Monthly Archives: November 2013

“definitely a collection for poets”

Oscar and I, Peter Phillips, Ward Wood Publishing, £8.99
reviewed by Barbara Smith

oscar and I - phllips
Imagine a mirror held up – you’re a male poet of advancing years, with some success in the poetry world, but your income is modest. You are reasonably well thought of, and a teaching poet, that is if it weren’t for tiresome students. You are also married to someone who puts up with you and your career – as well as your foibles, and you have somehow managed to acquire a dog that, in some ways, matches your character and the undercurrent of doubts that you have about your poetry and its world. Oh, and you seem to have a predilection for beer and wine, particularly claret. Such is the collection of Peter Philips: Oscar and I: Confessions of a Minor Poet, a poetry biography of fictional poet, George Meadows.

The poems tell his story and the collection is designed to be read through, as one might read a longer biography. The collection works – converting human observation into sketches that accumulate into a broader portrait of the male poet. George is likeable and flawed but he is aware of his flaws. He is a womaniser – but more of a take-advantager, an egotist – but a mild one (and let’s face it, most of us are), a drinker – obviously self-medicating against the fear of running dry and being able to keep on writing well … but look, what is happening here? It’s as though Oscar and I were a drama, and I was being sucked in by the characters and storylines…

It is a collection that draws you in and you keep on reading, to see what happens to George and Oscar. At the beginning, it seems as though George’s career might be about to take flight, as he talks to his publisher but as the collection progresses we wonder just how smoothly things are running for him. To say any more would be to spoil the ending for the prospective reader, but as you turn the pages, you have to keep reminding yourself that the biography has been rendered in verse. This demonstrates the deceptively easy way that Phillips has assembled the whole collection. The poems mingle points of views: beginning in third person and moving quickly to George’s so you feel as though you are looking over his shoulder, somehow almost experiencing and feeling what he does – and feeling sorry for him as well.

There are some witty ideas incorporated into the collection: ‘At a Literary Festival’ uses those strange questions other people often ask poets: “Could you tell me where you get your ideas from?” I’ve heard Michael Longley say that, if he knew, he would go there – and George’s reply is just as witty. ‘Giving Advice to an Aspiring Poet’ is pretty sound advice – particularly in the first stanza: “Find a poetry pal, someone you trust /… / a good critic, and a wonderful gossip.” These honest titbits are what I like best about Oscar. This is definitely a collection for poets and if we’re honest, there’s a wee bit of all of us in it.

Barbara Smith

“a journey through bolts and latches”

The Only Reason For Time, Fiona Moore, £4, HappenStance
reviewed by Kathrine Sowerby

fiona moore reason for time
The Only Reason For Time, Fiona Moore’s first collection published by HappenStance, includes poems responding to the death of her partner several years ago. Fresh from hearing Chris Agee read from his collection, Next to Nothing, written in the years following his daughter’s death, I came to this collection loaded with points of reference: both objective (how will she write about grief?) and subjective (do I feel like reading about death today?).

So, I met the opening lines of the first poem ‘Postcard’ with a sense of relief – “Three days, and already I could write/a dissertation on the fastenings of gates.” Lovely. And curious too, we have a sense of time, of opening and closing and a sense of weight and exploration. The rest of the poem takes us on a journey through bolts and latches, “Each one a puzzle, each to be handled and worked on.” Until we are out in the open with “sheep and meadow flowers” and the poem signs off “With love.”

These twists and turns run through the collection. In some poems – ‘Getting Up at Six’, ‘The Shirt’ – there are intimate, potent memories of clothing and habits and ‘Outside Gramsci’s House’ starts with a photograph, “One look and I’m with you, standing on the wet pavement/full of a shared hour spent looking and reading”, reflections contrasted by the urgency of ‘On Dunwich Beach’: “I kick hard, breathing for you//through strands of hair…The drab land calls, the sea/spits me out – numb, dripping salt, living for you.”

