Monthly Archives: October 2013

“a sense of incompleteness”

This is Yarrow by Tara Bergin (Carcanet, £9.95)
reviewed by Russell Jones

Bergin, This is Yarrow
Tara Bergin’s debut collection, This is Yarrow, promises “sensuous, supple lyricism” and “unsettling familiarity of folklore, fairytale and dream”. These are exciting qualities to me, and with this blurb excerpt playing on my mind I started the book enthusiastically. But, please believe me, I find this difficult to say: I didn’t like this book.

My difficulty comes here: there’s a curved line to draw between objectively appreciating that the poems are well constructed and considered, and my own reaction as I close the covers. Bergin’s formal experiments are to be admired as they frequently, although not always, inform the poems’ contents. Her more musical pieces also arrest the ear. And yet I came away so often unaffected and – dare I say it – uninterested, that many of the poems were forgotten almost as soon as I’d read them. Take the poem, ‘Candidate’, for example; a series of 5 interview questions and proposed tips for answering:

1. Can you tell me about yourself?
Many candidates are tripped up by this. Here’s an example of what
to say: ‘I have 10 years of experience in the accounting profession.’

The poem continues in a similar vein, ending on a recommendation:

6. Remember: displaying grace under pressure will highlight your
professionalism and help you to stand out as a prospective member
of the company.

Here, the formal layout and Bergin’s almost-mechanised matter-of-fact language suits the content, but the poem doesn’t make enough of a statement or lead us to any new insight. So many of the poems lead us down a path that never goes anywhere satisfactory. So many of them explore “almosts” and “not quites”, absences that left the collection and the reader feeling ethereal and distant, unchallenged and unaffected. Of course I could accept that this might be the point, and the fragmented narratives that form the collection do build a sense of incompleteness that rings true, but it’s far from thrilling and the parts never quite fit together to make a sense of a whole.

There are some outstanding poems. In particularly, the title poem, ‘This is Yarrow’ (the closing poem), blends the real with the surreal in a dream-like incantation whose reality permeates to create a splendid tension that I wish so many of the poems had also achieved:

[…] and in this dream I went up to the dirty bus station
and I saw the black side of the power station
as if the brown moth’s tapping at the window
made me say it I said, do you still love me?

Others that do stay with me include ‘White Crow’, ‘The Passion Flower’ and ‘St Patrick’s Day Address, 1920’, each resonating with a sense of loss and displacement in their relative worlds. But there simply wasn’t enough for me to cling on to from This is Yarrow: I wanted to sense, to feel, to understand but, with the exception of a few glittering lights among the darkness, I saw almost nothing.

Russell Jones

“an ancient form of visual writing”

The Sun-Artist, Susan Connolly, Shearsman, £6.50 / $9.95.
reviewed by Stephen Nelson

connolly sun artistPattern poetry is an ancient form of visual writing whose most famous expressions in the English canon are most likely two poems by George Herbert. It found favour with the Concrete Poets of the 1950s and 60s and is still practised amid the huge bloom of visual poetry happening across the globe today. It seems to be the only form of visual writing larger publishers will pick up on, and as such, isn’t really indicative of the wealth of creativity blossoming online or within the publications of more marginal presses. That said, it still holds enormous potential for innovative visual expression of the letter or word.

I wonder, however, if Susan Connolly’s pamphlet The Sun-Artist (you can view a .pdf sampler at the link) doesn’t display a lack of faith in the mainstream poetry reader’s ability to read or comprehend text visually. For example, the poem entitled ‘The Sun-Artist’ renders the text in more conventional form at the bottom of the page, when in all honesty, it doesn’t take much effort to decipher the criss-crossed rectangular shapes above it. The shapes themselves, here (imitating a Celtic cross) and elsewhere (diamonds, stars, rectangles), aren’t particularly inspired, and that lack of faith in the visual word is communicated again in ‘sea-star’, where two interlocking “voices” form discernible star shapes. The use of an echo or choral effect communicating across the sea is adequately expressed by the pattern of waves and doesn’t really need the dramatic personae as “explanation”.

The use of shape does seem terribly simplistic, as in ‘Christmas Eve’, where the words of the title are shaped like stars, or the poem opposite, ‘A Candle in the Window’, where the word “window” forms a framed window, and the words “a candle” sit within like…



This is not without its charm, offering a quaint vision of hope or domestic contentment, but still appears somewhat naive. The reader/viewer doesn’t have much work to do.

Certain themes of hope, light and shade (suggested by bold font and introduced by the opening poem), peace, creativity, freedom are nice enough, and run gently through the book, but by and large lose their power in the ultimately simplistic use of form, while the text itself doesn’t play enough to support the basic shapes. This really only worked for me in ‘Towards the Light’, where a branch of lyrical text is drawn irresistibly up towards the sun. Here the visual element is dynamic, rather than merely pretty.

