Monthly Archives: January 2014

“something longed for, but never fully realised”

A Night in Brooklyn, D. Nurkse, CB Editions, £8.99
reviewed by Stephen Nelson

Nurkse2The gentle, wistful, reflective poems in Dennis Nurkse’s A Night in Brooklyn have an almost narcotic effect on the reader. One finds oneself caught up in the reverie of someone else’s life. You might say nostalgia has the same effect:

We shared happiness like a piece of Scotch tape
first on my thumb, then yours,

[‘Furnished Room on Pearl Street’]

but there is too much knowing here, too much reflection on “being and becoming”[‘Red Antares in a Blue Mirror’], on the self as “both cause and consequence”[‘The Bars’], for these poems to be merely nostalgic.

The past is full of love, work, and working for love:

I never saw the final product…
                                                – but once
long after midnight in our stifling room
I touched her wrist and described
a rosewood-canvas tote from Macy’s
and she whispered, Yes love.

[‘Fourteen Months in the Handbag Handle Factory’]

The present is something longed for, but never fully realised, because, it seems, the journey towards it is so involved, so intricate, and “all our actions last forever.”[‘Flatlands’]

                …someday we might know such things
in our lives, not just in desire.

[‘The Present’]


We are told, only the moment is real,
all that exists exists in the moment,
but who knew how to get there?


What makes us, destroys us, knits us back together, is unknown, “it happens in secret.”[‘The Present’] Yet we can understand “how the universe/ was created”, while a cricket sings “I, I, not furiously,/but with a cool insistence”[Red Antares in a Blue Mirror’].

The poems are a way of remembering, but the truth of who we are in every action, every memory, is “in the night sky hidden/at the center of the last period.”[‘Flatlands’] This suggests that who we are is a mystery, hidden in the making of a life, and that what we become in the world slips away, “beyond our outstretched hands”[‘Damariscotta’].

A little over halfway through, the book changes geographical location, moving from the city to idyllic settings in Europe, including The Dolomites, but the tone remains forever the same, hinting that nothing really changes elsewhere. Even the versions of Andalusian song fragments and the French and Spanish riddles maintain an air of wistful regret, a sense of time passing, love fading, although they have the rejuvenating effect of a cool summer breeze.

The gentle insistence of the collection made me a little weary at times – there are no surprises, no epiphanies, just a constant flow of melancholy lyricism, highlighted at one stage by a list of locales visited by night-time lovers. If anything, the tone becomes a little heavier in the final section, the night sky just a little bit more oppressive, the writing somewhat burdensome. Here, it seems, there is just “no way to face ourselves.”[‘There is no Time, She Writes’]

Perhaps, then, these are poems that can only be written from a certain vantage point – it is, after all, “Night in Brooklyn” – but they can be enjoyed by anybody willing to give themselves to the slow drift of the poet’s meditation.

Stephen Nelson

“a dark world, alive with sound and glitter”

She Inserts the Key, Marianne Burton, Seren 2013, £8-99
reviewed by Judith Taylor

she_inserts_the_keyAlthough billed as “a collection of voices”, She Inserts the Key leaves a powerfully unified impression, largely thanks to the care with which it is structured. A (mainly) secular litany of sonnets, ‘Meditations on the Hours’, runs through it, and the poems between often relate, directly or obliquely, to them. But the pattern isn’t obtrusive and there is a plenty of variety in form and content, coupled with an unshowy command of language and a clear-eyed, sometimes bracingly disillusioned, sensibility.

‘Owls at Midnight’, for instance, begins in low key, as the speaker wakes her daughter to watch “two owls talking to one another”. It intensifies, describing them:

Each time the far one calls, the near one
elongates and whistles like a steam train ;
then, in the answering silence, he trembles
his whole body, waiting…

then returns us to earth, as the child (and her father: “‘I told you she wouldn’t care’, he says”) fail to be delighted. In the following sonnet, ‘Midnight: Hallaton: Before the Storm’, the “owl-stirred blackness” is more threatening and unstable. And later comes a lighter counterpoint, ‘5pm: Stoneleigh: The Lie of the Pool’, whose teenage speaker declines to humour her artist mother:

It was the school pool, mother, I would say,
Ugly, noisy, with heel plasters in the water.

