“We survived, but in a different state…”

BOOM!, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Seren 2014, £9-99
reviewed by Judith Taylor


Devoting a full-length collection to a single subject is risky, the intensity of focus potentially offset by repetition or sameness of tone. in BOOM!,Carolyn Jess-Cooke doesn’t completely avoid the pitfalls. The overlap between ‘Working Mother’ and ‘Poem Made from Bits of Newspaper Headlines’, for instance, diminished their impact for me. ‘Working Mother’ is a strong poem, dramatising both the personal impact of motherhood

                                 I was not ready
to leave the softness of her. My life before
peeled keenly from me, old weather

and its politics

Justified myself to strangers.
Argued over Child Tax Credit

and nursery policies and childcare hours,
whether daycare created criminals
and divorce. Comfort ate.

But it suffers from being followed by the second poem, whose “found” examples don’t add anything to what the poet has said more effectively in her own words.

The latter’s closing line (“Who’d be a working mum in the UK?”) illustrates another weakening tendency of some of these poems – obvious choices, either in imagery (maternal protectiveness given the well-worn metaphor “you are/ addressing someone who just became a tiger/ so be careful”, in ‘Different Water’) or in editorialising. ‘What Matters’, for example, describing the horror of losing sight of your toddler in a crowded place, undermines itself with an unsubtle title and conclusion: parental helplessness is more powerfully evoked in the bolder ‘Thetis’, which reaches into the mythic in the face of a child’s illness

                        ….lord of stealing his breath
I who thought I had conquered all by giving life

Lapses like these sell short an interesting collection, which addresses a subject that is still under-explored compared to those with longer-standing canonical status. Alongside lyrical evocations such as ‘The Waking’, ‘Hare’ and ‘Daughtering’

            How deftly you tell my many weathers, human barometer.
How my mother’s words fall out of my mouth
            and then from yours

there are more painful, often more political, poems, enlivened by a broad choice of imagery, as in the title poem:

There was this baby who thought she was a hand grenade.

… she blew us to smithereens.
We survived, but in a different state: you became
       organized, I discovered patience

or ‘The Days of the Ninth Month’, which emulates Sharon Olds’s ‘The Language of the Brag’ without imitating it, drawing on geology, archaeology and Old Testament story for its effects. I particularly liked ‘Motherhood Diptych’, whose medical analogy unfolds in an unexpected and witty direction. The collection opens out, too, in exploring how parenthood can send a person back to re-examine their own childhood, as in ‘Breaking My Father’, or ‘Children of the Bullied’, who roll their eyes at

… a kiss from their anxious
parents, to whom they are
so brave, so unlike them

And there are moments of transcendence, such as the beautiful, spacious ‘Belfast Murmuration’

                  No healing without first being broken

The way one bird shatters into thousands

There is a lot of substance in this collection: more stringent selection and editing, though, would have shown its strengths to better advantage.

Judith Taylor

“The caged sea flows on”

Ghost Pot, John Wedgwood Clarke, Valley Press, £8.99
reviewed by Fiona Moore

ghost pot clarke

The pot of the title poem, first in the book, is a lobster pot whose loss in the sea causes an destructive chain reaction: “The bait will make bait/ of its catch”.

                              The caged sea
flows on as they eat from answer
to question, unpacking their hunger,
one to another, until up it comes, a by-catch,
crammed to the throat with bony shields.

The sonnet’s as thickly woven as the gruesome trap and draws energy from tight syntax, half rhymes half-heard through enjambment, and chewy, unLatinate words. The next seven poems are sonnets too, sharing these characteristics and the North Yorkshire coastal theme: a sequence, though each does something different. If ‘Ghost Pot’ presents a startling image, ‘Limpet’ is a conceit or metaphor of sorts, and other poems range from straight description or family outing to mood poem, as in ‘Black Dog Whelk Feeds on a Barnacle’:

Black Dog Whelk listens through itself
and every move I fail to make,
aches and drills and knows it’s only time
before it thins the dark, a stony light
about to break between table, cup and tap.

Individual poems don’t take an obvious course either – it’s rare to have a sense of where one might go. The jaw-aching language bounces from one set of consonants to the next, barely a human construct but as tangible as the landscapes and objects it describes. Entry to a poem is often slant so that the reader is interestingly disoriented… and then disoriented again when one (e.g. ‘Bait Shed’; the titles are a help) starts with a straightforward description. The oddity of ‘Black Nab’ is typical:

Someone burnt the telephone directory,
cast it in stone: Black Nab is a stub
of illegible numbers and lost addresses.