It may be that these pattern poems are a “way in” to visual writing, but one would be better advised to seek out the wonderful 60s typewriter experiments of Dom Sylvester Houedard, or the early work of the great contemporary Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen. For me, the collection felt more like a mainstream poet dabbling with the form rather than the work of a truly inspired concrete poet attuned to the visual elements of text.

Stephen Nelson

“a series of blue-green flashes”

Glass Wings, Fleur Adcock, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Rob A. Mackenzie

fleur adcock glass wings
The ‘conversational’ poem that utilises neither strong sonic/rhythmic effects nor a gargantuan vocabulary is easy to write badly and, if it fails to deliver, the reader won’t find much to admire in the attempt. What’s remarkable is when such a poem actually succeeds. How does it do it? What makes it poetry?

A good poem is usually its own best explanation and ‘At the Crossing’, which opens Glass Wings, has no need to justify its brilliant, unshowy self. It is a ‘meaning of life’ poem. Is meaning to be found in the London young grabbing what’s there or kissing “the winged joy as it flies” (paraphrasing Blake’s ‘Eternity’)? in the ungraspable blur and whirl of the city streets? in the young man with cartoonish (perhaps ironic) wings who flickers past and disappears, his wings useless for flight and yet “definite” and, in some way, affirming for the poet?

Is a life filled by what’s grasped (even for seconds) or by what flies past, flickering and blurry? The collection ends with ‘Dragonfly’, “a series of blue-green/ flashes” in a surmised after-life’s “one perpetual day”. Flight acts as something that can’t be pinned down but which holds (in however brief flashes) a key to joy. The young man and his wings are reprised in the dragonfly:

a contraption of steel and cellophane
whose only verbs are dart, skim, hover.
One day is enough to remember.

These two excellent poems act as bookends for everything between: occasions of birth, love and death, a selection on insects. Jo Shapcott (back cover blurb from the TLS) says, “those who see in such poems only flatness are missing the power of a voice which teases both reader and subject.” However, when the power is missing, flatness remains. In ‘Flea’, an art dealer is embarrassed when a flea is discovered in his car:

his discomfiture will be repeated
until he stops being in denial
and takes the car to be fumigated.

The poem meanders like this, prosily, until we discover that Adcock is allergic to fleas (so what?). Well, the collection isn’t flawless, but is worth reading for the good poems, which tend to be very good indeed. The insect poems come alive when detail is most vivid, research most pointed. Poems on ancestors and contents of wills are fascinating, but some less so than others. There are small moments in which lives (and poems) take unexpected turns, as in ‘The Belly Dancer’, a fine example of humour, timing and detail combining to give subtle resonance to apparently conventional language. The aging, increasingly reclusive, former belly dancer’s face appears in a hallway and forgetting

whether or not we were social kissers,
I bounced my lips on it. It seemed we were not.

That “bounce”! The mass of information contained in “it seemed we were not”! The belly dancer disappears, the house is gutted and cleared out, all evidence of her existence is erased, except for the poem’s final half-line – “I won’t forget the kiss.” I will remember the poem.

Rob A. Mackenzie

“Apocalypse being a moveable feast…”

Endtimes, Alan Wall, £8.95, Shearsman Books
reviewed by Fiona Moore

“It is always the endtime.” That, from poem 17 of the main sequence ‘Patmos, Jerusalem, Rome…’ sums up this book. The speaker is St John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, full of apocalyptic visions. Endtimes explores, mostly through him, how humans have made and remade their own apocalypse. In poem 23 bells on Patmos, occupied by Romans, Turks, Italians* and Nazis, ring,

as though it had come already:
the end of all empires.
Except the one that’s being minuted
even as we speak.

Soon boundaries of time and space feel self-imposed. From ancient Rome to the USSR of Mandelstam and Stalin, from Fallujah to the Belgian Congo, from Goebbels’ poisoned children to Gerald of Wales’ dragon, elements of catastrophe are thrown up and come back down in different permutations. Perspective is broad, detail graphic. Gerald’s dragon breathes industrial revolution smoke. Eichmann “took the notes” at the Wannsee Conference, poem 24:

As he would say, there’s always someone prophesying
in a cellar among rats
on Patmos, in Warsaw
even at the edges of Berlin
with the Führer himself still flourishing.
Before cleansing takes its final turn.

The form is plain, a vehicle for the rich content: free verse, whose line breaks go with the sense. The main variant is poem length, from near-epigrammatic to two/three pages. Poetry allows air into the dense subject matter.