But she, rinsing out my costume
saw the barnacled undersides of whales…

Where a sequence starts and ends is crucial, and Burton’s hours run from midnight to midnight. Hallaton is established early as a main setting: a place of often uncomfortable domesticity where the sheets are

… not embroidered
with rose or gorse.
Not new, not ironed.
Just creased, coarse

cheap store cotton
for the night tomb
[‘Changing the Sheets’]

As the hours reach daylight the scenery becomes more various, sometimes fantastical, sometimes brighter. But the prevailing sense is of a dark world, alive with sound and glitter, where human safety is precarious.

Good on landscape, Burton is also alert to the artificial – the title poem, for instance, puts adult spin on The Emperor and the Nightingale – and this is one of several ways in which she reminded me of the Jacobeans. Her range of reference is broad, often with a scientific slant. But there is a religious awareness too, in poems like ‘Lacrimae rerum‘ and ‘3pm: The Ninth Hour, Calvary’. And alongside bleak wit there is compassion, for the powerless, the unhappy, the left-behind, culminating in the Calvary sonnet

[f]or those who sit at the foot of a cross.
For those who suffer in the dark.

For those who have marked in their diary
the hour when, for them, a heart stopped.

Occasionally I felt she over-reaches – ‘The Devil’s Cut’, with its abrupt shifts of viewpoint, makes an argument but for me doesn’t cohere as a poem; and when ‘2pm: Summer crossing to Iona’, began “You should come here in winter, through rough water” it seemed almost predictable. But this is a terrific collection overall, and I look forward to more from its author.

Judith Taylor

“your weight on the note really comes from the feet”

The Seed-box Lantern Diana Hendry, Mariscat Press, £10
reviewed by Emma Lee
seed box hendry
Diana Hendry wants to invite readers in to listen. Her tone is conversational and she wears her reading and knowledge of poetic devices lightly. The enjambment in ‘Artemis, Still Hunting’, gives the poem a feel of urgency and desperation:

Alone, a smoker and, god love us, reading a book! He has
the kind of cough it would be nice to wake to in the middle

of the night. I make all ‘hello’ noises known to man –
glass-clonk, lighter-click, unignorable see-how-much-we
have-in-common flutter of pages. Arrow-tang. Cough.
Nothing. The young Swiss boy, working at the baker’s,
(starts at four a.m.) stops on his early way to bed
to chat about his day. The Greek at the table next
to mine asks what I’m reading. ‘Po-et-ry’, I say

The chase ends in the disappointment of the discovery the men she’s been eyeing up are immortal. The dense packaging of words doesn’t give readers much space to stop and think. There’s an underlying assumption readers have the same sympathies as the poet. This isn’t a risk when poems are on more universal subjects, but risks turning readers away when they don’t share the poet’s sensibilities. In ‘An Englishwoman Eats a Vegetarian Haggis in a Scottish Hospital’, the poem’s narrator is commenting on a patient’s meal choice. The patient is English:

                And chosen while
poorly, as though the national dish – their
national dish – might in some way be healing,
as their country has been to me in
my incomer stay of ten years, which is why,
come 2014 I’m going to vote YES
even though the hospital’s version
of vegetarian haggis is perfectly inedible.

The poem’s narrator does not ask the patient why she chose the vegetarian haggis but assumes that the patient chose it because it “might in some way be healing”. Usually in hospitals there’s only one vegetarian option so the English patient’s choice was the vegetarian haggis or nothing (not much of a choice when you’re in hospital and need nutrition). It’s the poet’s opinion that the vegetarian haggis is inedible. She doesn’t ask the patient for her views. We never find out if the patient was making a willing choice (yes, I’d love to eat the haggis) or a default choice (I don’t want to be hungry so I’m choosing the vegetarian option, whatever it is). There are a lot of assumptions being made. We never find out whether or not the patient liked her meal either.

The poet is trying to turn this into a metaphor, suggesting that the poet’s move to Scotland has been healing which is why the poet is going to vote for Scottish Independence in the referendum in 2014 even though the political system post-independence may be no better than the Parliament is now. However, a yes vote would enable the Scottish culture that has been healing for the poet to continue. The metaphor doesn’t work for me. It shows little empathy with the patient within the poem and assumes that by simply identifying the patient as an Englishwoman, there is a shared and common cultural background. The assumptions, combined with lack of information about the patient held up my reading.