The stubby rhyme of -ab, -ub and -umb is offset by -phone and stone, and tele-, illegi- and –esses. Humour lurks in such images – a tent in ‘Wild Camping’ is like a mermaid’s purse, a crab in ‘Sandside’ “plays arpeggios on the mud piano,/ his touch like someone picking stitches”. Quoted out of context these might seem arch, but their accuracy and the terse, dense language prevent that. A couple of conceit poems do risk archness, including ‘Kettleness’ whose nursery-rhyme beginning, “I had a little egg timer, nothing would it bear” somehow jars among the ruggedness.

The coast is presented as both timeless and derelict. The environmental impact of “everlasting plastics”, “a tombstone fish box” or the ghost pot itself is rarely that explicit, rather in the background as a shared assumption between writer and reader. People and their moods become an extension of landscape: in ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’, children have “ribs, like hidden gills, slippery under skin”. There’s occasional human comedy, e.g. in ‘Wild Camping’:

He wakes inside, a fading print of himself.
He’s forgotten how to look at her
and looks to make sure she’s there.
But she’s gone, zipping him in,
too hot, shivering him away
in a skitter of cold stones down her spine

Categories in Ghost Pot are as unpredictable as the rest: things that are animal /vegetable /mineral /metaphysical or man-made /natural get described in terms of each other, their boundaries (and those of the senses) surreally mixed up. ‘Marsh Marigold’ begins:

I listened in to light
and heard its yellow hum:
a tuning fork just struck
and planted on my temple.

It was cold and clear as water
dripping from a glacier,
poised as a hare
a blink away from woods.

Nothing could follow on,
not I, not tomorrow nor
next spring. It paused the air
and screwed it tight as stone.

These simple, short verses allow multiple images to stand clear. Anyone reading many denser poems in one sitting might find that the successions of images start to cancel each other out… but who except a reviewer would do that?

Most poems are underlain by iambic pentameter, sometimes faint, other times nearer the surface as in the Black Dog Whelk poem quoted above; and not necessarily going with the line breaks which tend to be spot on. Similarly end rhyme, often half rhyme, comes and goes, not in expected patterns, supplemented by internal rhyme.

The book is beautifully designed and produced, its dimensions making it feel more like a (fat) pamphlet than the full collection it is: like the poems, shortish and packed full of stuff often as strange as the ghost pot, a tribute to the coastscape they celebrate.

Fiona Moore

“death, that tune that keeps on playing in the background”

Cocktails from the Ceiling, Aoife Mannix, tall-lighthouse, £8
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

cocktails from the celing mannix

In a 2012 interview Aoife talks about what poetry is to her:

Poetry for me is somewhere between music and prose. It’s a way of expressing how you experience the world. It can be both intensely personal and intensely political. I think in contemporary society people still turn to poetry to mark the most significant occasions in life such as weddings and funerals. Poetry is a compact and powerful means of revealing our inner most thoughts and feelings.

In Cocktails from the Ceiling we see some of both. The political appears in pieces like ‘The Memory of Water’ talking about the Troubles:

They say water remembers
no matter how diluted, a drop
of blood dissolving in a glass of whisky.

or ‘The Eye of the Needle’, dedicated to Pussy Riot:

I bet when Jesus went into the temple
and started knocking over stalls,
there were those who said this is just
some punk from Bethlehem pulling a PR stunt,

The personal is in poems like ‘Singing’:

You always knew how to name things,
even death, that tune that keeps on
playing in the background.

and ‘Message In A Bottle’:

The nurse said they can still hear you even
from a great distance, even when they are
floating in air and the body is empty.

Someone’s died. Someone who spent time in palliative care. Her Gran, I suspect, who used to serve her “egg sandwiches/ with white wine” and told her “stories of rebellion and theatrical drama”. Hard to be sure but loss and grief hover over this collection. Aoife ends the poem ‘Map Reading’ with the line “time has a very poor sense of direction” and in ‘Going Back’ she talks of a “landscape … buried inside us”. This collection feels like a memoir, whether it is autobiographical or not. I imagine when Aoife leafs through this book it may feel like a map of her life: playing in the church on rainy Sunday afternoons, visiting Dublin, being grilled by a security guard at Stansted, “[t]he clouds over Waterloo Bridge”, sitting in the hospice, a trip to Glasgow, “on the road to God knows where”.

