Monthly Archives: September 2013

“leaving meaning on the banks”

Evenlode by Charles Bennett (Oversteps Books, £8)
reviewed by Russell Jones
Messages of Change[1]

“… By showing me what
I could never really know, it made me a scholar.” [‘Tortoise’]

Bennett’s Evenlode is primarily a collection of nature (or herbalist) poems with a near-mystical feel. A great many of its poems maintain the energy of a lazy river, picking up stark images that drop into its current en route. The amalgamation produces a sense of spellbinding, an almost-hypnotic quality in which the reader might lose themselves in the aural potency of Bennett’s language, leaving meaning on the banks, like lovers’ strewn clothes, for us to collect later on. All well and good! Take, for example, Bennett’s opening lines to the poem, ‘Tansy’:

If I left a trail of tansy –
pungent plebs of yellow calyx-stubs
in a trickle of sticky glimmers

Here, Bennett’s opening takes advantage of the alliterative ‘t’ (“If I left a trail of tansy”) and then the repeated ‘p’ of “pungent plebs” to build a sense of pace and rhythm, only for it to become “stub[bed]” and “sticky” as the trochaic pattern breaks down. This is a somewhat technical way of suggesting that the sound of his language often assists the meaning of the poem itself. And yet concrete meaning is something that is frequently avoided in Evenlode; indeed the ambiguity of language and the enigmatic nature of (mis)understanding are key focuses of this collection, a tension which often works but sometimes unravels in its own attempts at clarity.

The most affective and effective poems of Evenlode are those that bask in the pleasure of enigma, an attempt to “show … me what / I could never really know” through what is unsaid or purposefully missed out. It is this invigorating effect of ambiguity, the reader’s interpretation brought about through a poem’s indistinction, that fizzes in the ear and lingers on the mind:

And here in the cup of your hands
is a nest for rain        for a bird
of water to open its split wings

Here is a space where a song
might grow like a leaf        could fly
down summer to the fruit

[from ‘Birds Nesting in Dunsfold Orchard’]

We are drawn to fill in those white spaces, to construct the image in our own understanding of the world, in the “cup of your hands”, in the “space where a song / might grow”.

Those poems which are less successful unwittingly undo this ‘personalisation’ by unnecessary references and a predilection towards absolutes. ‘When Beowulf Flew’, for example, lengthily reminds the reader that it is referring to “the night of October 23rd 1731, when the library of medieval manuscripts owned by Sir Robert Cotton caught fire”. Meanwhile, several poems make allusions to other texts (sometimes with extensive footnotes), detracting from their emotional resonance by insisting on an academic understanding that potentially undermines the value of the reader’s perception.

Even so, Evenlode surprised me; the quality of Bennett’s ear is undeniable and transfers excellently to the page, whilst a subtle appreciation for visual experiment adds another layer for readers to swim through and enjoy at their leisure.

Russell Jones

“the shifting nature of recollection”

Mother Departs, Tadeusz Różewicz (translated by Barbara Bogoczek, edited and introduced by Tony Howard), Stork Press, £8.99
reviewed by Clare Best

The moments and fragments by which lives are remembered can seem random, but in the emergent patterns we recognise sophisticated coping mechanisms and, in work of this kind by a great artist, transformation.

The book’s form situates the mother figure at the centre of narrative and text, ensuring that far from departing, she is ever present. With its montage of different voices (that of Tadeusz’s mother, Stefania; those of his brothers Janusz and Stanislaw; the several forms of his own voice in prose and poems, diaries and reflections) speaking from the wide historical and emotional sweep of the subject matter (a family in Poland 1900-1982), the book holds Stefania’s testimony and the testimonies of her sons. It becomes a memorial to them all, not in a fixed way, as a tomb or single poem might, but respecting the shifting nature of recollection.

From her own extraordinary accounts of girlhood in Tsarist Wielun in the early 20th century, to descriptions of Tadeusz’s birth in 1921, we gain insights into Stefania’s personality: “I loved listening to the people in the village telling me tales about the ghosts and other times.”