Pianos are a common feature throughout The Seed-box Lantern, giving a unifying thread to these new and selected poems which span 1995 – 2013. One of the new poems, ‘How to Play the Piano’, is a series of responses to references from Jozef Gat’s ‘The Technique of Piano Playing’, here the instruction that some players might need to sit closer to the piano,

Come to the instrument with your hands and heart clean
And your nails clipped. Straighten your spine. Remember
That your weight on the note really comes from the feet.
Saying Grace would not come amiss. This is an occupation
Much like prayer. You are about to enter someone else’s mind.

It could read as instructions for approaching The Seed-box Lantern; readers are about to enter a world of clarity and truth described with an observant wit.

Emma Lee

“tools of the dead in the hands of the living”

Air Histories, Christopher Meredith, Seren, 2013, £8.99
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Firstly, I need to declare my lack of Welsh to deal with certain poems in Air Histories. However, I find it particularly clever of Meredith to have a poem dealing with translation – ‘Y grib / Ridge’ – which states in English translated from Welsh:

In English it’s the dragon’s back, a name
for those who like their monsters
safely mythic, tame.

Here, the poet seems to be playing with us – taking language/ translation to high and, dare I say, ‘meta’ levels. Air is clearly a strong theme of the collection, with Daedalus soaring in his paramotor, but many of these poems are also grounded and earthed in the elements, as can be seen in ‘Earth Air’:

This piece of earth’s a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in –
One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
                                                        and she’ll fly.

One of the main achievements of these poems is to create a sense of aerial over-view – of vision that sees the connectedness of many things: the dead to the living, the inventions and tools of the dead in the hands of the living, the dead and the living in the landscape:

If woman’s blood can sing to moon,
when wind’s breath kills the rain on mountain
grass may walk again through stone and earth.

Meredith’s gaze, like the red kites in a number of his poems, does not dwell in one place too long and this gives rise to a collection of great variety and texture. With this, however, comes the occasional feeling of a lack in focus and a surface fleetingness. Some poems here struggle to achieve the air-borne quality of others, such as concrete experiments in ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘At Colonus’ which comes across at times as contrived – ‘Arrowhead’ seems to break and manipulate the words to fit its shape. That said, I sensed in these poems the same seriousness and playfulness as in Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry of the 1960s. But even Morgan, with his ‘Little Blue Blue’, was not immune to accusations of clever-cleverness which I find particularly knowingly applied here in poems like ‘An outline description of Nihilia’:

The colours of the national flag are black
and black.
The citizens are mute.
The population of Nihilia is zero.
The country’s chief product is nothing.

However, any criticisms of such poems must be put aside when considering other poems in this collection as good as ‘The ones with the white hats’ which is a poem set in a dystopian future and ‘Daniel’s Piano’ – a poem in a similar vein, set in a future brutal regime where violence is disguised under a layer of polite chatter:

Daniel’s house stands
on a village they emptied.

Nobody talks of the village’s going.
Its old name is silenced.

Simon is a good man. His manner gentle.
The guests discuss poetry. Nobody plays.

Set alongside these more menacing poems are a series of poems about guitars and song and the attempts of the poet, craftsman and musician to get their song out there and heard in the midst of such struggle. It is these poems which make the collection one to keep returning to in works of music and witness, such as ‘The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martinez Sirvent’:

A pinch of air
was all he had.

That was fifty years ago and now
his work is his witness.
If witness was my work
perhaps I had come to terms with mysteries
or perhaps I failed.

Richie McCaffery

“the bat shit tapestries, the shattered wainscotting”

Music Field, Jim Maguire, Poetry Salzburg, £9.50
reviewed by Kathrine Sowerby

Jim Maguire studied music in Dublin where he worked as a music journalist and with Music Field, his first collection, he invites the reader into the world of classical music and introduces its characters: the page-turner, the examiner, members of the audience and the instruments and musicians themselves. In the collection’s more intriguing poems (‘Worship’, ‘Turning’) he steps out of this world and finds music in everyday situations and places.