Organising any collection is difficult, trying to plan a route through poems written years apart. I’m sure the order of this collection makes perfect sense to Aoife. I can see there’s a story being told here but I struggled with it and it took me weeks to produce this review. The poems aren’t hard. There’s the odd overtly ‘poetic’ bit—”ghosts/ of butterflies newly born”—which some will scratch their heads at but most of the poetry here’s accessible and personable and certainly anyone who’s lost someone—be it a baby or a grandparent—will be touched by many of these pieces. Little humour here though; it’s not that kind of book. No idea what the title’s all about. It’s a line from a poem but not the one I would’ve picked.

Jim Murdoch

“There will be killing: just done differently”

Mesopotamia, Damian Smyth, Templar Poetry 2014, £10.00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery


The scale and historical sweep of this collection, from ancient history to the violence of the Troubles, reminded me most of Hamish Henderson’s WW2 sequence Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. The tone of Smyth’s poems too shares something of the coolness and rhetoric of Henderson’s elegies which melded a modern mechanised war with the death cults of ancient civilisations. Smyth seems to be doing something similar here, in ‘On the Inscriptions at Van’ where a mummy is shipped over to a museum in Ireland in the mid 1900’s:

For all her enchantments,
her name and her prayers
and disappointing tattoos
like some drowned sailor,

I might have seen her,
bony and wasted,
her womb and heart raided
in the Down infirmary.

Poetry such as this is not to be entered into lightly for entertainment’s sake alone, it often offers a didactic and, at its best, transformative experience. These poems surround the reader with the presence of the past and the immediacy of ancient and recent strife and the triumph of poetry in a war-zone which is so antipathetic to its creation in the first place. Now and again I heard echoes of Geoffrey Hill in these poems, often in taking a simple image and making it new by cloaking it in unusual diction: “an engine’s rough berceuse” in the poem ‘Obituary’, for instance.

Reading these poems, I have no doubts about the serious intentions of Smyth as an artist, but I kept feeling that some of his imagery was just a little bit too easy and kitchen-sink, such as “Downpatrick weather. Mist over the swamp / grey as widows’ washing strung on a hedge”. I can picture this image well, but I cannot believe in it. This is the same when the pained cries of a heifer with a broken back are compared to the noise of “dishevelled wind instruments” – a striking image, for sure, but not up the task in terms of intensity and like the image of the girl killed in a car-crash “found pressed to the windscreen like a starfish”. Other times Smyth often re-uses tropes such as the “asterisks” of spilled blood or comparing (as George Mackay Brown did) gravestones to boat sails. That said, these poems now and again scintillate with an unexpected image, as in the title poem where:

(…) For a moment along the River Quoile the beeches
are so big in autumn, so blown, they are like high-rise buildings
with all the lights on (…)

Mesopotamia is a richly layered and researched collection, it even contains a bibliography and list of further reading, which shows something of the edifying aspects of Smyth’s poetry. Scottish poet Alan Riach has recently argued that the arts “teach us how to live” and Smyth’s poems seem to offer case-studies on ways in which lives have been lived and wasted, hinting all the time at how they can be bettered. Hamish Henderson in his sequence spends a lot of time arguing that we put so much of “our human iron” into fighting and pursuing death and the subtext to Mesopotamia is the life and times of Orientalist Rev. Edward Hincks who spent much of his life trying to decipher the hieroglyphs of a culture that spent its time and energy on war and death. Smyth positions himself well to chronicle vanishing eras of social and national history, but his poetry refuses to offer any simple or glib answers on the nature of how we live, engage with other cultures and protect our notions of ‘home’:

It’s more a new exhaustion borne from peace
which must be endured; this trope; the pretence
that when violence subsides there is ease
and plenty, just reward for innocence.

There will be killing: just done differently
and more slowly and by a different name.

