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There Are Angels Walking The Fields by Marlon Hacla translated by Kristine Ong Muslim (Broken Sleep Books)

There Are Angels Walking The Fields by Marlon Hacla translated by Kristine Ong Muslim (Broken Sleep Books)

Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Tilde Acuña’s calligraphic and hand-drawn ‘Introduction’ is physically unreadable here, despite looking wonderful. It’s a shame, because Broken Sleep books have got better and better designed since the press started, because I’m sure she had something useful to say, and because this is a marvellous book.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s useful ‘Translator’s Note’ explains that this collection was originally published in the Philippines in 2010, and frames the book as a gathering of ekphrastic poems which ‘”manifest” real or imagined artworks through various poetic devices’. It’s not the kind of ekphrasis that the reader – or English readers – will recognise, as few sources or artists are mentioned. Instead we get intense and often disturbing snapshots along with captured moments, most often set in stark, desolate or abandoned settings and populated by nameless characters and personified objects.

The language is often voluptuous, the images engrossing, even when describing violence. ‘Diorama #26’ tells us ‘The fingers were like dragonflies / As they strangled her’, whilst ‘Serial Killer’ enters the mind of the subject:

   Now, about that man on the first page of the newspaper
   This morning, the one whose mouth has been slashed,

   Don’t worry.

   I let him scream
   Just a little.

   Always, knives are reasonable priced in the public market.

The titular angels appear in the final line of ‘Diorama #54’. They are the memories or ghosts of those already dead at the scene; the poem is about a grenade which ‘was useless at this point / Because there was no one else left to kill.’ Hacla’s landscapes are often populated by the unexpected: cicadas which ‘sound as if they are trying to tell him something’ (‘The Trysting Place’), a child’s ‘invisible friend’ (‘The Playground’) or ‘a being that was not yet an infant’ (‘Some Forsaken Things’).

Time and action are frozen here, where ‘Everything begins / With a long wait behind the window’ (‘5.26 p.m.’), a long wait that is shared by many others behind their own windows, all aware that ‘Everything ends with a long wait behind the window.’ Even the ‘White stones have been crushed / Into teardrop-shaped pieces’ (‘Still Life Moments after the Blast’) and ‘Suppressed moans can still be heard / Next door’ (‘The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh’). Only by remembering can the world be understood, and there be the possibility to forget.

Caught in this contradictory tension, the poet and reader are like the characters in the brief poem ‘The Room’ (reproduced here in its entirety):

   He led me inside the room
   Where she kept his past.
   Each day is like a corpse.
   Like sapphires devoid of luster
   Their open eyes.

   All night we stroked and closed
   Every eyelid.

By recognising and confronting the war-torn, abusive and violent world, Hacla animates and subverts the darkness, offering us an awkward exit point in ‘The Exchange’, the final poem here:

   Tell me everything you want to say
   Before the light silences us.

This is powerful, moving and lyrical poetry, and I hope to be able to read more of Marlon Hacla’s  astonishing writing in due course.

Rupert Loydell 23rd July 2022


Shaking The Persimmon Tree by Marc Woodward (Sea Cow Press)

Shaking The Persimmon Tree by Marc Woodward (Sea Cow Press)

Marc Woodward’s poetry is pretty traditional in form, including sonnets and a villanelle and hints towards the poetry of Hardy, Edward Thomas and even Louis MacNeice at times. His material shifts between celebration, of the countryside, of friendship and of travel but there’s a dark side underlying most of his work and even on occasion something slightly surreal, as in ‘The Thread’ which combines an interest in angling with a skewed comment on mortality which suggests a much longer time-scale:

          …..every fish bird, mammal,

          was attached to the same thread

          she’d been pulling since she was born,

          like all our generations dead,

          careless for the unravelling.

     Woodward has a way with endings, as in ‘I Dreamed of a River’ which has a mildly surreal, reverie sort of feel, lyrical and encompassing both observer and observed, meshed in synaesthesia yet with a darkness as in ‘Ophelia’s cape / billowing in the wind.’ If there’s an overall sense of pastoral easiness to these poems it’s always tempered, by illness, by an increasing sense of mortality and, as in ‘Inheritance’ the violence of an abrupt closing of life in a farming community. The bucolic has its downside and this one certainly creates a shiver down the spine: ‘Quiet in the hay barn, / warm enough out of the wind, / John hangs lifeless from the rafters, waiting, turning, for Fred to find.’ 

     Many of these poems are set in rural Devon or in Italy and mix nostalgia with something more searching and even in an apparently simple poem like ‘The Disappearing Places’ which combines childhood memories and wonderful evocation with a sense of loss we can feel echoes of A Shropshire Lad, something powerful and moving which you can’t quite put your finger on, an inarticulate longing which can nevertheless be suggested in words.

     In ‘Fishing for Mahseer’ we are at the Ganges, chasing the enormous, majestic river fish which also has a dark secret, that of feeding on the human bodies, inadvertently released into the river:

          As this hellish vision drifted closer

          my angling friend reeled in his lure and line,

          remade his tackle with a pink ‘flesh fly’

          then cast into the froth around the corpse.

          I looked away. On the bank women washed,

          above the trees a little minaret

          shone through the fog framed sun. What can

          be said?

          We fished for fish which fed upon the dead. 

     With ‘The Bird Scarer’ and ‘The Green Man in Rocombe’ we are in the realm again of farming and country lore, the latter a sort of tongue-in-cheek suggestion of the otherworldly, the former a depiction of the creating of a scarecrow which combines something almost epic and symbolic with down-to -to earth yet beautifully painted images: ‘Then a banger went off, rooks clattered up, / and he left her to flutter in the maize.’ 

     In ‘Swimming with a Charm of Vincent’, set I think in Italy, we have again the evocation of a landscape, a hot place, hinting almost at D.H. Lawrence’s poetry of place, where Vincent, a friend or an imagined presence? also appears to be a reference to Van Gogh (‘Maybe he was troubled / by the lack of sunflowers; / perhaps just pining for France? / He wasn’t much of a talker’) so once again the poem works on two levels, a description of an actual situation with hintings at ‘otherness’, especially given the disappearance by drowning? of the eponymous Vincent. I even had the thought that this might be about Shelley though I admit there is scant evidence for this, just association. The final stanza adds a mythical element and the whole poem manages to combine something almost comic with a more suggestive direction:

          The persimmon sun sank down

          and all his whirling stars came slowly

          out and I thought of Vincent

          rolling with the pebbles in the sea. 

     There are 48 poems in this collection, mainly short pieces, which take in a range of subjects, from climate change and ‘the lockdown,’ to a concern with illness (Parkinson’s disease in particular), the death of parents, the landscape of the South West of England and travels in Italy. My taste in modern poetry is largely for more ‘experimental’ work but I thoroughly enjoyed reading these poems and hope you will too.

Steve Spence 1st July 2022

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