Sometimes the poems tempt with an insider’s knowledge and we learn something, which I enjoy. In ‘Sinking the Piano’: “… Mozart’s/ sister Nannerl whose musical lights went out/ as her brother took centre stage.” And in ‘DuParc: A Programme Note’: “Spare a thought for Henri Duparc,/ re-inventor of the French melodie/ who left just seventeen songs.”

Sometimes the poems tell stories (Maguire has published a collection of short fiction, Quiet People: Korean Stories) and I occasionally found myself distracted, keeping track of pronouns but found the playfulness of ‘Glenn Gould’s Chair’, written from the perspective of the chair, particularly engaging.

The poem that brought me to the edge of my seat with its imagery, possibilities and immediacy was the titular ‘Music Field’: “Then comes the bit he’s been practicing for years/ but still can’t get his hands around. The melody’s/ giddy unwrapping above the distressed inner parts,/ the bass-line an unimpressed patriarchal yawn.” Characters appear: “Lady Lavery as Caitlin” and a boy with “his hair full of flowers” and the poem ends tantalisingly with “…Two unrelated themes/ in a field, slow-circling, waiting for the trouble to begin.”

As someone whose musical tastes are covered by Radio 6, I felt welcome in this unfamiliar world and free to explore. Sometimes I had to listen carefully to hear the music of the language over the poem’s subject matter but I was rewarded when I did with lines like “unexpectedly revived/by the bat shit tapestries,/ the shattered wainscotting” in ‘Pulse’.

Published by Poetry Salzburg, this full-length collection has an understated appearance and its expansive content could easily be overlooked. These are poems to return to and to catch the changes in tempo and the jaunt in poems like ‘Allegro’: “I pull my hand through my wavy snookerhair/ and imitate a man who knows all the angles.”

Kathrine Sowerby

“anyone could’ve written them but you try…”

Cold Soup, Nic Aubury, Nasty Little Press, £10
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

cold soup
In the 1970’s, had you’d asked Joe Public to name a living poet, depending on their age you’d have got one of two answers: Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke. I doubt Edwin Morgan, arguably the most multifaceted and technically gifted poet Scotland’s ever produced, would’ve got a look in. Master craftsmen Ayres and Clarke may not have been but they were popular. And funny.

Nic Aubury’s an ordinary bloke: a grumpy parent, part-time pedant and armchair philosopher. He’s also a funny poet and I can imagine him being very popular. Many of his poems are framed like one-liners that happen to rhyme:


To most men the notion
of ‘romance and mystery’
means clearing the porn from
their Internet history.

Wouldn’t be out of place on a Purple Ronnie card. Have a closer look at that poem though with its pleasant, rocking dactylic rhythms. It’s technically proficient, flows off the tongue, is well-observed and has a clever title, something jokes lack. It’s rather Ogden Nash-ish. One of his to compare:


Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Humour comes naturally to most but few can get up on stage and be funny. These poems look like anyone could’ve written them but you try. Getting end rhymes isn’t so hard; it’s varying the rhythm within a tight metre that’s the bugger and this is, for me, where Aubury excels:


The owl is not the wisest bird,
in spite of what you might have heard,
for, if he were, I think – don’t you? –
he’d say ‘Too whoom’ and not ‘Too whoo’.

Not all the poems in this collection are four-liners but most are short apart from one sestina. He finds humour in the commonplace and is frequently self-deprecatory:

Being Frank

And now the end is near for me,
a father, husband, employee,
and through it all, I’m bound to say,
I did it someone else’s way.

Because of their brevity none of these individually will have the staying power—or, indeed, just the power of poems like ‘Evidently Chickentown’ or memorability of ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth’ (which graces the walls of countless dentists’ waiting rooms throughout the country apparently) but they hold their own again the best and best-loved—comic verse by the likes of Nash or Spike Milligan. They do seem perfectly suited for his Twitter feed.

Nic writes about everyday life; about struggling to be a good dad; about trying to get your kid to eat; about getting over breakups and clearing up after a death in the family. There’s something here for everyone and not simply grannies as one other reviewer suggested; some of the poems—like the one about textese—might lose them:

Thx & rgds

However important you are, or how stressed,
you’re never too busy for vowels, I’d suggest.

Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” Nic Aubury proves there’s still a lot of good comic poetry to be written in rhyme.

Jim Murdoch