-cream scoop.’

There are also ‘vacant spaces’ in the title poem ‘Emptying Houses’ which is about the sadness of clearing a house after the death of the occupant whose ‘history is over’. Even more poignant and tender is J.I:

            Working through the house

            we found roll upon roll of it,

            Christmas wrapping paper,

            as if present-giving

            were assured for decades to come.

Impossible to read these lines and not share the grief at the waste and finality of it all.

Emptying Houses is a unique poetry collection and Gerald Killingworth is an original and special writer. I appreciate all the poems but would find it hard to choose just one as my favourite. Maybe it would be ‘Pebbles’ where the stones make a plea for wetness, to be ‘on a tide-line’ not inland and ‘faded, dusty, dim’.  Or there is the beautiful ‘In Praise of Chlorophyll’ where everything on the earth has been destroyed except for the ‘soft green throw’ of grass. But if I could only choose one piece, I think it would be ‘Habits’ which seems to echo the mood of the John Clare epigraph at the beginning of the book. It’s short and simple and perfect: 

            Take the long way round sometimes,

            B doesn’t always have to follow A.

            Scuff leaves, kick stones


            Jump into puddles more –

            remember they hold the sky.

            Peep around corners

            gaze unfocused


Mandy Pannett 20th July 2022

Desire Paths by Andrew Martin (Shoals of Starlings Press)

Desire Paths by Andrew Martin (Shoals of Starlings Press)

Andrew Martin’s new collection is from the pen of a modern lyricist who tips his cap to John Clare and Edward Thomas while having a thoroughly  contemporary take on things. While ostensibly about the natural world his work is imbued with deep feeling and a sensitivity which verges on the vulnerable. His use of imagery has a minimalist precision and combines an aesthetic beauty with an approach to the world which contrasts the internal with the external in a manner that is fresh and approachable. The reader is constantly surprised and challenged into seeing the world anew and perhaps into rethinking preconceived positions. Martin also designed the cover art and book layout and he has a real flair for typography.

          walking the worn edge

          I’ve unseen things

          you believed in

          doves on fire

          wings shredding

          in the belly of Betelgeuse

          I’ve heard waves

          shadow-shimmer in daylight

          far from the desire paths

          all those memories

          will be found again

          out of time

          rain that remembers

          the crying

          drenched in dawn

There are hints here towards the lyrical passages in the film Bladerunner, a submerged S/F element which appears elsewhere in his work, while the phrase ‘desire paths’ itself refers back to the prefacing (untitled) poem which views the artistic aim as a combination of mini-Homeric exploration fused with a sense of evolutionary mission. This is heart meets head in an almost quivering tension which  an attentive reader can feel wonderfully immersed in.

     From ‘there is a hole in a tree’ we get the following:

          if I  curl inside

          would this tree

          take this man

          tired of being a man

          turn me to the soft stone

          of old sunlight

          let the dark lightning

          of new antlers

          take root into sky

This is writing which is imbued with longing and which gives a fresh take on the  pantheistic tradition while combining dramatic imagery with an underlying sense of melancholy. From what I understand these poems came about as a result of a particular set of walks which engendered the thoughts and feelings herein. There is  an overall immersion in the environment which creates a mood but not at the expense  of thought and a certain ‘distancing’ which I think relates to the precision and unusual aspects of the imagery.

          sometimes the world is so gentle

          sunset sits upon park benches

          reveals old rivers

          ribboning through the grain

          shadows pool in a paw print

          a cat whispers the piano

          pads across its keys

          breeze lifts the leaves a little

          fingers become feathers

          holding hands

          a form of flight

          skim long grass

          filaments lit low

          shadows stretch towards me

          sparrows shiver cowbells

          in their chests

          church bells

          touched by the late light

          train lines sing

          the miles between us

This is a love song to the world as well as, perhaps, to an individual. I’m not always persuaded by ‘soft lyricism’ these days and it’s hard to achieve in a modern context  but these poems are both intoxicating and immersive, even where, as there is on  occasion, a suggestion of a darker side. From ‘sea glass’ we get: ‘each step / blunts our blades / shatters our rage / the little lashes / that scar us smooth.’ Again we get an immersion in the environment, almost a shape-shift between the human and the environment, a tension between calm and beauty and something more dangerous and hurtful to the vulnerable. These poems work on you upon re-reading and their world is  one which it’s hard to ignore. Martin’s debut collection, Shoals of Starlings (Waterhare Press), is a masterpiece in my view and one of the best poetry books to have come from the Plymouth scene in a long time.

 Steve Spence 5th January 2022

Not Here – There by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

Not Here – There by Andrew Taylor (Shearsman Books)

The poems in Not There – Here are somewhat more relaxed and conversational in tone than Taylor’s earlier books, but are still in the vein of minimalist, compressed writing typical of his work, in which close observation of the external world is mixed with a collage of texts and discourses. For this short review I want to focus on a single poem which I think is representative of many of the poems in the book. Here’s the poem in full:


The larch has been felled

                                         Phytophthera ramorum

let’s drive the different route 17 miles

cattle grids

                    empty feedbags

                    strung like scarecrows

Railway at times runs parallel

ballast plumb line straight

Our single track

                                      Passing place

Signal stagnant


signpost navigation GPS

                    unnamed road

follow the quietness

valley empty      it looks like a bomb’s gone off

toward the estate there is cover

thirty five years ago

we took this drive       tracks remain

for supplies

milk bread


the forest is weak it is halved

      the lochs become visible

their tracks evident

above the grey house


The poem opens with a blunt statement which recalls other poets mourning felled trees; Hopkins ‘airy aspens’ or John Clare’s ‘Fallen Elm in a metonymic manner typical of this collection. The Latin name which follows (in a characteristically abrupt switch) brings us back to language and reminds us of how it affects our perception: the Latin name conjures up a very different image to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Larch’. We are then given a description of a drive (is it on Route 17, or a route of 17 miles?) in what seems to be a rural area of single-track roads. The phrase “follow the quietness / valley empty” is followed by the jarring phrase “it looks like a bomb’s gone off” which recalls bomb sites in post-war British cities and is immediately followed by “toward the estate there is cover”. Is this a country estate of a big landowner, or a housing estate associated with deprived communities? It appears to be the former, but a suggestion of the latter is there, and it’s this ambiguity, this leaving lines open to interpretation, which gives the poem a feeling of large scope and of horizons beyond the specific details that it focusses on. After this moment of uncertainty, we are back on the rural drive, slightly altered after its collision with the urban, in which “the forest is weak it is halved” and where the word “loch” situates us for the first time in a precise landscape, that of highland Scotland. The final lines are:

above the grey house


The verb ‘commands’ is left without an object; does it command a view? Or is the house that of a landowner who commands the surrounding land and its people, invoking the British class system and thus linking the rural Scottish landscape to the deprived communities hinted at earlier? Either way, the ending of the poem is open, leaving interpretation to the reader rather than to a commanding poet-persona; this openness and lightness of touch being a feature of the poems throughout this collection.

The poems in this book, like the one above, have individual moments of stillness which shift rapidly to a different perspective, sometimes (but not always) because the text is a collage. This makes reading even a short, apparently imagistic poem, into a disorienting experience. In a sense these poems are cubist, presenting multiple perspectives of a scene or an event without privileging any single one. The poems deny a single, omniscient self. It’s a natural human tendency to impose a narrative on experience, and these poems seem to be trying to strip that away and present experience as it is. This would be in line with Taylor’s influences in the music of John Cage or the notebook poems of Jack Kerouac, both of whom, espousing Zen thought with its denial of single controlling Self, preferred to be open to an unbounded connection with the world.

Alan Baker 28th October 2021

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman Books)

The distrust that William Carlos Williams had of the poetry of T.S. Eliot is well known and for confirmation one could certainly turn up that letter Williams sent to James Laughlin in March 1939 in which he damned the American ex-pat with the faint praise of being ‘a cultured gentleman’ before going on to add ‘and cultured gentlemen are always likely to undersell the market’:

‘I’m glad you like his verse but I’m warning you, the only reason it doesn’t smell is that it’s synthetic…He can write. Granted. But—it’s like walking into a church to me. I can’t do it without a bad feeling at the pit of my stomach: nothing has been learned there since the simplicities were prevented from becoming multiform by arrest of growth…’

But we had been made aware of Williams’ distrust long before. In fact from Spring and All onwards! A couple of pages before ‘By the road to the contagious hospital’ there is the prose note ‘If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity…’. Maybe it’s that word ‘integrity’ that prompts me think of both Williams and Gerard Manley Hopkins when I read the introductory poem to this fine first collection put out by Shearsman: ‘Sempervivum’.

‘Long-living plant, that flowers on the ground and
spawns in circles round itself, whose low and quiet
center stores a gravity not surpassed by
stone, down to the pith,’

As the stones from a sonnet by Hopkins ‘ring’ and the ‘weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’ in ‘Spring’ so do the houseleeks of Erica McAlpine ‘put forth into these leaves’ a sense of energy that feeds on ‘both drought and faith’. The resurgence of life that Williams captures in that roadside to the contagious hospital can be felt throughout this sensitive and uplifting volume of poems. Both poet and reader are immersed within this energy and we can recognise that ‘it’s in our power / to spend the whole afternoon drinking our fill / of sun (soaking now through the canvas over /us)’ confirming us in the feeling that ‘These are the Happiest Days’.
When George Oppen referred to the ‘isolation of the actual’ in Of Being Numerous he was thinking of rooms and ‘what they look out on’ and basements, ‘the rough walls bearing the marks of the forms, the old marks in the concrete, such solitude as we know’. McAlpine reminds us that ‘life is brief’ and therefore brings sharply into focus the immediacy of what is involved in being ‘The Country Gambler’:

‘You’ll find me in the clover patch from August
to October, detangling tangled stem from stem,
inspecting each one over, knowing three
seems four when two stems meet and send a leaf
from under, or if they cross along the neck then
six can be the number. And some are tall,
and bent with rain, and overtop the grass,
while others, tiny, clump their leaves in bunches
thick as moss.’

If there is a tone of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall here there is also that of John Clare whose ‘Clock a Clay’ (ladybird) makes its home in a ‘pale green pillar topt wi’flowers’ which bends at the wild wind’s breath ‘Till I touch the grass beneath’. In the hunt for a four-leaved clover ‘shade can turn the leafage blond’ and wind ‘can push the petal-ends to ground’, making them ‘hard to sort’. With another sly glance at an English poet there is perhaps here a tone of Edward Thomas’s searching for the seemingly long-lost possibility of Eden and Erica McAlpine agrees with Thomas that ‘I wouldn’t cut the searching short’. After all, ‘Nothing’s better than the luck you find’.

I have merely scratched at the surface of these poems and I firmly recommend that you order a copy now; they represent a significant beginning of a serious poetic talent.

Ian Brinton 22nd April 2016

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