Tadeusz’s poems, at the heart of the book, beat with the warmth and devotion of a son writing of every mother, for every child, yet the details are so spare and precise that the particular emotions, the actual people, are fully evoked:

Suddenly the window will open
and mother will call me
time to go in

the wall will split
I’ll enter heaven in muddy boots

I’ll sit at the table and spit
answers to questions […]

Here in heaven mothers are knitting
green woollen scarves […]


‘a woman in black walks on roses’ demonstrates Różewicz’s exceptional empathic powers allowing him to take the point of view of the mother watching the son leave, as well as the point of view of the son leaving the mother. I was mesmerised in this and other poems by such pure expressions of the terrible normal dilemmas of being human – love and loss, attachment destined for detachment, hope and despair, faith and doubt.

The Gliwice Diary, placed after the poems, and chronicling Tadeusz’s experience of events around his mother’s death in 1957, takes us back into raw loss. But because we are already aware of this death through the poems, and feel we ‘know’ the dying person, and because there are sections yet to come, the diary somehow holds hindsight, distance. We know this moment too will pass.

There are final pieces by Tadeusz and his brothers, with affecting recollections (e.g. of a vase) that hold huge symbolic significance as representations of maternal presence. A fragment of a letter from Janusz (who was tortured by the Gestapo and died in 1944) and a short memoir by Stanislaw, who lived until 2008, only underline the chanciness of who dies young and who survives.

The closing words, from Stanislaw, “Whatever was dearest and most beautiful in our home, was Mum,” summarise the clear intent and the poignancy of this subtle and stunning work which has been beautifully translated by Barbara Bogoczek.

Clare Best

“imaginative stretch and mordant absurdity”

Mortality Rate, Andrew Elliott, CB Editions, £10.00
reviewed by Pippa Little

elliott mortality rate
Some poetry connects with me immediately. I’m aware that my tastes are formed and I tend to ‘like what I know’, though I’m also curious about work which scratches my comfort zones. First readings of Mortality Rate left me feeling itchy: long, involved and convoluted syntax, proliferations of imagery, not so much taking a line for a walk as for a gallop – all these I had to, I felt, wade through before ‘getting’ the poems. But then a strange thing happened – the more poems I read, the more I began to enjoy them. I found myself wondering about them after I’d put the book down, a sure sign that this collection had got under my skin.

The collection is large: 144 pages full of outpouring and urgency as if after too long a silence. Through torrents of words and absurd, surreal situations however, there is always a controlling blade-edge of wit. And sometimes Andrew Elliott is really very funny, as in the poem ‘Teeth’, which begins: “Someday you will be there, in bed with a woman,/ when the telephone rings and it’s your dentist” : fearless in his dealings with sex and intimacy or the lack of it, using humour like a pair of tongs to pick up and examine close up something too potent for bare hands.

Identity is conditional, the poems anti-confessional: the ‘I’ is continually modified into “I am like the kind of man who…”, (my italics). One example in ‘Middle Man’ confounds expectations from the first line break : “ I am like the kind of man who took his own life/ by the scruff of the neck and…” In ‘Security’, in answer to the question “…Are they true,/all the things that you say in your poems?” the weary ‘I’ only winks, smiles and tells his readers “The book is the ointment that the fly has crawled out of…” (poet’s italics).

One stand-out sequence is ‘The Man’s Middle Leg Is a Lady’s Leg’ which contains twelve poems with titles such as ‘Gangland’, ‘Filling Station’, ‘Scholarship Boy’, ‘Young Mother’. The ‘it’ in each is a leg and each poem begins “…Shapely, shaved”. There follow exquisitely clever evocations, in different contexts, of defining moments of a ‘reveal’ – when something (symbolised by the leg) emerges from concealment into the world’s gaze. I don’t think I can pin down what the poem’s ‘about’, nor would I want to, but it speaks to me of the experience and practice of writing poetry itself and I love its imaginative stretch and mordant absurdity. Of course the ‘middle leg’ is also phallic and situates the creative urge as masculine, yet Elliott brilliantly subverts chauvinist implications by objectifying the disembodied part exactly as female body parts are objectified in contemporary culture. I found this poem really thought-provoking both in its scope and form.

