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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

The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)

This is presented as an anthology of poems, some 84, arranged chronologically, with extensive commentary, seen as suitable for memorising or reading aloud, in that sense a bit like Ted Hughes’ By Heart collection, although the Hughes is neither chronological nor offers comment on the poems. James variously and perhaps surprisingly eloquently gives about four or five paragraphs to each poem. This struck me as very refreshing. The book was indeed put together just after James’ death in 2019, and it is a most unusual effort. But I think we get out of it not just those often perceptive insights but a curious assortment of pickings from English literature from the metaphysics of the Renaissance on.

There are two forces of fascination, then;- the choice of poems, and of course how memorable they are, along with the commentary. James might be seemed to some as an Aussie philistine, and he is unafraid of voicing some strong opinions. We might remember that his unfinished doctoral dissertation was to be on the influence of Dante on Shelley, would that there were such. James himself undertook a translation of The Divine Comedy. This is the same man who was Observer TV critic for about 10 years, and was suitably telegenic, eg in his TV series on fame. 

The choice of poems is suitably expansive. A few little known names appear, some Australian, but other than that it makes for an interesting primer on the course of English poetry; this might also be got of course via such other anthologies as The Rattle Bag, though that has a rather scatter shot arrangement.

The book is just a little too long to digest in one sitting. Among the metaphysics we get Donne, Herrick and Herbert. Milton is represented but not Dryden; there is besides a Shakespeare sonnet (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). There is reasonably full coverage of the Romantics. James notes the considerable impetus of Keats’ poetry toward higher things, had he longer stayed the course.

When we get to near contemporary poetry, Hughes (‘Pike’) and Heaney are here along with Plath, whom he does appear to take relatively seriously (‘Cut’). But we also find catholically represented Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Donald Davie and Kingsley Amis. Still perhaps what we might call the British Poetry Revival does not figure here greatly. 

James manages to turn a relatively fresh ear to many of these writers, though the choices at times can seem a little quirky, ie why that particular Shakespeare sonnet for instance, from such a range of choice.

What does one come away with? This is actually a fairly short, concise anthology; very often there is the attempt to spread the net wider. But James has put his imprint on it, in a way we have found from previous anthologies such as those of Yeats and Larkin, not to mention the current Ricks.

Not everyone is likely to be disposed to the emphasis on commentary, which is fully half the book, and of course this is somewhere Hughes didn’t go. Some anthologies such as that of Keith Tuma provide extensive prefatory matter; quite often we get merely the poems.

One could cobble out, piece together a kind of argument about where James sees poetry going. He says of Plath and Hughes, ‘Although the towering Hughes raided the whole of history and all cultures for his ideas, she was the one with the poetic scope’. (p251) He accords Heaney high praise,- ‘when he spoke he made hundreds of years of troubled history seem at least a touch more bearable’ (p268). He also attends to Walcott, but not Brathwaite, ‘Walcott had more talent than anyone knew what to do with’ (p270). As the cited Walcott poem concludes, ‘Sea Grapes’,- ‘The classics can console. But not enough.’ In terms of direction, this strain of influences will doubtless continue to work on through.

The choice of poems is decidedly idiosyncratic. James does not go for some of the major targets, eg for Eliot we get ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, though with Pound it is the now familiar couplet ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Of Pound’s flirtation with fascism, James offers,- ‘Pound himself was very slow to deduce that the Dream was a farcical nightmare’ (p107). Olson, who took so much from Pound, isn’t here, but John Berryman is. To Davie James attributes a ‘misplaced admiration for the mind of Ezra Pound’ (p213) though we still have canonical works like Kenner’s The Pound Era to contend with.

