Monthly Archives: December 2013

“contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness”

New & Selected Potatoes, John Hegley, Bloodaxe 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

hegley potatoes
I have to admit a soft spot for John Hegley. Years ago he visited my eldest son’s primary school and got him hooked on poetry: now he’s a poet, editor, translator and advocate for writing and I’m sure it’s in part at least due to that enthusiastic encounter.

New & Selected Potatoes is full of delights and offers us the scenic route around Hegley’s world, from 1984 to his most recent work. Some of it is laugh-out-loud and he is a magician of titles (referring to the much-maligned “brother-in-law”, as in ‘His Heart’s In The Wrong Place, It Should Be In The Dustbin’) but there’s also a quiet, wry sadness which lingers in the mind after reading: the effect of going through this volume at one sitting is of sucking sherbert lemon with its contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness.

There’s also a sense of sharing real time with Hegley’s voice in its conversational, seemingly random unfoldings, as if you were sitting together over a coffee. Yet that guilelessness is underpinned with an acute and astute feel for language and a razor-sharp intelligence.

I found the poems about his grandparents’ marriage very affecting: she the “blancmange”, he the “potato”, their split reverberating through the generations after them. Hegley’s English identity – retro, suburban, of Scouts huts, glasses, dogs, bungalows, the Beatles – is crossed with a fault-line of his part French inheritance, something he grapples with in his relationship with his father and also as an artist. ‘The Sound of Paint Drying’ is a prose poem describing his trip to Nice to paint the same scene his father did in 1931 and ‘Zen Dad’ begins:

When I asked my father why he’d stopped painting,
He told me, ‘You are my paintings now.’

The weight of being his father’s work of art, and at the same time being expected to carry on the artist role himself (one Christmas he’s presented with his father’s palette wrapped up as a gift) threads through the poems and adds a darker tinge to the theme of human failings and specifically his own. Yet there are lots of bright colours, too. I loved poems about glimpses and snippets of life with illuminating consequences (‘Glasgow Window’ for example, where a man seems to be waving to the poet as if they are old friends but on closer inspection proves to be window cleaning, a lovely sideways nod to Stevie Smith) and pleasures taken simply in language, as in ‘The Difference Between Dogs And Sheds’, quoted here entire:

It’s not a very good idea to give a dog
a coat
of creosote

Michael Horovitz, on the back of the book, calls John Hegley “metaphysical, mordant, mellifluous”: he is all of these and more. Having read it dutifully from the beginning I then enjoyed reading this selection backwards, too, in a chronological fashion.

Pippa Little

“best displayed through a gauze of cloth”

Frieze, John Whale, Carcanet Press, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

frieze john whale

What this frieze’s sculptors learned
was how the body’s flowing life
is best displayed through a gauze of cloth


John Whale’s Frieze deals with a whole range of historical tableaux, friezes, vignettes and frescos and here in the title poem, we see marble taking on the effect of a death-shroud. However, Frieze is perhaps a misleading title, as it suggests things that are static, set in stone and petrified and yet, in Whale’s hands, the past becomes a fluid and moving entity. We are not only shown a host of memorable figures from the past such as Salvador Dali and Cortez, but also characters from the speaker’s youth such as the gun-slinging kid from down the road and a school boy who eats privet leaves and licks cinders, pencil-lead and matches:

                                           (…) ran his tongue
along the standing row of crimson match-heads,
their chalky lipstick bleeding on his teeth,
their little flames lit deep inside him


The structure of the book is worth noting in this light. It begins by imagining vast battles of the past, from ancient Romans to a tank in World War Two rumbling over the Tiber “into Rome,/ revving over the ancient stones/ and nothing at all behind it” (‘Trooper’). Then the collection moves into the territory of public knowledge and we encounter well-known historical figures. However it is the final third of the book where the historical sweep of the collection is cast in a more Lukacsian light – that while history is being made and recorded in grand friezes, there is a more intimate, personal and domestic history taking place that casts ordinary people in times of great upheaval and change. This can be seen in the poem ‘One o’clock’, about the gun at Waterloo Dock:

the phantom ball travels
through our smallest bones
with a cast-iron approximation
of the purity of the stars.
On the memory of my anvil,
hammer and stirrup,
I find myself chained to the past.

[‘One o’clock’]

One of the more successful poems from this final segment of the book is an elegy for the poet’s father, ‘Legerdemain’, where the poet’s imagination acts as necromancer conjuring up images of his dead father’s hands. It is only in the final stanza that we discover the real meaning of the ‘frieze’:

These are my father’s hands
conjuring themselves from the past
by way of trick and treat,
capable now of any legerdemain
save that of touching me.