So I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is huge and does feel a bit overstuffed – “The plot has been lost. Who lost it? Hard to say –“ is the first line in ‘Plot’, but a narrative trail would be too reductive for these poems. They are rich and funny and sad, and, full of peculiar treasures, deserve to be read and read again.

Pippa Little

“a balancing and a completeness”

Travel Light Travel Dark John Agard, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

john-agard-travel-light-travel-darkTravel Light Travel Dark suggests a balancing and a completeness. Reflection is a persistent theme, the act not only of an individual looking from themselves to the outside world but also looking from outside in. The collection is loosely based around themes, starting with the colour poems which are untitled and don’t seek to distinguish shades or hues. Red is simply red, never scarlet, carnelian or poppy. The concern is with what the colours represent, e.g. “They say the poem dressed in white/ takes on the role of the angelic host/ for those who trust in the footprints of ghosts.” The generic “they say” and “those who” suggests the poet’s narrator doesn’t share these beliefs but is writing at one remove. These aren’t poems of solid foundation where a narrator shares a viewpoint, but rather rafts where the readers come aboard and let the river carry them.

A discovery that Jimi Hendrix had lived at 23 Brook Street Mayfair and Handel at number 25 inspires ‘Jimi Hendrix and Handel Under One Roof’ as the building is now combined into one.

Rumour has it a pair of ghosts, one white one black,
would flutter over chords and choral counterpoint.
Sometimes they’d share a hug, sometimes a joint.

But you know how gossip multiplies the truth.
Mostly H and H spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days
when childhood’s oratorios bloomed in a purple haze.

I appreciate the rhythms and references but wanted more detail rather than the throwaway comment, “spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days,” which is too generic to be specific to Hendrix or Handel

An actor considers the ethics of “blacking up” to play a character in ‘White Actor Prepares To Be Othello’,

Shall I invoke the muse of melanin?
Perhaps root out my family tree
for traces of a darker kin?
What if I inject a street-cred note
with some hiphop in my stride
to modernise his Moorish pride?
Ah, Max Factor to the rescue.
Mahogany, my instant hue.
We’re halfway there.
I smell catharsis in the air.
Yes, I shall blacken my face
and be quite beautiful.
A relaxed lion.
I’ll thread the thin line of race.
Inhale his story.
Lose myself in the folly
of skin.
A white handkerchief my nemesis.

Again, John Agard builds the raft but lets readers decide if this is a successful Othello or not. It successfully captures that there’s more to becoming a character than painting skin or donning a costume. There’s history, attitude and pose. The white actor never asks if he should play the part at all: the readers get to do that.

Travel Light Travel Dark has a thematic coherence and shows a poet in command of language. John Agard has a keen ear for rhythm using colloquial speech, or traditional calypsos, with some poems using phonetic spellings to capture accented speech and cross-cultural connections.

Emma Lee

“Recommended Retail Prices, art / with a capital R”

INSTANT-fLEX 718, Heather Phillipson, Bloodaxe, £8.95
reviewed by Dave Coates

Heather Phillipson is well-regarded as a conceptual artist and, while her brash primary colours employed there are engaging and enthusiastic, this approach doesn’t translate well to the page in her debut collection, INSTANT-fLEX 718. The book suffers primarily from a paucity of emotional engagement, secondarily from the author’s impulse to drop names/big words in place of a poem’s motivating concept. For example, ‘Relational Epistemology,’ which begins:

‘It’s whatever you want it to be,’ said my father
after he bisected My Little Pony and used her in a sculpture.
At bedtime he read me Kafka’s short fiction.

After mentioning Kafka, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, little is made of their presence. They appear as decoration and leave little impression on the poem’s substance. A self-consciously esoteric story about a young girl trying to be normal in an excessively intellectual home, it is too hung up on its own cleverness to include the reader.

The book is also slightly problematic when it encounters the poet’s body, in poems like ‘German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’, ‘Although You Do Not Know Me, My Name is Patricia’ and ‘Horse Jacuzzi’. In all cases the female body is presented straight-facedly as desirable object; although not necessarily harmful in isolation, in context with our culture at large it’s unedifying to see this harmful trope go so unchallenged. A cover blurbs reads, “[HP’s] poems fuse subterranean erotic landscapes with the complex pleasures of thought”; there are far more complex pleasures of thought found in Sharon Olds’ and Sinead Morrissey’s most recent books, and means of discussing sex, sexuality and women’s bodies without such simple objectification.