Others zoom out asking broad and specific questions like ‘Hunger’, which explores the relationship between eating and death. Opening with “One way to dispose of a corpse is to eat it// The skeleton lies on my plate, fish-perfect, scavenger food./ It reminds me of the last time we ate mackerel together.” It turns on the fourth stanza, away from a funeral and “death’s nursery food”, and repeats the first three stanzas in reverse, ending on the opening line.

One thing about a partially themed collection is that the poems that are not themed stand out for that reason alone. Like new characters entering a plot midway, they take some getting used to. But the poems that hit hardest give us the variations and volumes of grief, the exposure and the vacuum (‘Sink Drain’ and ‘The Distal Point’), and the inevitability of death, offered with warmth in the final poem ‘To The Reader’ with its evocative first and last lines, a feature of this collection – “You are the fire around which your ghosts are talking//…//From time to time one of them reaches for more/wood, and throws it on the fire. Your flames leap up.”

Kathrine Sowerby

“Old poets stay at home to become explorers…”

Speak, Old Parrot, Dannie Abse (Hutchinson, hbk £15-00)
reviewed by Judith Taylor

It seems to churlish to wonder if a poet in his nineties has anything left to write, but the question will occur to readers of this collection, not least because Abse himself keeps raising it.

Old poets stay at home to become explorers;
the older they get, the smaller they get
and, relentlessly, the trees grow tall. (‘In Highgate Woods’)

And sometimes the answer seems to be “no”. For me, there is too much in this vein:

At 3 p.m. I’m sitting in L’artista
as usual, bored, waiting for something unusual. (‘Wasp’)

What he’s aiming for is suggested by ‘Perspectives’, subtitled ‘5 paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’, but he doesn’t manage O’Hara’s trick of making the whole greater than the accumulated parts. The effect is close to maundering in places, with descents into bufferishness:

Why does this make me think how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they despise? (‘Perspectives’)

Similarly ‘Blue Song’, tiredly surveying modern art, ends with a predictable poke at Hirst and Emin: its closing “All I lack is talent/that’s why I sing the Blues”, presumably meant as ironising self-deprecation, doesn’t redeem it for me. Usually I welcome humour in poetry, but here it is often heavy-handed, causing crashing shifts of tone in the two sequences ‘The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym’ and ‘Vows’, and contributing to the collection’s patchy and uneven feel.

It’s a pity, because there are good poems here too. I think the book’s flaws would have disappointed me less if it hadn’t also contained evidence that, for all his fears, Abse still has what it takes. The finely-sustained smuttiness of ‘Cricket Bat’ made me laugh out loud, and in ‘Parable’, seriousness and deadpan humour dovetail neatly as the poet confronts two doorstep evangelists who ask if he knows the end of the world is nigh.

I reply Yes and they are manifestly disappointed.
When I confess I keep a packed suitcase
ready upstairs,
they retreat with Olympic pace.

‘In Highgate Woods’ is similarly sure-footed in its treatment of the ways in which poets might confront mortality. And ‘Scent’ is both a touching elegy for the poet’s wife and a meditation on the uses and limitations of poetry itself. Catching the scent of a flowering shrub she planted

                            – one so alluring,
so delinquent, it could have made Adam
fall on Eve, with delight, in Eden

he lingers beside it

                                    allowing myself
the charm and freedom of inebriating fancy
till the scent becomes only the scent itself
returning, and I, at the gate, like Orpheus,
sober, alone, and a little wretched.

The light touch with which he combines the personal, the sensuous, and the mythical make this as good a poem as any of Abse’s that I know. Again, it would seem churlish to complain he doesn’t always work at this pitch – who does? – but a slimmer collection, with fewer of the more humdrum poems to muffle the best, might have served his reputation better.

Judith Taylor

“Rome means nothing except we come…”

Illicit Sonnets, George Elliott Clarke (Eyewear, £12.99)
reviewed by Emma Lee

A sequence of sonnets between two lovers loosely inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, her sequence of sonnets about her love for Robert Browning. George Elliott Clarke’s sonnets are more explicit, move viewpoint between the two lovers and aren’t restricted to rhyming iambic pentameters but are a mix of traditional form and a freer, contemporary monologue that retains the volta so the resulting poem is quite recognisable as a sonnet. His lovers are Salim (a Moor) and Laila (a Nordic), their skin tones referred to in “My dark hands quivering your ivory breasts” [‘Istanbul II’], “Ophelia opens to Othello” [‘A Trieste’] and ‘Black and White’:

I’m black, bull-black, and handsome as dark wine –
Or the swarthy grape, the Othello grape.
But on that sable couch, you are sunlight,
Ice-cool, in your pose, yet white-hot to touch.