Other poems of note show Whale has an eye for oddities and curiosa. In ‘Bird, Bird’ we see the prey of an owl, a swallow, nesting in the dead and dried body of an owl hanging in a barn. In ‘Bird Book’ we see how a poem can be raised above ordinary observation with only one phrase or sentence: “my favourite birdsong/ heard only in books”. Certain poems convince the reader less and seem to try too hard, such as ‘Tattoo’ where the ashes of the dead are tattooed into the arms of the living and the poem ends on the half-jokey, half-creepy lines from The Carpenter’s “Just like me/ They long to be / Close to you”. In a poem such as this, I felt Whale was straying too far from one of the “to-dos” on ‘The Great Artist’s To-Do List’ – “get the exact measurement of the dead”.

Richie McCaffery

“One must open great books again”

Bottled Air, Caleb Klaces, Eyewear Publishing, £12.99
reviewed by Fiona Moore

Bottled air: more wasteful than bottled water. Breathe in, breathe out… We take in the world and put it out again differently, whether as art or anecdote, CO2 or rubbish.

Caleb Klaces puts out a lot, from ancient cats on fire to Thomas Browne and WG Sebald, from sinking refugee boats to a reincarnated girl living in a Philippines graveyard-slum; foam, caves, and of course air. And a thousand other things that might make sense of living in today’s mad world, or not. I just opened the book at random (low risk), and found ‘Speaking of which’:

I used to believe that families lived inside the Berlin Wall,
            which I assumed to be as thick as my house
and hollowed out like a baguette. Nobody noticed that
            until I had eaten the evidence,
but where would the rubble have gone? Where
            does it ever go? Space seems to have
plenty of space. But it is a kind of idea, out there.
            Here, things are so heartbreakingly material.
On the steps of the Blue Mosque
            someone hands out little blue plastic bags to snap
over visitors’ shoes. That the means we have of being holy
            crackles on the soft carpet
like a baby’s nappy.

That’s over half the poem, to illustrate Klaces’ associative style. He mixes stuff up: ideas and things, imagination and reality, weird and unweird, real and virtual globalisation, modern and ancient, far and near.

Stuff comes at us from all sides… so why read this book? Klaces’ mortar is his poetic fluency. Flexible, fluid rhythm, and line breaks that place the emphasis right. Syntax that delivers a one-and-a-half page one-sentence poem (‘Vapours’) and is often refreshingly unusual (e.g. ‘My Line I’). Idiosyncratic thoughts and turns of phrase as if he’s trying out sounds like lumpy sweets. Nice tricks, see those bags: “plastic.. snap.. have.. crackles.. nappy”. Tone, poised between amusement and anguish, see that line containing “heartbreakingly”; content a mix of funny and serious.

Bottled Air has four sections, and it’s a hardback – these factors combine to form a psychological barrier to dipping in and out. You can’t flip through a hardback so easily. The first section is set in a Bulgarian orphanage for disabled children; I’m not sure that Klaces has yet found a voice for this admirable material. The six poems are in diverse forms, as if to illustrate his casting-around. This is from ‘Her’, about being unable to like one child:

And was it, if we were honest – honesty
we’d decided was important –
something like spite
that made her only click and growl?

Subject matter overwhelms the poetic devices, and the poem reads as chopped-up prose.

One part of ‘Cats on Fire’ contains an account of an analogous subject matter / poem problem. This sequence tells a sort of story, with guesswork. More stimulating than kitten videos. Here, a character is reading Herodotus:

There had been no cats in The Histories before.
One must open great books again,
he remembers,
if one is to catch
falling from between their pages
their hidden cats
dashing into their hidden fires.

Bottled Air feels very substantial, as a (first) collection. Many poems benefit from being read singly, despite the multiple connections. The book should come loose-leaf, so one could isolate a few pages and catch their hidden cats.

Fiona Moore

Shopping List Prayers

Lifting the Piano with One Hand, Gaia Holmes, Comma Press, £7.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope

Gaia Holmes’ poems often remind me of the religious cliché ‘Shopping List Prayer’, thanks to her propensity for listing images like ingredients for incantations or spells. These details can add humour to poems with darker subjects, like lost love:

Your grandmother
had tins full of prayer tags
and soft Garibaldi biscuits.
She stored gossip like hymn sheets
folded into the back
of her breeze-block Bible,
kept a row of icons
above her fireplace
with garish hearts
like rotting plums…

This first poem, ‘Blessed’ – part of section one, Delft and Doulton – demonstrates Holmes’ considered use of line to control pace, rhythm, and tone (note the rhyme, ‘quite well’ / ‘burn in Hell’, book-ending the final stanza):

You said I’d done quite well,
made a good impression
but I could tell by the way
she edged her way
around my name
and how damp I was
when we said goodbye
that she thought
I’d burn in Hell.