[‘Lapis Lazuli’]

Richie McCaffery

“a mix of specific and general images”

The Hitting Game, Graham Clifford, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Emma Lee

the_hitting_game_cover_quicksand cover

Graham Clifford is a master of the knowing, wryly observed, composed magazine-length poem with a wide range of subject matter: pin ball machines (the title poem), relationships, job interviews, hotel rooms, the best poem ever or technology. In ‘Restoring “graham”’ he imagines being restored to factory settings:

a couple of hundred high frequency words
in a West Country accent;
the smell of Talcum, and jumper wool
after a Sunday morning roasting pork;
shoulder-length hair, lighter from the sun;
flared second-hand 501s brimmed over;
the recurring dream of being able to back flip;
your hand making the Millennium Falcon
skimming hedges; TV warming up
in the next room; cloud-rammed evenings;
a long, plummeting cello chord
from the music on a cigar advert;
perpetual municipal shrubbery;
the phone ringing – it’s always for you;
freckles they say will fade but don’t
until you decide you want them
charting teeming constellations
even on your lips.

This program is installed as a failsafe.
Good luck.

The reference to “high frequency words” so apt for a teacher. Its dry tone, slightly tongue in cheek, and conversational rhythm is typical of the poems throughout. ‘Restoring “graham”’ is a satisfying stand-alone poem with humour linking the list of slightly uncool images and a mix of specific and general images so the poem is both personal and recognisable to appeal to a wide audience. Accumulated images carry ‘What I Really Want to Do’ as well. The poem’s set during a job interview, although readers never discover what job the interview was for:

He tells me about him: he loves opera.
His hands are thick and small and he’s perspiring
in the receding Vs and he writes
articles on interview techniques for IT graduates,
and reviews opera.

He doesn’t say for whom.
Sometimes he’s in Geneva.
He has a suit on. No tie: it is Saturday.
But what do I really want to do?

I hold my hands out, palms up.
They’re empty.

It captures that sense of someone with no clear career path being offered an interview for which they are out of their depth because they know they can’t give the honest answer, “I need to pay bills and this seems OK.” But it doesn’t give any sense of the person caught in the dilemma. Readers can’t engage in the drama of the poem because they don’t know the narrator enough to know whether the job offer will be a good or bad thing.

In ‘Trying’ a partner asks the narrator about trying for a baby, telling him about the birth of a previous child. The first stanza:

You tell me there wasn’t one midwife
but you were visited by a set of four
on a rotating shift and when you split
like an overripe momento mori fig
it happened to be the nice one
with different David-Bowie eyes,
who stank of smoke,
telling you to breathe – like you’d forget!

In the second stanza the woman describes the feeling of the baby moving mid-pregnancy, like a moth fluttering. Readers never find out whether they try or not. Of course a writer may choose how much or how little to reveal about themselves and every writer draws on personal experience and I’m not suggesting that Graham Clifford should reveal more about his personal life, but the absence of information limits the longevity of the poems to one or two readings rather than rewarding repeated visits.

Emma Lee

“It’s time to be the people we’ll become”

My Family and Other Superheroes, Johnathan Edwards, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Pippa Little

edwards my family

The poems in My Family and Other Superheroes are engaging, warm and deceptively straightforward. They gather in memories and experiences from family life in small-town post-industrial South Wales with exuberant imagery and an affectionate yet gimlet-eyed perspective. Edwards tells a great story and he has the advantage of his dry humour to tell it with, in all its human foibles and absurdities. He is particularly acute on Welshness, as in the poem ‘In John F. Kennedy International Airport’ where the ‘toothy blonde’ at checkout is asked why “the flight to Cardiff’s off” and replies “Wales/has been cancelled”.

This collection has more to it than a celebration of times past and present, however, no matter how well the poet achieves these aims. Edwards’ voice is more interesting than that. His poetry explores time in ways that remind me of the magic realists and it is this treatment of time, I believe, which is the core of this collection. It’s certainly what draws me in as a reader.

On one hand Edwards’ sharp eye shows us a recognisable scenario of depressed contemporary terraced streets, kebab houses, Starbucks and football pitches peopled with familiar figures – the bus driver, the girl on the make-up counter, the local bullies who are brothers, skateboard kids – within the melancholy palimpsest of a lost mining industry and damaged remnants of that culture.