Wall’s tone mixes dryness and relish; language, imagery and syntax are vivid. He gets away with portentous statements, but then the writer of Revelation can get away with anything. There’s a lot of telling, which is fine. Occasionally it’s over-explanatory, as when St John (here also St John of the Gospel) says in ‘Those Tombs in Ephesus’, “My work now is/ writing his life, tending his mother”.

The history is mostly from a western perspective. It’s very male – women are whores, wives, mothers. OK, just about, for fall of empires.

I was surprised not to see more on climate change, surely tomorrow’s apocalypse, taking over from 9/11. (There’s a Dick Cheney epigraph, “We also have to work the dark side…”) Revelation contains chilling visions of earthly disaster: earthquake, the sun “black as sackcloth of hair”, trees and grass burnt up, sea creatures dying.

One section, ‘Ivory’, touches on exploitation/extinction, but the focus remains on human ills. Another is narrated by quirky ravens (see Elijah, Poe, the Tower). From ‘Operatic’:

a derelict camper van
in the field below
has a god growing wise inside it.
He swallows winds
the way his antique fathers did in Egypt once.

I don’t know how wide this book’s appeal will be. I gobbled it up. The effect is cumulative. Poem 10:

Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket
re-creates Vietnam’s Armageddon
on the site of a derelict factory
in South London.

Apocalypse being a moveable feast
even at times a Potemkin village
waiting for Caesar in all his finery to go by
before the deconstruction.

* The Dodecanese were occupied by Italy from 1911, rather than invaded by Mussolini as in this poem.

Fiona Moore

“music, dancing and storytelling”

The Courtesans Reply, Shazea Quraishi, Flipped Eye, pamphlet, £4
reviewed by Emma Lee

courtesan's replyThe Courtesans Reply is a sequence of poems written from the point of view of Indian courtesans, who were famed for their skill in music, dancing and storytelling as well as love. Some of these courtesans are happy to imply that they are in charge, manipulating their clients, e.g. ‘Ramadasi’

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
the bee.

Although as both line length and stress patterns tail off towards the end of the poem, it seems to belie the confident message. The rose may swallow the bee, but the bee still gets the nectar and has a choice of flowers; all the flower can do is make itself as attractive as possible. The sexual imagery is both appropriate and effective. Not all courtesans are as confident, in ‘Madhavesana’

After I have washed the sweat,
the trails of saliva from my skin,
I stand at the open window,
let the breeze dry my face.

There’s another issue explored by ‘Caransdasi’ who wonders whether her clients find her as necessary as she finds them.

Tell me what you read in books
and hear in coffee houses,
at wedding parties. Teach me.

When our tired, gladdened bodies
drift onto the bed,
kiss me like a husband..

The epilogue uses found text from “Glimpses of Sexual Life in Nanda-Maurya India” translated by Manomohan Ghosh and the Karma Sutra and concerns the art of courtesanship rather than how the courtesans feel, e.g. in ‘How can scratching and biting, even if they are painful, create pleasure?’

Just as a whip
when used by the charioteer,
makes horses mindful of speed,
so the use of nails and teeth
during intercourse
engross the heart in the pleasure of touch.

What the poems explore is the sense of power the courtesans have over their clients. The client may appear to be in charge because he is buying their services, but once alone with him, it’s the courtesan who controls him through manipulative and sensual skills. She controls the speed at which things happen, how far he can go and how pleasurable that experience might be. It’s a false sense of power as he could still overwhelm her, fight back and hurt her or simply walk away but each is confident in her ability to influence how the time together will go. The courtesans don’t fear violence because they assume their skills in love will deter and encourage a gentle reaction. The poems are polished and pared down to explore their topic with a single voice per poem. Tonally, however, they are practically the same with each woman using very similar vocabulary and elocution. That said, the poems are skilfully written and make for an engaging read.

Emma Lee

“how poets and poetry can matter”

Knot, John Greening, £8.00, Worple Press
reviewed by Pippa Little

Knot1Knot certainly fits its title. If you like intertextuality you will relish its many voices and interwoven twists and turns – but you will need some background knowledge of Ben Jonson’s milieu and contemporaries or at least a reference book or Google nearby.

‘The fruit of a month spent at Hawthornden Castle’ – a writers’ retreat near Edinburgh once home to William Drummond and visited by his good friend Ben Jonson in 1618 – the book is divided into two sections: the first is structured to evoke a 17th century knot garden design and involves sonnets, verse letters, an allegorical walk and the poet’s notes on life in the retreat. The second is a modern masque performed by fellow writers in the castle during John Greening’s stay.