Though Holmes peppers her poems with prayers and icons, she avoids dryly critiquing patriarchal religion, choosing instead to expose it in human relationships. In section two, Visitations, the spiritual manipulation perpetrated by a lover is further evoked in poems such as ‘Rough’, ‘The Guest’, ‘The Man Who Dripped Digitalis’ (‘He could charm the poison out of foxgloves / and used his skills to quicken my pulse. / I wondered what he fed on, frayed liturgies / and the secret dreams of women’) and ‘The Glass House’ (‘Later I will remember / the languid names of plants / that kill with sweetness: / Nepenthes, Pinguicula, Saracenia.’).

Section three shares the collection’s title. In its title poem, ‘I am Lifting the Piano with One Hand’, Holmes imaginatively and ironically enacts a new-found empowerment, having lived through the book’s traumas to become the perfect example of the clichéd ‘strong woman’. The poem paints a period-drama scene of religion’s weaker-sex in her rightful place (note the sarcastic ‘just’ in line one, and the repeated ‘strong’ in the last line), and resurrects ‘any passing ghosts’ that the poet ever allowed into her life:

Today I am just unusually strong
and able to carry the piano up three flights of stairs
where I’ll leave the skylight window open
and a note inviting any passing ghosts
to come in, sit down and play ‘Moonlight Sonata’
or ‘Chopin’s Nocturne’ or ‘The Entertainer’
or whatever they’d like to play on a neglected piano
in the house of a strong woman.

These poems explore self, family, home and home-sickness, death and grief, friendship, love, and love gone sour. They generally avoid difficult obscurity, and freely entertain common idiom and cliché. For me, this admirable accessibility occasionally lessens the impact of more original moments (‘Murdering my Darlings’ predictably subverts the old workshop adage, and ‘Someone Should Tell her Mother she’s Taking Drugs’ catalogues the clichés of the ‘creative life’ from a nosy neighbour’s perspective). But the best of Holmes’ observations have a warmth and humanity that makes the strangest, funniest, most moving moments stand out.

Mark Burnhope

“pathologies and imperfections”

The Crossing Fee, Iain Bamforth, £9.95, Carcanet Press
reviewed by Clare Best
Bamforth, The Crossing Fee
The universe of this collection can seem a strange and baffling place which is yet recognisable, though not always in ways I might have expected.

Some aspects of The Crossing Fee are immediately recognisable. There are the names of places we know about or might have been in – Shetland, Holland, Egypt, Mexico, Turin – and characters with whom we might be familiar – Luther, Ruskin, Simone Weil, Goethe – but the familiarity is turned by Bamforth’s sideways take on history and place. He can tilt a house in the Var into a Roman villa “in earshot of the river’s/ gluttonous way with sucking-stones”. He can transform midsummer on Shetland into a place where “data overburden is only an echo away, like the Atlantic heave/ and the piped-in petrochemicals of the polar night.” And this is when I find the defamiliarisation itself is recognisable, even oddly comforting. I wonder, is this Bamforth’s physician’s eye, looking for pathologies and imperfections, and accepting them? There is certainly empathy at work, and an interest in oddity and difference.

The many cultural and literary references in this collection put me off a bit to start with, and made me feel intellectually inadequate. On second reading though, I found the references less daunting – I began to read them as part of the character of the places, and of the poems themselves. These references began to seem like the clothing that the bodies of the poems are wearing. Some poems are dressed extravagantly, others more plainly. The range is intriguing and witty, and the references always allow for the possibility of finding out more, of course.

The Crossing Fee presents a closely observed world made up of ailing parts, or at least of imperfect physical mechanisms. The whole of creation, it seems, is a body, a patient. Multiple meditations on hunger and appetite are woven through the collection. Is the poet suggesting that exploring the workings of possible divine and human needs might help us uncover what fuels life itself?

Clare Best

“the door wants you”

Muscovy, Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, £12.99
reviewed by Russell Jones

muscovy francis
I ought to start this review with a declaration of my prejudice: before reading Muscovy I was already a fan of Francis’ poetry. A year ago I published the book’s opening – and very fine – poem, ‘The Man in the Moon’ (based on Francis Godwin’s story of the same title, in which the narrator flies to the moon using a geese-powered shuttle) in Where Rockets Burn Through, an anthology of contemporary UK sci-fi poems. So, I had high expectations and, happily, Muscovy didn’t disappoint.