I think the book actually has a pretty good take on Anglophone poetry, even if it could hardly be termed radical. One can only wonder what Hughes might have done had he scope to comment on the poems in By Heart. What I come back to is that the whole scope of the book is quite refreshing, and maybe Clive James could get away with it because it was a posthumous, albeit somewhat impassioned exercise. I find it too as helpful in the effort to get a grip of the development of English poetry. Whilst some here are overlooked, there is too much of quite certain relevance here to make it much more than a personal indulgence; James deferral to poetic affinity is too strong to invite dismissal. 

Clark Allison 19th October 2021

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow by Hannah Hodgson (Verve Poetry Press)

In this vital pamphlet, Hannah Hodgson, who lives with a life-limiting illness, addresses disability, hospitalisation, and isolation at a time when the disabled and unwell are frequently treated as voiceless statistics.

With no romance or affectations, this pamphlet painstakingly examines what the ill want from the well. One often reiterated wish is for no self-pity; a demand of able people to not ‘hijack tragedy’ with their tears. In ‘Dear Visitors’, the speaker has ‘become a tiger’ and the ward ‘a zoo’, who asks of those who have ‘paid their entrance fees at the nurse’s station’: ‘Don’t maudle, as the captive here that’s my job.’ The speaker goes on to tell the visitors to be themselves, ‘Reveal a little / of your flesh, trust I won’t rip you apart.’ – to bring the things that the speaker loves into the sterile clinical setting – ‘Talk of the wild, talk of home’ – even to help them escape the sterile reality: ‘meet me at midnight with the bolt cutters’. Later in the pamphlet’s arc, in ‘Everybody Loves a Dying Girl’, the speaker bluntly states: ‘I wish to reject my sainthood – illness doesn’t cure me of a personality’, dispelling the widespread dialogue that suggests unwell and disabled people should be eternally optimistic and ‘inspirational’. 

The poems shift seamlessly between the concrete and the abstract. This is prevalent in ‘There is an Art to Falling’, a poem written after Kim Moore. Here the speaker offers seemingly everyday imperatives: ‘Drink water – if you can, // eat something – if you can’, before crossing over to the abstract: ‘reignite the furnace of your body, / blow on its embers’. Similarly, in Kim Moore’s poem ‘The Art of Falling’, imagery moves fluidly between commonly used turns of phrase: ‘to be a field and fall fallow, to fall pregnant’, to imagery such as ‘leaves / like coins of different colours, dropped from the pockets of trees’. One could be forgiven for thinking that the concrete and the abstract could not possibly exist in as small a space as a single poem, but impressively, the mercurial nature of these pieces proves otherwise.

The particular relevance of this poetry in 2021 is palpable. One only has to look at society’s treatment of the disabled and the chronically ill pre-pandemic. Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow addresses themes that have become eerily familiar to us all over the past year. Throughout its pages, we encounter a man left with ‘staff unable to move him – his death a macabre art installation’, a consultant who cries, ‘deserted by her superpower’ as so many of our essential workers have been during the Covid-19 pandemic, the removal of a mother’s body by porters and ‘the bed space marked vacant / on the computer system’, the constant stalling and rhetoric that comes with the delivery of bath news: ‘another step in the wrong directionthere’s no easy way to say this’. There are also poems that speak of shielding, giving voice to those who have had to remain inside with little contact with the outside world for many months due to being at high risk of Covid-19 complications. In ‘10th April 2020’, the speaker reveals that ‘The GP rang this afternoon, / trying to talk about a DNR order. I refused, / instead told him about starlings murmurating / and all the living I have left to do’.

This pamphlet features symbols that we have come to associate with death in poetry, for example, the crow, as in ‘Leaflet dispensed by crows who circle around the resus bay like overstated authority figures’. Again, this poem feels startlingly topical in its imagery: ‘Each cell is a police officer / clad in riot gear’; ‘As the Prime Minister of your body, remain calm – / pretend everything will be fine (even though it won’t)’, but in addition, it seems to be communing with poems such as Ted Hughes’s ‘Examination at the Womb Door’, in which death is the overriding force: ‘Who is stronger than hope? Death. / Who is stronger than the will? Death.’ However, the notion of the ‘womb door’ in Hughes’s poem synthesises birth with death. Birth and death are also synthesised in Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow, for example, in ‘The only person I knew with my condition’, in which the speaker discusses a fellow patient, whose name the hospice has added ‘to the roll call of the dead; / wooden hearts which hang / above the nurses’ station, / the opposite of a baby’s mobile’.