On the other, the imaginative range of that poetic eye turns it all inside out. Time becomes a living medium, moves back and forth through human lives: we don’t pass the time but time passes through us and then comes back for us, doing as it pleases. As in ‘The Bloke in the Coffee Shop’, who is “soon to be himself, but somewhere else”, time is the active force and it is anything but linear or formal or controlled. It is anarchic and passionate as in the strongest, most compelling poems here, ‘My Uncle Walks to Work, 1962’, ‘Capel Celyn’, ’Anatomy’, ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin…’, ‘Half Time..’ and ‘Building My Grandfather’, where accepted notions of past and present transform into something part sinister, part exultant.
The overall effect is magical and the poems glow with re-reading. Whether wryly recalling his mother’s voice or re-arranging his family members in a human pyramid, the poet’s ability to create a plausible yet surreal universe makes for a far from comfortable read but definitely a most fascinating one. One line stays with me, the final line from ‘Half Time, Wales v. Germany, Cardiff Arms Park, 1991’, when the poet relives his youthful relationship with his father: “it’s time to be the people we’ll become.”

Pippa Little

“the times awry and nature out of it”

Sister Invention, Judith Kazantzis, Smokestack, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Sister Invention cover 10-2013 FINAL_Layout 1

Sister Invention is Judith Kazantzis’s first major collection for a decade and her subjects include death, both personal and via reported news, the reconfiguration of Greek myths from a feminist perspective, and the birth of a grandchild: all with a contemporary feel. Writing from the perspective of the overlooked wife of a historically famous figure is not a new idea and the success of such a poem relies on credibility: how likely is the voice in the poem that of the wife? Judith Kazantzis gives a voice to Mrs William Blake in ‘Mrs Blake’s Poe

Long long ago
the lion lay down with me
under the palm tree in the garden

His sturdy, meaty lamb,
I pulled the beauty
like stringy old beans out of his sore throat
line by line
There now, like – a red flannel!

He laughed at me
flung the flannel dramatically
into the lavender
I discreetly skipped out of the way
as it were, into the shady fold
of the page

Not only is the scenario and language realistic but the poet also resists giving Mrs Blake a modern sensibility. Gardens are useful metaphors and their landscapes can reflect the inner emotional landscape of the narrator. This is used to good effect in ‘Dick Cheyney’s Garden’, a sequence where the narrator discusses events, political and personal decisions away from the pressures of the White House and heated debates of The Senate. In Part III ‘Walking the long lawns’, Dick Cheyney muses on the emblematic attack on 9/11:

I switch on. Toy puffs blow Meccano planes
into Lego buildings, like the Spitfires
my little brothers used to circle
like wasps over the red carpet, bang, bang.
You couldn’t wring from the box more
than the voice knew, that sequence all day,
as modern transport scored its third,
and for all time, we were told, assured
legislated to believe: The world intuned,
the times awry
                           and nature out of it.

The poem captures the sense of disbelief of seeing a game most children play a variation of: crashing a toy plane into a toy building enacted on an adult, real scale. It’s accompanied by the modern need to know more: to have the answers after a few taps into a search engine and the frustration that the TV can only broadcast to, not interact with, its audience. The final line quoted doesn’t just underline the unnatural act but is also a reminder that Cheyney in is his garden, and the garden does more than act as a backdrop. The long sentences mirror the narrator’s thinking: small jumps from one point to the next. This politician doesn’t have grand ideas or big answers but reflects and reacts. Judith Kazantzis doesn’t just stop at 9/11 but continues into contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Syria. ‘The bombed woman’ could be any women caught up in war:

All the times the screaming head,
the bombed woman,
sees the planes about to
sees her town, her children, herself.
All those times
inside this skull
out through this mouth
sorrow’s grinding scream
protrudes its lava

The description is visual and also non-judgmental. Her focus is on the victims not the perpetrators. Judith Kazantzis records and assesses with compassion. She doesn’t write the victims’ response for them or resort to cliché. There’s no space for sentimentality here.

Sister Invention is large in scope but successfully woven together with no frayed edges. Judith Kazantzis’s tone varies from contemporary detail to lyricism. Her poems reward re-reading and it’s a book to dip into frequently.

