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Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

Look, Breathe by Chris Powici (Red Squirrel Press)

This 66 page collection of poems arrives with translations in Scots, Gaelic, Doric, Orcadian and a host of other Scots dialects – there’s Flemish and Dutch translations too. The main delivery comes from substantial poems written by Chris Powici which have been transcribed, essentially, by Scots poets into local speech. The result opens a rich soundscape of regional locution.

         Chris Powici’s poems find unity through a field of concerns that connect in time, space and locality. His poems put a finger on particular synchronicities of observations, memories and experience that manifest, mainly through acts of nature.

         ‘Lamlash Nights’ (p.52) begins with gulls settling for evening that, ‘put their faith in café roofs / and car park walls / even the little iron-coloured waves’, the observation broken by the playful thought of grabbing nearby anchoring chains and hauling in a small boat or even the local ferry, complete with a cargo of monks, before snapping back to observation of locality: ‘meanwhile the chitter of gull / the push of the tide’. The poem moves again and quickly to abstraction and reflective thought

                  everything’s as ordinary and holy as bread or rain

                  as the way I remember my mother’s hand on my sleeve

                  pale, liver-spotted, so thin

                  it seemed no more than the weight of a glove

and concludes in conflating observation of locality while thoughts stretch ever outward over the sea and higher into the night sky

                  beyond Holy Isle, the moon

                  – that shining, far-out buoy –

                  rides the black swell

                  making sense of the depths

         Cosmic allusions are apparent, the final verse places weight on all that has possibly occurred for millennia juxtaposed with the time, held within the poem. The word ‘depths’ reaches out not only to the deepness of a moon-governed sea but in every direction of time and space. What is arrived at is the subject of the poem is the poem itself and not any single part of it. Those elements stand as content.

         There is nothing cold or academic about the poems in Look, Breathe  – quite the opposite; warmth flows in appreciation of people

                  the passengers talk about grandchildren

                  and weather and who’s died

                  and who’s still with us by the grace of God

                                                                        ‘Happens’ (p.46)

         In the poem ‘Wild Summer’ (p.22), dedicated to the memory of nature poet Angus Dunn, Powici is walking the great outdoors, observing the quality of light on a late afternoon in Glen Tye. Recent weather has featured ‘blinding rain’ with ‘hills lost to thick noonday mist’, when

                  A raven lifts from a fencepost

                  and gives itself to the cold, marvellous air

                  pitching and wheeling

                  as if there’s no tomorrow, as if there’s

                  only ever hunger, longing, flight – here, now

He captures this moment then sets it free, turning to speak directly and in revelation to the absent Angus Dunn 

                  and this, as you know, is the real poem Angus –

                  a lone dark bird telling the truth about the world

                  telling it well –

                  not these words

Four lines to which aspiring poets and established poets alike should be directed. Powici uses that moment of change to usher in powerlessness of poetic words when faced with the very essence of poetry itself.

         There’s a Who’s Who of translators at the end of the book, along with several glossaries attending to words in dialect and, turning to the translations, the reader becomes aware of just how much local colour is poured into the rewritten poems. In the translations language becomes beautifully strange, often glancing off the English glyph but emitting an aural mystery from an age that seems almost lost.

         Side by side, the original poems and translations illustrate how ‘the mind of language’, distinct as it ever wants to be, races to embrace another. That spirit evident in Stephanie Van De Peer’s search for a suitable translation for ‘fox bark’ – see her note (p.61).

Ric Hool 12th February 2022

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)

Born in Jarrow, working at sixteen in the Merchant Dry Dock and still living not far away, Tom Kelly has been producing plays, music and film lyrics, short stories and poems for over thirty years in his native North-East. His lifetime’s knowledge of his locality continues, as the title here signals, to be his major source of subject-matter. This collection ‒ his eighth from Red Squirrel in the last twelve years, not forgetting earlier ones from KT, Here Now, Smokestack, and (long ago) Tears in the Fence ‒ also contains song lyrics, speeches from the 1930s Jarrow Crusade, and explanatory prose commentaries. The lyrics lose something on their own, as lyrics generally do, but it’s worth checking the Men of the Tyne songs on the CD, and the documentary on YouTube, where they come into glorious full effect. Of the poems, there’s none here as brilliant as the earlier, savage ‘The Wrong Jarrow’ and no line as arresting as ‘‘No’ is the password, stamped on their hopes’ with its terrific repurposing of ‘password’. Nonetheless the majority preserve a solid style and feel across time: the present historic, the asyndeton, the low-key language and deferred epiphany. Sometimes Kelly’s poems appear to stop before they’ve got going. Sometimes they feel like notes. Moments of pure lyricism are sparse, like moments of joy:

The film’s something celestial
fallen into our laps,

More often, ‘fine phrasing’ gets cut with grim bathos:

Tears hold their own in the corners of her eyes
wishing they could be used in the pawn shop.

Admittedly, it’s not the most rewarding style if you’re in search of linguistic fireworks and metatextual car-chases. Other writers identifying with the skilled working class ‒ Tony Harrison or Andy Croft, say ‒ forge arabesques of wordplay alongside precise rhyming in difficult formalisms to enact toil and struggle and craftsmanship. But perhaps Kelly’s offers an equally authentic way to approach the mental universes of these industrial lives of outward good-fellowship but constricted emotional display, whose laconic narrators resist at all costs the flashy, long-worded or bombastic, and retreat into collocation or summary at the moment of truth:

There’s just a great gap of love
you endured
and my gaping wound.

Certainly, the poems sent me away to investigate Tyneside history: from Bede, whose monastery was in Jarrow, through England’s last gibbeting, the abrupt end of shipbuilding in 1933 and the unspeakable deprivation that led to the march to London; the post-war recovery, and then the early-Eighties destruction. All of these are touched upon and intermixed with family histories and 1950s childhood memories in a nice counterpointing of the social and personal. The concluding section returns to the present, memorialising the decline of Working Men’s Clubs – a topic entirely new to poetry? – alongside family elegies and scary portrayals of the erosion of personal memory. The overall effect, though, remains uplifting: this is poetry as archaeology and conservation, an exegi monumentum not to the poet himself but to the community he’s part of, and all the better for that.

Guy Russell 2nd July 2020

Hool Goes There

Hool Goes There

Ric Hool’s Selected Poems has just appeared from Red Squirrel Press and it can be obtained from Sheila Wakefield, the Founding Editor of that interesting and attractive publishing venture. The address is Briery Hill Cottage, Stannington, Morpeth NE61 6ES:


It is very appropriate that this new volume of Ric’s should come out from the North East since this is where he hails from. Equally appropriate is the inclusion in the volume of the ‘Five Devotions to Barry MacSweeney’ which had originally been published in the summer of 2002 in Tears Number 32. When Ric Hool’s Collective Press volume, Making It, appeared in 1998 it had a back cover which included MacSweeney’s blurb: ‘I like it very much and find the firmness and sureness of the lyricism refreshing in this cynical and flaky world. A poet with a joyful soul is rare indeed these days.’ Another quotation on the back of that little volume is from Chris Torrance who commented that ‘the poet is not supplying any easy answers, but posing dilemmas that are philosophical, ethical, ecological. It is work that I can read again, knowing that it is durable, poetry that can move with time.’


Those comments are equally appropriate to this new volume and as Fiona Owen says ‘Themes such as space, mapping and music trickle through the book like a stream.’


With these comments in mind I want to highlight the new Oystercatcher Press volume of Amy Cutler’s Nostalgia Forest. This is an astonishingly attractive chapbook which everybody should get hold of and Peter Larkin’s comments on it are worth taking very seriously indeed: ‘Though any forest memory may be at best like one of Aristotle’s “shaggy waxes”, these diagrammatic profiles offer intimations of calamity or nurture, or a tonal or atonal transversal of timber, itself an astute truncation of nostalgia’s own magnetic time-intervals.’ If you are in London on Thursday June 6th then do go to the evening of drinks and live music at the launch of a belfry exhibition of small press poems, one-off editions, book works, art and archival photographs. Copies of Nostalgia Forest will be on sale there.


Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig                                            /                                             Tha tìm, am fiadh, an Coille Hallaig

7.30 at The Belfry Art Gallery, St John on Bethnal Green, 200 Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA

Ian Brinton




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