I was captivated by the pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Decompose With Me’, written after Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Small Female Skull’, as we experience the pain of this world alongside the speaker, and leave changed. This is the work of a poet of honesty with an effortless ability to articulate the near inexpressible. 

Olivia Tuck 17th May 2021

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

The Mummiad: New Selected Poems by Richard Livermore (Bibliotheca Universalis)

As with Ted Hughes’ animal poems that go beyond animal nature toward ourselves, so it is with Richard Livermore’s animal poems. There are several in his latest collection, The Mummiad: New Selected Poems, his second book from Bibliotheca Universalis, where one feels uncomfortably closer to the true nature of some of our fellow humans, or even to ourselves. In ‘Jaguar’, the big cat could equally be a too-young man dared by the gang, lurking in the shadows of a city nightscape, ‘a tiptoeing/ shadow of death, jam-packed/ with muscle and power’ who lies in wait to kill his prey ‘with a single bound;/ black flowers adorn him,/help him hide in the dappled/ half-lit undergrowth/ he is in his element in.’ The feeling of being under threat is stirred up from our collective unconscious in part by his mastery of echoes aural and visual of Paul Celan, news items, as well as memories perhaps we all have of walking down city streets or secluded country lanes at night, of ‘being what he can see/ in the dark. . . .’ In ‘Lioness’, this point that we have more than a little in common with the behaviour of animals and wild animals at that, is made clear when the poet brings us up close to those for whom ‘you are nothing but the next meal, the next occasion she can feed.’ Then there are the wildebeests, the tiger, lion and ‘the serpent in the garden,’ the ‘dragon in the armadillo,’ the gecko carrying on as normal in a war-ravaged land. Yes, it’s animal behaviour being described, we are animals, thus through the poet’s alchemy of imagery, Jungian allusion and the poems’ padding, four-legged rhythm we hear also our human behaviour being described. We face up to it on these pages. The poet reminds us we face up to it nightly on the news, too, as in the violence of the state recalled in ‘Black Wind’: ‘Arrest that wind,/hands up, don’t shoot,/I cannot breathe.’

As one might expect from a collection titled The Mummiad, the vulnerability of the body, birth and death, time, fate and rather than the intervention of the gods, more likely their absence, are recurring themes. In ‘The Body in Question’, the body of younger years is missed, but not without appreciation for the benefits of getting older in terms of experience and understanding. One of the many things I admire about Richard Livermore’s poetry is he never overdoes things – he knows just when to stop. Through technical skill he manages to articulate complex feelings and subtle ideas for us all, concisely, leaving plenty of space around each poem for our own reflection. In ‘Daisy, Daisy’, he explores his own birth both through its historical circumstance and its innocent, everyday occurrences – we are indeed born into both and this poet’s attention to both brought this reader, for one, up short with the realisation that the philosopher’s dictum ‘know thyself’ begins with this examination of all aspects of our moment of entry into the world. Life, give me your answer, do, each poem pleads. The leavening in it all is the poet’s characteristic play with words, his calling upon our shared inherited gift of language with all its idioms, rhythms and mythology, so that, for instance, when he writes, ‘-time has me by/the late and earlies’ there’s recognition and delight.

The only niggling disappointment about this book is that the quality of Richard Livermore’s writing has not been matched by the copy editing, where each poem’s translation by Roxana Doncu into the Romanian is printed not on the facing page but overleaf. Seekers of lexical similarity will have to flip back and forth – no great hardship since there’s plenty to detain one on every page.

Beth Junor 25th September 2018

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