This is a playful and diverse book of poems that borrows stories from a variety of sources including myth, science and literature. This is also a collection of journeys: Francis’ narrators are frequently on the move as they meet ghostly figures on night-time vigils or clamber over sheep-laden hilltops. There’s a great sense of place, a dreaminess that is at times reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: sleepy streets, lulling tides and phantasmal fogs stirring at your ankles. But we are far from mere observers of these myth-melded worlds, rather we are invited to join the expeditions. Take an extract from ‘Familiar Spirit’ for example, in which we sit at the embers of a lonesome fire, when there’s a rap at the door:

and now it’s a social knock, two syllables,
    hallow, shw mar, a neighbour’s upbeat,
       downbeat, doorstepping rhythms
          that just want to take
    a couple of your moments,

and why are you sitting in the reddening
    gaze of the fire when the door wants you

Francis’ use of a direct address to the reader lured me into the story. As with many of these poems, I felt as though I had become an active participant, that I too were a part of the story and community he has undressed. This technique is invoked several times to great effect without it becoming tiresome, and the frequent merger of the real and the unreal led me to consider the nature of perception itself, to ask what role myths, rumours and stories might play in altering my perception of reality.

More abstract poems derail this narrative structure, but seem to be pushing in the same direction by challenging our expectations of poetry and language. I welcome such challenges, and Francis’ attempts are usually hitting the right notes. ‘Macros’, a poem of several parts, shifts our perspective to that of the micro-world:


There used to be a game,
those chunky polygons
impinging, exploding
on the black screen of space.

Meanwhile ‘Poem in Sea’ is a series of scattered words that span two pages, encouraging the eye to land more organically or haphazardly than usual, through which multiple readings and meanings may flourish:


‘Enigma Variations’ humorously engages with the notion that written language is merely a system of symbols to which we attach meaning by substituting letters for characters:

%etween %um and %osom,
%um and %alls,
%alls and %osom:
Well-%alanced %odies.

Francis’ approach could be accused of being overly fragmented but this would be missing the point. Just as the different parts of a stained glass window give colour to the sunlight blazing through it, so it is through a breadth of form, landscapes, languages, and experiences that these poetic parts reconstruct to challenge our perception of the whole. Moreover, I was excited to turn the page, and that’s no bad thing.

Russell Jones

“this webbing of routes across the earth”

Terra Ignota, Rosalind Hudis, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

“Beyond here be dragons” is the expression I’m more familiar with than terra ignota or terra incognito. Our lives are mapped out for us—at least that’s how it seems sometimes—then the unexpected happens and we find ourselves gazing out over Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, expecting, ailing or facing death. This is where these poems are set. In the first three: a man has leukaemia, his son is wheelchair-bound, an old woman’s crippled by senility and grief and a father’s died after a long illness; the last three trace the life of a Down’s syndrome child—“a chromosome too many,/ a glitch in the smooth/ running chain” —from her conception to becoming a Friends-obsessed young girl.

The opening poem feels slightly out of place here although it’s the only one that’s identifiably Welsh and reminded me of R.S. Thomas—perhaps because these people are neighbours (all the others have a familial feel)—but it’s the first to introduce the mapping theme which unifies the collection:

Beneath me, the earth’s
a map, its roots
spores, seeds, twigs,
small bones stored

like codes.

This theme is taken up in ‘Rupture’ where an old woman (Rosalind’s grandmother?) is clearly lost:

There are days the phone rings,
but she can’t re-map the way
her hands could bridge a room
to open or close the tap of speech.

In the titular poem we have a similar portrait of senility:

My father, in his final illness, adrift
across an armchair, barely able

to tack the crucial space from hearth
to toilet

Is the unknown always bleak? It depends “how you colour it”. What threatens to be a rather dark collection ends, surprisingly, on bright note:

       on this webbing of routes across the earth

that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.

None of the poems in this set are available online but Snowscape and Photograph especially will give you a taste of Rosalind’s style.

I wasn’t sure about that first poem but I suppose it has its place. We start at distance, with neighbours, and move through grandparents to parents to children. It’s a journey. Rosalind can no longer stand at a distance and watch. Her foreign-looking child has wandered off into unexplored territories and she must follow:

                                lead me there
into the heart of this pale green valley of paper
in safety, go where I go without history

Poetry’s a strange place, a land to get lost in—in good ways and bad—and so it’s the perfect setting for a discussion of uncomfortable topics like illness and death. Textbooks and leaflets—like the one she’s handed in ‘Disclosure’—list “the defects” but they don’t see, can’t see, the individuals. These poems do. Even if most of the characters remain nameless we recognise them; we know them. They may have set off for parts unknown but they’re not foreigners. They’re us and some day we will be them. A thought-provoking and touching collection.

Jim Murdoch