There is much to enjoy: a fine control of language, pithy wit, a strong historical sense. Greening is also confident and ambitious in his choices of form: as Greening’s notes state, the masque genre ‘has disappeared completely – unsurprisingly, since masques were expensive, amateur dramatic indulgences for the nobility’ and he is honest enough to admit that writing one now risks parody. He pulls it off: the theme of time allows him some moving contemplation.

I prefer the first section, however. The opening sonnet to M.W. (the poet Mary Wroth, Ben Jonson’s friend) is very pleasing and I also enjoyed the other sonnets to Donne, Marlowe, Campion, Spenser – all with their titles mere bare initials so that a bit of knowledge or research effort is required on the reader’s part. I had never heard of George Gascoigne, the soldier poet who began the whole ‘Virgin Goddess’ adoration of Queen Elizabeth in verse (and who, like Shakespeare, Ralegh and Sidney, is given his name in full in the title and in capitals). I couldn’t make out who S.D. or M.D. were. It feels as if you need to be ‘classically educated’, as Jonson was, to comprehend this sequence in its full complexity.

The poet’s own walk around the Hawthornden environs and its mirroring of Ben Jonson’s longer one (from London to Scotland) form a counterpoint to each other. Ben Jonson searches for new shoes amid the satanic mills of ‘Darnton’ and its rail track to Stockton, realising that these mines, dams and ‘priapic chimneys’ were partly an England ‘he had helped to build not only by laying brick upon brick, but in rallying the ruling classes with masque and song.’ The contemporary poet, as with Ben Jonson well away from his comfort zone, puzzles among charity cyclists and internet cafes.

I particularly like Jonson’s seeing “Nothing of his own” …”except a Shakespeare. Of course a Shakespeare”, in a bookshop, which neatly and wittily encapsulates their rivalry and then the time-slip to “There were, however, volumes by another Johnson: a dictionary, it would appear.”

Knot celebrates a meeting of minds, that sense of common ground between writers, whether in a century of masques or today, in a retreat for writers from all over the world. It questions how poets and poetry can matter and make a difference.

Pippa Little

“listen as the world hums quietly/ to itself”

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard, £12.99, Salt
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

9781907773396frcvr.inddSue Hubbard‘s not a painter although I suspect she might quite like to be; poetry’s a poor second to most visual art. My initial response, after scanning an excerpt of this collection, was, “I’m not a great lover of nature poetry (I’m frankly not sure what’s new to be said on the subject) but let’s see if she can win me over.”

In an article Hubbard writes:

“Today landscape painting is viewed as marginal, peripheral to the philosophical and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. Traditionalists see it as upholding a nostalgic vision of timeless values, whilst for most modernists the landscape is essentially urban, tainted and dysfunctional.”

The same could be said about landscape poems. In Hubbard’s poetry Nature’s role is to provide a giant metaphor for the human condition: trees aren’t lonely, winds don’t drink, stars might no longer be visible but they’re not hiding. Long (admittedly eloquent) descriptive passages set the scene/tone and then the human observer appears to add a touch of profundity or pathos. “What do things know?” Hubbard asks in the opening poem followed by “What do they tell us?” in the second. In the third we find her walking through a wood “in search of a poem”:

I try to write a line of colour,

but words are a string of biro scrawls
Without air or light or hue,

[White Canvas]

I know exactly where’s she’s coming from. I, too, once wandered aimlessly seeking inspiration and have the bad poetry to prove it. She writes:

Open your heart like a door
and listen as the world hums quietly
to itself

[Love in Whitstable]

I did try but evidently was looking in all the wrong places.

Nature’s huge and we’re so small. This is evidenced in ‘riverrun’ which devotes a whole page to setting before the observer holds her “breath/ and listens to the wood/ waiting for something to happen”; a tiny diamond in an overpowering setting.

The book is divided into three parts:

‘A Meaningful Speech’ could’ve come out as a chapbook in its own right. There’s interesting stuff here but the poems don’t cohere as well as the second and third sections. There are some good pieces though like ‘Keeping Hens’ and ‘Naked Portrait, 1972–3’.

‘Over the Rainbow’ comprises ekphrastic poems responding to the suicide paintings of Rachel Howard. Minus the accompanying art, the poems inevitably feel like they’re missing something. Shame too there’s only nine; this would’ve been a nice chapbook in its own right.

‘The Idea of Islands’ has already been published separately accompanied by paintings by Donald Teskey and so also suffers a little from the estrangement.

“…writing a poem, as for the visual artist drawing from life, is a ‘process’, a ‘reaching towards’ something that is largely unknown,” writes Hubbard. That may be the case but it can’t stay unknown. It becomes known during the reading. I wasn’t entirely won over by these poems—my fault undoubtedly—but I can see why others might be.

Jim Murdoch