Emma Lee

“now I am becoming my own tree”

The Moon Before Morning, W. S. Merwin, Bloodaxe 2014, £12-00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

9 x 6in wraparound 128pp
I could waste a lot of words reiterating how important and distinguished an American poet Merwin is, but instead will let his reputation speak for itself. This latest collection, The Moon Before Morning, contains some of the most luminous poems I’ve read for a while, but I feel, at four sections, this collection is over-long. Sections II and III contain the kernel of the collection, with some of the most memorable poems lodged here. Section I concerns poems of gardens, looking out of windows, ‘fronds’ in nearly every poem – these mark time and its passing. These poems are acts of intense scrutiny of the outside world, but from the stance of an old man pottering around his garden. As good as these are, I’d say this section could have been weeded down to a few poems which mark the poet’s old age and his present position in the world. That said, ‘Footholds’ speaks most powerfully about the evanescence of human actions and activities in the landscape:

Where I dug the logs into the rise
to make the steps along the valley
I forget how many years ago
their wood has dissolved completely now
yet I set my feet down in the same
places I did when the steps were there
Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley this morning

In Section II Merwin moves into more biographical and narrative modes, often delving into his childhood. In ‘Green Fence’, there is a fence built by the speaker’s father to protect the young son from the imagined baleful influences of the outside world. This fence, however, does not preserve anything but instead segregates and alienates the boy from people outside it. In similar terrain as ‘Footholds’ ‘Cancellation’ shows how all of the buildings which helped educate or form the boy who became the man are now demolished and yet:

(…) I still know
the way to it
down the avenue and across
and I carry with me the stories
weightless as shadows
of its cold walls

In ‘Relics’ we discover that before the speaker even knew the word ‘obsolete’ he loved the neglected, the derelict and decrepit, the broken-down, the rusty, and the spectral places brought to life in the poems quoted above. The recurring idea of the interstitial, nether world is most wittily explored in ‘Neither Here nor There’. Here, and in ‘Convenience’ Merwin casts a critical and penetrating eye over America’s love of soulless commercial spaces. ‘Convenience’ verges on the preachy for its itemisations of all that has been lost to erect concrete temples to our ‘convenience’, but ‘Neither Here nor There’ seems to perfectly distil the ethos of the airport:

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there


you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air

Similarly in ‘The Latest Thing’ the songs of birds are forgotten in cities because the cities themselves are ‘made of absences’. In Section III we get a sense of a poet forming, of a boy growing up, tinged also with the closeness of poems which look back in retrospect on a life, such as ‘Wild Oats’ where the speaker is unrepentant:

I needed my mistakes
in their own order
to get me here


in my youth I believed in somewhere else
I put faith in travel
now I am becoming my own tree.

This sense of travelling far yet remaining rooted in place ties this section back to the first, and the final section explores most poignantly the prospect of getting older. Yet even here there is ample evidence to point towards a new lease of life, or another direction. In ‘Turning’ the speaker looks back on a life of rushing around, a hectic pace that did not allow him the chance to stop and touch others, and then:

this morning the Belgian shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time?

This does not sound like Les Murray’s ‘black dog’ of depression but a portent of taking control of one’s life through poetry. The four separate sections of this collection speak for different aspects and stages of Merwin’s life to create a sort of poetic bildungsroman, or to show the making of a poet, first in old age and then the journey to that age. Although I began this review by saying this collection could be shorter, the long and rich life it speaks for in such a singular way I can only admire.

Richie McCaffery

“sending the work outwards…”

Find an Angel and Pick a Fight, Peter McCarey, Molecular Press, 2013, £17.70
reviewed by Ira Lightman

mccarey find an angel
Readable and with a sort of bracing corrective seriousness on how to live, rather than how to be righteous, this collection of articles and reviews is finally indigestible, too pugnacious with too little revision, fathoming or empathising. McCarey is facile trashing writers like Antin and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. But there is a bringing together of fascinating abstract areas – translating poetry, music, maths. Ultimately, McCarey tells us these areas ought to relate. So we do our own relating, then help McCarey out with it? The computationally talented polyglot lacks sufficient intellection and overview but not smugness. His title comes from his own (not very good) poem quoted in the book, and its angel part is not really explained – though there are pleasing glances at faith ventilating a sometimes materialistic (“I can’t see what this means”) grumpiness. Self-belief improvises unrevised into unauthoritative prose of nevertheless lively style – good creative writing, in other words, without the glib sob of conventional prose and poetry.

McCarey resists the sentimental pull, and his take on Leonard and on colleagues like Riach is usefully prickly – although one warms more to Leonard and Riach than to McCarey.