Fine! We do complement one another –
Just as ink is black to clarify light,
Or shadows mimic flexible mirrors:
Blackness welcomes whiteness as its balance.

Laila means night, but you show passion
Of snow, to conform to contours, to wax,
To gleam as phosphorescent as the sea.
(Ain’t night happiest when the moon is whole?)

Bright, feminine image, I render you
Darkness most tender, blackness that is sweet!

‘Rome’ is a sonnet from Salim’s viewpoint – he’s given to declamation and grandiose gestures:

Rome means nothing except we come – and come
Again, again and again, together:
Gratification beats beatification.
Rome’s cathedrals and monuments are ruins
Compared to the opera of Love – the scale
Of it, masterpiece and epic and song.

Laila on the other hand has a complementary directness, ‘To Salim II’

You unzip – and I’m undone,
or you’re undone when I unzip.

Our loving isn’t just good, but gaudy –
and bawdy, as we like it.

Next time, take me into the woods I love:
Take me hard in the soft grass, crushing it softer

Illicit Sonnets has a celebratory, exuberant tone and was clearly written by a playful stylist. Some poems touch on the difficulty of translating a physical act into words. A joy to read.

Emma Lee

“the present is lost to us”

The Cavafy Variations, Ian Parks, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

Translation’s a bugger; Auden says as much in his introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Yet he notes, “I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Cavafy found his voice late on and only completed 154 carefully crafted poems, available here in various translations.

Ten poems aren’t much of a sampler—some well-known poems are omitted—but Parks provides examples of Cavafy’s three core themes: the philosophical, historical and hedonic (or sensuous) although there’s nothing of the erotic for which he is (in)famous; it wouldn’t have hurt to include a poem like ‘One Night’. Parks’ own poetry is known for being “spare, lyrical, memorable and intense”; similar could also be said of Cavafy despite being anti-Romantic and (arguably) antipoetic: his setting—the city, his interest—the past.

Variations are common in music, not so much in poetry: we would probably talk of “loose translations” which these aren’t really although they veer towards the Poundian ideal—aim to capture the ‘spirit’ of the original—and having compared his efforts with earlier versions I would say they’re fresh (some might say refreshing) interpretations.

The philosophical chimed with me from the line of lit and extinguished candles in ‘Candles’, through the damage that follows us in ‘The City’, to the life that becomes nothing more than a “tedious acquaintance” in ‘If Possible’. All these focus on a sense of belatedness as do the historical because, so quickly, the present is lost to us. Cavafy wrote, “With me the immediate impression does not provide the impulse for work. The impression must become part of the past, must be falsified of itself, by time, without my having to falsify it.”

It’s not the time to have regrets,
to brood upon the glories of your past
or curse the good luck you once had
now that it’s faltering, running low.

[‘The God Abandons Antony’]

Thankfully Parks chose from Cavafy’s less esoteric historical pieces; the man did tend to be drawn towards the backwaters of history.

‘Candles’ is the perfect poem to open this group. It exemplifies the betwixtness inherent in Cavafy’s poetry, trapped between a squandered past and an uncertain future. All that’s left to us is to wander through the ruins of our lives. It may be crass to say so but it feels sometimes as if Cavafy gets off on regret. The one thing man learns from history, however, is that man learns nothing from history:

            At each street corner, looking back
I see myself among the ruined squares,
the cafés and the harbour bars,
repeating the identical mistakes.

[‘The City’]

There’s a lot to Cavafy and it helps to know something about him before reading him. For a plain-spoken writer—I can see why a Yorkshireman would be drawn to him—there’s much subtlety under the surface of these short poems and, thankfully, Parks is equally sensitive to that.

Jim Murdoch