The book occasionally comes close to genuine sentimental power before falling foul of its worst instincts. In ‘The Baby [hereafter referred to as ‘The Baby’] hereby contracts with The Mother [hereafter referred to as ‘The Mother’] –’, Phillipson describes how “Time will be diced into a number of segments. Now/ it is one thousand four hundred and forty minutes per day,// The Baby will look peppier every second,/ reminding The Mother of mortal human frailty.” The conceit and execution are excellent; how often do we reprimand ourselves for feeling contractually obliged to those we love most? But in the closing stanzas the poet indulges a tendency for cuteness with a six-line list of things The Baby will get used to, like “rhinoplasty, ritual polygamy, Recommended Retail Prices, art/ with a capital R”, which hamstrings the poem’s interior strength.

INSTANT-fLEX 718 relies too heavily on the reader necessarily caring about its vignettes of modern, solitary city life; one of the book’s shortcomings is a failure to translate the passionate episodes from the poet’s experience into something emotionally recognisable. To put it bluntly, sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly what Phillipson wants to convey. Had the poet taken more care in crafting the dramatic core of these poems and less on their idiosyncratic exteriors, this would have been a far stronger collection.

Dave Coates

“the poetry clings to people for dear life”

The Stern Wave, Noel King, €12.00, Salmon Poetry
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

The Stern Wave
If Paul Valery was right and “poems are never finished—just abandoned” then what each reader brings to the table is as important as the poet’s contribution. The Stern Wave’s blurb says that King “plays with our sense of environmental conscience” but after a first read-through if asked I’d have said, “This is all about family.” It’s actually somewhat broader than that; it’s about interrelationships, social interactions. The blurb also says that King “takes on many personas” which he does and many of them are familial: “granny always said”, “my uncle’s cattle”, “helping his father”, “I met my wife”, “her toddler takes a pee”, “mother’s 75th birthday beckons”. Often they connect in run-of-the-mill ways; poetry mined from day-to-day mundanity. Hard not to think of Larkin.

The opening poem about a suicidal painter, from which the collection borrows its title, didn’t grab me but with the second, ‘Puzzle’, things started to come into focus:

On top of my mother’s jigsaw
I place study stuff
and the Collins Dictionary

By the fourth poem, ‘Mummies’, which is set in 1974, I found myself conjuring up a world I was comfortable with; I definitely look back on the seventies through rose-tinted glasses. There’s a poignancy here as well as a suffusion of nostalgia or perhaps that’s me; hard to tell. Suffice to say these poems ache. Noel King was born and lives in Tralee, Ireland so, unsurprisingly, certain cultural references escaped me: I had to google “GAA” (Gaelic Athletic Association) and “go hálainn” (beautifully) but I got the gist just fine. Poems like ‘Man on a Tractor in County Laois’ inevitably remind one of a young Heaney.

These are meat and two veg poems lightly seasoned with metaphorical language. King serves up strong imagery—arguably poetry in its purest form—and many pieces hinge on what I call the “eh moment”, the one that comes before the “aha moment”:

Drunk’s Wife

She wanted her left
hand to be free,
release the ring
she no longer saw herself in.

It was stuck fast
above the knuckle
until they pulled it off
in the morgue.

On one level it’s obvious what’s happened. Then you wonder if you read it right. Maybe it’s not as straightforward as you first thought—maybe the ring’s like a boxing ring; maybe her husband punched her—and then it dawns on you.

There’s much pain in these poems—a child clamours for attention, a husband can’t face his wife, a mistress feels for her lover’s wife, an adulteress hangs herself but only after she’s washed a clean frock to be buried in—but it’s leavened with wry, tongue-in-cheek humour.

If a tree fell in the forest and there was no one there to commemorate it would there be any poetry? For all Nature tries to assert herself in this collection (mainly through water), the poetry clings to people for dear life. And it’s them you’ll remember.

You can read five of his poems here and hear him recite another here.

Jim Murdoch