His didactic paraphrasing at length and extensive footnoting is generous, sending the work outwards rather than to the specialist fraternity. The sensibility remains partial, picks fights. He freely says in places that he has just written the previous sentence, as if the essay were a terrific live activity – which is what my favourite of his poetry does (at www.thesyllabary.com, with paraphernalia of scientific thorough variety of vowel and consonant combinations and diaristic jumpy-sultry poems). He says that he doesn’t get things – the Walter Benjamin or Laura Riding essay he’s just alluded to – and one wonders why he doesn’t fetch in a good interpretation of them by others; or just give it more of a try?

There are nice short essays on Prynne, which look, without the hagiography of Prynne’s (creepily encouraged, paternalistic) circle, for the raw impact of the poems on a speculating poetry reader. There’s a good blast at Geoffrey Hill’s morbid self-advancement, tallying with my favourite rare 70s bitchy essay by John Ashbery about the English scene and the young Hill prowling Cambridge on the make.

McCarey for me is strongest on questioning the nostra of poetry translation. He is a useful critic to think with here. He may comment on an Edwin Morgan’s statement (that translation is getting at the under-ghost-text) only by obfuscating Morgan and nipping at his ankles. But he rises to points that show our monoglottism. Writers from other countries may not like us for patting fellow English-language speakers on the back for being also insular. Or crass. A quest for precision doesn’t fully dispel, however, what one feels is the strange pull on McCarey of the extrovert, improper and unchaste hinted in the “helps explain” of his nevertheless fascinating sentence:

“The foreign reader sees a poem shorn of the day-to-day, the ephemeral; its outline is clearer, its context and associations less so, its register and accent might not be caught. (Maybe this helps explain why the likes of Poe and Byron could mean more at times to the French and Germans than to native English speakers.)”

Ira Lightman

“the ultimate blank space on which to project things…”

Little Blue Man, Clive Watkins (photographs by Susan de Sola), 2013
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

little blue man
Although it isn’t made clear in this long poem, interspersed with photographs of a small blue Thunderbirds figurine in various tableaux, the little blue man is probably Alan Tracy, judging by his bright, auric hair. Putting Alan Tracy in a series of often incongruous settings brings to my mind Pittenweem artist Reinhard Behren’s ‘Naboland’ project, where he sets a small, battered toy submarine into all of his paintings. This pamphlet carries as an epigraph the zeugma of George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” On the surface, it seems as if this poem will serve as a picaresque for Alan Tracy’s adventures in the world, following the traditional anthropomorphic pattern of toys in imaginative literature, but it quickly becomes apparent that Clive Watkins’s notion of play is quite different.

The little blue man remains very much an insentient plastic toy, but he is cast as a pawn or victim of the whims of the artist and then the poet looking at, and responding to, the artist’s photographs which are a stylised version of reality. He is the ultimate blank space on which to project things, ideas and emotions. The tone of the poem is grandiosely mock-heroic, like that of a bijou Odysseus, or Orpheus searching the underworld for some sort of meaning or purpose:

Dashing homunculus of blue and dauntless eye,
intrepid fingerling, dainty portable hero,
stiff little plastic Galahad great of heart,
steadfast pocket-deliverer, how did he fetch up here
translated into our world with its pitiless light,
the voluptuous gravity of its almost intangible dark?

The florid tone, although meant to be ironic and funny, can sometimes drag and reads a little prosaically, it is only when combined with the photos that the wittiness becomes apparent. We are shown a picture of the little blue man bending over, looking at two severed limbs from a ‘Buzz Light-Year’ toy. The poet offers a non-diegetic voice to what we must already be thinking:

For surely he is in Hell? Look how he views
the wretched fate of his compeer,
stout paladin, voyager to Infinity and Beyond,
whom a malign power (herself?) has torn
limb from limb and scattered on the cold asphalt

It would be unfair to say this pamphlet is the product purely of play, of poet and photographer having a bit of fun and encouraging the reader to join in. It seems to be doing something more complex and nuanced than this. The ‘quest’ the poet speaks about in the closing lines suggests that the whole project has been an enquiry into creativity and artistic collaboration and how poetry, notoriously thought of as being concerned with itself and its own abstractions, is coming out of itself to comment on the process of the photographer and how they stage their scenes, and so the pamphlet unfolds on multiple levels of like-minded creative processes.

Richie McCaffery